Category Archives: Turntables, phono cartridges, phono stages

Record Cleaning

Who else remembers the original Discwasher setup?  A great brush with a wood handle that contained the record cleaning solution inside it.

The original Discwasher record cleaning system.

I can’t tell you how many vinyl aficionados  who, when speaking of their original record collection have proudly stated, “I took great care of my vinyl, I always cleaned it with the would brush with the red bottle inside”.  While this is better than no cleaning at all, it pales in comparison to using a proper record cleaning machine.  Why?  One word: vacuum.

Without a vacuum record cleaning machine all you’re really doing is pushing the dirt around in the grooves and hoping some of it sticks on the brush.  While the original Discwasher brush was particularly good at extracting and retaining what dirt and grime it was able to find in your grooves (beware of imitations that came later, the material of the brush itself pales by comparison to the original Discwasher), it still begs the question of it’s fans, “How often did you clean the brush itself?”  Unless the answer if “Every time” it’s a complete fail and all that was really happening was the sharing of the dirt and grime with other records in the record collection.  And properly cleaning the brush was no easy task, even with the brush supplied to clean the brush.  Which of course leads to the question, “How often did you clean the brush that cleans the brush?”  Point is, the dirt and grime never really gets removed without fastidiously cleaning brushes every time a record is cleaned.  And even then, the brush itself isn’t extracting the dirt and grime from the record grooves by vacuuming them, but rather by using the stiff bristles of the brush itself and friction and is therefore far less efficient and far harsher on the vinyl record itself.

I must confess that in my early days of high end audio I was guilty of using a Discwasher myself, much to the ultimate demise of much of my record collection.  I was a teenager and the thought of spending nearly as much for a record cleaning machine as for my turntable instead of, well… buying more records, was a difficult one to get my head around.  But without proper vacuum cleaning right from the start, even before the first time playing a record (yes, records ship with residue, dirt, and grime straight from the factory – all of them, often left over from the pressing process itself), the irreparable damage has already begun.  Fact is, once the needle hits that tiny spec of dust, dirt, or grime in the groove for the first time, it tends to implant it there, making it that much more difficult to remove the next time the record is cleaned.

So the only way to go for an analogue audiophile, or even just avid record collector, is a vacuum record cleaning machine such as the one show in my Canada system below.

The venerable VPI HW-16.5 Record Cleaning Machine

It’s not a complicated machine, just a platter, vacuum tube, and a couple of switches; but they still aren’t cheap with retail prices starting at $500 and rapidly going up from there.  The VPI 16.5 shown above is still for sale, unchanged and retails for $899.  The key to satisfactory results is a high torque motor so you can press fairly hard with the brushes and a high powered vacuum system to remove all that dirt and grime you’re breaking free.  I experimented with cheaper ($250 USD), hand-driven record cleaning machine on Maui, the Record Doctor V shown in the photo below, but found it cumbersome to use and difficult to get good results with.  This was mostly due to the inconsistent speed due to manual operation combined with the fact that I only had one hand free to apply fluid and brushes to the surface of my vinyl.  And, it was such a PITA to use that I found myself not cleaning my records with it before every play, which is step one to record care.

The manually operated Record Doctor Model V

I later replaced it with a great little machine for the money (retails for $500), the Okki Nokki Model RMC.  It has a high torque motor, strong vacuum, and reversible operation which I’ve never viewed and essential but hey, it can’t hurt to stroke your vinyl in both directions.

The Okki Nokki Model RMC record cleaning machine

You can spend a great deal more money on record cleaning machines, but all they offer for your extra hard-earned cash is more automation such as wands that apply fluid for you, fixed brushes that spread fluid and others that clean, extra vacuum tubes and fixed brushes on the bottom side so you don’t have to flip the record, and quieter motors (all the machines above are very noisy).  All of these niceties are nonessential if you know how to properly clean a record with one of the machines above.  So… how is that accomplished?

 

 

How to set up your turntable for your phono cartridge

Ok… So this is a large, complicated topic that I’m tackling here but I’ll try to break it down to the basics without going down too many rabbit holes, many of which can be debated ad-infinitum.

Wether you buy your turntable new or used, vintage or modern it will need to be set up properly for good results.  I’ll preface this discussion by assuming you have a reasonably good quality turntable which is capable of the most basic setup options.   This isn’t bargain basement territory, but then little found on this blog is.  Sure, there are some inexpensive ways to improve sound quality found on these pages (How to upgrade your existing system without spending a nickel.), but most discussions are catered towards high end gear.  So if you have recently joined the vinyl revolution (The new (old) gear coming out) with a vintage or modern low-fi turntable,  have fun but don’t expect audiophile sound quality just because you’ve got vinyl.  And… unless you properly clean your vinyl before every play (yes, including the first one – new records are full of grime from the pressing process) expect any records you buy to be forever lost to audiophile sound quality in rapid order (Record Cleaning).  Of course people are having fun listing to records on vinyl again for reasons that have nothing to do with sound quality, which is great.  It’s just not the crowd this post is written for.

So any reasonably good quality turntable will provide many ways to set it up for your listening environment and your chosen phono cartridge.  Let’s progress from the most common to the more esoteric tasks at hand:

Leveling – Most any turntable will provide methods to level the platter.  Variable height feet are probably the most common and simple.  Throw a small hardware store level on your platter and keep working it until it’s nearly spot-on level in all orientations.  All good?  Time to move on.

Vertical Tracking Angle (VTA) – To adjust your VTA, you need to find the adjustment on the base (where the arm is mounted to the turntable) of your tonearm that allows you to raise or lower it, as shown here.  If there is no adjustment available here, you’re already hitting the limitations of your tonearm/turntable but just might get lucky with with the height it’s fixed at.

A good turntable tonearm will have a provision to adjust vertical tracking angle of the phono cartridge, as shown by the set screw in this photo.

To set up the VTA properly, you want to set it up so the tonearm and cartridge body is as parallel as possible to the surface of a medium thickness record when the stylus rests on it, as show in the photo below.

Properly set up VTA shown here.

Stylus Tracking Force – After leveling and VTA, this is the most basic of a turntable’s tonearm functions.  Many vintage turntables  have tracking force in grams stenciled onto the tonearm counterweight itself and you start by zeroing the tone arm where it is perfectly horizontally balanced and then you dial in the recommended stylus force shown on the counterweight.  But I’ve never found this method to be accurate enough and sometimes it’s so far off that it could damage your stylus and/or records so… you’re gonna have to purchase another item for your turntable setup kit – a good quality stylus force gage.  I’ve tried the digital ones and find them to be a real pain in the ass since they must be calibrated prior to use, batteries must be replaced, and… yes, recalibrated yet again after doing so.

Typical digital stylus force gauge.

I suppose it should come as no surprise from an analogue guy such as myself that I’m going to prefer the likes of the non-digital Shure stylus force gauge shown below (circa 1972).

The original Shure stylus force gauge, circa 1972

I find it to be simple to use, reliable, and infallible.  What more can you ask for?  Zoomed in photo of the mirror for accuracy shown below, and a youtube video of it’s operation can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qP_YjhGT0SE

The tried and true Shure stylus force gauge.

Anti-Skating – The force applied (through friction) to the cartridge by the rotating record  tends to draw the tonearm toward the center of the record so an equal and opposite force is required to offset it, which is called “anti-skating”.  This is usually the easiest one of all since it’s typically applied with a dial on the tonearm and you simply set it to match your tracking force.

Tonearm with anti-skating dial shown.

That said, some tonearms, such as the Shure SME 3009 shown below, use a counterweight threaded over different notches to apply the correct anti-skating force.  This is one of the best low-compliance tonearms of all time (How do I choose a turntable?), but not for the faint hearted when it comes to setup.

