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CES 2016: Robert Harley on Analog

CES 2016: Robert Harley on Analog

Although attendance at this CES obviously declined from previous years, there was no shortage of interesting and significant turntables, tonearms, cartridges, and phonostages. In addition to new products from the usual suspects, this CES saw the reintroduction of turntables by companies that had once left the turntable business, from the highest of the high-end (Continuum Labs), to the iconic turntables of the past (Technics), to the entry-level mass-market (Teac). Even music label Mobile Fidelity (MoFi) got into the act by launching a line of affordable turntables, cartridges, and phonostages.

Most Significant Products

1. Continuum Obsidian Turntable
The biggest analog news at CES was undoubtedly the return of Continuum Audio Labs. Some of you may remember that this Australian company developed one of the most ambitious turntables ever, the Caliburn (circa $100k). At its introduction in 2005 the Caliburn broke new ground in turntable and tonearm design. Continuum’s new product, called Obsidian, represents an evolution of the core technologies developed for the cost-no-object Caliburn turntable and Cobra ’arm. The good news is that the Obsidian and the Viper ‘arm will reportedly cost a fraction of the Caliburn’s price. The design has no plinth, instead mounting the tonearm and motor on separate mechanically isolated structures. Tungsten is used extensively throughout the Obsidian, including in the main bearing shaft, the ’arm post, and ’arm suspension contact points. The ’arm is magnetically attached to the base using tungsten contact points rather than bolts. The Viper tonearm is supplied with the Obsidian, although users can add a second tonearm. The motor was designed specifically for Continuum, and features a zero-cogging DC motor (controlled by a servo amplifier running at 53.6kHz), graphite brushes, and a calibrated damping system that attenuates brush noise. The Obsidian uses a newly refined version of the “nested platter” concept developed more than a decade ago. The platter materials and shape were selected through finite-element analysis (FEA) modeling to damp vibration. The platter is supported by opposing magnets, but the platter doesn’t entirely float. The Viper tonearm’s unusual shape results in the maximum stiffness with the lowest possible mass. The shape is reminiscent of that of the Continuum Cobra, but has evolved over that design. The Obsidian on display was mounted with the Viper as well as with the SAT ’arm, a $30,000 unit that has garnered much critical acclaim. In addition, the Obsidian/Viper at the front end of Constellation’s Reference Series electronics driving MartinLogan Neolith loudspeakers was spectacular, and gets my vote for best sound at CES.

2. Technics SL-1200GAE
Is there a more iconic Japanese turntable than the venerable Technics SL-1200? Prompted by a grassroots Internet campaign, signed by more than 20,000 people, Technics has reissued the SL-1200 as the SL-1200GAE. The old and new models couldn’t be more similar—or more different. From appearance, the new model looks identical to the old, with exactly the same placement of the controls, including the sliding speed adjustment. But inside, this is an entirely new and much more sophisticated design. The direct-drive motor has no iron core to eliminate cogging, and its speed is controlled by a system developed for the rotational servo-systems in Blu-ray Disc players. The platter is a three-layer construction combining brass and aluminum with a rubber mat, and has twice the inertial mass of the original SL-1200. The ’arm is also new, now made from magnesium, and features gimbal bearings. The base is much heavier and sturdier than that of the SL-1200, with a four-layer construction including die-cast aluminum. The whole package weighs in at nearly 40 pounds, considerably more than its predecessor. Technics will initially offer a run of 1200 50th anniversary units (with a serial-number badge on the base) this summer. When those are sold out, the company will commence full production of the standard units. The price is $3995 for the anniversary model or standard production—get your order in early if you want the anniversary edition. The original SL-1200 was in production from 1972 to 2010—an amazing run. It’s heartening to see the return of this classic product.

