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August / September 2009
Superior Audio Equipment Review

World Premiere
Artemis Labs SA-1 Turntable
The sound of silence and sweetness.
Review By Tom Lyle

Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

Artemis Labs SA-1 Vinyl LP Turntable  Instead of the utilitarian machined metal or acrylic in the vein of the majority of the upper-high-end turntables issued during this 21st Century, the Artemis Labs SA-1 turntable's plinth is constructed from three layers of bamboo ply and ebony, each bamboo layer made up of three layers of different grain orientation. Its light tan color with a center band of black gives it the outward appearance reminiscent of a turntable of yore. But even a quick audition of the SA-1 will reveal that its operation and sound is nothing but modern-day, and indeed, quite beyond that.

 

Playing Field
The Artemis Labs SA-1 turntable was designed by Frank Schroder in Berlin, Germany. For those of you that have been following the analog playing field over the years, Mr. Schroder's name should be recognizable as the designer of the famed Schroder tonearm. The SA-1 turntable is built by the United States firm Artemis Labs in Southern California . Of its many notable features the SA-1 has an anodized "aircraft grade" aluminum platter weighing 15 pounds, which Artemis claims is turned to an extremely tight tolerance in all directions  This maintains the platter's thickness from center to the outer rim to avoid variations in the mechanical impedance sensed by the cartridge. The platter is damped with a proprietary paper/felt inlay, allowing for the use of different platter-record interfaces, and so both acrylic and foam-bubble mats are supplied. The SA-1 has a "massive" three pound bearing of the non-inverted type, and it utilizes a large diameter, case hardened spindle and long self lubricating phosphor-bronze bushings. The clearance is kept small, according to Artemis, but they say that the defined surface "roughness" of the spindle maintains an "extremely stable" oil film and thus creates drag at the same time. The SA-1's arm base (which I've always called an arm board out of habit, but since board may infer insubstantial composition, and the construction of the SA-1's is certainly not, we'll stick to arm base for this review) is also precision-turned and milled from the same grade of aluminum as the platter. The review sample was pre-drilled at the factory for a Tri-Planar tonearm, and at times I had either a model VI or Ultimate VII tonearms mounted.

Artemis Labs SA-1 TurntableThis turntable is driven by an "extremely high quality" Swiss DC motor that provides a combination of high torque and smooth rotation of the platter, and for a belt the Artemis SA-1 uses the unique substance of 025-inch magnetic recording tape. The use of magnetic tape allows for the "belt" to be routed past a tensioning lever/pulley that is designed to reduce both slippage and minimize the side thrust on the platter. This threading method also prevents motor vibrations from reaching the platter because they absorbed by the suspended pulley. The motor of the Artemis SA-1 has no sensor based feedback loop, so instead the current drawn by the motor is monitored and kept steady through a "feed forward" circuit designed by John Atwood (a chip and logic designer for Intel). Thanks to this, the wow and flutter is well below audibility. The outboard motor controller of the SA-1 is fully regulated so it is designed to be immune to power line variations. It has both a 33 and 45 rpm speed selector, but also a variable speed selector for those inclined to set the speed via a strobe disc (supplied), and smooth turning knob on the front of the controller for this purpose. An optional 78 rpm motor controller is available by special order.

Frankly, I was not jumping for joy when I switched from my reference turntable to the Artemis. Setting up turntables, and especially mounting tonearms and cartridges is not something I do for fun in my spare time. I prefer listening to music. But unpacking and setting up the Artemis SA-1 turntable was a breeze, and this was made possible not just because it is actually easy to set up, but also because (thankfully) it has a well written, easy to read, illustrated manual.  I just opened the box, removed a small box containing the belts and parts, and then lifted the plinth from the box and removed its foam packing. Then I screwed three conical feet into the base, and screwed the tension roller onto the tensioning arm. After removing the platter from its own box, I carefully set in onto the bearing. It took a few minutes to thread the belt around the platter and the tension pulley. I was then ready to mount and align the tonearm. That took a little while, and the "breeze" I spoke of regarding the set-up of the Artemis itself became not quite a gale force wind, but then again, it took a little finesse (and exactitude) to get everything set up the way not only I would like it, but that good science would support. All in all, the entire set-up process from the time I cut the tape on the Artemis' package to it was making music took a good part of the late afternoon. Still, it was not so bad as far as turntables go, and I ran into no trouble whatsoever during the process. I spent much more time making minor adjustments to the tonearm, during which the turntable didn't even come into the picture. It just got out of the way and went about its job of spinning records. The platter got up to its perfect speed in a couple of turns after the power switch was engaged, and the Artemis SA-1's operation was trouble-free throughout the review period.

