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April 2004
Enjoy the Music.com
Audiolics Anonymous Chapter 55
ELP Laser Turntable
Article By Bill Gaw
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

ELP Laser Turntable  Welcome to the 55th meeting of Audiolics Anonymous. It is the end of a very cold February as I write this, so thank G-d my tube audio system keeps me warm and carries me through the long winter nights. (My wife may feel differently!!)

This month I am discussing an audio product that I have had my eye on since at least the mid 1980's, the ELP Laser Turntable from ELP Corporation of Japan and is distributed within the USA by Smart Devices of Georgia. Have lusted over the unit since first hearing about it in the early 80's, when an American named Michael Stoddard who formed a company called Finial Technologies was developing it. Unhappily, it was perfected just as the CD came out and in the middle of a recession. Like many other American companies, they went belly up and sold the rights and machinery to a Japanese firm, and through several deals and company name changes, it has ended up with ELP. 

Luckily for me I met Norm Schneider, head honcho for Smart Devices, during the Primedia Show in New York several years ago. Having reviewed several of his products in the past, I gave him a call last fall and asked for a unit. Unhappily, UPS had done its dirty deed on the poor thing (screwed it up in other words) as its front drawer was hanging off and it also was making improper mechanical sounds and not much else. So off it went back to Georgia and from there promptly back to Japan for repair.

It returned in mid December for a one-week evaluation, as they needed the unit for the Consumer Electronics Show. Unhappily (again) there was a grounding problem in the unit that was inconsistent with my system and was helping to produce an annoying 60Hz hum with my Allen Wright pre-amplifier. With a Cary pre-amplifier, the sound was crisp and clear except for a little residual hum, but didn't turn me on so I borrowed my friend Kwami Ofori Asanti's house where we hooked it up to his system. He has a Simon York turntable with Kondo Io cartridge and transformer ($30,000 worth). The unit didn't have the hum problem there yet sounded sterile, lacking in any feeling. I felt this might be secondary to its being damaged. So back it went to Georgia where they checked it out, brought it to the show, and then shipped it back to me for review. Happily it arrived this time in perfect shape. Unhappily, after nine days of great sound it gave up the ghost again. But those nine nights were enough to sell me on the advantages of the unit.

So exactly what is the ELP unit? The Finial people came up with the idea of using low power lasers to read the grooves of the record rather than a conventional needle. While a simple concept, it was, according to the articles I remember from the 80's, a fairly difficult feat for the electronics and mechanisms of the day. They finally came up with the present system of actually using five lasers, two to station the head directly over the center of the groove and keep it there and a third beam to read depth of the groove to keep the two reading lasers focused on the groove walls. While the three sighting lasers use A/D conversion to run their electronics and servo motors, the reading laser's signal is kept analog for the transition from light to electrical signal output, thus no digital conversion.

The tracking system works very well as it played my test warp record without problem except for some wow, which also occurs with needle playback. One recording I have with a very deep gouge did cause it to skip a track, but without the normal worry of damaging the needle or stylus. I was even able to play a record that had a 1.2-inch gouge of missing vinyl from the edge.

They have three different models; the LT-1LRC (RC for remote control) plays back at 33 and 45 for $10,500, the LT-1XRC will also do 78's for $13,300, and the LT-2XRC adds the ability to play any size record for $14,300. Shipping costs from Japan are additional. If you do not have a phono stage, they will supply a solid-state unit for $190. If you are into non-RIAA 78's they also have a filter-equalizer for $370.

For now the units must be shipped back to Japan for repair and a one-year full warranty in included. After the warranty period you pay for shipping charges of approximately $500 and about $300 for the actual repair. There is also a service contract for $500 to 700 per year if you so desire. ELP also recommend an overhaul of the unit every 5 to 7 years, which should cost about $1,000 with shipping. 

