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Brinkmann Audio Spyder Turntable, 10.5 Tonearm, and Pi Moving-Coil Pickup

Although Germany’s Brinkmann Audio has been in business since 1985, it’s still relatively new to the American market. Well known abroad for his consumer electronics, Helmut Brinkmann, the company’s founder and principal designer, has so far confined his American exports to his turntables, tonearms, and pickups. In the Spyder ($12,000), his newest turntable, circles determine the style. Eschewing an enclosed plinth in favor of an open chassis, Brinkmann mounts the platter assembly’s base on a cylindrical pillar, from which the armboard juts out like a peninsula that supports another cylinder onto which the tonearm is mounted. The Spyder can accommodate as many as four ’arms, hence its name—or so I assume—the boards jutting out from the platter like legs from a spider. (But I wonder, does anyone, including our own Andre Jennings or Michael Fremer, ever have need for running that many, presumably different, ’arm/pickup combinations at the same time?) Brinkmann’s Sinus motor, a four-phase, twelve-pole design, with 33 and 45 speeds (adjustable), used in his more expensive models, is also housed in an outboard cylinder, the drive belt its only point of contact to the main chassis. The power supply (not a cylinder) is likewise housed separately. The platter, made from “alloy/crystal,” weighs 22 pounds and comes with a clamp.

Brinkmann’s 10.5 tonearm ($5450) and Pi low-output moving-coil pickup ($2450) completed the setup for a full vinyl playback system. Swimming against the unipivot tide, the 10.5 has a fixed bearing, double-gimbal configuration and bears a distinct resemblance to the much-admired Breuer tonearm of yore. This is not accidental, since before he designed his own arms, Brinkmann himself favored Breuers. The Pi pickup, developed in concert with his tonearms but built by Benz-Micro to Brinkmann’s specifications, features a micro-ridge stylus and a boron cantilever (all other things being equal, I typically find that boron cantilevers sound more neutral). As a system, the three components retail for ten dollars shy of twenty grand, which in the current inflated audiophile marketplace I suppose would be called “moderate” (does this mean that under, say, ten grand is “modest”?).

Brinkmann’s website (brinkmann-audio.com) has several papers that detail his thinking behind these three products. His main attention is devoted to draining or otherwise controlling spurious resonances at the stylus/record interface. To this end he employs a combination of materials, with liberal amounts of aluminum dominating, that in combination either absorb resonances (i.e., dissipating them as heat) or else transmit them to the subchassis (here the cylindrical ’arm pillar and turntable base), where they are likewise dissipated as heat. Combining materials when it comes to creating one-directional pathways for resonances to travel away from a given point is a very tricky business because jointures of different materials act as filters, allowing some resonances to keep going in the same direction while others bounce back in the direction they came from, ultimately to re-infect the signal. This is one reason why materials for platters and platter mats are such a vexing problem: In an ideal world a record would be thick enough to dissipate all spurious resonances as heat, but one-inch or thicker records are for obvious reasons impractical.

The foregoing is a very simplified explanation of a complex nexus of problems, and the way Brinkmann has addressed them is a sophisticated series of interlocking solutions. One of the things that fascinates me about vinyl is the extraordinary number of solutions that designers come up with to address the myriad problems of playing records, solutions that are often as not antithetical to each other: tuned suspensions versus fixed chassis; rim, direct, or belt drives (single or multiple belts, flat or round?); motors AC or DC, chassis mount or outboard; unipivots versus gimbal bearings versus radial-tracking tonearms; how much should tonearms be damped, and how and where (at the head, at the rear, in the bearing?); what is the best thing to move in a pickup (magnets, coils, or iron?)—all this without even mentioning the nearly bewildering variety, shape, geometry, and materials of styli, cantilevers, and bodies nor the countless accessories (e.g., weights, clamps, rings).

