Kuzma Stabi M Turntable, 4Point Tonearm, and Car 40 Moving-Coil Cartridge
Over the last thirty years—a period covering the introduction of the compact disc, its replacement of vinyl as the dominant home-listening medium, and, for all we know now, the beginning of its demise—Franc Kuzma’s company has acquired an enviable reputation for manufacturing outstanding recordplaying systems. You have only to look at his latest, the Stabi M ($19,225), particularly when outfitted with the company’s 4Point tonearm ($6675), to know this is a setup that means serious business. When it comes to aesthetics—black on black in black, all metal in a baked-on matte finish—there’s absolutely no obeisance to domesticity; the look is strictly industrial, form following function, which also determines materials. The biggest departure from Kuzma’s previous turntables of the last several years—all open-chassis designs, including several built on a unique base made from thick brass tubing in a T configuration—is its appearance. By his own admission, for this new model Kuzma drew upon the most classical of all turntable platforms, a rectangular chassis enclosing a subchassis, complete with hinged dust cover, because he missed having an attached dust cover (so do I—see sidebar). “Drew upon” is the operative phrase here, for the M is clearly a 21st century machine when it comes to engineering and thinking.
First, size. This thing is big, particularly with its very roomy dust cover. Second, it’s heavy—brutally heavy. I made the mistake of moving it myself from one surface to another and back again, for which rashness I paid dearly in the form of a seriously strained left shoulder muscle that was excruciatingly painful for a day. One-hundred-and-thirty-five pounds may not seem heavy, but a lot of it is concentrated in the platter, which in effect lopsides the weight to the left. Mass—that is, bulk—and rigidity are the buzzwords of the M: thick slabs of aluminum for the outer and inner chassis, with just enough elasticity between to allow for judicious damping without compromising rigidity. According to Kuzma’s description, “The top aluminum plate under the platter has an elastically under-hung main frame and motor system below which is insulated from the outer main turntable’s structure via four big elastic dampers, allowing for fine horizontal leveling of the platter and tonearm.” Additional leveling is provided by the three podlike feet that support the whole structure (the correct procedure here is to level the outer chassis using the pods, then trim in the level with knobs on the plinth). In an arrangement I’ve never seen before, while the feet look like pods, there are actually spikes inside the pods for increased stability, but the spikes don’t directly contact the surface the M is placed on.
The platter is a sandwich structure of two slabs of 40mm-thick aluminum separated by a layer of acrylic for additional damping, while the mat is a proprietary material that has some give, thus providing more damping. Kuzma supplies a washer to go over the spindle; the diameter of the mat itself is slightly under that of an LP so that when clamped, the entire surface of the record itself is flattened into intimate contact with the mat. It is the best mat/clamping arrangement I’ve used since the last SME I reviewed, which is to say as good as it gets this side of vacuum hold-down.
The trend in recent years is toward low-torque motors because they are claimed to transmit less vibration via the subchassis or the belt to the platter. Whatever its putative advantages—I can truthfully say I’ve never been aware of any sonic motor-to-platter vibration issue in any belt-drive turntable in my experience—low torque can be a real annoyance in day-to-day use. Some designs even require a push to get the platter up to speed at all or in a reasonable period of time. By contrast, the M’s DC motor is so powerful that, in combination with the unique, relatively stiff polymer blue belt (designed so as not to twist), it gets the massive platter up to stable speed in two seconds, almost unheard of in a belt-drive. The vibration issue is addressed through a combination of special motor housing and damping. An LED on the outboard power supply reads the speed (33 or 45), and offers speed adjustments, though once the speed was dialed in, it never drifted. For installations where the power supply is placed low or out of the sight, speed selection and on/off are duplicated on the front chassis of the turntable. A novel frisson is a small remote handset that allows the stylus to be cued on the stationary record and the motor to be started from the listening spot. Kuzma likes to get himself seated and relaxed before commencing play.
