Analog Corner #107

reviewed in this column: Clearaudio’s Emotion turntable and Satisfy tonearm.

A friend of one of my wife's high school friends e-mailed recently asking for help in setting up his turntable. The guy, in his early 40s, is not a hardcore audiophile and doesn't read the magazines. He just got it into his head one day not long ago that he'd like to start collecting vinyl. So he went to eBay, got himself a Thorens TD-165 for $150, and started buying LPs online. Now he's hooked.

This week, I took one of my dogs in for radiation therapy (prognosis: excellent), wearing a Linn golf shirt (me, not the dog).

"Oh, do you work for Linn?" one of the vets exclaimed. "I have a Sondek."

I told him what I did, but he doesn't read audiophile magazines, so no discounted strontium 90 or whatever they use.

"I don't like CDs," he said. "Records sound much better. I buy them on eBay all the time. I just bought a Puccini Mobile Fidelity set on eBay for $115." (La Bohème, with Luciano Pavarotti, Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic, MFSL 2-526) From the rest of our conversation, I learned that he had no idea that anyone was still pressing records, he didn't know an analog revival was underway, and hadn't a clue that so many new turntables, tonearms, cartridges, and phono preamps were being made and sold.

My wife spied a flyer in the Hoboken train station a few weeks ago inviting total strangers to a "Vinyl Party" at some woman's home. After extolling the nostalgic virtues of watching and listening to records spin, the invitation requests that guests bring "old scratchy" records—especially old 45s—to the get-together for playback during the evening. I guarantee this woman isn't an audiophile and hasn't a clue about what's going on. Clearly, audiophiles are but a small part of the growing vinyl underground.

Not all the news is good. Back in January, a short blurb in the New York Times' Styles section, titled "Vinyl Visions," read: "Rock music purists who miss the crackle and pop of listening to old vinyl records may want to snap up a pair of sunglasses by Vinylize." The company makes eyewear from old LPs, the piece went on to explain, "thus confirming the vinyl album's status as something that is meant to be seen and not heard."

Isn't that special? The glasses cost $320 and are available at DisRespectacles in New York City. Call them at (212) 608-8892 and tell them what you think.

Graham Engineering Nightingale II MC phono cartridge
I never got to hear the first Nightingale, so I'll have to take Bob Graham's word that his Nightingale II ($3900) is a sonic improvement over the original. But mechanically there's no doubt, based on his description of the changes made. It's available as a standalone cartridge or integrated into a Graham 2.2 tonearm wand.

A joint development of Graham Engineering and Immutable Music, makers of Transfiguration cartridges, the Nightingale II uses Immutable's ring-magnet generating system, wherein the coil is placed inside a neodymium ring magnet of high flux density. Thanks to Immutable's newly developed coil-winding system, the Nightingale's output has been increased from 0.24mV to 0.45mV, with a low 2.5 ohm impedance. Graham supplies to Immutable a new five-nines-pure silver wire developed for this use and available, Graham says, in no other cartridge.

A newly designed generator support system of stainless steel replaces the older aluminum one, and is said to provide both greater rigidity and better control of resonances. The grade-6060 aluminum-alloy cartridge body, designed by Graham and machined in the US, has also been improved. Graham claims that the process that bonds generator to body further suppresses resonances. Stainless-steel helical inserts prevent stripped threads. The Nightingale II features a line-contact stylus attached to a cantilever of solid boron. This bird is on the heavy side, at 13.5gm; the recommended tracking force is 1.8gm.

Bob Graham may be a self-effacing kind of guy, but his latest cartridge isn't. I've long admired Immutable's Transfiguration Temper series, especially the latest model, the W. The well-built Tempers have always been models of good sonic behavior—not brash, harsh, bright, soft, warm, or closed-in, they've always struck a relatively neutral sonic balance, exhibiting little obvious personality. In my book, that's a major accomplishment for a transducer. Detractors might say the Tempers sound bland and dynamically less than forthcoming. I don't.

The Nightingale is none of those things. It rips the blouse off the Temper's somewhat prudish sonic behavior. The new Nightingale was fast, airy, and detailed, exhibiting greater transient "snap" and dynamic boldness than the Temper W. Image focus was tight without being etched, attack was crisp without being frizzy, and the soundstage was wide and deep, with particularly well-focused images up front. Image "float" was outstanding: the aural picture never seemed stuck to the speaker positions. Instrumental harmonic structure was exceedingly well-developed, though those who like a richer, warmer sound might want a bit more development in the midbass, more lushness in the midrange, and more reserve in the presence region.

