Analog Corner #110

Reviewed this month: Kuzma's Stabi Reference turntable

A young reader who's been a Stereophile subscriber since junior high, and an "Analog Corner" fan for nearly eight years, sent me a copy of "A Vinyl Farewell," by David Browne, which appeared in the October 4, 1991 issue of Entertainment Weekly. In the article, Browne kisses the LP goodbye, lovingly, nostalgically, and not at all dismissively. Accompanying the article is a photo, perhaps unintentionally suggestive, of an unusually large stylus floating above a record and about to make contact with a hairball of dust. The caption reads, "Playing an LP suddenly feels as foreign as a druidic ceremony."

"There's no denying one inescapable fact," Browne states in the first paragraph of the sumptuous, eight-page spread: "the vinyl LP is about to go the way of five-and-dime stores and the 50-cent gallon of gas." Though later in the article he admits that LPs are still available in small numbers, "Nonetheless, at some point the major record companies will finally pull the plug."

But 13 years later, they're still plugged in. Sony, Time Warner, and BMG still press LPs, albeit in limited quantities. Between them, the indies, and the reissue labels, there's more vinyl available in 2004 than there was in 1991. From this, it's safe to conclude that more people today buy records and engage in druidic ceremonies than did back then.

Browne writes, "in the future, many in the business predict, other independents will license the rights to old albums from the major labels and reissue them on black plastic in limited quantities." Many in the business were correct.

Browne didn't predict the vinyl resurgence of new and older albums pressed on vinyl by major artists. Nor did he foresee digital downloading and MP3s. Instead, he saw a day, perhaps 20 years from 1991, when music consumers would be "hauling CDs with cracked plastic cases down to the used-CD shop to trade them in for DAT tapes or some other new technology."

Browne concludes that "maybe we'll be as sentimental about [CD's] demise as we are about the death of the LP. But only if that happens could it be said that the CD truly replaced the black vinyl and cardboard now collecting dust in our homes and our hearts."

No one today who has switched to MP3s is at all nostalgic about their CDs. Of the music fans I know who have large CD collections, few feel anything in their hearts for their rows of sterile, jewelboxed data dumps. Might as well move them to a server. Might as well get new music via download.

But irrespective of time and age, the LP is a cool way to package music, physically and sonically. The turntable is an exquisitely simple invention that time and digital technology have not yet been able to diminish—and probably won't, until everything turns to dust. If you doubt this, consider Pro-Ject's Debut II turntable.

Pro-Ject Debut II turntable
Earlier this year, I watched Debut II turntables ($279) being built at Pro-Ject's factory in the Czech Republic. The Debut II looked to be the ideal beginner's turntable, and I was curious to hear how it sounded. The price includes a decent moving-magnet cartridge, the Ortofon OM-5E, already mounted and aligned—all you have to do is add the antiskating weight and line, the drive belt, and the steel platter with felt mat. Remove the motor suspension's shipping screws and you're ready to spin LPs—even the counterweight is supposedly preset for the correct tracking force of 1.75gm. (Mine was set way too heavy; check before using.)

The motor drive system has a flat belt and a crowned pulley, and is suspended with an O-ring. It spins a subplatter attached to a chrome-plated stainless-steel spindle running in a brass bearing housing. The tonearm, a straight aluminum pipe with an effective length of 8.6", is nothing fancy. It has a bearing system of inverted points of hardened stainless steel and a silicone-damped cueing system.

The Debut II is compact, nicely finished, and cheap. What's more, at 33.33rpm and 45rpm, my sample ran about as close to dead-on (1004Hz on a 1kHz test tone) as you can expect from a 'table whose speed can't be adjusted. For 20 bucks more you can choose from among nine flashy colors. Best of all, its sound is well balanced, and reasonably detailed and complex.

The Pro-Ject Debut II proved that you have to work hard to make analog sound crappy. The 'table's sins were mostly of omission, and because those omissions were well balanced, I didn't much miss what wasn't there, and noticed nothing in particular that sounded wrong. The arm-cartridge assembly tracked cleanly, producing a picture that was tight, compact, somewhat bright, and just plain modest overall. But the music also managed to flow gracefully, thanks to the Debut II's remarkably well-controlled if somewhat limited bottom end. Images were stable and well focused, and background noise levels were low. Only when I played the same records back on a $20,000 'table-arm-cartridge rig did the Debut's simplified picture—a sort of outline of what my reference produced—become obvious.

They know how to build turntables at the Pro-Ject factory. Although the Debut II is their el cheapo model, great care has been lavished on its component parts—most are made in-house—and on the final assembly.

