Analog Corner #60

A pleasant surprise arrived at my door the other day: the 180gm vinyl edition of Companion, the Patricia Barber album released last year on Premonition/Blue Note. According to the jacket, the six-track set, impeccably recorded live in Chicago last July by Jim Anderson, was mastered from a 24-bit transfer of an analog recording. You can bet the vinyl sounds better than the 16-bit CD—at less than 20 minutes a side, there's plenty of room for the recording's full dynamics.

The set includes a slinky version of the Sonny and Cher classic "The Beat Goes On," and a cutting original, "If This Isn't Jazz." When I saw Barber at New York City's Jazz Standard some time ago, the club had posted a blowup of a New York Times review of her live show. While the review was favorable, the subhead read "Pop," which I figured Barber appreciated as much as a stick in the eye. On "If This Isn't Jazz," she sticks it back! Why Barber is "Pop" and Diana Krall is "Jazz," I don't understand. Because Barber "jazzes up" some pop tunes? Ella Fitzgerald did "Sunshine of Your Love," you know. Companion is available from all the usual vinyl vendors.

High Fidelity
Surely by now you've seen John Cusack's adaptation of Nick Hornby's insightful novel, High Fidelity. While the title refers more to affairs of the heart than to our hobby, the story is set in a used-record store, and there's plenty of background eyecandy, including record-company promo ephemera and shelves full of vinyl for you to ogle. Believe me, you'll relate!

The story of a used-vinyl store owner who's afraid to commit because he's too busy looking for his next conquest seemed lost on the Limp Bizkit adolescents sitting silently in front of me, but you'll laugh plenty as Cusack's character, adrift in a memory sea of bad relationships and endless rejections, hangs onto his vinyl collection like Eliáan to his rubber tire.

In one scene he's piled thousands of LPs on the floor because he's rearranging the order from musical genre to date of acquisition. Sound familiar? Toward the film's conclusion, one of the main characters can be seen reading a copy of The Tracking Angle in the background. If you're unfamiliar with the graphics, you notice it, but I was amazed at how many e-mails I got from eagle-eyed readers.

Surprising Statistic
According to an article in the New York Times' "Circuits" section (January 20, 2000), "Last year, D.J. turntables outsold guitars." All of those 'tables would be direct-drive models, mostly Technics SL-1200s, fitted with brute-force slice'n'dice cartridges for back-cueing, scratching, and all those other awful things we would never consider subjecting our vinyl to. I've seen pages of these combos advertised in pro-sound catalogs. Turntables as "musical instruments"? That's what vinyl detractors have been calling them for decades.

How to convert these DJs to "normal" LP listening? Get the pro catalogs to stock and devote some page space to moderately priced audiophile cartridges from Shure, Grado, Stanton, Ortofon, and the others, and invite the DJs to spend some quality time with their turntables. And don't hold your breath.

Speaking of DJs and pro audio, in September a company in Europe is preparing to introduce the Kingston Dubplate Cutter—a $5000 LP-cutting lathe for DJs. A "dubplate" is DJ lingo for a record that's either a one-off or very rare. The lathe is designed to attach to a Technics SL-1200.

What gets cut are ready-to-play records—no plating or pressing needed. A representative of MixMachines (www.mixmachines.com), the European marketing company for the lathe, told me in an e-mail that the blanks were aluminum discs plated with a lacquer "foil," which I assume is Continental usage for "film" or "coating." In other words, the lathe cuts a lacquer. The rep claimed the sound quality would "exceed that of a normal pressed record."

Of course, a lacquer is only good for a small number of plays before it wears out. More troubling is lacquer's extreme flammability—great for a disco, where everyone's smokin' and tokin'. Blanks will sell for $7 apiece, and there will be 10" and 7" vinyl blanks, which the spokesperson said would be more durable. I haven't gotten an answer yet. If you want to check out the lathe—and I know you do—go to: www.vinylium.ch/stuka/dubcut.html.

