Until the end of the 1980s, Poland, a medium-sized country by the Baltic Sea considered by Emil Kundera to be part of Central Europe together with the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, was "built" on analogue. The turntable was a common sight in almost every "cultured" home, along with the cassette deck and reel-to-reel. What an enlightened nation, one might think, to not have given in to the digital plague from the rotten West that was insidiously slipping into music lovers' homes under the guise of user convenience and promises of a "clear digital sound" only to destroy the "real" music, recorded in a pure, non-digitized sine wave. Taking it at face value, we might have expected a medal from the whole world, or at least the part of it that believes in a "noir" flat earth. The truth, however, was much more prosaic. All of the above countries and a few others, such as Bulgaria and Romania, remaining at their post on the eastern, "red" side of the Iron Curtain, were back then technologically unprepared for anything more than the technologies developed in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The first Polish Compact Disc player was the
CDF-001 from Fonica, dating from 1987. I know this machine from the inside out,
as that was what I spent my prom money on. Thus I ended up not going to my prom
which made my mother angry and left her in a stupor, and then in a resigned but
telling silence. The more so as she learnt of my decision after the fact.
Inexpensive by the Western European standards,
the player was difficult to afford for us, living in Poland. Manufactured under
a license from Philips, one of the co-inventors of the CD format, it looked
rather poor housed in a plastic enclosure with a green alphanumeric LED display
on the front panel and lacking a remote control. Although licensed from Philips,
the CDF-001 was equipped with a Mitsumi mechanism and a Sony KSS150A laser unit.
Since it was the 1980s, the player featured a multi-bit DAC in the form of a
16-bit LA7880 from Sanyo. Despite all that, I felt as if I had won the lottery.
My GS-464 turntable, also from Fonica, was sent to the corner, as did my Aria MS
2411 reel-to-reel from a sister company UNITRA-ZRK, located in Warsaw. After
some time, I came to my senses when upgrading to more expensive CD players I had
to look for what I'd previously had with budget analogue equipment.
I'm not sure whether all readers have noticed
that I repeatedly mentioned the name Fonica. One needs to know that it's a very
special company for the Polish audio, associated here, in the country by the
Vistula River, with one thing: the turntable. Fonica used to be one of the best
recognized brands in the Polish audio during the post-WWII years until the turn
of the political system in 1989 and was a manufacturer of turntables and
amplifiers, both for home entertainment and professional use. Even if someone
living here, between the Bug and Oder rivers, might be not familiar with it,
another name - Bambino - is instantly recognizable to anyone who was born before
the times of Lech Walesa, Solidarity and the fall of Communism. Bambino was
chronologically the second turntable model fully manufactured in Poland. We will
find its picture in any catalog of an exhibition dedicated to the times of PRL
(People's Republic of Poland, the official name of Poland between 1952-1989 when
it was politically dependent on the Soviet Union), in each textbook on the
culture of that time, and over the last several years in albums documenting the
achievements of Polish designers from the 1950s and 1960s. The WG-252 commonly
known as Bambino was launched to the market in 1963, with subsequent upgrade
versions to follow.
The turntable was manufactured by Fonica, a
company formed soon after the liberation of Poland from the Nazi occupation in
1945. As its first turntable model was designed in 1953, we are talking about
the company celebrating its 68th anniversary and boasting a nice round 60 years
of "genuine" turntable history! Fonica is best associated with many turntable
designs in the lower and medium price range that were also sold in other
countries of the Eastern Bloc, often under other names. Suffice it to say that
in 1970 it produced a total of 461,000 turntables. Alas, Fonica shared the fate
of many iconic brands that enjoyed a great success only to fade away. After the
political changes in Poland during the late 1980s and early 1990s and a short
episode with Korean investors, it was finally closed in 2002. That seemed
to be the end of the story.
A Story Of A Certain Manufacturer...
During the 1970s, thanks to licenses from Telefunken, Thomson,
and later Tenorel (cartridges) the company was booming. The demand was so great
that the turntable motors had to be produced by an external supplier Silma,
located in the city of Sosnowiec. In the peak year of 1980, Fonica produced a
total of 545,000 turntables. The number includes both standalone units and
record decks built into furniture, jukeboxes, wire broadcasting systems, etc.