 

Situated
Since I was in no hurry to move the 100 pound Basis Debut that sits on the top shelf of the Arcici Suspense equipment rack, I started with the Artemis SA-1 on a small table with a two inch concrete top situated next to the rack. The SA-1 does not have any suspension, still, even when the turntable was located on this less that ideal platform, at least as far as I could tell, did not suffer much from any vibration, airborne or otherwise. I am not trying to suggest that a stable platform for any turntable is not important. Of course it is. But the SA-1 is not a lightweight, at 40 pounds the turntable stayed put, plus, the floor in my listening room in my old house is very stable so there was never any problems with footfall. Of course, your mileage may vary. When I finally moved the ‘table to the Arcici rack there were improvements in the turntable's sound, especially in the areas of soundstage and image stability, and bass solidity.

On the 1979 Argo release of Poulenc's Concerto for Organ with the Academy of St. Martin 's in the Field conducted by Iona Brown with George Malcolm at the organ, this spectacular piece of music engulfed my listening room. The recording was engineered by none other than famed Decca engineer Kenneth Wilkinson, and I would not hesitate to say that this 1977 recording should be considered up there with some of his best. The SA-1 proved itself to be quite up to the task of reproducing this disc with an almost indescribable musicality (but describe it I will). The ‘table's reproduction of the frequency extremes was faultless, but on this recording it was its bass prowess that was made pretty obvious given the pedals of the organ were placed front and center from the outset. This bass was very tight sounding and went very, very deep, and it was not difficult to picture in my mind the bass saturating the chapel of St. John's College in Cambridge. There was such a ferocious blast from the organ that I nearly leapt from my seat, even though the volume on the preamp wasn't even as loud as I normally listen to orchestral music. But it wasn't the volume, but the sheer beauty of its realism was what struck me. As the piece progressed (and I snuck up the volume a bit more than more) the string sound was luxurious, and the rising and falling tension and other textural emotions of the piece were palpable. The soundstage was expansive and detailed, and the meticulous layering of the string orchestra and the firm placement of the tympani throughout the fast and slow, loud and soft, spine-chilling and pastoral passages was outstanding. From start to finish during the side-long piece the vinyl was dead quiet — whether this was the contribution of the turntable, the tonearm, the cartridge, or the combination of all three I'm not sure, but this added to the sense that the music was delivered without a delivery system. The music was just there between and beyond the speakers for me to revel in.

I just pre-ordered the new Sonic Youth album The Eternal on vinyl from Matador Record's website. In anticipation of its arrival I threw on 2002's Murray Street LP. At that time they were still signed to Geffen Records, but the vinyl versions of their albums of that time were released on their own Goofin' Records. Very funny, guys. The bass on this album was unquestionably as good as the above Poulenc example, but of course this was an entirely different bass sound here. A realistic sounding bass guitar depends as much on the lower fundamentals as the cues from the upper registers, and the Artemis SA-1's crystal clear rendering of all of these frequencies was exemplary. It didn't sound quite like a bass amp was in my room, but that might not have been the producer and engineer's intent – yet it combined with the kick drum on Steve Shelly's kit to form a sturdy foundation for the discordant yet melodic sound (that's surely an oxymoronic rock ‘n' roll phrase) that is Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo's guitar-wall-of-sound, and typically Sonic Youth. The transient response of this ‘table was in full view; the drums had a "snap" to them that was very inviting, and the cymbals' clang and ring was reproduced with loud alt-rock perfection.