Though Kuzma has long been known for his radial tonearms, the 4Point ($6675, with Crystal Cable silver/gold phono cable) is his first pivotal design, and once again can boast some innovative thinking, paramountly in what appears to be a unique bearing configuration of four points, hence the moniker. Kuzma again: “Two points (which are similar to a unipivot bearing) allow and control vertical movements of the tonearm. The other set of two pointed bearings allows and controls horizontal (lateral) movements of the tonearm. All four points of the bearing have minimal friction and zero-play in all planes of movement.” The ’arm has an effective length of eleven inches; the tube is tapered and made from a solid rod of aluminum; at the pivot end stands a VTA tower, which permits adjustment during play, and a double-counterweight system that sets tracking force while ensuring the counterweights stay as close to the pivot as possible. Unusual for state-of-the-art arms these days is a detachable headshell; but the Kuzma’s is unlike any others, featuring a hexagonal locking system that is claimed to offer as rigid an energy path for draining away platter resonances as a non-detachable one joined by the typical glue and set-screw. There’s also a provision for precise azimuth adjustment and both vertical and horizontal damping troughs, which are easily defeatable (a paddle is easily lowered into or lifted out of the fluid by turning a set screw). Kuzma prefers no damping.
I cannot comment on the ease of setup because it was done by the importer, Scot Markwell of Elite Audio Video distribution (Scot was Harry Pearson’s set-up man for many years). I did watch and help him—the weight of the platter alone makes it a two-man job. There was nothing that struck me as unusually complicated or difficult, however, if you’re willing to follow directions and work slowly. But keep in mind my warning about lifting this thing: site the outer chassis where you plan to use the turntable, and then start on the inner chassis, the platter, etc. Also, you will need an exceptionally strong, solid, sturdy stand, cabinet, table, or platform that has 24 inches of depth because of the way the dust cover angles back when it is lifted to full height (i.e., it’s hinged across the bottom, not on the sides).
All around, then, a traditional-looking setup that is packed with an effective combination of tried-and-true and fresh thinking. Before I get to the sound, I must mention one oddity: For all the considerable mass of this setup, it was surprisingly microphonic in the sense that with the volume advanced—in fairness, considerably advanced—firm taps on the bass and plinth were readily audible through the speakers, though, again in fairness, they were sharp and extremely well damped (i.e., with no effective decay). Kuzma’s argument is that sharp impulses like this or equivalent disturbances are not really relevant to assessing a turntable’s effectiveness at damping or isolating the ’table from music when that music is played loud, even in the very low bass frequencies, and measures to protect against vibrations by introducing absorptive material or filtering springs compromise rigidity and introduce other problems. (I do not agree with this when it comes to well designed and competently implemented sprung or hanging suspensions.) It is certainly true that sharp impulses like tapping or rapping the chassis are not the sort of thing that is normal, and if your environment is full of them, you should probably be listening to music somewhere else. And it is also true that throughout the entire review period I heard nothing untoward in the reproduction that I could attribute to microphony. Moreover, once a record was clamped down to the platter mat, knuckle rapping the surface of the LP produced only the dullest sound, which is a far more relevant test of good damping.
As for the sound, well, this has been one of the more frustrating, even difficult reviews I’ve had to write in quite a while, though in a good way. In the several weeks I spent with the Kuzma, I did a lot of listening and with the greatest pleasure, but I took almost no notes. Every time I lowered the Car 40 pickup (see sidebar) into the groove, the presentation sounded so unobtrusively and unostentatiously pleasing that I soon abandoned notes and forgot completely about my reviewing chores. It was all about the music. Like all big turntables in my experience, this one does size superlatively. Two examples: The Liszt Rhapsody that opens side two of Stokowski’s Rhapsodies album, with its stunningly registered bottom-end slam, was spread across the front of the room in a wholly persuasive simulacrum of an orchestra. When the brass come in just before the recapitulation, they emerge from the rear of the stage as they should, yet sound out with tremendous clarity, richness, and impact. Dynamic range is sensational. Sometimes big turntables can also be a little too relaxed as it were, but the way the Kuzma handled the companion Ionesco—Stokowski at his most ferociously energetic—certainly puts paid to that notion. That elusive sense of timing—what the Brits like to call “pace”—is present in spades, yet there is nothing of an excessively etched character or the kind of articulation that calls draw attention to itself.