The Shure SME 3009, a good example of a vintage, low compliance tonearm.

A great way to double check your anti-skating is to find a record with a long run-out groove (or better yet a fully blank record without grooves at all made for this purpose), place the stylus between the well spaced out grooves, and check if it “skates” towards the middle or not.  If you are spinning by hand, only check this by rotating the record in the intended clockwise direction as spinning in the reverse direction could damage a delicate audiophile phono cartridge.  Of course DJs do this all the time but they have cartridges and turntables designed for that purpose.

Overhang and Azimuth – OK, so you’re almost done.  The last adjustments are deceivingly simple and intuitive, though volumes have been written on both.  I’ve combined them here since you typically use the same tool for both, a stylus alignment protractor tool, as sown below.

Mirrored Overhang and Azimuth Adjustment Tool

Denon makes this task far easier with it’s squared off cartridge body and vertical line on the front, which is designed for use with just such a tool.  For correct offset adjustment, view the cartridge body from the top at the two “null points” shown on the mirrored tool and adjust it in the head shell to be as squared off as possible with the grid.  This can be a back and forth process.  For correct azimuth adjustment, view the cartridge from the front and line it up to be as vertical as possible with the center grid line, as shown.  Once again, easy when you have a vertical line on the front of the cartridge to gauge by.

That’s it!  Now go plant your butt in the sweet spot in front of your speakers and reap the rewards of you efforts.  Will your cartridge occasionally mis-track?  Sure, the world of analogue audio is full of imperfections (Pleasure And Pain Ben Harper & Tom Freund).  But when it all comes together it’s absolutely magic and even when things are off a bit, it still walks all over 16-bit digital audio sound reproduction.  Every day, all day.

A penny for your vinyl… (perhaps)

I know this may sound incredibly crude, but we actually used to put a penny (weighs about 3 grams) on the head shell of a turntable to add effective mass to the tonearm when needed to match the phono cartridge compliance (How do I choose a turntable?).  Of course, this was suboptimal and more of an interim solution until the proper tonearm for the phono cartridge of choice was found, but it worked amazingly well.  So well that some manufacturers offered weight kits for their head shells for this purpose (see photo above).

The trackability of a cartridge is related to the mechanical parameters of the tonearm and stylus assembly. Adding weight to the headshell, and adjusting the counterweight to compensate, increases the effective mass of the tonearm and reduces its resonant frequency. If the resonant frequency is excessively high (e.g., 15-20 Hz, as measured by a test record), the increased mass may improve sound quality by moving the resonance out of the audible range.

How to pack a vintage turntable

So there are lots of vintage turntables to be found on eBay and other reseller sites.  They were, after all, the primary way to listen to music until the advent of the compact disc and subsequently MP-3s.  Trouble is, precious few will come complete with their original packing materials and without them, great care must be taken for these often delicate relics to ship safely.  It’s really not that complicated, but vintage turntables can be intimidating to many, especially the pricey ones.  So lets look at some  simple steps necessary to ship them safely.

First, many turntables have transport screws.  These are much the same as those found in washing machines that secure the tub for transport.  They typically secure the power transformer in a similar way, since during operation it is usually hung off some sort of suspension for acoustic isolation purposes.  If you don’t have the original transport screws, find some at your local hardware store.

Second, both the platter and the dust cover must be removed and packed up separately.  The platter can often be heavy and it should be carefully packed in the bottom of the box in bubble wrap or something similar.  The dust cover hinges will almost certainly break or the dust cover will crack where the hinges attach if you ship it attached to the turntable, so remove it and pack it separately.  It usually slides off the hinges and can be wrapped individually and packed on top since it’s light and fragile.  Be careful, it scratches easily!

Third, place a stylus protector on the phono cartridge and remove the head shell from the tonearm if possible.  If the tonearm doesn’t have a removable head shell (many don’t), then remove the phono cartridge from the tonearm and carefully package it separately, in it’s original packaging if you still have it.

Fourth, remove the tonearm from the turntable if possible.  Manual turntables usually have an “arm board” that allow you to use different tone arms, often purchased separately.  High end manual turntables often allow easy removal of their tonearms, even if they are originally sold complete with the turntable (see the Denon in the photos), then remove the counterweight and pack these parts separately as well.  This is the best way to protect these delicate parts, but it won’t be possible with automatic turntables.  But… automatic turntables are contrary to high end audio reproduction anyway so are best avoided.  But… if you have one and need to pack it you probably won’t be able to remove it’s tonearm.

Fifth, pack your plinth, being careful with any isolation feet or springs it may have.  If you have a “sprung” turntable (Acoustic isolation for turntables – to couple or decouple?…) you most certainly will need those transport screws to hold everything in place or your turntable will likely arrive with tweaked springs at best and in pieces at worst.

Finally, take all these parts that are packed individually and double box them.  This will result in a very large box for the size of your turntable, but it’s the only way to ship it safely.  If you have the original packaging, you will notice the manufacturers found clever ways to keep the packaging small, like insets in the styrofoam for the platter and/or tonearm, but you won’t have this luxury.

I’ve successfully shipped two turntables this way, both Denon direct drive models that came complete with Denon tonearms.  One was transported as checked luggage on the airline and the other I coached the seller how to pack and successfully shipped across Canada via Canada Post.

 

How do I choose a turntable?

I know this sounds complicated, but your turntable decision is ideally based on your choice of phono cartridge, which in turn is based on your speaker selection, which is completely based on your room acoustics.  At least this is the case when you start going for audiophile quality sound.  That’s why when I’m asked, “What’s the best turntable for my budget?” my answer is always, “That depends”.  It’s impossible to take any portion of a high-end audio system out of context and make recommendations.  Optimizing for many variables then matching components is the path to audio nirvana.  The most fixed variable is typically the room.  So that, along with musical taste, are  usually the starting points.

My room on Maui is a perfect example, where I have a very tight space combined with limited options for speaker/listener placement.  Therefore, room acoustics are my biggest limiting factor.  I’ve tried and simply can’t get planer loudspeakers like Maggie’s to work.  And I never will short of renovating to add more room and therefore more options, which I plan to do.

On the other hand, my Kef 104/2s (The Venerable Kef 104/2) are awesome for my room on Maui.  This is especially true once I figured out to pull them a few inches further into the room to avoid the reinforcement of the frequency associated with the depth of the room and not to toe them in… at all.  But my Kef 104/2s likely wouldn’t sound as good in my room in Canada, which has very different dimensions and surfaces.

My listening room in Canada is not only larger, but is also far more flexible in regard to speaker/listener positions.  After a great deal of positioning and experimentation, my Magnepan (Maggie) MG-12s perform all the magic they are supposed to, though they are the largest Maggies I can fit without room acoustics having a detrimental effect (In a nutshell, the big Maggies (3.7Rs) are a fantastic speaker, but are very dependent upon room acoustics).   So I know by now you’re probably thinking, “But I asked about turntables, why go on about speakers?”  I’m getting there.

So the reason you need to discover what speakers work best with your room acoustics and music tastes before you can choose a turntable is due to phono cartridge selection.  The loudspeakers and the phono cartridge are the two main transducers in an analog signal path (It’s all about reducing mass for the transducers) and as such, they need to be matched to each other as much as possible.

Moving coil phono cartridges, for example, have some inherent characteristics that will show themselves on nearly all loudspeakers, but they really shine when mated with similarly low-mass speaker designs such as planars.  Conversely, cone and/or box speakers might like a moving magnet phono cartridge better.  Or… a better way of thinking of it is the incredibly fast transient response offered by a high-end moving coil phono cartridge may be lost on a high-mass speaker design that simply can’t keep up, so why add the extra expense (especially when you factor in the cost of a pre-preamplifier or step up transformers).

