Analog Corner #118

Randy’s Records, Salt Lake City (more recent photo).
I’m driving around the outskirts of Salt Lake City, where any city’s used-record and bookstores and antique shops and Methadone clinics are usually found. Sure enough, around the corner and down the block from the biggest used-book store is Randy’s Record Shop, billed as having “Utah’s best and largest selection of vinyl—LPs/45s/78s.”

I’d kill to have a store like Randy’s near me in New Jersey (There are two now: Scotti's in Summit, NJ and Music Merchants in Westwood-Ed.) I’d kill for any record store near me. Randy’s not only has a decent selection of used vinyl, it has one of the best, most complete new-vinyl departments I’ve seen anywhere: all of Classic Records’ 200gm releases, reissues by Analogue Productions and Speakers Corner and the rest, plus a great selection of alternative and punk.

As I rifle through the platters, a guy walks over to the counter and asks the salesclerk, who can’t be more than half past his teen years, about new turntables. The customer’s been collecting vinyl and thinks he should upgrade his turntable. Out of this kid’s mouth comes sage, balanced advice I’d be proud to call my own. Curious about where he’s learned all he knows, I approach the counter and announce, “I write about that stuff.” I think it’s then that he recognizes me. “I read all your columns in Stereophile!” He pulls from under the counter the latest Music Direct catalog, to show the prospective turntable buyer some of his suggestions. No wonder I was impressed—I was basically listening to an LP of myself. Priceless!

Back to the bins. I buy two new 180gm LPs by Bright Eyes (aka Conor Oberst) and head for the airport. Don MacInnis, of LP pressing plant RTI, later tells me in a phone conversation that Oberst’s label had ordered 4000 pressings of each album; they’d quickly sold out, and he was about to press another 4000. In today’s record business, 8000 copies sold of anything save for pop and hip-hop is not to be sneezed at. Who’s buying these Bright Eyes LPs? My demographic? No—it’s kids who were born at the dawn of the CD error. Don’t tell me there’s not something happening—and I do know what it is, Mr. Jones. This is why at least one major label is getting back into the vinyl business, though I’m not yet at liberty to say which one.

Right around deadline time came word that the Universal Music Group (UMG) was abruptly pulling the plug on its UNI pressing plant in Gloversville, New York, the last high-quality presser on the East Coast, used by Sundazed and many other labels, and the very plant that was supposed to press the first 15 180gm titles for the above-unmentioned major label. I hope some person or group will come to the rescue before the plant, the skilled technicians, and the vinyl are lost forever.

The Levinson Lexus

Mikey with “his” Lexus before the front became ugly and grotesque. (photo: Geoff Morrison)
I’d been in Salt Lake City after visiting Wilson Audio Specialties in Provo, Utah, in preparation for receiving a pair of Wilson MAXX2 loudspeakers for review. The trip had been hastily arranged after Wilson learned I’d be in Palm Springs, California, to test-drive the new Mark Levinson sound system installed in the new Lexus GS series for 2006.

I know that some readers get totally bent out of shape when any ink at all is spilled on car stereo, but think of it this way: The new system, whose design was overseen by Harman’s Phil Muzio, might be the first good listening experience that a large number of upscale folks who can afford to buy a good home system but who haven’t might ever have heard. Perhaps some of these folks will come to realize that their Bose Wave radios do not fill their homes with “concert-hall sound” or anything close to it, and will seek out a better home listening experience.

The Mark Levinson system installed in the new Lexus GS features 14 speakers (including a massive, rear-deck–mounted cast-basket subwoofer powered by its own 100W amplifier), 11 channels, and a total of 330W of amplification, all channels driven, in a 7.1-channel surround-sound configuration capable of playing DTS, Dolby Digital, and DVD-Audio/Video surround-sound discs. Head-unit S/PDIF outputs supporting 24-bit word lengths feed digital signals to the trunk-mounted 24-bit DACs and discrete output amplifiers. Unfortunately, high-resolution DVD-A signals must be redigitized to lower-rez PCM because feeding 5.1 channels of analog from the head unit to the amplifier was not on ML’s agenda (for good reason, in an electrically “dirty” car environment), and access to the hi-rez digital bitstream is still prohibited.

Muzio admitted that the system’s sound was a bit jacked up in the bass—it was car stereo, after all, and customers expect it—but the overall system voicing was impressively coherent. “I knew the customer’s listening room really well,” he joked. Both front and rear passengers will experience remarkably stable, focused, three-dimensional soundstages: one created above and across the dashboard and the other, almost miraculously thanks to proprietary digital signal processing, just behind the front seats.