The setup is equally adept at solo instruments or smaller ensembles. An old recording I hadn’t listened to in some time is Paul Badura-Skoda’s set of the last five Beethoven piano sonatas played on a period pianoforte. Here it was if the instrument materialized in the room, centered between the two loudspeakers, set back a bit, and uncannily real sounding.
The Kuzma combination also renders space extremely well. Kings’s College Choir’s A Procession with Carols for Advent Sunday (Argo) begins very softly with the organ introit as the choir is heard in the distance. This next is crucial: The choir should originate deep within the left side of the spectrum, but their sound shouldn’t be confined there. As they move forward you should hear their sound project across the soundfield and into the right channel, an effect that should be continuous. It’s not until they move into the stalls (“A Spotless Rose”) that you hear them balanced between the two channels. The Kuzma rendered all this about as persuasively as I’ve ever heard it, and the impression of being transported to a real space in which a live music event is taking place was quite extraordinary. Here was stereo in its root sense of solid, not, as is so often the case, especially with early stereo, a left, center, and right that appear more or less as a stitched-together panorama. The choir’s movements were so seamlessly tracked that it seems to me obvious there’s not much getting through to perturb the presentation. There are transparency and detail enough that you can occasionally pick out an enthusiastic member of the congregation in the hymns, and always the congregation sounds like a collection of individual voices, not an undifferentiated mass.
Coloration is very low and the impression of musical authority and naturalism is very high, whether it is familiar voices— Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Schwarzkopf—or instrumentalists—Sonny Rollins, Regis Pasquier, Miles Davis. With a truly realistic recording such as the Yale Quartet playing Beethoven’s Op. 132, it is as if the record-playing chain simply disappears and the four players are in the room.
Criticisms? There is perhaps evidence of a certain frisson, let’s call it, of liveliness that I don’t recall from, say, the über-neutral SMEs, and the Basis models I’m familiar with have more of a sense of scalpel-like precision, and both may have a bit more ultimate background blackness, but in terms of overall performance the Kuzma is certainly and easily in their class. It also boasts something else that’s a little more difficult to define: there’s an LP-to LP, day-by-day ergonomic rightness about this that allowed me to forget about the physical task of playing records. Another way of putting this is to say that it makes the physical task of playing records so unobtrusive as to be second nature, every button and knob in the right place, everything working exactly as it’s supposed to, so that when the stylus is cued down all your attention goes straight to the music. Regular readers of mine will know that when it comes to vinyl, I like set-’em-up-and-forget-’em designs. This describes the Kuzma Stabi M/4Point/CAR 40 to a T: a magnificent contemporary updating of traditional vinyl engineering and design that will bring you years of musical enjoyment, an instrument so soundly and solidly built and—dare I say?—so timelessly designed that I expect your grandchildren will still be enjoying it and happy you bequeathed it to them. That is, if you’ve done your proper duty as a curmudgeon and gotten them good and hooked on the pleasures of vinyl, whatever new-fangled technology they may be listening to by then.
SPECS & PRICING
Kuzma Stabi M turntable
Speed: 33, 45
Dimensions: 25.5″ x 11″ x 19.5″
Weight: 135 lbs. (with ’arm)
Kuzma 4Point tonearm
Type: Pivoted, 4-point, horizontal and vertical
Effective length: 11″
Effective mass: 14 grams
CAR moving-coil phono pickup
Frequency response: 10Hz- 40kHz
Tracking force: 2 grams
Internal impedance: 6 ohms
Weight: 7 grams
ELITE AV DISTRIBUTION
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