Michell GyroDec SE
J.A. Michell Engineering Ltd. (www.michell-engineering.co.uk) has been making turntables since the mid-'60s. I finally got around to hearing one in 2000. That's pathetic, but believe me—once the box arrived, I made up for lost time.

Michell's designs over the years include the Saturn, Hydraulic Reference (seen in A Clockwork Orange), Electronic Reference, Prisma, Focus One, Focus One "S," Syncro, Mycro, GyroDec, Orbe, and the SE versions of the GyroDec and Orbe. According to Artech, Michell's importer, the Hertfordshire firm has been making turntables longer than anyone currently doing so in England. There's also a line of electronics, engineered by Graham Fowler, that includes the Delphini phono preamp (to be reviewed next month as part of my phono-section survey). Michell's electronics line is more complete, but Artech isn't currently bringing it in.

Michell's engineering skills grace products from companies like ProAc, Musical Fidelity, Goldring, Celestion, Beard, Rolls-Royce, and even, according to the importer, Lucasfilm, where his John Michell's machining talents have been put to use on main-character costume parts and miniature models. (SME's Alastair Robertson-Aikman is also into miniatures; "SM" stands for "small" or "scale model.") The Hydraulic Reference seen in A Clockwork Orange was once on display at New York's MoMA. In addition, Michell makes gold-and-rhodium–plated connectors, manufactured and plated in-house. Michell uses castings and turnings as opposed to stamped metal and plastic.

That was apparent when I unboxed the GyroDec SE, which sells for a very modest $1595 without tonearm (but with armboard drilled for your choice of arm), or $1995 with the Rega RB300. The GyroDec SE (for Spider Edition) costs $400 less than the standard GyroDec Mk.IV, but its sonic performance is said to be identical: the only difference is the base. The Mk.IV uses a large, costly acrylic base, the SE a smaller, acrylic three-point "spider."

The GyroDec SE is an impressively complex but rational design highlighted by a precision, heavily ribbed, sand-cast aluminum subchassis containing two solid-lead weights attached to the underside between the ribs. The weights counterbalance the tonearm and mounting board, which always add up to 1kg to ensure perfect static balance. The three suspension springs "see" the same weight.

If you use a heavy arm, Michell supplies a lighter mounting board, and vice-versa. This makes arm-swapping convenient: the weight balance remains the same, and there's no need to mess with the springs. Michell can supply boards for any arm, and keeps "off the shelf" boards cut for such popular arms as the Rega, Graham, SME, Wilson-Benesch, etc. The heavy, spring-suspended circular subchassis holds the armboard and the inverted bearing/platter assembly, for a total weight of 13kg. The freestanding motor's shaft and dual pulleys (secured with a single set screw) fit through a large subchassis cutout.

Assembling the 'table is not difficult, but diagrams and visual identification of the parts would make it much easier, especially for novices. Once you've screwed the tapped aluminum feet to the bottom of the spider, leveled it, and screwed the inverted bearing assembly's oil well and case-hardened shaft into the subchassis, you mount the tonearm/board assembly via three vertically adjustable standoffs. Then you assemble the three two-piece spring towers, which are terminated in a high-pressure ball-bearing support, giving the springs a reference to mechanical ground. Once in place on the spider, the resulting assembly puts the floating system's center of gravity well below the suspension points.

The bearing is of exceptional quality for a product at this (or any) price, and its unique design would seem to ensure long life and extreme stability. With the point of rotation being above the platter's center of gravity and at the drive belt's height, the system should be quite stable and not prone to "bearing rocking." The GyroDec's thrust ball sits atop the shaft, centered in an inverted cone machined into the bronze housing, which also includes the record spindle. A spiral machined into the housing draws oil up from the well, an off-center hole in the shaft lets it drain back down. This should result in long bearing life as well as low friction and low rumble. (See the photo of this assembly in the April 2000 "Analog Corner,", p.43.)

The 12" platter, made of a proprietary self-damping compound of carbon/vinyl-loaded acrylic, is 25mm thick and weighs 3.5kg. Its suspended, perimeter-mounted, gold-plated brass weights create a stabilizing gyroscopic effect—hence the GyroDec's name. The platter material closely matches the mechanical impedance of vinyl, which helps prevent pop- and tick-induced energy from being reflected back to the stylus-record interface. Michell claims this means lower noise from worn records.

