Analog Corner #74

In their "Noah's Ark" TV commercial, what DaimlerChrysler seems to consider worth hauling up the Ark's gangplank is a pair of Mercedes Benz E-Class sedans. There's also a guy schlepping an iMac (what else?), and another carrying recorded music—not CDs but a stack of LPs, the top one appearing to be an original of Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool. (Other recent analog sightings: a full-frame Clearaudio Reference turntable in Tomb Raider, and a Rega Planar 2 or 3 'table in Sex and the City.)

Speaking of cars, why would a reader object to BMW advertising in Stereophile, as recent letter-writers did? I draw the line at pitches for cigarettes, but cars...? Nor am I a bimmer guy. When I lived in L.A., my Saab's license plate was "BMWS UGH." I had no problem with the cars themselves, but with their drivers' repulsively smug attitude.

And what was with that Paradigm ad (June, p.8), in which a babe sits between the speakers facing the same way they're firing? Whatever she's hearing from that seat can't be good. Okay, okay—how else to show the faces of the speakers and the chick? But if you're going to have her holding up a copy of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, get her an original pressing, not some farkuckt late-'70s MCA reissue. And what about those naked LPs gathering dust on the floor under her foot? The ad appears to be a case of a hi-fi company going "upscale" to a slick, mid-level ad agency that knows nothing about the marketplace its client is trying to reach, and hasn't bothered to find out. Good speakers, bad ad.

Return of the Laser Turntable
Analog veterans remember Finial Technology as the company that introduced the laser turntable in the late 1980s, just as the compact disc was taking off. A turntable that would read the grooves without making physical contact was a great idea, but timing is everything, and Finial's timing couldn't have been worse.

The laser 'table, the brainchild of Stanford graduate student Robert E. Stoddard, took seven years and some $20 million to go from idea to product. Apparently Stoddard's professors didn't think it could be done, but the stubborn grad and his team—including Robert N. Stark, designer of high-speed servos and analog processors—proved them wrong.

But inventing a product and putting it into production are two different things, and at a time when the LP was going away, finding investors willing to absorb the first $20 million already spent and sink the millions more needed to move the project forward proved impossible. The big Japanese companies, then tooling up for CD, were uninterested, and the once promising design seemed to disappear.

But now, 10 years later, the laser turntable is back, thanks to the ELP corporation of Japan and its president, Sanju Chiba, who was in New York City recently to demonstrate it. As you all know, LPs and the turntables on which to play them never really went away, but today, with the analog revival in full rotation, Chiba felt it was time to introduce to the American market three models of the laser turntable, all made by hand and priced from $13,500 to $23,5000, each price including a VPI 16.5 record-cleaning machine. Chiba claims to have sold 800 of them in Japan. In 1993, the BBC used one to broadcast its Christmas special. In 1995, two new models were added, and in 1996 the recapitalized ELP was founded to build and market the 'tables.

So, on a beautiful spring weekend afternoon, while normal people were lying in the sun or playing golf, I found myself on a PATH train under the Hudson River, on my way to the Hilton Millennium (next door to the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan), where I found Chiba and an American associate, David Williams, ready to demo the top-of-the-line LT-1XA 'table with Georgia-based Inner Sound electronics and hybrid electrostatic speakers. They also had an Elberg MD12 multi-curve phono preamp for the 78rpm part of the demo.

Sitting in a hotel room, looking out the upper-floor window at lower Manhattan, I thought, It's 2001 and, out of 15 million people living in the Metropolitan area, a laser turntable demo has drawn exactly five. Not too depressing! In all fairness, the demo wasn't well-publicized. I found out about it only from a note posted on the Phonogram Internet newsgroup.

First, the laser turntable's downside: It plays only black records. Forget about colored or transparent vinyl. In fact, I'm not even sure it will play JVC Super Vinyl (ie, original Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab LPs); the laser needs reflectivity to read the grooves. (If you hold a MoFi up to the light, you can see through it. Same with Quiex II.) Also, the lasertable reads dirt and scratches as part of the signal, so you still need to clean your records—which is why ELP supplies a free VPI 16.5 with each turntable sold.

