Elsewhere in this issue I discuss the best source component I’ve ever heard—the united Home Audio UHA-HQ Phase 11 tape deck. I’m about to discuss the second best.
As a lot of you already know, the Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond phonograph has been my reference for a decade. Over that span, Lloyd Walker and his colleague Fred law have steadily and consistently improved their record player with updates to the ’arm (which was changed several years ago from the original carbon-fiber tube to the current diamond- hard ceramic one—thus the name “Black Diamond”), the high- pressure/low-flow “captured” tonearm air-bearing (which now has eight jets in a quad-vent arrangement), the air supply to ’table and feet (now tunable via a separate metered filtration box), the construction of the air-bearing feet (now much more reliably effective in operation), the record clamp, the motor belt, the damping fluid, etc. What has remained the same is the basic design of the Walker, which still comprises a linear-tracking air-bearing tonearm, a massive air-bearing platter, and much-improved, as noted, air-bearing feet—all sitting on a butcher-block stand (called the Prologue Platform), which itself sits on a layer of sorbothane. Brass-encircled lead pucks are still distributed to damp resonances on key spots of the Prologue, the stand that cradles the outboard motor in an adjustable carriage (to set belt tension), and the ultra-precise outboard motor-controller.
Before I start the review, I want to make a point that I’ve made many times before, only this time I’m going to make it in a different way.
Most of you have never heard a properly set-up Walker turntable, and that is both the pity and the problem. Because you haven’t heard a Walker turntable, you are easily propagandized by reviewers and manufacturers (who haven’t heard it either) about, oh, the alleged “springiness” of air-bearings (which somehow, mysteriously, still find their way under CD/SACD lathes, electron microscopes, and other mechanisms that people wouldn’t otherwise slap on top of empty cardboard boxes), and the supposed advantages of (uni-) pivoted tonearms in comparison to linear-tracking ones. As a result, I can talk—and will again in a paragraph or two—until my face is blue about the inherent superiority of well-designed linear-tracking tonearms, which have zero (0.0000%) tracking error, over pivoted ones, which do have substantial tracking error. I can also point to the inherent superiority of spinning a massive platter on a film of air rather than on a conventional bearing grinding against a thrust- plate. But most readers take one look at the Walker’s list price (now $105k, although that figure is, I believe, highly negotiable— for which contact Walker Audio), read what other experts write about the superiority of uni-pivot ’arms and acrylic platters, and conclude that I’m just hyping something exotic and expensive that has been loaned to me for a long time in order to keep it an even longer time in my system.
I could, of course, point you for corroboration to the folks on my listening panel, who have heard the Walker in every iteration and at considerable length. To Andre Jennings, who has not only auditioned every turntable and tonearm and cartridge out there but has hands-on experience setting every one of them up (correctly). To our Music Editor Mark Lehman, who knows a hawk from a handsaw when it comes to the sound of music, live and recorded. But…unless and until you actually hear the thing for yourself—or grant the possibility that I don’t extol pricey stuff simply because it’s pricey or because it’s on loan, short-term or long—I’m whistling in the wind.
None of this is going to stop me from whistling again, BTW. But before I put my lips together and blow, let’s talk about what has changed. In addition to the aforementioned improvements to the air supplies and record clamp, the Proscenium Black Diamond V incorporates Lloyd’s latest discovery—a specially- treated, fine-grained crystalline material, employed at strategic locations on the turntable, motor, and motor controller, that is said to “reduce static build-up and cancel the effect of EMI, RFI, and microwaves, thereby dramatically reducing the noise floor and preventing distortion from ambient electrical noise being introduced into a system’s electronic components.” To put this without the sauce, Lloyd glues little black crystals to the tonearm headshell, the underside of the platter, the air bearing, the motor, and the motor controller.
Walker’s crystal treatment is one of those things that is far better heard than explained, especially since, in this case, I can’t explain it. Lord knows this isn’t the first time I’ve heard an inexplicable tweak affect a sound system; nor is it the first time that crystals or crystalline substances have showed up in my listening room (or my bladder). The trouble with sprinkling “fairy dust” on your stereo system, as I learned long ago, is that there is no sure way to correlate the powers of that particular kind of dust with the difference you’re hearing, since other kinds of dust will also change the sound just as significantly and in many of the same ways. All this is to say that everything makes a difference in a stereo system and a listening room. Move a stack of books or a pile of record that has been sitting on the floor by your speakers for ages, and (if you’re as attuned to the room and the system as I am) you’ll hear a difference.
However, what you won’t hear with most tweaks of the magical kind is an unmistakable improvement. Here you will. This doesn’t mean that I think Lloyd’s crystals are “canceling the effect of EMI, RFI, and microwaves” (especially since I can still hear RF at very loud levels). But they are affecting the noise floor and, consequently, dynamic range. They are also affecting timbre and texture, the resolution of which is more lifelike.
Here are the advantages of the Walker Black Diamond Mk V—not just over its previous iteration but over any turntable/tonearm I’ve heard in my system or elsewhere.
First is what I would call consistency of sound. This is a direct function of the Walker’s linear-tracking air-bearing tonearm, which, as I’ve said, has zero tracking error when it is properly set up. There are those who claim that the tracking error of pivoted tonearms, while present in theory, simply isn’t audible in playback. All I can say is: I always hear it (and when it comes to pivoted tonearms I haven’t listened to chopped liver). I always hear a pivoted ’arm “coming into” and “departing from” ideal tangency, and I hear it as a predictable change in overall tonal balance, soundstaging and imaging, and what might be called “background noise” (or the absence thereof). Typically tonal balance gets lighter (i.e., timbres seem just a bit brighter and leaner), soundstage depth gets slightly foreshortened (i.e, instruments tend to move a bit forward and image a bit larger), and silences become whiter and grainier as the tonearm drifts away from perfect tangency. The effect is not unpleasant, but it is always audible in the same places on all records.