Before packing it up, I decided to try the Debut II with another inexpensive MM cartridge that's been highly recommended to me: the Audio Technica AT95E, available for under $50 at most online cartridge dealers. With its 3.5mV output, recommended tracking force of 1.5–2.5gm, elliptical stylus measuring 0.4 by 0.7 mil, and moderately high compliance, the AT95E was a good match for the Debut's tonearm. The cartridge's height was also about ideal for the arm, which does not permit adjustment of the vertical tracking angle (VTA).

With the AT95E tracking at 2gm, the sound was richer, fuller, and a bit "fleshier" than with the Ortofon OM-5E. The bass was more robust, and the overall sound was slightly warmer. Again, the sins were of omission; in fact, listening to music via approximately $330 worth of 'table, arm, and cartridge was more than satisfactory. Spend more and you'll get more—even a lot more—but if you prefer to proceed cautiously into analog without risking a lot of money, the Debut II turntable will communicate the essence of analog as well as any. In some ways, no CD player, no matter how much you spend, can compete.

Pro-Ject also makes a alignment tool ($100). It's well designed and built, easy to use, and works with all Pro-Ject 'tables, as well as other brands.

Kuzma Stabi Reference turntable & Air Line tonearm
In his Stabi Reference turntable, Frank Kuzma has combined some of the best elements of turntable design from SME, Basis, and VPI, added his own innovations, and come up with an exceptionally fine 'table that's sold domestically for a very reasonable $7000. Compared to some other 'tables in the first tier, the Stabi Reference is a genuine bargain. In combination with the Kuzma Air Line tonearm ($8000), for a total cost of $15,000 you get what I consider to be top-shelf performance at a mid-level price. (I still have reservations about the Air Line's lack of damping. See the August 2004 Stereophile for my full review of the arm.)

What the Stabi Reference lacks in sex appeal it more than makes up for in rugged build quality and exquisite machining, and especially in its fundamentally proper and conservative but innovatively executed design. Kuzma's design is properly isolated, heavily mass-damped to prevent the transmission of energy and resonances, and more than sufficiently rigid to maintain all geometric playback parameters.

Each level of the Stabi's heavy, split plinth consists of two plates of 10mm-thick aluminum sandwiching a plate of acrylic, all three layers held together with nonmagnetic stainless-steel screws. The top level of the plinth supports the platter and the inverted dual bearing, which has an oil bath and a ruby ball bearing. The suspension system comprises four corner-mounted springs submerged in silicone oil. The system's claimed resonant frequency is a very effective 2.2Hz; in other words, the playback system is isolated from frequencies above 2.2Hz. Lifting off the 'table's top plate for shipping automatically seals the four silicone-oil reservoirs.

The bottom plinth, containing two 24-pole motors positioned opposite one another, sits on three cones. The aluminum subplatter is driven by two crowned pulleys and a flat, precision-ground belt. The outboard split-phase power supply is quartz-controlled and includes a 20W amplifier, and the motors' speed can be adjusted ±4%. Generally, I'm no fan of multiple motors: when you double the number, you double the potential noise and vibration, and unless the multiple pulleys are perfectly machined, two motors probably end up doing more to hurt speed stability than help it. As I've done with other turntables I've reviewed recently, I'm making for editor John Atkinson a recording of the Kuzma Stabi Reference playing a 1kHz test tone. He's preparing a compendium of performance results for a future story.

The Stabi's oversized, 17.5-lb platter and removable armboard are also aluminum-acrylic-aluminum sandwiches. Cutting a custom armboard is best left to a professional or to Kuzma: the sandwich must be prized apart, and the aluminum and acrylic sections cut separately and then reassembled, which can be tricky.

The spindle is threaded for a clamp-weight mechanism of the kind I believe was originated by VPI. The platter features an integral mat of textile and rubber that superficially resembles the diamond-scrolled one SME supplies with its turntables. The mat is designed to offer the proper mechanical impedance matching with the LP's vinyl material to dissipate vibrational energy created by the contact of the stylus with the groove. The entire package weighs an impressive 88 lbs.

Setup was simple, and the top plate is easily leveled via four large knobs.

Sonically, the combination of Stabi Reference and Air Line offered the kind of rock-solid, dynamic, stable, and dramatic performance you should expect for $15,000. Bass extension and control were authoritative and assured, with the start/stop abilities that produce rhythmic agility with full weight. The sense of physical stability produced by the Stabi delivered a combination of relaxation and musical certainty that put me in the state of suspended disbelief necessary to make recorded music sound live. When all musical hell broke loose on recordings, the Stabi Reference kept its cool.

As with the SME 30, the Stabi Reference's "grounded" sound will not appeal to all listeners, despite what I think of as its fundamental neutrality. Some may prefer a lighter, airier, more delicate sound, but I'm not sure such a sound represents greater accuracy. With the Simon Yorke System 7 'table, for instance, the Air Line arm seemed to have a slightly more romantic and airy upper midrange than with the Stabi, but not quite the same bottom-end heft and weight.

