". . .solid musical energy and dynamics from a high-resolution source."
he various components that constitute the active elements in your system can be divided into two categories: those that simply pass the signal and those that convert it from one form into another. If you want to understand the performance of your system, its an important distinction, because it affects the way in which the different parts of the reproduction chain impact the signal -- or to put it more bluntly, how much damage and of what type they can do. Those parts that simply pass the signal (amplifiers and cables) can limit, squash, slow or smear proceedings, but they still pretty much give you what they receive. The transducers on the other hand have the capability to seriously rearrange the content, pattern and sense of the signal -- so much so, in fact, that building successful source components and speakers is as much an exercise in damage control as it as a pursuit of excellence.
Speakers offer a host of different technologies and approaches, all designed to achieve the same thing -- and all failing in different specific ways. CD players and other digital devices are prey to the vagaries of software and decoding algorithms, filters (or the lack of them) before you even look at the hardware options involved. With so many variations, theres something refreshingly basic about a turntable -- any turntable. At the end of the day, whatever the materials or technology involved, a turntable all boils down to a single lowest common denominator: dragging a rock down a trench and measuring what happens at the other end of the stick.
Simple is as simple does
hen Ivor Tiefenbrun said that all a turntable had to do was revolve at the right speed and be quiet, he was being more than a little disingenuous. Technically correct, its an analysis that glosses over the fact that the record player is its own self-diagnostic device. It has to be quiet, because the cartridge measures noise and therein lies the essential conundrum of turntable design: the turntable itself might not be a transducer, but boy does it define the conditions of operation under which the cartridge -- the transducer -- labors. To make matters worse, not only are there multiple possible sources of noise -- not all of which are immediately obvious -- but isolating them from the cartridge/record interface almost inevitably involves the loosening of the relationship between the platter and its drive, impacting speed stability and undermining performance accordingly.
The first great revolution in turntable design, based on the AR XA and its descendants, but depending for its impetus on the vocal advocacy of Linn products, involved isolating the platter from the then-noisy drive systems available -- be they idler, direct or belt based. The provision of a suspended subchassis cut down induced noise but introduced a level of complexity and instability to the system that was to present a constant (and ultimately insoluble) challenge.
Ironically, it was the advent of Linns own power-supply upgrades that really showed the way to quieter drive systems, by eliminating mains-born distortion that caused cogging in synchronous motors. Since then we have been on a steady path, irrespective of the technology employed, towards simpler and simpler structures. Along the way we have separated the issues of self-microphony and isolation from external vibration. We have looked at zero-contact drive systems, zero-contact or reduced-contact bearing systems, fancy materials and the ones we started out with. But even if the materials, tolerances and execution have become higher tech in nature, the designs and structures have become more straightforward, with fewer parts and fewer parts that move. Just trace the history of most long-term turntable manufacturers -- ones that started out in the heyday of the Linn LP12. Whether you look at VPI, SOTA, Spiral Groove or Pink Triangle/The Funk Firm -- and relatively few others with the necessary longevity exist -- you see a steady move away from suspension systems and towards simpler overall construction. Indeed, perhaps the only really long-term advocates of suspension are Basis and SME, and even they only employ it on their more expensive models -- a reflection of just how hard (and costly) it is to build a truly effective suspension system.
Going to the other extreme, we find a whole host of tables that eschew, disregard or simply ignore the issue of suspension/isolation altogether, instead relying on various layered constructions or sheer mass to deal with the associated issues. Like all things audio, there is no right or wrong here, with good and bad examples of suspended and unsuspended designs vying for attention. As always, its not what you do but how you do it that matters, but there is no doubt that non-suspended turntable designs can deliver state-of-the-art performance, with examples as varied as the Grand Prix Audio Monaco direct-drive, the Spiral Groove SG 1.1 and the VPI Classic 4 making the case.
