Purevox PV-I Turntable and Series VII Tonearm
by Marc Mickelson | April 6, 2010
"If you want to make a small fortune in high-end audio, start with a large one." Buried within this well-worn adage are a few universal truths. First, by and large, fortunes are not made by designing and manufacturing audio electronics, speakers and cables, but they certainly can be lost. Why, then, are so many people attempting to bring new products to market and thereby do something that's clearly not in their best financial interests? Passion. The audio impresarios of today are just like those from a generation ago: driven by a vision for how recorded music should be reproduced and willing to take a big risk that their insight will be economically viable. That they are also fueled by a love of music is a given; a number of them are also musicians.
This passion knows no geographical boundaries, as there are audio companies great and small located all over the world. Not all of the products manufactured in China, however, have this same passion-driven cachet. They are often seen as fundamentally cynical attempts at helping Westerners part with their money. While cynicism is likely a driving force for some of the Chinese companies churning out audio gear, it's certainly not for all of them.
Purevox is a side venture of Emperor Electrical Appliances, one of China's largest manufacturers of high-end small appliances and a company that does OEM production for well-known brands all over the world. Its founder, Jason Tan, is a classical-music enthusiast who combined his passion for music with manufacturing know-how to produce a line of turntables and tonearms designed and mostly manufactured in China. "Mostly" refers to the fact that the company also has offices and a small production facility in California.
The three Purevox turntables debuted in 2006, followed by the company's three tonearms in 2008. The turntables include the PV-I ($24,500), which is the subject of this review, the PV-II ($7000) and PV-Flagship ($110,000). That's quite a wide price range. The Purevox tonearms have unique model designations but use the same main assembly, differing only in the length of their armwands (9", 10" or 11") and model designations (Series VI, VII or VIII respectively). Their prices begin at $4600 and increase by $300 as their length increases. I received both Series VI and VII tonearms for this review. Worldwide distribution of the line is coming into form right now, and the first production models are appearing in the US. A dealer network is under construction and in the capable hands of Jay Bertrand, whose experience in high-end audio is decades long.
That's a good thing, because Purevox will need some expert guidance through the audio market. Chinese brands start at a perceptual disadvantage among audiophiles. Fair or not, it's expected that their products will look more impressive, perform at a higher level, and cost far, far less than the Western competition. At a shade under $25,000, the PV-I turntable seems like a tough sell on paper. But when you investigate it, you start to gain greater appreciation for it. It is an integrated turntable and two-tier stand, and its roster of features aims at addressing all sources of noise, the worthiest of goals with LP playback.
The PV-I has no suspension, relying on sheer mass and the use of layers of disparate materials to isolate the record from external sources of noise. The 'table is a combination of acrylic, aluminum and stainless steel comprising three main assemblies. The platter sits on top of a massive stainless-steel subplatter around which a pair of round-profile latex drive belts attach. This is separated from the main platform, which holds the AC motor, by opposing neodymium magnets that are strong enough to suspend the platter and subplatter. While the two tonearm-mounting assemblies are physically connected to the main platform, they are on a different plane from the motor and therefore isolated from it. The cantilevered armboards are machined from aluminum and rest on a trio of small steel bearings that further isolate the tonearms. It all works well. With the stylus in the groove and the volume turned up higher than I would normally listen, I was able to tap all around the PV-I and heard only the slightest of soft thunks. Motor and bearing noise were nonexistent.
The PV-I comes with a two-tier acrylic-and-aluminum stand that's incredibly stable and solid. The bottom assembly is spiked to the floor beneath, and the second level rests on spikes directly atop the one below it. The turntable's own spiked feet fit into machined cavities on top of the second tier, underneath which is a perfect spot for placing the motor controller. Pressing a round LED display at the front of the 'table turns the motor on, and a pair of small buttons adjust the speed.
