Analog Corner #48
(Originally published in Stereophile, July 12th, 1999)
Can you believe this is the fiftieth installment of Analog "Corner''? I can't. I thought I'd run out of things to write about, or for one reason or another Stereophile would have run me out of town by now. But here we are, qualifying for membership in AARP, and analog keeps on spinning in an increasingly digital world.
Perhaps you've heard the distressing news that DCC Compact Classics, purveyors of 180-gram LPs and gold CDs tube-mastered by Steve Hoffman, has gone belly up. It didn't make sense to methey've been issuing great titles that, according to my retail sources, have sold well. I got an advance on the gold CD of Joni Mitchell's Blue, and it's stunningin some ways, better than an original pressing. Then came the news that the 180gm vinyl, originally scheduled for simultaneous release, was "delayed."
To get the full story, I called DCC Compact Classics' president, Marshall Blonstein. He was more than forthcoming about his company's problems, which, as I suspected, have nothing to do with sales of CDs or LPs. What happened was, Blonstein got sucked into a business venture that "couldn't miss''one involving disposable cameras. DCC Compact Classics had guaranteed the debts and the loans, and when the camera business became truly disposable, the bank came a-calling.
Blonstein, who had a 12-year relationship with the bank was sure he could work out a payment plan spread over five years, but no! According to Blonstein, a new bankerpresumably a nonaudiophiledemanded immediate payment in the form of the liquidation of the assets of DCC Compact Classics.
To protect his company, Blonstein threw it into Chapter 11. He hopes to be out within two months and to resume LP production shortly thereafter with Blue, two Sinatra titles (Sinatra '57 and The Summit, with Sammy and Deano) that have already been issued on gold CD, and the long-promised Paul Simon solo series. Blonstein sent me the Sinatra jackets just to reassure me that the vinyl will come. Disposable cameras. Jeesh!
Blonstein also told me that the Pacific Rim's economic downturn had hurt vinyl sales, but that licensers like Warner Bros. were willing to lower the minimum sales guarantee, so the vinyl will continue to flowfor a while. But folks, the sales numbers are becoming grim. Unless you buy some of this great new vinyl, the time will come when there'll be no more.
By the way: Sinatra '57, recorded live in Seattle by the great Wally Heider and previously unissued, is essential listening for any Sinatra fan. Frank is in good voice, loose and affable before an adoring audience, and Nelson Riddle leads a string-tinged orchestra of Hollywood studio greats. It's magic. On "They Can't Take That Away from Me," hipster Frank makes a 1957-vintage marijuana joke ("The way you smoke yourer, sip your tea''), and the grandparents of the grunge generation get it.
Stands that Deliver
I was talking with Ayre's Charlie Hansen shortly after buying my K-1 preamp when the subject of stands came up.
"Solid maple," he said to me. "That's what I'd use."
Hansen thinks maple "sounds" better. Of course, maple doesn't "play," but the component placed on it does. Coincidentally, I'd just purchased a Pagode HD03 stand, with shelves of solid Canadian maple, made by Infinite Elemente in Germany. I'd seen part of the company's extensive line at the 1998 Heathrow Hi-Fi Show I'd attended in the UK, and even though no one imports the stands to the US, I had to have onetheir looks killed me. Satiny finished maple, anodized aluminum girder uprightsthe stand just looked right. And the more I learned about their construction, the more enthused I became.
The design comes from a collaboration between Luis Fernandesa professional translator, an audiophile, and former chief of production at Audio Physic, the German loudspeaker companyand his partner, Bernd Brockhoff, an industrial engineer who works with an aluminum company that supplies high-tech parts for Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, Volvo, and others. He also designs furniture. Entirely by coincidence, it was Mr. Fernandes who translated my Virgo review into German for the factory. I had no idea there was a connection between AP and Infinite Elemente when I fell for the stand.
The idea was to design a lightweight support system with controlled resonant behavior. The stand itself uses a base frame of solid maple, four anodized aluminum uprights, and a pair of solid maple crossbraces. The shelves sit in solid maple frames that, instead of being bolted in place, are tension-mounted via eight spikes, which press into tiny dimples in the aluminum uprights. The physical connection between shelf and upright, while minuscule, is thus spectacularly rigid. The shelf itself sits in the frame on its own set of spikes, which rest on frame crosspieces inlaid with aluminum.