RöNt Tube Power Supply
Although the Spyder is supplied with a solid-state power supply, Brinkmann offers an optional power supply that uses vacuum tubes: “We found that the vacuum in the rectifier tubes not only isolates their plates from the cathodes, but also the power line from the drive circuitry. Because of this the RöNt works like a high-class power-line filter for our turntables. The purification of the mains noticeably improves the sound in terms of clarity, openness, and spaciousness.” The price is a steep $4190, and there is no break if upon initial purchase you opt for it in place of the standard power supply (Brinkmann wants the standard to be included with all Spyders). Is it worth it? I can’t make that call for you. Not long ago I was taken to task in these pages for my refusal to aggrandize sonic differences that I consider minute, so take what follows in that context. The differences between the standard power supply and the RöNt are not unlike what you hear in typical comparisons of tubes and solid-state in electronics: the former a bit warmer and more rounded, the latter more incisive and punchier. One LP that revealed these differences is Stravinsky’s stereo recording of the suite from L’Histoire du Soldat [Sony], where the percussion struck me as being slightly more forcible with the standard supply. But in something that’s more thickly scored, like the aforementioned Graceland, the tube unit suggested a tad more…ventilation, let’s call it, with a more relaxed quality as well.

That said, however, I have to point out to begin with that an extreme degree of concentration was required even in A/B comparisons to hear the differences. Then, even when we did hear them—I involved others in the listening—they were so small that it was easy to become confused which was playing even in rapid A/B switching. Under no circumstances was it possible consistently to identify which one was playing after a brief interval (say, a trip to the loo). Third, as I’ve already implied, the differences were also highly source dependent. On many sources there was no discernible difference in a direct A/B. Finally, as a point of reference, the differences between the these two power supplies literally paled into insignificance by comparison to the differences that properly loading the Pi made, which differences are, by the way, instantly and obviously audible. If you buy this Brinkmann ensemble and are lucky enough to have another four grand lying around with nothing to spend it on—this is a circumstance I’ve never been privileged to enjoy in my life—perhaps your experience of the RöNt will be different from mine, but I’d surely ask for an at-home audition before I handed over the plastic.

Like many designers, Brinkmann prides himself on using subjective evaluations. “Everything has an influence on sound,” he writes. “And we have to accept that these influences are real—even if (for the moment at least) we have no scientific explanation. Each single part of the device, no matter how trivial, has an influence on sound. Yes, even the smallest screw.” Through careful listening tests he discovered that replacing one of the stainless screws that affix the cantilever in the Pi pickup with a titanium screw brought “sound that resembled the original most closely.” It is easy to believe Brinkmann heard differences, not least because there are perfectly obvious scientific reasons why they exist: Up until the point at which the pickup converts the signal into electricity, vinyl is a mechanical medium, therefore materials do influence reproduction. But the real issue is how much influence and how to assess its significance. Impressive as listening to the effects of different materials for screws is as proof of the extent of Brinkmann’s commitment, I do wish he had let us know how he is able to determine what the original sound is. Does he have access to mastertapes? Does he use a direct mike feed? I’m not singling out Brinkmann here—these are the same questions I have for all turntable designers. In my personal opinion, there is in much design (and reviewing) of record-playing components a great deal of arguing from effect back to cause, as opposed to trying to find a way to determine whether what is being reproduced replicates that source. For example, has anyone really demonstrated by comparison to a known source that applying the Herculean amounts of sheer mass to turntable structures actually makes any difference beyond a certain point? (SMEs, while heavy, are not herniating, their footprint is pretty compact, and they remain competitive with the oil derricks in your living room.)

The relatively rare times when someone in a position to know compares vinyl playback to mastertapes—say, the late, very much lamented Doug Sax—does so, the equipment in use differs markedly from those of audiophiles and audio reviewers. That legendary mastering engineer preferred a high-quality moving magnet from Stanton mounted, I seem to recall, in a decent but hardly world-beating Technics turntable, a combination he said came closer to the sound of the mastertapes than anything else he tried, and it was very close indeed (this was reported in TAS a couple of decades ago but seems largely to have been roundly ignored except by Robert E. Greene, who’s never been partial to moving coils). [Doug Sax once said to me “I like moving-coil cartridges—in other people’s systems.” —RH]

