Alongside the $40,000 Walker Black Diamond record player, the $18,000 TW Acustic Raven AC-3 turntable with $4300 Graham Phantom tonearm is the best source component I’ve auditioned—and far and away the most voluptuous sounding. Indeed, equipped with the Clearaudio Goldfinger v2 or Air Tight PC-1 moving-coil cartridge, the Raven/Graham has a lifelike density of tone color and delicacy of dynamic nuance the likes of which I’ve never heard from vinyl (and certainly not from digital).
Like the Walker Black Diamond or the Magico Mini, the AC-3 is the work of a greatly gifted individual, Thomas Woschnick, a German music lover and analog enthusiast who, dissatisfied with what was on the market, decided to build an uncompromised and uncompromising ’table of his own. Woschnick is one of those supremely talented tinkerers who searches ceaselessly for ways to improve just about everything that comes his way. This is a guy who spent half a decade developing just the right mix of Delrin, copper powder, and other proprietary ingredients to make the jet-black compound he uses in the Raven AC-3’s beautiful plinth and platter (which, BTW, are more immune to floor-borne and air-borne vibration than those of any other ’table I’ve tried). Still not satisfied, he then hollowed out that platter, filled it with a “special liquid” (actually a gel) and screwed a thick plate of solid copper1 on top to achieve the perfect rotational balance and mass for his hand-tooled stainless-steel bearing. This is a guy who went through thousands of formulations of elastometric materials to find the one with just the right blend of stickiness, elasticity, and durability to make the ideal turntable belt, and then took the highest-precision DC motors made by Pabst of Germany and rebuilt them with his own electromagnetic engines (so successfully, BTW, that, up until recently, TW Acustic was supplying other boutique turntable manufacturers with its rebuilt motors). This is a guy who believes, almost literally, that the sound of a turntable is the symphony of its parts.
The Raven AC-3 is, indeed, a marvel of engineering, craftsmanship, and imagination. The gorgeous, unsuspended, seventy-pound plinth, the twenty-two-pound gel-filled platter inlaid with its copper top-plate, the stainless-steel bearing plate and bearing shaft on which the platter spins are all milled by hand to tolerances of less than 1/100th of a millimeter. Other parts—like the bronze armboards and stainless-steel armboard mounts at the corners of the plinth (yes, you can mount up to four tonearms on the Raven AC-3, though the entire ’table must be tweaked at the factory by Woschnick to accommodate the extra weight)—are also handmade to the same extraordinary tolerances. Indeed, there is very little of the Raven AC-3 that Woschnick doesn’t design and build for himself.
The Raven AC-3 is, as noted, driven by three, free-standing, high-torque DC motors (thus the “3” in “AC-3”), sourced from Pabst, modified by Woschnick, and synchronized by Woschnick’s own superb microprocessor-based motor-controller, which is claimed to have a timing error of less than two nanoseconds per minute. Woschnick’s single precision-made belt, ground to 1/100th of a millimeter in thickness, runs around the circumference of the platter via pulleys on each of the motors that are themselves ground to within 1/200th of a millimeter in diameter. Where some multiple-motor ’tables, like the Kuzma Stabi XL that I reviewed in Issue 167, use separate belts to distribute centrifugal and centripetal forces around the bearing, Woschnick uses one. Why? Because, says he, “I’ve tried everything, and it simply sounds better that way.”
Assembling the ’table is a snap. So are leveling it, thanks to the three adjustable Stillpoint feet attached to the base of the plinth, and setting rotation speeds.2 My unit also came with a carbon-fiber Millennium- M mat. You don’t have to use the mat—you can lift it off and put records directly on the platter’s varnished copper top-plate—but I thought the sound was marginally better with the Millennium- M. Oddly enough, the Raven AC-3 did not come with a record-clamp. Although Woschnick doesn’t discourage use of same, it is clear that he (and U.S. importer Jeff Catalano) think that clamps add mass (and, hence, colorations) of their own. After some experimentation, most of my listening was done without one and, to be honest, I thought the Raven AC-3 performed better this way.