Not I. I found the Nightingale struck a nice balance between transparency and meaty instrumental textures. Sibilants were cleanly and quickly rendered, though some might find them a bit too prominent in the overall sonic scheme (again, not I). Bass was extended and tight without being mechanical or overly dry. Depending on associated gear, some may find the upper mids a bit lean and too prominent, but that's where the cartridge's airiness, clarity, and transient precision emanate from.

I absolutely loved the Nightingale II and have kept it in my system for a few months now. All of the above nitpicking must be taken in the context of a superbly coherent and essentially neutral cartridge that leans ever so slightly one way or another at various mileposts along the tonal continuum. Owners of brighter loudspeakers (brands not divulged to protect the innocent) might find the Nightingale's balance a bit forward—and, of course, true believers in the "Silver sounds bright" gospel will hear that too.

I found that warm recordings sounded warm and bright recordings sounded bright. When you spend $3900 on a cartridge, that's the level of tonal neutrality you should expect—along with outstanding build quality and nimble tracking. The Nightingale delivered all three, plus long-term musical satisfaction and excitement. It's among a handful of the finest cartridges I've heard.

I sat up one night and ran through a half dozen or so of Analogue Productions' 45rpm jazz reissues. These would sound good played back via that Volkswagen microbus thingie that goes round and round the record. Traced by the Nightingale II, the sound was mesmerizing and—like the time machine a good analog front end can be—transporting. I don't care what your sonic tastes are—hearing Ben Webster moving around the stage on Ben Webster at the Renaissance (AJAZ 7646) would fool you into thinking the Nightingale had brought Webster, Jim Hall, Jimmy Rowles, and the rest back to life just to play for you.

Clearaudio Emotion turntable and Satisfy tonearm
Acrylic isn't my turntable material of choice, but that's me—and I'm more accepting of it when it's used in less expensive products such as Clearaudio's Emotion turntable ($999 with Satisfy tonearm), which is almost all acrylic—but a frosted variant, probably using some kind of silicone in its manufacture.

The Emotion is a simple design: a thin acrylic slab for a plinth; another relatively thin slab for the full-sized 12" platter; a short, flat-bottomed spindle bearing of hardened, polished steel, sleeved by a sintered brass bushing; and acrylic cones for feet. An AC synchronous motor fitted with a two-step grooved pulley (commendably fixed to the motor shaft via three symmetrically placed set screws) sits in a circular cutout in the plinth's rear left corner, and drives the platter via an O-ring around its perimeter.

The big news is the Satisfy tonearm. Its straight-pipe design has a precise feel, using a sapphire watch-bearing system in the horizontal direction and ceramic bearings in the vertical, and an ingenious antiskating mechanism adjustable via a large magnetic screw. The Satisfy uses a single-point overhang adjustment system that's elegantly simple but tricky to use—especially for analog newbies. The RCA jacks are attached to a semicircular extension of the arm's main post that protrudes through the bottom of the plinth; they're easy to access and offer excellent clearance. The tonearm and its associated parts are milled from aluminum; they have a solid look and feel, and the long cueing lever was both easy to use and smooth in operation.

While the Emotion comes supplied with a Clearaudio Aurum Classic Wood cartridge ($200), based on the Satisfy arm's fine performance, your checkbook will be the limiting factor. Setup is fast and simple, although the English translation of the original German instructions is in need of a serious rewrite. Garth Leerer, of importer Musical Surroundings, assured me that it's in the works.

Cartridge alignment was a bit tricky because of the single-screw design. You first attach the cartridge to an aluminum plate in the usual fashion, using two screws. That plate attaches to the arm via a single screw that, when loose, allows you to both move the plate fore and aft for overhang, and rotate it around the zenith axis. The lack of a conventional headshell gives you outstanding visibility, which is good.

Here's the tricky part: If you loosen the screw too much, the cartridge moves in every direction and is difficult to fix. If you tighten it too much, it doesn't move at all. You can get the overhang correct using the supplied gauge, but when you loosen the screw to set the zenith, the arm can easily move fore and aft, thus upsetting the overhang setting.

This takes some getting used to, but with a little patience and experience, you can accurately align your cartridge. VTA is adjustable as well (though not during play). VTF is set via a counterweight fitted to a substantial threaded rod.

A turntable's first duty is to spin records at the correct speeds, and this budget 'table did so at both 331/3 and 45rpm, thanks to its carefully machined pulley. However, playing at the correct speed is not the same as speed stability. Subjectively, the Emotion had reasonably good pitch stability, but using my recently obtained Leader wow and flutter meter, the results were just so-so compared to my reference Simon Yorke and the recently reviewed Musical Fidelity M-1. (The same test record was used for all three.) I'm not going to give you the numbers here or ever again, because they're "subjective": subject to the quality of the test record, and variable depending on the arm and cartridge. Perhaps these modest results weren't surprising, given the relative lightness of the Emotion's platter and the fact that the Emotion costs one fifth the price of the Musical Fidelity turntable.

