One of the things that most interests, fascinates, and sometimes amuses me about vinyl is the better mousetrap syndrome. I allude of course to the wise saw, erroneously attributed to Emerson, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” Every designer, manufacturer, and sometimes even reviewer has his or her own ideas as to the correct and proper way to play LPs, which they expend considerable effort and ingenuity implementing, then justifying their choices, emphasizing the advantages of their solutions while criticizing, if not ignoring those of their competitors. It is of course often, indeed typically the case that many of these theories are mutually irreconcilable, even contradictory: fixed versus suspended chassis; heavy versus light platters, subchassis, and bases; belt versus direct versus puck drive; hard versus soft mats; AC versus DC and high- versus low-torque motors; gimbal versus unipivot bearings; pivoted versus radial arms—all this and more before we’ve even got to the subject of phono pickups, phono preamps, cabling, and innumerable after-market accessories such as platter mats, weights, clamps, feet, platforms, power conditioners, etc.
The kicker here is that most of these theories and their attendant solutions have some provisional validity because vinyl is not just an analog medium but up until the signal leaves the pickup also a mechanical one. Virtually everything has some effect on the reproduction, in particular its tonal character, while no design, despite its expense or the ardent proselytizing by designers and their champions in the audio press and among consumers, gives you perfection. One problem that plagues writing about vinyl (and other aspects of audio) is the sheer amount of arguing from effect back to cause, another that very few solutions come without a corresponding penalty. Vinyl can be a very cruel mistress rarely known to dispense free lunches. Hence the deliciously agonizing tweaking to which many audiophiles subject themselves so as to extract that last nugget of gold from those tiny canyons. Some famous psychologist or other is said to have told a colleague in reference to his masochistic patients, “You know, it might surprise you to learn that there aren’t nearly enough sadists to go around.” Maybe that’s why there seems to be no end to the number of new and ingenious pieces of equipment for playing and cleaning vinyl that crop up each year.
The two components under review here were designed by a British engineer named Geoffrey Owen, who has been in audio since the late Seventies when he entered a contest to come up with a turntable that would give the Linn LP12 a run for its money. Afterward, according to his own testimony, “I came to manufacturing tonearms by accident—Tangent Acoustics, my last formal employer, went broke and I had to do something to pay the mortgage. Arms were small, didn’t take up much space and (in the early 80’s) were less contentious than trying to compete against the all-dominating Linn turntable.” In 1983 he struck out on his own, founded Helius Designs, and soon released the Cyalene and Orion tonearms, both enthusiastically reviewed and eventually cult objects. By the mid-Nineties when all things digital were claiming more and more of the market, sales began to drop. Owen ceased making audio products and diversified his company into astronomical and medical imaging (he holds international patents in laser optics). The recrudescence of vinyl in the new century led him back to designing and manufacturing tonearms.
Building on the earlier two arms, he introduced the Omega. Owen’s theories as to the proper way to design an arm are a combination of traditional concepts applied in novel, even innovative ways and genuinely original thinking. In the paragraphs that follow I shall summarize his arguments (the quotations from press releases he prepared for the Omega and the Alexia). Readers seeking more detail—his writing style is vigorous, passionate, and full of energy, but his explanations are arcane and far from easy to follow—should seek out a pair of essays he wrote for the HiFiAnswers (http://www.hifianswers.com/wp-stuff/uploads/2019/05/Helius-Orion.pdf and http://www.hifianswers.com/wp-stuff/uploads/2017/10/Helius-HiFi-Answers-5.pdf). In tonearms he prefers captive bearings to unipivots, to which end he developed a “tetrahedral bearing” that “offers both a captured design and minimal friction”: “It simultaneously integrates both vertical and lateral bearing movements,” which arrangement, he argues, ensures the shortest, most direct, efficient, and effective path so spurious “energy passes through only one structure before it dissipates in the armboard.” He eschews all forms of fluid damping at either the headshell or the bearing housing, claiming the Omega’s non-coincident bearings constitute “differential masses, i.e., different resonant frequencies in each bearing plane,” which provide all the damping necessary.
