Spinning and Listening
Now for the fun part: spinning vinyl. I began auditioning the PolyTable with the supplied Jelco tonearm and a Shelter 201 moving-magnet cartridge during the review period for the PS Audio Sprout (another affordable Product of the Year winner). For a time, I used it as a source for HiFiMan 400S headphones, listening to LPs ranging from Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite in Analogue Productions’ marvelous Living Stereo reissue to the energetic Mobile Fidelity-remastered Special Beat Service by The English Beat. The former shone with powerful climaxes that exceeded my expectations. The latter, a recording that’s prone to sounding slightly bright on a few systems, was reproduced quite cleanly, with its midrange-centric instrumentation and percussive punches rendered intact. In general, timbre veered somewhat towards the warmish side—certainly one of the Shelter mm cartridge’s characteristics—though realism on voices was untouched. (In my Sprout review, I described how, when I was using the PolyTable as a source for the HiFiMan cans, a layered-in backup vocal—which seemed to come out of nowhere from right behind me—actually made me jump and turn around to see who had crept up. How’s that for realistic reproduction of a voice?)
Once I switched to a moving-coil cartridge, namely the entry-level PS-7 from Air Tight, the sense of realism only increased. My setup at this time included a Walker Procession phonostage and a NuPrime IDA-8 integrated driving Raidho D-1 two-way loudspeakers and a pair of JLAudio e-110 subs. “Dance Me to the End of Love” from Leonard Cohen’s wonderful Live in London album filled the room with his smooth, smoky baritone and the powerful swells of Neil Larsen’s accordion. With this setup, I spun so many records across so many genres that I have a hard time culling examples.
To take in a true “gold standard” reference system, I spent a great deal of time listening to LPs at JV’s house in the room with the Magico M-Pros and JLAudio Gotham subs, driven by Soulution’s 725 preamp and 711 stereo amp. The source? The new, massive, and enormous Invictus turntable from Acoustic Signature. For reference purposes, I listened to recordings that I was very familiar with and that were, naturally, great-sounding across various criteria.
I’d brought Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True—which I happen to own in an original 1977 Stiff Records pressing. Quite the well-recorded gem, its unabashed attack and slam blew us both away on JV’s reference system (not surprisingly), but wow, did it also rock my new home! No, it didn’t have all the grip and definition of JV’s super-system, or the resolution, transient speed, dimensionality, and color. But, honestly, it wasn’t utterly embarrassed by the comparison. “Welcome to the Working Week” delivered impressive drive and percussive energy. The transient attack of Costello’s Fender guitar strums resonated and decayed with far greater impact and realism than I would have expected. On “No Dancing,” the kickdrum beats and tambourine strikes were similarly satisfying. No, you don’t get all the low-end texture that you do on JV’s reference systems, but the bass seldom went muzzy, and by and large had respectable definition—thanks in part to the JL subs. Costello’s raw vocal emotion was powerfully rendered on the melancholy ballad “Alison,” while “Sneaky Feelings” boasted detailed, rapid-fire cymbal taps that were as crisp and clean as you please.
I also cross-compared the excellent live LP Lost and Found from Buena Vista Social Club on World Circuit Records, which Greg Cahill reviewed favorably in TAS, and the GEM PolyTable once again held up quite well. JV’s reference system captured the magic of the ensemble’s live performance with spectacular imaging and finesse. The snap and speed across a plethora of percussion were thrilling. The delicacy and power of Ibrahim Ferrer’s tenor vocals emerged in incredibly lifelike detail. On my setup with the PolyTable, perhaps the most noticeable differences were the degree of transient response, bass definition, and overall resolution. The GEM sounded rather polite by comparison.
The point I’m making here is one of scale—of cost-to-performance ratios. We know JV’s reference system—hell, just his turntable, tonearm, and cartridge—costs upwards of 120 times the price of the PolyTable. The point is that the performance it provides, as great as it is, is not 100 times better than that of the PolyTable. Overall, the system with the PolyTable delivered a very solid, very musical presentation, albeit with a midrange emphasis, across a broad spectrum of instruments. Although it might not have been the last word in any single audiophile criterion, it offered an impressive degree of detail and a quite respectable sense of verisimilitude. I kept on wanting to listen—and listen more. And isn’t that what this hobby is about?