With vinyl’s popularity still high and head-ing higher, turntables are popping up like crazy—both from longstanding makers, newbies, and manufacturers of other gear hot to get in on the action.
So many ’tables, so little time… where do you begin?
Obviously, materials and design account for fundamental differences. Plus, record players (along with open-reel tape decks) are the most hands-on component in the audiophile arena. So the user’s experience in every respect, from setup to playback, matters more for ’tables than for any other type of gear. You’re not just kicking back with a remote control or a smartphone; you’re unsheathing precious vinyl from its cocoon-like sleeve, (perhaps) cleaning the LP before placing it on the platter, painstakingly dropping—no, gently (even lovingly) guiding—the stylus into the groove, and then taking your record for a spin. When the needle reaches the run-out grooves, you’ve gotta get up and lift the tonearm, flip the record, and repeat the entire process. And all this is after the whole she-bang has been set up (which we’ll return to in a bit). That’s a lot of interaction. So every aspect of the turntable should give you pleasure—not only the listening but also the aesthetics and ergonomics.
Wood is a natural choice (pun intended) for countless loudspeakers, but less often for turntables. Enter the Clearaudio Performance DC Wood. As Clearaudio’s latest offering, it occupies the “bridge” space in the company’s vast turntable lineup, a step above its entry-level Concept and Emotion models and a step below its top-shelf Innovation and Statement ’tables. Though it bears some resemblance to the next-model-up Ovation, which costs more than twice its price, the Performance was created to narrow the gap between Ovation and Concept sonically, visually, and economically. In other words, it’s a “sweet spot” middle ground for those ready, willing, and able to allocate the necessary funds to upgrade to noticeably higher-end build-quality and higher-end sound—but without breaking the bank.
Based in Erlangen, in Germany’s Bavaria, Clearaudio celebrated its 40th anniversary last year—and celebrated in style with, among other special promotions, a vintage Volkswagen bus loaded with operative turntables that toured Deutschland. Founded by Czech émigré Peter Suchy, whose children Robert, Patrick, and Veronika have taken over the helm in recent years, Clearaudio also manufactures its own tonearms, cartridges, and record-cleaning machines in-house. In addition, it produces OEM turntable models for a select handful of well-known high-end audio brands. (For more on Clearaudio’s facility, please see the Factory Tour sidebar.)
Design, Materials, and Technical Details
So what’s special about this Performance DC Wood turntable? Let’s start with the wood sandwiched in the plinth, a marine-grade Baltic birch ply selected not only for its natural beauty but also for its machinability and resonant characteristic. Thick aluminum plates—finished in matte black in my review sample (silver is the other option for the Wood model)—cover the top and bottom of the birch plinth. The ’table’s overall dimensions of approximately 16.5″ by 13″ aren’t outsized, so its footprint leaves some “elbow room” on my equipment rack for a few accessories (LP brushes, stylus cleaner, Allen wrenches, etc.). Four small (one might even say tiny) integrated round buttons that control the motor and its three speeds—33, 45, and, yes, 78rpm—grace the plinth’s lower left area. They illuminate blue when selected, a nice touch…and they’re nice to the touch. Another pleasing ergonomic design detail is the soft rubber armtube rest-clamp on the tonearm assembly; my review sample arrived with the superb, elegantly understated Tracer tonearm with an armtube made of carbon for lightness and rigidity. When you replace the armtube after lifting it from the record, it just nestles gently, effortlessly into place. It fits as neatly as, well, a stylus into a groove. Also compared with some other turntables (even in this price category), the entire assembly seemed smoother in operation and easier to control, from the tonearm lift lever to the small silicone-damped hydraulic shaft. These might sound like minor points, but with other ’tables and ’arms it has taken more conscious effort to position and replace the tonearm without risking damage to cartridges and/or LPs.
As befits a high-performance turntable a step above entry-level, the Performance DC ships with a few goodies, such as a set of small screwdrivers and Allen wrenches for assembly, synthetic bearing oil, and even a pair of white gloves to prevent scratches and/or fingerprints on the platter, etc. during setup. The only ho-hum part of the package is the rather lightweight wall-wart power supply. Not a major disappointment but at this price I might have expected a slightly more upscale solution. However, I just learned that Clearaudio now offers an upgrade option, its Smart Power 12V ($1k), a self-regulating, low-impedance-battery power supply, in which greater current delivery allows the motor to produce greater torque, and also reduces noise.
The U.S. version of the DC Wood turntable under review also boasts some upgrades borrowed from its higher-priced brethren (the Ovation, in particular): Both use additional mass-loading in the wood core material, and both have a trio of cone-shaped spiked feet that are adjustable for leveling and then lock in place to couple the ’table to your rack.
The Performance DC Wood uses Clearaudio’s patented CMB, or Ceramic Magnetic Bearing, that involves a ceramic spindle (housed inside a sinter-bronze bushing) coupled with opposing-force top and bottom magnetic rings to create an elegant “floating” bearing without a ball or point of contact. Sonic advantages such as lower noise and better constant velocity are realized through having fewer mechanical parts and much lower friction. Speaking of low friction, the main platter material is smoother-than-smooth POM (polyoxymethylene), known in some circles as Delrin, a highly stiff thermoplastic that offers superior dimensional stability.