With all these designs, their apparent simplicity can be deceptive, and very often theres more lurking below the surface than is immediately apparent, either mechanically or philosophically. But few achieve the almost Bauhaus purity of the Hartvig Signature TT, a turntable that seems, visually at least, to have been stripped back to the very barest of essentials. However, as I said, looks can be deceptive, and what is really impressive about the Hartvig is the way in which rather than dealing with potential problems, the design seeks to eliminate them.
Nuts and bolts
ets take a tour. Like many modern decks, the Hartvig adopts the simple expedient of physically separating the motor from the main chassis, a step that minimizes direct transmission of mechanical energy from the "engine" to the critical stylus/groove interface. But as I suggested earlier, theres more to eliminating motor noise than simple physical separation. First and foremost, you need to reduce the level of noise generated by the motor, itself a function of the AC supply, especially in the case of a synchronous design. Hartvig eliminates the issues of AC-supply quality by relying on a battery supply, thus achieving complete galvanic isolation as well as independence from waveform distortion, RFI and other nasties that inhabit the domestic grid. The use of a battery supply with its clean DC feed in turn suggests the use of a DC motor, especially as good-quality synchronous designs are increasingly hard to come by. The downside of that is the lack of an inherent, corrective mechanism within the motor to ensure long-term speed stability. Of course, you could use a sophisticated servo setup, but not only does that bring its own attendant baggage, but it flies in the face of the "less is more" mantra that governs the design.
Instead, the Signature TT relies on good old-fashioned brute force -- in the shape of a seriously massive flywheel -- I mean platter. But before we go there, there are a couple of other niceties to examine when it comes to the motor and its housing.
The cylindrical housing is familiar enough, topped off with a large-diameter crowned pulley to drive the flat belt. That reflects the slower-than-normal speed at which the motor runs, a simple but effective way to reduce noise. A top-mounted switch allows the owner to select 33 or 45rpm, while neat rotary knobs allow precise speed adjustment. The motor pod itself sits in a shallow cup that is in turn supported on three conical posts, each with an elastomer core to help absorb energy and prevent its transmission into the supporting surface.
The main chassis consists of the plinth, main bearing, platter and armboard. Lets start at the bottom with the plinth. This is constructed from a three-layer, pressure-bonded sandwich of MDF and acrylic, beautifully finished in a range of striped or gloss lacquered finishes. It is supported on three more of the cone/elastomer feet that lift the motor housing, but in this case the rear foot is fixed, while the front two can be easily adjusted from above, using the signature rotary knobs, to achieve perfect level. Once again, simple, effective and, as we shall see, perfectly in keeping with the elimination of inherent failings.
The main bearing is a large-diameter inverted design, tipped with a ceramic ball and enclosed in a greased phosphor-bronze sleeve. At first sight, that might seem like a strange, almost belligerently retro choice, especially given the effort various manufacturers have expended over the years when it comes to eliminating bearing contact and the associated noise. But in reality conventional bearings can run incredibly quietly, especially if they are positioned perfectly vertically, minimizing lateral pressure and the associated contact that goes with it, hence those adjustable feet. Whats more, a fully lubricated bearing, rather than one running on impregnated bushes, offers other advantages, the grease damping the transmission of noise as well as the rotational motion itself.
The platter is a two-part assembly, the lower element machined from T6 aluminum fully 2" (50mm) thick and driven by the flat belt. On top of this sits a thick acrylic section, again a good 2" thick, located over the bearing sleeve and with a spindle for the record fixed into its top surface. The result is a composite platter that offers an acrylic interface for the record while distancing it from both the main bearing and the drive belt. The aluminum lower section doesnt just add mass, it also offers a more precise machined surface for the belt, aiding speed stability. The use of the flat rubber circumferential belt should also help in this regard. Although the increased contact area will transmit more noise, it is clearly a tradeoff that Hartvig are willing to make. Overall, its an arrangement that should offer the proven clarity and neutrality of an acrylic platter with the high mass (30 pounds, 14 kilograms), concentricity and consistent drive contact required for good speed stability -- while also moving the stylus/groove interface at least one material boundary away from the two major noise sources in the structure.
