Is New Necessarily Better?

Vinyl replay might be considered old technology, but there are still generational shifts in performance.

by Roy Gregory | July 14, 2012

ecently, I had lunch with the owner of a serious high-end system (big VTL amps driving Wilson Alexandria X-2s). Subjects discussed were many and varied, centered around the issue of potential upgrades, but as the music lover in question is a dedicated vinyl user, a lot of time was spent on the turntable in his system, a Clearaudio Master Reference, assiduously upgraded since its purchase well over a decade ago. Essentially, the question boils down to whether current turntables are better than or just different from the one he already owns. It’s especially interesting given the fact that the ‘table in question established so many of what have now become accepted design paths. The design of turntables and the issues they take seriously have changed significantly in the last decade, but many of those changes can trace their roots directly to the Master Reference itself, a genuinely groundbreaking turntable in its day, and one that has also benefited from a number of timely updates over the years.

Clearaudio’s original Reference ‘table established several important design trends: the use of non-resonant shaping for the chassis, a separate mass-loaded housing for a motor driving a deep-section acrylic platter. The positional stability established by the fixed relationship between the motor and the plinth ensured excellent speed stability despite the belt drive, while the structure and materials delivered a remarkable degree of tonal neutrality. It was this basis on which Clearaudio built the stellar performance of the Master Reference. Taking the same essential elements, they added additional depth to the platter, a larger-diameter bearing, three motors and a massively beefed up version of the TQI parallel-tracking tonearm, with a significantly heavier and more rigid structure. The result was even greater speed stability, increased dynamic range and definition, greater tonal range and separation all coupled to the effortless sense of musical flow that comes from a decent linear-tracing tonearm.

Over the years, the design has been further enhanced by the addition of a magnetically opposed bearing, peripheral platter clamp and improved pulleys and belts, all of which have built even further on what was already a sound sonic performance. The Master Reference also represents something of a a road map of current analog concerns and responses. The question is, does the Master Reference’s age represent too much of a handicap when compared to current, clean-sheet designs? In assessing that, perhaps what we need to do first is map out the path first established by the Master Reference, which may not have been the first record player to incorporate at least some of these ideas, but was the first to incorporate them all, whilst also eliminating other, spurious aspects of design.

Let’s take each major design principle in turn.

Speed stability and noise floor Eliminating the suspension system and increasing the depth of the acrylic platter (the Master Reference platter is 80mm thick, while its contemporaries were generally nearer to 25mm thick) created a far more stable relationship between the motor and platter, along with an increased flywheel effect. The result was far greater speed stability than was available from the typical belt-driven, suspended-sub-chassis designs that dominated the market at that time. This was further enhanced by the use of three equally spaced motors, providing balanced forces on the main bearing, and the use of multiple belts for a more closely coupled drive. Clearaudio (correctly) deduced that the increase in speed stability would more than outweigh the rise in transmitted noise from the motors themselves. In fact, the whole design (like many a turntable before it) was all about increasing speed stability and at the same time reducing induced noise. The difference was that the Master Reference rebalanced the equation in favor of stable pitch and away from an almost obsessive fascination with mechanical noise.

First step was the use of a precision AC regenerator to reduce the fundamental source of noise from synchronous motors. By supplying a far more accurate waveform to the rotors inside each motor, Clearaudio all but eliminated cogging, the major source of noise from the motors themselves. Next came the introduction of a magnetically opposed bearing system that eliminated the vertical bearing/thrust-pad interface in conventional designs. As well as a source of noise itself, this interface accounts for around 90% of the transmitted noise that passes through the bearing and into the platter of any ‘table, so reducing actual contact to the lateral thrust pads alone, which are already lightly loaded by the three-way motor system, makes a significant difference to the system noise floor. Finally, adding an aluminum peripheral weight to the platter increases the flywheel effect still further.

Generally speaking, it is almost impossible to improve speed stability dramatically in a record player without also increasing noise. By choosing to deal with the noise issue separately and in a different way, the Master Reference allowed its designers freedom to pursue their musical goals without being chained to the speed/noise seesaw. Breaking that linkage was critical in recognizing the importance of underappreciated existing solutions, readjusting the design budget and reapplying technology.

