ELP LT-1LRC Laser Turntable

Equipment report
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Turntables
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ELP LT-1LRC
ELP LT-1LRC Laser Turntable

I can sum up my reaction to hearing an LP played back via a beam of light by quoting the eminently quotable Dr. Samuel Johnson, who, when told that a Quaker woman (heavens!) was heard preaching on a street corner of eighteenth-century London, famously replied that this was like a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

In this case, “surprised” is putting it mildly. Though the idea for using a laser beam to trace the data engraved in a phonograph record’s grooves dates back to the early 1980s, it still seems a bit sci-fi to put an LP in the drawer of what looks like an old-fashioned laserdisc player, press a “Play” button on a remote, and hear music come out of your loudspeakers. (By the way, you can not only press “Play” on that remote, you can press “Seek” to move to any of the other cuts on a side—or back to the first one—as the laser scans the LP before playback, marking the silent grooves between cuts as a DVD player would the “chapters” of a DVD.) [1] It is all extraordinarily convenient and, as I said, more than a little discombobulating to an old analog hound used to the rituals and routines of cartridges and tonearms.

However, what the ELP giveth in convenience with one hand, it more than taketh away with the other. Unlike a relatively massive diamond stylus, which plows through a record’s grooves like the prow of a ship, the ELP’s tiny laser-beam styli have next to no mass and cannot move dust particles out of their way. Any speck of dirt, however minute, is read by the lasers along with the music. In his review of the ELP in Stereophile, Michael Fremer compared the playback of an uncleaned record to the sound of someone munching potato chips. That’s a pretty accurate description. You simply have to clean—preferably wet clean on a machine like the Clearaudio Matrix or the VPI HW-16.5 or HW-17F—a record before putting it on the ELP’s platter, though if a record has recently been wet-cleaned, vacuumed dry, and properly stored, it is possible to play it back on the ELP after thoroughly re-vacuuming its surface.

As I said, the ELP LT-1LRC looks like a laserdisc player—a large, hefty, 40-pound black box with a control panel lined with buttons, an LED multidisplay near its top, and the turntable drawer beneath. The ELP’s platter—a foamcoated metal disc with what appears to be a brass spindle in its center—is packaged separately and must be placed by hand, rather like a giant CD, in the large grooved hole in the turntable drawer. Once so placed, it requires no further attention or maintenance and spins at a precise, microprocessor-controlled 33.3 or 45 rpm, powered by (get this!) a beltdrive motor. The speed of the table can be varied in 0.1 rpm steps via buttons on the ELP’s control panel, with the exact speed you’ve dialed in visible on the LED display. (The ELP is idiot-proof as it returns to factory-set parameters when you shut it down and restart it or, in some cases, when you open the drawer to put in a new record.)

The ELP’s playback system uses five laser beams—two “playback” beams to read the modulations engraved in the groove walls, two “guide” beams to track the left and right shoulders of the grooves (keeping the playback beams properly centered), and a third guide beam to maintain the correct height and focus of the playback lasers (offsetting variations in record thickness and flatness). The modulations read by the playback lasers are then reflected via mirrors to photooptical sensors, which, in turn, transform the modulated beams of light into electrical signals. Though it may seem counterintuitive, there is no analog-to-digital conversion or digital-to-analog conversion anywhere in the process.

On the back of the unit are two RCA jacks, which route the ELP’s signal to your preamp. The version of the ELP sent to me outputs a phono-level signal, meaning you’ll still need a phonostage (set to moving-magnet level) to boost the voltage to line-level. ELP also makes units with built-in phonostages that can be connected directly to a linestage preamplifier. With either unit you must first use ELP’s calibration disc—supplied with the table—to set up the optics and microprocessors. The process takes about 30 seconds and should be repeated every two or three months (or if the turntable is moved) to make sure that everything is functioning properly.

Believe it or not, the ELP also allows for something very much like VTA adjustment. Its VOS (variable optical scanning) feature makes its possible to focus the laser beams on relatively unused portions of an LP groove’s sidewalls— bypassing the damage done by phonograph needles and the deleterious effects of certain kinds of warpage.