While this may sound very expensive for both the initial expense of the unit and upkeep, it could be a steal compared to the costs of:

1. A high-end moving magnet cartridge ($1,000 to $15,000) that needs replacement every few years (especially if one breaks the cantilever like I did with my previous one after owning it for one week) 

2. The turntable and tonearm ($1,000 to $29,000)

3. A step-up transformer ($200 to $7,000)

4. high-grade arm wire ($100 to $1,000) 

5. A pre-amplifier that will accept a very low voltage signal. Remember, even if the standard turntable and tonearm may last for years, the cartridge will have to be replaced sooner or later at significant expense.

 

So what are the theoretical advantages of the ELP unit over the standard needle-cartridge-arm interface?

Since there is no mechanical contact with the groove, and the lasers are low power, there should be no damage to your irreplaceable vinyl. Whether needle damage is a true problem is certainly a question, as I have played back a few of my test records several hundred times with no apparent loss to my ears, but if you're worried about your Mercs or Shaded Dogs the ELP unit should allow you to sleep nights.

By adjusting the focus laser, it can scan various depths of the groove so you can find the depth with the least vinyl damage for less noise or distortion. This is very important with older recording that may have damage from previous needle tracking errors or scratches. (Plus it gives tweakers one of the few adjustments on the machine to play with.) The unit acts like a linear tracking tonearm so there is no tangency problem or inner groove distortion or need for anti-skating, much like my Walker Proscenium. (Certainly no negatives here.) Resonances of the record-needle-stylus-cartridge-arm interfaces are eliminated. (On the other hand it may be those resonances that give analog vinyl playback its warmth over digital)

 

As the wavelength of the reading laser is much smaller than the contact surface of a stylus with the groove, it should be able to pick up micro-information that the stylus can't. They claim flat frequency response from 10Hz to 40kHz (but, it will also pick up noise from micro-pits in the vinyl that a needle may skip over). Output levels of the RIAA signal are at moving magnet voltages (1.5 mv) rather than the much lower voltages of audiophile moving coil cartridges, so there should be less signal loss from the pickup to the pre-amplifier and less noise introduced by the pre-amplification process. ELP also claims less (or no) acoustic feedback problems compared to needle playback. I have tapped on its shelf and only could get it to mistrack or shut down, but could hear no acoustic feedback or distortion. Curiously, I could hear an improvement in soundstage when the unit was used with Walker Audio Valid Points. 

There is also no turntable bearing or motor noise that is transmitted through a stylus while maximum stereo separation is achieved, as each side of the groove is being read by a separate laser. Thus, whatever the cutting head pressed into the record, usually about 26dB of separation, will be heard. There are only two settings to control. One is for groove playback depth and the other is for playback speed, which can be adjusted in 0.1 rpm. A wireless remote control allows for play, pause, stop, fast-forward and back, plus track skip.

The ELP turntable is easy to setup. The turntable should be placed on a flat surface after unlocking the platter's mechanism by turning the unit on its left side, and rotating a large screw on the bottom counterclockwise about 20 turns. Then one places the unit's turntable section within its slot on the carriage. You then place an included setup record on the platter and press play. The unit reads the grooveless record and sets the retrieval head for best playback. This only has to be done once unless you move the unit or are a tweaker. Then simply place your first record on the platter, press play, and the head will then run across the disc to learn where and how many tracks there are. It also sets the focus of the laser to the optimum depth. This ELP unit will begin playing. This entire calculation happens in approximately 30 seconds. That's it. No more playing with stylus force, alignment, tangency, overhang and VTA.

 

Now on to the disadvantages of the unit.

You can't play anything other than black vinyl. Anything blue, brown, red or green just lets the light beam through, so no playback. Any scratches, dust, dirt, etc. on the record will sound like rifle fire. This is significantly decreased by a built in noise controller, but when turned on it does tend to soften the sound and decrease transients. Thus, a superior record cleaner is necessary, even for new vinyl. Smart Devices does sell the Loricraft Record Cleaner, which I reviewed previously in AA Chapter 48. I highly recommend it along with either their record cleaning fluid or Disk Doktor Record Cleaning Fluid. I found a two-stage process was best by first using the Disk Doktor fluid followed by a wash with distilled water with a smidgen of pure ethyl alcohol.