Brinkmannship

Brinkmann Balance. (photo: Michael Fremer)
Everyone’s got their prejudices, and mine are against turntables with box-like plinths and big slabs of undamped acrylic. I have no problem with either in models that cost a few grand or less, but once you get into high-priced terrain, less plinth and less acrylic usually yields better performance. Generally, though, all a plinth gets you is a vibrating surface to transmit or store and release energy. Who needs that? If your high-performance ’table has a plinth, you need to heroically damp it the way SME does in its Model 30, and the way Rockport did in its System III Sirius.

Like my Simon Yorke S7, Brinkmann’s Balance is about as plinthless a turntable as you’ll find, which is what attracted me when I first laid eyes on it at the Kempinski Hotel show in Frankfurt some years ago. Now that it’s being imported by Lawrence Blair’s Brinkmann-USA (www.Brinkmann-USA.com), I figured a review was in order.

Blair delivered a mass-loaded Balance ’table ($12,900) fitted with a Brinkmann 10.5 tonearm ($3500) and Brinkmann’a EMT-based moving-coil cartridge ($2500). It’s a ready-to-play system, which is how I mostly listened to it, but I did substitute first the Lyra Titan, then van den Hul Condor cartridges well into the review because I was familiar with their sound, and because the cartridge used is bound to have an enormous effect on any system’s overall performance. Because the Balance doesn’t have a suspension, Blair suggests using a Harmonic Resolution Systems HRS M3 isolation base ($2200), which is custom-designed for the Balance and features a split granite platform to isolate the motor from the platter/bearing assembly. HRS designer Mike Latvis, a lifelong audiophile, is a mechanical engineer with 15 years of experience designing vibration- and noise-control systems for helicopter lead-lag dampers (which control blade rotation), main rotor bearings, helicopter transmission isolation systems, missile-system isolation, and commercial and military electronics isolation systems.

The Balance’s attractive-looking, low-profile base is available in a variety of sizes, is framed in aluminum, and comes configured (and can be reconfigured) for specified load ranges. The latter can be adjusted by simply adjusting the complex, high-tech feet, which are compliant in all directions via a “single line element” connection with the outside world. Unlike most typical, compliant feet, which can isolate in one direction only (usually the vertical, via an elastomer disc), the Brinkmann’s are designed to effectively isolate the supporting base from horizontally and vertically induced vibrations. The patented design, which is claimed to isolate across the entire audioband and to “well below” 20Hz (without interfering with suspended turntable designs tuned to as low as a few Hz), is patented.

The Harmonic Resolution Systems HRS M3’s split granite base is bonded to proprietary and secondary polymer elements, themselves bonded into pockets CNC-machined into the surface of the aluminum frame. The result is a support in which the granite is nowhere directly attached to the frame, which prevents the frame from vibrating into the system. This complex yet compact design, Mike Latvis assured me, is extremely effective at keeping outside vibrations of all kinds from reaching whatever sits on the granite surfaces. (The complexity of the HRS base deserves a far more detailed exploration than I can give here. It appears to offer Vibraplane-like effectiveness, but in a far less expensive, less complex, less bulky, and more attractive form. I’ll revisit it in greater detail in the near future.)

Atop the HRS M3 sits the massive Balance turntable, whose vestigial ovoid plinth is CNC-machined from a single piece of 40mm-thick Dural, the hardest aluminum available, according to the designer, Helmut Brinkmann. The oversized platter, 3¼" tall and weighing 44 lbs, is made of an aluminum-lead-copper alloy said to achieve extremely effective damping. The platter surface is a plate of elastomer-bonded crystal glass. An integral record clamp screws into the spindle. Mechanical energy created at the stylus/groove interface drains down from the record to the platter surface, then into the platter itself, where the derived mechanical impedances of the various materials prevent it from flowing back up to the vinyl. A massive, raised, round armboard platform of Dural, also attached to the plinth, features a stainless-steel ring whose only function is to look good.

