Enjoy the Music.com's Special 20/20 Award
Phono Cartridges And Turntables -- Page
Steven R. Rochlin chooses the most notable products during
the past 20 years.
As Chosen By Editor & Creative
Director Steven R. Rochlin
vinyl LP is like the proverbial cat, as it has nine lives. While the turntable
has never disappeared within the eyes of our beloved high-end audio industry,
during the past few years there has been an amazing resurgence and demand for analog
music replay. Vinyl record pressing plants can't keep up with the demand! Like
any technology, improvements have been made over the years to cartridges,
turntables and even the formulation and variety of LPs. I have zero doubt that
the below list will cause an uproar as there is that intangible something
that makes turntable lovers so very adamant that their choices are best. There
is no way to make a 'definitive' listing that would please the millions of
readers we have, and thus the below is my personal guide and am sure i forgot
one or two along the way. Then we have tweak engineering types who DIY some incredible
vinyl replay creations, yet those can't be included as they are one-off designs.
Picture discs are old
hat, yet now we have apps that will show you holograms on your LP, specially
made vinyl of every color and combination... and you can have your ashes
embedded when you pass way! LP covers are now interactive with apps too!
by modern high-precision machining, 3D printing, advanced metallurgy, and other technologies
we are getting more turntable for our money. Motors and power supplies that
control platter speed are far more stable than those available decades ago. No
longer is the turntable simply a way to listen to music, it is hip, cool and of
course sounds great. Well, the music it delivers sounds great, as turntables
themselves have achieved lower noisefloor to ensure all you hear is the music
within those fine LP grooves.
Enjoy the Music.com gives out very few awards. With the nearly constant
barrage with 'best of' and 'top picks' featuring hundreds of products elsewhere,
there is little doubt Enjoy the Music.com is perhaps the most
conservative of magazines when it comes to giving out special accolades. With
our annual Blue Note awards possibly being the most sought-after within the
audiophile industry, as only a very small handful of products get special recognition
each year, we
want to highlight our 20th anniversary by using our 20/20 vision as it were and
look back to some of the best gear.
As Editor and Creative Director for Enjoy the Music.com, it is my honor to
look back at the many thousands of reviews and choose the top 20 per category.
This month my choices are for the very best phono cartridges and turntables over the past 20 years. Each month i'll follow up with exceptional preamplifiers, amplifiers, loudspeakers, etc.
missed our awards for digital audio gear, you can see those awards at this link.
No one said that picking a mere 20 products would
be easy! i take this task with much reflection and contemplation as have seen
and heard many analog playback devices over the years and have
an excellent video of how Quality Record Pressings (Acoustic Sounds) produce
their top-quality vinyl LPs. Using
my 20/20 hindsight to decide upon 20 pieces of high-end audio equipment is no easy feat!
Whilst many of these products
have been superseded and thus are no longer available as new, you may find them used
at very attractive pricing. High-end audio does not need to be high priced and
here is where some bargain hunters could greatly benefit. Of course some new
products will make a good showing as they are today's leading-edge creations.
Also take note that a turntable is a system, and thus you have a base,
platter, motor, tonearm, etc. With that said and in no particular order, as Editor and Creative Director of Enjoy
the Music.com here are the Special 20/20 Awards for the
most notable phono cartridges and turntable systems during the past 20 years.
Spin-Clean Record Washer
Having been around for, well, forever is the Spin-Clean Record Washer system
($79.99). Old guys like me remember the commercials for it on TV, yet now reborn
and having a newfound life with improvements. The Spin-Clean story began in Chicago around 1974 when Fidelitone Inc., a manufacturer that sold record needles and other record accessories to retailers, created a record cleaning device called "Spin 'n
Clean". Today, even the most frugal music lovers has a safe way to clean
their precious vinyl LPs. This is not just those great garage sale finds that
need cleaning, and brand new LPs can benefit from a good cleaning. Within his
review for Enjoy the Music.com, Nels Ferre says, "The Spin-Clean system works exactly as advertised. To test its effectiveness, I decided to re clean some records that had been cleaned on the Nitty Gritty 2.5FI-XP. Lo and behold, the first LP yielded, well, stuff that was still embedded in the grooves after a machine cleaning. It was right there in the bottom of the Spin-Clean. There was no denying it. Off to the turntable I went, and before the music started I could hear it. Nothing. The record didn't have surface noise before a bath in the Spin-Clean, and yet the truth was undeniable- the record was even quieter after using the
Spin-Clean for new LPs." You can read our review of the
Spin-Clean LP cleaning system at this link.
Linn LP12 Turntable
No high-end audio award list concerning turntables would be
complete without some mention of the Linn LP12, so let's dispense with it right
now. Face the facts folks, it simply can't be avoided that
this creation by Ivor Tiefenbrun, who first introduced the LP12
($1395 on up) back in 1972, will outlive your screams about Enjoy the
Music.com's Special 20/20 Awards covering only the past 20 years. Yet with the LP12 being made available for, well, forever, our including it here is well justified.