Although a ten-inch arm, the Omega’s main tube is shorter yet “torsionally stiffer” than a nine-inch arm, but has improved tracking error. Using a computer to measure tracking error across the record, Owen developed his own geometry for the Omega by which he claims that “92% of the record is played with <1 degree of error”: “My aim was to compromise the classical geometry and argue that the inner tracks deserve to sound just as good as the outer ones.”
When it comes to matching phono pickups he has some decidedly unusual (and rather confusingly explained) ideas regarding effective mass, but the bottom line is that the Omega is “best suited to medium-to-stiff cantilevers” typical of moving coils. Downward force is applied by the main counterweight, designed to be as close to the bearing housing as possible, with three minor weights for fine tuning (you’ll need to supply the gauge). Height adjustment is via the usual collar-clamp and set-screw in the base plate; uncalibrated antiskating adjustment is provided, which means you set it by ear or with test records. Dan Meinwald, whose EAR-USA imports Helius products, prefers to leave antiskating unengaged; I tried it both ways with equally good results, which is to say I heard no mistracking that I could attribute to bias issues. The Omega’s cueing is among the most accurate I’ve come across. The captive cables are very short, terminating in a pair of enclosed RCA jacks that can be attached to the base, after which the user supplies his own interconnects to the preamplifier. The Omega is offered in four versions: Standard, under review here, with Tungsten bearings and copper wiring, retailing for $3695; Standard with silver wire for $3895; Silver Ruby with ruby bearings for $5225; and a 12-inch Silver Ruby for $5295.
Inasmuch as tonearms are sensitive both to subchassis movement and to external noise, Owen has opted for a tuned suspension, but the way he has implemented it furnishes a good illustration of how he presses genuine innovation into the service of tried-and-true thinking. Most turntables with suspensions consist in the subchassis being supported by or hanging from three or four springs that are damped, tuned, and free to move in all directions. The Alexia, however, employs a double-wishbone construction that moves only in the vertical plane, where the suspension is quite compliant, but not at all in the lateral plane. Theoretically this means that laterally the subchassis is in effect fixed (i.e., there is no suspension) and thus affords a path for feedback. But I doubt there is much danger of that in real-world listening rooms, where structural feedback comes largely from wooden floors and is confined mostly to the vertical plane (unless one is experiencing an earthquake or lives right next to a construction zone, in which cases feedback is liable to be the least disruption to your listening pleasure). The suspension is tuned to 2Hz, lower than that of any other turntable known to me including the suspended SOTA models tuned to 2.55Hz.
The important point, one demonstrated ages ago by the legendary audio pioneer Edgar Villchur with his Acoustic Research XA turntable and one those opposed to sprung suspensions still don’t seem to grasp, is that it doesn’t matter if the arm and platter move so long as they don’t move relative to one another. In the Alexia, additional stability is achieved from the belt-driven motor sharing the subchassis, which is made from metal damped “with a layer of Perspex, to ensure that high frequencies cannot go back into the arm, and that peaks of energy travelling in opposing directions cannot ring” (see sidebar for more on this).
A big reason Owen went for a suspended turntable is his contention that “maintaining pitch stability in music is just as much a function of subchassis stability.” And very impressive it is that you can bounce—gently, please—the Alexia subchassis up and down as much as an inch with no pitch variation or groove jumping. But he went one step further. While the Alexia has no adjustment for speed, he has fitted an optical sensor below the platter, very near the phono pickup, that monitors the platter speed 120 times per second, as opposed to the more conventional approach of using a servo in the motor. Here is Owen’s explanation as to how this differs from a servo: “Once running, the platter will not slow down until acted upon by other forces. If the ‘offensive’ force is a solitary ‘drumbeat’ then the inertial effects will be effectively absorbed by the platter (with no reference to the speed correction). If the force is large enough to affect the inertial mass of the platter (and for a sustained period), the optical encoder will pick this up and change the speed accordingly. You will notice the central sensor appears under the tonearm—thus giving the software about ‘10 stripes’ (mark/space ratios) from the encoder disk to ascertain if the platter is slowing. The voltage to the motor will increase—not just by the amount needed to correct the increased stylus/record friction but, more importantly, to accommodate the significant increase in magnitude to bring the inertial mass of the platter up to speed. We don’t want to oscillate/overshoot the correction to the voltage, so the ramp-up is subject to being over-damped.”
