It’s no secret that listening to LPs can be addictive. In her comic novel, The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford depicted Lord Alconleigh, a thinly disguised version of her aristocratic father, as an eccentric who began each day at 5 a.m. by loudly playing his favorite phonograph records—“Drake Is Sailing West, Lads,” the mad scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, or “Lo, Hear the Gentle Lark,”—before striding onto his lawn and cracking a stout Canadian whip. Then there is the example of the novelist Kingsley Amis, who wrote in 1945 to the poet Philip Larkin that “writing to you is one of the two things I like doing….The other is playing jazz records.” Three years later, when Larkin visited Amis and his wife Hilly, the two chums, both of whom were in their twenties, proceeded to blast 78s so loudly that they didn’t even realize a thunderstorm had suddenly arrived. Meanwhile, Amis’ newborn son Philip was slumbering in a pram in the garden. Upon returning from a walk, Larkin’s fiancée Ruth Bowman reported, an incensed Hilly discovered her husband whooping it up while “a very wet baby [was] lying in sodden blankets.”
I don’t know if the J.Sikora Max turntable will inspire you to wake up at dawn blaring Italian opera arias or prompt you to leave an infant lying haplessly in the midst of a downpour, but I can assure you that it is a very seductive device. The eponymous J.Sikora is manufactured in Lublin, Poland, at the Allmet factory, which specializes in the metal-fabrication business. Janusz Sikora, who when younger played guitar, started the metal-fabrication company. His son Robert is interested in expanding its reach in the audio business. J.Sikora is focusing on manufacturing turntables, which come in three models. All are imported to the United States by Jeff Fox, the owner of Notable Audio of Falls Church, Virginia. The model I auditioned is the intermediate one, the $19,995 Standard Max turntable.
This belt-drive ’table weighs a hefty 176.3 pounds and rests on a solid billet-aluminum platform. The Max employs two motors and rubber belts, and can accept up to two tonearms. The two motors on opposite sides are supposed to provide better speed stability, with the secondary motor slightly taller than the primary motor. The ’table runs at 33⅓rpm and 45rpm. Adding the second motor, says Fox, “adds no vibration.” The company also makes several different levels of power supplies. One is a regular linear power supply. I also used a new reference power supply ($4625) with several layers of filtering. There was a significant difference between the two.
I asked Fox what was unique about the ’table. He responded, “What’s unique is J.Sikora’s combination of metals. A lot of it is trial and error. It’s not just high-mass with tons of aluminum.” The 40-pound platter itself is made up of Delrin and cast iron, and the subplatter of copper, aluminum, and stainless-steel. The very top of the platter uses a glass-crystal mat to reduce vibrations. The platter rests on an inverted ceramic bearing. J.Sikora even makes its own brass bolts for the aluminum feet. A white, ceramic bearing located at the bottom of the foot itself sits in a small stainless-steel pocket with gel pods underneath it. Elaborate elliptical cutouts are done by CNC’ing the turntable. Otherwise the unit is handcrafted. “They’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” says Fox. “They’re trying to refine it.”
The tonearms I used were the proprietary J.Sikora KV12 VTA ($8495) and a Kuzma 4-Point. The J.Sikora is the first to use proprietary Kevlar fiber for the armtube. Each tonearm displayed different attributes, but the Kuzma was clearly superior. The Standard Max comes with a lengthy manual that is filled with helpful photographs and clearly delineates the set-up process. This is noteworthy. Many manufacturers’ manuals, particularly those from abroad, are often difficult to follow and littered with English errors. J.Sikora’s isn’t.
I should hasten to add that I myself did not set up the J.Sikora. Fox and his team spent almost a full day ensuring that the ’table, tonearms, and cartridges, both of which were the Lyra Atlas SL, were installed to their satisfaction. After a glitch with the Lyra that was mounted on the Kuzma, Fox returned to mount a new cartridge, which has performed flawlessly. Fox, who is a genuine music lover, spent a number of hours listening to various classical and jazz LPs in my system and seemed quite happy with the results.