Shelf height can be adjusted, but not easily. Shipping the stands across the ocean isn't easy eitherbecause Fernandes and his partner insist on tensioning the main frame at the factory, the stands can't be shipped broken down. Thus, when you add the cost of materials, manufacturing, and shipping across the ocean, the final retail price in America would be very higheasily over $3000, based on what I paid.
But well worth it, aesthetically and sonically. The Ayre K-1 on the Pagode stand sounds more open and effortlessespecially perched on Symposium Rollerblocks (not enough clearance for Walker Valid Points), which Sam Tellig wrote about in his April '99 column. I hope someone reading this will consider importing the Pagode line, and that Mr. Fernandes will teach some American to tension the stands so they can be shipped broken down, which will keep the retail price down to a dull roar.
Closer to home, Zoethecus Audio produces a well-regarded series of stands. Before discovering the Pagode, I bought a five-shelfer, framed in solid maple (the bottoms of the upright posts are hollowed out and filled with sand) and fitted with finely machined floor spikes, for $1397.
Zoethecus offers three shelf options: medium-density fiberboard (MDF) e.Slabs ($34 each), and sophisticated, nine-layer, constrained-layer-damped z.Pods ($140) and z.Slabs ($200). The damped shelves feature an aluminum top surface followed by elastomer, high-density fiberboard (HDF), elastomer, phenolic, elastomer, HDF, elastomer, vinyl, and phenolic. Each Pod is a two-piece unit with a ventilation space in the middle, and is meant for tube amps and other electronic devices; the solid Slabs work better with mechanical devices like turntables and CD transports. The shelves, which do not touch the frame, rest on phenolic corner crossbraces dotted with elastomer (foam and air) Isodiscs.
The concept: Use the frame, phenolic crosspieces, and Isodiscs to isolate the shelves from floor- and airborne vibrations, and use the shelves to drain energy away from the components placed on them. The isolation part works extremely well: I banged on the frame top and the disturbance did not disturb a nonsuspended turntable sitting on a z.Slab. The energy-draining shelves seem to work as well, though I did encounter a problem when I put the Simon Yorke turntable on the top shelf. The noise from the Yorke's external motor, rather than draining through and being absorbed by the shelf, instead traveled along the "skin" of the aluminum and up into the 'table's base, and was clearly audible.
"Too much energy, not enough mass" in the motor for the energy to drain, said designer Christian Lewon. If you're using a turntable on the Zoethecusespecially one with a freestanding motorand you're hearing noise, you might consider a Vibraplane (expensive) or a Bright Star Air Mass product (much less expensive).
After "listening" to both stands with the same component (the Conrad-Johnson Premier 15 Phono Section), I find the Pagode stand to be faster and rhythmically more taut, the Zoethecus warmer and richer but sounding less snappy. I like "snappy." Of course, changing feet, cones, pods, pads, or whatever also changed the sound. Knock yourself out.
Thorens TD295 Mk.2 turntable
Thorens' aim was to produce a reasonably priced ($995) three-speed turntable with a modicum of convenience: end-of-record shutoff and electronically controlled, flip-of-the-switch speed change. But before unpacking the 295, I knew its country of origin was not Germany, but the Czech Republic. I recognized the box from my Music Hall MMF turntable review (in the October '98 issue), made by Pro-Ject. Inside I found a deluxe version of the familiar Pro-Ject arm, but this is the first one I've come across with a removable headshellwhich also lets you rotate it for azimuth adjustment. The 5-lb balanced alloy platter is also made by Pro-Ject, as are the plastic subplatter and bearing assembly. The motor is not the usual Pro-Ject fare, but rather a more substantial German product. The MDF/acrylic plinth is both heavy and attractively finished.
But enough small talk: sonically, this 'table doesn't make the cut. I tried a Grado Reference and the Shure V15xMR, and with both I got rhythmically sluggish sound with some serious colorationsparticularly some midbass bloat (probably the source of the rhythmic constipation) and an edgy top. I was really surprised, because the Grado is usually such a sweetheartand both the Pro-Ject and Music Hall 'tables have always impressed me with their decent sound and outstanding performance/dollar ratios. The $299 Music Hall sounds better than this. So what happened? Perhaps the fault lies with the electronic motor control, or the loss of arm rigidity caused by the removable headshell, or the "lively" sound that poured through the speakers when I gently tapped the plinth top.