The Alexia rotates at 33 or 45, selected by buttons near the front; it rests on three feet, two of which are adjustable for levelling; its mat-less platter is made from Delrin “because it has virtually the same acoustic impedance as a vinyl LP”; its construction and styling are of the open-chassis type so popular these last many years; and it’s priced at $5095. Although most consumers will doubtless have their dealers handle setup, including mounting an arm, the task here is so straightforward as to pose no difficulties to anyone with a modicum of experience (but be warned that both the Omega’s wiring and pickup clips are quite delicate, almost to the point of being fragile, so if you elect to do the job yourself, exercise more care than usual). Helius will supply armboards blank or drilled for several popular arms, but in any practical sense the Alexia performs so optimally with the Omega for which it was designed that Meinwald informs me every Alexia he’s sold is for use with the companion arm. Day to day the combination was one of the easiest, most fuss-free in my experience: I especially liked that speed selection is right up front and does not require moving the belt from one position to another on the pulley—indeed, you can lift a record off the platter, replace it with another of a different speed, and select the new speed on the fly without going through stop, while the optical encoder obviates the need for variable speed control. The Alexia costs without arm $5095. An optional record weight is available ($180), which I used throughout the review. I also fitted the Omega with an Ortofon Cadenza Bronze moving-coil pickup.
It didn’t take long for three aspects of the Omega/Alexia partnership to impress me: extraordinary stability of pitch, wide dynamic window, and excellent tracking of inner grooves. As these relate directly to aspects of the design—i.e., the optical encoder, the isolation owing to the tuned suspension, and the unique geometry of the arm as it traverses the LP—I should point out that I conducted several listening sessions before I read any of the promotional literature or Owen’s technical explanations, so I doubt I was influenced by power of suggestion. To take these in order, I should state right off that much as I enjoy vinyl, it’s gotten to the point that I seldom listen to solo piano on LP as I can’t stand the wow owing to off-center records and other aspects of analog that affect speed (tape, for example), not to mention the havoc it can wreak upon the use of the pedal. It’s surprising how little off-center a pressing needs to be before it’s audible (see sidebar). The Alexia can’t do anything about that, but it certainly replayed vinyl with an impression of rare constancy of speed. I’m not suggesting it’s better than other fine turntables that address speed constancy and accuracy with conventional means, only that to my ears it belongs in the small minority of designs that do this exceptionally well. Robert Silverman’s Chopin’s Last Waltz (isoMike), a really beautiful recording of a piano, does not suffer terribly from off-centeredness (but, again, see sidebar), so with the volume set at a healthy level, it was easy to close my eyes and imagine the piano in the room, notably for the really powerful left-hand work, the dimensionality of the presentation, and the perspective that allows for just enough atmosphere without blurring focus.
It’s not just piano, however—any and all instruments playing sustained lines and long-held notes were handled with great competence by this combination. For example, M&K Realtime’s direct-to-disc recording of Lloyd Holzgraf on the organ of the First Congregation Church here in Los Angeles—which I’ve heard in situ many times, as it’s only a fifteen-minute drive from my home—was quite spectacular in the stability of the presentation: depth, clarity of line, registration of textures, and dynamic range, M&K’s title The Power and the Glory no mere wishful puffery. The deep extension of the bass frequencies I could feel in my stomach, while the reproduction remained so clean I turned up the volume much higher than I usually do just to wallow in all those majestic sonorities. I hope it isn’t necessary for me to add that this recording alone more than vindicates Owen’s claims about the isolation afforded by the suspension, though that hardly came as a surprise since in my experience well designed and tuned suspensions are consistently superior in these respects to most non-suspended turntables.