The platter is driven by a thin O-ring that rides in a groove machined into the platter’s circumference. The outboard AC motor, which sits on an isolated platform on the HRS M3 base, is a brushless, dual-phase design powered via a power supply that processes the push-pull motor phases to load the platter with a precisely defined amount of rotating energy said to optimize dynamic performance. Mr. Brinkmann says that failure to optimize the drive energy is what causes some heavy turntables to suffer from dynamic compression. The platter’s speed is adjustable and can run at precisely 33.3rpm and 45rpm. An optional vacuum-tube–based motor drive is available for $2700. The platter’s speed is selected via a handsome circular module connected via a metal conduit protruding from the motor housing.

The Balance’s unique heated bearing allows it to deliver optimum performance immediately on startup instead of needing a warmup period. Optimizing and maintaining a fixed operating temperature also means that the machining tolerances can be kept extremely low. The bearing itself has dual bushings, a hardened steel axle, a 30mm, a thrust plate of hardened Teflon, and an integral oil reservoir.

While Brinkmann can supply a blank armboard, and almost any tonearm can be used with the Balance, I’ve reviewed it with Brinkmann’s own 10.5 model, a Breuer-like gimbaled-bearing design. (An updated version of the original Swiss-made Breuer arm is apparently still being made.) The 10.5 features an armtube the designer described as a “high-speed, double-concentric, ceramic-plated, self-damping transmission device” and as “a heavily anodized (about 100µm), thin-walled aluminum tube that is “fast, stiff, and light.” Only beryllium or diamond would more quickly evacuate energy through the arm base, Mr. Brinkmann assured me. Antiskating is applied via a system of threaded magnetic screw and ring. The vertical tracking angle (VTA) is adjustable, though not on the fly. The Balance’s armboard clamping mechanism permits quick and easy switching of arms, and a single screw adjustment allows an arm’s effective length to be easily varied during setup.

In short, the Brinkmann Balance has been designed for the music lover who just wants to play records and enjoy music without fuss (once, of course, the cartridge has been properly aligned). The system, including the EMT cartridge substantially modified by Brinkmann, has been carefully tuned, but I found that other cartridges worked equally well, as long as I choose those whose sonic characteristics complemented the ’table’s.

I was told (allow for German/English translation interference) that the tubed power supply “uses mainly the vacuum in the tubes and magnetic forces for its special way of cleaning out the mains noises.” According to Helmut Brinkmann, there are two sources of power-line noise: external noise from amplifiers, computers, and other power supplies, and internal noise from the solid-state power supply’s own rectifier stage switching. Fast rectifiers raise the frequency of the noise but don’t entirely eliminate it. Tube rectifiers work like “super-fast, super-soft-recovery rectifiers,” according to Mr. Brinkmann, who added that the transformers in the tube-driven supply, unlike those associated with solid-state rectification, can’t be peak overloaded and thus effectively remove outside line noise. The vacuum inside the tubes, he claims, isolates the AC and DC circuits, so the power comes through the vacuum and not through the power signal cables. Hmm . . .

Brinkmann understands why one might be skeptical about this explanation of how a tubed power supply driving a motor, turning a pulley, and spinning a platter via a rubber belt might result in a sound different from that from a solid-state supply—especially because he claims the former has a “tubier” sound. But he stands by it, claiming that the energy chain that drives the stylus can have such an effect. Hmm . . .

Setting up the Balance and aligning the cartridge took very little time, thanks to the elegance of the ’table and tonearm designs and the precision quality of build. Brinkmann’s modified EMT cartridge is a medium-compliance, low-output design (0.21mV/cm/s) featuring a van den Hul stylus profile. It differs notably from other EMT cartridges I’ve used in having a solid-aluminum mounting structure in place of the standard plastic one. Its greater intrinsic mechanical rigidity and ability to rigidly mate with the headshell seemed major improvements over the stock model.

The solid-state power supply, including both the motor drive and the bearing-heater circuitry, remains plugged in at all times. To use the tubed supply, one disconnects the multipin, colleted motor cable from the main unit and connects it to the tube unit. Flip a switch on the power supply’s rear, wait a minute or two for the tubes to heat up, and when the red LEDs on the speed selector light up, you’re ready to play vinyl.

Everything about the Brinkmann Balance—the industrial design, the jewel-like build quality, the fit’n’finish, the feel—marks it as a world-class turntable design. Only a few ’tables I’ve encountered belong in the Brinkmann’s league, and even then, there’s something about the Balance’s physical appearance, feel, and cosmetic elegance that sets it apart.