The platter is topped off with a Delrin collet-type record clamp, again using the same rotary knob to tighten it. Not everybody likes what clamps do, but I found that this one brought a welcome depth to the black in the background and an added sense of dynamic definition, with finer discrimination of microdynamic steps and musical textures. Better still (as an add-on) was the Stillpoints LP Isolator record weight. The added weight makes a speed check mandatory, but the LPI adds an inkiness to the space between instruments and a solidity and substance across the range that are well worth the extra cost, and I employed it throughout the review.
The armboard uses an acrylic plate eccentrically mounted on a boss of the same T6 aluminum that is used in the platter. The single Allen-bolt fixing means that simply rotating the armboard alters the spindle-to-pivot distance for perfect alignment of the matching tonearm. In this respect, the use of a protractor like the Feickert is invaluable and makes really precise geometrical adjustment quick and simple, especially with an 'arm like the Tri-Planar that has such a clearly defined pivot point. The open-plan layout of the deck means that 'arms of almost any length could be accommodated, while the flat acrylic armboards make unusual mounting requirements simple to meet.
The battery supply is an option, but so clearly central to the performance of the deck and its entire philosophy that I didnt use the deck without it. It's housed in a square-looking chassis that matches the width and finish of the tables plinth, making a handsome pair. It has a single on/off knob on the front panel and should be good for twenty hours or so of constant use. It trickle charges from the AC supply, and I never ran into any operational problems throughout the review period. That might seem like a strange comment, but not so long ago, battery power supplies seemed to be a constant source of performance and reliability issues. Thankfully, a range of recent products suggests that that is a thing of the past, and the Hartvig turntable is one them.
So, as a design we can see that the Signature TT manages to neatly sidestep the issues surrounding AC-induced noise, while also taking steps to minimize transmission of motor noise via the supporting structure. The platter and bearing assembly are thoughtfully engineered to maximize speed stability while also offering an optimum mechanical termination for the record, reducing distortion and spurious signals induced by reflection of the energy driven into the record by the stylus itself. It uses a conventional bearing but takes steps to ensure that associated noise is, once again, minimized, while the use of composite, mixed-material construction throughout the deck helps spread its resonant character, preventing the intrusion of dominant energy spikes to color the sound. As this is hi-fi, I guess it should go without saying that such elegant simplicity doesnt come cheap, but on the plus side, theres no quibbling with the quality of the materials, fit or finish on the Hartvig table. Its not cheap, but it definitely doesnt look cheap either.
One really nice touch is the provision made for mounting more than one 'arm. If you want to run two or more tonearms, then Hartvig will supply separate freestanding armbases. These use the same feet as the motor housing -- a heavy cast-iron base and a mixed acrylic/aluminum tower to support the standard armboard. Heavy enough to stay put, bonding the thin aluminum discs that sit under the conical feet to the supporting surface would make sure of geometrical accuracy, while allowing you to simply lift into place several different tonearms and preserving perfect alignment. Nice.
Time to play
used the Signature TT exclusively with the Tri-Planar Mk VII UII tonearm (currently waiting to be swapped out for the Ultimate version) and with a range of cartridges, including the Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement and the Lyra Titan i. As the description of the deck should suggest, setup is perfectly straightforward as long as you provide the requisite surface and take your time with a proper machinists level (not one of those nasty plastic ones). However, there are two points that I would make. First, the rotary speed controls are extremely sensitive, with just a tiny nudge making a discernable difference on the Feickert Speedadjust app. I found that not only did the calibration require time and a steady hand, but getting it spot on really had a significant impact on the sound of the table. I shall speculate as to quite why that is, but be warned, you neglect this performance parameter at your peril. In the same way, I found that precise adjustment of VTA, particularly with the Titan i, was even more critical than usual. Id hesitate to use the deck with an 'arm that didnt offer this facility, although given the range of available and appropriate tonearms and the price of the deck, that shouldnt present too limiting a factor.