I raise these issues in order to suggest how fraught with uncertainty reviewing record-playing components is, an uncertainty that doesn’t seem to have translated into a corresponding humility on the part of the reviewers when it comes to making large claims about their latest favorites, a charge, let me hasten to add, from which I most emphatically do not exonerate myself on the basis of past reviews. Just substituting a new setup for an existing one and basing evaluations on how it plays favorite recordings can be a lot of fun, but how reliable is it for assessing accuracy, if that is your goal? A setup that doesn’t let anything sound good is easily dismissible. But, paradoxically, it’s the setups that sound good—and it’s an indication of the basic validity of the medium that most setups from reputable designers and manufacturers are capable of reproduction that at the very least pleases many people—that raise more questions than they answer. This is true of all audio, of course, and one solution, adopted by the audiophile community and many reviewers, is to disregard any considerations of accuracy and simply celebrate subjectivity in all its wonderful variety. Another is to insist upon accuracy and accept no substitutes, whether you personally like the results or not: “Garbage in, garbage out,” Peter Walker famously declared. And a third alternative is to try to navigate some in-between course, mediating accuracy and listenability, which, parenthetically, is why I would not personally own a preamplifier that excludes tone controls.

But we work with the tools we have, to which I’d be tempted to add that the proof is in the listening, except that begs what is more or less the same question: “Proof of what?” So let me just say that this Brinkmann setup made for many hours of pleasurable listening when sources came within hailing distance of being pleasurable. My evaluations are derived from listening to the entire Brinkmann setup as a system: turntable, tonearm, and pickup, feeding the internal phonostage of a McIntosh C22 preamplifier and Musical Surroundings Nova II phono preamp into a Pass Labs XP-10. My Quad 2805 electrostatic and Harbeth’s new Monitor 40.2 were the principal loudspeakers.

Before getting into specifics, let me say the reproduction is excellent in the sense that it is transparent, dynamic, low in perceived distortion, with a fairly high degree of perceived neutrality. What do I mean when I say these things? Well, to begin with, using a wide variety of recordings I know pretty well, for which I’ve kept notes over the years, what I heard during the evaluations tallies with what I’ve heard when I played them on setups of known accuracy. There was clarity without that etched quality that is sometimes mistaken for clarity or transparency or resolution; there was warmth yet with none of that vague thickness when there is too much warmth—I rarely hear contemporary systems of great renown, loudspeakers in particular, that are too warm, and I hear far too many that aren’t warm enough, lacking the natural warmth of actual instruments and live music making. There was little evidence of some distinctive coloration or tonal anomaly laid over one recording to another very different sounding one—little evidence, but not no evidence (more on this anon). And, not to be minimized, whatever sort of alchemy or construction wizardry Brinkmann has done with his mixtures of materials, despite the lack of conventional plinth, suspension, sheer bulk, special feet and platforms, the Spyder really does do an impressive job of protecting the stylus/record interface from external disturbance, even when the music gets big, deep, and loud.

 

Regular readers of mine know that I place great importance on isolation, one reason I tend to prefer tuned suspensions to fixed ones. So right off, I started with the Mehta/Los Angeles/Decca-London recording of Also Sprach Zarathustra with its pedal point from a 32-foot stop. I selected this for two reasons. First, I wanted to see how well the Spyder, with no suspension and little mass as such, withstood the onslaught of the 32-foot organ stop that opens the piece, and, second, because the note is actually on this particular recording and in considerable strength. The Spyder acquitted itself superbly on both counts: The pedal point was clean, big, and present and was both felt and heard beneath the crashing chords of full orchestra and pounding timpani. Since I was in a big orchestral mood, I went next to the fabulous Stokowski Roumanian Rhapsody No.1 (RCA) and it was the same story: impressive bass power, big, big sound, nice definition, and thrilling rhythmic drive. Last in this first outing, side six, Act IV of my trusty Bernstein Carmen: The Brinkmann combination presented the breadth and depth of the soundstage with a convincing sense of air and bloom when, say, the brass sound and resound against the chorus, the comings and goings of the various performing forces (soloists, chorus, groups of singers, and children’s chorus) arrayed holographically across the front of my listening room. Switching over to several jazz recordings, the deepest reaches of string bass seemed to me to be fractionally better defined and articulated from some other setups, but not by much, and on its own I doubt many will find the Brinkmann deficient.

