First is what I would call consistency of sound. This is a direct function of the Walker’s linear-tracking air-bearing tonearm, which, as I’ve said, has zero tracking error when it is properly set up. There are those who claim that the tracking error of pivoted tonearms, while present in theory, simply isn’t audible in playback. All I can say is: I always hear it (and when it comes to pivoted tonearms I haven’t listened to chopped liver). I always hear a pivoted ’arm “coming into” and “departing from” ideal tangency, and I hear it as a predictable change in overall tonal balance, soundstaging and imaging, and what might be called “background noise” (or the absence thereof). Typically tonal balance gets lighter (i.e., timbres seem just a bit brighter and leaner), soundstage depth gets slightly foreshortened (i.e, instruments tend to move a bit forward and image a bit larger), and silences become whiter and grainier as the tonearm drifts away from perfect tangency. The effect is not unpleasant, but it is always audible in the same places on all records.
This effect—loosely analogous to the way a lens comes into and out of sharpest focus when you turn the focus ring very slightly back and forth—is simply not there with the Walker. This isn’t to say that the Walker makes every track of every record sound more or less the same. Most records vary sonically from track to track and from start to finish, either as a result of miking, mastering, or variable groove-spacing. What the Walker does do, to return to the photographic analogy, is stay in focus. Tonal balance does not get predictably lighter or darker at predictable points in the tonearm’s arc of travel; soundstaging and imaging don’t change in perspective or size; the soundfield does not get whiter or grainier or darker and more uniform.
Second, resolution is extraordinary. I’m not sure that this is a result of Lloyd’s magic crystals, but the very low-level details that cue you in to the performance, the orchestration, and the recording quality do seem to be clearer and more abundant with the Mk V—and that is saying something, since previous Walkers have been outstanding in this regard. What this means in playback (provided you’re using a truly high-resolution/accurate- tracing cartridge like a Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement) is a simply phenomenal amount of new information. What you had thought, for instance, was the breathy sound of the rosiny horsehairs of Paul Zukofsky’s bow catching the windings of his violin’s strings on George Crumb’s Four Nocturnes [Mainstream/ Time] resolves itself into the breathy sound of bow and strings and Zukofsky’s own now-clearly-audible breathing caught by the closely placed microphone. The deep sustained sonority at the tail end of one of the many explosive tuttis in Mussorgsky’s Picture at an Exhibition [RCA/Quality Records] turns out to be not only doublebasses holding onto that last note but doublebasses and a contrabassoon.
Third, dynamic range is phenomenal. The Walker has always been an exceptionally dynamic source component—with tremendous speed and snap on transients and power and impact on tuttis. Here...well, just listen to any of Chad Kassem’s new Quality Record Pressings reissues of some of the best RCAs, such as the Mussorgsky I just mentioned or The Reiner Sound or Pines of Rome. While these LPs have always been spectacular, they have never had quite the “jump” (a word I originally used in The RCA Bible to describe the way, in life, a large orchestral fortissimo seems to make the hall itself participate in the explosion of sound, as if hall and orchestra were a single giant source) that they now have in Kassem’s reissues played back on the Mk V. The Walker (in combination with the Clearaudio statement, the Raidho C 4.1 loudspeakers, and the Soulution 500 series or, lately, Siltech SAGA system electronics) simply and consistently breaks through that midbass “barrier”—that rise in the 60-80Hz range (usually inherent in the source and speaker and aggravated by the inevitable room resonance), which tends to obscure or overwhelm anything musical going on beneath it. The result is bass that doesn’t just slam like a door but also shudders like a temblor—bass with more or less equal power and clarity all the way down to the bottom. Thus, in Pictures in the midst of a sensational tutti you’re not just vaguely aware that a bass drum is adding to the excitement; you hear it sounding three successive beats in the midst of the fortissississimo. Better still, you feel it sounding those beats, projecting its sound with the power of an actual drum—with the sensation of reverberant air launched from a physically massive instrument and hitting you in the chest. This, folks, is very realistic high fidelity.
Which brings us to four, the Walker Mk V is supremely transparent to sources. How do I know this? Because I now own some of the sources—first-gen dubs of mastertapes (or of safety masters)—and am able to make select comparisons with LPs taken from those tapes.
What tape has going for it (provided it is well engineered and mastered) is: 1) detail that exceeds even that of the phenomenal Walker (just listen to the dub of the mastertape of Ella and Louis [Verve] and then listen to Chad Kassem’s superb 45rpm reissue on vinyl); 2) bass power, drive, and clarity that exceeds that of the Walker (just listen to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band [EMI/Capitol] on tape, and then compare it to the original or reissue on lP); 3) a dynamic “continuousness” that is unlike any other recorded medium (and very much like music heard in life); 4) graceful “clipping” that seems to round the peaks of very dynamic musical moments played back at very loud levels, so that you never have the feeling (as you sometimes do with LPs and always do with digital) that if you go louder something’s gonna shatter like glass; and 5) superior soundstage width, depth, and height, which makes for a superior “disappearing act” throughout the entire system.
The Walker Black Diamond Mk V doesn’t quite equal the united Home Audio UHA-HQ Phase 11 in these regards. But it comes a whole lot closer to sounding like tape than any other source, analog or digital, I’ve yet heard, thanks to its consistency in playback, sensational low-level resolution, and phenomenal dynamic range (and bass power and clarity). It is, need I add, also a lot more sensible purchase than a reel-to-reel tape deck, for which the software options are still very limited and very expensive.
Bottom line: Next to a 15ips, two-track deck (on the right tapes), the Walker Proscenium Black Diamond Mk V phonograph comes closer to the absolute sound (on the right LPs) than any other source component I’ve yet heard. It is truly—and very close to literally—reference-quality and gets my highest, warmest, and most enthusiastic recommendation (as befits a genuine classic). If you’ve got the dough—and I know that is a big if—and you’re heavily invested in vinyl, then you owe it to yourself to audition this fantastic record-player before buying anything else. Yes, you can spend less on a phonograph and come close to the absolute, but you won’t come as close as the Walker takes you—to the sound of mastertapes or, if the tapes are great, to the sound of the real thing.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Phonograph with air-bearing linear-tracking tonearm, air-bearing turntable, and air-bearing feet (air supply pump and plumbing included)
Weight: ca. 350 lbs.
Price: $105,000 (with setup by Walker and Law)