For almost ten years, every time I’ve listened to LPs I’ve listened through some version of the Walker Proscenium belt-driven record player with integral air-bearing, straight-line-tracking arm, air-bearing platter, and air-suspension feet. No matter what else has changed in my stereo (and everything else has changed in my stereo), it has remained a constant reference, for one simple reason: It has always sounded just that much more like the real thing than any other analog front end I’ve compared it to (and I’ve compared it to some very fine ’tables and arms). I’ve reviewed previous versions of this classic twice (last time in Issue 167). Now, Walker Audio has released a new iteration, the Proscenium Black Diamond Mk II, that is its best effort yet. (Owners of older Walkers can easily upgrade.)
There are good reasons for the Walker’s persistent superiority as an analog front end. First, in a segment of the high end where “well made” is taken for granted, it is extremely well made of durable, painstakingly tested, often cryogenically treated, ultra-high-quality parts that don’t or have yet to fail. (There is an exception to this that I will discuss below, but the problems I’ve had with it are my doing, not the Walker’s.) Once it is set up—and setup by its designers, Lloyd Walker and Fred Law, is included in the purchase price—every standard adjustment from VTA to VTF to azimuth to viscous damping of the arm (straight-line-trackers do not need anti-skating compensation) is simple to make or unmake in precisely repeatable increments. For instance, if you’re into tweaking VTA for each and every LP, which I am not, the Walker makes the procedure a snap. Just loosen a setscrew on the tonearm pillar via the supplied Allen wrench (a toolkit, complete with everything from precision electronic VTF meter to cartridge-alignment tool to rotational-speed-setting strobe and test record to spare belts and assorted other tools and parts, comes with every Walker); turn two knurled knobs on the pillar up or down, depending on whether you want to lower or raise the rear end of the tonearm (there are markers on the knobs which allows you to return to your starting point); re-tighten the set screw; and that’s it. Setting VTF is even simpler. Most non-engineering types, including me, are intimidated by elaborate devices such as the Walker and shy away from making adjustments, lest they screw something up irreparably. Short of tearing off the tonearm or dropping the ’table from a height, you literally can’t screw something up irreparably on this record player. You don’t have to leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind you because you’ll never get lost in the woods; there is always an easy way back to wherever you started.
But the Walker’s excellence isn’t just a matter of the precision, durability, intuitive simplicity of use, and repeatability of settings of all of its adjustable parts. This is also a record player that exemplifies a certain take on the reproduction of music via LPs—what might be called the “transparency-to-the-mastering-lathe” approach.
Though there is a great deal to be said for pivoted arms—and I myself am a huge fan of several, particularly the twelve-inch Da Vinci Grandezza—one thing that can’t be said for them is that they track the undulations inscribed in the grooves of records in the same way those undulations were originally cut into those grooves. As I’m sure most of you already know, the stylus (or chisel) of the cutting head on an LP mastering lathe moves across a lacquer blank in a straight line, traveling from the outer perimeter to the run-out grooves along a radius rather than in an arc. Assuming arm and cartridge are properly aligned, when an LP is played back via a straight-line-tracker like the Walker Black Diamond, your stylus is traversing the exact same radius that the stylus of the cutting head traversed when it cut the record. Your cartridge is never at a slightly offset angle to that ideal radius, as it necessarily is with a pivoted arm (save for the two points in its arc where the stylus transects that radius). What this means in practice is that straight-line-trackers eliminate the tracking and skating distortions, and consequent uneven stylus and groove wear, of pivoted arms.
If tracking a record in a straight line were all there were to it, all record players would track in straight lines. But, of course, that isn’t all there is to it. To explain the problems, I’m going to borrow (well, steal) a point from a well-written article on tonearm design that Geoff Husband penned for the Web-zine TNT-Audio some years ago. (Go to http://www.tnt-audio.com/int.html to read the entire piece.)