Spinning this assembly—via a round-section, centerless-ground Neoprene belt—is a standalone, outer-rotor, split-phase AC synchronous motor by Pabst, running at a relatively high speed and housed in a metal base. The motor is powered by a 40VA toroidal transformer/phase-shift network.

While a higher-quality motor drive is available as one of a number of options and upgrades, I chose to review the "base" model. But I wanted to see what the GyroDec would do with a familiar high-performance arm like the Graham 2.0, which is almost twice as expensive as the 'table itself. Clearance between the Graham's DIN terminal and the subchassis mounting ring was tight. If you're going to use a Graham, connect the arm cable before securing the mounting board, and be sure to get a 90$d DIN plug—there's no room for the straight variety.

Taking the GyroDec SE for a Spin
It's been years since I've had a sprung 'table, so the Michell took a bit of getting used to. While the system is essentially self-adjusting, it's possible to refine the spring tuning by twisting each coil counterclockwise in its base until any tendency for the system to rock from side to side, instead of bouncing vertically, is eliminated. This is more than a cosmetic tweak. Getting the spring system to operate pistonically is essential to achieving a stable platform for the arm/bearing/platter assembly. Eccentrically pressed records (ie, most of them) will cause the arm to swing back and forth, accentuating any instability in the three-spring setup.

The instructions are too casual in explaining this—they assume the purchaser is way ahead of the curve. This is fine for experienced hobbyists but bad for initiates, who will most likely not get the best performance from the GyroDec. It's well worth taking the time to carefully stabilize the subchassis.

The GyroDec SE comes with a lightweight collet-type record clamp—easy to use, but if you unscrew it by too many turns, it comes apart. No big deal—once the record's in place, you push the motor-mounted On/Off button and you're ready to listen. But first I had to perform a few tests.

While the motor is exceptionally silky-smooth and free of cogging, and the bottom of its housing is fitted with a large vibration-damping $wO-ring, for some reason it vibrated more than some other motors—and you can bet that those vibrations will be transmitted to the surface on which the 'table is placed. Fortunately, the suspension system worked as promised; a stethoscope placed on the subchassis yielded dead silence, indicating a very quiet bearing as well.

I've always found spring-suspended turntables to sound more "plush" than non-suspended rigs, and the Michell didn't disappoint. While the GyroDec SE was slightly on the warm side of the sonic continuum, its bass extension and control were very, very good, with just a slight midbass bloom that never obscured fundamentals or transients—in other words, it possessed a fine sense of rhythm and pacing. You'll find snappier performance and speedier transients from some non-suspended 'tables, but you won't get from them the luscious, airy mids offered by the GyroDec SE and other suspended 'tables, or the GyroDec's impressively black backgrounds—not at this price.

If you couple the GyroDec with an overly lush cartridge, you could get bored—just as an overly analytical cartridge can be too much for some of the non-suspended designs. I found the GyroDec SE worked well with the Parnassus D.C.t and Transfiguration Temper SE, either of which costs more than twice as much as the 'table, but the EMT Geyger S overloaded the midbass. (Incidentally, I was misinformed about the Geyger stylus: It's not sapphire, but a highly polished diamond.)

Okay, so $3000+ cartridges are unlikely to be used with a $1595 turntable. But I know both well, I had both mounted on Graham ceramic armwands, and they allowed me get a good handle on what the Gyrodec could and couldn't deliver. Ultimately, the slightly forward balance of the $1500 Transfiguration Spirit proved the ideal match for the GyroDec SE in my system, adding a touch of excitement the 'table lacked.

Image focus and soundstaging were both very good, but not up to what the Graham arm is capable of. The same with bass extension and overall dynamics. This $1595 'table, while very, very good, can't get the most out of the $3000 Graham 2.0 fitted with ultra-expensive cartridges. No surprise. But the combination offered a very smooth, balanced sound that differed from far more expensive 'tables by small degrees all around, rather than because of a few gaping weaknesses.

