The gorgeous HRS equipment rack first caught my attention at the Montreal Festival Son/Image (2004) and was seen again in a handful of top sounding rooms in the New York Primedia Show two months later. But a review of the HRS website led to my discovery of their (nearly) least expensive product, the HRS Analog Disk. At $110, this affordable record clamp was directly relevant to the recent gains I have achieved in improving my analog rig. You might think this would be an easy review — right? But like Tina Turner says, "We never, ever, do anything, Nice and Easy. We always do it Nice and Rough." So we'll put the Tracker in 4WD and ride up the mountain to the trailhead, re-examining a number of improvements I've made to maximize my LP playback along the way. Then we'll park the Tracker, hit the trail on foot with the HRS Analog Disk, and head for the summit. Fasten your seat belts and bare with me.
My Linn turntable came to be by luck, early on in my discovery of High End Audio. Corey Greenberg's raving about the wonders of analog in Stereophile had already planted a seed. A bartered acquisition, the modest, elderly LP-12 Valhalla with a Sumiko MMT arm and Audio Technica cartridge was a bargain and opened the door to analog at a level I didn't know existed. I quickly learned that wall mounting a turntable brought a very large improvement at a very modest price. Years later, when I moved from our townhouse to an existing single story home, wall mounting was not such an easy proposition. I couldn't find the studs! The pilot drillings came out with grey powdery material on the bit, not sawdust, and the stud-finder was as bewildered as a beached whale.
The corner where my rig was set up was "clipped." The walls were not at right angle. While this was great for acoustics, it presented a difficult angle for a wall-mounted rack. Picture the hands of a clock at the 9-hour position and 22-minute position.
Well, not much changes when you're sitting in the listening chair. So one day I got up, found some really long wood screws and mounted the shelf strips at the extreme ends of the wall space — right next to the window and right in the corner — where theoretically, there had to be studs. Fortunately, I was right. The shelf strips held and the drywall did not buckle from the pressure of sinking the screws in tight. Remember, thousands of dollars worth of equipment was going to reside on these shelves, and if they gave way, the equipment was going to fall on top of more equipment worth many thousands more.
In the photos above and below, you will notice two unusual things about these shelf brackets. First, the right bracket is not parallel with the left one. The shelves are anchored at only three points because the right bracket had to be angled outward from the corner. Not orthodox, but it works. This also provides a very handy gap in the back right corner for feeding down power cords and interconnects. The wood shelves are spaced out from the wall by the thickness of the vertical slotted bracket, which allows cables and cords to hang straight down from the back of the components.
Secondly, these are not your standard hardware store/Home Depot slotted shelf brackets. They are industrial strength, locking brackets used in hospitals and laboratories to mount shelves in block walls. Unfortunately, they are not easy to find. The professional hardware store where I bought mine now only sells to building contractors, so you may need a go-between to help you out. Two strips and six locking aluminum arms are very small potatoes for this kind of store. The tab came to something like $80, years ago. But it wouldn't hurt to be humble and ask, if you find such a store.
The improvement brought by the wall-mounted rack was even greater than in my townhouse for a couple of reasons. Having moved into a space large enough for reviewing equipment I picked up a variety of resonance control devices in the previous couple of years. Among them are my previously reviewed Symposium Acoustics Svelte Shelf, Stillpoints risers, and Extreme Phono's None-Felt turntable mat. The end result was such an improvement that not only could I step down onto the sunken living room floor without causing the stylus to skip across grooves, but the sound of the analog playback had reached an all-time high for me. I could even dance! I was so impressed that I purchased a Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood cartridge to further my gain.
My LP rig was now a lot closer to the level of my CD playback, but still not yet there. As you see in the photo of my rig, the preamplifier is on the left and the CD player and the silver Muse DAC are on the right. It used to be just the opposite. And my power cords and interconnects were crossing all over each other en route to their various destinations. In order to test a 1-meter pair of interconnects between the preamplifier and the monoblocks on the floor to the left of the equipment table, I was forced to swap positions of the preamplifier and the digital front end. Unwittingly, most of the power cords now fell down the right side of the rig and most interconnects fell down the left side of the rig. With a little persuasion, I was able to space the cables somewhat further apart, and get them to cross at right angles when necessary. The audible improvement, while subtle, was certainly worth the hour of labor to swap the components with their various Rollerblocks and Stillpoints.
