World Premiere Review!
This past year of my audio reviewing has had quite a vinyl flavor. Last summer, I reviewed the TriArt phono amplifier. This past fall, I listened to the Aric Audio Unlimited II Preamp with an included phono stage. The turntable I used with both is the oldest piece of gear I own, a Yamaha P-350 turntable. Looking at that old piece of gear takes me back to a very different time in audio and always makes me realize how much time has passed since I purchased it.
Before I bought the Yamaha P-350, my system consisted of my dad's old Dynaco preamp and amp, a Pioneer tape deck, and a pair of ADS L620 speakers. At that time I was listening to prerecorded tapes or ones I recorded on friends' systems. Forgive me, I was only 18. I bought the ADS speakers at an audio salon called Audio Concepts adjacent to the University of Texas campus in Austin. That place was my gateway to what became high-end audio. It was there I was introduced to Klipsch, Magnepan, Theil, and Advent speakers. Their main electronics were Nakamichi and Yamaha.
I spent a lot of time there with audio-lust in my heart. So in January 1981, I bought the P-350 with my combined Christmas and birthday money. I think I bought it with an Ortofon cartridge, but I'm not too sure. So, since then, through many other cartridges and belts, the P-350 has been with me for 40 years of my life. But as I have traveled down that long and winding road that has been my audio journey, I knew I needed to explore other means for spinning my vinyl.
One of the main goals of Enjoy the Music.com is to review recently announced equipment from new-on-the-scene manufacturers. To do this, we are constantly on the lookout for product announcements. So I was intrigued when I saw the notice for the new 301 Turntable from an up-and-comer Italian company, New Horizon. When I reached out to them, Italy was in the midst of the second wave of Coronavirus cases, so it took some time to get things coordinated. When the 301 arrived, I was immediately confronted with two problems. The power supply for the motor was the wrong one, and the tonearm was missing the pre-mounted cartridge that normally comes with it. After some back-and-forth emails with Francesco Mattioli of New Horizon, we figured out which power supply was needed and he sent me one, forthwith.
Before I talk about the cartridge I bought for the New Horizon 301, let me describe its design. The 301 is second from the top of New Horizon's turntable line. It is a serious turntable weighing in at 22 pounds. Most of the mass in its 1.5" thick plinth is made of high-density fiberboard. This plinth rests on three cylindrical feet that are 1.5" tall and 2.5" in diameter. The platter itself is 1.2" thick and composed of crystal methacrylate. This beautiful platter rests on an inverted bearing for minimal friction.
The platter is spun using a spring-suspended 24 VAC motor attached to the platter with a silicone belt. You can change the speed between 33.3 and 45 rpm by changing the groove on the pulley. As previously mentioned, the electricity for the motor is delivered using an external power supply. A heat-bent methacrylate dust cover is also included. Since this cover has no sides, it does a good job of protecting the platter and tonearm, but it does allow dust to gather on the plinth. Overall, this is a beautiful turntable that deserves to be the centerpiece of your system. Hey, it's Italian, would you expect anything less?
Last, but not least, that leaves us with the tonearm. New Horizon's literature simply describes it as a 9-inch straight aluminum arm, but once removed from the box, I could see it's a Pro-Ject 9 tonearm. This fixed-headshell, tapered aluminum arm is used by several other companies besides Pro-Ject. It has adjustable VTA, anti-skate, and azimuth. This arm has an effective mass of 11 grams, which makes it moderate mass. This important information when selecting a proper cartridge.
Ah yes, the cartridge! As I mentioned, the 301 Turntable normally comes with a pre-mounted Audio Technica AT-3600L MM cartridge. This cartridge is probably the most ubiquitous one in the world and is Audio Technica's bottom-of-the-line. When I started looking for a cartridge for the 301, I would look in the Audio-Technica family first. The next level up on their line is the AT-VM95E. This cartridge is an update of the venerable AT-95E cartridge which had been around for 40 years. All the positive press and its reasonable price was pushing me in that direction. I just needed to find out if it is compatible with the Pro-Ject arm. To determine the compatibility of a cartridge to a tonearm, you need to look at the cartridge's compliance at 10 Hz, which is below the frequency of recorded music and above the frequency of rumble or a record warp. The AT-VM95E's published dynamic compliance is 7 x 10-6 cm/dyne, but it is at 100 Hz. An approximate conversion to 10 Hz is to double the 100 Hz dynamic compliance, which would make it approximately 14 x 10-6 cm/dyne. That puts it in the moderately compliant category.