As Husband points out, you wouldn’t have a problem keeping your stylus tracking correctly if LPs were truly flat and if the grooves in them unfolded in one long straight line, like tape does through a tape recorder. You could just fix the cartridge in some extremely durable non-resonant medium above the record, as tape heads are fixed above tapes, and let that long straight groove play out beneath it. The only movement the stylus would then see would be the movements induced by the modulations cut into the groove walls.
Unfortunately, records aren’t flat and their grooves aren’t cut in straight lines. The surfaces of LPs are all warped to some extent (even the best of them) and their grooves are cut in spirals. What this means is that you can’t fix a stylus and cartridge in one position, like tape heads are fixed, and let the record just “unfurl” beneath it; stylus and cartridge are going to have to be attached to something that allows them to move freely both up and down (to handle warps) and side-to-side (to follow that spiraling road from the perimeter of the disc to the run-out grooves). In other words, the cartridge is going to have to be attached to a tonearm with a bearing at the other end that permits these vertical and lateral movements.
Bearings mean friction; tonearms mean mass; together they mean resonances that get added to the musical signal.
Creating a truly resonance-and-friction-free arm and bearing is the major challenge for any tonearm designer. In fact, completely eliminating all friction and resonances are impossibilities. With tonearms, the best that can be hoped for is to reduce their resonances to minims and to ensure that those resonances occur at some place where they won’t play havoc with the musical signal or be exacerbated by record warps (roughly somewhere below 15Hz and above 7Hz). With bearings, the best that can be hoped for is to make ones that freely permit the requisite amount of up/down and side-to-side movement without twisting and without “chattering in their races” (ringing like little bells and therefore sending their own resonances and those that get reflected to them from the arm and the cartridge back down the tonearm to the stylus).
Tonearm bearings come in several conventional forms, the most common of which are damped single-point bearings (as in uni-pivot arms) and multi-point bearings (as in gimbaled arms). Though more complex, expensive, and difficult to execute, there is a third way of creating a relatively frictionless, non-resonant tonearm bearing, and that is by using a gas (usually pressurized air) to fill the tiny gap between the bearing and the parts whose movements it is facilitating and constraining. This so-called air bearing is what the Walker Proscenium Black Diamond Mk II is equipped with. (The Walker also uses an air bearing on the massive platter of its turntable.)
Here’s how Walker’s air-bearing arm works. The Black Diamond tonearm, which is a medium-mass arm made in a single piece of uniform diameter from some secret ceramic-composite so hard it can only be cut with diamond saws (thus the name), is attached at its far end to a spindle made of the same material as the tonearm. (The arm can be viscously damped and its center of gravity can be adjusted to suit the compliance of your cartridge.) As the Black Diamond travels across a record, that spindle passes through a five-and-a-half-inch-long hole in a large rectangular brass block at the back of the ’table. The walls of this hole fit around the spindle so tightly that the arm virtually cannot be moved when the arm’s air pump is off. When it is on, however, air is injected at high pressure through tiny jets inside the bronze bearing block; that air forms a lubricant film between the outer surface of the spindle and the inner surface of the hole in the bronze block. Voilà, an air bearing.
The first time you use an air-bearing tonearm like the Black Diamond you will be amazed that the arm, which previously resisted movement, suddenly seems to move effortlessly in the lateral and vertical planes, as if it is floating on air (which it quite literally is). That film of air has all sorts of other mechanical advantages (including damping resonances), which is why air bearings are so often used in very-high-tech industrial applications (for instance, under electron microscopes [and in the support structure and turntable of CD mastering machines—RH]). However, air bearings, at least when they’re used in tonearms, can also have their downsides. The air-bearing arm on a turntable I used to own some twenty years ago was so finicky that the slightest bit of dust or even a single fingerprint on the spindle would cause the arm to freeze when the “dirty” segment passed through the air bearing, instantly producing a tic on the LP being played. It is this kind of behavior that gave air-bearing tonearms a bad name. The Walker, I am delighted to say, has never done this. Not once in nearly ten years. Whether its tolerances are different, its air pressure higher, or its design (which provides a bearing along a much longer length of the spindle) simply more successfully executed, the Walker arm never freezes up.