A Balanced Sound

Leaving aside the Rockport System III Sirius, which is in a class by itself, the only competition in my experience for the Brinkmann’s sonic performance, aside from my reference Simon Yorke S7, are the SME 30/SME V, the Avid Acutus, and the Kuzma Stabi Reference. However, the Brinkmann’s mass-loaded system was unchallenged in bass performance. I had never experienced such fundamentally correct, deep, tight, articulate, yet delicate bottom-end performance from any turntable, including, perhaps, the Rockport. As the Yorke shattered my then reference VPI TNT back in 1998, so the Brinkmann demolished the Yorke’s bass performance, carving out and sculpting deeper, more muscular, more dynamic, yet tighter and lither renderings of stand-up and electric bass, timpani, and kick drums. With both ’tables connected to the Manley Steelhead tubed phono preamp, it was easy to perform A/B comparisons. When I replaced the Brinkmann-EMT cartridge with the Lyra Titan, the results were the same.

The Brinkmann Balance supplied convincing weight and authority while maintaining the lightest, most delicate touch on complex kick-drum maneuvers from familiar jazz recordings whose nuances I thought I’d long ago fully explored—including the by now moldy but still enticing “Take Five” from Dave Brubeck’s Time Out. Other ’tables could plumb the depths of some of Joe Morello’s hardest kicks, but none had the ability to recover quite as quickly to prepare for the next. By comparison, the Yorke S7, while still impressive, sounded somewhat cloudy, compressed, and semiconfused—and believe me, compared to most, the Yorke is a model of clarity.

All of this was accomplished without any nagging sense that the Balance was ever overdamped or “thick through the middle,” which the heavily damped SME 30 occasionally is. The Brinkmann reproduced the lightest, airiest, purest soundstages along with bottom-end weight, and did so without imparting the sensation of brightness or etch that spotlit the top end of the Avid Acutus, as I remember it. The SME 30 and Avid Acutus are world-class ’tables—I could happily live with either—but during their respective review periods I remember each design pulling the sound in a particular direction, however slightly. Two months with the Brinkmann Balance left me feeling that it was utterly neutral and totally revealing, with no deviation from its exceptional evenhandedness and unforced clarity and detail.

I don’t see the point in reciting particular sonic experiences with familiar reference material; if you’ve been reading this column, you know the usual suspects. I will say that, thanks to the Brinkmann’s subterranean reach, uncanny quiet and solidity, and overall effortlessness, all of these LPs sounded new and subtly improved, with greater holography of imaging but without etch, blacker backgrounds, and deeper, vaster soundfields.

Playing old standbys as well as less familiar LPs I hadn’t heard in years was always an act of discovery through the Brinkmann—not because of the small, new musical or sonic gestures it might reveal (though it did), but because of the exceptionally musical presentation it provided overall: an effortless, coherent, solid, musical whole; a rhythmically tight, emotionally uplifting propulsive drive that gave the music an indelible sense of purpose that couldn’t be denied.

I hadn’t played Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night (Reprise) in a long time, but after reading Shakey, Jimmy McDonough’s apparently meticulous-to-a-fault biography of Young, I was curious to revisit the album. (Harvest engineer Elliot Mazer tells me the book is full of inaccuracies, and that it pleased neither him nor Young. Still, it’s worth reading.) It was an absolutely astonishing listening experience. The demonic Young and his backing band, Crazy Horse, were arrayed in startling relief across my listening room with an eerie palpability against a background black as the night sky—I’d never heard it sound like this. Through the Simon Yorke S7, Tonight’s the Night was still a compelling experience, but with nothing like the Balance’s degree of utter coherence.

When I switched cartridges, putting the Brinkmann EMT in the Immedia RPM tonearm mounted on the Yorke S7 and the Lyra Titan or van den Hul Condor on the Brinkmann 10.5 arm, the Balance’s superiority shone through—but its revealing performance pointed out just how closely Brinkmann had tuned the EMT to his arm and ’table’s bracing neutrality.

While the Tubaphone-modified EMT cartridge I reviewed in the February 2000 Stereophile erred slightly on the side of midbass warmth and bloom, the Brinkmann-EMT’s extra rigidity successfully tamed the excess bass while allowing the cartridge’s midrange richness to shine.

The Lyra Titan is a more neutral and revealing cartridge. The combination of it and the Brinkmann was nothing short of astonishing in every way, though some listeners may prefer the Brinkmann-EMT’s richer midband. The Brinkmann-EMT sounded equally enticing on the Yorke S7, but that combo was noticeably warmer and less musically bracing. On the Brinkmann, the EMT hit all the right notes. It is a testament to the utter neutrality of the Brinkmann’s performance that, for the first time, I could clearly hear the Yorke’s very minor dynamic limitations and subtle enrichment of the midrange—tuned as Simon Yorke prefers.