As the recent Capital Audio Fest, where Fox demoed the J.Sikora Initial Max table, suggested, the audio world is diverging starkly in two different directions. The first is streaming, which permits listeners to sample just about any music they please. The other trend is back to the future. There seemed to be as many rigs with vinyl as digital at the show. Sometimes both were on hand. As much as I enjoy the convenience of digital, I continue to think that vinyl retains the edge when it comes to that ineffable quality we call musicality. There is something uniquely potent and affecting about vinyl playback, and it is this quality, friends, that the J.Sikora delivers in spades.
The most immediate trait of the J.Sikora ’table is its alacrity, a trait that the J.Sikora tonearm also shared. Initially, I listened to the J.Sikora ’arm and was enamored of its speed-racer approach. Much of my audition of the ’arm was done through the excellent Ypsilon VPS 100 phonostage, designed by Demetris Baklavas. The lightweight ’arm fairly zipped around the grooves, but, as I suspected, at the cost of some of the weight that the Kuzma ’arm delivered. On a London recording of Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic on Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, the J.Sikora ‘arm and Atlas SL superbly delineated the sleigh bells and two flutes that open the first movement, setting them in what seemed like a vast expanse of air. Throughout, the J.Sikora’s ability to capture the penumbra of sound meant that it provided a nice sense of the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv, where this symphony was digitally recorded in 1979. (Yes, digital. I know some of you vinylphiles may flinch, but, as it happens, I’ve often found early digital LPs, for whatever reason, sound quite good. Better, in fact, than the first generation of CDs. Go figure.) The fleet character of the J.Sikora tonearm was also abundantly apparent on several Living Stereo recordings, including Kiril Kondrashin conducting the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra on Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, and Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony on another crowd pleaser, Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker. Via the J.Sikora, both were very pleasing, indeed. When visiting Paris in 1891, Tchaikovsky, who had been wracking his brains about how to represent the Sugar Plum Fairy musically, heard a new instrument designed by Victor Mustel called the celesta and incorporated it into his score. These nifty tintinnabulatory effects—the initial strike, then shimmering decay—in “The Nutcracker,” were vividly captured by the J.Sikora, much as it did with the sleigh bells of the Mahler symphony. On a number of other LPs, I found the J.Sikora tonearm and Atlas SL to be a winning combination, especially as its nimble and fleet sound allowed it to reproduce music like Vivaldi’s concerto for two trumpets with great tonal accuracy—no small matter for someone like me, who grew up in the 1970s when the 16th note passages in the Vivaldi piece were simply too much for my equipment of the day (a Dual turntable from the Black Forest) to handle properly.
The J.Sikora ’table’s strengths were amplified by the 11-inch Kuzma 4-Point tonearm, which is one of the best that I’ve heard and which I mostly played back through the phonostage that resides in the Dartzeel NHB-18NS preamplifier. With the Kuzma, there was a newfound solidity, gravity, and weight to the sound. On the Bill Berry album Shortcake, rereleased in 2004 by Concord Records in a half-speed mastered version by Stan Ricker, the J.Sikora turntable came storming out of the gates on the venerable song “Avalon.” (One of the interesting, or peculiar, things about jazz records is that Concord LPs remain fairly inexpensive to score in used record stores, even though the company made a number of superbly recorded albums of various jazz greats.) A rapid bass line beneath Berry’s muted cornet solo was fully audible along with the crisply efficient drumming of Frankie Capp on the ensemble’s hard-driving version of this World War I-era classic. Perhaps most riveting was the depth of reproduction of Dave Frishberg’s piano solos, which were punctuated by rich chords in the bass. Then there was the gorgeous alto sax solo from Marshal Royal on “Betty,” a ballad composed by Berry himself. The liner notes refer to it as “not unlike Johnny Hodges stretching out over a bed of Dukish rose petals.” The J.Sikora beautifully conveyed the rubato tempo as well as the vibrato that Royal employed, lingering over almost every note to achieve a plangent pathos that was well-nigh irresistible. Then, on “Bloose,” a blues number that opens slowly with Berry on vibes before Bill Watrous starts to air it out with a trombone solo. Once again, in delivering Watrous’ swaggering solo, the J.Sikora demonstrated its remarkable dexterity at tracking the tonal shadings of various instruments, be they standup bass or piano or trombone. It was a kind of tonal fidelity that you don’t often hear.