The year 1989, which was a turning point in Poland's modern history, was a very
rough time for Fonica. The annual production dropped sharply to only 1000
turntables. In 1991, after the workers' strike, the decision was made to
liquidate the company. Three subsequent Korean investors, Kyungbang Ltd,
Kyungbang Machinery, and since 1998 Daewoo, failed to restore the
company to its former glory. In its final years it produced office supplies,
such as paper clips. The company was finally liquidated in 2002.
Nothing happened for the next ten years and it seemed that we were only left with nostalgia. In 2012, however, the brand was purchased and the production of Fonica turntables resumed. This distinguished Polish brand owes its new chapter to a new company, Audio-Fonica (incidentally, also from Lodz), whose main shareholder is Complex S.A., listed on the Polish Stock Exchange. As we read in the company materials, "The decision to reactivate the brand was a result of a recent noticeable increased interest in analog turntables".
When the sales and hence the production of turntables
from the Lodz manufacturer went down in 1989, the heads of Fonica started
looking for job orders from other companies. One such opportunity arose when
Andicom, a small manufacturer from Pirna in the Saxony region of Germany, was
looking for subcontractors. Andicom had been in turn subcontracted by Thorens to
manufacture cheap, semi-automatic turntables. In 1991, at the IFA in Berlin
(yes, there were times when audio products were showcased at the IFA!) the TD
180 turntable with the TP 20 arm was presented. It was a semi-automatic design
capable of 78 rpm. This turntable was manufactured from beginning to end in Lodz
by Fonica. Unfortunately, in 1992 Andicom was closed and Fonica went bankrupt.
Before that happened, however, the manufacturer from Lodz started the production
of the new TD 280 Mk IV turntable, in addition to the TD 180, and produced a
prototype of another low-budget machine, the TD 290 with the TP 40 arm. In the
same year, the Thorens Swiss headquarters went bankrupt and the right to the
brand was taken over by Inter-Thorens, also from Switzerland. And it was the
latter that, due to problems with Fonica (workers' strikes, etc.), decided to
move the production of the cheapest turntables elsewhere - to SEV Litovels.r.o.
located in the Czech town of Litovec, near Prague. Thus ended Fonica's adventure
with the Swiss, and began an unimaginable from that point of view career
SEV is the company created after the liquidation of Czechoslovakian Tesla (incidentally, Tesla's name comes from the abbreviation of TEchnika SLAboprouda "low voltage devices" and has nothing to do with Nikola Tesla). And it was in Tesla's former factory that the assembly and production of the TD 290 began, whose prototype had been built by Fonica. The machine became a huge success, followed by its subsequent versions, TD 295 Mk II and Mk III, manufactured until the withdrawal of Thorens in 2000. Founded in 1946, Tesla and hence SEV were not newcomers to turntable manufacturing. They produced turntables from the 1950s, similarly to Fonica.
Let us move on to another connection. I mentioned Thorens and Lenco, didn't I? Lenco is another Swiss turntable manufacturer, the biggest Thorens competitor in their own country. It was established in the same year as Tesla and at some point subcontracted the latter to produce two turntable models, the NC 470 and NC 500. It turns out that the start of Thorens production in the 1990s was just a continuation of a Swiss-Czech cooperation... The TD 290 and TD 295 became the catalysts that sparked something bigger. In addition to production for Thorens, the Czech manufacturer signed a contract with an Austrian who was the owner of Pro-Ject Audio Systems.
Heinz Lichtenegger, as he is the Austrian in question, told Gramophone
magazine how it happened. His story begins with... love. Heinz had nothing to do
with the turntable manufacturing, until at a party he met a Czech girl who
brought along a turntable rescued from the skip behind the factory where her
uncle worked. The factory was a former Tesla factory and the girl was Jozefina
Krahulcova who married Lichtenegger, and later became the head of EAT, a
manufacturer of high-end tube devices and... turntables. It could have been a
completely different story, though. Michael Fremer says in his Stereophile
article on Pro-Ject that Lichtenegger was looking for a suitable location in the
Czech Republic for turntable manufacturing as early as the beginning of the
1990s. And there, in a dark corner of a small factory he found the turntable
that "looked just right". It had a good motor and a heavy platter.
After a bit of tweaking it became the Pro-Ject 1.