Hartvig supplies thin aluminum skates (dimpled discs) to slip between the shallow conical feet on the deck and motor housing, and the surface on which they sit. Whilst the protective benefits of the arrangement are so obvious that most users would install them without a second thought, don't do it. Not only do they allow the tension in the belt to pull the motor housing against the main chassis, especially if the deck is positioned on exactly the sort of polished surface the discs are designed to protect, they also ruin the sound -- at least they did in my system. Using a properly dispersive supporting surface with the discs between it and the feet, the sound had a lightness and delicacy that might seem airy and attractive, but remove them and you will hear an instant improvement in clarity, focus, dynamic range, timing and decay. Where the aluminum discs run notes together, creating an ethereal smoothness but one thats devoid of real substance or weight, planting the deck directly on its supporting surface brings definition, authority and musical poise to the proceedings, adding depth and weight to the sound, corners and shape to the notes, a sense of flow and intent to the playing. If that sounds like Im describing a big difference thats because it is. In my system the change was make or break. Having initially installed the discs -- because they were there -- I was left scratching my head by the flat and lackluster performance of a table Id previously heard sounding superb. It wasnt until I removed the discs that the real deck revealed itself -- to a considerable accompanying sigh of relief.
With the deck perfectly level and with all the niceties attended to, whatever the tonearm and cartridge youve mounted, drop the stylus into the groove and you will immediately be struck by this tables ghostly quiet background. Its not just how it handles groove and surface noise, both of which are noticeably reduced, its the blackness behind the music, the absence of grain in the soundstage. Dont be surprised if you find yourself hearing pre-echo that you never noticed before; thats what happens when the noise floor of the record itself drops away. Whether its down to effective isolation from motor noise, superior termination of the disc itself or, perhaps most likely, a combination of the two, the Signature TT separates the signal from the grooves with an almost magical ease that succeeds in separating the message from the medium.
Steve Earles debut album, Guitar Town [MCA MCF 3335], is an early MCA digital recording -- with all that entails in sonic terms. Yet theres no disguising the sheer vitality of the music and performance, or Earles surprisingly old head on those broad young shoulders. Theres intelligence to the lyrics and a wealth of stylistic nuance that bespeak a deep cultural awareness. Its hard to miss the special blend of desolate emptiness and bitter resentment that underpins a song like "Someday," but play it on the Hartvig and the tables ability to sort and order the music without imposing on it reveals not just the depth of feeling but the sure hands that have built the track and produced an almost anthemic quality, an underpinning of hope shored up by the sort of powerful chorus that wouldnt disgrace Springsteen on his better days. Behind the bite and attitude of the rhythm guitars jabs, the pedal steel soars in its own little world of reverb, hinting at the open, empty space, while the addition of bass guitar and drums, all in concert with and adding weight to the rhythms stabs, build the track with an inexorable sense of momentum that explodes into that singalong chorus and powers uninhibited through the rest of this high-octane roller-coaster ride. As the last notes of the final chord die away, you release pent-up breath and wonder, How are they going to follow that?
The astonishing answer bursts forth from the speakers in the almost honky-tonk opening of "Think It Over," a short, jaunty little pop song that combines clever wordplay and simplistic rhymes thats instantly reminiscent of Buddy Holly. Throw in the notched rhythms, sparse instrumentation and insistent percussion and you are in full Holly-homage mode, even down to the slightly nasal whine on the vocal.
So Earles debut album is a corker. So what? Isnt this a turntable review? Yes, it is -- and thats just the point. What the Hartvig Signature TT does is leave you in no doubt at all as to not just the quality of Earles creation, but how that creation comes to work to such wonderful effect, without dismantling it, pulling it apart or resolving the last vestige of life out of it. The music that floods the room has an infectious, vibrant life that cant possibly be confused with a specimen under a microscope. Yet despite the almost forensic degree of insight, the only slide here is on the pedal steel, the fine focus is on the artistic vision. But perhaps the most telling aspect of this performance is the disc in question. Paper thin, decidedly digital and from the depths of the post-CD vinyl depression, this is great music on a less-than-great disc -- yet the Hartvig latches onto the important stuff and simply skirts around the issues that impair the recording. Oh, you can hear them if you go looking: theres a glare to the upper mids and a congealed quality to the soundstage, a lack of really fine texture and a collapsed tonal palette. But none of these intrude on or undermine the joyous riot of musical expression that is Guitar Town. Would that it were always so.