In addition to pitch there’s that difficult-to-define matter of timing, the impression that when the music needs to be together, it is together or, just as important, when for effect it’s supposed to be fractionally apart it really is fractionally apart. Some examples: das Schleppen in Viennese waltzes, where the second beat arrives a bit early or the third a bit late (depending on how it’s implemented); any sort of subtly applied rubato; marked slurs in the classical masters, which Charles Rosen points out indicate subtle variations in phrasing and rhythm; differences between accenting a note and detaching it. These sorts of things or their equivalents also occur in chamber and orchestral music. When Stravinsky conducted his own scores, he often liked to have the big tutti chords dampened by not allowing them to resonate too much after they’re sounded (you can observe tympanists doing this in concert when they strike the kettledrum, then immediately place their hands on the skin to stop the ringing, or when a cymbal is struck and they immediately grab the edge between thumb and forefinger). Stravinsky’s last (stereo) recordings of the three great early ballets Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring all feature these effects. On the Bernstein recording of Carmen, the attacks from percussion are fantastic in their impression of hair-trigger alignment or take how the “Gypsy Song” is teased out with positively carnal phrasing and rhythmic point.
One morning I began my listening with the Acoustic Sounds reissue of Brubeck’s classic Time Out, which opens with the uptempo “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” You wouldn’t think that four players could generate a force and sheer power nearly to slam me against the back of the sofa, but they did, so much so I again raised the volume and the sound got only clearer and more forcible, articulation of rhythm scintillating, togetherness unmistakable. From there I went to M&K’s direct-to-disc Hot Stix, as hair-raisingly spectacular a recording of a drum set as I can imagine. Dynamic range here is simply amazing, precision of timing and rhythm spot on.
Back to the Bernstein Carmen: DG was on its best behaviour when they pressed the originals of this set back in the early Seventies. Each time I play these records on a really good setup I am astonished by how wide the dynamic range of vinyl can really be when everything falls into place. The climaxes quite literally leap out at you, while the soft passages are really soft, but thanks to the mercifully quiet pressings (better than many a fancy “audiophile” label’s) they don’t disappear under a lot of surface noise and other detritus. The Omega/Alexia combination was fully up to whatever demands this very demanding recording placed upon it. And as with most classical recordings, a lot of the climaxes arrive with the inner grooves, where distortion is typically very high. Whether owing to the arm geometry Owen designed after his own measurements or not, the way the Omega and Cadenza bronze negotiated the inner grooves was exemplary in its clarity and lack of perceived distortion. Of course, as I noted earlier, much if not most of this must be attributed to the Ortofon, but I’ve used this pickup in setups costing tens of thousands more and I can’t recall they were even marginally superior as regards tracking.
I’m not a detail freak, but it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone would need more detail than is on offer here. Play the Bernstein/Vienna recording of Beethoven’s Ninth and you will plainly hear the conductor’s foot stamping the podium as he drives soloists, chorus, and full orchestra through the climactic closing pages. Play Jacintha’s “Moon River” on her Johnny Mercer album (Groovenote) and you will hear the faint bleed-through of the piano chords via her headphones, though you really have to listen for them. Play the Ron Tutt side of the stare-of-the-art Sheffield Track & Drum Record and listen to the high hat and cymbals—how tellingly the subtle dynamics of each strike or brush stroke are resolved and thus revealed. This setup also vindicated itself superbly on an old favorite of mine, David Munrow’s recording of Purcell’s Come Ye Sons of Art (Angel), where the duet between two countertenors accompanied by a pair of recorders will tell you a great deal about your system’s resolving capabilities.
