Analog Corner #41

Mikey and the Bishop, Wilson Benesch's new speaker.

(Originally published in Stereophile, December 12th, 1998)

It was 9am as the plane touched down at Heathrow, but my brain screamed "4am! Go back to sleep!''—as if the eight hours of slouched-over dozing interrupted by cattle-prodding flight attendants could be called "sleep." Yes, the red-eye is considered by many travelers to be the most efficient way to jet to London, and Virgin tries hard to please, even in the cramped steerage section—but wedged into a middle seat and being a naturally fidgety sort, I found the transoceanic flight a form of water torture I can live without.

As the taxi navigated Heathrow's crowded, narrow roadways on its way to the Excelsior Hotel just outside the airport grounds, one of two venues for The HI-FI Show '98, the former Ramada HiFi Show sponsored by Hi-Fi News & Record Review, I tried making believe it really was 9am and I really had had a good night's sleep. It almost worked.

I checked in, dropped my bags, and wobbled my way to the TAG McLaren breakfast, to which I'd been invited. The well-funded, highly diversified Formula 1 racing-car company had recently bought British hi-fi manufacturer Cambridge Systems Technology (Audiolab).

As I entered the splashy exhibit—which featured a racing car, gleaming manifolds, and other automotive works of art along with the audio gear—I pondered what an American equivalent might be: say, stock-car racer Norman Petty buying Audio Research ("I heard Garth Brooks on some tube gear, and...'').

The audio part of TAG McLaren's display consisted of some modest-looking Audiolab-like gear, and a new, sexy, highly stylized line some journalists later surmised was aimed at "the B&O market." All behind Plexiglas.

Behind the exhibit walls, in the press reception area, I spotted some familiar faces: Wes Phillips, Stereophile UK correspondent Paul Messenger, and HFN/RR's reliably loquacious Ken Kessler, who, on his own turf, was even more so, if that's possible. Breakfast was served stand-up style and the banter was pleasant, but I felt as if I was sending and receiving from under a layer of not so sterile gauze.

Then it was time to begin covering analog at the Show. But first, a shower. I returned to my room, took one look at the bed, and it was all over. Five hours and some hot water later, I was ready to go. Love those heated towel racks!

Since I had another commitment (a visit to the Rega manufacturing facilities, which will be the subject of January's "Analog Corner"), I had but two days to see everything, and that proved plenty—the Show was smaller than Stereophile-sponsored Shows. At least, with most everything packed together on two floors of two hotels, it seemed smaller.

Despite the denseness [density?] of the exhibition and the smaller rooms, sonic spaces never seemed to be invaded. The Brits don't listen as loud, the equipment isn't as large and overbearing, and, refreshingly, there was very little home theater at this show—it was, for the most part, a hi-fi show. While from what I saw the British don't take their listening quite as seriously as do the Germans, they're scholars compared to how we easily distracted Americans conduct ourselves at these exhibitions. All in all, the packed quarters gave the Show a greater sense of visceral excitement compared to the spread-out Stateside exhibitions, which, especially on the upper floors, often feel like Desolation Row despite the good attendance.

Today's Exchange Rate: $1.7 US = £1 Sterling
I ran into the Nottingham Analogue Studio room in short order. Though not imported Stateside, the company has been at it for some 30 years, manufacturing a full line of impressive-looking and -sounding turntables, including the budget Interspace ($l500) and the top-of-the-line Anna Log ($l5500). In between are the company's most popular 'table, the Spacedeck ($l750), and the Hyper Spacedeck ($l1500) and Mentor ($l2600).

Because NAS's core philosophy is that no motor is better than any motor, but, since one is necessary, it should be as small and vibration-free as possible, getting a Nottingham Analogue turntable started requires a helping hand. The idea is to use as low-torque a motor as possible. You also use your hand to stop the platter to change records, though no damage is done to the motor while it "fibrillates" in neutral. It takes a bit of getting used to. Suspensionless and simple to set up, the line is also attractive-looking and impressively well finished. Too bad we can't taste 'em here.

Nottingham also manufactures two unipivot arms, the Space ($l450) and the Mentor ($l800), as well as three versions of a linear-tracking arm ($l550–1600), and The Foot ($l1100)—a 12" arm that the company acknowledges in its literature has both the potential advantage of lower tracking error and two disadvantages: higher effective mass and lower rigidity. Both of which it claims it overcomes by reducing the headshell mass and adding stiffness via carbon-fiber rods that run the length of the armtube. There are also four moving-magnet cartridges priced from $l98 to $l660. An amazingly diverse array, especially when you consider that most Americans have never even heard of the company.