Eliminating tracking error – As we all know, records are cut in straight lines, and pivoted tonearms trace them in an arc, introducing tracking distortion. The obvious solution is to develop a parallel-tracking tonearm, but the challenges are significant. Servo-operated 'arms have never delivered on their promise, while air-bearing tonearms are complex, expensive and suffer their own mechanical issues, not least schizophrenic effective-mass values in the vertical and horizontal planes. The Clearaudio solution was a development of the Souther TriQuartz tonearm, a simple passive device that used a low-mass trolley running on polished quartz rails to allow the cartridge to traverse the record, dragged by the stylus in the groove. The Souther had its own problems, structural and geometrical (the latter caused by the ultra-short tonearm, which made it susceptible to warps and the need to run the rails at a slight down angle, resulting in constantly changing VTA), but all tonearms are a compromise and there’s no escaping the fact that a well-set-up TQI is a very fine-sounding 'arm indeed -- and that the beefed-up Master TQI was pretty much the best of the breed.

Non-resonant chassis – The Master Reference used multiple layers of carefully shaped material to create a mechanically benign structure. By clamping two layers of acrylic (or wood-and-aluminum sandwich in later versions) between aluminum bosses, it created a complex, lossy support for the platter. You can’t eliminate energy, but you can dissipate it in such a way that it’s less intrusive, and that’s exactly what the Master Reference design sought to do. It was far from the first attempt to create a non-resonant chassis, but in a world which simply seemed to be throwing more and more mass at the problem, it was definitely treading a different path, with its combination of clamped, differential materials and non-parallel shaping.

Multiple tonearm mounts – The Master Reference wasn’t the first deck to offer multiple 'arm-mounting points, and up to a point one wonders whether they were a simple product of the design’s symmetry, but they certainly foreshadowed the popular emergence of mono cartridges, the principal driver for today’s multi-'arm decks. Not a Clearaudio innovation then, but definitely fashion forward, while the skeletal nature of the deck and its use of pivoted armboards of different lengths meant that 'arms of any length could be easily accommodated. Later models introduced more rigid, milled-aluminum armboards in place of the original acrylic ones and these too improved performance.

How successfully these measures achieved their goal can be judged in hindsight. Not only was the Master Reference a popular and commercially successful design, it is still in production today. It has also spawned a host of philosophical (if not physical) imitators -- products that have either seen which way the wind was blowing or arrived at the same conclusions as Peter Suchy of Clearaudio, but independently. The result has been a sea change in turntable design, with high-mass, solid-plinth designs now dominating the market.

Time then to examine the current competition.

VPI’s Classic 4 might not look much like the Master Reference, but it’s got a lot in common with it nonetheless. In fact, you could argue that it takes the same concepts even further -- and at a somewhat lower cost. So, on a point-by-point basis:

Main bearing – The Classic 4 doesn’t use a magnetically opposed bearing, but instead uses a proprietary approach that is different in detail but similar in effect, reducing bearing noise and energy transmission from chassis to platter. Rather than lifting (or floating) the whole platter, VPI use a soft Teflon thrust pad, a remarkably simple but effective solution typical of designer Harry Weisfeld. As well as being remarkably cost effective, this design retains the positional stability of a rigid bearing, eliminating the risk of oscillation or "bouncing" of the platter in a floated system.

Platter – The Classic 4 uses a solid-aluminum platter that is shallower but considerably heavier than the Master Reference’s acrylic one. In addition, it also offers a peripheral clamp, and again this is more massive than the Clearaudio one, weighing in at 2kg (nearly 4 1/2 pounds) as opposed to the 1.5kg (nearer to 3 pounds) of the Clearaudio version. On a purely practical note, the shallow platter in combination with the conventional plinth makes hand cueing of a pivoted 'arm much easier, providing as it does a convenient hand rest. This is irrelevant if you use the Master TQI on the Clearaudio, as that 'arm doesn’t really accommodate hand cueing, but if you use a pivoted 'arm in either the primary or secondary positions (as I do), then it certainly becomes an issue.

