Analog Corner #112

Reviewed this month: the T+A G 10 turntable from Germany

Manufacturers of audio accessories are an odd bunch: they show up at your door, pucks, cones, platforms, or balls in hand, eager to demonstrate the enormous sonic effects their products will have on your system. After inserting their isolators, energy drains, or what have you, they sit down for a listen.

But do they even hear the $40,000/pair loudspeakers you're reviewing? Your $15,000 turntable and $4500 cartridge? Your $7000 phono preamp or $30k worth of other electronics?

No. Usually, after a few minutes of listening to what is hopefully a fabulous musical performance, they exclaim, "Listen to my cones!" Or "My rack throws quite a soundstage, doesn't it? Or "My balls rock! " It's only natural that they're keyed in to the supposed differences made by their own devices. Still, the whole exercise is kind of creepy.

But I don't lay all the blame for this warped perspective on the guys who make the accessories. Reviewers share some responsibility. I once read a review of an audio-component rack that described how well it "imaged" and how big a "soundstage" it produced. Sorry, but a rack doesn't image or soundstage. It can have an effect on those phenomena, but it can't produce them.

Keeping that in mind, I was recently visited by Gingko Audio's Vinh Vu and Norm Ginsburg (www.gingkoaudio.com). Gingko Audio manufactures a wide range of products, including individual ball feet for use under CD players, preamps, and other electronics, and acrylic dustcovers for many popular brands of turntables. I'd already heard, at Home Entertainment 2004 East, what one of their inexpensive isolation platforms could do for a Wilson Benesch Full Circle turntable. Also, VPI's Harry Weisfeld is enthusiastic about the effects of the Gingko Cloud platform under his Scoutmaster–I'd just reviewed the Scoutmaster and knew its sound well.

Gingko's isolating products are made of acrylic and small rubber balls of some kind. They look like blue squash or paddleballs, but Gingko won't say what the actual material is. Whatever the source, the balls fit snugly into wells machined into slabs of acrylic that have been configured as individual feet or platforms. The Cloud 11 platform they brought along is custom-made for the VPI Scoutmaster and features a special double-thickness bottom plate sitting on four small feet and capable of accepting 10 balls. The larger upper platform, accommodating the 'table and motor, measures 19" by 16" by 2.5". The weight of whatever you wish to put atop the platform determines the number of balls needed to produce a sufficiently low resonant frequency to provide genuine isolation (a resonant frequency of a few hertz is ideal). The optimal number of balls for the Scoutmaster is five: one at each corner, and a fifth placed asymmetrically near the 'table's center.

The Gingko guys came prepared to demonstrate the efficacy of their design beyond a subjective listen. They brought along a pair of Brüel and Kjaer 4371 accelerometers, one of which they affixed to the surface of my Finite Elemente shelf and the other to the top of the Scoutmaster's plinth. Using some B&K conditioning amps, an IBM Thinkpad, and Spectrogram software developed by Richard Horne, the Gingko boys were able to give me irrefutable evidence that their platform was effective in isolating the Scoutmaster from the outside world. We also tested the glass S.A.P. Relaxa magnetic stand ($800) I wrote about in February 2004 (p.32), and the active Vibraplane, which is pretty much the industry standard. Then, just for the hell of it, we listened to the Scoutmaster with and without the Cloud 11.

Take a look at the photos above to see just how effective the Cloud 11 was. The first photo shows the accelerometer setup, the second what happened when I tapped with my finger the Finite Elemente's outer frame. On the left is the accelerometer taped to the shelf; on the right, the one on the plinth. The black line across the top shows the overall acceleration caused by the tap; the colors indicate the level of attenuation in dB, relative to frequency. Dark blue is –60dB, bright green is –40dB, and bright red is –35dB. The frequency response, from the bottom of the graph to the top, is 10Hz–22kHz.

The second photo shows what happened when I tapped the shelf of the Finite Elemente to which the accelerometer was taped. While the frame provided some isolation compared to the shelf itself, as seen in the differences in the black traces on the left side of each photo, there wasn't much low-frequency attenuation–there's very little difference. In either case, the isolation provided by the Cloud 11 is obvious.

The third photo shows the isolation provided by the Finite Elemente stand when music was playing, indicating how effective the Cloud was in actual use. Note the red bar, seen only in the plinth-mounted accelerometer. That's the motor, at around 120Hz. It's well down in level on the left side (seen in blue), demonstrating that the Cloud also isolates in the reverse direction. Interestingly, while the photo of the Relaxa stand shows less effective attenuation overall, it did a much better job of dispensing with motor noise, seemingly draining it out through the Finite Elemente stand, as indicated by the red bar on the left of the photo.