Down the hall I encountered the Avid turntable, another unfamiliar but impressive-looking machine. Priced at $l8000, it ought to be! Avid takes the opposite tack from Nottingham, using a powerful, handmade motor ("10 times more powerful than normally used'') to belt-drive a massive 10kg platter. An ingenious spring suspension isolates the system from outside vibrational contamination, but, more significantly, the design uses a patented system of rods—part of the subchassis casting—to dissipate, not damp, vibrational energy created at the stylus/groove interface. The Avid includes a sinewave-generator power supply adjusted to be in-phase with the motor. Unfortunately, the arm-mounting platform is integral with the subchassis, which is clearly expensive to manufacture. This does not appear to be the 'table for compulsive arm swappers, but it sure looks and feels swell.

Far more affordable ($l950 without arm) was the attractive Oasis-A turntable from Origin Live. It features a solid wood base, a polycarbonate platter decoupled from the subplatter via felt washers, a 3mm ball bearing bathed in military-spec "Arctic oil" (whatever that is), and a low-cogging AC synchronous motor. An electronic power supply for two-speed operation is optional. The optional arm ($l184) is a modified Rega RB250 (or OEM variation thereof) fitted with a mounting base collar for adjusting VTA. Also available is the Oasis-S ($l2250), which features a larger, more attractive wooden plinth, sprung subchassis, DC motor, and rechargeable battery power supply.

Origin Live also offers two DIY turntable kits and additional customized parts derived from the Oasis-A and S turntables, orderable direct from the company. For $l145 you get an Airpax AC synchronous motor (same one Linn uses, and yes, the Linn power supplies will work with it), pulley, belt, bearing housing and hardware, hardened spindle and subplatter, PVC platter, oil, cable clamps and screws, motor power-supply components, and associated hardware (it's simple—a few caps, varistor, switch, resistor, terminal block, etc.). Plus, of course, complete instructions and drawings. You have to supply the plinth and tonearm. The Ultra kit ($l279) gives you a longer bearing housing and spindle (the bearing is, of course, the heart of any turntable), and a polycarbonate platter (alone worth about $l200, according to Origin), along with all of the other parts, of course.

From the plethora of players waiting to be discovered at Britain's HI-FI Show '98, top to bottom: Nottingham Analogue's Anna Log turntable with the Foot arm, Nottingham's Anna Log with the Mentor arm, the Avid turntable, Origin Live's Oasis-A turntable, and SOTA's Millennium. Photographs by Michael Fremer.

Options include a dustcover and hinges ($l19), MDF plinth pre-cut for Rega arms ($l29), a nicely finished solid wood plinth and top board pre-drilled for a spring-suspended subchassis ($l84), the steel subchassis with armboard ($l65), and the springs, seats, and support rods for the subchassis ($l27). Also—this may interest current Rega arm owners—a VTA adjuster for Rega tonearms ($l48) claimed to improve the sound (which, I promise you, has mild-mannered Rega proprietor Roy Gandy seeing red and/or lime green). There's also a rechargeable, battery-operated DC motor/pulley/two-speed power-supply option that will run for 60 hours between chargings ($l150).

Clearly, if you buy all of these parts, you're spending serious shekels. But if you're handy, you can build and finish your own customized plinth and play with shapes, sizes, suspensions, and modifications until you get it the way you like it. Of course, Origin will supply products for 60Hz/120V operation.

Origin Live also offers a wide array of Rega arm modifications that it claims vastly improve the already fine performance of the stock arms. The glowing reviews seem to corroborate the company's claims. For a complete description of what's available, visit Origin Live's website: .

Speaking of DIY, here's a tip from an anonymous source. Take four pieces of perfectly flat 1/2" plywood big enough to accommodate your turntable or other gear, and make two double-thickness pieces by gluing them together. Sandwich a piece of "military grade" bubble wrap—the big-bubble size—between them, and you have an outstanding isolation platform. So he says.

I was surprised to find an old friend in another room: the finally finished SOTA Millennium ($l4995, but don't use the dollar conversion to calculate domestic pricing). I'd had an early production unit for review a few years ago, but SOTA was then on shaky financial grounds and the review was never completed. The company is now owned by the folks who formerly serviced SOTA products. If things seem stable at SOTA, we'll request another review sample. (Analog joke: Q: What's a turntable manufacturer's preferred bank loan? A: A revolving line of credit. I know—I should keep my day job.)

The Millennium on display demonstrated a level of fit and finish superior to what I'd had at home, though otherwise it appeared to be identical. The new 'table is, essentially, a suspensionless (there are elastomer inserts), plinthless, externally motored Cosmos. The formerly hidden subchassis, now exposed, rests on four corner towers. The motor and speed-control board, once mounted directly to the subchassis, is now isolated in its own oblong black box. Otherwise, it's basically a Cosmos equipped with a vacuum platter. Also on display was SOTA's record-cleaning machine, which bears a very strong resemblance to a VPI 16.5, but with a few differences—including a fitting that supposedly equalizes the vacuum suction along the entire length of the pickup tube.

