Analog Corner #57

One of Mikey's highlights at the Y2K CES: the SpJ La Luce CS Centoventi turntable.

At the 1999 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I found the Alexis Park Hotel's Specialty Audio exhibit area "depressing." In the year 2000, however, it was a refreshing oasis of sanity in a desert storm of digital sand swirling around the main convention center, which promised us 500 channels of TV, PPV, WebTV, AOLTV, DSL, Geocast, Web Radio, downloadable MP3, and on and on.

The concept of enjoying music one already has in-house has become positively radical! And a quality respite from the digital raw sewage the world wants to pump into our homes. Specialty/high end has been declared dead too, but from what I saw at this show, it's alive and well. McDonald's didn't kill off Smith and Wollensky's.

And if there wasn't a turntable in every room, there was enough new analog product—wares hard and soft—to proclaim that there's lots of life left in the old technology, even as the world waxes digital. My job was to run from room to room scoping out analog news. Though it was spread thin, I found plenty.

The sleek-looking, British-built, belt-driven turntable line from Avid, which we reported on last year, now has an American importer: Lauerman Audio Imports, who also distribute Rega products Stateside. The smaller Avid, the Volvere, will sell for $4000 complete with Rega 600 tonearm. The larger Acutus, featuring a powerful, handmade motor driving a massive 10kg platter, will sell for $10,000 without arm, $12,000 with the SME IV. The Acutus features an outboard sinewave-generator power supply, and an ingenious spring suspension system that uses a patented system of rods—part of the subchassis casting—to dissipate (not damp) the vibrational energy created at the stylus/groove interface.

Also on display in the Lauerman room was the Klimo Viv, a $4000 all-tube moving-coil/moving-magnet phono section featuring a separate power supply. In addition, Lauerman imports the EMT cartridge line (reviewed in my February 2000 column), as well as cartridges from Garrott Brothers, a name that should be familiar to analog oldies.

Why is Lauerman so high on analog? It sells. When I visited their room on the final day, Steve Lauerman told me that the Avid line had generated a great deal of interest, and that he'd taken "quite a few" turntable orders from domestic dealers.

In the Musical Surroundings room I found the usual cast of characters and products: Benz Micro cartridges, designer A.J. Conti and his full line of Basis turntables, Graham tonearms and Bob Graham, and Musical Surroundings' Garth Leerer, who thanked me for my positive review of the superb-sounding Transfiguration Temper Supreme, from Immutable Music, which he also distributes.

Bob Graham showed me his growing line of custom armboards, now available for VPI TNT, Linn, and Clearaudio turntables, and adapter plates that allow his arm to be used with SME's 20 and 30 turntables. (He'll soon have one available for the SME 10 as well.) He also showed me a prototype of the Robin, a new budget arm based on a Japanese design, and his Nightingale integrated armwand/MC cartridge, built to his specs by Immutable Music. Bob has promised a Nightingale for review, but not before his dedicated step-up transformer is ready, which should be in a few months. The highly regarded all-tube Aesthetix Io phono stage and Callisto line stage were also on display.

VPI turntable owners take note: VPI introduced a stainless-steel/Delrin record clamp ($150) that's supposed to sound—as much as clamps can "sound"—really great! Also spotted: a new variation of the JMW Memorial arm featuring a multi-segment, multi-diameter armtube.

"You've got to check out the new SpJ La Luce CS Centoventi," I kept hearing. I made my way to the Cardas Audio room, where I saw a stunning-looking, transparent turntable featuring a platter 120mm tall, 330mm in diameter, and weighing 40 lbs, machined from a solid block of acrylic. Mass is increased by stainless-steel weights embedded in the acrylic around the platter's periphery. A large, one-piece bearing housing, hand-matched to a chrome-hardened steel spindle shaft, sets the platter spinning via a standalone, direct-drive AC synchronous motor fitted with knobs for matching the level and height of the thread drive to the platter's drive grooves. According to the press blurb, the "ideal mechanical impedance match of the acrylic material and record vinyl allows stylus-induced resonance to pass smoothly into the mass of the platter and platform." A standalone "flywheel" is optional.

SpJ turntables are distributed Stateside by Cardas Audio. By no coincidence whatsoever, attached to the ingenious SpJ arm was the Myrtle, a new Cardas Heart cartridge based on a Benz generator. The myrtle-wood body acts as a resonance damper for the 0.38mV-output motor, which features a nude line-contact stylus attached to a cantilever of solid boron. Cost: $2775.

Over in the Clearaudio room, Joe De Phillips was spinning a pair of $16,000, three-motor Master Reference turntables: one playing music, the other tracing the grooves of a hopelessly eccentric record to demonstrate the linear tracking ability of the Master TQ-1 Souther arm. "You will not see the cantilever deflect," De Phillips told me in response to my criticisms of the arm design in my 1997 review of the Reference turntable (Vol.20 No.11).

He was correct. I didn't see the cantilever deflect.But the kinds of performance problems that I believe the design suffers from would be occurring on the microscopic level, and so not be visible to the naked eye.

