Analog Corner #120 Part II

Nottingham Deco turntable & Ace-Anna tonearm: $38,499

Nottingham Deco TT with Ace-Anna tone arm
Every manufacturer with a range of products has a “sweet spot” at which performance and price combine to offer the biggest bang for the buck. I reviewed Nottingham Audio’s inexpensive Analogue Horizon turntable in the February 2003 Stereophile and found it a smooth-sounding, impressive performer when fitted with an OEM Rega RB-250 tonearm ($1000 with arm). I had a chance a while back to audition Nottingham’s AnnaLog turntable with AnnaLog arm and found the sound soft, diffuse, and uninvolving. Whether it was the arm or the ’table or both that made it sound that way, I didn’t know, but the AnnaLog ’table alone costs around $10,000.

Following the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show, Audiophile Systems ( offered me Nottingham’s more expensive, cost-no-object Deco ’table, along with the company’s latest tonearm, the Ace-Anna. Including the Deco power supply, the package sells for $38,499. I agreed to review it with the proviso that Nottingham also supply a Graham Engineering armboard so that I could hear the ’table with a known tonearm. The Deco’s shipping weight is 140 lbs—the tall, stepped platter of a dense, soft alloy alone weighs well over 30 lbs. The platter and bearing support is a platform of two plinths, each fabricated from a 7/8" multilayered wood laminate. You can choose between suspended and mass-loaded modes simply by rotating a hex-head bolt centered within each of the four suspension pods; the actual suspension mechanism is a cross of thick rubbery material. The suspension system requires no “tuning.” It’s either engaged or it’s not.

The spindle bearing has an unusually large diameter necessitated by the massive platter, and with a tapered inner bore. The bearing’s inner sleeve is inscribed with a grooved spiral that acts as a pump to efficiently distribute the specially formulated oil supplied with the Deco. All of the considerable bearing surface receives lubrication at all times, as the groove lifts the oil from the well at the bottom to the top of the spindle as the shaft rotates.

As in VPI’s TNT and HRX turntables, the Deco’s platter sits atop the bearing structure resting on three set-screws, which are used for precise leveling using a supplied dial gauge fitted to one of two tonearm mounting platforms. Once the platter has been leveled, you place on it a thin pad of a proprietary viscoelastic damping material, then a thick graphite pad, on which the record sits. Like other Nottingham ’tables, the platter’s circumference is fitted with soft rubber rings that are said to act as dampers. Give the platter a spin before fitting the drive belt around one of two grooves that form the first two of the seven steps and it spins for a very long time—a testament to the system’s high mass and low friction.

The drive belt is an O-ring of the same thick, spongy rubber used in other Nottingham designs. The ultra-low-torque outboard AC synchronous motor, also used in other Nottingham ’tables, is designed to have just enough energy to keep the platter spinning, once you’ve given it a hand-assist. Designer Tom Fletcher feels that if the motor has sufficient torque to start the platter spinning, it has too much torque. The motor’s electronic drive system provides for a stable, regenerated AC waveform. Similar to the Wave Mechanic power supply included with the less expensive Nottingham Dais ’table ($7499 without arm), the Deco supply adds a control that allows you to fine-tune the symmetry of the driving current, this fine-tuning necessitated by the fact that the two sides of a motor’s armature are rarely wound identically, which means that applying identical current to both will not result in identical forces. The extra knob lets you “balance” by ear the forces applied to the armature’s sides.

Finally, the two identical armboard platforms allow for adjustment of the vertical tracking angle (VTA) during play, but without relying on spring mechanisms, whose resonant frequencies would vary depending on the height setting. Instead, high mass and gravity provide constant tension, and internal viscous damping prevents residual resonances from affecting performance. Large knurled knobs near the platform base allow for smooth, precise VTA adjustment.

The Ace-Anna tonearm ($3500) is the latest variation of the basic “stabilized unipivot” design used in all Nottingham arms. Two stabilizer bars prevent the arms from rotating around its azimuth, giving the arm the feel of a gimbaled design, but with the single-point, high-pressure characteristic of a unipivot. A carbon-fiber tube, its fibers oriented lengthwise, is said to provide high rigidity and effective resonance control.

Setup was relatively straightforward. Once the Deco was all put together, I was staring at a formidable record-playing device that was both massive and compact. My review sample had seen some hard traveling before arriving at my door, including being the demo unit at CES, and had suffered some nicks, scrapes, and paint chips, but even had it been pristine, I can’t say I’d have found the Deco’s looks or its fit’n’finish particularly appealing. Compared to the far less expensive Brinkmann Balance (see “Analog Corner,” May 2005), for instance, which had a jewel-like persona, the Deco looked utilitarian, particularly the finish of the plinths. I find Nottingham’s less expensive ’tables far more attractive, but you might react differently. My ultimate conclusion was that the Deco is a product born more of the industrial age than of the space age. But then, so was the turntable itself.