Speed stability – Perhaps the VPI’s greatest heresy -- the elimination of the separate motor pod: in a quest for closer and more consistent coupling of motor to platter and thus greater speed stability, VPI have not only bolted the motor to the plinth, they’ve placed it as close as possible to the platter, allowing them to use the shortest belt possible consistent with peripheral drive (that maintains the greatest degree of contact). They also use two belts to further increase the contact area, as well as balance any irregularities. The risk of course is that you transmit motor noise to the stylus, where it is added to the signal, but VPI rely on the PTFE thrust pad, the plinth design and the weight of the platter to serve as obstacles to that path.

Power supply – Like the Master Reference, the Classic 4 also uses a sophisticated regenerative power supply, the SDS. This serves to reduce cogging and micro-hesitations in the motor -- also ironed out by the flywheel effect of the close-coupled platter -- in exactly the same fashion as the Clearaudio APG. However, the SDS offers extraordinarily precise pitch control, which in combination with modern strobes and other devices (that I’ll come to later) allows for greater speed accuracy as well as stability. On the face of it, speed stability should be the more important consideration, but once you have that, accuracy has a profound effect on the musical expression reproduced from recordings. If you doubt that, just consider this: one of the things that makes a great musician stand out, just like a great sportsman, is the sense that he always has more time than those around him. If your ‘table runs too fast (and it is remarkable how many people set their record players thus, seduced by the immediately impressive zip and drama of the sound) it erodes that feeling of poise and control, quality and technique, in the playing.

Plinth – The VPI plinth is neither particularly sophisticated nor particularly striking in appearance. It is in fact exactly what it looks like: a darned great lump of laminated MDF, securely bolted to a metal top plate. Nothing subtle about that -- except that like everything else in audio, it’s not what you use but how you use it that really matters. This is another way of saying that just as expensive, high-tech materials don’t guarantee results, you can get fantastic performance from good old MDF -- if you use it correctly. In this case, VPI use multiple layers of MDF to create a 50mm sandwich that is then glued and bolted to not one but two layers of different metals: steel and aluminum. This close coupling of different materials is key, suppressing the resonant behavior of each -- a natural extension of the layered construction used in the Master Reference plinth. The constrained-layer construction of the VPI plinth makes for an incredibly stable as well as inert structure, essential when it comes to providing a stable foundation for both that high-mass platter and the tonearm(s). Yes, like the Master Reference, the Classic 4 will accommodate multiple tonearms (two in this instance), although the second mount will only accept 'arms with a 9" mounting geometry. Note that many of today’s tonearms, such as the VPIs, the Tri-Planar and the Kuzma 4Point all use offset mountings, meaning that they will work with the Classic 4’s second mounting position, despite their longer effective lengths.

Eliminating tracking error – Whilst no pivoted 'arm can truly eliminate tracing distortion, in the case of the VPI JMW, several things contribute to its reduction to a point where the advantages of a unipivot construction begin to outweigh the tracking error. The 12" armtube used by the JMW (it is also available in 10.5" and 9" versions) is one obvious approach to the problem, and whereas this used to be a questionable course, limiting the choice of compatible cartridges, the recent narrowing of compliance values amongst leading cartridge designs means that this is no longer an issue. Indeed, some cartridges -- like the Allnic Puritas -- are so low in compliance they almost demand a 12" 'arm!

But whilst a 12" tracing arc offers potential advantages, actually achieving those benefits is another matter entirely, and this is the realm in which real strides have been made. Tracking error on any tonearm, straight-line tracking or pivoted, will depend on the absolute accuracy of the cartridge alignment. Two things have increased that accuracy considerably: the advent of more accurate protractors like the Feickert, along with the emergence of USB microscopes that allow one to really see just how accurately the tip is placed. The sonic benefits from this increased precision are far from subtle, the real area of improvement being tracing distortion. It is now possible to achieve dramatically better results from any pivoted tonearm, casting the structural and mechanical shortcomings of parallel trackers in a new and far more critical light.