Finally, note the awesome isolation provided by the active Vibraplane (ignore the glitch), and consider the price difference: The Vibraplane costs thousands, the Cloud 11 with double-thick lower plate $399. The standard Cloud 11 costs $379, the standard Cloud 10 $299, and the Cloud 10 for the Scout or Scoutmaster $329. "You pay, you get," as my mother used to say.

And there was an absolute sonic difference commensurate with what was measured. Putting the Cloud under the Scoutmaster resulted in a dramatic lowering of the noise floor and an improvement in the "blackness" of the background. Images stood out in clarified relief, bass tightened, transients sounded sharper and more natural. The differences were not at all subtle.

As far as I'm concerned, even if Gingko Audio's balls are lifted from racquet sports, they've done the research, they've considered the math, they've built nicely finished platforms on which to squeeze the balls just so, and they don't charge outrageous amounts for something that really works. Highly recommended.

Another inexpensive cartridge that sings
We're in the midst of an explosion of reasonably priced analog riches. Sumiko's newest Blue Point Special moving-coil cartridge, the Evo III ($349), is a huge improvement over the original, which had a well-deserved reputation for sounding a bit crisp and hard even as it set new standards of high resolution in the low end of the cartridge market. In this newest nude iteration, Sumiko has taken what was learned in the creation of the superb-sounding Blackbird ($799) and applied it at a lower price point, according to Sumiko's Jim Alexander.

The Evo III is slightly lower in mass (8.3gm vs 9.1gm) and just a touch lower in compliance than the Blackbird. The idea was to make it more compatible with a wider variety of tonearms, especially those of lower mass. According to Alexander, the original BPS's reputation for being bright and spitty was due more to arm/cartridge mismatches than to anything else. The new version uses a new top plate said to offer far greater rigidity while weighing less, and a 0.3µm by 0.8µm elliptical stylus. The output is 2.5mV, the recommended tracking force 2.0gm.

If you set it up correctly in most tonearms, there's no way you're going to find the Evo III hard, bright, or spitty. Instead, you'll find a model of tight clarity, rhythmic certainty, and excellent tracking. But don't expect miracles: it's not the equal of the surprisingly sophisticated, liquid Blackbird, and at less than half the price, it shouldn't be expected to be. It's got a reasonable amount of punch, however, and an overall clean, bracing demeanor, with well-controlled bass, making it ideal for rock and pop, less so for classical. Some listeners complained that the original BPS sounded "dry." The Evo III isn't overtly dry, but lush it ain't.

The BPS Evo III's picture is a bit flat and slightly opaque compared to more expensive cartridges; you don't pay, you don't get. What's wrong with the Evo III is what it lacks. Though not saddled with any overtly annoying colorations, its harmonic development is somewhat stilted, its dynamic range a bit restricted, and its soundstage less than expansive–but only when compared to more expensive cartridges.

The elliptical stylus helped make the BPS a good tracker, and transients were clean and tight, if a bit lacking in nuance. You'll get a richer midrange and greater liquidity from, say, Grado's wooden-bodied Sonata, but not this level of excitement. The Sonata might make a better overall choice for classical and acoustic music, especially female voices, but for rock and pop at an affordable price–especially if your budget system needs a shot of adrenaline–the Blue Point Special Evo III will fit the bill.

Sumiko has done a nice job of improving a decent cartridge in need of a wider playing field. But be warned: A "nude" cartridge's lack of a body, and therefore of a stylus guard, will make ownership a nightmare if you have young children, or a cleaning woman who wields a mean dust cloth.

A plug'n'play LP playback solution from T+A
The German firm T+A recently introduced the G 10, an ambitious plug'n'play turntable complete with cartridge, tonearm, and optional built-in phono preamplifier. The 'table, built on the same rigid chassis T+A uses for its V 10 hybrid vacuum-tube integrated amplifier that I reviewed in May, is available with either a Rega RB300 arm or SME's new M2 (also used on the recently reviewed Musical Fidelity M1). Your choice of tonearm determines which cartridge is supplied, all custom-built in Switzerland for T+A by Benz-Micro.