The Ace-Anna arm is equally unappealing visually, with a sort of homemade-looking quality. Nor did I like the way the cartridge pins had been “blob-soldered” on and left bare. I exercised great care and never had a problem with the connector pins, but compared to, say, the fit, finish, and fine detail of Graham Engineering’s 2.2 arm, the Ace-Anna looked unfinished.

The fastest and easiest way to hear the Ace-Anna and Deco was for me to switch out the Lyra Titan cartridge from my Immedia RPM-2 tonearm and Simon Yorke turntable. That accomplished, I sat down for an extended listen.

I didn’t recognize the Lyra Titan. The Ace-Anna arm just doesn’t cut it in my book—especially not for $3500. It sounded soft, indistinct. Transients were smoothed over, details lost, and the entire presentation lacked sonic involvement. It’s what I’d heard when I’d auditioned the Nottingham AnnaLog ’table fitted with an earlier iteration of this arm. The Ace-Anna had no serious colorations—it didn’t sound lumpy, just kind of lazy. Some listeners think this warmish-soft sound is the sound of “analog.” I don’t.

One thing I noticed immediately was the unique sound the stylus made as it touched down on the record: the usual pop was replaced with the gentlest kiss, followed by an instantaneous dissipation of the sound—almost a melting sensation—the like of which I hadn’t recalled hearing before. Despite the Ace-Anna’s unimpressive performance, the Deco’s ability to produce jet-black backdrops was world-class.

Enter the Hadcock 242 Integra tonearm: $1259

Hadcock 242 Integra tonearm
One of the classic British tonearms that’s been around since forever, the Hadcock 242 Integra has been seriously upgraded with a stainless-steel armtube (in place of aluminum), higher-quality internal wiring (either Cardas Incognito, which is how mine was delivered, or van den Hul silver), and better fit’n’finish. I’d never touched one before, so I can’t tell you how the new one compares to the original. The arm mounts to the ’table via a Rega-size threaded shaft; Hadcock supplies a brass washer and nut.

The 242 Integra is a unipivot design with a twist: the pivot spike rests in a ball-race bearing in the arm housing. The headshell is fixed via a grubscrew that locks on to the armtube, which is sort of less than ideal in terms of absolute rigidity, and the cartridge screw holes are threaded, which can be a pain and is unnecessary when your cartridge comes pretapped and threaded, as so many do these days.

The Hadcock instructions sucked. I follow instructions to the letter, in order to duplicate what an inexperienced consumer will suffer, and trust me, these were bad—outdated, and in some ways not even applicable to the current design. My complaints were answered, however, and by deadline time the instructions had been completely rewritten, with new illustrations. They’re now up to date and quite good. Thank you.

Once you’ve established the distance from spindle to pivot using the supplied template (not necessary if your mounting hole is predrilled) and you’ve installed the cartridge, you set overhang by sliding the headshell fore and aft. The azimuth is adjusted by rotating the offset counterweight, which is “decoupled” (not!) via an O-ring, while VTA is another arrangement of grub screw and shaft, meaning that VTA can’t be adjusted on the fly. “Not” because a thin O-ring interface is but a spring with a high resonant frequency and so cannot possibly “decouple” the arm at any meaningful frequency.

The antiskating force is brought to bear via a string and weight, the amount of counterforce dependent on how far from the pivot the string loop resides on a thin shaft protruding from the main housing. The arm wiring terminates in a connector that mates with another fixed on the main housing. As with VPI arms, you can change armwands in a snap. Getting the headshell to sit parallel to the bearing housing when setting overhang is the toughest part of setup, but the new instructions include a trick to make that easier.

Overall, setting up this arm won’t be difficult for an experienced hand, though if you’re new at this, it will create some frustrations—especially the interactivity between some of the setup functions. However, the Hadcock is one arm that gives you the ability to dial in every analog playback operating parameter, and that makes up for its fiddliness. I don’t like the pressure-based arm lock, which forces you to squeeze the armtube into a tight-gripping retainer. If you don’t push it hard enough to enter and grip, it may fly out and across the record surface, so be careful.

Cartridge Matters

Cartridge Man’s MusicMaker looks like a Grado but
First up was the London Reference cartridge, which I’d heard mated well with the Hadcock. Boy, did it ever. The Hadcock’s midband is sweet and rich, just like the Mørch’s, and that, combined with the London’s “direct from disc” immediacy and the Deco’s jet-black backgrounds, created a stunning sound. The London also tracked very well in the Hadcock, though its tracking is still a record-dependent crapshoot. I wish I had more space to go into this further; in short, everything I wrote last month about the London was duplicated here, only better.