Furthermore, with so many Linn LP12s available in the used marketplace, plus many tweaks produced by other manufacturers, we're
highlighting not just this turntable yet also one of the most recent developments to grace the Linn
LP12 system. We must remember that a turntable is a combination of the base, a
round platter, electrical motor, tonearm, cartridge, etc. And so we are
celebrating the Linn LP12 and a variety of tweaks including off-the-shelf components from Boston Audio Design, SoundDeadSteel, Stillpoints and TTW Audio.
Within his review, Rick Becker says "The Linn LP12 is an iconic component in the realm of High-End Audio yet it is a dinosaur in the eyes of many. Linn works hard to keep it alive with ever more expensive upgrades, yet ignores its Achilles heel. Over a long and winding trail I have applied more affordable solutions and eventually fell into the rabbit hole where un-conventional thinking allowed me to take my vintage LP12 to unexpected heights. It is not a Be-All, End-All design, but points in directions Linn or other manufacturers may wish to explore. I drew the line at using only off-the-shelf components, but other modification and machining solutions come readily to mind. I'm not an engineer, but I'm driven by curiosity and the question "What if…?" The guiding principles have been those commonly encountered in audiophile analysis and each of the products employed in this design excel under such scrutiny. Together, with the LP12 these products embody synergy that allows the music to reach into my soul and play upon my emotions. It can bring me to tears; it can dress me in goose bumps. It can show me the harmonics and tonal color I did not know existed in the grooves. It can also tell me early on if I want to spend the next twenty or forty minutes of my life listening to the record I'm playing. This may be its greatest virtue. So much music, so little time."
You can see Rick's
review of the LP12 with a variety of tweaks at this link.
Basis Work Of Art Turntable
Basis' Work of Art turntable ($179,000) is the company's tribute to the science and art of vinyl music reproduction. Their Work of Art turntable is the result of the same Basis Systems Approach of their previous models where each individual subsystem is carefully scrutinized and
optimized to deliver the ultimate in vinyl LP playback. By understanding the fundamental principles of physics, conducting tests in their laboratory, and then further optimizing each part to benefit the whole. Basis' Work of Art turntable is isolated from the listening environment by a unique mass-spring-damper suspension system. Using viscous fluid for the damping, the spring and dashpot components perform linearly with no hysteresis effects. By coupling tightly to the
sub-chassis, the isolation system virtually eliminates both vibration energy channeled into the
sub-chassis by the tonearm and impingement energy of the airborne musical signal fed into the
sub-chassis. A custom modified AC synchronous instrument motor rotates the platter precisely as the motor's coils are direct driven in a dual-phase manner to maintain coil-to-coil balance. Basis uses their own Debut bearing that Increases the length between bushings and has enhanced rigidity, vanishingly low friction and noise, plus extreme performance coating technology to achieve silent operation and high
durability. Finally, the Basis Vacuum record hold down system applies a controlled level of negative pressure to the underside of the record to keep it perfectly flat on the platter. Dimensions are 29" x 19" x 42" (WxDxH) and it weights in at 400 lbs.
Clearaudio Reference Moving Coil Cartridge
My love affair with the Clearaudio Insider started well over a decade
ago with the metal body Insider. Both cartridges share the same family, but with
a different body. The Reference has a real wood body and lends itself to a more
harmonious sound. A friend of mine in Florida asked me to tweak his Goldmund Reference turntable system and so it was my job to break in the Clearaudio
Insider MC cartridge ($10,000) so that when i was at his listening room it was settled in and ready. Although
I'd like to include the Goldmund Reference turntable within Enjoy the
Music.com's award list, it has not been made in over 20 years and anyone who has had to tweak and fix this beast knows you might want to choose another
turntable. There are far better offerings that are more user-friendly than the
Goldmund Reference with T3f tonearm. Some turntable legends are simply too temperamental,
with a sheer lack of support in fixing them, to be included within Enjoy the
Music.com's 20/20 Awards. Getting back to the Clearaudio Reference MC cartridge,
my review says "I love the Insider Reference Wood for wood instruments
whereas for, say, trumpet and techno/house/trance I'd prefer the metal-body
version. Are we talking very small differences? Most certainly! If I only heard
one of the two I would proclaim it to be an achievement along the lines of the
Ferrari Enzo or McLaren F1. Either of these cartridges, like either of the
aforementioned vehicles, is like those rare instruments from the likes of
Stradivarius or Guarneri. To choose one over the other can be a matter of
personal preference yet each is remarkable in it's own way." My
review of the Clearaudio Reference MC cartridge can be read at this link.