As for the sound of the TW Acustic Raven AC- 3, it seems that Woschnick’s idea was to combine the virtues of direct-drive ’tables (speed accuracy, dynamics) with those of belt-drive ’tables (low noise, timbre, bloom) to bring the experience of listening to recorded music one step closer to that of listening to live music. (See the interview with Woschnick on the previous page.) Of course, everyone in the high end worth his salt claims that he wants to move his products closer to the absolute sound, the difference being that Woschnick has succeeded. In the critical area of duration—in music, how long a note is sounded—his TW Acustic Raven AC-3 does, indeed, break entirely new ground.
Put simply, notes played back through the Raven AC-3 (with the Graham arm and Clearaudio or Air Tight cartridge) sound as if they last longer—there is simply no other way to describe it. It’s as if they are being presented more completely, as if they start, sustain, and decay over a longer period of time, making the tiny, constantly fluctuating harmonic and dynamic details of which each is comprised—details that are either unresolved or seemingly “condensed” by other (very fine) tables—fully audible. What’s fascinating, and a bit inexplicable, is that the Raven AC-3 seems to do this without any instability of pitch or diminution of tempo. Where a slow-running turntable can produce something like this “prolongation” effect, it does so at the unacceptable cost of audible wow and flutter; here speed, pitch, and pace are perfect.
What does the Raven AC-3’s more complete presentation of the duration of notes buy you? Well, with Heifetz’s violin in the Kreutzer Sonata [Cisco/RCA], something very close to magic.
On his RCA recordings, Heifetz usually played the “David” (now called the “Heifetz”) Guarneri del Gesu violin, although you wouldn’t necessarily know this from the sound he got (actually, from the sound he demanded) on many Shaded Dog LPs. Heifetz, being Heifetz, wanted his fiddle to be spotlighted. This may have been great for his ego, but it was a mixed blessing for his listeners. Because it was so closely miked and so prominently mixed, on LP Heifetz’s gorgeous David was, indeed, highly present and detailed, but it was also outsized, forward, and usually a bit cool, bright, and whitish in timbre. This is certainly the way his violin sounds on the original Shaded Dog of the Kreutzer. The Raven (and, to be fair, the Cisco remastering, which is EQ’d in the 3-6kHz range to take out some of the excess brightness) utterly changes this.
I’m not sure exactly how Woschnick’s combination of carefully balanced ingredients effects this miracle, but, though no less big and forward than it has always been, Heifetz’s David suddenly sounds like an altogether warmer, richer, more voluptuous instrument. Part of the reason for the difference in timbre is clearly the Raven/Graham’s fullness in the upper bass and midrange. Although the ’table/arm trades off a bit of neutrality for this added color (for which, see below), making its overall balance a little darker than that of, say, the dead-neutral Walker Black Diamond, it is a trade-off that is hard to argue with, given the incredibly attractive sonic results. With the slight added emphasis on its lower registers, Heifetz’s David is far less bright and grainy than usual, and not at all “whitish”—less like Heifetz’s violin typically sounds on stereo LPs and more, if you will, like Heifetz’s violin reputedly sounded in life (and on select mono LPs). The Raven AC-3’s upper-bass/lower-midrange foundation is so solid that it adds to the solidity of the instrument’s stereo image, almost as if it is perched on a black-granite pedestal. And then there is the chocolate icing on the cake—the incredibly luscious fine detail, born of the Raven’s more complete reproduction of durations.
Through the AC-3, when Heifetz bows two strings at the start of the first movement Presto, you hear the whiskery bite and silken rush of the bow on each string; you hear the strings themselves tossing off itty-bitty transient colors as they begin to vibrate into a perfectly intoned pitch; you hear the body of the violin, this gorgeous plum-colored instrument, amplifying those vibrating strings, turning pitch into timbre; you hear the full utterance of the chord, and then you hear it gradually die off, with its own little firework-display of stopping transients, just in advance of the next double-stop. In other words, you hear everything that made Heifetz’s David Heifetz’s David, and, by means of the enormous increase in the resolution of delicate details of bowing and intonation, everything that made Heifetz Heifetz. Indeed, timbre is so voluptuously dark and rich in color and nuance through the Raven AC-3 that you almost hear Heifetz made Elman.