Is the Stabi Reference the equal of, say, the SME 20? Without having both here to compare, I can't say, especially since I had the choice of the Air Line arm, but it's certainly playing on the same field.

Compact, easy to set up, well engineered, and beautifully built, the Kuzma Stabi Reference is a relatively affordable, nontweaky, no-nonsense Class A turntable that does just about everything correctly except excite the eyes. What it does for the ears is a very different story.

VPI Scoutmaster turntable
I've reviewed a number of VPI turntables, and for many years owned a VPI TNT. The Scoutmaster ($2400) is among the least expensive VPIs I've auditioned, but it may be my favorite. For one thing, its fit'n'finish are easily the best of any VPI I've owned or reviewed. Beyond that, the Scoutmaster has a rigid, compact plinth comprising a 12-gauge steel plate sandwiched by two thick layers of MDF, an inverted bearing with Teflon thrust plate, and an outboard 300rpm motor in a solid aluminum assembly. An O-ring drives the 1¾"-thick acrylic platter via a dual grooved Delrin pulley.

Included in the price is the latest edition of VPI's JMW Memorial unipivot tonearm, in a 9" version rigidly attached to the plinth. This arm offers azimuth adjustability via the counterweight's offset hole. Rotating the counterweight changes the cantilever's perpendicularity to the groove. The VTA is adjustable, though not during play.

The two biggest differences between this arm and the original JMW Memorial are that the main bearing is now directly "grounded" to the plinth instead of being cantilevered on an aluminum plate attached to a VTA adjustment tower, and the stabilizing ring surrounding the arm's bearing housing is fixed. The original version had a rotatable offset weight suspended on a pair or O-rings. Rotating the ring changed the weight distribution, and thus the azimuth.

When I first reviewed the JMW Memorial, in the January 1997 issue (Vol.20 No.1), I found its sound smooth but a bit slow, and lacking in focus and impact. I couldn't understand the rationale of having a pair of high-frequency springs (the O-rings) associated with the bearing housing, which would lead to a resonance developing, probably within the audible spectrum. Nor did I think hanging the main bearing out on an aluminum plate made for a good mechanical ground. I have also tried the 12" version of the JMW Memorial. While these are popular in Japan, my feeling is that the longer arm's potential for lower tracking error is more than offset by the increased moment of inertia of the weight (cartridge) hanging off the end of the lever (tonearm), and the longer arm's greater potential for lower rigidity.

This new 9" version eliminates all of those problems, and guess what? I'm sure it sounds better. There are too many variables for me to be certain of that, but the taut, focused, remarkably coherent performance of this 'table-arm combo is testament to a fundamentally solid, well-grounded system that deals effectively with energy created at the stylus/groove interface.

There's still no real antiskating. I don't believe in twisting the arm wire as VPI suggests, because I don't see how the force applied could possibly be kept parallel to the plane of play: the azimuth would shift and vary across the surface of the record. But that's just me. VPI says a traditional antiskating mechanism will be available later this year.

Other changes from the original JMW Memorial are that the arm's unipivot bearing point is sharper, to reduce the area of contact and thus the resulting friction; and there's no damping well. The latter results in a Parkinson's-like trembling of the JMW when you use the finger lift or lower the arm via the cueing mechanism. I found this disconcerting, but it settled quickly; the arm appears to be extremely stable.

I reviewed the VPI combo with the SDS motor-controller option ($1000) and the outer record clamp ($500), which brought the total price to $3900—still relatively modest for what you get, in terms of both build quality and performance. I also opted for a second arm assembly ($400) so I could also play mono records using the Helikon mono cartridge. Once the arm assembly is set up, it stays that way—changing arms is little more than a literal snap of the arm wire's Limo connector.

I began with the Graham Nightingale. This cartridge proved an outstanding match for the Scoutmaster, showing off the 'table's impressive transient clarity and speed, low-level resolution, and rhythmic authority. I think the $2400 Scoutmaster is probably a better turntable overall than the far more expensive TNT I owned until the late 1990s (and which had been upgraded numerous times until I sold it). The Scoutmaster's bass extension, and especially its rhythmic drive, seemed noticeably superior to the TNT's, though so much has changed (including my room) that I'm not absolutely certain. What I am certain of is that the Scoutmaster's bottom end rocked as the TNT's didn't. Bass was both tight and reasonably well extended, with pitch definition and control that had always escaped the grasp of my TNT.

Beyond that, the Scoutmaster was light on its feet, with snappy pacing and lithe rhythmic drive. I felt good listening to it. Its ability to produce a deep, stable, three-dimensional soundstage was particularly noteworthy.

So who needs antiskating? That's VPI's position, but I feel antiskating is necessary to prevent the stylus from riding on the inner groove—whether you hear it or not. The true test will be when VPI makes antiskating available on one of its tonearms; then we'll be able to listen with and without antiskating, and draw some conclusions.