Time to get serious
heres an essential honesty to the way in which the Signature TT reveals whats imprinted in your records grooves. Having grown up with a whole host of turntables that used lightweight construction and thin acrylic platters to project a sound so often described as neutral, and having graduated to decks with thicker and thicker slabs of acrylic, culminating in the 4" (100mm) chunk thats honed down to platter size for the Clearaudio Master Reference, Im well familiar with what acrylic brings to the party and what it leaves behind. All too often, rather like a reality-TV starlet exiting a limo in a skirt thats way too short or slit too high, its the foundations that are found to be lacking. Acrylic platters bring a fleet, crisp and uncluttered quality to the sound, not least because they offer a combination of decent dynamic range and low levels of additive energy at low frequencies. The lack of reflected energy feeding back to the stylus and the low-ish overall mass of even the thickest platters certainly seems to bring clarity to the equation, even if the ultimate authority of the presentation suffers. By the simple expedient of applying both approaches together, a thick acrylic top platter and a heavy aluminum support for it, Soren Hartvig seems to have hit on something very close to a "best of both worlds" solution. The dynamic consistency and energy levels generated by the deck are exemplary, and even the Titan i, which cant be considered either lush or forgiving, makes a compelling partner for the genuine neutrality of the Signature TT. In fact, despite the greater energy and sheer range of colors available from the Clearaudio Goldfinger, I ultimately found myself returning to the Lyra cartridge, its unassuming, unexaggerated presentation and dynamic discrimination being the perfect foils for the Hartvig table. For once it seems like you cant get too much of a good thing, and the thought of combining this player with a Lyra Atlas or the new Etna is positively mouthwatering.
There will be those who crave something warmer, more rounded, more obviously analog, and there are cartridges out there to meet that need, leaning the record player as a whole in that direction, but for me the beauty of this turntable is that its analog quality resides in its sense of pace and timing, musical flow and line, rather than in an attractive, cuddly, but ultimately false warmth and weight. In many respects it reminds me of the aforementioned Master Reference, a deck that brought the same linearity, lack of additive tonal aberration and dynamic range wed come to enjoy from CD to the realm of analog replay. But the Hartvig suffers none of the pared-away quality and little of the slightly hollow tonality that mar the big Clearaudio. Its bottom end is beautifully rooted, solid in terms of pitch and placement and delivering just the right balance of weight and energy to give the music a push when required or to anchor it when necessary. On the typical cut and thrust of the Vienna Octets recording of Schuberts Octet in F Major [Speakers Corner/Decca SXL 2028], the subtle underpinnings of the double-bass (played by the fabulously named Johann Krump) are perfectly balanced against the other instruments. They never sound slow, turgid or earthbound, but keep pace perfectly with the cello and bassoon, floating on the same cushion of air that supports the other instruments. You can sense the energy that goes into the playing of the instrument and hear beneath the notes. A single bass playing in such a restrained context might not seem like much of a test for low-frequency quality, but that is exactly what it does test -- quality as opposed to quantity.
Step up in pace, life and propulsive energy of the Sony Music 180-gram reissue of Paul Simons Graceland [Legacy 88691914721] and the Signature TT wont disappoint. In fact, the dense drumbeats and articulate slap bass of "You Can Call Me Al," the characteristic, rocking rhythm of "Under African Skies" are almost embarrassingly dance-inducing -- especially for this OWG. Its a mark of the way this table latches onto both the pattern of the bass and the shape and center to the energy of each note. If Guitar Town is a recording of questionable quality, Graceland certainly isnt. The spatial and tonal differentiation of the various voices in the a cappella sections is remarkably natural, making for almost mesmeric listening. The heavy, thudding drumbeat that propels "Crazy Love, Vol II" is full of purpose, direction and texture, driving the track rather than holding it back, as it so often does. The examples are legion, from right across the frequency range and from every musical genre. If an audio system should serve the music, then the Hartvig turntable is a great place to start.