So by now you probably figure I’ve moved on from describing loudspeakers to describing phono cartridges, but still not answering the question about turntables.  Here’s why.  Some phono cartridges are very picky about what kind of tonearm you run them in.  The Denon 103R is perhaps the most demanding phono cartridge in that regard and absolutely requires a very low compliance tonearm in order to perform properly.  So what’s tonearm compliance, you may ask?

Think of it like the chassis of a car.  If you have a very stiff suspension (and the cantilever of the Denon 103 is very stiff indeed) and a very light chassis the springs are going to push the chassis around when the wheels hit bumps and the car will get thrown all over the place.  That’s exactly what happens when you put a Denon 103R (or any other phono cartridge that requires a low compliance tonearm) into a low mass (i.e. high compliance) tonearm…  it throws it around, big time.  So much so you may be lucky if the needle even tracks the groove at all.  Even if it does it will sound terrible.  Conversely a low compliance tonearm will push a high compliance phono cartridge stylus around, having the same negative effect.

So I’m finally getting to turntable selection.  You want to determine what phono cartridge you are running before selecting a tonearm (and turntables typically come with tonearms) or risk a major compliance mis-match.  Of course, you could first select your tonearm from the high-end ones that are sold separately then choose your turntable based on your tonearm selection, which many audiophiles do.  But if you’re already that far down the rabbit hole I’m likely preaching to the choir.

Now that you know whether you are looking for a turntable with a high compliance or low compliance tonearm, how do you shop for what you’re after.  Unfortunately, even amongst the high end offerings, very few present day turntable manufactures specify it.  But here’s where common sense can prevail.  If it looks massive and therefore designed for low compliance phono cartridges, it probably is.  Conversely if it looks low mass and obviously designed for high compliance phono cartridges, it probably is.  And… if it looks light only because it is cheaply made with no consideration for phono cartridge compliance what-so-ever, it probably is.

Unfortunately. modern turntables with retail price tags under $1k mostly fall into this last category.  Don’t get me wrong, the vinyl revival is a beautiful, exciting movement.  But I’ve come to realize that it’s genesis is not due to a demand for quality, but rather due to far more insidious motivations on the part of the music industry (The new (old) gear coming out).  To that end, there will be a barrage of turntable offerings that have little to do with sound quality and far more to do with selling records again.

So what is one to do?…  Well, modern day, audiophile quality turntables start at around $5k and for that amount you can find several viable options.  Even in that arena many turntables are missing the essential tonearm compliance mark.  They build quality turntables that get bigger as they get more expensive.  To that end, one may pay far more for a bigger turntable that has a 12 inch tonearm vs. a 9 inch tonearm, only to have spent more for inferior performance with their selected phono cartridge.  I honestly don’t know how this can be lost on the modern day audiophile world, but it often is.

Or one can go vintage, back to a time when phono cartridge compliance was accounted for, resulting in several offerings, a good example is the Infinity Black Widow tonearm for high compliance.

The Infinity Black Widow. A good example of a low mass, high compliance tonearm.
The Infinity Black Widow. A good example of a low mass, high compliance tonearm.

Or if looking for a low compliance tonearm one could shop for the likes of a Fidelity Research FR-66S.

Fidelity Research FR-66S
The Fidelity Research FR-66S. A good example of a high mass, low compliance tonearm.

That said, it’s pretty easy to eye up the offerings of vintage turntables and judge by the design and size of the tonearm which camp it’s in.  Most turntable manufacturers of that era (The “golden age” (of vinyl)) went one direction or another and it’s immediately apparent.

Oh yeah… then there’s the question of direct drive or belt drive turntables.  That’s another can of worms, covered in this post:

Turntables – Direct Drive vs. Belt Drive

Pleasure And Pain Ben Harper & Tom Freund

This album was produced and recorded by George Cardas in one take on March 15, 1992 in Upland, California using a Cardas Differential Microphone, a Cardas Hexlink Golden 5-C Cable, and a Studer A-80 Tape Recorder.  It is indisputably one of the ultimate vinyl reference recordings of late, and I must  confess that I’ve been remiss on my review since I added it to my vinyl collection.

Why?…  Well, every time I throw this gorgeous slab of heavy weight vinyl on my turntable it mis-tracks.  So, I suppose I’ve planted my head firmly in the sand since I’ve gone to such great lengths in setting up my turntable that it pains me to hear mis-tracking, no matter what recording.  And this is the only record I’ve ever heard mis-track.  Does this mean there’s something wrong with the recording?  Umm… a tempting deduction but unfortunately not the case.  Rather, there is so much right about this recording that even my finely tuned turntable/tonearm/cartridge combination can’t quite handle it.  Keep in mind that the tonearm was chosen specifically for the demanding compliance requirements of the best phono cartridge I’ve ever heard, the Denon 103R moving coil (The formidable Denon 103 vs. 103R low output moving coil phono cartridges – is there really a difference?)….  And, I’ve gone to painstaking lengths to isolate the my chosen Denon direct turntable properly (Denon DP-790W turntable review).  So the observed mis-tracking isn’t due to oversight.

Fact is, this recording has such extraordinary dynamic range that it will certainly find the Achilles heel in any fully analog system.  It only mis-tracks on a couple songs, and even then only on very brief transients, and the rest of the time it’s one of the most amazing recordings you’ll ever hear.  It has such presence that if you close your eyes you would swear Ben Harper is in the room with you, plucking his guitar and serenading with amazing harmonizing vocals.

So, to be honest, I had been avoiding this recording (and review) until I could solve the mis-trackng.  After some tweaking of stylus force and anti-skating I’m finally listening to it tracking perfectly as I write this.   Yes, this recording is so amazing that I need to recalibrate my tonearm and cartridge for it!  But it’s so worth it, and my tonearm settings will go back to where they were for the rest of my vinyl collection as soon as I lift the needle.

The formidable Denon 103 vs. 103R low output moving coil phono cartridges – is there really a difference?…

The famous Denon DL 103 low output moving coil (LOMC) phono cartridge was originally designed for professional broadcast use in 1962.  Production has continued uninterrupted since then.  That’s right, 53 years and counting.

Why?…  It’s an amazing cartridge with unparalleled transient response.  It’s a fussy player, very fussy.  It demands proper tonearm compliance (i.e. high moving mass) and rated at just 0.39 mV output it’s also very demanding of even the best moving coil phono stages or regular ones coupled with step up transformers or pre-preamplifiers.

So how has this fussy cartridge, dedicated for the broadcast industry that has left it and all other phono cartridges far behind, survived and prospered all these years?  “The proof is in the pudding” is a phrase that comes to mind.  This exemplary moving coil phono cartridge was adopted by audiophiles very shortly after it’s release.  It’s sort of like the Quad ESL loudspeaker when it first came out, immediate legendary status.  Now, 53 years later, you can still purchase a Denon 103 for around $175 street price, making it the bargain of all time for phono cartridges, bar none.  It even ships with an individually plotted frequency response curve and individually measured left and right channel output levels.  When I visited Zu Audio in Ogden, Utah; a high end audio company doing modifications for the Denon 103, the owner said he’s been out of stock for months.  When I inquired as to why, he replied, “I think the engineer doing the frequency response graphs got behind”.  Ha, I love it!

Each Denon 103 moving coil phono cartridge is individually tested for output levels and frequency response and ships with the corresponding data sheet.
Each Denon 103 moving coil phono cartridge is individually tested for output levels and frequency response and ships with the corresponding data sheet.

Of course, you can add anywhere from $500 to $2k for quality step-up transformers to couple the Denon 103 with a regular moving magnet (MM) phono stage, or spend around $20k for a Pass Labs phono stage that will handle the low output of the Denon 103 with aplomb, but this legendary phono cartridge won’t seem like such a bargain anymore.  Especially considering that modern turntables with tonearms capable of handling the compliance requirements of the Denon 103 start at around $5k and quickly escalate to $30k.