I visited the T+A factory in Germany over the summer and was impressed by its size, and by the scope and quality of the products manufactured. Though the company is just beginning to appear on American radar screens, it can best be described as a much smaller–but no less accomplished–German version of Linn. I wish I had more space to describe what I saw and heard, and how wonderfully I was treated by everyone. Below is a short video of my trip:

I watched the G 10 turntables being built, and had a chance to listen to both the Rega- and SME-equipped versions. While they're sold with different cartridges, I requested a comparison using the more expensive C 10 moving-coil cartridge on both arms. Good as the RB300 OEM arm is, the more expensive SME M2 was clearly superior. I went for that one to review.

As delivered, my review sample included: turntable, tonearm, and cartridge ($6400); built-in phono preamp ($495); record weight ($150); and brush ($150). Total: $7195. An optional dustcover adds $325. The G 10 with Rega RB300 arm costs $4750. Both editions are available in silver or titanium.

If you advertise a product as "plug'n'play," it ought to be. The G 10 was. I opened the box and found an actual turntable almost ready to play, with arm and cartridge premounted. Even the antiskate weight was in place. To use the G 10, I had only to add oil to the bearing well, place the ball bearing atop the inverted spindle, mount the platter and O-ring drive belt, loop the belt over the motor pulley, add the acrylic mat, put the counterweight on the arm, balance, add tracking force, and plug the 'table into the wall and the RCA cables into an Aux preamp input. Ten minutes after opening the box, I was ready to spin vinyl. That's what I call plug'n'play.

Design: The T+A G 10 weighs more than 33 lbs and is a compact, solidly built turntable with motor, power supply, and optional phono preamp all built-in. The AC cord and RCA interconnects plug into the rear. The rigid aluminum chassis rests on four corner feet containing shock-absorbing mechanisms, though I doubt they provide much in the way of genuine isolation. The AC synchronous motor is driven by a quartz-controlled electronic drive to which sophisticated digital signal processing is applied that monitors and optimizes the motor coil's voltage curve. The result is smooth, vibration-free performance. According to T+A, motor wow and flutter are not measurable. The two speeds, 33.33 and 45rpm, are electronically selected, with claimed speed fluctuation of ±0.02%; my sample ran well within that margin, slightly on the plus side. Rumble is said to be –82dB.

The full-sized platter of solid aluminum weighs 9.7 lbs and is machined in a single step, including the boring of the spindle hole. The platter is driven by a grooved aluminum pulley and a secondary rim machined into the platter. The acrylic mat fits onto the platter via large-diameter holes and round risers machined into the platter's surface. The inverted bearing of polished, hardened steel rides on a sintered bronze bushing. The chassis is topped with a layer of acrylic that includes a raised arm-mounting plate. Each combo of motor and power supply is optimized, run in for at least a week, then readjusted as needed. The G 10 is a serious turntable.

T+A is equally serious about the cartridge. The C 10 is a medium-compliance moving-coil cartridge with 0.8mV output, a line contact (6 by 40µm) stylus, and an optimal tracking force of 1.8gm. It's based, I believe, on Benz-Micro's Ace series, but housed in a proprietary open, metal body. The C 10's channel separation (I assume at 1kHz, though it's not specified) is claimed to be a relatively high 35dB.

Nor is T+A's PH-G10 MC phono preamp an afterthought. While getting to it is not easy (you have to turn the 'table over), gain, loading and capacitance are all adjustable via DIP switches–if you decide to change cartridges, you're still in business. Should you wish to use a different phono preamp, the PH-G10 can be bypassed.

Use and Sound: Using the G 10 couldn't have been easier. There's an On/Off switch to the left of the front panel, and a three-position switch for 33.33, Stop, and 45. Note that Stop is the central position: From Stop, you can get to either speed with one click. The record weight of machined aluminum is substantial. I've been playing with weights from Shun-Mook, Locus Design, and SME, but that's for another column. Incidentally, the loose bearing and mispunched alignment-gauge problems that plagued early samples of SME's M2 tonearm bundled with the Musical Fidelity M1 'table (see March p.30) have been dealt with; this M2 was fine.

The G 10 with built-in phono preamp and Benz-Micro cartridge was the kind of analog front end Mikey likes. With so many variables involved, it's difficult to determine what's at play individually, but as a system that you can buy assembled and have running in less than 15 minutes–even if you're a klutz–the G 10 was an extremely attractive performer.

It sat on the crystalline-clear, tight and nimble side of the analog fence. If you like your analog soft and bulbous, the fully equipped G 10 won't be sitting on your rack any time soon. But if you like rhythmically tight, hairpin-turn vinyl playback, you'll love this setup. When I tapped on the top plate with the stylus in the groove and the motor not spinning, instead of the usual deep, drum-like thump, I heard a lightweight, quickly evaporating pop–testament to a massive, well-damped chassis. That chassis also, perhaps, accounts for the G 10's tight, deep bottom end–no soft, "drummy" bass from this 'table. I don't think anyone would be disappointed by the G 10's bass performance, unless your taste in analog leans to the soft and gummy.

