As with many things seen from afar, an audio critic’s life appears enviable, even romantic. All we do is sit back, wait for FedEx or UPS to drop off the next cool toy, sit back again to do some more listening to favorite tunes, scribble a few lines, sit back some more, and admire the room full of goodies that people have sent us—on loan, no less.
Well, ’t’aint exactly like that. First, the job itself is tougher than it might appear. It comes with a huge responsibility to both manufacturer and reader alike to “get it right”—meaning, to try to convey not only the sound of the product but also the nuts-and-bolts of its design and build, and the intent of the designer and builder. Second, there’s no way one is going to like, let alone enjoy, every piece of gear assigned for review. While one is obliged to “tell it like it is” to readers, one also needs to be sensitive to the manufacturer. Because more than bruised egos are at stake here—livelihoods, reputations, and careers are on the line. And though few of them would care to admit it, most audio manufacturers are satisfied with little short of a rave write-up. Added to this comes the challenge of remaining fresh and unjaded as a listener and writer—describing, with the tools at our disposal, the actual sound of a component in a way that doesn’t leave the reader feeling like he’s chewing on day-old bread. In a final irony, because most of us who write about this stuff can’t actually afford to purchase it (even at industry-accommodation prices), the day must inevitably come when that reference component one can’t imagine living without is called back to its maker.
This recently happened to me with Redpoint Audio when, after a generous loan period, the company could no longer afford to let me keep the Model D turntable that had been my reference for the past year. But sometimes you get lucky. And in one of those delightful bits of serendipity that life sometimes brings us, no sooner had I received news of the Redpoint’s imminent departure than a series of events led to the arrival of the turntable I’m reporting on today—the TW Acustic Raven One.
I’d been hearing good things about the ’tables being made by this German company, most recently from my colleague Jonathan Valin, whose review of the top-of-the-line Raven AC-3 appeared in Issue 180. As open-minded and eager as I was to hear the Raven One, it was, after all, the company’s entry-level model. Surely, I thought, it would prove to be a disappointment after I’d lived with the nearly four times as costly Redpoint Model D (reviewed by me in Issue 175); surely I’d quickly pine for the departed Redpoint; surely the Raven would be good…but not great.
Well, surely I was wrong. In no time at all the Raven One shattered every one of these preconceptions. And after living with it for many months, I have no qualms stating that the TW Acustic Raven One is one hell of a fine record player—even a great one. And at a price of $6500, though it may not be inexpensive, it is also an exceptionally fine value compared to some of its far pricier competition. Not to mince words, I’m referring here to the Redpoint Model D, which remains a superb product, but, as Bogart’s Rick Blaine said in Casablanca, at a price.
Essentially a simplified, lower-mass version of the AC-3, the Raven One uses exactly the same high-torque, microprocessor-controlled, quartz-referenced DC motor from Germany’s Pabst (in this case, one motor as opposed to the AC-3’s three, and set into the plinth rather than freestanding like the AC-3), a similar motor controller, the same belt material, and the same composite plinth material (a blend of Delrin, copper powder, and two proprietary substances). The Raven One has a similar stainless steel sub-platter (but rather than sitting atop the plinth it is set into it), the bearing uses the same materials (Teflon and stainless) but in a slightly smaller assembly, and identical arm-mounting units (a solid bar of machined bronze with a decoupled stainless-steel “doughnut” arm mount). This, the feet, and motor controller were updated shortly before press time. See the sidebar for details.
The biggest difference between the AC-3 and the Raven One, and the place where designer Thomas Woschnick was able to save mass and therefore money, is the platter. Whereas the AC-3’s proprietary composite platter, which took some five years to develop, is hollowed out, filled with some sort of mystery fluid, and capped with a copper plate, the One’s far lighter platter is made of TW’s composite material only. Finishing things off, the Raven One sits on a trio of adjustable feet and is topped by Millennium Audio’s carbon-fiber record mat. Although TW Acustic’s Web site offers a democratic view of record clamps, TW’s turntables are not supplied with one, and both Jonathan and I prefer the sound without—what I hear with a clamp or weight is a somewhat tighter, drier, and less natural presentation.
“The ’tables are almost totally interchangeable,” according to U.S. importer Jeffrey Catalano of New York’s High Water Sound, “except for the base and plinth. We also offer the Raven Two, which is a two-arm version of the One with a stand-alone motor.”
Catalano also told me how easy the Raven was to set up. Oh, yeah, I thought, having heard such assurances plenty of times before only to find patience wearing thin and profanities flying thick. But in this case, Catalano wasn’t blowing smoke. The Raven One is, in fact, unusually easy to set up. Sure, the cartridge and arm adjustments require the usual meticulous care, but the turntable itself requires little more than fifteen minutes of attention: Remove it from the box, screw in the three feet, affix the bearing/platter assembly/belt, hook up the outboard supply, level, and set speeds. And because of the Raven’s high-precision build and superb motor/power-supply design—you set each speed with a strobe and then “lock” it into a solid-state memory—the speed remains accurate, without drift. For those who love to play records but who lack the skills and/or desire to fuss with the hardware, TW Acustic turntables may represent the ultimate in no-fuss high-performance analog performance.
And just what is that performance like?
As JV pointed out in his review of the AC-3, Woschnick’s goal was to marry the speed accuracy and dynamic range associated with the best direct-drive designs with the low noise, harmonic complexity, and transient speed of belt drives. The man has met his goals.
