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February 2013
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Northwest Analogue
Analogue delights for those who need cartridge repair, upgraded stylus, cantilever, a new Garrard bearing...
Review By Clive Meakins

 

  Northwest Analogue. What does this conjure up for you? Northwest California coast, Oregon, Washington State or how about Alaska? Navigating the Northwest Passage perhaps? It all sounds exciting and it is in terms of audio. Northwest Analogue hail from northwest England and are the sort of company those of us in the record playing world desperately need. It is a typical UK Hi-Fi cottage industry and all the better for it as it succeeds or fails based on the skills and professionalism of Dominic and Natalie. Some of the products and services offered would simply be too expensive and of variable quality if a larger company with many more employees were involved.

Northwest Analogue, let's call them NWA, make, restore and have manufactured a number of products. A vital service on offer is that of cartridge repair, mostly new cantilevers and stylus tips. Other repairs can be undertaken, i.e. coil damage though such repairs can only be assessed on a one-off basis. I was unfortunate enough to need the services of NWA in relation to a cartridge but you could say I was fortunate to be able to call on their services. Having previously sent the cartridge to NWA I went over to visit Dominic and Natalie to pick it up and at the same time I was able to inspect the workspace used for cartridge repairs, a fully restored Garrard 301 and do some auditioning in-house. I also picked up a newly manufactured main bearing for my Garrard 301. The new bearing is not a copy, its newly designed and engineered make that totally over-engineered! Interestingly the bearing runs without a thrustpad.

Other items NWA can tempt you with are slate plinths, slate equipment supports and handmade (hand insulated) interconnects. There are some tube amplifiers and vinyl playing accessories too.

 

Garrard 301 / 401 Main Bearing
First up I'll talk about the Garrard bearing. The bearing body is machined from a massive piece of bronze. As there is no thrustpad the only other bearing component is the spindle. Other replacement bearings I've seen use your original spindle. The NWA bearing instead includes a new high quality steel spindle, this is an expensive part to produce but by going this route NWA ensure the quality of the whole bearing as a unit. The bearing includes a grubscrew which is loosened to allow a freshly lubricated spindle to be inserted into bearing housing; the fit is of such close tolerance that air has to be given an escape route. Compared to the original Garrard bearing the NWA one is incredibly substantial. Amazingly the original seems really puny and "value engineered". The other items you receive with the bearing include a bottle of special oil, pipette and instructions for lubrication. There's also three hex bolts for attaching the bearing to your Garrard 301 or 401.

Installation is simple enough; remove the original bearing and bolt in the new one. If you can orient the breather grubscrew so it's accessible this will greatly facilitate future oil changes. I re-attached the platter and then checked I had no problems, no noise etc. Music played fine but rather than listen critically I wanted to run the bearing for a while first so I could hear it properly at something approaching its best. I selected 75 rpm and let it run for several hours. I then used 45 and 33 too, just for good measure.

I've tried a few "improved" bearings in my oil-bearing 301, most make some useful improvements but none thus far have been huge improvements. My expectations were therefore relatively modest, after all the 301 is hardly a poor sounding deck in the first place. I should add that my 301 is mounted on a twin tier slate plinth, the arm is an Origin Live Encounter mkIII with a London Reference hanging securely from the arm. NWA suggest the bearing needs to be used with a well fettled Garrard if it is to give its best; this is good advice. NWA will fettle your Garrard for you if it's in less than ideal condition.

My initial reaction was that the sound had become more open in the mid-range, a thin layer of grunge had evaporated and the music was more lithe than before. I didn't detect any vinyl roar, which is normally bearing noise in reality. This bearing is quiet. Bass detail is improved, an example being that I was more able to hear double bass notes going up and down the scales. The sound is more "modern" - possessing greater clarity. The original deck/bearing can be accused of being a fraction over-cooked but a trace loose in the bass at times. There's certainly no reduction in the apparent quantity of bass, so often better bass is accompanied by seemingly reduced bass as some bloom has gone. It could be that the NWA bearing gives better and yet more bass, compensating for bass bloom elimination. Bass is tighter and faster, drier but not dry. Great, great bass! Listening to Hocus Pocus from Moving Waves by Focus was a revelation. Maybe this is not a typical bass test track but bass should be great on a typical track as well as established standards.

So what do I mean by the sound being modern? As good as the Garrard is, it has a slight romance about it, this results in its bass being given a little latitude around its precision as it is so darned enjoyable. The NWA bearing brings a tightness and precision to the sonic signature of the Garrard, it builds on the strengths of the original and brings the sound totally up-to-date. There's no need to excuse the Garrard a few sonic foibles any more. Given a fettled deck, a quality (possibly slate) plinth and a highly resolving system I confidently predict a significant uplift in sound quality, providing you value a tight, precise, dynamic yet flowing sound. When I say precise, don't take this as sterile, it is far, far from this. In comparison to the original bearing I can only believe that much of the sonic improvements come from the far tighter tolerance of the bearing housing and spindle plus the elimination of the thrustpad. The original bearing is well known for being somewhat slack in terms of tolerance. We now have a fix for this. The cost of 450 (around $700) is entirely reasonable given the work and materials involved. It's a real must for any Garrard 301 / 401 which is to give its best; it is up-to-date sounding but still very much a Garrard.