So how can a budget audiophile bask in all the goodness the Denon 103 has to offer?…  Vintage gear.   You can purchase a Nelson Pass moving coil phono stage dressed up as a Nakamichi preamplifier for around $500 (How to get a moving coil phono stage for free) and vintage Denon direct drive turntables complete with low-compliance tonearms capable of handling the 103 also start around $500 (Denon DP-790W turntable review).  Of course, you need to know your vintage gear and assess for bulging capacitors, fried resistors, blown transistors, etc (The vintage “crap shoot”).

The Denon 103 moving coil phono cartridge shown on the left, and the 103R shown on right.
The Denon 103 moving coil phono cartridge shown on the left, and the 103R shown on right.

So all that said, let’s go back to the original topic, the Denon 103 vs. the Denon 103R.  With a street price of around $275, the 103R was a “no brainer” when shopping for my vinyl-oriented Maui system and I definitely wanted to give it a try – I had never heard it before since it was released in 1994.  It is marketed as a “6N” cartridge.  Why?…  Because the copper in its moving coils is rated with a purity of 99.9999%.  Too funny.

The bottom line is the 103R has even lower moving mass (It’s all about reducing mass for the transducers) than the 103 and a correspondingly lower output voltage of around .25mV vs around .39mV for the original 103 (remember, these are individually tested and measured for every hand-made Denon 103 leaving the factory in Japan).  Plus the 103R has some nice gold lettering on it, dressing it up nicely, but the cartridge body remains identical to the original 103.

When it came time to purchase a phono cartridge for my digitally-oriented Canada system, I figured why not get an original 103 and listen and compare it to the 103R on my Maui system prior to bringing it north of the border.  Everything is less expensive in the USA vs. Canada anyway, but that’s another topic.

So into the tonearm of my Denon direct drive TT my new 103 went, temporarily replacing my beloved 103R.  I promised myself to give the 103 at least 50 hours of break-in prior to any evaluations, and even left it in the run-out groove of some albums to loosen it up.  But, that proved completely unnecessary.  I found myself sitting down and enjoying the 103 immediately.  Whenever I dropped the needle I wanted to jump into the listening chair and enJoy.  Even at low levels, this cartridge sings.  Even more so for it’s higher output levels.  Let’s face facts, signal-to-noise ratios are going to improve as output levels in the coils increase, that’s just common sense.  Any pre-preamplifier or step-up-transformer has the opportunity to add noise, and the greater the amplification of that device, the more noise.

After listening to the original Denon 103 LOMC for a couple weeks, I don’t feel compelled to replace it with the 103R… at all.  Maybe if I did blind A/B testing and I really tried to hear a difference, I could.  Or, maybe not.  I kind of feel like if I need to go to those lengths than what’s the point?   I’d be loosing the forest through the trees and no longer just loving the music I’m listening to (Losing the forest through the trees?…).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not “dissing” Denon at all here.  If anything, I applaud their efforts to improve on perfection.  I fell in love with their 103 LOMC cartridge in the late 70s, playing it with in a Decca tonearm on a Techniques SP-10 MkII deck into Magnepan Tympani 1D planar loudspeakers.  And now, 37 years later I’m still in love with it.  Either the 103 or the 103R can follow the grooves on my vinyl any day, all day.  They are both “giant slayers” in my book.  And, corrected for inflation, they both sell for far less than when they were originally released.

It’s all about reducing mass for the transducers

When you think about it, it’s just common sense.  A low mass phono cartridge is going to track the nuances and subtle but rapid transient changes of a record groove more nimbly and with greater aplomb than one that is burdened with the task of throwing extra weight around.  That’s the whole idea behind moving coil cartridges (which are universally recognized for their phenomenal transient response), reduce the moving weight by putting the coils rather than the magnets on the end of the stylus cantilever since their mass is so much lower (The formidable Denon 103 vs. 103R low output moving coil phono cartridges – is there really a difference?…).  It’s the same with almost any high performance gear that requires fast response, from race car suspensions to avionics – the objective is to lower moving mass.

But listening to music is far more subjective than checking lap times on a race track, so some will prefer the sound characteristics of slower moving traditional speaker drivers and/or phono cartridges, even though their “performance” is hindered by their (quite literally) massive designs.  I’ll say one thing though, the first time you hear familiar music reproduced with low mass transducers (i.e a moving coil phono cartridge well matched with a pair of planar loudspeakers) will be revelatory and you will likely fall completely in love or be utterly disappointed.  It’s one of those classic love/hate scenarios.  Why?  Because the very thing that makes these speaker drivers  perform so well at high frequencies is their achilles heel for low frequencies (a low mass phono cartridge is typically good for the full frequency range, however).  So let’s look at the physics involved in low-mass loudspeaker designs.

Ribbon tweeter transducers are the very lowest mass and their thickness is measured as low as 4 microns, but their implementation is limited to high frequencies.  Electrostatic membranes come in a close second and are typically 10 to 20 microns thick (those manufactured by Martin Logan are 12 microns), and quasi-ribbon membranes are a distant third at around 500 microns (or 0.5 mm).  To put these numbers in perspective, the thickness of a typical human hair varies from around 50 to 120 microns and averages in around 100 microns.  Let’s look at each type of transducer separately.

Ribbon tweeter transducers:
A ribbon tweeter uses a very thin membrane suspended in a powerful magnetic field to reproduce high frequencies.  In their purest form, the electrical properties of the membrane itself suffice, such as when aluminum is utilized.  Other forms use metalized plastic film, where a very thin deposition of conductive material is applied to create a planar voice coil (though it’s not a coil at all, but rather evenly deposited over the entire membrane).  Ribbon tweeters are extrodinarily accurate but also are very limited in frequency response.

Being so thin, they are also extremely fragile.  Not such an issue with the small and enclosed traditional ribbon tweeter.  But with the revolutionary 55″ long Magnepan ribbon tweeter, just dropping them flat on the floor will rupture the membrane, as will vacuuming the Maggies cloth cover, or even leaving a door to your listening room open on a windy day.  Fortunately, the membrane itself is user-replacable at nominal cost (although not covered under warranty).

Many speaker manufacturers have experimented with arrays of ribbon tweeters in an attempt to create a larger line source and therefore overcome their individual limitations.  The monsterous Infinity IRS (thankfully short for “Infinity Reference Standard”) with it’s elaborate arrays of EMITs (their marketing jargon for ribbon tweeters)  comes to mind as a good example, but at nearly eight feet tall and with two separate cabinets per channel they are far from practical for most homes (see photo below).

Infinity IRS

Electrostatic transducers:
Electrostatic loudspeakers (ESLs) use a transducer that consists of an utra-thin acoustic membranes charged to several thousand volts off wall current through a step-up transformer.  This membrane is suspended between two stators that are fed from the power amplifier output via another step-up transformer connected in the signal path.

The ESL design has been around for decades.  Anyone who has heard of (or heard) the Quad ESL that originated in the 1950s will also remember what a breakthrough that loudspeaker was.  It brought ESL technology into a workable, (almost) full range speaker for the first time.  Although it was severely handicapped in many respects, it offered up sonic goods that were unprecedented and put ESL technology firmly on the audiophile map.  Many companies followed suit, Apogee being one of the main early players, but most came and went.  When Martin Logan showed up on the scene they brought a combination of technical innovation and fiscal staying power that ensured the technology persevered.  In 1986 Martin Logan offered up the very well received CLS (Curvilinear Line Source) model.  Their large, curved panels effectively solved three issues with ESLs – beaming from a line source creating a very small “sweet spot” (i.e. listening position), dipolar radiation canceling out lower frequencies as they pass around the side edges of the panel, and limited frequency response (their specifications claim the CLS goes down to 45 Hz).