The Walker’s turntable, as noted, is also an air-bearing design. Here pressurized air is piped into the miniscule gap between platter and subplatter, creating (as is the case with the arm) a gas bearing. It is even more amazing to see the Walker’s air-bearing turntable at work than it is to see the arm, for the platter weighs seventy pounds and is almost literally locked in place when the air pump is off. When it’s on, the massive platter floats like the tonearm on a microscopically thin layer of air which, thin as it is, is still sufficient to lift the platter off the subplatter and allow it to rotate so freely that even after you turn off the motor the thing keeps rotating for half-a-minute or longer. That’s how low in friction the Walker’s air-bearing turntable is.
One of the chief differences, by the way, in the Mk II version of the Walker that I am reporting on is the number of jets in the arm’s bronze bearing block, which has gone up from eight to sixteen. The entire air-supply system for arm and platter has been enhanced. So has the damping of the outboard motor block, which drives the single belt that powers the seventy-pound platter. (The accuracy and reliability of Walker’s motors and motor controllers are legend, which is why so many non-Walker-owners use Walker controllers with their ’tables.) I can’t say for certain whether the increase in the number of jets and the better air supply have made for “stiffer” air bearings, but I can say that the sound of the Mk II version of the Walker Proscenium Black Diamond has improved over the last version that I reported on in Issue 167. And the last version was the most lifelike record player I’d ever heard.
You may recall from that review, in which I compared the Walker to the Kuzma Stabi XL with Kuzma Stabi Air Line straight-line-tracking air-bearing arm, that I gave the prize in overall realism to the Walker. The Walker was also superior in neutrality, timbre, soundstaging, and lifelike imaging. But the darkish Stabi did hold an edge in detail and large-scale dynamics. When I reviewed the AAS Gabriel/Da Vinci magnetic-bearing turntable with Da Vinci’s superb twelve-inch Grandezza gimbaled arm in Issue 191, I also found that it had a slight edge in low-level resolution, in softer passages (where it set a new standard of dynamic scaling), and overall transparency, and was pretty close to being the Walker’s equal in overall neutrality.
This was before the Mk II version of the Walker Proscenium Black Diamond had made its way into my system. I can now report that any gaps in performance between the Walker and either the Kuzma or the AAS Gabriel/Da Vinci have been closed. In fact, the latest Walker has taken a slight lead over the other two in low-level detail, dynamics (large and small-scale), and transparency to sources, while maintaining its advantages in timbre, soundstaging, imaging, and overall realism. This is the most lifelike Walker yet, which means it is the most lifelike source I’ve heard—yet. (There is a 15 ips reel-to-reel tape player on the horizon that could upset the applecart, and later in the year I’m expecting a Mk II version of the Gabriel/Da Vinci, which may prove competitive judging from past experience.)
Musically, what the improvements in the Walker’s low-level resolution buy you is a small but audible increase in the clarity of inner lines. Details that were just a bit more difficult to hear in the past—like those harps doubling the doublebass pizzicatos in the Passacaglia of Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra [EMI] or the notes of the basso ostinato in the third movement of Riccardo Malipiero’s beautiful Quartet No. 3 [Italia], which uses the same series that Berg used at the beginning of the Sixth Movement of his Lyric Suite—are now clearly audible. Being able to hear, for instance, that the bass line in the Malipiero piece is an ostinato rather than a more random walking bass increases your appreciation of the composer’s skill and your understanding of the structure of the composition and of the effect the music is intended to have on you.