At this point, we have reached the trailhead for my review of the HRS Analog Disk, but we still have several thousand feet to climb, so take a swig of Mt. Dew and let's get started.
Adding The HRS Analog Disk
At the outset I told Mike Latvis, founder and Chief Engineer, that if the torque of the Linn was not sufficient to pull the weight of his Analog Disc, I would simply return it. A quick listen told me there was nothing to fear, and extended listening commenced once I had submitted my New York Primedia show report. But it was not as simple as listening to records with and without the AD. There were a number of variables that were interacting with the table and the AD, and their individual contributions had to be put in perspective in order to more accurately evaluate the contribution and value of the AD.
I took the wall mounted shelf as a "given." After the gains reiterated above, there was no way I would return to a floor mounted stand for this review. But there was the None-Felt mat, original Linn felt mat, Symposium Acoustics Svelte Shelf and Stillpoints risers to consider, in addition to the AD. I striped the rig down to the bare solid oak shelf and put the original Linn felt pad on again. This would be the starting point. I selected Fleetwood Mac' self-titled album since it had a variety of voices, electronic and acoustic instruments, as well as variety of songs with different pace and levels of intensity and congestion. Plus, although I like Fleetwood Mac, I was not particularly familiar with this album, though I have heard all the songs at one point or another. After thoroughly cleaning the LP on my VPI 16.5 record vacuum, I turned off all the digital components in the rig, and had a listen to the first side.
Linn, felt mat, wood shelf: With this bare-bones set-up, the bass was fuzzy, the midrange was still pretty clear, and the highs seemed to be lacking. It was very rhythmic, and I certainly enjoyed the music on this first time through using the Clearaudio cartridge.
Linn, felt mat, wood shelf & Analog Disc (AD): I cleaned the stylus with Extreme Phono's Solid State Stylus Cleaner (between each trial). Then I replayed side one, this time with the Analog Disc in place. A huge increase in focus, across the board, was immediately apparent. The pace seemed even faster, indicating more precise attack and decay. There was a quieter background, more space around the instruments and music filled a much larger soundscape. There was more bloom to the instruments, and a deeper, more liquid, tighter bass. The mid-bass was still a little emphasized, but it was well focused now.
Linn, None-Felt mat, and wood shelf: The focus remained tight, but music lost a very slight amount of air or bloom. It was still very rhythmic. The bass was not quite as tight. It seemed more like Fleetwood Mac was in my room, rather than in a more expansive recording venue. The presentation was slightly drier, and some may prefer this presentation.
Linn, None-Felt, wood shelf & AD: Focus increased even more. The cymbals were more clearly perceived. Bloom on the lead guitar in the second cut was even more spacious and smooth. The attack of the notes was even more prominent, but not harsh or objectionable in any way. The music was slightly more transparent, as if the soundstage was better lit. The bass on "Over My Head" seemed deeper and more taught. Up to this point, I would call the bass excellent, although I new I had many more combinations to audition.
Linn, None-Felt, wood shelf (again): I doubled back to this combo without the AD and verified that the bass did indeed get a little muddier. There was more overall bloom, and less overall focus without the AD.
Linn, felt mat, Svelte Shelf (always directly on top of the wood shelf): The presentation here was more focused than the previous one with the None-Felt mat. It is a good bit better than adding the None-Felt only, but at about ten times the price. And it is also a little bit better than the None-Felt combined with the AD, though still about twice the price of the two. This combination sucked me into the music pretty well.
Linn, felt mat, Svelte Shelf & AD: Adding the AD to the above combination tightened up the sound and made it more 3-dimensional. The rear of the soundstage (drums) was more clearly defined and the soundstage deepened. This was a really clean, rich sound with a blacker background that reminded me of the megabuck turntables I have heard at shows.
Linn, felt mat, Svelte Shelf (again): The bass seemed muddied in comparison to the above trial. It was still very musical, but the instruments seemed a little more 2-dimensinal. This was a small step down in quality, and there really wasn't much to complain about here.
