Analog Corner #22

Express Machining's "The Lift"

(Originally published in Stereophile, May 12th, 1997)

My wife shows our dog. Sometimes I tag along to watch Mr. Eno in the ring. If you think high-end audio is weird, you ought to check out the world of show dogs—in the fetish department, those shows make audiophiles look like rank amateurs. And talk about subjectivity and petty politics! Jeez!!

Anyway, part of the judge's job is a hands-on confirmation check. Do I conclude from this that the judge spends all of his time feeling dogs' balls?


So why do some Stereophile readers think I spend all of my time listening to vinyl? Or obsessing over hi-fi equipment? I think I speak for all Stereophile reviewers and editors when I say that all of us are in this for the music—whether it's on CD, vinyl, Edison cylinder, V-Disc, cassette, or whatever. What you read of us on the printed page is the thin end of the wedge—but that's the job description, so that's what you read!

Do you expect me to drone on about CDs in this column? Of course not—even though they're what's usually playing while I'm writing. I shouldn't have to explain this, but judging from some recent letters to the editor—and the hate e-mail I get (my favorite post began with, "Obviously, you don't read Stereophile...''), I do have to.

In an exquisite irony, the day my March Stereophile arrived with the letter dissing me saying that "indie" recording engineers don't really give a crap about sound or what we tweaky turntable-totin' audiophiles think, who should call looking for some tweaky advice but Bob Weston—Steve Albini's cohort in the group Shellac, and a fine recording engineer himself. Weston's got a VPI HW19 Jr./Sumiko Bluepoint combo, some tube amps, and B&W Matrix loudspeakers. He was looking for preamp advice. When I read him the letter, he laughed his ass off.

Anyway, when I wrote about ALTOAnalogue's seven-LP boxed set of recordings by conductor Ataulfo Argenta in the February "Analog Corner," I said, "If you have to ask how much this will cost, you can't afford it." That's because though the price hadn't yet been set, I figured that, judging by other sumptuously produced audiophile boxed sets, it would be pricey. Alto's Joachim Bose (no relation) faxed to tell me that the set, an edition limited to 1500 copies, will retail for around $195. That includes seven 180gm LPs, a booklet, and a box. Very reasonable. The set will be available through Acoustic Sounds.

Analog convenience?
Sounds like an oxymoron, but I'm frequently asked about such convenience items as end-of-record arm-lift devices. I used to have a simple pivoted gadget that worked reasonably well once it was properly adjusted. (When it wasn't, it would send the arm hurtling through the air, back toward the lead-in groove and/or stylus oblivion.) And while I no longer worry about a stylus spending a few minutes orbiting a lead-out groove, some of you obviously do.

The Lift is a pivoted device manufactured by Express Machining in San Jose, California. which, when properly adjusted, will lift the arm off the record gently, and without any surprises. The Lift uses a pivoted, weighted post to raise the arm, but unlike my old stylus killer, the neatly machined mechanism is fully adjustable vertically and laterally so you can control the action. When the tonearm touches the pivoted arm, the weight drops, swinging the lift bar, which raises the arm.

I used The Lift on a Rega 9 currently under review, and once I had all of the parameters properly adjusted, it worked flawlessly and reliably, lifting the arm off the record gently and without surprises. The biggest problem was deciding where on the plinth to stick the Velcro-bottomed post to properly set the lift point. Too close to the label and the mechanism doesn't engage; too far and it lifts the arm before the end of the record.

While you're futzing around with placement and adjusting the pivot-point height and the amount of weight you want to throw around, you can do some serious stylus and/or record damage. So use a trashed record—hopefully one cut pretty close to the label—and affix the stylus guard before proceeding. Once you've chosen the spot, Express Machining recommends you use clear silicone to affix the post.

I guarantee you'll have a few hairy moments filled with bouncing and flying arms, and you won't be helped much by The Lift's woefully inadequate installation instructions: "Fine tuning: for best results, position The Lift so that the tonearm lifts just before the end of the last grove [sic]." Say what? The arm is supposed to lift up before the record is over? I think they meant before the last lead-out groove. The problem here is, as usual, the folks doing the instruction writing are too close to the product to put themselves in the shoes of the end user.