These design precepts continue unchanged in Martin Logan speakers to this day, but very early on they went the path of hybrid speakers to deliver the bass response most listeners demanded.  Perhaps the most successful ESLs of all time was the Martin Logan Sequel II, which was featured at the end of the movie “The Italian Job” and made frequent appearances in the popular TV shows “Sienfield”, “Friends”, and others.  I owned a pair of these for around six years from the late 1980s to the early 1990s and I can tell you from direct experience that it’s weak point was the crossover between the ESL panels and the traditional bass drivers (a weakness that Magnepans don’t suffer from since their quasi-ribbon drivers are full range – more on that later).  I tried everything including massive amounts of power bi-amping them and never got what I considered to be satisfactory results and ultimately sold them (with the power amplifiers).  Having said that, it was the late 1908s and unfortunately the era of CDs so they never had a fair chance given they were playing crappy 44.1k/16 bit music (The “Dark Ages” of High End Audio).  But, I’ve been recently helping a friend in San Francisco set up his system with a pair of Martin Logan Ascents and I’m still not impressed, even with high definition digital sources such as SACDs. No matter how much we tweak them, bi-amp them, reposition them (and he’s got a fantastic room), I am still left feeling something lacking when I sit down and listen.  And Matin Logan’s latest no-holds-barred $80k flagship Neolith model wins the ugly duckling award, at least to my taste, see photo below (the WAF must be off the charts on this one).

Neolith-I

Quasi-ribbon transducers:
The quasi-ribbon transducer is one in which the membrane is overlaid with wire and driven directly with the signal from the amplifier passing through the wire, rather than that membrane being suspended in a powerful magnetic field as with a traditional ribbon transducer.  As far as I know, Mangepan (formerly Mangeplanar) is the only one making these.  What they sacrifice in higher mass they more than compensate for in full range ability.  Magnepan loudspeakers (also know as “Maggies”) are never gonna fully satisfy rock fans, but for those who care for a wide range of music including acoustic, jazz and classical this design really delivers the goods.  Maggie’s don’t have conventional low frequency drivers (i.e. woofers) and therefore are not a hybrid design.  They are two-way or three-way speakers comprised of ribbon and quasi-ribbon transducers with very large surface areas to deliver full frequency response.  As one might expect, the bigger the panel, the lower the frequency response (i.e. more bass).  While Maggies are quite large panels, they remain relatively flat (about two inches thick) and therefore they appear more elegant to me.

irina-magneplanar-speakers

Ok… my bad, totally cheating, did you even notice the speakers?…  A more indicative photo here.

Maggie3.7R

And a photo of the Tympani ID that I owned in the late 1970s and well into the 1980s here.

Tympani1D

Maggies have been around for decades and have changed very little in their design over the years.  Original principles, refined.  They don’t suffer from the acoustic (and esthetic) limitations of hybrid designs and also don’t require step-up transformers in the signal path and/or wall current to operate.  They do have crossovers but in their higher end models these are external boxes that can be easily modified (or “hot rodded”) and they also offer true, active bi-amplification (Why bi-amping isn’t always what you may think) abilities as shipped, without modifications.  They are very dependent on room acoustics (Planars… The room is the enclosure) and fussy about positioning and require colossal amounts of quality, high current power to operate.  Even the relatively small Mangnepan MG-12 makes my high current Nak PA-7 (The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier) sweat, clip, and cry “uncle” in the form of thermal overload shutdown when I crank it for extended periods.  But to many audiophiles they are, and always have been, the holy grail.

Time for new tonearm cable?

So anyone who’s read a bit in this blog knows that I prioritize and match when it comes to optimizing my signal path, whether it’s analog or digital.  The first priority for me is the quality of the music (i.e. recordings) then shortly after that the quality at the opposite ends of the signal path which is the transducers, meaning the phono cartridge for analog (The formidable Denon 103 vs. 103R low output moving coil phono cartridges – is there really a difference?…) and the speakers (It’s all about reducing mass for the transducers), which are of course dependent upon room acoustics (Why do speakers need to be matched to room acoustics?…).

Following that comes the amplification of the signal path, and finally the interconnects used between the various stages to accomplish this.  When I purchased my vintage Denon direct drive turntable (Denon DP-790W turntable review) the tonearm cable was an obvious candidate for replacement.  Not only was it 40 years old but even when new it was of average quality at best by today’s standards.

In my discussion of interconnects (a couple good examples of fact vs. fiction in the high end audio world) you will note that I’ve found great sound quality from quality interconnects selling for under $50.  And, I’m hard pressed to hear an improvement when spending more than that, even when listening to my reference recordings (What is a “reference recording”?).  But… one look at this original Denon tonearm cable will tell you it was sub-par, even by those standards.

Original Denon 5 pin DIN tonearm cableAnd thus began the quest to find a suitable replacement.  Unfortunately, being firmly planted in the realm of modern high end audio due to the fact that I’m seeking an esoteric tonearm cable, I was lost in a quagmire of highly overpriced options (ranging from around $500 and up to $2k) claiming to, once again, defy the laws of physics and perform some sort of voodoo magic on any music played (Speaker Cables and The quest for some bang for the buck in interconnects and speaker cables).

Enter the DIY cable market.  Yes, I could buy the materials and make the cables myself, but I figured there must be someone out there who is way better at it and doing just that for resale, and thus the eBay search began.  Of course, this search was exasperated by the fact that my tonearm used a five pin DIN connection, circa 1970s.  The first “homemade” set I purchased for around $60 used Belden cable and Cardas terminations (including the five pin DIN) so should have done the job nicely, but unfortunately they had untenable hum so back they went.  I kept poking around on eBay to no avail until I started looking internationally and then… bingo, I found a couple options.  So I pulled the trigger on the Canare tonearm cable shown below and couldn’t be happier.

Zero hum and noticeable sonic improvement immediately, even prior to burn in.  These are simply gorgeous handmade cables that sound every bit as good as they look.  You can see and feel the quality of the craftsmanship, and the attention to detail is suitably reflected in their sound quality.

CanareTonearmCable-Straight-Construction

Even when the package showed up, all the way from the UK, I could tell this guy was a meticulous craftsman by the packaging and hand written labelling.

Oh yeah, and the price?…  Great value at $85 plus $6 priority shipping from England.  And when I finally upgraded my turntable in Canada to a Denon direct drive, I purchased another one (custom length this time) to replace it’s original tonearm cable as well.

 

Turntables – Direct Drive vs. Belt Drive

Ok, so first let me say that you can ask ten different audiophiles this question and you will likely get ten different versions of why they think one or the other is best.  I suppose I’ve developed an equally biased opinion, so I’ll tell you why I’m biased in advance.

Over my my 35+ years in this endeavour, I’ve owned countless turntables.  Unfortunately, I’ve never owned an uber high-end belt drive turntable.  All the belt drive turntables I owned were middle-of-the-road high-end quality, the likes of Garrard, Marantz, Dual, BIC (anyone who remembers those will also remember just how crappy they were), and… Thorens.  I saved Thorens for last since I know that’s gonna ruffle the feathers of some of their fans, but I’m sorry I’ve just never owned one that I considered capable of top-notch audiophile quality music reproduction.

Enter the Techniques SP-10 MkII into my world at age 17 and the peak of my vinyl obsession at the time.  I had a summer job at Audionics of Oregon building amplifiers and somehow managed to acquire an SP-10 MkII at the same time I had a set of the TOTL (top of the line) Magnepan Tympani IDs (some consider this the best speaker they’ve ever made, or anyone’s ever made, to this day) and the best amplifiers of the day to drive them.