But think of the upside: no tracking error, no crosstalk, no inner-groove distortion, no VTA hassles, no acoustical feedback, no problems with warped or eccentric records, no stylus cleaning, no cartridges to worry about at all. Plus, you get CD-player–like conveniences: Put a record in the tray, press Play, and it slides in like a CD. The player scans the disc and registers the tracks, which you can then program as in a CD player. You can also adjust the laser pickup's height—not to adjust "VTA," but to find the least-worn section of the groove. With mono records you can choose the inner or outer wall, one of which might be less worn than the other. And, of course, from the moment you buy a laser turntable, your records stop wearing out. Unfortunately and inexplicably, there is no remote control.

The LT-1XA plays all sizes of 331/3, 45, and 78rpm records. Its speed can be varied, in 0.1rpm steps, from 30 to 50rpm, and in 0.2rpm steps from 60 to 90rpm. At one point, Chiba took a broken 78, mended it with transparent tape, and played it. The non-taped side played flawlessly. There was a slight bumping sound with each revolution on the taped side, but you could easily reverse the tape for each side. The overall fidelity of 78s played back with the correct EQ curve was astounding—especially an older acoustic recording of Jascha Heifetz.

But if you don't play 78s, you can buy the LT-1LA for $13,500. An original Belafonte at Carnegie Hall sounded impressively transparent and low in distortion, especially on sibilants. All of the LPs demo'd sounded open, unusually transparent, and nonmechanical, but it would be foolhardy to make any sonic judgments given the unfamiliar playback system. Dirt and scratches definitely "played," but the resulting noise was much further below the music, and less pernicious, than what you'd hear with conventional stylus playback of dirty, scratched LPs. And with an LT, of course, neither record nor "stylus" is damaged in the process.

Chiba also played LPs containing the same tracks, using a conventional stylus. They sounded remarkably similar, except that the laser-read ones sounded more open and transparent and less mechanical.

When I asked him about the laser pickup's lifespan, Chiba said, "About 10,000 hours." That's long, but not forever. A replacement costs about $1500—the price of a middle-of-the-field cartridge. If I bought one of these 'tables, I'd buy a spare pickup as well. Then there's the issue of the viability of the company itself, in terms of repairs, spare parts, etc. ELP's roots go back to 1972, but I'll spare you the corporate history. According to Chiba, ELP was well capitalized a few years ago and is quite solvent.

I've been promised a one-week audition of an LT soon. I'll let you know what I hear!

Meanwhile, back on Earth...Acoustic Signature's Final Tool turntable
Minneapolis-based analog specialist The Needle Doctor (www.needledoctor.com) is importing a new line of precision-made German turntables, one of which is the Acoustic Signature Final Tool. It's the least expensive of the three models being imported, but you'd never know it by looking, touching, or listening. I do not understand how they can sell this beautifully built and engineered product for $2000.

"Final Tool" is an appropriate name for this massive, impressively machined, suspensionless 'table: it looks and feels more like a tool than a turntable, and that's a compliment, though some may find its purely functional design lacking the requisite visual appeal.

Keying off of the Michell Gyrodec's physical essence, the Final Tool is all circles: a heavy circular main chassis resting on a trio of cones, sturdy circular aluminum arm platforms (up to three) raised to platter height via three tubular aluminum stanchions, and, of course, a circular, oversized, tall, extremely heavy (24 lbs), and superbly damped (with bitumen) aluminum platter (add $330). And while many German turntable manufacturers are keen on acrylic, Acoustic Signature uses none—except for the motor pulley.

The unique bearing includes two sets of self-lubricating, sintered bronze bushings that have absorbed oil from having been boiled in a vat of it—no additional oil needs to be squirted into the bearing well. The spindle is hardened steel tipped with a tungsten-carbide ball. The ball sits on Tidorfolon, a composite of vanadium, ferrite, Teflon, and titanium. The bearing is claimed to be noiseless and wear-free.

Drive is via an outboard 24V AC motor housed in a well-damped aluminum cylinder and juiced by a sophisticated power supply operating much like a PS Audio Power Plant: AC line voltage is stepped down to 36V and converted to DC. The DC is then used to drive a crystal oscillator that delivers a 24V sinewave. The speeds of 331/3 and 45rpm are selectable via a supply-mounted switch, as are On and Off.

