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The Acoustic Signature Ascona Turntable: New Contender

Like me (up until a few months ago), most of you have probably never heard of the German turntable manufacturing firm Acoustic Signature, its brilliant chief engineer and CEO Gunther Frohnhöfer, or its beautiful, massive (176+ pound), $34k flagship turntable, the Ascona. In Europe and Great Britain, I’m told, it’s quite a different story. AS ’tables have been highly praised for their superb engineering (this is a German hi-fi product, after all), their unbelievably precise and solid build-quality (ditto), and, of course, their sound.

Before I talk about that sound, a few design highlights, starting with the Ascona’s platter (called by AS the SilencerPlatter3). Frohnhöfer, who is an electrical engineer, set a very high goal for his top-of-the-line ’table: eliminating the impact of structure-borne vibration, airborne vibration, and bearing noise by removing resonance at all frequencies, and increasing the rotating mass of the platter “to aid stability.”

To achieve these goals, Frohnhöfer starts with a 50mm (2-inch) thick solid-aluminum platter with a diameter of nearly 350mm (13.78 inches). This massive platter is CNC-milled in-house (AS, which does a good deal of industrial manufacturing, owns many expensive CNC machines) from a very soft alloy “to optimize its periodic resonance; [in addition] a resonance-reducing material is applied to the bottom face.” Solid brass “Silencer” inserts are then fitted into the aluminum to eliminate resonance via constrained-layer damping. (The Ascona uses thirty small Silencers on the outer diameter of the platter, and 24 larger Silencers within the body of the platter.) The holes for the Silencers are drilled and line-bored into the aluminum with a clearance of less than 0.01mm in a pattern that is absolutely true about the center of the turntable (to maintain ideal balance). The fit is so perfect that the Silencers effectively become an integral part of the platter, “absorbing all vibrational energy [so that] the platter remains resonance-free.”

To achieve his goal of eliminating bearing noise, Frohnhöfer invented a platter bearing “with the ideal performance characteristics of exact fit, extremely low noise, very low friction, and long-term stability.” Manufactured from special hardened and polished steel, with an extremely hard tungsten-carbide ball at its base, “the bearing housing uses perfectly matched and ‘aged’ sintered-bronze inserts which are self-lubricating; and therefore maintenance-free.” The thrust plate is made of a specially developed high-tech material called TIDORFOLON (a unique combination of ferrite, vanadium, Teflon, and titanium).

The platter-drive mechanism, which sits in a separate CNC-milled aluminum housing at the rear of the CNC-machined solid-aluminum plinth, comprises three motors triangulated about the spindle of a subplatter, upon which a massive aluminum flywheel (with its own set of brass Silencer inserts) sits. The three motors drive the subplatter (and the flywheel atop it) via three separate belts. (The flywheel then drives the platter via its own belt.) The motors are powered by an electronic controller (called the AlphaDIG) that uses digital output stages and quartz-lock-loop technology “to [generate] a perfect sine wave at 24V AC.” The motors are thus “totally impervious to the negative effects of AC voltage fluctuations,” i.e., they should maintain perfect speed stability regardless of house current.

The Ascona’s CNC-milled aluminum tonearm-mounting plates are “the most rigid versions [Acoustic Signature] has ever designed.” Adjustable to suit tonearms of lengths from 9 to 12 inches, two can be fitted on the Ascona, allowing for the use of two different arms and/or cartridges.

Outside of its highly damped mass, the Ascona has no suspension. Three adjustable feet allow precise leveling of the ’table, which comes with a machined record weight (a clamp is also available) and a newly developed platter mat.

Once set up (with the sterling Kuzma 4P arm), the Ascona is quite a sight to behold. It wowed my friend (and analog guru) Andre Jennings, who has seen just about every other ’table and arm out there, with its sheer beauty, solidity, and breathtaking build-quality. (The thing is built like a brick scheisshaus.) Nothing about the Ascona smacks of garage tinkering or home brew; on the contrary, it looks like a scientific instrument designed by a talented industrial artist—a veritable Magico of analog playback. I myself have never seen anything quite like it.

Nor have I heard anything quite like it (or that marvelous Kuzma ’arm).

As I said in my review of the excellent Oracle Delphi ’table, turntables tend to sound the way they look. The lighter ones, such as the Delphi, tend to sound lighter (i.e., slightly canted in balance toward the upper midrange and treble), quicker and more nimble, and more toe-tappingly pacey. The more massive ones, such as the TW Acustic Raven AC-3, tend to sound darker (i.e., slightly canted in balance toward the lower midrange and bass), more authoritative, and richer in timbre and duration. The Ascona rather goes against type.

Not that it sounds “light”—or dark, for that matter. It sounds, well, neutral, by which I mean extremely low in coloration of any kind. As a result, it seems to blend the virtues of lighter and more massive ’tables almost equally, giving it extraordinary transparency to sources and, depending on the quality of the LP, a high degree of realism.