VPI Aries 3 Turntable
VPI JMW 10.5i Memorial Tonearm
Dynavector DRT XV-1s Moving Coil Cartridge
Remember how I wrote about the turntable being a system earlier within
this awards article? Well, here we have three winners all rolled into a single
review and Enjoy the Music.com 20/20 Award! VPI Aries 3 turntable with JMW 10.5i Memorial tonearm ($7700) and Dynavector DRT XV-1s ($4500)
are case in point as each one of the three deserve an award on their own merits,
yet when put together you achieve top marks for a vinyl playback system. Lucky music
lover and reviewer Wayne Donnelly said, "I have listened to many truly excellent moving coils over the years, from
Van den Hul, Benz/Cardas, Miyabi, Koetsu, Clearaudio and Transfiguration. All of them had undeniable virtues, and some had less admirable tradeoffs. And of course I never heard any of them on this terrific VPI rig. Still, I don't think any of them had the total quality of the Dynavector DRT XV-1s. With it I hear extraordinary extension, but no moving-coil sizzle or etched highs. Bass is deep and tight, never overblown. Imaging is precise in all dimensions within a huge, deep stage. It is simply the best cartridge I have ever heard.... If you have read this full review, the conclusions will be obvious. If you're a skip-to-the-end type, be assured that this VPI/Dynavector combo gets top marks. I'm sure that both the table and cartridge would perform admirably mated to other partners. But together they are the answer to my analog prayers. I purchased the review units, and they bring me great pleasure day after day."
You an read Enjoy
review of the VPI Aries 3 turntable with JMW 10.5i Memorial tonearm ($7700) and Dynavector DRT XV-1s
Van den Hul Frog MC Phono Cartridge
Van den Hul's Frog MC phono cartridge ($2900 on up) is hand built by
A. J. Van den Hul and comes in 0.65 mV/channel copper wire or in a higher-end
version with matched crystal gold-wire coils and extra magnet modification. Virtually all my longtime died-in-the-wool analog lovers have either heard or owned this cartridge. Ok, so it might not be the last word in resolution, it is perhaps the most fun you can have with your clothes on. Hmmm.... Eh hem, anyway, when combined with the incredible Oracle Delphi
V turntable it is a music lovers dream come true! Sure it already earned
an award from Enjoy the Music.com, yet there is no way to avoid the
glorious sound of this green gem. Whilst my review was in September 2007, the
Frog was already nearly a decade old from when it was first released! Within the
review it says " Without a doubt this is also one of the
least fussy cartridges, so setup is easy while small fine-tuning is rewarded. We
must keep in mind we are discussing a cartridge design that is well over a
decade old! It saddens me to be critical of this turntable/arm/cartridge setup,
as it is so wonderfully enjoyable that it makes me sit back and want to enjoy
the music for the next decade... and beyond. And, my friends, that is precisely
what it is all about." Read
my review of the Van den Hul Frog MC Phono Cartridge here.
Oracle Audio Delphi MK VI Turntable
Oracle SME V Tonearm
Oracle Audio has been around for what seems like forever; with their prestigious
and visually stunning Delphi turntable now in its VI iteration builds upon
decades of refinement ($10,350 for turntable, Oracle SME 5 tonearm $7250 and
Turbo upgrade to Mk II is $500). Having personally reviewed the Oracle Delphi V,
this time around i knew great guy Tom Lyle deserved a chance to review the next
gen version. But would he love it as much as i did the previous version?
According to Tom, "The Oracle Delphi MK VI fitted with an SME V tonearm and
equipped with its optional Turbo MK II is a fantastic piece of analog artistry,
in both sound and looks. At over $17,000 for the turntable, arm and power
supply, this package should be considered expensive by all but the very few. But
it is not an unreasonable price for this package. What you get is a first-class
turntable, a first-class tonearm, and most likely one of the most advanced
turntable power supplies available today. The Delphi MK VI has modern museum
aesthetics, is stupid-simple easy to use once it is set up, and made every
single record I played on it sound like the most important record in my
collection because every record I played on it sounded like music, plain and
simple. If one has decided to spend this amount on an analog set-up, and they
decided on the Oracle Delphi MK VI/SME V/Turbo MK II package, I would be the
last audiophile equipment reviewer on Earth to try to talk him or her out of it."
You can read
Tom Lyle's review of this excellent Oracle Audio Delphi VI system at this link.
TechDAS Air Force One
There is no doubt the TechDAS model Air Force One ($79,500) is highly prized by many vinyl enthusiasts. The waveforms of sound by air vibrations are imprinted into a microgroove as read by the phono cartridge pickup (cartridge). During this process of the system, a turntable should always be a key to give a cartridge a role of picking up the music waveforms imprinted in the phonograph records and reproducing as air vibrations. TeachDAS' flagship reference Air Force One analog turntable reduces unwanted vibrations via 'Air Force' and is
implemented by high-precision finishing parts with immense mass. As with virtually every turntable design, the bearing system requires special attention, yet the Air Force One is equipped with no conventional bearings as the glass platter is simply installed and completely connected to the base. Once the ancillary electric air pump starts forcing air into the turntable, you see the heavy turntable platter floating instantly to the height of 3mm (30μ) above the base and rotating. There is a specialized vacuum disc suction mechanism that provides a secure connection of the LP to the platter. This system enhances damping characteristics of the platter itself and suppresses sympathetic vibrations and, thus raises the signal-to-noise drastically according to TechDAS. Continuing on the air theme, the air suspension system isolates th turntable from vibrations propagating through floors. A special calibrated microcomputer adjustment circuit combined with a heavyweight platter keeps the platter spinning at the correct speed. The main body chassis of the Air Force One is made with a trilaminar structure that weighs in at nearly 100 lbs. In total, the TechDAS Air Force One turntable weighs in at over 170 lbs.
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