The unit, like most high spec electronic components, seems to be highly prone to shipping damage. I do not know whether it is just this unit that attracted so much abuse from UPS, but make sure if you ship it you use a proper shipper. (Editor's Note: I never use UPS. FedEx Air seems to work best). Air is usually safer and Smart Devices' one-year warranty is extremely important as it does guarantee the unit for any original shipping damage. After that, unless you have the service contract you will be responsible for the not-so-cheap shipping charges to Japan. Just make sure you treat it as you would any other expensive turntable. This is not a cheap throw-away CD player.

There is virtually no tweaking of this unit, just plug and play. So rabid vinyl addicts out there should be prepared for "Tweakers Withdrawal Syndrome." For the rest of you, the unit is a blessing, especially nowadays as many high-end store owners may not know how to properly set up a mega-bucks vinyl playback unit. With the remote control, you can control playback from your seat including changing tracks, repeat play, scanning, etc. The only thing not available on the remote is a volume control, which would be fantastic for those of us with no remote on our pre-amplifiers. Also, do not expect any romanticism in the playback of your records. What you get from the unit is what is within the grooves, minus the vibrational distortions inherent in stylus playback.

The unit may not work on with pre-amplifiers or phono stages. I kept getting horrible noises from my Allen Wright RPF5 phono pre-amplifiers. Allen attributes this to UHF (ultra-high frequency) noise that may be coming from the unit, resulting his phono stage into overload due to its frequency response being flat out to the MHz (megahertz) range. Also with 1 plus millivolt output you can use a phono stage for moving magnet rather than moving coil cartridges. Luckily I have an original Apt-Holman pre-amplifier from the 1970's, with an excellent phono stage for its age, and had a Cary phono pre-amplifier and was able to use them with great success. Also, my friend's pre-amplifier worked fine.

 

So what does the ELP turntable do correctly that no other vinyl playback system can?

Except for the increased clicks, pops, and occasional other noxious noises, it comes as close to a neutral master tape sound as I have heard from a record. Compared to my $40,000 setup, including the Walker Proscenium Gold Turntable with Kondo IO-J cartridge and tonearm wire, the sound is cleaner and clearer, with deep tight bass and crystal clear highs that extend out as far as I can hear, with no sign of that moving coil peakiness that sometimes occurs. The unit reminds me of the playback sound I got while reviewing the Lyra Helikon way back in AA Chapter 14. 

On the other hand, with classical music there is a certain rightness in the sound of my setup. More of a feeling of real music in a real hall, or maybe its just that I am so accustom to the sound of my system. I know it is probably mechanical distortions inherent in the groove-stylus-cantilever-cartridge interface, but its an enjoyable distortion much like SET tube amplifiers versus transistors. Don't get me wrong as the ELP, to my ears, sounds far better than any CD playback and better than most SACD and DVD-A recordings I have. I am just an old horn-tube analog Luddite who feels that that sound comes closer to what I have heard in concert halls over the years.

There is significantly less background noise, both from the loss of groove hiss and amplification noise, thus more ambience and air is discernible. Alas, the increased noise from clicks and pops can be disconcerting. Thus, pristine records will sound pristine and less than pristine records may be more difficult to listen to. Turning on the noise control, while reducing the clicks, will deaden musical transients that are about as sharp as I have ever heard from vinyl.

The ELP picks up every bit of musical information in the groove. The most difficult information for a pickup system to obtain is the micro-information including the air around the instruments, the ambience of the hall, and the high frequency overtones of the instruments that are all captured on the smallest of the groove modulations. This is the ELP's major strength as the laser has a significantly smaller contact area than anything except those needles with a super fine line. The laser also reacts at the speed of light to the modulation changes, as it has no inertia. Another benefit is that it has the advantage of no force on the groove yielding no chance of damage.

I feed the turntable's output to my pre-amplifiers, then directly out to my left and right front loudspeakers, with the preamp then feeding the signal to an EAD Theatermaster 8000 Pro pre-pro which decodes the information for a center and surround channels for ambience recovery. With the best two microphone recordings, especially the Blumlein's (and the three mike Mercs and older RCA's), the center channel picks up the "lost information" for center fill while the surrounds retrieve the hall ambience information. The ELP comes as close as I have heard to the best discrete multi-channel high-bit digital recordings. It beats out even my Walker-Kondo rig! The ELP at $11,000 certainly beats $40,000 every time if the trade-offs please you. I would say it sounds better than any equivalently priced vinyl playback system I have auditioned, with the added benefit of ease of use and theoretical lack of record damage.