The GyroDec SE can be upgraded with the QC electronic power supply (standard with the more expensive Orbe), which uses a quartz oscillator, a precision phase-shift network, and two high-power output amplifiers, one for each motor phase. This upgrade may well improve the 'table's already fine image focus, stability, bass extension, and overall dynamics. Ditto the much more massive Orbe platter upgrade. I don't mean to slight the standard GyroDec SE's performance: It's very accomplished, and, more important, well-balanced, with no serious sonic blemishes.

If you get a chance to get up close to a GyroDec SE, you'll wonder how something so exquisitely machined can be sold for $1595, especially when compared to most other 'tables of similar price. Its bearing is superb; the cast subchassis, platter, suspension system, and motor seem almost excessive, given the asking price; and when it's all put together, it looks great! Packaged with the Rega RB300 tonearm for $1995, it's a truly outstanding performer at a lonely price point—and it's upgradeable. What else can you get for $2k that offers all of this? Mated with the right cartridge, the GyroDec SE should give you outstanding analog performance.

Music Hall MMF 5 turntable: So Good, it's Laughable
Music Hall's Roy Hall decided to have some fun with analog a few years ago, and perhaps make a few bucks in the process. He introduced a $299 turntable, the MMF 2, complete with Goldring cartridge. Hall didn't lose money on each sale, but he didn't make much either. But he sold plenty of them (he won't say how many), and after the first year, he realized that there was actual cash to be made from analog—something too many retailers have yet to figure out.

So Hall went back to the Czech factory that had built the turntable for him (the same factory builds the Pro-Ject line, and sells to Thorens, among others), and asked them to come up with another, more expensive model.

The result is the Music Hall MMF 5, a split-plinth design that uses visco-elastic cones and discs to isolate the bearing/platter/arm top plinth from the motor-carrying lower section. It sells for $599.

The belt drive uses a flat belt riding on a crown pulley to drive a plastic subplatter and glass main platter weighing over 3 lbs. The spindle is threaded for a screw-on clamp (included). There's even a convenient built-in spirit level. The arm is the familiar 9" effective-length design used in many 'tables from the Czech factory, and permits adjustment of VTA and azimuth. A string and weight sets anti-skating. Included in the price is a Goldring 1012GX MM cartridge, which sells separately for $175.

The MMF 5 is a "plug and play" design that you can have up and running in about 10 minutes. My sample came with the azimuth seriously off, but a twist of the armtube corrected the problem. Overall build quality is not as high as a Rega Planar 2 or 3, but don't forget: a really nice $175 cartridge is included in the price. The glass platter is not as precisely made as the Rega's—it's not perfectly flat, and the Rega's cast arm tube can't be touched by anyone's at anywhere near the price. But the MMF 5 allows azimuth and VTA adjustment, which the Regas do not. And both the arm and platter bearing quality are reasonably good. The MMF 5, as a whole, is a pleasing design, aesthetically and sonically.

I didn't hesitate to play any of my records on the MMF5, and the sound it made was really satisfying. Whether it was the cartridge, the improved 'table construction, or both, the MMF 5 sounded much better than I remember the MMF 2 sounding, and that 'table (still available) sounded pretty good.

The MMF 5 will make an analog believer out of the most doctrinaire digital fanatic. It sounded warm, sweet, open, and coherent in the ways that analog does and 16-bit digital does not. It never sounded hollow, metallic, or lifeless. And it delivered surprisingly good detail and pleasantly quiet backgrounds.

Today I returned from a record convention in Raritan, New Jersey and started playing my $1 and $2 finds on the MMF 5. It sounded wonderful. You could have gone to this record sale and picked up 200 good, clean records for around $400. Add the MMF 5 for $600 and your total is $1000.