Understand that I’m just beginning to learn the “ins” and “outs” of the Ascona, and have only tried it (thus far) with one arm (the Kuzma 4P) and one cartridge (the Ortofon MC A90). Until I can do an apples-to-apples comparison using the same cartridge on all three ’tables, I’m not able to confidently judge how the Ascona compares to my two references, the Walker Black Diamond Mk III and the AAS Gabriel/Da Vinci Mk II, although I am prepared to say that it probably belongs in the same exalted ballpark as these two great turntables.

Here’s why. While it is true that you hear “new” things you haven’t heard before with any worthy new component, simply because of differences in timbral balance, pitch resolution, dynamic accent, and the handling of durations, the Ascona has revealed an entirely new “class” of very-low-level “things” that have previously gone unheard. Let’s call it, for the time being, locational information, although it actually has to do with the way miking in combination with instrumental radiation patterns and performance styles affects the imaging (the perceived size, shape, and locus) of an instrument.

For example, I’ve listened to the Hungaroton recording of composer/performer Attila Bozay’s sonically amazing (musically zany) “Improvisations for Zither” many times—and have read the LP liner notes many times, as well. On the back of the jacket, there is a photo of Bozay seated at a table, his Hungarian “harp zither” sitting on the tabletop in front of him. Until I heard the record through the Ascona, I hadn’t realized what an important clue that photograph was giving me about the way the instrument is played and how that affected the way it was recorded. Like a pedal-steel or Hawaiian guitar, the zither isn’t typically held in the hands when strummed; it sits on a stand or, horizontally, in the performer’s lap, as the zitherist plucks the strings with plectrum or fingers. In this case, those strings have been tuned to a twelve-tone row of Bozay’s invention and they are not just plucked and strummed, but played glissando, pizzicato, above the bridge (or, rather, near the tuning pegs, since the zither has no bridge)…you name it. Indeed, at various points, Bozay doesn’t just play the strings; he raps his knuckles against and scrapes his fingernails, in a queasy chalkboard squeak, along the instrument’s resonant wooden body. It all goes towards making a sonic tour-de-force.

Other arms and ’tables have told me, with great precision, how (and with what speed and pressure) Bozay was sliding his fingers and nails and plectra along the strings (and also rapping and scratching the instrument’s body) to produce the phenomenal panoply of tone colors and transient effects that is “Improvisations.” And the Ascona tells me these things, too, with equal clarity. But what other ’tables/arms/cartridges haven’t told me was that Bozay was seated when he played “Improvisations” and that the instrument was lying horizontally on his lap (or sitting on a stand) as he performed, with the microphones very close by the strings and sounding box. With other ’tables it sounds as if the zither is being cradled in Bozay’s arms like an autoharp. In other words, the instrument makes a strictly vertical image, as if the zither were standing on its end with strings and sounding box facing the microphones (or the microphones were looking directly and exclusively down its length from above). With the Ascona/Kuzma/Ortofon, the zither makes more of a horizontal image (although there are vertical components, too, as the zither timbre “blooms” into the space above and around it), as if it is being played, as it was, by a man seated behind it as it sat in his lap (or on a stand)  with different microphones perpendicular and parallel to the zither.

While this might not be a musically important bit of information, it is still an astounding one. To hear—for the first time—that the microphones picked up enough of this very-low-level “locational” information to realistically alter the way the instrument images in acoustic space is kind of amazing. And the Bozay is scarcely the only recording that the Ascona does this nifty little “locational” trick with. (Note that it is not just “locating” the instrument; it’s locating the mikes.)

What this suggests to me is that the ’table may be so low in noise (so resonance-free) and so stable in rotation that it is allowing the tonearm/cartridge to pick up unbelievably low-level information that is simply buried beneath the noise floors of other ’tables.

Now, I don’t know this for a fact, as I haven’t yet been able to make apple-to-apple comparisons with my references. And I also don’t know how large a role the Kuzma 4P is playing in this incredible feat of resolution, although it is clearly playing a large one. (Andre measured, via Dr. Feickert’s wonderful Adjust+ software, fully 4dB better channel separation than we’ve gotten from the MC A90 in any other ’arm—and 4dB better than Ortofon’s own specs!) I guess I should also note that the Ascona/Kuzma/Ortofon combo does not make the warmest and cuddliest sound I’ve heard. Indeed, it is the kind of neutral that verges slightly on the analytical. But then the Ortofon MC A90 has been a bit on the ruthlessly revealing side with every ’table/’arm I’ve tried it in. The Ascona/Kuzma appear to be allowing this incredibly detailed cartridge to achieve its fullest resolution (and the fullest resolution of its “character”). [Note added after this blog was finished: I should also have noted that the new and improved Audio Research Corporation Reference Phono 2SE, about which I will soon be blogging, is also playing a key role in preserving this very low-level information.–JV]

I’ll know more about where the truth lies when I get my hands on another Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement (if getting another $15k cartridge is do-able). Until then, consider this a strong heads-up: There is a new contender in the ultra-high-end analog market, and it is beautifully engineered, impeccably well made, and priced oh-so-right.

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