Given the reference to Dukish rose petals being strewn about, how could I not go back to the master himself? It was time to listen to Duke Ellington’s Bal Masque, an album that I’ve long possessed in mono but recently acquired in stereo on the Columbia label, with “guaranteed high fidelity” inscribed just below the company’s insignia on the cover. It was recorded live at the Americana Hotel supper club in Miami Beach in 1958. The guaranteed high fidelity didn’t disappoint, at least via the J.Sikora. In stereo, the J.Sikora produced a large soundstage with the various sections of the Ellington orchestra firmly set in its serried rows. Put bluntly, there was no bumping or thumping of instruments. Instead, it was simplicity itself to follow the interplay between the brass, woodwinds, and piano. With its rhythmic precision, the J.Sikora had a real sense of swing, bringing Ellington’s piano, often obscured, into the foreground. Dynamic swells on cuts like “Got a Date with an Angel,” which opens with saxes and muted brass, were uncompressed. Perhaps most dramatic was “Satan Takes A Holiday,” which features Harry Carney on baritone sax, permitting the J.Sikora to show off its sonic prowess in the nether regions of the frequency spectrum.
The precise but amiable nature of the J.Sikora ’table also came through on a variety of Blue Note pressings that I recently acquired at the Capital Audio Fest from local dealer Chris Armbruster, most of which were from the later Liberty pressings. Controversy seems endemic to Blue Note pressings, but without trying to wade too far into the esoterica of what sounds best, I must say that these later Liberty ones, which I used to scorn, sound pretty darned good. On A Caddy For Daddy, which features an all-star cast of Lee Morgan, Curtis Fuller, Hank Mobley, McCoy Tyner, Bob Cranshaw, and Billy Higgins, the J.Sikora showed off its flair for purveying nuance on the title cut, which features some marvelous trumpet work from Morgan, who seemingly has an endless capacity for bending notes into soulful, almost vertiginous shapes, as well as a robust trombone solo from Fuller. When it comes to Morgan, his most famous album is probably Sidewinder. I have four copies at hand, one in mono, and two in stereo, plus a spendy reissue from the redoubtable Ron Rambach of Music Matters. My gut is that the Liberty pressing delivers the most satisfactory bass of the original pressings (for sheer artistic merit, I would have to give the nod to the new 12-disc release of Morgan called Live At the Light House, which features a sizzling rendition of songs like “Sidewinder” that explore new territory as they get going). The J.Sikora, when pressed, as it were, into service was notable for the clean and precise way it rendered Morgan’s sassy trumpet work. Also of exceptional merit was the clean, accurate, and lithe way it delivered the jaunty bass solo that comes late in the song by Cranshaw, just before the final chorus.
How did the J.Sikora-Kuzma pairing do with the big stuff? It seemed worth challenging it with the Fritz Reiner recording of the Vienna Philharmonic on Living Stereo of Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. The J.Sikora vividly conveyed the sheen of the strings, and the bass passages were to die for—rich and sonorous. What particularly impressed me was the ability of the J.Sikora to hold this complex piece together and present it as a whole when the crescendos arrived. There was no stridency, no breakdown, no glare. Quite the opposite.
So what’s the downside? In an era of megabuck turntables, including the TechDAS Air Force Zero or the OMA K3, the bar for ultimate performance is being set very high, indeed. I’m not going to tell you that the J.Sikora will best them. It won’t. It doesn’t have the power, sweep, and dominance of the big boys. But I can tell you that if I didn’t have the Zero on hand, I would think long and hard about the J.Sikora. When listening to it, I’m not feeling that I’m missing anything. Out of the turntables retailing under six figures, this Polish creation will polish off many competitors. The Standard Max isn’t a good ’table. It’s a superb one.
Specs & Pricing
Standard Max Turntable
Drive system: Belt, dual motor
Dimensions: 620 x 340 x 410mm
Price: $19,995, standard Max turntable with one arm tower and basic linear power supply; $4625, upgraded power supply
Type: 9″ Tonearm
Effective length: 304.8mm
Effective mass: 13g
Colors: Natural yellow, black matte
Price: $8495 (10% discount when bought with turntable)
NOTABLE AUDIO PRODUCTS (U.S. Distributor)
115 Park Avenue, STE2
Falls Church, VA 22046
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