The motor drives the platter via thin thread (supplied), which you measure, cut, and tie. A number of 'tables use thread drive, the rationale being superior isolation and a reduction of vibrational eddy currents traveling along the belt and affecting the speed of rotation. The knot ends up on the outside and doesn't appear to affect speed stability or accuracy, though I'm sure naysayers will explain exactly why thread is a bad idea and why the knot causes horrendous problems as it goes around. Maybe so, but I don't think I heard any.

More problematic for me conceptually was the grooved acrylic pulley attached to the motor spindle. The pulley is used because it can be polished in a way that lets the thread slip when you stop the platter with your hand (while the motor continues spinning) to change records. To get the heavy platter going, you have to give it a quick spin with your hand. Like the pulleys Clearaudio uses on its far more expensive 'tables, Acoustic Signature's didn't appear to have been precisely machined. I could see movement as it spun, and when I looked closely, I could see the thread riding up and down in the groove. That can't be a good thing for micro speed stability, though the designer will probably contend that the platter's momentum is sufficient to overcome any pulley irregularities. Given the Final Tool's superb fit and finish everywhere else, the pulley's lack of precision was somewhat disappointing, though the 'table ran precisely at 331/3 and 45rpm.

A felt mat à la Rega and Linn is supplied, but I found the Ring-Mat to be a fine addition (without a clamp). This suspensionless rig can easily handle a record clamp; if you buy it, I recommend using one. The power supply can drive up to three motors, and you can add one or two more as an option; the idea is popular in Germany. I'd prefer that my turntable had no motor, but as that's not practical, I grudgingly accept one. Why you'd want to triple the vibrational energy and noise is something I don't understand. And given the lack of pulley precision, it seems to me that adding motors can only make things worse, not better.

The review sample came with one motor, three armboards, and two arm mounts. The Final Tool comes with provisions for one arm; three are possible. Add $330 for each arm holder, mounting plate, and set of spacers, plus $150 for pre-cut armboard. Two boards were cut for a Rega arm, one of which included an integral feature for adjusting VTA. The other board was cut for SME. I got an Incognito-rewired RB300 arm from Lauerman Audio Imports and an SME 309 with Celebration cartridge from Sumiko. I also had an SME–to–Graham-2.0 adapter, which I hoped would allow me switch the Graham between the Final Tool and my reference Simon Yorke 'table in just a few minutes.

After trying the VTA-adjustable armboard ($60 option), I passed on it: It uses a pressure-locking system that squeezes and deforms the threads on the Rega's base pipe. I wouldn't do that to an arm I owned, and I especially wouldn't do it to an arm on loan from an importer. The armboard also seems to compromise rigidity, and the collar raised the arm's lowest VTA point too high for some cartridges. The standard Rega board worked fine, as did the SME board with the 309. However, when I added the Graham adapter, I found that the alignment hole in a spare Graham armtube didn't fit into the tip of the plastic spindle guide Graham supplies to ensure proper cartridge alignment when using Graham's overhang tool. The adapter worked perfectly on the SME 10 'table, so I have to assume that Acoustic Signature didn't cut the board to SME's precise spec (though the SME arm's sliding base made it easy to get perfect alignment). This forced a time-consuming cartridge realignment when switching between the Final Tool and Simon Yorke 'tables.

The Final Tool Performs: I first listened to the Transfiguration Temper Supreme cartridge in the Rega RB300 tonearm and was immediately impressed by the combination's exceptionally fine, deep, taut, well-focused bass. The Final Tool's rhythmic certainty, dynamic authority, and transient performance were equally impressive, as was the absence of obvious tonal irregularities. I thought the Temper Supreme sounded slightly more forward than usual and a bit grainy, and detail was a bit less than I'd expected. I figured I was hearing the arm.