 

To sum up...

If I didn't have my present setup and had $11,000 to spend, I would buy this unit in an instant. During over the time I had it, I listened to significantly more vinyl than normal, as it is so much easier to use than a normal playback system. For those individuals getting into vinyl who can come up with the dollars, especially those with primarily new records who like folk, rock, etc. and were not brought up into the intricacies (and headaches) of vinyl playback, I cannot think of a better system. For those old fogies (like me) who have passed the point of needing to tweak and want to enjoy the music rather than the playing of it, it is a blessing. The ELP is also the perfect playback system for colleges, libraries, etc. that are archiving our treasured 20th century musical heritage and audiophiles who want to digitize and archive their precious vinyl. The only possible drawback would be if other units also have similar shipping problems. I have been assured by Smart Devices that mine is an anomaly, but I would recommend getting the service contract.

I understand for a limited time period they have several of their previous models available for sale at about half the price of the new ones. The main differences being the older units have no remote control. According to Mr. Schneider, who has owned both the old and new, the older units do not have quite the same playback quality. So for those of us still able to get up out of our listening chairs and who don't keep jumping around tracks, these may be a steal.

 

Manufacturer's Reply

Your article is great. It covers all the salient points and tells a great story that is entertaining and informative. I like the way you dovetail your experiences with the technical details. Even my Fiancé could read this and enjoy the article, and she is not a bit technical.

One small change needs to be made. We are not the distributor for the ELP but the US marketing agent. We do not sell, stock, or distribute the machines. All sales are made from the factory. Other than that, your information is correct and insightful.

Norm Schneider
Smart Devices

 

Specifications

System  Contact-Free, 5 Beam Optical Record Player
Function
     Play



     Pause
     Display
 Drawer system (Open/Close)
 Automatic lead-in, lead-out
 Programming (Max. 15 songs)
 Forward and back scan (2 speed)
 Forward and back search
 Cueing (Muting)
 Total, Elapsed, Remaining time
 Record size, Revolution
Record Type  Black Records
Drive System  Computer Controlled Belt-Drive system

Revolution
Speed Control


Record Size
 LT-2XRC  LT-1XRC  LT-1LRC
 30rpm to 50rpm
 0.1rpm steps
 60rp to 90rpm
 0.2rpm steps
 7",8",9",10",11",12"
 30rpm to 50rpm
 0.1rpm steps
 60rpm to 90rpm
 0.2rpm steps
 7",10",12"
 30rpm to 50rpm
 0.1rpm steps


 7",10",12"
Frequency  9Hz to 40kHz
Channel Separation  Depends on separation of Records
 >25 db (20Hz to 20,000Hz, DIN 45 543 Test Record)
Output  4.3mVrms 5cm/s 1kHz Lateral
 9.7mVrms 8cm/s 1kHz 45° Left or Right modulation
 11.3cm/s 1kHz Lateral (much like MM cartridge)
Distortion  <0.5% DIN45 543 1kHz Ref. Level
S/N Ratio  >55db (Weighted) Ref. Level
Wow & Flutter  <0.07% WRMS
Output Terminal  RCA pin jacks
Power Supply Voltage  100V 50/60Hz, 120, 220, or 240V Available
Power Consumption  80W (Max.)
Size  470 x 480 x 170 (WxDxH in mm)
Weight  19kg

Additional Specifications:
The Laser Turntable connects to your pre-amplifier from outputs located under the FUNCTION switch, "MONO," "LEFT," "RIGHT." (Input impedance 47k ohm)

 

Company Information

ELP Corporation
3-10-1 Minami Urawa
Minami-ku, Saitama
336-0017 Japan

Voice: +81-48-883-8502
Fax: +81-48-883-8503
E-mail: chiba@laserturntable.jp
Website: www.laserturntable.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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