The other important piece of information is the mass of the cartridge and headshell screws. The AT-VM95E has a mass of 6.1 grams and the screws run about 2 grams for a total of 8.1 grams. The website, Vinyl Engine allows you to skip the math and generate a compliance table for the tonearm/cartridge pairing. Based on that, the Pro-Ject/Audio Technica pairing hits the perfect resonant frequency of 10 Hz. That sealed the deal and I ordered one right away.
As I said, this was the first time I had a high-end turntable in my home, so I was a bit nervous about the setup. I had mounted cartridges on the P-350 before, but never with such a fully adjustable one like the Pro-Ject. It turns out that my fears were unfounded as the setup was straightforward. Sure, the tracking angle is always a pain and took me a little over an hour to get dialed in, with the provided tool. The most difficult part was hanging the little anti-skating counterweight that is standard on Pro-Ject arms. It's moments like those that you realize your hands aren't as steady as they once were. The only adjustment of the VTA I did was get the tonearm level as a starting point.
Listening To The New Horizon 301 Turntable
Once I had washed the flop sweat off of my body, I let my subconscious guide me to my first listen. I pulled out Synchronicity by The Police [A&M SP-3735]. I had been re-exploring Sting's composing prowess, so I was curious to listen to an album I hadn't played in over thirty years. I put it on the platter, dabbed the stylus carefully with the Zerodust, ran the Audioquest Antistatic brush over the platter, then carefully lowered the cartridge. The first thing I hear is a sequenced synth closely followed by Stewart Copeland's cymbal, clear and lacking distortion. Then the rest of Copeland's drum kit forcefully kicked in with Sting's bass and took my breath away. "Well, that's an encouraging start", I thought to myself. I relaxed and listened to the rest of the album's first side, surprised at new things I was picking up. Yes, the last time I listened to it was probably through that very same system I mentioned earlier, but it was still a revelation. I had always remembered this album as being "hot" in the upper frequencies, making it a challenging listen. That's why I probably hadn't pulled it out in a while. But I had sat through the whole side without any fatigue.
I know this was just the first listen, but it made me realize something. As I had upgraded my system over the years, I had been enjoying most of my vinyl less and less because I had found them exhausting. So as I was going through the cartridge break-in period, I was pulling out some vinyl that I hadn't listened to in a while. I enjoyed quite a few surprises with how many records had been resurrected by the New Horizon 301 Turntable. Unfortunately, one comes across some bumps in the road. In this case, record warps. The 301/AT combo simply couldn't stay in the groove of some of my misshapen albums. I double-checked the tracking force and anti-skate to make sure something hadn't gone awry. Then I saw the cartridge was jumping because the tonearm tube was rubbing against the raised part of the record.
The Pro-Ject arm, like many, is tapered to reduce resonances. In the case of the Pro-Ject arm, the tube gets thicker closer to the pivot. It was at that location that rubbing was occurring. To fix this, I raised the whole arm using the VTA adjustment. While that fixed the skipping problem, I quickly realized the records were sounding brittle and harsh, indicating that my VTA was too high. To fix that, I had to remove the cartridge and add a spacer and readjust the alignment, tracking force, and VTA. Once that was accomplished, all was right with the world again and I continued with my listening.