 

Cartridge Repair / Upgrade
Now for the service every vinyl enthusiast fears they will need. Cartridge repairs. If you are lucky you've enjoyed long hours from your stylus tip and just need a new one. If you are unlucky you probably had an accident with your cartridge's cantilever. I managed to reach well into my 5th decade without trashing a cantilever but the day had to come. I bought the latest Garrott P77i; the original P77 being very well known along with the Garrottbrothers untimely demise. The design is now built by Audio Dynamics in Australia. The P77i I found was tremendous in the bass with its depth, detail and dynamics but as frequency increased there was less and less information being presented. I tried a few phono stages and my phono cables are low capacitance but even so the cartridge wasn't working for me in my system and my room. I know of others who find the balance is perfect for them so I just put it down to system synergy. Seeing as the cartridge was gathering dust on my shelf I decided to sell it. Was setting up a photo for the advertisement as the cartridge was upside down, thus was removing the stylus guard from an unusual angle. Result - one badly bent cantilever. Doh!

Here's my P77i before its unfortunate accident.

Following calling myself all the names under sun I had two choices; chuck the P77i in the bin or rescue it. The rescue option became more interesting once I'd sent the cartridge to Northwest Analogue. Dominic verified the stylus tip was fine and even though it's called a MicroScanner II it seems it is remarkably similar the excellent Fritz Geiger II so we decided on the repair being to upgrade the cantilever from an aluminum tube to Boron and re-attach the original stylus tip. It sounds so simple when you say it quickly. If I were a Lilliputian from Gulliver's Travels no doubt I could do the job myself. Strangely Dominic is totally normal sized and yet he can do these extremely intricate repairs and upgrades. He talks about the angle the cantilever needs to be set at and importantly too the angle the stylus tip needs to be mounted on the cantilever. It's all very critical stuff. Such a cantilever replacement is priced at 250 (about $400).

The P77i with Boron cantilever repair (upgrade) with the original stylus tip re-attached.

Having had this minor miracle performed on my P77i it was time to audition it. I did this first of all when I picked up the Garrard bearing and cartridge from NWA's premises. Dominic installed the P77i on has Garrard 401. It sounded very good, not at all missing upper frequency detail and refinement was hard to fault too. Bass was very similar to how I'd remembered it, fortunately. Of course the NWA system was unfamiliar to me so to aid comparison we compared it to a Koetsu Rosewood. OK, it's an unusual comparison, MM versus MC and the P77i plus repair/upgrade cost around $800 in total versus the $4500 Koestu. For sure the cartridges sounded different, of that there's no doubt, their strengths lie in different places. The point for me is that neither cartridge had severe deficiencies and you'd be hard pushed to say which sounded the more expensive cartridge. You will prefer one over the other depending on your preferences but the P77i was not out-classed. I could have left NWA thinking "why did I get the P77i repaired when what I want is a Koetsu" but I didn't because the P77i/NWA turned out to be a really great performer and yes, it's an MM cartridge. This is a great upgrade.

When I arrived home I mounted the P77i/NWA on my Trans-Fi Salvation rim drive deck, the arm is the latest Trans-Fi T3Pro linear tracking airbearing design. Comparing the P77i to my much loved London Reference would be an interesting test; this cartridge is a little more pricey than the Koestu. Again the P77i was not outclassed. In my very familiar system I could more easily detect the variances. The P77i/NWA has the better bass - more powerful and dynamic, there's also more detail portrayed. Wobbling double bass strings are much more realistic. Kick drums have a lot more impact. The P77i/NWA possesses a full and voluminous sound which provides a tremendous underpin to most music. When we get to the mid-range the London edges it with a little more openness. The treble of the P77i/NWA isn't quite so forceful as that of the London. In terms of treble refinement they are equivalent. Focus and soundstage are remarkably similar. For bass I prefer the P77i/NWA, for mid-range the London is a little better and in terms of treble my preference is more defined by individual album production/mastering rather than the cartridge. Overall the P77i/NWA sounds richer and fuller with more bass impact; the London Reference is a little more open and explicit. It's hard for me decide on which I prefer and luckily I don't have to as I run two decks, I can use either cartridge at any time.

 

Check NWA Out!
Northwest Analogue are the sort of operation vinyl addicts desperately need; a specialist who can do things larger companies can't or won't even try due to cost and probably a dearth of skills too. Should you need a cartridge repair or upgraded stylus or cantilever, a new Garrard bearing, deck or arm renovation, slate plinth / rack or handmade cables then check out their website in case they have products or services that appeal to you. I'm very impressed with the level of skill NWA possess; in terms of repairs I hope you don't need them but if you do I believe you'll be really pleased with the results.

 

 

Company Information
Northwest Analogue
33 Southfield Drive
New Longton
Preston
Lancashire
PR4 4XD
United Kingdom

Voice: +44 1772 616458
Website: NorthwestAnalogue.weebly.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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