A stethoscope indicated that the motor was somewhat noisy, with a distinct +100Hz hum audible on both the plinth and platform surfaces. The amount of hum picked up by the plinth depended on the motor's location within the hole in the plinth and the amount of contact with the plinth made by an O-ring placed around the motor housing. Unfortunately, the On/Off switch is on the motor housing, and moves each time you flip the switch.

The instructions offer a tweak: They suggest you remove the O-ring, which offers greater motor-housing clearance within the hole, but I found that the motor noise still migrated to the plinth, and that switching the motor on and off moved the housing around, thus changing the 'table's background-noise level with each play. If I owned an Emotion, I'd remove the O-ring, carefully center the motor in the cutout, and control power to the motor using an external On/Off switch.

The hum wasn't all that audible, though I could hear it during quiet passages of classical music. However, I'm sure the vibrational energy reaching the groove/stylus interface does not do good things for the overall sound.

Don't expect analog perfection for $1000. What you should expect is reasonably good overall sound, and the Emotion-Satisfy combination delivered that with ease. I was more than pleasantly surprised by the 'table's musical performance, and that of the inexpensive Aurum Wood cartridge. This was a fun 'table to look at and listen to, with a smooth, reasonably neutral tonal balance free of midbass lumps and bumps. Bass extension and pace'n'rhythm were impressive, making this a good choice for rockers and jazz enthusiasts, and the combo's midband richness gave the massed strings of classical recordings a warm, pleasing sound.

I used the excellent Diverse Records edition of dubmaster Adrian Sherwood's Never Trust a Hippy (two 180gm LPs, Diverse/Real World LPRW 110) to check out the Emotion's low-end performance. I was kind of shocked by its low-frequency extension and, more important, by its clean stops and starts. This combo sounded surprisingly agile on bottom, with an overall tonal balance on the smooth, soft side, and an addictive midband richness. For $999, I'd rather have this balance than one that's edgy, thin, and strident, or slow and lumpy.

I had the Emotion-Satisfy-Aurum combo in my system for two months. Every time I used it, I was more than pleasantly surprised by its overall balance of strengths and absence of obvious weaknesses—except for the motor hum, which may or may not have been the result of a noisy motor sample. In terms of general musical satisfaction, I'd put it up against any CD player at any price—as I would just about any competently designed and built turntable. It's hard to screw up analog.

There's plenty of competition to choose from for $1000, including Pro-Ject's enticing Perspective, Music Hall's MMF-7, and, I believe, Rega's P25, which has come down in price. There are others. I wish I'd had them all here to let you know how the Emotion-Satisfy combo compared, but I didn't. Still, all of these are fine performers offering different combinations of sonic and mechanical strengths and weaknesses. I like Rega's cast aluminum arm, Pro-Ject's drive train of crowned pulley and flat belt, and Clearaudio's high machining quality and overall sonic balance.

Just before completing this column, I put the Emotion atop SAP's Relaxa isolation stand ($795). True, the Relaxa costs almost as much as the Emotion-Satisfy combo. However, what I discovered is that the Relaxa can be really beneficial for a suspensionless turntable, especially on the bottom—it improved the speed and focus of the Emotion's bass performance. It also seemed to improve the 'table's delivery of high-frequency transients. Still, I'll stop short of suggesting you buy a $795 stand to improve the performance of a $999 turntable.

Air Tight Disc Flattener
Place a warped record on the glass surface, close the lid, then "Set it and forget it!," as Ron Popeil likes to say. Wait for the two-hour heat cycle to complete, and then another two hours for cooldown, and your warped record comes out flat as a board.

Really? Yes. To quote another Popeilism, "It really, really works!" It won't cure pressing defects or serious deformities caused by leaving your gold- or black-label Parlophone pressing of the Beatles' Revolver on the radiator, but it will flatten a record completely without deforming the grooves, thus eliminating garden-variety record warp—even the kind that sends a stylus sailing. It even worked on one of those low-Q, narrowband warps that cause a stylus to take a flying leap. That required a double treatment, but it did work.

At $1700, the Disc Flattener is expensive, but if you're in an audiophile club, you can all chip in and share.

Dust: The Final Frontier
In covering video gear for Stereophile Ultimate AV (formerly Stereophile Gudie to Home Theater), I often go to press events and line shows hosted by manufacturers of everything from TVs to microwaves. Sharp makes both, as well as a line of interesting 1-bit digital integrated amplifiers, one of which, the SM-SX100, I reviewed in the July 2000 Stereophile. At a recent Sharp line show, I spied a product that I figured might interest you.