I placed the Kuzma Stabi Reference and Air Line on one stand, the Scoutmaster on another, and swapped cartridges so I could compare the performance of the $15,000 rig with the $3900, fully-decked-out Scoutmaster. While the Kuzma system had greater weight, solidity, and dynamic slam, the Scoutmaster offered a lighter, airier touch with a faster sense of "stop and start," yet with sufficient weight and solidity to be more than credible. Still, the comparison was unfair; overall, the VPI wasn't in the Kuzma's league.

Also unfair would be comparing the Scoutmaster's ease of use with the tweaky Air Line's. The Scoutmaster was a pleasure to use. The outer clamp ring fit tightly and cleanly, and, like other such rings, produced a marked improvement in bass extension, solidity, and especially background quiet. It's an upgrade that's easy to recommend.

Driven by the SDS motor controller, the Scoutmaster ran precisely on speed. But thanks to the graduations on the pulley, I could still get the 'table to run at the correct speed without that option. Still, the SDS improved the pitch stability, bass solidity, and sense of musical flow.

Overall, the Scoutmaster is the best-sounding, best-looking turntable I've yet encountered from VPI, though I've not heard the HRX or some of the other more recent models. I like it more than the more expensive Aries Extended (see my reviews in the March and November 2002 issues, Vol.25 Nos.3 and 11).

If you want to adjust VTA during play, then the Scoutmaster's JMW Memorial arm won't be for you. But I'm more than willing to give that up to get the rock-solid bass and rhythmic musical underpinning provided by this arm's solid mechanical design.

You can start with fine performance for $2400, and then improve the Scoutmaster greatly by adding the ring record clamp and the SDS motor controller. Given the Scoutmaster's impressive fit'n'finish, performance, and reasonable price, and given the weak US dollar, it's no surprise that Scoutmasters are going overseas in great numbers, or that I had to wait many months for my review sample. The wait was worth it.

Warning: Mat Toxic to LPs
Back when Allsop marketed its original Orbitrac record-cleaning device, the company also sold an enhanced Executive edition, which came in a nice plastic case and included a four-piece mat you could arrange to form a circle big enough to hold an LP for cleaning. I never used the mat.

Last year, I was sent an Extreme Phono None-Felt Mat, which Sam Tellig wrote up in August 2002 (Vol.25 No.8). I'd passed on the assignment because the Extreme mat is made of the same stuff as the Allsop Orbitrac Executive: an off-the-shelf material repackaged as a product specifically designed for LP playback. I didn't like that, so I ignored it.

I've since received a number of distressed e-mails from users who tell me that the mat material is apparently volatile. It reacts with vinyl if you leave a record on it for too long, and/or in a warm environment. According to the e-mailers, the mat can leave an imprint on the vinyl that doesn't come off. Worse, the imprint creates noise during playback that none of the users have so far been able to eliminate.

So be careful. You have been warned.

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Bob Dylan, Live 1964, Classic/Sony Legacy 200gm SV-P LPs (3)
2) Link Wray and His Ray Men, The Swan Singles Collection 1963–1967, Sundazed 180gm LPs (2)
3) Modest Mouse, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, Epic 180gm LPs (2)
4) HP Lovecraft, HP Lovecraft II, Radioactive 180gm LP
5) Ben Webster, Sophisticated Lady, Speakers Corner 180gm LP
6) Ramones, Live, Earmark 180gm LPs (2)
7) Primus, Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People, Mobile Fidelity 180gm LP
8) Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand, Domino/Epic 120gm LP
9) Mozart, K622 Clarinet Concerto, Musical Fidelity 180gm LP
10) Creedence Clearwater Revival, Absolute Originals, Analogue Productions 180gm LPs (7), 12" 45rpm EP

Fsonicsmith's picture

I will buy Mikey listening to Ramones and Modest Mouse. Primus? No way. I was a Primus fan back when Primus was big. Now, I have a hard time listening to Primus, Les Claypool's excellent but over-the-top bass playing notwithstanding. Try some Mike Watt/Firehose Mike. Watt's stuff has aged far better.

Michael Fremer's picture
This was originally published in 2004, don't you?
Fsonicsmith's picture

I got fooled again. Most times I can pick out old stuff from the nature of the equipment reviewed. There is-without a doubt what I will call an "ergonomic mental shortcoming" with the way your web-monkey displays recycled material. IOW, it is easy to miss when scanning posts.
I admire you for spinning all three back in 2004, not to mention mixing such stuff with classical music, jazz, and Creedence. Digressing, IMO Creedence got it's highest praise in "The Big Lebowski" and The Eagles got their most scathing criticism. I like to think that Jeff Bridges ad-libbed a lot of that.