Let the contest commence

espite the obvious differences in physical form and appearance, by now it should be apparent that these two ‘tables have an awful lot in common as far as philosophical and operational thinking goes. Incidentally, in one of those strange coincidences, the Classic 4 currently costs pretty much the same (at least in the UK) as the Master Reference did when it was launched. In another happy coincidence, I also happen to have both in-house, allowing me to make direct comparisons, for which purpose I set both decks up with Lyra Dorian cartridges, playing them back through the Connoisseur 4.2 phono stage, VTL TL-7.5 Reference III line stage and MB-450 Signature III monoblocks. The Classic 4 was placed directly on upward-facing Stillpoint Ultras, atop an ESS rack, the Master Reference on its dedicated Acapella platform, itself supported on a second ESS.

Both ‘tables expend significant effort on improving speed stability. Using the Feickert Platter Speed App (a free download that works on Apple mobile platforms with a standard 3150Hz wow/flutter test track) to precisely set the speed of both decks (peripheral clamps installed on both) also gave me the opportunity to assess just how successful they’d been in this regard. Whilst both decks do exhibit excellent speed stability the Feickert readout clearly indicates that the VPI is markedly superior in terms of both wow and flutter. It is also significantly easier to set or trim its speed. The VPI SDS has a numerical readout and stepped up/down buttons that make precise, repeatable adjustments child’s play. In contrast, the set-screw arrangement on the Clearaudio APG is a real case of trial and error in comparison, with really fine adjustment a frustratingly hit and miss affair. The best method I’ve found is to insert a small screwdriver across the slot, creating a four-inch lever with clear angular indication. Even so, making small enough adjustments is tricky.

Interestingly, the Feickert readout also clearly indicated the improvement in speed stability achieved by using the peripheral clamp on the Clearaudio. The significant increase in mass when added to the acrylic platter (as compared to the VPI’s aluminum one) results in an obvious reduction in both wow and flutter, close in extent to the difference between the fully loaded VPI and Master Reference, making the peripheral clamp a significant upgrade for Clearaudio owners. Unfortunately, unlike the VPI design, which is a combination weight and clamp, you can’t run the Clearaudio version below the record, so some users will be put off by the extra stage in the record replay process. It would be a simple matter to rectify this, and I’m sure that Clearaudio users would thank the company for doing so.

So much for the (semi-)objective assessment of speed stability -- can you actually hear the difference? Yes, you can. Playing the recent Speakers Corner Ian Dury reissue [Speakers Corner/Demon Fiend 63], those stand-out bass lines are noticeably more solid and shaped on the VPI, with a more natural sense of pace that locks into each track. Likewise, piano, whether Jankel’s pub pounding on New Boots or Richter’s rather more subtle artistry, is more percussive and grounded, the chords placed more precisely, adding structure and shape to the music.

In terms of dynamic range and weight, there is little to choose between the two decks, although the VPI is noticeably more transparent at the bottom end. Bass notes have greater shape and texture, especially bounced bows on double bass or pizzicato plucks. The VPI also has greater dynamic focus, by which I mean that its dynamic swings are more emphatic and musically telling. If you play the Tallis Fantasia from Barbirolli Conducts English String Music [RCA ASD 521] you’ll hear exactly what I’m describing in the definition of the plucked bass notes, the tubby sound of the instruments stood on their riser, as well as in the soaring peak and catch of the violins, the hanging fragility of the sustained note that heralds the first major theme. Musically speaking, Barbirolli’s control and superb mastery of tempo (and his orchestra) are more apparent on the VPI, as is the greatness of this performance.

But the Barbirolli also shows the other big difference between these ‘tables. Transparency and staging are two areas in which linear-tracking 'arms traditionally excel. The Master TQI is no different, and mounted on the Master Reference the pair delivers an inky-black background whose immediacy and clarity of focus the VPI can’t quite match. Much of this is down to the 'arm (as reference to the Unify 12" unipivot also mounted on the deck clearly testifies). The VPI gets awfully close -- closer than pivoted 'arms ever have in years gone by -- but it still offers a subtle grain to the air in the acoustic space. But this is where the Feickert protractor and the USB ‘scope come in. Really work on getting the alignment spot-on and the grain fades and the stage snaps into focus to the extent that you’ll need to go looking for end-of-side distortion to reveal the difference.