This effect—loosely analogous to the way a lens comes into and out of sharpest focus when you turn the focus ring very slightly back and forth—is simply not there with the Walker. This isn’t to say that the Walker makes every track of every record sound more or less the same. Most records vary sonically from track to track and from start to finish, either as a result of miking, mastering, or variable groove-spacing. What the Walker does do, to return to the photographic analogy, is stay in focus. Tonal balance does not get predictably lighter or darker at predictable points in the tonearm’s arc of travel; soundstaging and imaging don’t change in perspective or size; the soundfield does not get whiter or grainier or darker and more uniform.
Second, resolution is extraordinary. I’m not sure that this is a result of Lloyd’s magic crystals, but the very low-level details that cue you in to the performance, the orchestration, and the recording quality do seem to be clearer and more abundant with the Mk V—and that is saying something, since previous Walkers have been outstanding in this regard. What this means in playback (provided you’re using a truly high-resolution/accurate- tracing cartridge like a Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement) is a simply phenomenal amount of new information. What you had thought, for instance, was the breathy sound of the rosiny horsehairs of Paul Zukofsky’s bow catching the windings of his violin’s strings on George Crumb’s Four Nocturnes [Mainstream/ Time] resolves itself into the breathy sound of bow and strings and Zukofsky’s own now-clearly-audible breathing caught by the closely placed microphone. The deep sustained sonority at the tail end of one of the many explosive tuttis in Mussorgsky’s Picture at an Exhibition [RCA/Quality Records] turns out to be not only doublebasses holding onto that last note but doublebasses and a contrabassoon.
Third, dynamic range is phenomenal. The Walker has always been an exceptionally dynamic source component—with tremendous speed and snap on transients and power and impact on tuttis. Here…well, just listen to any of Chad Kassem’s new Quality Record Pressings reissues of some of the best RCAs, such as the Mussorgsky I just mentioned or The Reiner Sound or Pines of Rome. While these LPs have always been spectacular, they have never had quite the “jump” (a word I originally used in The RCA Bible to describe the way, in life, a large orchestral fortissimo seems to make the hall itself participate in the explosion of sound, as if hall and orchestra were a single giant source) that they now have in Kassem’s reissues played back on the Mk V. The Walker (in combination with the Clearaudio statement, the Raidho C 4.1 loudspeakers, and the Soulution 500 series or, lately, Siltech SAGA system electronics) simply and consistently breaks through that midbass “barrier”—that rise in the 60-80Hz range (usually inherent in the source and speaker and aggravated by the inevitable room resonance), which tends to obscure or overwhelm anything musical going on beneath it. The result is bass that doesn’t just slam like a door but also shudders like a temblor—bass with more or less equal power and clarity all the way down to the bottom. Thus, in Pictures in the midst of a sensational tutti you’re not just vaguely aware that a bass drum is adding to the excitement; you hear it sounding three successive beats in the midst of the fortissississimo. Better still, you feel it sounding those beats, projecting its sound with the power of an actual drum—with the sensation of reverberant air launched from a physically massive instrument and hitting you in the chest. This, folks, is very realistic high fidelity.
Which brings us to four, the Walker Mk V is supremely transparent to sources. How do I know this? Because I now own some of the sources—first-gen dubs of mastertapes (or of safety masters)—and am able to make select comparisons with LPs taken from those tapes.
What tape has going for it (provided it is well engineered and mastered) is: 1) detail that exceeds even that of the phenomenal Walker (just listen to the dub of the mastertape of Ella and Louis [Verve] and then listen to Chad Kassem’s superb 45rpm reissue on vinyl); 2) bass power, drive, and clarity that exceeds that of the Walker (just listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band [EMI/Capitol] on tape, and then compare it to the original or reissue on lP); 3) a dynamic “continuousness” that is unlike any other recorded medium (and very much like music heard in life); 4) graceful “clipping” that seems to round the peaks of very dynamic musical moments played back at very loud levels, so that you never have the feeling (as you sometimes do with LPs and always do with digital) that if you go louder something’s gonna shatter like glass; and 5) superior soundstage width, depth, and height, which makes for a superior “disappearing act” throughout the entire system.
The Walker Black Diamond Mk V doesn’t quite equal the united Home Audio UHA-HQ Phase 11 in these regards. But it comes a whole lot closer to sounding like tape than any other source, analog or digital, I’ve yet heard, thanks to its consistency in playback, sensational low-level resolution, and phenomenal dynamic range (and bass power and clarity). It is, need I add, also a lot more sensible purchase than a reel-to-reel tape deck, for which the software options are still very limited and very expensive.
Bottom line: Next to a 15ips, two-track deck (on the right tapes), the Walker Proscenium Black Diamond Mk V phonograph comes closer to the absolute sound (on the right LPs) than any other source component I’ve yet heard. It is truly—and very close to literally—reference-quality and gets my highest, warmest, and most enthusiastic recommendation (as befits a genuine classic). If you’ve got the dough—and I know that is a big if—and you’re heavily invested in vinyl, then you owe it to yourself to audition this fantastic record-player before buying anything else. Yes, you can spend less on a phonograph and come close to the absolute, but you won’t come as close as the Walker takes you—to the sound of mastertapes or, if the tapes are great, to the sound of the real thing.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Phonograph with air-bearing linear-tracking tonearm, air-bearing turntable, and air-bearing feet (air supply pump and plumbing included)
Weight: ca. 350 lbs.
Price: $105,000 (with setup by Walker and Law)
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