Again, at the start of the last movement of Lutoslawski’s great Concerto for Orchestra [EMI], you not only hear the plucked doublebasses sounding their fifths, thirds, and seconds in the Passacaglia, you also hear—like a glistening drop of added color, richness, and decay—the timbre of the plucked harps that are doubling the basses. In other words, you hear a tiny bit of what made Lutoslawski, arguably the greatest orchestrator of the late twentieth century, Lutoslawski.
In amplifier reviews I’ve talked many times before about the variable reproduction of the harmonic/dynamic envelope— of starting transient, steady-state tone, and decay—but frankly it isn’t a subject I’ve thought much about when it comes to ’tables and arms. The Raven AC-3/Graham Phantom forces you to think about it. Here is a classic example—perhaps the classic analog example, in my experience—of a transducer that reproduces more information of a certain kind than anything else I’ve previously heard, and does so—unlike, say, the Kuzma Stabi XL—without ever sounding the slightest bit analytical, the slightest bit “hi-fi.” The reason is that, like a kid sorting through a box of candy to find just the right pieces, the Raven AC-3 is selecting out those fine details, and only those details, that add to the beautiful color and dynamic nuance of the instrument and, in so doing, clarifying the way it’s being played. I have seen other hi-fi gear called “musical”—I have even used the word myself—but I’ve never heard a component that deserves the compliment more than the Raven.
For all its virtues, the Raven AC-3 is not without personality. As I’ve already noted, in combination with the Graham Phantom arm and Clearaudio Goldfinger v2 or Air Tight PC- 1 cartridge it has a somewhat darker balance than the more even-handed Walker Black Diamond record player (equipped with these same cartridges). Indeed, one of the first things you’ll notice if you compare the Raven to the Walker on the same recordings is the greater density of tone color and dynamic weight of the German ’table in the mid-to-low bass (and everywhere else). The effect is remarkably similar to the differences you hear in the bottom end with really good ported speakers and really good acoustic-suspension ones. Like the ported speaker, the Raven sounds somewhat bigger, rounder, fuller, darker, more forward, and more realistically powerful on, say, the throbbing bass guitar of Chris Isaak’s “Dangerous Game” [Reprise]. However, when you listen to the same cut through the Walker you realize that that throbbing Fender is actually playing a series of notes—an ostinato that repeatedly descends in a bit of a diminuendo and then ascends in a bit of a crescendo. It’s not that you don’t hear this ostinato with the Raven, which is anything but a one-note bass-transducer; the lower notes of the series, just don’t stand out quite as distinctly as they do with the Walker, which, like the acousticsuspension speaker, is a tad flatter and more neutral in the bottom (and everywhere else).
Which presentation in the bass is more like real music? Well, that’s a damn good question. Ideally, you’d like to get an amalgamation of both—the color and power of the Raven/ Graham, the flatness and neutrality of the Walker. Both sound realistic in their own fashion, but I suppose, as with ported and acoustic-suspension loudspeakers, I would ultimately come down (very delicately) on the side of the Walker, with the clear understanding that neither ’table is perfect and that I could live, without complaint, with both (and intend to).
In the midrange, the call might go the other way. Even if the Walker is more “transparent to sources” (and it is, making LPs sound lovely and lifelike, but no better or worse than the way they were recorded), the plethora of additional dynamic and harmonic details that the Raven/Graham conjures up is simply too attractive—and too addictive and too much like the real thing—to dismiss as a mere “euphonic coloration.” As I understand the word, a coloration is something external that is added to the sound or something internal that is subtracted from it. The Raven/Graham is doing neither. It isn’t “inventing” added harmonic/dynamic details; it is pulling this low-level information from the grooves in a way that other turntables and tonearms simply don’t. The fact that this information generally makes instruments “sound good”— make that “sound great”—should not, I think, be held against it. If there’s no room for gorgeous (and, please note, very lifelike) tonality in this hobby, then the heck with it.