Linn, felt mat, Stillpoints, wood shelf: We are really making some progress up the mountain with this combination. It is the best yet. The telltale clue was that I could hear the skin on the drums. The best focus so far was manifested by excellent cymbals with even gentle rim tapping clearly identifiable. The voices were crystal clear and 3-dimensional notes filled a huge black soundstage. Note that the Stillpoints were set point downward beneath the motor and tonearm at the rear of the table and the center of the front of the table. The large circular rims were in direct contact with the Masonite bottom of the Linn. The turntable was very stable when set up like this.
Linn, felt mat, Stillpoints, wood shelf & AD: Even sharper attacks and smoother decays occurred with the AD on top of the LP. The cymbals were great on "Monday Morning." The bass vibrations could be felt in my stomach. Every syllable was clear with no cognitive ambiguity, even with Stevie Nicks' smoky voice on "Rhiannon."
Linn, None-Felt, Stillpoints, wood shelf & AD: Adding the None-Felt to the above combination kept the focus, but added a slight bloom which made the music a little more liquid and accessible.
Linn, felt mat, Stillpoints, wood shelf & AD (again): Returning to this combination, I replayed "Over My Head" and experienced tighter bass and more focus, but the music was closer to the edge of acceptability.
Linn, felt mat, Stillpoints, wood shelf (again): I replayed "Over My Head" and it was very nice, but lost a little something without the AD.
Linn, felt mat, Stillpoints, wood shelf & AD (again): Adding the AD back in and replaying "Over My Head," it was more recognizable that the image was more locked down and pinpointed.
Linn, felt mat, Stillpoints, Svelte Shelf (always directly on the wood shelf): Combining the Svelte Shelf with the Stillpoints produced the best soundscape yet. It was sharp without irritation, very solid, grounded and had the tightest and most visceral bass yet. On "Warm Ways" it was clear that the lead guitar had the best bloom achieved so far. In fact, it was clear that with the Svelte Shelf added in, I had passed another milestone in climbing this mountain.
Linn, felt mat, Stillpoints, Svelte Shelf & AD: At first, it didn't seem much different when I added the AD, but remember, the rig was already at a very high level, and significant returns were becoming harder to come by. On "Monday Morning" I realized how un-congested the hard driving sound of this song was. And then I discovered how the micro-dynamics were more evident in the much softer song, "Warm Ways." The AD was making a contribution, here, but I had to listen closely at this high altitude.
Linn, None-Felt mat, Stillpoints, Svelte Shelf: This combination was very close to the previous one with the AD and the felt mat, but very critical listening revealed that it was a tad more congested, and the lyrics were slightly less recognizable. All in all, it was still excellent.
Linn, None-Felt mat, Stillpoints, Svelte Shelf & AD: Adding the AD to the previous combination added a slight improvement in clarity, but the gain was small in comparison with the addition of Stillpoints, Svelte Shelf, or a combination of Stillpoints and Svelte Shelf. Switching over to side two of the album, I replayed the first cut, changing from without the AD to with the AD several times. With the increased familiarity of that piece of music, it became clear that adding the AD provided better attack and less ringing of the lead guitar, and there was less congestion with the AD.
Linn, felt mat, Stillpoints, Svelte Shelf: Switching back to the felt mat and deleting the AD, on the second cut the music smoothed over and was less etched. There was likewise less awareness of surface imperfections on the LP. It was warmer, mellower, but is this more preferable? That's a personal call. I moved on to cuts 3 & 4, listening both with and without the AD added to this combination.
Linn, felt mat, Stillpoints, Svelte Shelf & AD: On cut 4 this combination provided greater coherence to the music. The lead guitar was more holographic and clear. There was less straining for cognitive recognition of the unfamiliar lyrics of this song. I flipped the record and listened to Side One again, which by this time was completely familiar to me. I felt like I had reached the top of the mountain with this combination, and I was both thrilled and exhausted — a combination of feelings with which I am well acquainted.