Once you've got The Lift properly positioned, you'll find it works as advertised. The only hitch is the cost: $99.95 in chrome, $199.95 in gold (both prices include shipping, handling, and a free T-shirt). The qualities of machining and finish are outstanding, though; the price probably reflects what it costs to manufacture, plus a reasonable profit margin. Mine didn't come with the impossibly small Allen wrench you'll need to adjust the thing, nor do the instructions provide a clue as to what size it is. For $99.95, the Allen wrench should be included. At the very least, its size should be divulged.

The Lift is a pricey, well-built, potentially useful product in serious need of good instructions. In the High End, what else is new? For more information, contact Express Machining, P.O. Box 641251, San Jose, CA 95164-1251. Tel: (408) 288-7237. Fax: (408) 288-7238. You can see The Lift in operation on the company's Web site: www.expressmachining . If you use the order form on the web site, you can receive a discount if you order before 5/30/97.

Post-WCES news
Music Hall's Roy Hall called with news, good and bad.

The bad? The neat-looking, Rega-based Mosquito turntable Hall planned to import (see my CES report in April, p.74) will not be available Stateside or anyplace else—the manufacturer has apparently gone belly-up.

The good? The venerable Zerostat antistatic gun, once distributed Stateside by Discwasher, is back in production, now manufactured by Goldring/Milty and imported by Hall. According to Hall, the new model, the Zerostat 3, will sell for "$45 or $50," complete with the little test bulb that lights up if the thing is working. After 20 years, mine still is.

If you came of vinyl age after the Zerostat was discontinued, it's a gun-shaped device that you point at a record on the 'table. With the volume muted, you slowly squeeze the trigger, then slowly release it. Doing so discharges the static electricity built up on the vinyl. It works. But if you don't mute your preamp you'll hear the loud, amplified popping of the gun as it discharges the static. It ain't pretty.

In other hardware news, VPI's Harry Weisfeld called to tell me about some changes in his flagship TNT Mk.III turntable. First, there's a new integral platter/bearing assembly—no more set-screwing around to level the platter. That one won't be available for a few months, but ready now is an air-suspension system that replaces the springs or Sorbothane suspensions atop the four feet. The device, manufactured by Firestone ("where the rubber meets the road''), is easily retrofittable on TNT III feet. The cost will be between $400 and $500 for a set of four. A trade-in program will allow owners to send back the old feet and get a set of the new air-bag–fitted ones. For owners of older TNTs, the cost goes up to between $800 and $900 for four new feet, as the originals are not retrofittable. Also coming soon for the TNT is a newly designed one-piece Flywheel featuring an integral chrome-hardened shaft. While it will be more accurate in its physical performance, only the serious fetishist should consider upgrading. Otherwise, it will be included as part of the regular TNT Mk.III package.

Suspending belief
After I'd finished writing my review of the Crown Jewel cartridge (see April '97, p.209), but before he'd read it, importer Steven Klein called to ask if I'd like to hear one of his other products—the $4995 Sounds of Silence Vibraplane 2212 active isolation platform, reviewed here a while back by Jonathan Scull (May 1994) and Shannon Dickson (November 1995). I swallowed hard. "Yes," I said. A few weeks later it arrived—all 175 lbs of it. Also in tow was the Peak Scientific compressor (included in the price), needed to keep the system airbound. Out from under the TNT went the Seismic Sink and the Bright Star Big Foot. In went the Vibraplane, carefully set down onto the TNT stand's acrylic platform.

Look, I know a $5000 turntable platform is pretty sick stuff for most of us, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be auditioned or discussed. As with other pricey innovations, such technologies usually find their ways down to us plebes in the forms of less expensive adaptations like Townshend Audio's Seismic Sink, Bright Star's new Air Mass for the TNT, Immedia's Noise Blocker, and, of course, VPI's own air-suspension feet.

The Vibraplane consists of a rather massive steel platform under which sit three active pneumatic air pods, three sensors, and a series of small air tanks and valves. The compressor is set to maintain between 90 and 100psi; the Vibraplane itself operates at between 70 and 75psi. Both pressures are adjusted via a pair of WATTS regulators, one on the compressor and one built into the Vibraplane. Overall height and individual pod leveling are accomplished via three side-mounted adjustment knobs. Once set, the level is automatically monitored and maintained: If you set an object down on one side of the platform, or push down gently with your hand, air is automatically pumped into that pod to re-level the surface.