The G 10's resolution of inner detail, its transient clarity and dynamic punch, also stood out. While the 'table didn't match the Origin Live's "effervescence" (few 'tables at any price do), it was in the ballpark. It did manage to float images cleanly in 3D space against a jet-black backdrop. In other words, while the thin mat is acrylic and there's a thin acrylic plate atop the chassis, the sound didn't have the softness and indecisive overhang that, it seems to me, acrylic often has.

The overall sound was somewhat forward, with a slightly etchy, bright, and hard quality on top. The emphasis was on initial instrumental attack over overtones, and a less than gossamer character to transients, though not to the point of sounding "hashy." Also, the midbass was somewhat tight, overdamped, and lacking in requisite bloom, which gave the sound a dryness in that region that prevented drums, for instance, from being fully expressed.

Was it the cartridge, the $495 internal preamp, or the 'table itself that was causing this sonic character? My guess would be the preamp–especially since I'm used to spending my time with multi-thousand-dollar ones (not that price is always an indicator of sonic quality, but it usually is). For now, I can't be sure–but don't take that slight quibble as a deal-buster. As delivered, the G 10 combo produced nuanced 3D images, not the cardboard-cutout types you get with genuinely "etchy" electronics and cartridges.

If you're toying with analog but don't want to mess around with phono preamps, cables, tricky cartridge alignment, tweaky suspensions, and shifting belts around to change speeds, and you do want high performance and jewel-like build quality, here's a compact plug'n'play product that has been carefully designed from the ground up, then precision-made, hand-built, and individually tweaked. There's even an upgrade path to a better SME tonearm (or a Graham with an SME adapter)–and, of course, you can use any outboard phono preamp and cartridge you want. It also looks cool, especially in titanium.

That said, I think most buyers of the fully loaded G 10 will be more than satisfied with its high-grade sonic performance, as is, for a long time to come. In most ways, in my opinion, it wipes away any digital front end at any price, and it's almost as convenient to set up and use. By the way, the G 10, like the Scoutmaster, sounded better on the Gingko platform.

Next time: the G 10 "unplugged," using a reference cartridge and phono preamp.

Don't try this at home
I did something the other night I don't recommend you try, but I thought you might enjoy hearing about it.

It was Saturday night. I'd just finished dinner and three potent margaritas (just fresh-squeezed lime juice, triple sec, and a high-end tequila) when I had an insatiable craving–but not for salsa, chips, or guacamole. No! I had to hear my Simon Yorke turntable, which had been out of the system for a few months while I auditioned the excellent Kuzma Air Line/Stabi Reference 'table.

So, more than slightly tipsy, I went downstairs, located all of the Simon Yorke's pieces, and assembled them, which wasn't too difficult. I then proceeded to install the $4500 Lyra Titan cartridge on the Immedia RPM-2 tonearm, which can be tricky even when you're sober. Yes, it was a bit risky, but I guess I managed to dial it in perfectly–I stayed up till 3am listening.

It was awesome! I may be reeling in the years, but if I can set up a turntable tipsy (not to mention straight), I figure I can still play this field for a long time to come.


Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Miles Davis, Live Around the World, Warner Bros. 180gm import LPs (2)
2) Janos Starker, Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, Speakers Corner 180gm LPs (3)
3) Doc Watson, Home Again!, Cisco 180gm LP
4) The Coral, The Coral, Deltasonic 150gm import LP
5) The Velvet Undergound, Live at Max's Kansas City, Rhino CDs (2)
6) Jacintha, The Girl From Bossa Nova, Groovenote 180gm, 45rpm LPs (2)
7) Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon, The Blues Every Which Way, Speakers Corner 180gm LP
8) Peter Gabriel, Us Classic Records 200gm SV-P LP
9) Luka Bloom, Before Sleep Comes, Bar None CD
10) Various Artists, Beautiful Dreamer, The Songs of Stephen Foster, American Roots CD

COMMENTS
volvic's picture

It grew on me, I certainly loved the looks of their similar looking CD player. At the time I was smitten with the G10 and the M1 Musical Fidelity table which I still covet - knowing all too well that service and parts might be tough to come by from Musical Fidelity, I so wish they still made it. Still, both great tables.

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