Violins, violas, and cellos are always an acid test for neutrality, and very difficult to evaluate equipment with because much of the time they are miked too closely and thus appear too bright. A splendid exception is an old Vanguard recording by the Yale Quartet of Beethoven’s A minor: The ideal miking is such that you can close your eyes and imagine the players arrayed before you. However, it’s the sound of the instruments on this recording that really tells: violins sweet with just the right brilliance (maybe a bit too much—more on this soon as well), the viola the perfect alto to the violins’ soprano, the cello ideally warm and mellow. In the second movement, where Beethoven has the strings imitate the sound of a bagpipe, these players essay the passages so magically it always brings tears to my eyes, and the Brinkmann did not disappoint, with the violins and violas having maybe a smidgeon more sheen than I’m used to—but more on this later. Moving from classical quartet to jazz trio, Sonny Rollins’ Way Out West was set forth in all its early-stereo, left/right/center miking and with Rollins’ powerful sax rich, vibrant, with a slight edge (as there should be) and all the high percussion clean, clear, crystalline, and extended, with again a bit more sparkle than I hear on, say, the SACD.

A new 180-gram LP of Paul Simon’s Graceland again brought out the setup’s rhythmic strengths and quite outstanding ability to keep musical textures at once clarified yet blended. The voices in the a capella intro to “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes” were marvelously lifelike in their roundedness and body, ditto for three very different kinds of voices: Doris Day on Hooray for Hollywood, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rogers and Hart Songbook, Volume 1, and Belafonte on The Many Moods of Belafonte. Day and Fitzgerald I’ve always found present particular difficulties. Day’s voice is basically bright but never harsh or edgy (unless it’s been recorded that way), and it also has some body to it; Fitzgerald’s is a soprano but a mezzo-soprano who can get down into alto territory, but for all its body it never sounds heavy. And so they were both reproduced mostly. (I always forget how vibrant, dynamic, and lively Fitzgerald’s Rodgers and Hart is, Buddy Bregman’s big band arrangements opening out with tremendous panache and what I can only describe as a kind of relaxed drive that swings so naturally you don’t even realize your toes are tapping, all outstandingly sent up by the Brinkmann ensemble.)

Belafonte is a pure baritone with lots of smoke in the voice and a very mild huskiness that became more pronounced as he got older (there’s not all that much of it in this recording). I can’t understand why this album is not more popular, as it’s one of Belafonte’s best, with some signature numbers including a truly lovely “Try to Remember” and a great protest song, “Dark as a Dungeon,” about coal mining. Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t have a fetish about resolution, but if you do, then “Dungeon” will certainly put your system through its paces. Once the engineers started recording this particular take, an approaching thunderstorm began to sound and then it started raining steadily with increasing intensity, the effect of the claps of thunder so powerful Belafonte kept singing. Upon playback the effect left everyone stunned (the lyric “where the rain never falls” acquiring a profound irony). In strictly sonic terms, the sound of the rain is not only captured, it is captured in such a way as to appear as if it’s emanating from outside, which of course it was, and it really sounds like rain, which is how a system with excellent resolution will reproduce it. Again, the Brinkmann did very well except for more top-end energy than I usually hear.

Loading Issues
I inquired of Helmut Brinkmann about my adventures in loading the Pi pickup with other than the recommended 600 ohms. Here is part of his reply: “We found the 600 ohms good with our own cables, phonostage, and speakers (I use Vandersteen Model 7s and my wife has Vivid B1s). The load adjusts the bandwidth of a cartridge, as the coil of an mc cartridge gets higher in impedance at high frequencies (above audio band). The lower the load (i.e., the lower the resistor value), the more limited will be the bandwidth somewhere above the audio band. A recommended load is not part of the cartridge alone but also part of the synergy of the whole system, beginning with the phonostage. It our impression that phonostages with no feedback tend to accept higher resistor-values and those with overall feedback would need lower values. Of course the alignment of the cartridge, VTA, and SRA will have an influence.”

I take no issue with any of this. It is my experience that there is an optimal load—or range of loads (the numerical value is rarely so critical that it must exactly match the theoretical ten-times-the-value of the internal impedance)—for every moving-coil pickup, that is, a load that will yield the flattest, i.e., the most neutral frequency response. As I understand it, what proper loading really does is suppress the high-frequency resonances that all moving-coils have, resonances that are typically above 20kHz. When this resonance isn’t suppressed, it can sometimes confer a greater sense of “air,” “transparency,” and “dynamics,” but I always find this sounds artificial and eventually fatiguing. Fairness requires that I report that my position here is by no means shared by many audiophiles and reviewers, including some at our magazine.

