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!!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.