Tubed vs solid-state power supplies

Balance vacuum tube power supply. (photo: Michael Fremer)
I spent more than a month listening to the full Brinkmann combo with its tubed power supply and a pair of unfamiliar Audience phono interconnects. Then I switched cartridges and generated a full set of listening notes. I used a few very familiar records, including (though hardly limited to) Classic’s 45rpm editions of Belafonte at Carnegie Hall and The Weavers: Reunion at Carnegie Hall. With the Brinkmann-EMT back in the 10.5 arm, I spent an evening going back and forth between the power supplies, and there was a definite, easily heard difference between them. Call me gullible—I don’t care. The two supplies produced distinctly different results, the clichés about the differences between tubed and solid-state gear proving remarkably if subtly true. The tubed supply produced a more vibrant, transparent sound, with greater image dimensionality and a fuller, somewhat more “golden” harmonic palette. The solid-state supply delivered a somewhat drabber, drier picture, but one that was better organized overall, with slightly finer, better-defined images. Still, I greatly preferred the vibrancy and immediacy of the tubed supply. If you’re fortunate enough to own a Brinkmann Balance, don’t hesitate to at least give the tubed supply a try.

Audience vs Hovland phono cable

Audience’s Au24 phono cable (RCA to RCA) costs $603/meter pair (www.audience-av.com). After almost a month of listening with it, I switched to the familiar Hovland Music Groove 2, which I’d been using with the Yorke S7, and heard a startling change. The Audience cable was bright on top—some might say it was brittle, a deer-in-the-headlights top end. It wasn’t hard, etched, or smeared, mind you, just tight and bright. I’d been thinking that the Brinkmann system may have been a bit too analytical and somewhat chilly on top, but what I’d been hearing was the cable. When I inserted the Hovland, the balance became ideal, and when I put the Audience Au24 on the Yorke S7, it was bright there too—not unacceptably so, but the music was definitely “spotlit.” Below that spotlit top the Au24’s sound was exemplary, if on the tight and leading-edge side, with deep, punchy, very-well-controlled bass. The Audience Au24 would be a great addition to a front-end or overall system that was starting to sound too soft and warm around the edges, but it was much too bright and forward for my system with either turntable. In a warm, tube-based system or one with a softish cartridge, the Au24 might be just be the ticket.

Summing up

The $23,800 combo of Brinkmann Balance turntable, 10.5 tonearm, modified low-output Brinkmann-EMT moving-coil cartridge, tubed power supply, and HRS M3 stand is—with the exception of the Rockport System III Sirius—the best turntable system I’ve ever heard. Someday soon I’d like to hear the ’table with some other, more familiar arms, but for now, wow! (Apologies for not covering what I promised last time, including a Follow-Up on the Whest phono preamp. Next time, I hope.)

COMMENTS
Roy Martin's picture

...as coincidence will have it, I'm just back from Scotti's in Summit, NJ. They're still going strong with a great collection of used/new vinyl. Today's haul includes the Mosaic "The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis" (3 LPs, $29.99); Baden Powell's "Solitude on Guitar" ($2.99); Beethoven's Archduke trio w/ Rubinstein, Heifetz, and Feuermann (RCA Victor LCT-1020, $1.00); "Swinging Together Again" by Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson featuring Bill Evans (Impulse!, $2.99); Jim Hall in Berlin ($2.99), and Duke Elligton's "The Pianist" ($2.99).

Everything in good to very good condition.

Try Scotti's. You'll like it!

Michael Fremer's picture
I really have to go! It's not that far and I owe them a visit. I'll make a video if they let me...
richiep's picture

Real customer service, this past RSD I was unable to attend due to specific family medical circumstances and they were very helpful with some titles once the main crowd thinned out by remote purchase and allowed me to pick them up the next Monday. I just purchased by mail an almost Mint Grateful Dead MFSL From The Mars Hotel copy for much less that any listing on the usual sites. Very friendly and knowledgeable on their stock which is complete and constantly replenished.

drstrainscbd's picture

I spent more than a month listening to the full Brinkmann combo with its tubed power supply and a pair of unfamiliar Audience phono interconnects.
drstrainscbd.com

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