Whatever the cause, this $1000 mix of Czech outsourcing and German upgrading did not gel. As a dedicated 78rpm player it might be okay, but you can get a Rega 78rpm model for less, and it would be at least as good and probably much better. I hope this pan doesn't mean that now I won't be able to get my hands on Thorens' new top-of-the-line Ambiancethat looks interesting!
A Sleeper from Slovenia
On the happier side (I changed "brighter" to "happier" because I don't want to leave you with the wrong sonic impression) of analog playback comes the Kuzma Stabi S turntable, which originally caught my eye at last year's Heathrow Hi-Fi Show. My experience with the Simon Yorke Designs Series 7 turntable has convinced me of the potential of a plinthless 'table, and the Stabi S confirms it. The platter-bearing assembly is sunk into a heavy, solid brass tube that also holds the arm. A smaller, stabilizing hunk of solid brass tubing with $O-ringed training wheels (just being colorful; these wheels don't turn) is affixed at a 90º angle. A nicely machined aluminum subplatter is attached to a substantial one-piece bearing spindle that's larger in diameter than one usually sees in a 'table at this price point, and fits into a nonmetallic sleeve.
The oversized aluminum platter weighs almost 8 lbs. It's damped with a rubber insert on the underside and an integral rubber/textile mat on top. Rotational power is applied via a flat, precision-ground belt and standalone motor housed in brass and fitted with a crowned plastic pulley. (A larger crowned pulley fits over it for 45rpm.) The 'table's compactness is enhanced by the placement of its motor, which is mostly under the platter. A cutout on the platter bottom accommodates the pulley shaft.
The Kuzma Stabi S is solid, stable, brawny, runs at precisely 33⅓ and 45 as it's supposed to, and just plain looks like it means business. And it costs only $1200. One beef: the spindle is too tall to take a closed-top record clamp like the SME. Kuzma's literature lists an optional clamp, but none was supplied with the review sample.
The final version of the Stogi S arm wasn't ready when the 'table arrived, so I got hold of a Rega RB600, which uses the same-size mounting hole as the Kuzma arm. The Rega arm's threaded mounting shaft fits into a hole drilled into yet another chunk of cylindrical brass, and is fixed via a pair of large set-screws. I had to be careful about how much pressure I applied to the set-screws; I didn't want to flatten the arm's mounting threads.
The final arm assembly fits snugly into a hole approximately 2" in diameter drilled out of the main brass tube, and is itself fixed via a large set-screw on the side of the main structure. Yes, this means you now have a Rega arm that does VTAbut not in the sense that you can vary it once you've set overhang, because the hole in the brass insert is not drilled concentrically.
When you loosen the set-screw to change the arm's height, the arm holder is free to rotate as well. In other words, you get one shot at VTA; if you decide to change it after setting overhang, you're going to have to reset overhangnot the best part of the design. A lineup marker on the arm shaft and main tube would allow you to change VTA while returning to the original overhang setting, so I guess you could always scribe one yourself. Carefully. Also, with the Rega arm, the cable coming through the bottom didn't clear the shelf, so I had to raise the 'table an inch or so. I used A.R.T. Q dampers, which designer Franc Kuzma said would work, though he cautioned me against gummy-type supports like Sorbothane.
I set up the Rega arm with both the Grado Statement and the Clavis D.C. cartridges, and what I heard floored me. This is a great 'table! It has gravity and weightand this with AC sourced directly from the wall. The main tube's mass and makeup ensure rigidity, but I was concerned about bearing noise and vibrations reaching the arm. I put a stethoscope on the arm end of the main brass tube and, with the platter spinning, was greeted by dead silencenot surprising, given what music was sounding like.
The Rega/Stabi S combo offered a level of background "blackness" you usually hear only with far more expensive 'tables. Bass extension and solidity were really impressive, as were the very low levels of midbass overhang and creeping bloat. The Stabi S gets down! This is a 'table that's in control of the music.