Another vacuum record-cleaning machine at the Show, the Loricraft Audio PRC II ($l1350), resembles yet another industry standard, the old Keith Monks cleaner. Like the VPI and SOTA units, the Loricraft uses a spinning platter and a vacuum pump. In place of a cushioned acrylic armtube running the width of the record, the Loricraft (and the Monks before it) uses a tonearmlike device fitted with both a vacuum hose and a grooved contact area through which passes thread from a spool. The moving thread protects the record surface as the arm traverses it. The advantage of this system is that you can clean records continuously and not end up with saturated armtube "lips."

More analog attractions, from top to bottom: the restored, highly prized, vintage Garrard 301 Classic, Garrard's new 501 Phoenix, Kuzma's Super Stabi Reference, the unique Stabi S with Kuzma unipivot arm, and the slick Girati Grande. Girati is Italian for "turn yourself."

Loricraft is better known as a restorer of highly prized vintage Garrard 301 and 401 transcription turntables. The company has acquired the sole rights to the Garrard name and trademark from Gradiente of Brazil, which owns Garrard. The quality of workmanship was absolutely dazzling on the restoration examples on display at the Show. The company sources original parts and remanufactures exact replacements.

According to Loricraft's ebullient (supercharged, actually) Terry O'Sullivan, half of the Garrard transcription turntables manufactured ended up in the US. Just thinking of the hundreds or more currently residing in attics coast to coast had the man positively misty-eyed. Is there a reader over 40 reading this who doesn't have a Garrard Type A changer in his/her past? ("her" included for PC purposes only.)

O'Sullivan also proudly ran me through the company's new 501, the first new Garrard in 25 years. Like vintage Garrards, the 501 uses idler-wheel drive. While many of us might wonder why anyone would be attracted to that antiquated format in the era of the belt, I got the answer instantly from none other than Cary Audio's Dennis Had, who, coincidentally, happened on the Garrard room when I did. Dennis took one look at the 501 and lit up like a vintage 300B. "Idler drive delivers incredible dynamics," he opined enthusiastically. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a new 501 in his near future. While the 501 looks attractively "retro," it's a thoroughly modern design, and, from a quick visual inspection, its machining quality appears to be superb. Loricraft also designs and builds its own motor for the 'table because no off-the-shelf motor could provide the proper performance for the idler wheel. An importer has yet to be named; if and when there is one, I'm hoping for a review sample.

O'Sullivan also showed me new Garrard accessories, including a goat-hair record brush developed for use with the cleaning machine, a hand-held electronic strobe light (works at 50Hz, in conjunction with the 50Hz strobe disc that Garrard supplies with its platter damping pad), and the Soundstage multilayer glass isolation platform, which, O'Sullivan says, provides 35dB of isolation at 1kHz.

Two new Kuzma products caught my eye: the unique Stabi S, which looks like a cross between a pipe bomb and a turntable, will sell for about $1500 in the US, can be fitted with most any arm, and is shown here with the new Kuzma unipivot arm, which will sell for "around $1000," according to Mr. Kuzma himself. Looks a great deal like the Immedia RPM-2 arm, don't you think?

Looking more like part of a cutting lathe than a turntable is Kuzma's new limited-edition Super Stabi Reference, a $9000, dual-synchronous-motor 'table that features a 60-lb aluminum-and-acrylic sandwich platter sitting on a bearing shaft 3" in diameter and topped by a ruby ball bearing bathed in an oil/silicone mix. The 'table sits on an extremely heavy maple base fitted with four springs damped with silicone fluid and tuned very low for maximum isolation. The entire assembly weighs over 220 lbs. The two isolated arm-mounting platforms are extremely high-mass brass cylinders that feature adjustable VTA via fine-pitch threaded inserts. The towers are moveable, but once in place and with overhang set, it's unlikely they'll move unless they're in an earthquake. There's no dustcover.

Another truly intriguing design was the German-made Girati Grande ($l9000), an ultracompact dual-motor design wherein both motors are located out of sight under a tall, two-piece acrylic platter with a rubber-damped heavy outer ring of cast "homogenized" brass. A sinewave-generating power supply synchronizes the motors. Lead base plates fixed via rubber under the acrylic plinth and rubber feet help isolate the 'table from external vibrations. It's claimed that the bearing has absolutely no play, as it uses a ball turning inside a "tundish." I have no idea what a "tundish" is, or if it's a translation typo—which is possible, since the power supply is said to produce a "sinus''-shaped wave. In any case, the 'table looks gorgeous, seems well crafted, and has provisions for two tonearms. Chances of seeing it in the US? Same as Julian Hirsch mounting a back-to-analog campaign.