Long Term Listening
Having concluded from this testing that the combination of felt mat, Stillpoints, Svelte Shelf and Analog Disk provided the best combination of products I had on hand, I settled in for long term listening to a wider variety of music. At this level, listening to music was like sitting at the top of one of the 14ers in Colorado, looking out at all the other 14,000' peaks around me. I feel smug thinking that I paid thousands of dollars less for my rig, than the guys on the other peaks. Yet as high as my rig might seem to be flying, I recall that some high-end turntables sound a little more refined than others.
After listening to at least a dozen albums, both with and without the Analog Disk, it was clear the AD was contributing something that the other additives were not able to achieve. It cleared the cobwebs out from between and behind the notes by dampening the surface of the LP as the stylus careened its way down the groove. Unlike the Stillpoints and Svelte Shelf, which work their vibration absorbing magic on the turntable from beneath, the Analog Disk works directly on the LP surface in contact with the stylus. In this way, it reminded me of the excellent HAL-O tube dampers, which work directly on the tubes carrying the signal. The end result with each was cleaner sound and higher resolution.
Ergonomics And Ritual
I have always enjoyed the simplicity of using the Linn with its flip-up dust cover. The Analog Disk adds an additional step in the LP ritual which was easy to learn and painless to adapt. The first time I used it I was careful to check that no part of the arm or cartridge would strike the AD at the end of the record. Serious damage could result. There was no problem here, as you can see in the photo. Notice that a small ring of the record label is still visible.
The AD slips nicely over the spindle of the Linn with not much pressure and no lubrication was needed. It is recommended that a slight amount or pressure be applied when placing it over the spindle to insure the AD applies some pressure to the LP itself. At about 11 ounces, it is not outrageously heavy and should work with a wide selection of turntables in use today. There is a smooth ridge at the top of the side that allows your fingers to get a grip and keep the AD from slipping out of your hand. (It never even hinted that it might). It has a secure, comfortable feel, and a quality fit over the spindle. The top surface of the disk has been brushed before anodizing, which was an aesthetic decision on Mike's part. Personally, I thought it was elegant and found the brushed surface quite useful. Listening in the dark is a common habit among audiophiles, and the dim light from the street reflected off that surface with a stroboscopic effect letting me know the platter was still spinning. This is helpful because the AD covers up most of the label, which usually clues me in. For those who need a more obvious clue, a drop of White-Out will do the trick.
Design and Theory
The upper part, which you grip, is smooth, machined anodized billet aluminum to add mass to the disk. The lower portion, which looks and feels like rubber, is a very carefully selected and designed polymer. Mike Latvis is a mechanical engineer by training with an extensive background in polymer chemistry. He collaborated with a polymer chemist for a year in designing their proprietary polymer to maximize vibration control and minimize internal reflection of mechanical energy within the LP. Both the elasticity and dampening characteristics were independently adjustable by varying the chemistry. They started with a model based on theory, and evolved the product based on listening. It was important, Mike said, for the Analog Disk not to reflect vibration back into the LP, or unwittingly transmit bearing noise into the LP. The polymer is also designed to maintain its properties up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, which should allow you to play the very hottest jazz in your collection.
Another very important factor that reigned in the background of the Analog Disk project was to create a product that worked well within HRS pantheon of products. The "S" in HRS, after all, stands for Systems. The Analog Disk was designed to work in conjunction with the other resolution enhancing products without doing harm to the music. While I have no other HRS products in my rig, I certainly have a fair share of vibration controlling devices enhancing resolution. I can verify that the AD does no harm and contributes much good to the reproduction of music in the context of such a systems approach.
Vibration absorption and the development of new types of RCA connectors are two of the hottest frontiers of High End development at this time. In a conversation with Mike Latvis, he spoke of how loudspeaker designers were the first to show an interest in vibration control, but now electronics companies are starting to show an interest in the technology he offers to OEM's on a consulting basis. From my personal experience with aftermarket products that deal with vibration control, I would have to agree with him that manufacturers who don't address this issue will be left behind
Part of the reason for evaluating all the various combinations of products in the earlier part of this review was to establish a sense of value for the AD. Wall mounting your table, particularly if you have a joisted wood floor and do not have a massive turntable, is an obvious high value investment. If you cannot build your own, commercially available units that bolt into your studs are not terribly expensive. If you have a vibration absorbing equipment rack and are on a concrete slab, you might argue differently. In either situation, being able to walk across your floor without causing the stylus to mis-track and damage your record, is an obvious benefit that will probably also be matched by an improvement in sound quality.