You can't see a pivoted arm skating, but you sure can see clipped sinewaves on the skating channel with a 'scope, and you can see them revert to perfect roundness with the application of the proper amount of antiskating. Joe and I will continue to agree to disagree about this. The 'table without the arm can be had for $12,000. That's how I'd like to give it a spin.

Clearaudio has expanded its 'table line to include the Solution ($1695), the Evolution ($2500 with a Rega arm or the Clearaudio LS3 linear tracker, MM cartridge, and standalone motor), and the Reference ($6000 without arm, $7000 with). Clearaudio is now manufacturing the $3300 Discovery MC cartridge (the name of De Phillips' cable line), which has a more conventional appearance compared with its regular line. ("Less of a 'hammerhead' look," De Phillips told me.) There is also a line of accessories, including a compact digital stylus-pressure gauge ($400) and a mounting gauge for pivoted arms ($120).

Also new are the Clearaudio's Symphono phono stage ($1100), the Reference MC phono stage ($3500), and the Accurate Power Generator ($1800), which generates a new, distortion-free sinewave AC supply. Then there's the legendary Insider ($7600) and Insider Reference ($10,500) MC cartridges.

With a J.A. Michell Gyro SE about to spin in my system for review, I paid a visit to the Artech room, where sales manager Costa Koulisakis ran me through the many new offerings, beginning with Michell's Delphini phono stage, in three variants: a basic model with a toroidal power supply ($1295), a Pro model with a larger, outboard power supply ($2395), and a dual-mono version built on two separate chassis (no price available).

The standard GyroDec Mk.IV costs $1995 without an arm, but comes with an armboard drilled for the arm of your choice. A limited-edition version finished in black with gold trim costs $2150. The Gyro SE is $1595 without arm, or $1995 with the Rega RB300. A Special Edition costing less than the regular model? No, "SE" stands for Spider Edition, in which the double-decoupled Plexiglas base is replaced by double-decoupled "spiders," and the dustcover is not included.

The more expensive Michell Orbe ($4200 w/o arm) is also available in an SE edition, which made its debut at CES for $3500. Upgrade kits are available to convert GyroDecs and Orbes to their SE versions, and all older GyroDecs can be upgraded to the current model, or even converted to the Orbe. But sometimes too many choices can get confusing; for the purposes of this report, let's just say that J.A. Michell turntables have the flexibility of a circus contortionist.

For owners of Rega Planar turntables and Rega arms, J.A. Michell has introduced a $39 VTA adjuster of solid anodized aluminum that does not rely on set screws (Basis) or require a larger-diameter hole (VPI). It's said to maintain the rigidity of the Rega arm—something Rega considers critical. This is good news for tens of thousands of Rega owners yearning for VTA adjustability. It adds only 3mm of height at its minimum setting, about 10mm at maximum.

Over in the Muse room, Franco Kuzma and Kevin Halverson proudly displayed the mammoth (77kg) Kuzma Stabi XL, making its American debut. The two-motor design was described in depth in my show reports from the UK in January (Vol.23 No.1). Price will be $13,000 with one arm tower and VTA adjuster gauge; a second tower with gauge will cost $2250. Sitting somewhat forlornly on the bar shelf was the smaller, pipebomb-like Stabi S, which was reviewed in this column last year. Don't overlook this unique, well-built 'table if you're planning to spend about $1200. Add $700 for the Stogi S arm and you've got a fantastic-sounding combo.

I somehow missed Music Hall in Las Vegas, but Roy Hall was there, showing his new $499 MMF-5 turntable, which comes "plug'n'play" with a $175 Goldring MM cartridge. I'll have one for review shortly, but I got a chance to hear it at a Philadelphia Audiophile Society event recently, and it sounded impressive.

No show would be complete without a visit to the Shun Mook Audio room, which this year was billed as "the only all-analog room at CES." These guys take a lot of heat from flat-earthers for their Mpingo discs and other, allegedly mystical accessories, but somehow, each year, they turn a sow's-ear hotel room into a sonic silk purse while others make excuses for theirs.

So in a room dotted with Mpingo discs, the Shun Mook Signature MC cartridge (Mpingo ebony body parts, 0.34mV output, boron cantilever, microridge stylus), fitted to a heavily modified Oracle turntable, and a pair of Shun Mook three-way Bella Voce loudspeakers, produced some of the best sound at the Alexis Park (with an Audio Research Reference phono stage and Reference 2 preamp and Lamm ML2 amplifier). I requested an old Ruggiero Ricci London/Decca "blueback" and fell into the music with an intensity rare under show conditions.

T.H.E. Show Matures
Next door at the San Tropez, Mike Moloney and crew made credible their efforts at establishing a less expensive, non–CES-certified venue. Yes, there is a parasitic quality to the event, but these guys did it right this year, with a bound show guide and good signage. Participation was excellent, with many of specialty audio's big names, such as Wilson Audio and Sony/Philips Super Audio CD. During my visits, attendance was strong.