What a deck the SP-10 MkII was!  It was the first time I really heard my vinyl sing.  I suppose it was the first truly high-end turntable I owned and it was revalatory.  I combined it with a Decca tonearm and started with a Decca phono cartridge, later entering the world of LOMC (low output moving coil) cartridges with the Denon 103 and a pre-preamplifier I built myself.

It’s like so many things in life, there’s only one “first time”.  So I’m not gonna dis belt drive turntables here.  I’m sure there are many fine examples, I’ve just never had the pleasure to hear one.  What I have experienced from the belt drive turntables I’ve owned is unstable speed control (most of them run off a syncrounous motor, which means the speed of the platter is determined by the AC frequency of the power outlet on your wall), amazingly unstable sprung platforms that visibly  bounce around, especially with records that are punched off center (not uncommon, at all), and noticeable wow and flutter due to the nature of the drive mechanisim.

So higher end belt drive turntables have external speed boxes and implement elaborate acoustic isolation schemes other than a set of four cheap metal springs.  But, we’re talking about some serious cash to get into that game, easily $10K+ these days.  Even back in the 1970s, belt drive turntables that really took advantage of the format were several orders of magnitude more expensive than their direct drive equivalents.  I picked up a used SP-10 MkII for a few hundred bucks and couldn’t have been happier, dodging a multi-thousand dollar bullet to get into the “best of the best” turntable realm.

Ironically, after 30+ years, direct drive turntables are making a come-back and vendors such as VPI are now calling them the new “reference” and the new price is $30k+.  It seems like everything I loved about high-end audio in the 1970s is coming back, but with a price tag over 10 times the original, even correcting for inflation.  So do they think we forgot how they sang the praises of belt drive turntables for so many years and are now offering direct drive turntables at exorbitant prices as something new?

While I understand the theoretical draw backs of direct drive turntables, such as potential motor noise reaching the stylus, I’ve never heard them.  Whereas I can hear a mid-fi belt drive turntable mishandling vinyl across a room.  That’s why when it came time to get back in the game I choose a direct drive Denon turntable from the late 1970s, and not even their TOTL model (since most of those were automatic).  I’ve had to work with it’s grossly inadequate acoustic isolation scheme (no mass loading) but after a great deal of tweaking and DIY (do it yourself) trail-and-error, I’d be hard pressed to find a better sounding deck for my Maui system at any price, be it direct drive or belt drive.  Check out my review and comments at Denon DP-790W turntable review.

 

 

 

 

 

Opps! your phono cartridge

This is a really interesting article (to me anyway) about polarity. Back in the 70s we used to “opps” (reverse) only one channel of our phono signal polarity at the cartridge then reverse it back at the same channel at the speaker terminal. It therefore put once channel 180 degrees out of phase with the other through the entire, fully analog signal path until it got to the speakers.  It was purported to speed up the amplification circuits. May have been smoke and mirrors  or not, don’t remember, just remember doing it…

Click here to open article on polarity in new tab.

Digital manipulation of recorded vinyl

I’ve heard about this and will investigate further if there comes a time to record my vinyl to DSD.  So far I’m happy to drop the needle on my vinyl and don’t mind buying more than one copy for more than one location (i.e. Maui and Canada).

If recorded in DSD, the signal processing would also have to occur in the DSD domain since once it gets converted to PCM it’s all over and sound quality would be forever lost.  I would rather have the ticks and pops than that.  And as I understand it those DSD native workstations/ programs are pricey (mostly for professional recording studios).  But so was DSD in general until very recently, like in the last year or so, so who knows what the future holds.

Click here for example of click repair software.

The word on vinyl mono recordings

I see little or no sonic value in buying mono records, but there is likely some nostalgic value for those who listened to them in mono when they first came out.

Having said that, there is possibly (but doubtful) a sonic improvement if the music was originally recorded and mixed as mono and was subsequently pressed onto a mono pressing and then played with a mono phono cartridge.  This is a long shot, but integrity of the signal path is paramount and could potentially trump the other benefits of stereo recordings.  To realize this potential improvement everything in the front end of the signal path would need to be period specific (i.e from the days of mono so early 60s or earlier), holy PITA!

Such re-releases will likely be cut for stereo phono cartridges (so yes, could be played fine and no need to swap out the cartridge) and therefore the integrity of signal path has been lost somewhere down the road anyway.  So needing to swap out cartridges would only be necessary when playing original mono pressings, not re-releases.

I may be a purist, but…

Setting the phono cartridge loading and gain on the Audio Research SP-9 MkII is a bit extreme, even for me.

Phono cartridge loading is adjusted on the ARC SP9 MkII by de-soldering resistors and capacitors and re-soldering ones with desired values in place.
Phono cartridge loading is adjusted on the ARC SP9 MkII by de-soldering resistors and capacitors and re-soldering ones with desired values in place.

The two beige resistors and the two silver/red capacitors shown in the photo above set the cartridge loading and need to be removed and different ones soldered into their place to change it.  If you look up how to read resistor values you will see from the colour bands that these resistors are 47 kilohms.

And how do you modify the gain?…

Phono cartridge gain is changed on the ARC SP9 MkII by bridging solder on the printed circuit board either between points A or points B shown
Phono cartridge gain is changed on the ARC SP9 MkII by bridging solder on the printed circuit board either between points A or points B shown

See the extra lumpy solder bridging from “A” on the main circuit board to the other trace?…  Desolder that.  Luckily it comes shipped for high gain which is what I want for the Denon 103R LOMC (low output moving coil) phono cartridge anyway.

Acoustic Research explains this as resulting in better sound quality, which is certainly true in theory (less circuitry in the form of switches = better sound). But I’ll take the convenience of having some switches on the front over any very marginal gains in sound quality since what ultimately happens is that it’s such a PITA to change cartridge loading that very few do it and run their phono stage incorrectly instead (which would in theory be a far greater sonic penalty).

Having said that, Ive been running the ARC SP-9 MkII as it ships from the factory with 47k cartridge loading and unmodified gain with good success, even when I dropped in the Denon 103R.  The SP-9 MkII is probably one of the few preamps that doesn’t say “MC” on it and yet has enough gain for the 103R.

The Threshold FET 9 phono stage loading is set with dip switches and gain set with jumpers.
The Threshold FET 9 phono stage loading is set with dip switches and gain set with jumpers.

The Threshold FET 9 in the photo above is a piece of cake by comparison, although the previous owner had never opened it up.  It has dip switches for impedance and capacitance loading and jumpers for gain.  Of course, you still need to know how you want to load your cartridge, but at least it’s easy to accomplish once you do.

How to get a moving coil phono stage for free.

Step up transformers (SUTs) and pre-preamps for low output moving coil (LOMC) phono cartridges can easily exceed $1k, but that’s part of the beauty of some vintage gear of a certain era when moving coil (MC) phono cartridges were popular, manufacturer’s almost  threw in the MC phono stage for free.  There are many variants from the late 1970s and early 1980s, including offerings from some of the major Japanese players of the day such as Yamaha, Nakamichi, Sansui and Sony.  The Nakamichi CA-5A (The Nakamichi CA-5A preamplifier) is unique in that it incorporates a USA designed phono stage (schematic shown above), but is manufactured by Nakamichi.  Which translates to a Nelson Pass MC phono stage nearly thrown in for free, which is exactly why I acquired it.

Recording your vinyl to DSD

DSD is sampled at 2.8 MHz.  This is what is used on SACDs and results in similar results to an analog wave form.  The differences between vinyl and SACDs still remains very audible to me though (pros and cons – the pros still far outweigh the cons for me), even on a modest system by audiophile standards.  But I consider both levels of quality, vinyl and SACD non-fatiguing and very worthy of “sit down and listen to music” sessions.  CDs I don’t and I stopped doing it in spite of having a very good audiophile system with ESLs.  The return of quality by virtue of DSD and vinyl are why I’m back into it.