As for the treble, you might think from what I’ve written thus far about the slight “darkness” of the Raven/Graham’s overall balance that the treble would be a bit “closed down” in comparison to the ’table’s magical midrange and voluptuous bass. But, no, it is not. The Raven is every bit as beautiful (and beautifully articulate) here as it is elsewhere—with simply ravishing density of tone color and very fine harmonic/ dynamic detail. The Walker, once again, is more transparent and, being less dark, considerably airier up top (and, as you will see, everywhere else). But on the fleet top-octave runs of Brooks Smith’s piano in the Kreutzer, I would be hard put to say that the Walker sounds more like a real Steinway than the Raven. The air-bearing ’table has the edge in neutrality, bloom, and air; but the dense color of those notes through the Raven, like the gold of golden apples (and with some of the same roundedness and crispness), is haunting.
There is another difference between the two ’tables—and it’s probably the most significant advantage that the Walker holds over the Raven. If you listen to, say, Joan Baez and the Greenbriar Boys singing “Banks of the Ohio” on Joan Baez Vol. 2 [Vanguard], you will hear the richer, darker presentation of the Raven in Baez’s voice, which seems to have just the slightest bit of added color, detail, dimensionality, and presence, and in the timbres of John Herald’s guitar and of Ralph Rinzler’s mandolin. But what you won’t hear with the Raven—or won’t hear to the same extent—is the “air” between these players. The Walker puts huge space between instruments and instrumentalists; the Raven, though quite spacious, does not match its standardsetting breadth. Nor will instruments and instrumentalists be spread apart as widely or set back as deeply on the soundstage through the Raven/Graham as they are through the Walker. All the musicians will be a bit more forward and more tightly grouped (albeit somewhat more incisively defined).
The Raven AC-3 turntable isn’t just Romantic; it is passionately Romantic. When it is coupled with the Graham Phantom arm and Clearaudio Goldfinger v2 or Air Tight PC-1 cartridge, I have never heard an analog source make the tone colors of recorded instruments sound more like the tone colors of the real things, or reproduce fine performance-related details with such exquisite delicacy. If, ultimately, I think that the $40k Walker—which seems to mediate resolution, fidelity, and musicality almost ideally—is the more overall neutral and transparent ’table (and better soundstager), it is not to be taken as a slight to the Raven, which, after all, is half the money (about a quarter of the money in its one-motor version), and is, in some very important ways, the Walker’s equal or superior. In fact, in its reproduction of durations it’s superior to anything I’ve heard at any price.
A Short Interview with Thomas Woschnick of TW Acustic
Jonathan Valin: How did you get into the turntable business?
Thomas Woschnick: I started to repair and modify turntables about 20 years ago, when I didn’t have much money. Ten years later, after changing so many things on other ’tables without achieving the results I wanted, I was ready to make one of my own. It took me about five years (and most of my savings) to find the right materials, bearing, and motor. The result was the Raven. I never intended to go into business, but friends (who had heard my turntable) convinced me to take it to an audio show. After that, everything changed. People and the press loved the Raven, and I was in business.
What do you consider to be the most critical factors in the design of a turntable?
The old direct-drive turntables were able to give you dynamics and speed stability—these ’tables were always in time with the notes. My idea was to build a turntable with all the good things from a directdrive, but with body, attack, and very low noise. For me a turntable has to control a big symphony when the tutti is coming. On the other hand, it has to give each note from a vocalist or an instrument its own run. Live music is full of speed and dynamics and emotion. It isn’t lacy and insubstantial.
A lot of turntable manufacturers add extra mass to their ’tables. You don’t. Why?
I don’t like how it sounds. I have the feeling that extra mass cuts the duration and emotion of the music.
Why do you use copper so prominently in your turntable?
The copper together with the carbon mat gives you a sound with many details but without brightness. The electrical properties of copper also help to eliminate noise. Of course, you have to use the right mix.
You offer the Raven AC in a one-motor and a three-motor version. What do the extra motors buy you in sound quality?
The three motors give you a more relaxed sound. All instruments and vocals are better imaged. They just take you one little step closer to live music.
What do you see in the future for TW Acustic?
I am on my way to building my own tonearm and phonostage. Of course, I keep a constant eye on the turntable production process to get the best quality, and am working to reduce wait times. [The Raven AC-3 is currently back-ordered for several months.] I don’t plan to change the Raven AC, but if I am able to find something that improves the sound, I’ll let all owners know.