The Vibraplane is an awesome device; it's used in the "real" world for such scientific applications as electron microscopy, where complete isolation from external vibrations is essential. The Vibraplane isolates both vertically and horizontally at a resonant frequency of about 1.5Hz. The suspensions built into the Rockport Sirius turntable series are similar if not identical to the add-on Vibraplane.

Vibraplane 2212 active isolation platform.

Unfortunately, for your five grand you get a platform barely large enough to accommodate the TNT (Footnote 1), and too small for both the motor and the Flywheel. With most other turntables, of course, there's no problem. First I auditioned the Vibraplane with the TNT sans Flywheel. Understand that the compressor rarely comes on once the platform has been pressurized. In fact, during the week I've had it in the system, it has never come on while I've been in the room.

While the Vibraplane, along with other isolation devices both active and passive, is designed to effectively keep outside vibrations from getting in, it's not nearly as proficient at dealing with system-derived energy. That's why I use the Seismic Sink as an isolation device in conjunction with the sand-filled Bright Star Big Foot as an energy absorber. The Sink isolates, while the sand-filled Big Foot, with its split plinth and outboard hanging motor support, deals with motor-, Flywheel-, and bearing-induced noises and vibrations.

Nonetheless, the TNT (minus the Flywheel) sitting atop the Vibraplane offered a sonic improvement over the Seismic Sink/Big Foot combo that was not subtle. The entire sonic picture appeared way, way back from where its front boundary had previously been. The new richness and solidity to images were much closer to what live music sounds like compared to what I'd gotten before. The reduction in grain and grit was similar to what I'd previously described in this column when I inserted the Seismic Sink under the Big Foot—only to a much, much greater degree. There was an unflappability to the entire picture, a sense of unlimited dynamic explosiveness, a seamlessness and timbral rightness that...well, I'll spare you the superlatives.

Was there a downside? Yes. The very bottom end had gotten somewhat weaker and less focused compared to what I was used to. Was it the missing Flywheel, or was it the lack of an energy absorber? Just as I was preparing to take a circular saw to a piece of 3/4" plywood in order to fashion a platform large enough to accommodate both flywheel and motor, a friend told me about a product made right here in Joisey.

Acoustics Symposium Energy Absorption Platform
I called Symposium designer Peter Bizlewicz to ask if he made platforms large enough to accommodate the TNT/flywheel combo. "No, but I can make one if you give me about a week." About a week later he showed up with an oversized version of his mechanical diode.

Just as turntable designers have come to recognize the benefits of vinyl/acrylic mechanical impedance coupling in order to drain and dissipate energy from the record surface, Bizlewicz begins his constrained-layer–damped design with a thin top surface of aluminum that closely matches the mechanical impedance of most chassis materials. Next comes a layer of high-density fiberboard, followed by a thicker layer of MDF (medium-density fiberboard), then a thinner layer of lower-density but very rigid foam that forms the center of the approximately 21/2"-thick platform. From there the layers repeat in a mirror image, ending with a bottom layer of aluminum.

The entire "hi-tech," constrained-layer–damped assembly is pressure-laminated using "space age" dry adhesives. The theory is that mechanical energy flows from the equipment chassis to the aluminum surface, then down through successive layers of increasingly "lossy" material, in which it is finally dissipated as heat. The mostly mirror-image construction (the bottom layer of aluminum is thinner than the top one) means that, in theory at least, the board is equally good at dissipating mechanical vibrations originating from the outside and traveling up through the support platform—in this case, a virtual impossibility due to the effectiveness of the Vibraplane.

The platform comes with three solid-aluminum cubes or "couplers''; these allow you to bypass the rubber feet that come attached to the bottoms of many components. The idea is to transfer energy, not impede it. Nonetheless, in the instructions, Bizlewicz encourages experimenting with spiked feet and "tuning" devices—but under the Symposium Platform, and in conjunction with the aluminum couplers on top.