I put a stethoscope to the turntable and to the motor housing before listening to the SME/Celebration combo, and ran an impulse test by putting the stylus in the groove (with the platter stationary) and tapping the mounting platform, the bearing housing (it's not really a plinth), and the side of the platter itself. The stethoscope revealed an exceptionally quiet bearing and a smooth-running, essentially vibration-free motor. Placing my hand on the motor cylinder was equally gratifying: It was difficult to know if the motor was actually spinning. The Final Tool's was the smoothest-running and/or best-isolated conventional motor I've ever encountered at any price. The impulse test was equally impressive: Tapping the bearing housing resulted in a clean, well-attenuated thump through the speakers. Tapping on the platter demonstrated even greater attenuation.

The SME/Celebration combo mellowed out and enriched the sound considerably, adding some midbass warmth, but there was a bit less detail—hardly surprising, given the Celebration's $1500 cost vs the Temper Supreme's $3800, not to mention their different sonic signatures. Nor is the 309, with its detachable headshell, the most detailed arm ever made. Still, the combo seemed to be a really nice match for the Final Tool. However, it took having the Graham arm as a constant to really understand what the 'table was doing.

Using the Clearaudio Insider and Lyra Helikon cartridges, I auditioned the Graham on the Final Tool and the Simon Yorke. There was nothing polite- or "budget"-sounding about the Final Tool. It produced a big, well-controlled, tightly focused sound, with bass control and dynamic authority to rival those of far more expensive turntables. Compared to the five-times-the-price Yorke (with Vibraplane), the Final Tool was clearly somewhat brighter and slightly grainy on top, drier in the midbass, and somewhat lacking in midrange lushness and transparency. That much was obvious on The Weavers' Reunion at Carnegie Hall 1963 (Analogue Productions APF 005, 180gm reissue) and on other revealing demo discs. Take the differences I reported between the Yorke and SME 10 a while back, in April 2000: sharpen and accentuate the edge detail a bit, and you have the essential differences.

I don't mean to sound negative. The Final Tool is a great-sounding 'table, especially if you want rhythm, pacing, dynamics, image focus, and rock-stable soundstaging. If you're shopping at this price point or well above and like the delicate, the plush, and the airy, the Tool is probably not the 'table for you, although adding something like the 309/Celebration combo or a Rega with a slightly forgiving cartridge will get you close. You're probably better off with a suspended design like the Michell Gyrodec, one of the small suspended Basis models, or perhaps a loaded VPI HW-19.

But if you eat on my side of the 'table, the Final Tool—with its solid construction, superb bearing, sophisticated electronic motor drive, provision for multiple tonearms, and heavy, oversized, well-damped platter—might be the best value out there. With the exception of the all-important pulley, nothing at this price point compares in terms of build quality and what you get for your two grand.

The $1200 Kuzma Stabi S was my previous champ for price, performance, and build quality. Now it's the Acoustic Signature Final Tool. Though it's no SME 10 killer, at a bit more than half the price (with a 309 arm) it'll give you a lot more than half of the SME 10's performance. Add a Ring-Mat and a good record clamp and you'll get even more.

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Radiohead, Amnesiac, import EMI 10" LPs (2)
2) R.E.M., Reveal, Warner Bros. LP
3) Paul McCartney/Wings, Wingspan, import Parlophone LPs (4)
4) Hank Garland, Move! The Guitar Artistry of Hank Garland, Sundazed CD
5) Miles Davis, The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions, advance Columbia CDs (3)
6) West Coast Pop Art Band, A Child's Guide to Good and Evil, Sundazed LP
7) Travis, The Invisible Band, advance Epic CD
8) The Millennium, Magic Time: The Millennium/Ballroom Recordings, Sundazed CDs (3)
9) Anthony Wilson Trio, Our Gang, Groovenote gold CD
10) Various, The Rough Guide to Bluegrass, import Rough CD

COMMENTS
TerryNYC's picture

The reason the original failed was laser wavelength vs inner groove dimensions as I learned in a long conversation with David Fletcher. When you get your demo unit, please report current inner groove performance. Thanks.

Hergest's picture

When you get your demo unit, please report current inner groove performance

This is a 17 year old article.

TerryNYC's picture

wavelength comment is correct regardless as a fundamental problem; dust was purely secondary.

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