Large-scale dynamics were surefooted, and while not quite as well developed as you'd get with the very best, the top of the dynamic scale exhibited plenty of "punch" and never threatened to let go. What impressed me most about the Stabi S was its low tonal coloration, top to bottom. With the Rega arm, the 'table does give up a bit of bottom-end extension and warm afterglow, and is slightly dry in the mids and on topcommon with nonsuspended 'tablesbut the sonic picture it draws is big and extremely well balanced, if slightly forward of neutral and not particularly warm or lush.
The balance does favor the front of the stage, with somewhat less clarity toward the back corners, but this is in comparison to the Yorke fitted with the Graham 2.0 on a Vibraplane, so please keep these comments in perspective! After all, the Graham costs substantially more than the Stabi S and Rega combined. In fact, the Vibraplane costs more than twice as much.
Stogi S tonearm
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Immedia's Allen Perkins will be sincerely flattered when he sees the unipivot Stogi S. While the final iteration looks somewhat less like the Immedia RPM 2 arm than did the original I saw last year, it still lifts a number of very original Immedia concepts, like the damping cup/platform and central bearing post. But while the two tonearms are superficially similar, there are big differences. For instance, the Immedia's bearing post is sunk into the armboard, thus mechanically grounding the arm. That's not the case with the Stogi S. But what do you expect from a $700 arm when you're comparing it to one that costs almost $3000?
When you set up the Immedia, you place the bearing height at record level, so it doesn't change as you change VTAan important feature unique to the Immedia. The Stogi S itself doesn't allow for VTA adjustment, though on the Stabi S you can set arm height by adjusting the arm-mount cylinder. The arm gets the basics correct, placing the brass counterweights below the pivot point for added stability. Azimuth is set by rotating one or both of the two counterweights around their shaft. Effective arm length is only 229mm (the Rega's, for example, is 239mm). Longer means less theoretical tracking error, which is why some audiophiles go for 12" arms. But longer also means greater effective mass, less rigidity, and more tracking error when you don't set up correctly. So put that in your armpipe and smoke it.
As on the Immedia arm, the Stogi S's arm wire (Cardas) makes one continuous pass from cartridge clips to RCA plugs, which is good, but the main armtube, though internally damped, is quite "live." Tap it and it just about fibrillates.
The arm doesn't sound bright or uncontrolled, probably because, as with the Immedia, the bottom of the bearing housing is a wide, flat surface that comes into contact with a pool of damping fluid, which you can inject to taste. The Kuzma uses thick silicone, the Immedia synthetic motor oil. Antiskating is via a conventional pulley/shaft/weight mechanism. There is no fingerlift.
I tried the Grado Statement and Clavis D.C. cartridges with the Stogi S, and found the arm (effective mass: 11gm) to be very good tracker with both. Damping fluid is a must, as the arm's stability greatly depends on some fluid contacting the surface of the bearing housing. The Stogi S didn't quite match the Rega's bottom-end extension, but it was somewhat richer in the midband, which benefited the 'table's overall sound. I also felt the Stogi's top-end extension and sparkle were slightly diminished compared to the Rega's (though that can be varied with the amount of silicone applied), but focus, weight, and image stability were outstanding. The combination of Kuzma arm and 'table with the ultra-detailed Clavis D.C. was something quite special. The Grado/Rega/Stabi S combo was also in the pocket.
As with any suspensionless turntable, the results will depend on what supports it. Kuzma offers an optional MDF slab (see photo), but you're going to need some kind of isolation platform or stand to get the most from the Stabi S.
It's unfortunate that a reviewer can't have every product at his disposal when writing a review like this. I don't have the Basis 1400 on hand, which at $1400 would be a likely competitor, but given how it's built and sounds, the Kuzma Stabi S would seem to be the 'table to beat at the $1200 price point.
Add a Rega 250 or 300 and you're really sailing for under $1500. Use a Rega 600 or Kuzma's Stogi S and you're still under $2k. The Stabi/Stogi S combo at $1900 is an astonishingly good value. Listen to them set up on a good stand and you'll think you're hearing something that costs at least twice as much.
I'm over my word limit and I haven't gotten to the Walker/VPI motor-drive shootout (very interesting!), the cartridge reviews I promised, or the updated Lewis Electronics absolute polarity switcher. Those will come after the next column, which will be devoted to HI-FI '99. However, I've decided to begin a new column feature, "In Heavy Rotation''a list of what's spinning chez Fremer.