This small increase in resolution, coupled with the Walker’s slightly improved dynamics, also has a magical effect on your appreciation of the skill with which a performer is playing a piece. The pleasure you take in something like Attila Bozay’s bravura (albeit nutsy) Improvisations for Zither [Hungaroton], for instance, depends entirely on your ability to hear (and enjoy) how skillfully and wittily that zither is being played—and it is being played in ways that make deliberate use of all the sounds this chiming lute-like instrument is capable of producing. Through the Walker the sound of the Bozay piece is a thing of mouth-clapping wonder. Any advantages that the AAS Gabriel/Da Vinci had on the softer side—on pppp-to-mf passages—any advantages the Kuzma had on the louder side—on mf-to-ffff passages—have been mitigated or eliminated. From crashing fortissimos on massive chords to flickering pianissimos on single strings, the Walker makes every note fully audible. Moreover, its way with the durations of tone colors is very nearly as impressive as that of the TW Acustic Raven AC-3 (though the Walker was and is less dark and Technicolored in balance, and more realistically neutral and transparent than the AC-3). The Black Diamond Mk II hangs onto the lovely little partials of those plucked and strummed zither strings right down to the brief silences that follow their dying out with a completeness that makes other ’tables’ (the AC-3 excepted) utterance of harmonics sound foreshortened. Likewise, on “Gospel Ship” or “Pretty Boy Floyd” from In Concert [Vanguard], you’ll hear the amount of tremolo Joan Baez adds to (or subtracts from) her delivery of each word of a lyric in precisely the way she wanted you to hear it. (If you’ve ever read Positively Fourth Street, you’ll know that this tremolo did not come easily to Baez; she cultivated it to add expressive softness, sweetness, and lilt to passages where her pure keen soprano might otherwise have been too powerful or overwhelming.)
In addition to clarifying music and performance, the new Walker’s increased resolution and dynamic range has a third effect: It clarifies engineering. You may recall from my review of the AAS Gabriel/Da Vinci ’table how impressed I was with its transparency to sources, which I attributed in part to a lower noise floor. Well, the Walker Proscenium Black Diamond Mk II now equals the Gabriel/Da Vinci in this regard, revealing the same details of engineering and mastering without losing its superior grip on the sound of the real thing. All of the examples I noted in my review of the Gabriel/Da Vinci—the potting in of Joni Mitchell’s backup vocals on “California” from Blue [Warner] and the clipping of a mike preamp on Leon Redbone’s Branch to Branch [Warner], for instance—are now made as fully present through the Walker as they were through the Swiss ’table.
The Walker’s soundstaging and imaging have always been nonpareil, and this hasn’t changed. Equipped with a cartridge capable of superior width, height, and depth of stage, the Proscenium has not been equaled by any other ’table/arm I’ve had in house. It simply goes wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with a really expansive LP. More importantly—most importantly, actually—with a really great LP, the Walker now sounds even more like the absolute than it did in the past, and in my experience it was always the champ in this key regard. Instruments simply sound just a bit more like themselves through the Proscenium Black Diamond Mk II.
Downsides? Well, it’s expensive—at $57k (including delivery and installation), more expensive than ever, though not as expensive, as Lloyd points out in the interview that follows this review, as the highest-priced ’tables on the market. It is bigger, heavier, and more complex than a non-air-bearing device. You must find a place for its air pump, which is housed in a large separate box and you must cope with the air-supply tubes and air-return tubes that run from the pump box to the plumbing underneath the ’table’s chassis. (It is easy to tape these small-diameter tubes to baseboards, making them virtually invisible.) In its favor, the pump in its large pump box is very quiet. For years, I kept it in the listening room nearby the ’table and was seldom aware of its presence. Finally, there is some periodic maintenance involved with the Walker. Every couple of months you must empty a bottle in the pump box that collects the oily condensate expelled by the pump; you must add oil to the pump every two-to-three months to ensure that it is fully lubricated; and, most importantly, you must remember to turn that pump off after every listening session. I can’t emphasize this last point enough. If, late at night, you forget and leave the motor running for several days, you stand the risk of burning the pump motor out, although, speaking from experience, the damn thing is sturdy enough to take a good deal of unintended abuse. To avoid any possibility of catastrophe, I would suggest plugging the pump into one of those wall-outlet timers and setting the timer for, oh, four-to-eight hours tops (depending on how long you think you’ll be listening). This way, if you forget to turn off the pump (as I and every other Walker owner have on occasions), the timer will turn the pump box off for you.