In the Immedia room, Scan-Tech's Stig Björge and Jonathan Carr showed off their latest Lyra cartridge, the Helikon, a completely "nude" design, but with the convenient stylus guard first seen in the lower-priced Lydian Beta. The Helikon features a boron cantilever, 0.35mV output (using a double winding of thin wire), and a new, yokeless magnet system featuring a nonconductive Corian pole piece. The new cartridge, designed to replace the Clavis D.C., will sell for around $2500.

Also new from Lyra is the Amphion phono stage ($2000), based on a custom design by Mr. Mishima, builder of all Lyra cartridges for the past 20 years. A refined and updated circuit, it was described to me as "a poor man's Connoisseur." If you're at all familiar with that $10,000 design, you know that's saying a great deal.

Meanwhile, I've been auditioning the $1999 Lyra Evolve 99 (0.03mV output), which in some ways has become my favorite Scan-Tech cartridge. Though not as highly resolving as the Parnassus D.C.t, it sounds somewhat sweeter—and yet, in my experience, its ability to trace and reproduce sibilants and transients is generally unsurpassed. (I throw in this mini-evaluation because the Evolve 99 will soon be unavailable—only 100 are being made.) The price/performance ratio can't be beat.

Immedia's new Revolution turntable ($10,000) was spinning discs feeding Danish-built GamuT electronics and a pair of Audio Physic Calderas. In the Herron Audio room an Immedia RPM-1 ($3000)—which, unlike the more expensive RPM-2, includes a removable armboard—fed Herron electronics and a pair of Audio Physic Virgos.

Also at T.H.E. Show, I saw—for the first time on American shores (again see my January UK show report for more details)—the intriguing-looking Loth-X line of turntables, from Singapore: the Othello ($1395 with arm), the Carmen ($3595 with arm), and the A;dida ($7195 unarmed). I also heard the impressive-sounding Hovland HP 100 vacuum-tube preamplifier with built-in optional MM phono stage and MC 100 outboard step-up transformer, and saw the intriguing, built-to-order CTC Blowtorch preamplifier, ($8750 base price) with balanced, no-feedback line section by John Curl. Add $1500 for balanced operation, $1500 for tape or output buffers, $5000 for updated Vendetta phono stage, and $500 for phase switch.

Dynavector Systems, imported Stateside by Toffco, debuted an intriguing-looking new MC cartridge: the low-output (0.3mV) DV-DRT XV-1, which uses eight small Alnico magnets, among other interesting and unique design features.

Audio Advancements is importing two Amazon turntables from Germany; the smaller one sells for $3950, fitted with the Mörch UP unipivot arm. The larger Amazon, with outboard motor drive, is battery-powered. (The smaller one can be so fitted as well.) AA also imports Allaerts moving-coil cartridges.

I'm speeding now as I run out of space. Also cool: the new Gyroscope record weight/active strobe unit from J.C. Verdier, as seen on Verdier's La Platine turntable. New vinyl: Classic Records' Led Zeppelin BBC box, Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water (best version you'll ever hear), Sarah McLaughlin's Surfacing, and Willie Nelson's Stardust (produced by Booker T.).

In the year 2000, analog is alive and well!

Sidebar: Mikey's CES Awards:

1) Biggest Difference at the Push of a ButtonPS Audio Power Plant (power-regenerating device running at 90Hz). Runner-Up: VansEvers "cable-tuning" demo. Scary!

2) Best Multichannel Digital SoundSony/Joni Mitchell 5.1-channel SACD demo.

3) Best Stereo Digital SoundArcam 23 CD player, dCS Purcell upsampler and Delius 24/192 DAC, Audiovector triamplified speakers, driven by three Perreaux 350P amplifiers, with Nordost cable. Runner-Up: the ProAc room.

4) Best Analog Sound—the Shun Mook room. Runner-Up: the Atma-Sphere room.

5) Nicest Hunk o' Steamin' FunkOracle turntable/CD player/amplifier combo. Wow!

5) Get Yer Motor Runnin'! AwardKR Enterprise Kronzilla/Harley-Davidson amplifier.

6) It Takes Guts! AwardSharp Electronics for playing SACD in the MP3-infested Convention Center, using their digital amp, SACD player, and B&W 801s.

7) If At First You Don't Succeed AwardTechnics' word-for-word reprise of last year's DVD-Audio demo and spiel.

8) Stop the Music Award—to the artist who stopped her "performance" at Classic Records' brewery party to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner."

9) Super Patriotism Award—to The Audiophile Voice publisher Gene Pitts, for standing up and holding his hand to his heart as she sang. (I held my ears.)

10) I Have A Dream Award—to all of the many, many newcomers who spent the money, and took the time and effort, to reach for the tarnished brass ring that is specialty audio. Good luck to ya!

theboogeydown's picture

Throw back Tuesday?

Wimbo's picture

watching the bogieydown.

pkf2's picture

why are you holding your ears then Michael?