No matter which version of the story is true (most likely neither one), today SEV Litovels.r.o. produces 40,000 turntables per year as a subcontractor for Austrian Pro-Ject Audio Systems. And to think that the same could have happened with Fonica...
It does not look very complex, but does look quite
distinctive. Its outward appearance is actually strikingly similar to that of my
reference CD player, the Lektor AIR V-edition from Ancient Audio, and hence I
know that "simple" does not necessarily mean "simplistic".
The F802's plinth is really heavy. It is made of a block of granite, which is
used by turntable manufacturers due to its heavy weight and favorable mechanical
properties. The plinth has classic rectangular proportions and is quite thick.
It sports three through-holes two in the front and one in the rear to
hold brass spikes, secured from the top with brass caps. Apart from granite,
brass is this design's most distinctive material. Its yellowish color defines
our perception of the whole machine and determines a yes
or no response to it. If
everything is OK except the looks, it is worth knowing that the turntable can be
also ordered in "Black" finish, with all the metal parts anodized in
black, or in "Gold" where they are plated with 24-carat gold. The
version I received for the review came in brass finish. The brass was not
anodized, only passivated to the alloy's natural color.
Brass is also used for the housing of the main inverted bearing a fairly thick cylinder with a flange at one end. It is machined from a single piece of brass together with the record spindle. A heavy platter sits on top of the cylinder that is fitted onto a steel shaft with a thrust ball at the end. There seems to be some kind of hard material that supports the ball from the inside, but I could not find any information about it. The ball is made of a very hard zirconium dioxide (zirconia). Other turntable manufacturers that employ a thrust ball bearing use a variety of materials, such as Teflon, tungsten carbide, or other exotic alloys and sinters rarely seen in audio. The bearing is self-lubricating and is made with high level of precision.
I've already said that the F802 is a mass-loaded turntable. It
needs to be added that it is a belt-driven design. The motor is placed
classically into a cut-out at the plinth's far left corner. It is housed in a
solid, heavy brass block I've told you there is lots of brass. The motor
sits on small rubber pads, directly on the surface supporting the turntable. The
cut-out is quite tight and padded with a rubber band that on one hand decouples
the motor from the plinth (two heavy components are separated by elastic
material), but also keeps it at a fixed distance from the platter. The main
disadvantage of motors suspended by rubber grommets, etc. is that this distance
constantly changes, leading to wow and flutter. Decoupling is better, but it is
quid pro quo. An interesting solution to this problem was proposed by Thorens in
the TD-309, which features a suspension similar to that of a speaker driver's
rear suspension. This design idea, however, has only been used in Thorens
The platter is made of a thick aluminum block, gold hard
anodized with a surface hardness of 65 Rockwell. The color finish matches that
of the brass components. Topping the platter is a felt mat. The heavy record
clamp is made of brass (what a surprise!) and equipped with rubber rings that
reduce vibration and help manipulate the clamp. The clamp sports a level on the
top, which makes it easy to level the turntable as long as the record is
perfectly flat. Torque is transmitted to the platter with a round rubber belt.
Attached to the motor shaft is a large brass disc with holes to reduce its mass.
In the less expensive F602 the disc does not have the holes. The disc has one
fixed diameter, as the turntable speed is controlled by an external
high-precision controller with quartz oscillator. The sine wave controller is
housed in its own cylindrically shaped brass enclosure, as heavy as the motor,
and sports a speed-change button, two LEDs and on/off toggle switch. The blue
(unfortunately) LEDs indicate 33.3 or 45 rpm speed. The controller connects to
the motor with a short cable and is powered from a small wall-wart power supply
manufactured in Poland.
All turntable granite and brass components are manufactured by
us in Lodz. We buy the motors in the Netherlands. Power supplies are sourced
from a Polish manufacturer located in Brzeziny near Lodz. We are finishing work
on our own more refined power supply, housed in a brass enclosure to match our
turntable style. It will soon be offered as a turntable upgrade. Some production
processes such as hard anodizing or laser engraving are subcontracted to other
companies. Hard anodizing is a surface treatment of components that provides a
high hardness coating - approximately 65 Rockwell. This process uses sulfuric
acid - says Mr. Łodziaty.