When the Walker is first unboxed and installed, it may strike you as an unusually and intimidatingly complex device. It is not. The complexity and number of its parts are, as Lloyd rightly says, designed to make it easier to use. And once installed, it is easy to use. It is, also, the single most neutral and lifelike source component I’ve yet heard or had the pleasure of using.
The Walker has been my analog-source reference ever since I started writing for TAS again. In its newest and best iteration, it will remain my reference for the foreseeable future. I cannot recommend it highly enough. For LP lovers, for devotees of the absolute sound, it is the very stuff that dreams are made of.
We thank Jonathan Valin and TAS for a wonderful article that helps readers to understand more about what makes the Proscenium Black Diamond Mark II turntable so special.
I’d like to add that the arm is self-cleaning and the VTA can be adjusted easily for 200-gram, 180-gram, and regular records. The user will quickly find the correct setting for each and will use them for 90% of his records. However, sometimes a record just doesn’t sound quite right. If it lacks transparency and highs, raise the V.T.A. slightly. If the record lacks body and bass, lower the V.T.A. If the sound is grainy and congested, add a little damping. These minor adjustments can make a huge difference in the sound. They take only seconds to implement and are totally repeatable. Some of the records that needed a special touch have become my reference records and consistently amaze and delight people who listen to them.
It takes a little practice to learn how to extract the hidden beauty of the music. Once you’ve mastered the technique, it will become second nature to you and you will be rewarded with years of enjoyment listening to the music you love.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Belt-driven record player with integral air-bearing arm, air-bearing platter, air-suspension feet and outboard motor, motor controller, and air-supply box
Price: $57,000 (including installation)
JV’s Reference System
Loudspeakers: Magico M5, MartinLogan CLX
Linestage preamps: Audio Research Reference 5, Soulution 720, BAlabo BC-1 Mk-II
Phonostage preamps: Audio Research Reference 2, Audio Tekne TEA-2000, Lamm Industries LP-2 Deluxe
Power amplifiers: Audio Research Reference 610T, Soulution 700, Lamm ML-2, BAlabo BP-1 Mk-II
Analog source: Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond record player, AAS Gabriel/Da Vinci turntable with DaVinci Grandezza tonearm
Phono cartridges: DaVinci Grandezza, Air Tight PC-1 Supreme, Clearaudio Goldfinger v2
Digital source: dCS Scarlatti with U-Clock, Soulution 740, ARC Reference CD8
Cable and interconnect: Tara Labs “Zero” Gold interconnect, Tara Labs “Omega” Gold speaker cable, Tara Labs “The One” Cobalt power cords, MIT Oracle MA-X interconnect, MIT Oracle MA speaker cable, Synergistic Research Absolute Reference speakers cables and interconnects, Audio Tekne Litz wire cable and interconnect
Accessories: Shakti Hallographs (6), A/V Room Services Metu acoustic panels and corner traps, ASC Tube Traps, Symposium Isis equipment stand, Symposium Ultra equipment platforms, Symposium Rollerblocks, Symposium Fat Padz, Walker Prologue Reference equipment stand, Walker Prologue amp stands, Shunyata Research Hydra V-Ray power distributor and Anaconda Helix Alpha/VX power cables, Tara Labs PM 2 AC Power Screens, Shunyata Research Dark Field Cable Elevators, Walker Valid Points and Resonance Control discs, Winds Arm Load meter, Clearaudio Double Matrix record cleaner, HiFi-Tuning silver/gold fuses