Walker Audio Valid Points
Speaking of which, I'd previously been playing around with Lloyd Walker's Valid Points (best name since Tiptoes—if you're into a high-mass approach to resonance control, these mighty cones work very well under CD transports and preamps. (Walker claims they also work with loudspeakers, amplifiers, turntables, etc.) Valid Points are made of a heavy brass/lead combination and sit point-down on his resin/lead/brass "control discs." Walker recommends supporting a component on three points and placing two discs on top of the component, near its center. Once you've located the best positions, he recommends using Mortite to hold them in place. A set of three smaller cones with five discs costs $230. Three larger cones with five discs costs $260. Walker offers a 30-day money-back guarantee. (Walker Audio, 1139 Thrush Lane, Audubon, PA 19403. Tel: (610) 666-6087.) Like to play? Knock yourself out. Meanwhile, DJ Casser's carbon-fiber composite cones, at three for $60, strike me as a real bargain.

Back to the board
The standard-size Symposium board, with its gleaming aluminum surface, looks and feels impressive. Build quality is superb. The longer, wider, 80-lb TNT version is even more imposing, if not a bit clinical placed atop the Vibraplane. First, to reduce the variables, I listened to the TNT without the flywheel: a clearcut improvement in the bass, and even greater overall focus. With the flywheel in place, the results were simply overwhelming. I have never heard such top-to-bottom authority, focus, and slam through my system. I mean, I was jazzed into a very-late-night listening session.

Needless to say, when a reporter from the Wall Street Journal's European edition visited for an upcoming story on the vinyl resurgence, I was ready for him! His awe was superseded only by mine as we spun hour after hour of vinyl, occasionally stopping for an LP/CD comparison. Davey Spillane's Atlantic Bridge? Wow! Classic's new three-LP Dead Man Walking soundtrack? Yikes! The guy missed his first train out, and almost missed the second.

The efficacy of the Symposium Acoustics platform was easy to demonstrate. With the 'table stopped and the stylus in the groove, a sharp tap on the motor or Flywheel's surface—which had produced a warm thunk through the speakers when the TNT rested on the Big Foot—now yielded a barely audible pop on the Symposium platform. Tapping on the platform itself confirmed quite clearly how effective it is in absorbing and dissipating energy. You can feel it with your fingers.

Bizlewicz still hasn't calculated the exact cost of the larger platform, but he figures it will come in at between four and five hundred dollars—not cheap. Not expensive either, considering how effective it is. But here's good news: most turntables will fit on a standard Symposium platform, which measures about 18" by 22" and costs only $200. The platform (designed to replace the wood or MDF shelves in products like Target stands) is also supposed to work well under electronics—especially tubed gear with transformers. I haven't tried it yet.

The Vibraplane/Symposium combo is a true state-of-the-art isolation/absorption platform for vinyl playback. It's keeping me up late at night, every night. At about $5500, it should offer clearly superior performance from the TNT. It does—you'd hear it in a minute. The good news is that the Seismic Sink/Bright Star combo performs well too—not in the same league, mind you, but with great effectiveness nonetheless. And now Bright Star makes an Air Mass platform for the TNT, which I haven't heard. [Wes Phillips will be reporting on this next month.—Ed.] And for owners of "normal''-sized 'tables, a Seismic Sink or Bright Star Air Mass/Symposium combo can be yours for well under $500. A combo worth considering for any vinyl fanatic on a normal budget. You can contact Symposium Acoustics at 30 Industrial Avenue, Mahwah, NJ 07430. Tel: (201) 616-4787.

Step-by-step turntable setup!
Because I've gotten so many requests from readers asking for a detailed description of how I go about setting up a cartridge/arm/turntable combo, the next "Analog Corner" will be a blow-by-blow account. There are many ways to skin a cat (and believe me, I wanted to after ours jumped up on the TNT recently and, with his paw, popped all the belts while I was showing it to some audio-world dignitaries). My procedure will be only one of many possibilities. I'll also be dealing with the psychology of setup to encourage the timid among you to try your hand at what really is a straightforward process.

Footnote 1: The platform is the standard size, 24" x 20". Custom sizes are available for the TNT.

garry's picture

There's a lot to learn here. Being surrounded by gadgets can only lead you into the point where you learn all you need to know about them to be able to ace them. This is how you get to know what a RF combiner is, this is how you get to attend an Acoustics Symposium. Thanks for sharing this with us, it helps to learn all about these mechanisms.