One of the first things I repeatedly noticed with the Raven One actually occurred before a single note had been played—this is an exceptionally “silent” turntable. Meaning that the electro-mechanical noise we normally hear as a stylus hits the lead-in grooves is unusually low in level here. At first this is almost disconcerting, especially if you were playing the previous LP at a fairly high volume level. But once you’re used to it, what you appreciate is something that JV hailed in his review, which is that the TW Acustic turntables seemingly allow for notes to linger longer than most other designs do. (I haven’t heard the AC-3, but I’m willing to bet that it does this to degrees greater than the Raven One. I’d also bet that as you add motors and mass this quality ramps up incrementally.) You’ll hear this with all kinds of music. Take Jeff Beck’s brilliant rendition of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” from Wired [Epic], where, as the song’s slow intro unfolds against a very large acoustic space, the Raven One unfurls ribbons of complex tone colors from Beck’s electric guitar, along with the splashy liquidity of a Fender Rhodes electric piano, and brightly shimmering cymbals.
The Raven One’s ability to allow notes to fully and completely blossom and slowly fade, with ghost trails lingering like shooting stars, was fully evident with Luigi Nono’s hauntingly beautiful A Carlo Scarpia [Edition RZ], which was composed around the lengthy decay of sounds punctuated by abrupt dynamic outbursts. Scored for a large orchestra (10 winds, 11 brass, 24 strings, harp, celeste, bells, triangle, and timpani), A Carlo Scarpia displayed another Raven One hallmark—its sheer beauty of sound. (If you go back, and you should, and re-read Jonathan’s review, you’ll note that he and I come to essentially the same conclusions on Woschnick’s designs, although we made a point of not discussing details of our opinions until I had lived with the Raven One for awhile.) Whatever music you play on the Raven One sounds simply and utterly gorgeous. But not in the way a highly colored tube component does, but in a way that sounds musically natural and always “right.” In a way that brings you that much closer to the musical event.
And it’s not because the Raven One is fattening things up, rounding edges, or softening transients. Check out the Horace Parlan Quintet’s Speakin’ My Piece [Music Matters/Blue Note 45rpm], and note the almost violent transient attack of Tommy Turrentine’s piercing trumpet, which is also very extended and airy up top, or the rich, woody percussiveness of Parlan’s piano, the complex harmonics of the Turrentine brothers unison playing of the theme (with Stanley on tenor sax), and the rich pluck of George Tucker’s upright bass. All are reproduced with a spot-on pitch accuracy and a rhythmic stability I’ve never quite experienced in this way before.
While the Redpoint Model D is ultimately even more explosively dynamic, possibly more detailed, and its bottom end has greater “slam,” the Raven One delivers equally as much musical pleasure. Given that it’s a fraction of the price and hails from Europe, no less, I’d call the Raven One the best value I know of in high-end analog playback.
NOW EVEN BETTER
Shortly before this deadline, Jeff Catalano asked if I’d like to try a trio of updates that are now standard with Raven One: new Stillpoints-designed feet, a new power supply/controller, and a new arm “board” (the $6500 price—up from $6000—reflects these changes). I tackled them separately to hear how each affected the sound, beginning with the feet.
I swapped them out while in the process of reviewing Music Matters’ release of Art Blakey’s A Night in Tunisia, figuring I’d hear some difference. And so I did. What I wasn’t prepared for was how dramatic the difference would be. What had sounded pretty wonderful before now exhibited significantly more air around the instruments, studio ambience, dynamic pop, tonal complexity, and simply more musicality with less noise. Very cool.
The latest power supply and speed control box is smaller and slightly simpler to operate than the original. And offering further evidence of designer Woschnick’s perfectionism, this box was originally an upgrade to the AC-3. As Catalano explained it, once Woschnick heard the improvement and insisted that the same technology also grace the Raven One. Although the difference may not be quite as dramatic as the feet are, the new power supply reduces noise to even lower levels, while improving dynamic nuance and headroom.
Finally, the new arm mount, rather than being machined from a solid-brass billet, is a combination of solid brass and stainless steel (a “doughnut” that decouples the arm from the brass platform). And while I may sound like the proverbial needle stuck in a groove, this new decoupled arm mount also brought easily heard audible improvements along the same lines described above. (Now anodized black, it also looks better than the old naked brass.)
In short, each of these seemingly small (but not) changes makes listening to LPs more involving and satisfying, and brings us that much closer to the music.
SPECS & PRICING
TW Acustic Raven One turntable
Type: Belt-drive, unsuspended turntable
Speeds: 33.3 and 45 rpm
Dimensions: 17" x 5.25" x 13"
Weight: 52 lbs.
High Water Sound
274 Water Street, 2F
New York, NY10038
Tri-Planar Ultimate VII tonearm; Transfiguration Orpheus and Axia cartridges; Artemis Labs LA-1 linestage and PL-1 phonostage; Naim Superline phonostage; Kharma MP150 monoblock amplifiers; Kharma Mini Exquisite loudspeakers; Tara Labs Zero interconnect and digital cables, Omega speaker cables, The One power cords, and AD-10B Power Screen; Audience Adept Response Power Conditioner; Finite Elemente Spider equipment racks; Clearaudio Speed Strobe test LP; Feickert Universal protractor; AcousTech stylus force gauge