Which brings us to the issue of interpretational differences, a subject close to my heart. I increasingly find myself looking at the way source components present different readings of the same work as a window on their musical perspective and expressive qualities. How much sense does a component make of the different musical visions encapsulated in those recorded performances and how big are the differences between them? Karajans 1962 Beethoven cycle [DGG 104301/8 -- SKL 101/8] is a recognized interpretational benchmark; you might not rate each individual reading as the best, but they all inform your understanding and set a good mark for comparison. The one exception, the runt of the 1962 litter, was the "Pastorale," Symphony No. 6. As an alternative from the same label, Ive tended to draft in Karl Bohms 1972 reading with the Vienna Philharmonic [DGG 2530 142]. Cue up these two on the Hartvig and the differences spring out at you. For all the sumptuous grace of the Berliner strings, Karajans version is angular, jittery and hectoring, hurrying through themes with an unseemly haste. The Vienna might have a more typically classical elegance in terms of sound and balance, lacking the sweeping power of its Berlin counterpart, but Bohm brings an unforced grace to his tempi, a freedom that lets the orchestra bloom without the sense of constraint and discipline that mars the Karajan reading. Here we see light-touch direction, control without constraint, a conductor that allows and encourages the orchestra to excel, an approach that mirrors and thrives on the light-touch portrayal of the Signature TT. If you wanted a single example to demonstrate the real value of this deck, then here it is, both for what it tells you about Karajans 6th and the bounteous wonder of Bohms.
The easy way out in a review like this is to say that the deck has no sound -- a twist on the old "The best speaker is no speaker" argument -- but that undersells what the Hartvig achieves. The combination of light-touch control and emphatic dynamics, clarity and instrumental discrimination cuts right to the heart of the recorded performance, while quite overcoming the obvious traditional, accepted limitations of the vinyl format. Of course, that combination of musical grip and expression doesnt come without its associated costs, sonic and financial. The Signature TT still has that slight hint of the upper-mid acrylic dip, a gentle suckout in energy that adds an attractive clarity and space to the musical presentation, but here it is reduced to a level where it only really intrudes in direct comparison or on voices that you know really well (by which I mean in reality, as opposed to on a record). If thats the price you pay for all the musical upsides, then its one Id find easy to meet.
Less easy is the asking price for the deck itself. The Hartvig both looks and is undeniably pricy, especially if you compare it alongside some of the more ostentatious competition. As Ive already said, such elegant simplicity doesnt come cheap, but the price tag is far from the whole story. The range of finish options is almost limitless, while the deck itself manages to be both compact and visually impressive. Best of all, its a genuinely bespoke piece. You are unlikely to walk into your friends house and find another Hartvig there -- unless of course he saw and heard it in your system first.
ut in some ways the real question raised by this turntable is just how it achieves such a remarkably musical and involving performance. Theres nothing new here, no individual element that sets it apart from the crowd, except perhaps its use of monolithic elements and lack of hard coupling. Whether by art or design, an innate feel or a deep understanding, Soren Hartvig has produced a genuinely impressive product that succeeds on every level; beautifully presented and flawlessly finished, it is as individual in appearance as it is confident in performance. Along with the VPI Classic 4 and the Spiral Groove SG 1.1, it stands at the forefront of a new wave of state-of-the-art tables that are more manageable, more simple and far more affordable than the current incumbents. By putting simplicity first and then working around that principle, designers are able to tap into a new area of potential sonic development, eliminating the discontinuities and the costs that go with more massive and more complex construction.
Or, you could look at it in another way: in a fast-moving world of computer-based, downloadable, high-res digital audio formats, many an audiophile is seeking serious, solid musical energy and dynamics from a high-resolution source, one that offers a huge range of affordable and readily available software. Isnt it ironic that that is exactly whats on offer here?
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