It could have been expected, but even then the Fonica arm just looks different, like it was made entirely of brass. And it is, to a large extent. It is a 9" gimbaled bearing tonearm (the distance between the arm pivot and the platter spindle is 214.4 mm), with multiple setup and regulation options. VTA adjustment is handy via a large screw/dial. That is important, as the company began their tonearm adventure with a fantastic VTA adjustment mechanism of this type for Rega arms. Azimuth can also be adjusted the arm head is tightly mounted and secured with an Allen screw and offset angle. And, of course, VTF and anti-skate. The manufacturer provides the following specification:
Overhang - 9.47 mm
Looking at some of the components it is easy to find their
originator the anti-skate mounting point and its appearance clearly points
to the M2-9 arm from SME, used by Fonica in the F-601 and F-801 turntables. The
aluminum arm tube has the same cross-section along its length and is mounted on
a gimbal bearing made of two rectangular brass blocks fitted into one another.
The counterweight is mounted on a long threaded tonearm stub. Anti-skating is a
classic affair with the anti-skate weight attached to a thin wire. The copper
tonearm wire is terminated with silver plated copper ferrules. The RCA
connectors are located on the bottom of the plinth. Unfortunately, the location
of the copper block to which they are mounted is very inconvenient and
connecting the tonearm ground wire proves quite difficult.
Concentration on full-bodied sound at the expense of clear sound attack and perfect preservation of even the smallest details that build the presentation credibility links what I heard from the Fonica equipped with the Miyajima Lab cartridges (mono and stereo) with the sound of a master tape played back on a good reel-to-reel player. It is synergic and coherent. Details do not draw much attention, although they are very well shown. They seem to be subject to larger planes and major events. The sound planes are not defined in a hyper-distinctive way. It may not appeal to the music lovers who prefer a higher precision than that of a live performance, somewhat compensating for the lack of visual information. While I understand this approach, the Fonica is not for them. Here, when a new instrument appears, like the drums in the opening track on the 10" blue vinyl edition of Selection from Bill Evans Live at Art D'Lugoff's Top of The Gate, it is shown as a separate "player", having its own space but no exact boundaries. It is similar with electronic instruments, such as those on the German edition of Kraftwerk's Computerwelt album and the 12" Daft Punk single Get Lucky. Since it is a constant merging of music planes and textures, it is difficult to talk about emptiness in places where no sound is located at a given moment. The Fonica does not "add" anything to it, leaving a black background.
Even so, the most important is the midrange. Everything else
is subordinated to it a slightly sweet treble and naturally soft bass. Both
ends of the frequency spectrum are well differentiated from record to record,
and often differ from track to track, depending on the sound engineer and
production studio. In the end, however, they turn out to serve only one purpose:
to support the midrange. This is particularly well audible on the recordings
where the sound engineer and artists wanted to emphasize e.g. vocals, by
exposing them in 3D. So was with the Daft Punk single. When after a while vocals
come in (the mix lasts 10 minutes!), they are shown fairly close up, in front of
the speakers line. It is interesting and surprising at once, and artistically
consistent. The Fonica emphasized the vocals, showing them even closer to the
listener. If the instruments are closely mic'ed up, they will be pulled up
forward and enlarged. On more detached recordings, such as White
Horses by Inga Rumpf, the whole is more relaxed and a little further
up on the soundstage.
Unlike the decoupled turntables that can vary in this respect,
the F802 is excellent with differentiating the recordings without emphasizing
their weaknesses, which are masked to some extent. The above mentioned album was
recorded in the ultra-purist way by my friend, Dirk Sommer, chief editor of the
"HiFiStatement.net" magazine. He mic'ed the vocals with Shure SM58
microphones. I know them quite well from the gigs I sound engineered and I know
that they have a rather limited frequency response. Their main advantage lies in
creating solid, tangible sound sources perhaps a bit limited tonally and not
as dynamic as those built by high-end condenser Neumanns, etc., but really
endearing, nevertheless. The Fonica turntable shows that within the first few
seconds of music playback. In the next few we forget about it because the music
presentation comes to the foreground and the hi-fi
becomes of secondary importance.