The Extreme Phono None-Felt pad, at less than $35 is an extreme value, particularly in the absence of other vibration absorbing devices in use with the turntable. It was only in the context of adding the Stillpoints, Svelte Shelf and Analog Disk, at a cost of about $700, that the None-Felt mat's contribution was eclipsed — and not by much, either! This discovery points out the need to re-evaluate the contributions of other tweaks when a new one is introduced to the system.
After the wall mount, the Stillpoints made the next most substantial contribution to the Linn, followed by the Symposium Acoustics Svelte Shelf. And the Stillpoints and Svelte Shelf combined synergistically to achieve even greater benefits. This brings us down to the Analog Disk.
Adding the Analog Disk to my unadorned turntable certainly produced results in excess of its cost. By this, I mean that to achieve a commensurate improvement would require spending a lot more money if you were to upgrade the cartridge, or the turntable itself.
While not making as great a contribution as the Stillpoints, the Analog Disk cost only about a third as much. Together, they were even greater, and adding the Svelte Shelf provided the ultimate synergy I was able to achieve. While adding the Analog Disk to the combination of Stillpoints and Svelte Shelf provided a much smaller improvement than any of the individual components added, the three together took the rig to an all-time high. As in mountain climbing, the higher you go, the thinner the air, and the more difficult the next step. To take the next few steps in audible quality at such high altitude for only another $110 is a real bargain when climbing the High-End Mountain. And should you decide to upgrade your turntable, there is a good chance it will remain useful.
Of course, I have tested the AD on only one turntable, albeit a classic suspended one. And I have not compared the AD to other record clamps. I should also mention that the AD is designed to be used on turntables with tangential tone arms, and with solid spindles — not threaded ones. Aside from these few caveats, I would not hesitate to recommend trying the Analog Disk on any rig, either more or less expensive than my own. It never harmed the music in any way, and always increased my enjoyment, which brings me down to the short version of this review:
The Short Review
If your turntable has a tangential tone arm and a solid (non-threaded) spindle -- just go buy it!
And now, a tip of the hat to the boys in my band:
Linn LP-12 Valhalla turntable with felt mat, Sumiko MMT arm, Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood cartridge; on Stillpoints (point down) on Symposium Acoustics Svelte Shelf on a wall mounted solid oak shelf
Sony CDP-X77ES player as transport on Symposium Acoustics Rollerblock Jrs; Illuminati D-60 cable; Muse Model Two dac with ERS shielding, on Stillpoints, with Balanced Power Technologies power cord
Sony ST-S550ES tuner with ERS shielding, and Fanfare FM-2G antenna
Convergent Audio Technology SL-1 Signature Mk III preamplifier with HAL-O Tube Dampers on Symposium Acoustics Rollerblock Series 2 with TC balls; power supply with ERS shielding on Stillpoints on Symposium Acoustics Mini-Isis Platform on architectural slate
Plinius SA-100 Mk III power amplifier on Symposium Acoustics Isis Platform on spiked wood platform, with Balanced Power Technologies power cord
Manley Labs Mahi Monoblocks on Stillpoints on architectural slate, with Balanced Power Technologies power cords
JPS Labs Superconductor+ loudspeaker cable
Kharma Ceramique 2.2 loudspeakers
JPS Labs Power AC In-Wall cable on a 30 amp dedicated line
Room: About 42' by 18' with the loudspeakers on the long wall. A vaulted ceiling is lowest behind the speakers and high above the listening position. The sidewalls are 9' to the left and 15' to the right of their respective loudspeakers. The volume is about 6,000 cu. ft. Lots of plants and minimally reflective surfaces.
Type: Analog Disk resonance control
Custom formulated elastomer contact for vinyl side
Dimensions: 3.25 inches in diameter and 1.35 inches in height.