Which raises another interesting point. The Feickert protractor offers three different curves: Baerwald, Lofgren and Stevenson. Each has its advocates, but the real difference lies in the distance between the null points. Lofgren has the closest points (50.5mm on the protractor) with Baerwald at 59mm and Stevenson at 61mm. Those distances aren’t precise (in terms of the tracing arcs themselves), but they illustrate a point: which arc you choose will be dictated by the kind of records that you play. If you have a lot of early Deccas, with long sides and short run-out grooves, then Stevenson will likely offer the best results across your collection as a whole. If, on the other hand, you play a lot of 45rpm audiophile pressings -- with extremely short sides and a compact groove area -- then you should probably opt for Lofgren, which will deliver greater tracking accuracy within the area of the record you are actually playing. That’s a simplistic explanation, but do the math and you’ll see that it makes perfect sense. It also explains the stated preferences of many collectors when it comes to cartridge alignment, as well as my own preference for Baerwald, the geometric middle ground, perfectly suited to my eclectic collection.

These niceties of alignment demonstrate just how critical setup is to final performance when it comes to tonearms and cartridges. The great beauty of parallel trackers is that cartridge alignment really is right or wrong -- and it’s pretty obvious which. So part of their spatial and dimensional superiority rests with their mode of operation, part with the accuracy they demand/allow when it comes to setup. The Master TQI sacrifices some of that precision by varying VTA across the record due to the slight downslope required for correct tracking: You can hear this quite clearly as you compare these two 'tables, the rear corners of the soundstage pulling in and the focus losing some of its precision. Of course, you can balance the effect, deciding where to optimize VTA across the record, but overall this is a weakness you cannot really ameliorate in the same way that you can by working on minimizing the tracing error of the 12" 'arms.

On balance

here does that leave this comparison? Musically speaking, there’s little doubting that the sure-footed superiority and expressive dynamics, the temporal precision and muscular drive (when required) of the VPI Classic 4 offer superior overall communication and performance, moving you closer to the sense of the music and the performer’s vision of it. Or, to put it another way, the VPI lets you hear the conductor in a way that the Clearaudio doesn’t. But the real differences here can be summed up in two words: cost and convenience. The VPI ‘table delivers more performance, much more easily and at a price that’s around half the current cost of the Clearaudio Master Reference. Tonearms like the VPI JMW or Kuzma 4Point match the performance of the Master TQI overall (although differing in detail) but do so with considerably greater convenience, consistency and versatility. The TQI pays a heavy price in terms of operational convenience to achieve its undoubtedly excellent performance. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s a royal pain in the butt to get working just so and to keep working that way. In contrast, both of the pivoted 'arms mentioned allow you to optimize setup on a record-by-record basis, and in the case of the JMW, to do so for more than one cartridge. In combination, the ability to extract more music from more of your collection more of the time makes the VPI the clearly superior option -- and that’s before you take the cost difference into account.

If, however, you already own the Clearaudio combination, where does that leave you? In essence, the Master Reference set new standards when it was launched as well as defining a new set of priorities in turntable development, both qualities that have stood it in good stead over the years. In addition, it has benefited from a series of significant and well-directed upgrades over the years, which have served to keep it competitive. In contrast, the TQI was already approaching the limit of its development potential, allowing room for other 'arms to erode its advantage. These realities are clearly reflected in the performance of the ‘table today. Would it be worth changing the record deck for a more modern model? Possibly. I would certainly ensure that the deck was fully up to date and also investigate using something like Stillpoint Ultra SS feet in place of the simple aluminum cones supporting the main chassis. Not only will this improve the player’s noise floor, it will add the ability to level the chassis precisely -- which was a sad oversight in the original design.

Would it be worth changing the 'arm? Definitely. Of course, the beauty of the Master Reference is that it allows you to simply add a second 'arm, so that you still retain the TQI, but add the options and versatility that go with one of the best pivoted designs -- as well as enjoy the potential pleasure of deploying a range of contrasting cartridges, almost like a whole new record collection.

But perhaps the most significant conclusion is the longevity and value offered by a top-flight record player. Even if you changed nothing about the Clearaudio setup, it would still deliver excellent sound. Yes, you can better its performance in musically significant ways, and you can certainly gain the benefits of increased versatility and ease of use, but it is only quite recently that this has been possible at reasonable cost.

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