The Korg can record analog sources at 2.8 MHz or 5.6 MHz.  Having a higher sampling rate than SACDs or PCM and leads to many intriguing questions to me.  Could I get even better results recording my quality vinyl to DSD at 5.6 MHz than listening to the same music recorded and mixed to SACD at 2.8MHz, for example (I doubt it).  And… it leads to potentially amazing archival and convenienice possibilities as well.  Travelling to my places with a hard drive is certainly a lot easier than with a collection of vinyl, or buying multiple copies of my vinyl albums so i have one in all places and having multiple turntables, which is the road i figured i’d likely to down but may not have to after all 🙂

I have found that DVD Audio at 192K/24 bit to be very good and a huge improvement over CDs at 44.1K/16 bit.  I have several titles on both SACD using DSD and on DVD-A using 192k/24 bit and have compared them (I’ve got at least a dozen on both formats: SJ Gaucho, Elton John GBYBR, Fleetwood Mac Rumors, etc.) and find I prefer the SACDs but both formats are miles above CDs.  And, every title various according to whiter original master tapes were used, how it was mixed, and how it was recorded.

Remember that with PCM, the bit depth is more important than the sampling rate.  So 24 bit is key (and almost all of them are).  Blu-ray Audio offers 96khz @ 24 bit.  I’ve collected a few of those titles but haven’t listened to them yet since I don’t have a player.   They play on all blu-ray players (that’s their selling point of course) but in order to give them a proper listen i would have to get an audiophile quality one, such as the Oppo.

How to spend nothing on stylus cleaning?… Just look in your cleaning closet

 

So stylus cleaning is an inexact science at best.  Truth is, the entire concept of a diamond needle tracking in a vinyl groove is incredibly primitive at best.  But… if done correctly, it remains by far the most enthralling method to reproduce high quality audio recordings at home.  This is, of course, a big if.  Anyone outside of the Golden Age (post) thinks back upon vinyl records with memories of clicks, pops, and scratches.  And in most cases this was true.  Vinyl records require a great deal of care to faithfully reproduce music with any sort of longevity.  In fact, one can completely ruin a vinyl record forever by simply neglecting to clean it properly before the first time dropping a needle onto it.

So, assuming you are fastidiously caring for your cherished vinyl (post), how do you also care for the needle tracking it.  First and foremost for the care of both you must take great care to set up your turntable/tonearm to so the stylus is properly tracking the groove without excessive force vertically or laterally.  But still, no matter how well you care for your vinyl prior to each drop of the needle, your stylus itself is going to need some care or excessive wear, audio quality segregation, and mis-tracking will ensue.

While there are several companies that will be happy to sell you expensive “snake oil” stylus cleaning solutions promising to change your life in the listening chair forever, the solution is in fact very simple, inexpensive, and just might be already on the shelf of your cleaning closet.

The Magic Eraser is a household cleaning product designed to remove just about any stain on any surface.  Rather than relying upon strong solvents, which could easily damage your phono cartridge should they wick up into it’s delicate coils, it uses a unique molecular structure to strip materials clean of unwanted debris.

 

Helpful tips – Magic Eraser

Acoustic isolation for turntables – to couple or decouple?…

This is a "sprung" turntable
This is a “sprung” turntable

This is a trick question since the answer is often…  both!

Ok, so most audiophiles know that the “big bad wolf” of turntables can be acoustic feedback.  Simply put, this is where the speakers vibrate the floor, walls, air (and hence dust platter) and that vibration gets feed back to the stylus and amplified then sent back to the speakers where it causes more vibrations to be amplified, and so it goes.  You get the idea, the classic positive feedback loop.

This is the “big bad wolf” since if it runs out of control, which undampened positive feedback loops do by definition, it has the potential to destroy speakers and even amplifiers.  So how to you test for this in your all analog vinyl signal path?  It’s really simple.  Place the needle on a record that isn’t spinning and turn up the volume (very carefully!) until you start to hear a howl then immediately back it off from there.  That’s your acoustic feedback threshold.  If this is well above your normal listening levels or not there at all, great you have nothing to worry about.  If it’s within your listening range, you’ve got some isolation work to do.

So most already know that turntables deal with acoustic vibration in one of two ways: acoustic suspension or “sprung” turntable platforms or very heavy and solid plinths that use the physics of “mass loading” to deal with it.

 

On thing has become obvious, my system rack which consists of an teak shelving unit open on the front and back, is about the worst case scenario for this “component”. Rather than isolate it serves to amplify rumble. This is the type of thing that isn’t glaringly obvious but rather a welcome absence when it is gone.   My solution will most likely be a wall mounted shelf as virtually no rumble can pass from my concrete slab to my wood framing.  A very inexpensive solution available to me since I’m on the ground floor of a dwelling constructed as slab on grade.

 

“Generally, mass coupling works better for heavy components, and decoupling for lightweight components”, p. 406

I’m lucky since my speakers are sitting right on top of my ground floor slab contributing to fantastic bass.  My challenge is the opposite, to decouple my turntable.

You have several challenges in that department. Biggest is being on the second floor and on top of resonating floor joists. Many people in this situation cross block and other renovations underneath to address this if they are above a basement where the framing is easily accessible.

In your case you need to endeavor to couple your MLs to the sub floor. You have a nearly worst case scenario right now if you are still running them without any feet, not even the ones provided by ML. This is a very important aspect of the speaker design and I’m hoping it has a lot to do with the lacking bass in your MLs…

Granite tombstones wouldn’t be over kill given your room challenges, but any very heavy object will serve to couple to the floor, then just put your MLs, and maybe your power amps, on top of that.  It’s either that or spike your wood floors…  Not. Spikes on a penny will help, but i suspect its a half measure. Try it first, it’s cheap 🙂

 

Actually, mounting the shelf to the wall went very well.  Too well.  My first instinct was to hang it off the drywall and thereby be more isolated from the studs and therefore the floor where my speakers stand.  So I got some drywall anchors rated for 80 pounds and started down that road.  Hence the two unused holes in the wall you see in the photo, anchors actually, I just left them there.

It became immediately apparent that the dry wall anchors and brackets couldn’t handle the weight of my Denon and the two very heavy wood slabs I’ll be using as an isolation platform: 30 + 9 +9 = 48 pounds.

No worries… I go to Home Depot and get some uber heavy duty shelf support brackets, secure them 3 inches into my studs with 3 x  5/8” lag bolts per bracket, then set the wood platform and Denon on that.  Rock solid.  I could stand on one of those brackets and it wouldn’t sag or pull out from the wall one mm.

So I grab a record (APP I Robot), do my routine, then set the needle down in eager anticipation.  The first thing I notice is what’s not there… No more surface noise.  Gone, dead quiet as the needle touches down and I’m thinking, “Wow… this is gonna be good”.

Then, as the music kicks in I get immediate acoustic feedback.  I had a hand on the volume control and it was a good thing as acoustic feedback forms a positive feedback loop that can rapidly run out of control and start destroying speakers and power amps.  I’m like…  “bummer” as I play with the PFB loop and notice exactly where it starts to run wild and I turn it back down.

So, I almost directly coupled my Denon TT to my speakers through the floor (the Kefs are obviously very well coupled, a very good thing) to my studs to my shelf to my TT.  My teak rack may be creating other vibrations, but it is very effectively sheltering my TT from the “big bad wolf”, runaway PFB.  Oh well, live and learn.  I was planning for my TT isolation method to be three fold – shelf combined with first stage isolation (rubber isolators and a bike tube between the very solid and heavy wood shelves) then finally direct coupling with spikes of the TT plinth to the upper wood shelf, to take the TTs internal vibrations away from the needle.