Of course, you could also have picked up maybe 100 jewelboxed CD reissues for the same $1000—but could you have found The Shirelles Sing Their Songs in the Great Movie "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and Others ($2.50)? Or the four-LP boxed set of The Louis Armstrong Story ($6)? Or a Nine Inch Nails six-track EP on TVT ($2)? Or John Lee Hooker's Live at Soledad Prison ($2)? Or a "sunray" British Island pressing of Jethro Tull's Stand Up ($1)? Or an original, reasonably clean British pressing of Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn with a really beat cover ($2.50)?

I played all of these LPs on the MMF 5 today, and after one play had got more than my money's worth. The MMF 5 is a gateway drug into the intoxicating world of analog playback. Get hooked. You'll never go back.

Rega News
Rega has just announced the new P3 turntable as a replacement for the Planar 3. The P3 uses a new, ultra-lightweight (20% lighter) composite plinth, and a new direct-coupled motor that Rega says uses a "passive method" to accomplish a large percentage of the vibration-free motor performance of its electronically controlled PT25 'table. The new motor will be available as an upgrade for current Planar 3s.

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) The Ides of March, Ideology, Sundazed 180gm LP, reissue
2) The Kinks, Kinks, Castle LP, reissue
3) Jimmy Smith, The Cat, Speakers Corner 180gm LP, reissue
4) Built to Spill, Live, Warner Bros. CD
5) The Mekons, I Have Been to Heaven and Back, CD
6) Bill Frisell, Ghost Town, Nonesuch CD
7) Bob Marley and the Wailers, Natty Dread, Speakers Corner 180gm LP, reissue
8) Patricia Barber, Companion, Premonition/Blue Note 180gm EP
9) Mel Tormé, The Best of the Concord Years, Concord Jazz CDs (2)
10) Dave Holland Quintet, Prime Directive, ECM CD

COMMENTS
nagysaudio's picture

Gyro SE is my favorite turntable of all time at any price :)

Anton D's picture

Too 5 tables of all time

dazeofheaven's picture

This turntable is truly a work of art. Stunning engineering and a great review. Looking to move on from LP12/Aro - too many constant issues. It's like owning an 80s BMW. Maybe someone can chime in and help me here. What tonearm recommendations do people have for this turntable ? I know about Michell TechnoArm but are there others that Michell owners feel are synergistic matches with this turntable ? Thanks in advance for whatever advice readers can shed.

thorenssme's picture

I have had the techno arm, and it is quite good. But the SME tonearms on the Michell are in a different league. SME 309 is what I use.

nagysaudio's picture

I always stick to and recommend these three: Rega, SME, and Jelco. The Rega based Tecnoarm is a great match. Tons of midbass and bass slam. I use a Rega RB202 with VTA adjuster, Tecnoweight, van den Hul internal wiring and van den Hul interconnects, with an Ortofon 2M black cartridge. I could not be happier.

dazeofheaven's picture

thank you all so much for the recommendations!

Anton D's picture

The Seta van den Hul arm.

Gotta make sure the bearings are right, but otherwise a nearly perfect match. They were even marketed together, IIRCC.

scottsol's picture

I believe you meant Zeta.

yeti's picture

Michell do a board for the Aro, since you already have the arm it ould make sense to try it.

Nollyy31's picture

I use an Audio Origami PU7 tonearm on my Gyrodec and it is a fantastic match, one of the best arms I have heard. well worth looking in to IMO.

KR
Pat

Philipjohnwright's picture

Be interesting to see what Michael thinks of it now; does it still compare favourably? Particularly as the price hasn't increased stupidly as many other turntables have.

thomgonzales@msn.com's picture

...which is easily the most beautiful piece of my system. Used with an SME IV and Shelter 90X. Upgraded to include Orbe clamp and HR DC Power supply. To be honest, though, wall mounting base was the biggest improvement. Can it be bettered sonically probably...

33na3rd's picture

...and Michael's review helped me to set it up quickly.

Gert Pedersen's Armboard Upgrade is well worth it's modest cost, especially if one is using one of the Rega sourced arms on their Gyro. In my system, the Pedersen unit sounds much nice than Michell's aboard decoupler kit.

MikeSan's picture

Do you know where I can get spareparts for my MMF5?

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