While writing this review I came across an amusing interview with Edgar Villchur, who rejected as “nonsense” the notion that the turntable is the most important component in a system, believing instead that it’s the “job of the turntable to stay out of the picture,” which is accomplished by seeing to it that all the technical parameters of speed accuracy, constancy, low rumble, and isolation are thoroughly addressed. Alluding to some British reviewers who held the XA in high esteem, not least for its soundstaging abilities, Villchur said, “If they held a gun to my head and told me to design a turntable with a very good soundstage, I couldn’t do it because I wouldn’t know how” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOlAua3tBSw). Both imaging and soundstaging are determined by the recording itself. The best a record-playing system can hope to do is to allow whatever has been recorded to be reproduced with as little interference as possible. All my usual recordings by which I assess this sort of thing were reproduced by the Omega/Alexia/Cadenza as I’ve come to expect. For example, during the “Dem Bones” cut of Encore by the Roger Wagner Chorale (M&K Realtime direct-to-disc), the group is solidly there in all dimensions, the shout-outs by individual members of the chorale sounding exactly from their respective places in the group, and the various percussion instruments (a tin pot, for one, I think) registering with quite amazing realism, each securely in place. Side six of the Bernstein Carmen, one of the most persuasive aural stagings of an opera as it might sound from an ideal seat in a theatre, was as I’ve heard it on all the best setups I’ve owned or reviewed over the years: the way the children’s chorus marches in from left to right, the deployment across the soundstage of the various soloists from within the chorus, both panorama and depth set forth to near holographic effect, and air and atmosphere in plentiful evidence.
The first thing I played on the Omega/Alexia was Jacintha’s recent cover of James Taylor songs (Fire and Rain, Groovenote), beginning with “Sweet Baby James.” Now I’m the first to admit I’ve taken many a shot at vinyl zealots in these pages before, but if you want to hear what they’re talking about when they talk about such things as the organic quality of the medium, the warmth, dimensionality, and roundedness of the presentation, the naturalness and musicality, all you have to is listen to this cut and the way her voice is reproduced (a cappella at the outset). Yes, my DSD downloads (64, 128, and 256) do it as well, arguably even better, but that is beside the point: the vinyl is intrinsically beautiful, valid, self-justifying, and requires no apology.
Criticisms? Only a few. The setup was more sensitive to hum than it should be, but then so are many others. It’s pretty obvious that Helius doesn’t have the means and resources to compete with the likes of SME, Basis, Oracle, Acoustic Signature, Technics, etc. when it comes to industrial grade fit and finish or luxury bling and glam. Despite the space-age open-chassis aesthetics and the use of acrylic, the look and feel are closer to utilitarian than opulent. But this is only to say that Owen put the money where it did the most good sonically and conserved where there are few or no performance or sonic penalties (the Omega bearings feel silky smooth with absolutely no play, while the Alexia’s speed accuracy and constancy so far as I can tell from listening alone are second to virtually none in my experience). The combination performed flawlessly throughout the review period, while nothing about its construction suggests it won’t do so for years, even decades to come.
I was going to end this review by saying that the Omega/Alexia record-playing system punches far, far above its $8790 retail, which in the grotesquely skewed world of high-end audio pricing now qualifies almost as moderate. But I’m not really comfortable with that because I reject the notion, far too widely held by audio reviewers and consumers, that price as such is the ultimate or even a particularly reliable determinant of quality. So let me put it this way: The Omega/Alexia setup performs excellently in all areas and quite outstandingly in a few. If you’re the kind of person who believes that a vastly more expensive mousetrap must be superior to a considerably less expensive one, you may nevertheless still want to give these components a listen, as you just might find that their superiority in those areas gets you a whole lot closer to the music.
Specs & Pricing
Helius Omega tonearm
Length: 10 inches
Price (as reviewed): $3695
Helius Alexia turntable
Speed: 33, 45
Dimensions: 19″ x 5″ x 12″
Weight: 28 lbs.
EAR-USA (U.S. Distributor)
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