I found the break-in a bit of a trade-off, in some ways. While the AT-VM95E/New Horizon 301 combo began to reveal more nuances in my old records, it also started revealing more of their flaws. Some of these were just the wear and tear that befall well-played albums, some were results of poor pressings, and others the victim of bad production in the studio. An example of a well-worn record was Tomita's Snowflakes Are Dancing [ARL1-0488]. A purchase from freshman year of high school introduced me to the music of Debussy. It still sounded great, but the distortion in some passages, especially the inner tracks, betrayed its multiple plays. An excellent example of a poor pressing is Royal Scam by Steely Dan [MCA-37044]. Becker and Fagin were perfectionist producers whose albums always sounded amazing. Then why does this record sound so bad? This pressing is so compressed, lacking in bass, and upper-frequency sparkle it sounds like it was processed through a bad transistor radio. If you ever wonder why people were excited about the introduction of CDs, I give you Exhibit A.
The last case is even more interesting. Growing up, I was a huge fan of the band YES. While some of my albums have seen much wear and tear, I have several I bought when I was much more meticulous about vinyl care. One of those, is the album Fragile [SD 19132]. I was excited to listen to this classic album by one of my favorite bands. I rocked out to the first track, "Roundabout", then listed the needle because I couldn't take it anymore. The term glassy came to mind. I tried to listen to several of my other pristine YES albums, and the same pain assaulted my ears. To confirm my observations, I then reached out to an old friend from high school who had recently purchased the pricey vinyl collection of the new Steven Wilson remixes of five YES albums [R1 562476]. "So how did they sound?", I inquired. "Listenable", he replied glumly. I guess sometimes you can do only so much.
For the most part, however, I noticed an amazing resurrection of old albums, I had left for dead, while using the old Yamaha P-350 turntable. Not only did they come alive with the New Horizon 301 Turntable, but a lot of distortion and surface noise that I thought was a permanent part of those records, was magically removed. I attribute this change to two factors, the VTA and tonearm/turntable resonances. The old Yamaha P-350 has no VTA adjustment and it looks to be too steep. This makes a record sound more brittle and noisy. It's quite obvious that the 301 turntable, with its massive plinth and platter, well-isolated drive unit, and excellent tonearm, has tighter resonance control, which results in a more enjoyable playback.
Excited by the New Horizon 301 Turntable's ability to get more out of vinyl, I decided to see what I could find in the Austin used-vinyl market. Probably the most famous record store in Austin is Waterloo Records, which is downtown. Their selection of music favors electronica, but they carry all sorts of music. At first, I was having difficulty finding anything I was interested in, until I discovered the section of used records that had just been acquired by the store and hadn't been sorted, yet. There, I found two Pat Metheny albums that were missing from my collection, Watercolors [ECM 1097] and New Chautauqua [ECM ECM -1-1131]. Both of them looked to be in good condition, so I was excited to listen to them. Before I dropped the needle, I went through my traditional preparation process. First, I did a deep cleaning using The Disc Doctor cleaning system. I tried a few other cleaning products over the years but none I have tried have done a better job of quieting surface noise. Once the discs were dry, I applied LAST record preservative. Not only does this stuff help keep records sounding good, but also reduces the surface noise even more. Now that they were ready, I listened to "New Chautauqua''. On the title track, Pat Metheny used his traditional ES-175 guitar sound. Each note was full and clear, with amazing attack and decay. It wasn't hard to imagine him playing in front of me. The layered backing guitars sounded full and warm. The rest of the record had the same warm, dynamic sound. Not bad for a used record!
Further encouraged by the success of my Pat Metheny purchases, I, then, went to Half Price Books to see what I could find there. After getting down on all fours to peruse the discount records on the floor-level shelf, I came across Prokofiev's Suite From The Love For Three Oranges / Scythian Suite [Columbia Odyssey 32 16 0344]. I didn't have either of these pieces in my collection, so I paid my two bucks and took it home. When I started listening, I was surprised at the album's clarity and dynamics. This is by no means an audiophile disc, but the sheer enjoyment I got out of it, using the 301 Turntable, left me giddy.
Summing Up My New Horizon 301 Vinyl LP Turntable
The New Horizon 301 vinyl LP turntable has brought me firmly back into the vinyl fold. I am looking forward to rediscovering more of my old vinyl and listening to new music on a medium that just won't die.
Dimensions: 450 x 365 x 155 (WxDxH in mm)