The ELP was originally marketed to libraries and restoration outfits as the ideal device for archiving rare or badly worn records to tape or CD. But its virtues are just as important to audiophiles with large record collections. First and foremost, because the ELP uses light, rather than a diamond stylus, to play back LPs, you no longer have to worry about adding tics, pops, and scratches to your precious recordings. The ELP eliminates record wear. Second, because the lasers can be adjusted (via VOS) to read relatively fresh parts of the groove, it is possible to play “virgin vinyl” even on well-worn records. [2] It is also possible to focus the lasers “beneath” a scratch and play back LPs without hearing that dreaded “click” on every revolution of the disc. Third, because records are stored inside it for playback and its stylus is a beam of light, the ELP is considerably more immune to acoustical and mechanical feedback than a conventional turntable/tonearm/cartridge. Where a heavy footfall can cause a conventional record player to skip, you can pound your fist on whatever is supporting the ELP and not affect the sound.

ELP claims all sorts of other sonic virtues for its ingenious device, but the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, and the tasting was a mixed pleasure.

First of all, the ELP sounds exactly the same on any disc. More importantly, it makes every disc sound the same. If I were to describe its presentation in a few words, they would be “pleasant but dull.” The ELP’s soundfield is very detailed in an unaggressive way—marginally more detailed, in fact, than my reference ’table, the Walker Proscenium Gold, with the Shelter 90x cartridge (but not with the Clearaudio Titanium cartridge). Its soundstage is quite respectably wide and deep, though not as wide or deep as that of the Walker. Dynamically, it is exceptionally smooth and continuous from piano to mezzoforte, without any of the “stepped” quality of CDs; at the same time, it is less spectacular- and explosive-sounding on sforzandos and fortissimos than any conventional record player (or than instruments in real life). Its bass is taut and detailed but somewhat anemic, robbing many instruments of natural body and weight and flattening them into two-dimensionality. (Bass fiddles sound rather like they’ve lost their E-strings, pianos some of the power of their bottom octave.) Its treble is a little dark but sweet and engaging with the “Analog Noise Blanker” (a high-pass filter designed to reduce pops and clicks) turned on; with the ANB turned off, the treble broaches on the unlistenable—dry, raspy, noisy, and unpleasant. Its midrange is neutral in the audiophile sense of the word, meaning that tonal colors are neither vividly bright nor dark. They aren’t vivid in any sense.

Now, there are various ways to assess the ELP’s sonic signature. At one point in his Stereophile review, Fremer compared the sound of LPs through the ELP to the sound of mastertapes. All of the mechanical resonances and colorations of turntables, tonearms, and cartridges having been eliminated—all of that jazzed-up, inaccurate sweetening and energizing having been stripped away—one is left, said he, with something closer to what the tapeheads recorded. I can see his point. The ELP does have some of the qualities of mastertapes— dynamic smoothness (or continuousness), much inner detail presented in a nonanalytical way, and an audiophile-neutral tonal balance. However, it needs to be said that, unlike the ELP, mastertapes do not trade off large-scale dynamic contrasts to achieve continuousness, do not sacrifice bloom and dimensionality to achieve clarity, and do not deracinate tone color to achieve neutrality. If they did, we wouldn’t extol them. (Fremer’s reasoning seems to go like this: Because Object A shares some of the properties of Object B, Object A must share all of the properties of Object B—which is like saying that because cows have four legs and hooves, they’re just like horses.)

The ELP is a fascinating device that offers unique benefits to folks with large collections of rare recordings. It will never scratch your LPs; it is relatively immune to airborne or floorborne feedback; it can, in some instances, let you play records that are unplayable on conventional turntables; and it is pleasant to listen to (unless you defeat ANB). At the same time, it’ll never set your foot tapping or your baton-arm waving the way even an inexpensive turntable/arm/cartridge will.

For all the non-mastertape-like inaccuracies that some of my colleagues descry in conventional analog playback, to my ear the Walker Proscenium Gold (and its much less pricey kin) still sounds more like the real thing than anything else around. I guess in this I’m one with Doug Sax, who, in Issue 149’s Roundtable, pointed out that there is something about a conventional record player’s mechanical nature—something about its very flaws, its resonances, its colorations, its eccentricities— that adds life (or the semblance of same) to recorded music, that makes a stereo sound more like the real thing. Amen, brother.

[1] The ELP’s microprocessor controls also allow you to “Scan” forward and back, to “Hover” (play a single groove repeatedly, which, if you mute the sound, acts like a “Pause” button), to “Repeat” a record side from one to 99 times, or to “Program” specific cuts.

[2] Caveat emptor: The ELP will only play back “black” vinyl records. Specialty records pressed on clear or colored vinyl will not work.