Stage one, the shelf, clearly isn’t working, by itself anyway.  gotta wait for my spikes, isolation pads, and bike tube to show up before I experiment more.  Until then, it’s back to listening to pretty amazing analog sound quality, with a little cabinet resonance in the mix.  It’s subtle… something you notice more by virtue of it’s absence than its presence.

 

Spikes are clearly acoustical couplers (that’s why you want them on the bottom of your speakers), so why would I want to couple the upper platform to my TT you may ask?…  Well, by doing so I effectively increase the mass of my TT plinth by 9 pounds whilst the entire thing is isolated.  And, by virtue of their design they act as mechanical diodes (one way valves) to remove any mechanical vibrations from my TT motor away from my stylus (page 406).

The acoustic adventures continue…

More later…

Denon DP-790W turntable review

So I’ve owned and cherished this vintage turntable for over a year now.  It’s circa 1978 and I purchased it in absolute mint condition from a very friendly and interested budding audiophile in Calgary.  I drove there in -20 degree weather to go pick it up.

I’ve upgraded the phono cartridge with my beloved Denon 103R.  That is in fact, a big reason I purchased it, since I knew the tonearm compliance is a perfect match for my favourite LOMC (Low Output Moving Coil) phono cartridge.  I’ve also always preferred direct drive turntables to belt driven ones.  Yes, I know that will open a can of worms that I’ll address in another post (Turntables – Direct Drive vs. Belt Drive), but I will always remain an advocate of direct drive turntables ever since owning one of the finest direct drive turntables ever made, the Techniques SP-10 MkII back in the 1970s.  And when searching for a mate for for my Denon 103R matched to the Nelson Pass phono stage found in my Nakamichi CA-5A preamplifier, this was an obvious choice.

I carefully packed it to travel as checked baggage on my flight to Maui (How to pack a vintage turntable) and when I unpacked the box I was pleased that the precautions I had taken resulted in safe passage.  Needless to say, high quality audio gear is neigh on impossible to find on Maui.  So I imported.  

It took me a while to set it all up since it had been years since I had properly set up a turntable.  Azimuth, overhang, accurate stylus force, leveling, VTA, cartridge loading, were all tweeted (How to set up your turntable for your phono cartridge).  Then, I found this otherwise fantastic turntable’s achilles heel.

Virtually all turntables use one of two methods to deal with acoustic feedback (vibrations from the speakers returning back to the phono cartridge to be re-amplified in a positive feedback loop), either suspension (sprung turntables) or mass loading (Acoustic isolation for turntables – to couple or decouple?…), and this one has neither.

The plinth, while solid, is certainly no example of mass loading, but it also lacks any form of suspension.  The only attempt Denon made at acoustic isolation were four grossly inadequate rubber feet.  Thus began a quest that lasted weeks – how to isolate this otherwise exemplary turntable.

It was immediately obvious that vibrations from my “equipment rack” (which is an ordinary teak shelving unit that is almost seemingly designed to mechanically amplify vibrations but I like it’s esthetics and know I can do what it takes to modify ordinary furniture to my needs, right?) would be a deal breaker.  No problem I thought, just hang the turntable off the wall so that’s exactly what I did and expected good results.  Not.

The trouble was the tight bass of my Kef 104/2s was so well coupled to my wood-over-concrete slab floor (coupling is exactly why the bass is so tight) that it transmitted very efficiently and effectively to the wall studs from which my precious turntable was hanging.

What ensued was a methodical study of acoustic isolation techniques.  I didn’t really want to re-plinth the deck, it is a frigging perfect example of it’s original glory (or lack thereof in the isolation department).  So I experimented with various methods to build an isolation platform for it to sit on.  I started with a couple pieces of the hardest and densest wood I could find (they almost feel like granite they are so heavy) then various methods between them in the form of ball bearings (which virtually eliminate horizontal vibration transfer – they now sit under my power amplifier), bicycle inner tubes (don’t over-inflate or it defeats the purpose), Sorbothane feet, spikes (coupling the extra mass to the plinth), and every combination thereof.

What I ended up with is three (in order to offset them from the four feet of the turntable plinth) Vibrapod cones, stacked into three Vibrapods that are rated for the weight of my turntable between the two massive wood platforms, a bicycle  inner tube directly under the platter assembly with a straw to let it breathe, along with four Sobrbothane feet under the original feet with reasonably good results.

“Reasonably good?!” I’m sure many of you are asking.  Anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that “reasonably good” is far from good enough.  So the quest continues.  I plan to further experiment with granite slabs and boxes full of sand (Maui beach sand of course) before I feel I have fully exhausted acoustic isolation techniques.  I might still hang the platform from the ceiling but I’m hoping to not resort to such drastic measures.  And that’s certainly part of the fun, discovering what works and what doesn’t.

I presently have the acoustic isolation tamed to where it is below maximum listening levels, but barely so.  If I “crank it” on some of my fav music that, well… I just love to “crank it” on I’m sort of “dancing with the acoustic feedback devil.”  Still… in spite of all my methods.  Under the limits test – phono cartridge sitting on non-spinning vinyl, it is unquestionably still there, and rages out of control a mere notch or two above my maximum listening levels.  Of course, it’s drastically reduced on spinning vinyl since that presents a “moving target” for the positive feedback loop to occur.

So what started as a turntable review has evolved into a study of acoustic isolation.  As for the rest of the turntable attributes?…  It is the perfect example of everything I love about direct drive turntables: massive platter, precision speed control (not tied to the frequency of the power outlet as are so many of the lessor belt drive turntables), and virtually non-existent wow and flutter.  Also, being that it’s fully manual, the gorgeous tonearm is like a separate component, and shares no circuitry or mechanics with the rest of the turntable.  The now upgraded (Time for new tonearm cable?) five pin DIN tonearm cable connects directly to my Nak CA-5A without electrical or mechanical interference of any kind, which is extremely important to me for obvious reasons.

Of course, this means that this remains a fully manual turntable.  You cue it up by hand and you get up and pick up the stylus at the end of each side of your vinyl or you are serenaded by that methodical clicking of the stylus on the run-out track.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.  If you’re listening to vinyl you’ve already made the choice of superior sound quality over convenience.  If you play vinyl with an automatic turntable you might as well fire up your music server and indulge in the full-service (and compromises) that automation offers.

Does anyone else remember the turntables that used to stack multiple records to drop onto the platter in succession?…  Just load up a few records and you’ve got a vinyl iPod.  That was how it was done back in the 1970s.  That is, if not getting out the listening chair was more important than sound quality (and preserving your vinyl).

All-in-all, I couldn’t be happier with this turntable.  With Denon’s original direct drive technology, which arguably hasn’t improved since the “golden age” of vinyl, combined with around $100 to $150 spent on my DIY (do it yourself) turntable isolation platform, I have a deck to rivals that of $30k decks today.

Incredulous?…  Yes, direct drive turntables, which I’ve been “singing the praises” of for years are coming back in vogue, and selling for $30k.  Just have a look at VPI’s (a long time advocate of belt drive turntables), newest addition to their product line, a “classic” direct drive turntable starting at $29,999:

http://www.musicdirect.com/p-157642-vpi-classic-direct-drive-turntable.aspx

Postscript: December, 2014:  I’ve used a massive granite slab coupled to the Denon with spiked feet, sitting on a bed of sand in a nice wood box, that sits atop my existing double wood slab isolation platform and have finally accomplished the desired result.  Altogether, it weighs in around 150 pounds, which is hung off the wall by two very sturdy brackets.  Total cost of the modifications?..  Less than $200.  Total cost savings vs. purchasing a modern day equivalent of this turntable?…  At least $5k.