When shopping at the (remaining) brick-and-mortar record stores in my area there seems to be a pattern – when the owners of these record stores price second-hand LPs that they consider common they practically give them away. But most of the time if they consider a record "rare" it is priced about the same as an import CD. I can live with that, and that is about how much I paid for a well preserved copy of Ornette Coleman's New York Is Now! on the Blue Note label. Although I have a fairly large Ornette vinyl collection from the 1960s, I never came across this 1968 recording. Not only is it an excellent performance of some great original compositions, its stellar line-up consists of Dewey Redman on tenor sax, Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums, and Mr. Coleman on alto sax and occasional violin. The recording was not made at Rudy Van Gelder's NJ studio, as I had expected, but this fine recording was made by Dave Saunders at A&R in New York City. Ornette is placed on the left, and the Artemis SA-1 is so detailed and exceedingly honest in its reproduction of the recording, details such as the reverb that was added to his horn comes across as separate sonic event. The drums are spread across the crystal clear man-made soundstage, and yet I hesitate in saying the instruments were located within a soundstage, it was more like "instrument placement", each sound was locked within a space — its sound reproduced by the SA-1 as a rock solid image. And like the Poulenc recording mentioned above, the music seemed to just appear in the air not tethered to its vinyl origins. I'm not going to pretend like there were no vinyl artifacts, there was the slight rush of noise and the occasional pop or click from the less than perfect condition of the vinyl, but these sounds were so far outside the scope of the music they were only very slight distractions. And easily dismissed.

Artemis Labs SA-1 TurntableI hope from the above descriptions I've given the impression that I think that the Artemis SA-1 is a very fine, reference grade instrument. At $7800 it is certainly not inexpensive — entry level it is certainly not. But when considered against other top-flight turntables, I guess it is rather economical. My reference Basis Debut currently retails for $14,000. Could I hear huge differences in the sounds of these two ‘tables? Yes and no. No, in that they both bring out the best in what vinyl has to offer, and are miles beyond what lesser built (and lesser priced) turntables have to offer, both in solidity of sound, quietness of their backgrounds, and naturalness of the reproduced instruments that are carved within the surface of the vinyl records that are played upon them. The greatest difference between the Artemis and the larger Basis is just that; the Basis' larger and much heavier plinth, platter, and silicon filled suspension stanchions translate to a larger sound — one that is weightier and has a bigger image size. But the Artemis in no way embarrassed itself at any time, whether compared to the Basis or any turntable I've heard anywhere near its price.

 

Totally
While I was wrapping things up with this review I took a break and listened to the London LP of the Borodin Quartet playing Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8, pressed by King Records of Japan. This is hardly a record that tests the, macrodynamics, bass slam, or the ultimate tracking ability of a turntable system. Yet the through the Artemis SA-1 this record was totally enthralling. Of course it doesn't hurt that it is a marvelous piece of music and a superb performance. But besides that fact, it takes more than an adequate representation of what's in the grooves to make me sit up and notice the sound on a record, especially one that I've heard what seems at least fifty times since I purchased it in the early 1990s. But the silence of the record's surface, combined with the sweetness of the strings effortlessly entering my listening room sonically transported me to 1962 when the quartet and the team of technicians put this recording to tape. When I can listen to a record and be total transfixed, that is, lost in the piece despite the fact that that my jaded ears sometimes focus on the negative when reviewing equipment — this says a lot for the Artemis. Plus, this turntable looks great while performing the task. The Artemis Labs SA-1 is a high-end turntable that should, no, demands, to be heard by anyone that is ready to take the plunge and step up to the next level of analog playback. You owe it to yourself to audition this turntable.

 

 

Specifications
Type: Analog turntable for vinyl replay
Permissible Arm Lengths: 8.7 to 10.25 inches 
Platter Speeds: 33.3 and 45 rpm, trimmable, variable from approx. 25 to 60 rpm.
Dimensions: Motor Controller: 3.74 x 10 x 4.5 (WxDxH inches)
                  Turntable (including feet): 17.75 x 13.75 x 5.5 (WxDxH in inches)
Weight: Motor Controller: 4 lbs. 6 oz., turntable: 40 lbs. 
Price $7800

 

Company Information
Artemis Labs
679 Easy Street, Unit E
Simi Valley, California 93065

Voice: (818) 216-7882
E-mail: info@aydn.com
Website: www.artemislabs.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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