It's Sharp's FP-N60CX Plasmacluster air purifier. I don't know about your listening room, but mine is on the lower level of my bilevel home, next to the utility room, and it gets dusty. I don't use a dustcover on my turntable, and the dust buildup is an ongoing problem both for the equipment and for my nasal passages. I asked if I could review the FP-N60CX, which generates both positive and negative ions (you can adjust the ratio) and includes large HEPA and washable charcoal filters. Most important, it's supposed to be "Library Quiet."

When the Plasmacluster arrived, I took out an LP I didn't care about, Tony Orlando's Bless You (Epic LN3808), which I won at an auction house a few years ago. It was some Roy Orbison LPs I was really after (and got), but along with them came lots of other Os and Ps, including the Orlons, Buck Owens, and Dolly Parton, all of which I've come to love.

But the Tony Orlando was expendable. I took it out of its jacket and, after vacuum-cleaning it, placed it atop a shelf near the baseboard heater and left it there for a week, after which it was covered with dust. I also noted the dust buildup on the Vibraplane's top surface and atop my amplifiers.

Then I unpacked the Sharp FP-N60CX air cleaner (which has odor and dust sensors), set it up, and let it do its thing for a week. It sat a few feet from my listening chair, not far from my left speaker, and I can certify that it is indeed "Library Quiet"—totally silent, in fact. When I first switched it on, it glowed blue, meaning the ion generator was very busy. Less than a week later the glow turned green, meaning the air was clean and the ion generator would monitor the situation and activate itself again only if needed.

After cleaning the Orlando LP again, and dusting the other experimental surfaces, I waited another week. While there was some dust on the record, there was much less than before, and there was far less on the turntable platter, on the Vibraplane's surface, and on all of the surfaces I previously had to wipe down regularly. The room is much cleaner, more pleasant to work in, and my nasal passages thank me every day. The FP-N60CX lists for $549.95, with a street price of about $500. I bought my review sample.

A Record Rack from Music Direct
You've got your Per Madsen Rackit solid-oak record racks, your Boltz steel racks, and course the old standbys from IKEA, the Ivars. There are others, or maybe you roll your own. Record retailer Music Direct's analog addict, Josh Bizar, decided there was an opportunity for his company, so he began designing his "dream rack." Working with a "prominent furniture manufacturer," Bizar has come up with the MD record racks, available in maple with silver uprights or cherry with black uprights.

The shelves of ¾" MDF are modular and available in 31" and 62" lengths, and include steel backsplashes to keep your treasures lined up evenly on the shelves. More important, you get a series of hidden support rods that you can place as needed so your records never fall over and bend, no matter how few are on a shelf. That's a smart innovation. The racks are sturdy, attractive, and, best of all, reasonably priced. The basic 31" system, with three shelves (two for LPs, plus a top shelf), casters, and support rods, costs $299. Additional shelves cost $100; what's shown in the accompanying photo costs $500 and can hold up to 600 or so LPs. The shelves shown were sturdy enough to be freestanding, and Music Direct claims you can go as high as six openings.

Next time: Another major survey of phono preamps.

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Adrian Sherwood, Never Trust a Hippy, Diverse/Real World 180gm LPs (2)
2) David and David, Boomtown, Classic Quiex SV-P 200gm LP
3) Wes Montgomery, Full House, Analog Productions 180gm 45rpm LPs (2)
4) Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Greatest Palace Music, Drag City LPs (2), CD
5) Love, Four Sail, Sundazed 180gm LP
6) Gary Burton, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Roy Haynes, Dave Holland, Like Minds, Pure Audiophile 180gm LPs (2)
7) LA4, Just Friends, Groovenote 45rpm LPs (2)
8) Charles Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Speakers Corner 180gm LP
9) John Lee Hooker, Face to Face, Eagle 180gm LPs (2)
10) Bell and Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Rough Trade LPs (2)

audiof001's picture

My friend George's Roksan turntable had a great tweak - a removable spindle, which decoupled the LP from motor vibration even more. I remain stunned that others haven't thought of doing this... maybe it was a patented feature. Regardless, it was a brilliant idea!

Tom L's picture

...table back in the early '70s had a removable spindle and a "changer" replacement, allowing it to be used as a single-play table or a changer. Numerous other tables have loose spindles, but I am unaware of any claims that they have some performance advantage over a fixed spindle. If I'm wrong about this I'm sure someone will correct me!
A fixed spindle is required for most record clamps, which I like to use.
I never used the Dual changer spindle.