3. Musical Surroundings SugarCube Phonostage and Digital Recording Platform
Ripping your LP collection to digital files has been a daunting prospect. You need an A/D converter, software, and must manually enter the album name, artist, and tracks for each LP—a tedious process. But an innovative new product promises to make LP-ripping simple and foolproof. The result of a joint venture between Musical Surroundings and a Silicon Valley technology company called SweetVinyl, the SugarCube incorporates Musical Surroundings’ SuperNova mm/mc phonostage (designed by Mike Yee) with an integral A/D converter and a few novel features. Chief among these is the SugarCube’s ability to recognize the LP being ripped and automatically find and download the metadata for that track or album. The album art is displayed on the unit’s front panel. Another novel feature is a pop-and-click remover that reportedly doesn’t degrade sound quality. In the demo I heard (through headphones) the SugarCube did just that, removing pops and clicks but leaving the music intact. The SugarCube is designed to be used in conjunction with Channel D’s PureVinyl software for storage and editing. You can also use the SugarCube as just a phonostage (turning off all digital circuitry), or as a DAC, a headphone amplifier, or an ADC. Price: $4999.

4. MoFi Turntables, Cartridges, and Phonostages
Mobile Fidelity (MoFi) is officially in the hardware business with the launch of a line of turntables, cartridges, phonostages, and LP accessories. The $999 StudioDeck features a Delrin platter, 10″ tonearm, and an inverted main bearing. The upgrade is the $1799 UltraDeck, which features a thicker and heavier platter along with more massive build. The three cartridges are the $299 StudioTracker, $599 UltraTracker, and the $899 MasterTracker. All are moving-magnet designs. These cartridges can be bundled with the turntables at significantly lower prices. For example, the $999 StudioDeck and $299 StudioTracker cartridge are priced at $1149 when bought together. MoFi also showed two phonostages, the StudioPhono ($249 mm, $299 mc) and the UltraPhono ($399 mm, $499 mc). Finally, the new brand offers two record clamps, the Super Flyweight at $125 and Super Heavyweight at $225.

5. D’Agostino Master Audio Systems Momentum Phonostage
The Momentum Series from Dan D’Agostino, arguably the most beautifully built electronics extant, has been expanded with introduction of the new Momentum Phonostage ($28,000). The stunning black-and-copper chassis-work showcases an unusually comprehensive front-panel display that indicates the gain and loading (both impedance and capacitive) for each of the phonostage’s four inputs. When switching between inputs, the Momentum Phonostage automatically engages separate gain and loading settings for that input. Significantly, all four inputs are offered in both balanced and unbalanced jacks. A front-panel knob provides selectable equalization curves. The phonostage is designed like all other Momentum products, with all-discrete Class A circuitry and through-hole construction. In an inspired stroke of industrial design, the separate power supply is “hidden” beneath the chassis (though integral to it), providing the elegance of a single chassis with the technical advantages of a separate supply. The effect is to make the power supply disappear, and the main chassis seem to “float” above it. To see it is to want it.

Auspicious Debuts

Audio Alchemy has bolstered its line of affordable, high-performance electronics with the addition of the PPA-1 phonostage. The design is based on a discrete FET circuit with continually adjustable loading. Gain is selectable (50dB or 65dB), and the output is provided on both balanced and unbalanced jacks. An optional power supply (the $595 PS-5) can increase performance. This same supply will also power Audio Alchemy’s DDP-1 DAC/preamp/headphone amp simultaneously. Price: $1795.

German turntable manufacturer Transrotor added two new ’tables to its already extensive line. The Max is a scaled-down version of the company’s popular and highly acclaimed Fat Bob. The new model features an isolated motor and outboard motor controller, and can even accommodate two tonearms. The Max comes with a Jelco ’arm. Price: $3500. The upscale Jupiter turntable ($5500) offers more massive construction along with an innovative self-lubricating bearing. An optional magnetic bearing that magnetically couples the drive system to the platter (a feature standard in Transrotor’s upper-end models) can be added at any time. Transrotor pioneered this technique in 1995 and has been using it ever since.