The Performance DC Wood’s sleek and stealthy belt-drive system combines the CMB, an aluminum subplatter, and a weighted-rim platter—all of which contribute to accurate speed. The motor, integrated yet effectively decoupled from the main chassis, is resonance-damped and discreetly hidden beneath the platter, giving the turntable an even more streamlined and uncluttered look. It’s also functional, as it drives the machined aluminum subplatter. As the “DC” in its name suggests, the Performance utilizes a DC motor rather than the AC one that earlier versions of the ’table had employed.
Setup, Fine-Tuning, and Spinning Vinyl
As one might surmise, the Performance DC Wood turntable is not purely plug ’n’ play. Its setup isn’t daunting, but it’s intended to appeal to vinyl aficionados, be they beginners or old pros, who have greater interest in the hands-on experience—and especially to those LP lovers who appreciate a high-performance, handmade, well-engineered, and yes, stylish audio component. The Performance DC Wood doesn’t require constant tweaking, but it will suit those users who don’t mind getting their hands involved (though not too “dirty”) during basic setup and tonearm installation—processes which are clearly explained and illustrated in the user manual. Some of the turntable’s components arrive factory-pre-assembled (e.g., chassis and armboard come pre-mounted). Nevertheless, I was pleased to welcome Clearaudio’s U.S. distributor Musical Surroundings’ turntable expert Chad Stelly to oversee the review sample’s assembly and fine-tuning, and to dial-in the tonearm and cartridge to deliver maximum performance. I won’t go into all the steps involved, but basically you’re grounding the bearing, applying a couple drops of synthetic oil (included) onto the ceramic bearing shaft, and carefully placing the upper part of the bearing and then the subplatter onto the shaft, attaching the belt, then putting the platter on top of the assembly and leveling the feet (use a bubble level). Tonearm installation comes next (followed by cartridge installation).
Conveniently, the Performance armboard can accommodate just about any commercially available 9-inch tonearm, but most customers will likely choose one of Clearaudio’s ’arms in one of the tonearm-and/or-cartridge packages (which include discounts offered by Musical Surroundings) at different price points. As noted, my sample was fitted with the mid-tier Tracer tonearm upgrade; it features a carbon-fiber armtube and is the fifth of ten ’arms in the Clearaudio lineup. Initially it was fitted with a Hana SL cartridge, which had its merits, such as a bit more weightiness and a touch of richness as well as a hint of dryness (probably due to its pre-break-in status), but I couldn’t resist getting the amazing Clearaudio Stradivari V2 mc cartridge swapped in for an all-Clearaudio front end.
Chad brought along a full Clearaudio Professional Analog Setup Kit ($1500), as he prefers to refine tonearm and cartridge setup manually (and aurally, obviously). Once the ’arm and cart were installed and the counterweight and static balance set, it was time to apply the recommended VTF (vertical tracking force), which is 2.8g for the 0.6mV Stradivari, and to confirm neutral VTA by checking for parallel tonearm height with the platter. Adjustments for anti-skating and azimuth can be made after—with a Fozgometer and a test record, if you choose.
Also included in my review package was the optional Clearaudio twister clamp. Not only did this prove beneficial in the usual ways of better coupling LP to platter, but it also seemed to help further stabilize the platter’s assembly without overdamping, as can sometimes happen with clamps on other turntables.
Unsurprisingly, some of the sonic characteristics I perceived actually aligned with the turntable’s design. What stood out most consistently was the sense of sonic nimbleness and freedom combined with a smooth and steady effortlessness; these could well be attributed to the “play” inherent in the “floating” magnetic platter design and the lesser number of mechanical parts in the ceramic bearing. There was an underlying evenhandedness and “quietness” in playback that allowed for a huge amount of groove information to be conveyed—which naturally makes for a superior listening experience. With the Performance DC Wood, many albums were rendered with an ear-pleasing sense of naturalness.
That said, it isn’t easy to discuss particular sonic traits without considering what else is in the rest of the chain. My system for this review primarily included MBL Corona Line 126 Radialstrahler omnidirectional speakers, a Soulution 330 integrated amplifier (with built-in fixed-gain phonostage), an AudioQuest Niagara 1000 AC power conditioner, cabling from Ansuz Acoustics and Morrow Audio, Stein Music H2 harmonizer boxes (pair), and Zanden bass traps (pair) and room-treatment panels (four).
The Clearaudio DC Performance Wood with the Tracer tonearm and Stradivari V2 cartridge package took the listening experience of so many of my records, both old faves and newer finds, to another level—more fully maximizing their playback potential across key criteria, and in many cases extracting and revealing information or details that I’d hadn’t previously heard.