Next I installed a Cartridge Man MusicMaker, also imported by Hadcock importer Audiofeil International ( This $1039 cartridge is loosely based on the old Grado Signature series, which hasn’t been in production for more than a decade. Designer Len Gregory says that while the MusicMaker looks like a Signature on the outside, the guts are totally rebuilt using a proprietary grain-oriented, high-contact-area stylus profile and a multipiece cantilever that’s damped inside and out. Signal and ground paths are carefully insulated, and high-tech damping and isolating materials are used internally in what remains a Grado-type “moving-iron” design. The stylus assembly is not user-removable because the diamond is the final component attached to the fully built cartridge, which allows the builder to perfectly orient the diamond. Instead of a retip, a customer gets a new unit, with perhaps some refinements and improvements as the design evolves.

Mounted on the Hadcock arm, and after a lengthy break-in, the MusicMaker’s dynamic resolve, crystalline clarity, and silent backgrounds made a strong case for a high-output design. Even after break-in, however, the cartridge led with its transient performance. Resolution of low-level detail and ambient cues were outstanding—surprisingly so for a high-output design—though at the expense of subtle textural shadings compared to far more expensive MC designs.

The MusicMaker is definitely a cartridge meant for a vacuum-tube phono preamp, which is what I used. Bass extension and control were impressive, with a slight midbass emphasis that gave drums a nice sense of weight, and electric bass authority and solidity. If you like your transient attacks right there and your top end slightly on the sharp side, but without etch or smear, you’ll probably like the MusicMaker. It had a top- and bottom-end vibrancy and drama that made it both exciting and easy to listen to.

The combo of the Hadcock arm ($1259) and MusicMaker cartridge ($1039) for a total of $2298 struck me as a reasonably good value, though many cartridges priced between $750 and $1000 offer strong competition, depending on your musical and sonic tastes. They include the awesome Sumiko Blackbird, Benz Glider, Ortofon Kontrapunkt A and B, and the Lyra Dorian and Argo cartridges, among others.

Finally, the Deco

Nottingham Deco turntable
Finally, I mounted the Graham 2.2 arm on the Deco and, after listening to all three on my reference Simon Yorke, listened to the MusicMaker, the Helikon, and the new Dorian mono cartridges. The Deco’s true talents were better displayed via the Graham than with Nottingham’s own arm, that’s for sure.

The Deco’s strongest and most quickly noticeable feature were its jet-black backgrounds. The platter design and thick graphite mat drained energy as effectively as any turntable I’ve heard, which is why dropping the stylus in the groove resulted in the least obtrusive, most effervescent pop I can recall hearing.

The Deco’s overall personality was elegant and deliberate, with an inviting underlying warmth. On the other hand, even when running at the correct speed, the Deco sounded somewhat sluggish and overdamped. Bass was well-defined pitch-wise, but slightly slowed-down and thickened. In fact, everything seemed somewhat slowed down and thickened. Familiar music seemed to come out of the grooves with a slight honey coating, whether the ’table was running mass-loaded or suspended.

It seems as if the Deco, designer Tom Fletcher’s “statement” turntable, is more of everything he’s poured into his less ambitious designs. Sometimes, however, more can be less. I don’t think the Deco’s performance, build quality, and fit’n’finish justify its asking price, though the bearing-platter assembly is Herculean. I think Nottingham’s “sweet spot” is probably the elegant-looking Dais. But that’s just one man’s opinion.


1. A writer who really wasn’t qualified (blame the assigning editor) ineptly wrote up the BeoLab 5 in the New York Times last year. The headline was “A Loudspeaker that Adjusts for Furniture That’s in the Way.” The speaker uses a microphone to measure and compensate for frequencies of 362Hz and below. When I complained about the report’s inaccuracies, the Times defended every last mistake—and some of the errors were more ridiculous than the headline.

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) The Kills, No Wow, Rough Trade 120gm LP
2) Hank Garland, Subtle Swing, Euphoria 180gm mono LP
3) Ray Charles, Genius Loves Company, Pure Audiophile 160gm LPs (2)
4) Jimmy Giuffre 3, 1961, ECM 180gm LPs (2)
5) Coleman Hawkins, The Genius of . . ., Verve/Speakers Corner 180gm LP
6) Various Artists, Blues Jam at Chess, Pure Pleasure 180gm LPs (2)
7) Hugh Masakela, Almost Like Being in Jazz, Straight Ahead 200gm Quiex SV-P LPs (2)
8) Ellington/Mingus/Roach, Money Jungle, United Artists/Classic 200gm Quiex SV-P LP
9) Respighi, The Birds/Brazilian Impressions, Mercury/Speakers Corner 180gm LP
10) Sufjan Stevens, Seven Swans, Burnt Toast Vinyl 120gm LP