Musical Surroundings, Clearaudio’s U.S. distributor, debuted the German manufacturer’s Innovation Basic turntable ($6000). The new ’table shares many of the design features found in the upper-end models of the Innovation line. The Innovation Basic features a three-point chassis, ceramic-magnet bearing, and optical speed control. Two tonearm mounts are provided. The show model was fitted with Clearaudio’s new TT-5 linear-tracking tonearm ($3750). Rather than lift the tonearm out of the way when changing records, the TT-5 has a swing base that allows the entire ’arm to rotate. Musical Surroundings also introduced the latest Clearaudio cartridge, the $1500 Essence moving-coil. This new design is built from the same aluminum-magnesium alloy with ceramic surface layer body material as the company’s $5500 daVinci cartridge. With a boron cantilever and micro-line stylus, the Essence boasts channel matching tighter than 0.5dB.

In Other News

In another sign of the analog times, Sony introduced the PS-HX500 turntable, a design optimized for ripping LPs to digital. The built-in A/D converter will output hi-res WAV files (up to 192/24) or even DSD (up to 5.6MHz). The PS-HX500 is supplied with software and an app for editing files (PC or Mac). The Sony-developed straight-line tonearm features an integral lightweight headshell fitted with a moving-magnet cartridge. The belt-drive ’table has a die-cast aluminum platter topped by a rubber mat. The player will sell for $599 when it hits the market in Q2. I heard DSD files played on Sony’s excellent HAP-Z1ES music server that had been ripped on the PS-HX500 and was surprised by how good they sounded.

Pro-Ject, perhaps the world’s largest turntable manufacturer (in unit volume), launched an unusual product called the Vertical Turntable. As its name suggests, the Vertical Turntable can be mounted on a wall. It has an onboard A/D converter and Bluetooth streaming. Price: $499. On a more serious note, Pro-Ject showed upgraded versions of its popular RPM series, which have been revamped with carbon-fiber tonearms, better platter bearings, and other techniques. The RPM-1 Carbon ($499) starts out the line, with the RPM-3 Carbon offering a mass-loaded platter and magnetic anti-skating. The platter is made from recycled records, not for environmental reasons but on the premise that a platter made from the same material as the record will best drain vibration from the record into the platter. The RPM-5 Carbon extends the use of carbon fiber to the plinth, and also features an open-gimbal tonearm bearing. Finally, the $2499 RPM-9 Carbon offers magnetically damped feet, an outboard motor with separate controller, and a 9″ tonearm.

Teac introduced two new record players, the TN-550 ($799) and the TN-570 ($1099). Both models are belt-driven, feature an acrylic platter, and a base made of gloss black cultured marble over MDF. The only difference is the inclusion of a USB output in the TN-570, with digital output up to 192kHz/24-bit. Both ’tables are fitted with an Audio-Technica cartridge, and include an integral phonostage (which can be bypassed).

Robert Harley’s Best of Show

Best Sound (cost no object) 
MartinLogan Neolith hybrid electrostatic loudspeaker driven by Constellation Altair II preamp and Hercules II monoblocks, with the new Continuum Obsidian turntable and Viper tonearm, wired with MIT cables. Once you hear this combination’s transparency, coherence, and resolution, there’s no going back.

Best Sound (for the money)
The Elac UB5 stand-mount speaker ($500 per pair) would have received my vote even it cost $1500—it’s that great of a bargain. Another amazing bargain, but certainly not cheap, was the new Magico S1 floorstanding speaker. At $16,500 it packs a lot of the Magico magic into (semi-)affordable package.

Most Significant Product Introduction
The Continuum Labs Obsidian turntable and Viper tonearm. This new LP playback system appears to be a monumental effort, and it reportedly won’t cost a fortune.

Most Significant Trend
The reintroduction of turntables from manufacturers who had left the turntable business—Continuum Labs, Sony, Technics, and Teac—along with MoFi, which is entering the turntable business for the first time.

Most Coveted Product
The Meridian 808.6 MQA-capable CD player/DAC with a Meridian Sooloos loaded with MQA-encoded files. 


By Robert Harley

My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.

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