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
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.
301 / 401 Main Bearing
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.
Repair / Upgrade
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
Check NWA Out!
Voice: +44 1772 616458