While perhaps not evident from the above, I listened to this turntable with sheer pleasure and joy. A comparison with the Transrotor works best for me because it shows that no single design is perfect and each one, in its own way, is an attempt to get to the "truth". The Fonica does it by biting into the "gut" of the sound and not trying to analyze everything on the surface, but rather registering it and immediately getting to the heart of the matter. This way we get a presentation that is internally rich and truly complete. It is dense and full of tonal and dynamic nuances. One can listen to it for hours without getting tired or bored. Not aspiring to the title of a "faithful" tool, it gives you more joy than many precise turntables whose designers forgot to fill out the "framework" with content. The Fonica feeds us "meat" rather than bone. It is a weighty, solid machine, designed entirely in-house and carefully manufactured by artisans in Poland. It will bring us joy, put a smile on our face and give us something more a peace of mind. This is the type of presentation that does not push for change, instead focusing our attention on the music, and hence does not stimulate the nerve responsible for Audiophillia Nervosa. A really great device!
However, if you look for an "analogue" sound in its true sense, not "vinyl-like", you are right at home. The vocals are fantastic tonally, although not particularly well visualized, i.e. lacking clear edges. The tonal balance is focused on the midrange, but is not overly warm in the way some tube amplifiers can be. The dynamics seems averaged but that's actually not true. It is simply very well differentiated, which results in some records showing their true, compressed nature. While the tonal problems are minimized, covered with a mature color and rich harmonics, imperfect dynamics is shown immediately. The turntable's visual styling may not appeal to everyone, either. The finish is not perfect and still needs some work. It is clearly a product manufactured in several dozen rather than several hundred of units. Looking at the F802 we see the work of a craftsman who has made the individual components, not a machine. I suggest you look at this design as the work of human hands and the result of compromises in achieving a desired goal. It has no room for perfection; there's only an attempt to find the music.
Bill Evans, Bill Evans
Live At Art D'Lugoff's Top Of The Gate, Resonance Records, HLP-9012, Limited
Edition - Promo 104, 2 x 180 g, 45 rpm LP (2012).
Bill Evans, Selections
from Live at Art D'Lugoff's Top Of The Gate, Resonance Records,
HLT-8012, Limited Edition #270, blue wax 10" LP (2012).
Cannonball Adderley, Somethin'
Else, Blue Note/Analogue Productions AP-81595, The
Blue Note Reissues, 45 RPM Special Edition #2468, 45 rpm, 180 g, 2 x
Ingfa Rumpf, White
Horses, Edel: Content 0208574CTT, Triple
A Series, 2 x 180 g LP (2013).
Kate Bush, 50 Words For
Snow, Fish People 72986615, 2 x 180 g LP (2011).
Komeda Quintet, Astigmatic,
Muza Polskie Nagrania/Polskie Nagrania XL 0298, Polish
Jazz Vol. 5, LP (1966/2007).
EMI Electrola1C 064-46 311, LP (1981).
The Doors, Vinyl Box,
Elektra/Rhino Vinyl 2274881, Digital Master,
7 x 200 g LP (2007).
The Montgomery Brothers, Groove
Yards, Riverside/Analogue Productions AJAZ 9362, Top
100 Fantasy 45 Series, 45 rpm, 180 g, 2 x LP (1961/?).
Wes Montgomery & Wynton Kelly Trio, Smokin'
At The Half Note, Verve/Universal Music K.K. [Japan] UCJU-9083, 200 g
Music, ECM Records, ECM 1349, LP (1987)
Daft Punk, Get Lucky,
Columbia | Sony Music 3746911, 12" maxi-SP (2013).
The turntable sat on the M3X RD-1921 isolation platform from Harmonic Resolution Systems which in turn was placed on the Finite Elemente Pagode Edition rack. The turntable power supply was fed from a dedicated power line. The RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC phono preamplifier rested on the Franc Audio Accessories Ceramic Disc feet, and rested on the Acoustic Revive RAF-48H air-floating isolation board. It was powered via the Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300 power cord plugged into a dedicated power line. The following cartridges were used: Miyajima Laboratory Shilabe (stereo), Miyajima Laboratory ZERO (mono), Denon DL-103 and Denon DL-103SA.
Base: High quality granite with the center of gravity placed as low as possible.
Vibration Control: Three brass cones for isolation. The power unit is fully separated from the turntables base.
Bearing: A ball composed out of zirconium dioxide.
Motor Controller: State-of-the-art precision for ideal rotational speed regulated by a dedicated generator. The rotation is also precisely stabilized due to the usage of a processor timed by a quartz resonator.
Speeds: 33.3 and 45 rpm
Power Supply: 115V/230V (depends on the power grid and the Country)