With vinyl’s popularity still high and head-ing higher, turntables are popping up like crazy—both from longstanding makers, newbies, and manufacturers of other gear hot to get in on the action.
So many ’tables, so little time… where do you begin?
Obviously, materials and design account for fundamental differences. Plus, record players (along with open-reel tape decks) are the most hands-on component in the audiophile arena. So the user’s experience in every respect, from setup to playback, matters more for ’tables than for any other type of gear. You’re not just kicking back with a remote control or a smartphone; you’re unsheathing precious vinyl from its cocoon-like sleeve, (perhaps) cleaning the LP before placing it on the platter, painstakingly dropping—no, gently (even lovingly) guiding—the stylus into the groove, and then taking your record for a spin. When the needle reaches the run-out grooves, you’ve gotta get up and lift the tonearm, flip the record, and repeat the entire process. And all this is after the whole she-bang has been set up (which we’ll return to in a bit). That’s a lot of interaction. So every aspect of the turntable should give you pleasure—not only the listening but also the aesthetics and ergonomics.
Wood is a natural choice (pun intended) for countless loudspeakers, but less often for turntables. Enter the Clearaudio Performance DC Wood. As Clearaudio’s latest offering, it occupies the “bridge” space in the company’s vast turntable lineup, a step above its entry-level Concept and Emotion models and a step below its top-shelf Innovation and Statement ’tables. Though it bears some resemblance to the next-model-up Ovation, which costs more than twice its price, the Performance was created to narrow the gap between Ovation and Concept sonically, visually, and economically. In other words, it’s a “sweet spot” middle ground for those ready, willing, and able to allocate the necessary funds to upgrade to noticeably higher-end build-quality and higher-end sound—but without breaking the bank.
Based in Erlangen, in Germany’s Bavaria, Clearaudio celebrated its 40th anniversary last year—and celebrated in style with, among other special promotions, a vintage Volkswagen bus loaded with operative turntables that toured Deutschland. Founded by Czech émigré Peter Suchy, whose children Robert, Patrick, and Veronika have taken over the helm in recent years, Clearaudio also manufactures its own tonearms, cartridges, and record-cleaning machines in-house. In addition, it produces OEM turntable models for a select handful of well-known high-end audio brands. (For more on Clearaudio’s facility, please see the Factory Tour sidebar.)
Design, Materials, and Technical Details
So what’s special about this Performance DC Wood turntable? Let’s start with the wood sandwiched in the plinth, a marine-grade Baltic birch ply selected not only for its natural beauty but also for its machinability and resonant characteristic. Thick aluminum plates—finished in matte black in my review sample (silver is the other option for the Wood model)—cover the top and bottom of the birch plinth. The ’table’s overall dimensions of approximately 16.5" by 13" aren’t outsized, so its footprint leaves some “elbow room” on my equipment rack for a few accessories (LP brushes, stylus cleaner, Allen wrenches, etc.). Four small (one might even say tiny) integrated round buttons that control the motor and its three speeds—33, 45, and, yes, 78rpm—grace the plinth’s lower left area. They illuminate blue when selected, a nice touch…and they’re nice to the touch. Another pleasing ergonomic design detail is the soft rubber armtube rest-clamp on the tonearm assembly; my review sample arrived with the superb, elegantly understated Tracer tonearm with an armtube made of carbon for lightness and rigidity. When you replace the armtube after lifting it from the record, it just nestles gently, effortlessly into place. It fits as neatly as, well, a stylus into a groove. Also compared with some other turntables (even in this price category), the entire assembly seemed smoother in operation and easier to control, from the tonearm lift lever to the small silicone-damped hydraulic shaft. These might sound like minor points, but with other ’tables and ’arms it has taken more conscious effort to position and replace the tonearm without risking damage to cartridges and/or LPs.
As befits a high-performance turntable a step above entry-level, the Performance DC ships with a few goodies, such as a set of small screwdrivers and Allen wrenches for assembly, synthetic bearing oil, and even a pair of white gloves to prevent scratches and/or fingerprints on the platter, etc. during setup. The only ho-hum part of the package is the rather lightweight wall-wart power supply. Not a major disappointment but at this price I might have expected a slightly more upscale solution. However, I just learned that Clearaudio now offers an upgrade option, its Smart Power 12V ($1k), a self-regulating, low-impedance-battery power supply, in which greater current delivery allows the motor to produce greater torque, and also reduces noise.
The U.S. version of the DC Wood turntable under review also boasts some upgrades borrowed from its higher-priced brethren (the Ovation, in particular): Both use additional mass-loading in the wood core material, and both have a trio of cone-shaped spiked feet that are adjustable for leveling and then lock in place to couple the ’table to your rack.