Top to bottom: Michell's gorgeous Or be turntable, followed by their handsome Gyrodec, the familiar Nouvelle Platine, Rockport's mouthwatering Capella II, and Clearaudio's dual-motor Reference Master.

Familiar turntables on display: Michell's gorgeous Gyrodec and Orbe, the Roksan Xerxes X, the Voyd, the Linn Sondek, and the Nouvelle Platine. Sadly missing in action on home turf: the Simon Yorke, and the Rega Planar 2, 3, and 9. Rega doesn't "do" hi-fi shows. (The new Rega PT 25, to be priced around $1300, which I saw and heard during my visit to Rega, will be reviewed as soon as one's available.)

In Absolute Analogue's large ground-floor suite at the Renaissance, I found lined up against one wall two mouthwatering Rockport turntables (the Sirius III and the Capella II) and the new Clearaudio Reference Master turntable—a flashy-looking dual-motor design fitted with the Clearaudio/Souther arm. The tall acrylic platter is grooveless, which is certain to improve wow and flutter performance. Contrary to popular belief, Robert Suchy did not chase me out of the room, call me names, or stick cantilevers into my likeness.

The familiar VPI line of turntables and cleaning machines lined the other side of the room. Speaking of which, VPI's Harry Weisfeld told me that he has a new edition of his tonearm that sells for about $1350. It uses some different parts, but offers all of the features of the more expensive model. Check with your dealer.

Obviously, Absolute Analogue is serious about analog. And yes, it's the same company that has been reissuing 180gm vinyl in the UK (available here too) over the past few years. Some of the titles have sounded superb, like Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited and Carole King's Tapestry, even though these were clearly not mastered from the original tapes, which don't leave the US. Absolute Analogue works with the best tapes they can get, which are usually first-generation copies that were sent to the UK when the masters were fresh. Since far fewer lacquers were cut from these copies, in some cases they might actually sound as good as, if not better than, the oft-used masters.

I spent a great deal of time with Absolute Analogue's Simon Bennett, who played (and gave me) test pressings of two great Mott the Hoople albums that were mastered from the original tapes: Mott and All the Young Dudes. While these are not "audiophile''-quality recordings, the sound is superior to my original British and American pressings of both. Mott will come with the original die-cut gatefold sleeve, which I'd never seen before. My time with Bennett convinced me that he is extremely meticulous and fanatical about sound and pressing quality.

Also on the vinyl front, I ran into Classic Records' Mike Hobson, who'd heard I do a "killer" impression of him and dared me to do it in front of him. I obliged. He died. But not before telling me about some of the Columbia 50th-anniversary LPs he'll be releasing, one of which is a two-LP set of Bob Dylan's Freewheelin', containing both the "official" edition and the ultra-rare and ultra-valuable ($8–10k) original version, which includes "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" and three other tracks that were later deleted. Though that version was never shipped, a few pressings, both mono and stereo, got out because the wrong stamper was accidentally used. That's just one of the great titles Classic will be issuing. More next time.

All in all, an impressive showing for analog—especially compared to the dismal turnout at our own HI-FI '98. Let's hope there's more analog in Chicago next year!

Paul Boudreau's picture

" of which is a two-LP set of Bob Dylan's Freewheelin', containing both the 'official' edition and the ultra-rare and ultra-valuable ($8–10k) original version, which includes 'Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues' and three other tracks that were later deleted."

Too bad Classic Records never released that!

An overall question:  Looking back 25 years, do you think turntables and speakers have continued to improve?  Thanks.

Michael Fremer's picture

Yes. Absolutely. Though there are those who feel that Technics SP-10 Mk3 and old Thorens idler wheel drive 'tables can't be beat. Ditto some of the Micro-Seikis and other Japanese "super 'tables" of the 1970s.

I think speaker technology has greatly improved too. Better materials and more sophisticated measurement techniques....

Paul Boudreau's picture

Good to know.  I had no way of knowing since there's no way I could have seriously auditioned multiple turntables/speakers over the last thirty years. 

Another question, if I may:  I've noticed that you become irritated when people raise the question of the price of some high-end audio gear.  Like auditioning such equipment, I have no way to tell whether any of it is over-priced, or under-priced, for that matter.  How are we to tell?  Just curious, thanks.

planarhead's picture

Classic Records put out some amazing Dylan box sets. Seconded that it's a shame that version of Freewheelin' never came to fruition.

Ariel Bitran's picture

is some serious analog porn

theo's picture

Drooling over those turntables!!!!