As should be obvious by now, the listening evaluations consistently revealed a bit of extra brilliance or sheen on upper strings, a bit of brightness on voices, notably sopranos, more “crystal” on high percussion. Experience suggests that this sort of frequency-response rise inheres in pickups, in particular moving coils that are not terminated with a low enough impedance. I did my first listening of the Brinkmann setup with the McIntosh MC22 preamp, which I was reviewing. Inasmuch as the company’s literature states that the “cartridge works perfectly on loads of 600 ohms,” I switched the C22’s loading to 500 ohms, the closest match it offered, and since it sounded fine on initial listen, there it remained until I completed the Mac evaluations. The C22 returned, I plugged in Pass Labs XP-10 driven by the trusty Musical Surroundings Nova II, which allowed me loading options of 475 and 660. Since 660 is closer to 600 than either 475 or the Mac’s 500, I began with that and was met with an unexpected surprise. It took no more than a couple of minutes of the Bernstein Carmen to realize the sound was entirely too bright and voices a bit edgy. So I selected the 475-ohm option and was rewarded with the flatter, more neutral presentation I had been enjoying through the C22, though extended listening still suggested a subtly rising response. Sometime well into the evaluations I read a review of the Pi that suggested there was more edge to the reproduction of voices than the reviewer was accustomed to hearing. This is a reviewer I usually find quite reliable, and he too evaluated the pickup into the recommended 600 ohms. Hmm . . .

Since Brinkmann’s literature recommended 600 as ideal, I didn’t give it a second thought, nor evidently did that reviewer. But since my experience suggested lower was definitely better, I took a look at the Pi’s specification sheet and discovered that the “output impedance” is listed as 20 ohms. I am assuming that this figure refers to what other manufacturers call the “internal impedance.” If that is so, then common wisdom suggests that an optimal load should be around ten times the value of the internal impedance, in other words something in the vicinity of 200 ohms. The closest the Nova II allows to that value is either 150 ohms or 243 ohms. So I used the latter and the difference was quite striking. That apparently vestigial brightness was not completely eliminated but it was very much reduced, especially on voices. I next tried 150 ohms. This reduced the brightness a bit but at the price of a reduction in the Pi’s transparency and transient response (i.e., its “speed,” not the right word, but that’s audiophile talk for you), which are quite excellent. Mind you, I liked the sound here and on any of several vocal recordings well enough I left it there. But overall I preferred the 243 setting. Would 200 have been ideal? Maybe, but my experience rarely suggests you need quite that degree of precision in loading (though I have to add that with my favorite pickup, still the Ortofon Windfeld, with its 4-ohm internal impedance, I could detect the difference between 59 ohms and 40 ohms, the latter better—that is, flatter sounding). So once again, I can only repeat what I’ve said so often in the past: When it comes to moving coils, optimal loading is required to get the best out of them, and it is sheerest folly to run these things straight into a 47k phonostage, which means effectively no loading at all. By the way, the Pi’s tracking was consistently outstanding.

Operationally this setup was a joy to use, its fit and finish of a caliber that spells “G-E-R-M-A-N” in caps. I didn’t do the setup, but I observed Andrea Brinkmann (Mrs. Brinkmann) do it and there’s nothing beyond the ability of anyone willing to work carefully. Once speed was set, it operated flawlessly throughout the entire review period. The only ergonomic idiosyncrasy is that Brinkmann doesn’t provide a fingerlift for the headshell, believing it colors the sound. I used it that way for as long as I could stand, and then, with Mrs. Brinkmann’s blessing (my apologies, Andrea, if this gets you into trouble), I went ahead and installed a spare I had on from another ’arm. If there is degradation, I am blissfully unaware of it. Let me also say that I enjoyed for a change having a turntable with a compact footprint and of a size and mass that didn’t leave me with a herniated disc when I had to lift it. In sum, here’s a vinyl player of all-around excellence that should provide years of performance both pleasurable and trouble-free.

Specs & Pricing

Type: Belt-drive
Motor: 4 phase, 12 pole
Dimensions: Not supplied (plinth-less design)
Weight: 46 lbs.
Price: $12,000

10.5 Tonearm
Type: Pivoted gimbal
Length: 10.5 inches
Effective mass: Ca. 12 grams
Price: $5450

Pi Phono Pickup
Type: Moving-coil
Output: 0.15mV (velocity 1cm/sec)
Impedance: 20 ohms
Recommended tracking force: 1.8 grams
Weight: 14 grams
Price: $2490

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