The setup just nailed percussion. Transient attacks hit squarely, cleanly, on the head. On Mobile Fidelity’s marvelous One-Step Process pressing of the classic Bill Evans Trio Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Paul Motian’s snare snaps and rapid-fire cymbal taps on “Solar” were fired off with an exhilarating energy beyond what I’d experienced from that 45rpm LP on other setups. Piano can be a notoriously tricky instrument to record and reproduce well, but here Evans’ playing was rendered true to life in form and scale—with a virtuoso’s smooth ease and gusto.
Another key difference in a “one-step-up” turntable like this one is its silky-smooth and quiet operation. Here this lowering of noise carried over through the rest of the system, where I’d already experienced quite a low noise floor. This allowed the proper dark backdrop for full sonic landscapes to unfold. Take the desert-noir soundtrack Calexico creates on The Black Light (20th Anniversary Edition reissue on Quarterstick). The ominous minor-key twang of electric guitar chords on “Gypsy’s Curse” gave way to rich accordion swells and mandolin strumming, whose long sustains and decays also lingered on forebodingly in a multi-layered sonic landscape so dimensional and convincing that I half-expected tumbleweeds to roll by. Highly resolved sharp clave strikes and crisp shaker attacks on “Fake Fur”—as well as Joey Burns’ vocals on other cuts—also captured my attention with their remarkable body and realism.
Later in the review period I switched in a Boulder 508 phono preamp to try pairing a different phonostage with the Performance DC Wood turntable (so the only system change was bypassing the Soulution 330 integrated amp’s phono section). Generally speaking, having the Boulder in place seemed to heighten and intensify certain aspects of playback. Lower octaves of instruments felt a bit more pronounced; bass lines beckoned my ears to follow—for instance Scott LaFaro’s upright bass articulation on “Solar” from the Bill Evans Trio LP, where during his solo I also could swear I heard a guy in the audience let a “Wow!” slip out. Additionally, the drum kit shifted forward within a slightly deeper soundstage. A high degree of the musical event’s performance energy was conveyed, although a hint more tonal richness and gravitas might have been traded for a tiny bit of crystalline resolution. I dug the effect but out of curiosity I did shift the tonearm’s counterweight to slightly reduce VTF, which seemed to balance the bass just a hair. The playback delivered the impression of pushing even more air, bloom, and even greater dispersion from the MBLs’ omnidirectional tweeter and midrange drivers (which is saying something). Nonetheless, those attacks blew me away. The piece is familiar to me, yet I was literally startled by an explosive kickdrum downbeat. The insistent cymbal taps hit clean and mean every time—perhaps the turntable’s steady “hand” lent a hand in rendering them so dynamically.
Another example of the DC Wood’s evenhandedness (of drive system and unimpeded playback ease) serving repetitive percussive beats well and heightening their impact would be the tambourine strikes and funky bass lines on “Turn the Light” and “Woman” from Danger Mouse and Karen O’s Lux Prima. The variations of her idiosyncratic vocal style, by turns sweetly soothing and primally near-screechy, were also convincingly presented with requisite raw emotion. Ditto the prominent shakers and claves on “Fake Fur” from Calexico. On other tracks the album’s atmosphere was further enriched with rich and robust textures, combined with greater expansion and dispersion (due also in part to the MBL magic) into a wide-open desert space. I also noticed significant low-end presence and enhanced imaging, particularly in the beautifully natural sound and dimensional body of a multitude of instruments: mandolin, guitar, accordion, cymbals, etc. Each emerged from the three-dimensional sonic picture then returned to the ensemble without losing its individual outline and qualities.
Regardless which phonostage was used, the Performance DC Wood turntable’s evenhandedness and consistency (of speed, etc.) could capably convey complex layering of instruments and/or vocals, helping preserve their true characteristic tonality for a more realistic and compelling presentation. Better still, this presentation benefitted any type of music, making this Performance DC Wood/Tracer tonearm/Stradivari V2 cartridge package an excellent choice for multi-genre vinyl lovers, who (like me) have all-over-the-map musical tastes.
Quality at this performance level doesn’t come cheap, especially when the components are handmade in Germany and CNC-machined in-house to exacting specifications—but this proved to be one hell of an outstanding, even addictive, analog setup. If you have the means for a turntable a cut above most of its competition, this should be on your short list. Highly recommended.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Belt-driven turntable with aluminum subplatter and DC motor
Bearing: Ceramic magnetic bearing (CMB) with sinter-bronze bushing
Speeds: 33, 45, 78rpm
Speed accuracy: .05%
Warranty: 5 years
Weight: 24.25 lbs. (11kg)
Dimensions: 16.54″ x 4.92″ x 12.99″ (without tonearm)
Price: $3600 without tonearm; Tracer tonearm is $2900, package price is $5800. Stradivari V2 mc cartridge is $4000; $3600 with turntable package (10% off Clearaudio cartridges when purchased as part of a package)
MUSICAL SURROUNDINGS (U.S. Distributor)
5662 Shattuck Ave.
Oakland, CA 94609
CLEARAUDIO ELECTRONIC GMBH
Spardorfer Strasse 150
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