As with any audio component, the PV-I's appearance will be a matter of individual taste. "That's impressive" and "too much bling" are how two people who saw it in my room described it. You can use the turntable without the stand, placing it on your own rack. You may choose to do this in order to protect it with an acrylic dustcover. On its stand, the PV-I is en plein air, accessible to prying fingers and all airborne debris.
As serious as the PV-I turntable is, the Purevox tonearms are proof of the company's commitment. A tonearm is an esoteric, involved product to design and manufacture. Parts are custom fabricated to strict tolerances, so the overall design requires a great deal of forethought. If you are familiar with the tonearms on the market today, any of the Purevox 'arms will look somewhat familiar. The company makes no bones about its admiration of the Graham, Tri-Planar and SME tonearms, adopting certain features of them all for its 'arms. From the Graham comes the unipivot design with a hardened pivot situated in the 'arm's screw-in cap, the removable armwand that connects near the pivot, and the magnetic-stabilization mechanism for setting azimuth. From the Tri-Planar comes the large-diameter VTA tower with top-mounted dial. Like some other tonearms, the Purevox 'arms use the SME-style mounting base, which makes cartridge alignment easy, due to its worm-screw adjustment.
Is this kosher -- borrowing liberally from the competition? In its mildest form it's homage and in its most extreme patent infringement. In Purevox's defense -- sort of -- none of the features inspired by other tonearms is implemented quite as well as with the originals (more on this below), and the 10" tonearm's price is identical to that of the Graham Phantom II and Tri-Planar Mk VII UII -- $4900 -- so people who want the originals will surely buy them.
I'm not going easy on Purevox for usurping features from competing products, but I am pointing out that all of these tonearms are pretty much mutually exclusive because they mount differently. I suspect that the majority of Purevox tonearms will be sold with the company's turntables, which won't accept a Graham or Tri-Planar, at least with the stock armboards. Indeed, I have both Graham and Tri-Planar tonearms and wasn't able to swap them with the Purevox 'arms.
Assembly required -- lots of it
The PV-I and pair of tonearms arrived in four boxes that contained a cornucopia of acrylic slabs, screws and other parts -- a veritable audiophile Erector set. You'll need to allot a large space to spread out all of the parts and a morning or afternoon for unboxing and assembly. Most of the parts were for the PV-I's stand, which is fairly intuitive to put together, although the included diagram made it dead simple. Not a piece was missing, including the metric Allen wrenches needed for assembly, a welcome touch for a product that is decidedly not plug and play. Fully assembled, the PV-1 and stand are slightly under three feet high and weigh more than 130 pounds, so you'll want to put them together wherever they will be situated to avoid having to move them.
After affixing the armboards, I set about mounting the tonearms, a task which Purevox helps with by including a lovely machined device, called the Measurer, for setting the spindle-to-pivot distance. Here, a heavy round pillar fits over the spindle and a metal bar marked in millimeters fits through a groove on the top. At the end of the bar is an adjustable pin. Using the markings on the bar, you set the correct distance on the pillar, then position the tonearm so the pin drops right into the hole where the tonearm's pivot goes. It works perfectly and takes all of a minute to do. Purevox could easily ask a couple hundred dollars for this tool if setting the spindle-to-pivot distance were something audiophiles had to do regularly. It would be indispensable for dealers who set up a great number of turntables.
I mounted Audio-Technica AT33EV and Dynavector XV-1s stereo and mono cartridges on the Purevox tonearms. There is no more definitive test of an audio reviewer's resolve than unmounting and remounting phono cartridges, especially a Dynavector XV-1s, whose cantilever juts from the very front of the cartridge body, almost daring you to break it off. On top of this, the cartridge's stylus guard doesn't fit very well, so removing the cartridges from the 'arms they were on and moving them to the 9" and 10" Purevox tonearms was a maneuver fraught with anxiety.
Happily, mounting and aligning both cartridges was rather easy, due to the SME mounting bases. Here, the cartridge is mounted in a fixed position and you move the tonearm in order to align it. The screw-driven mechanism makes it easy to make very small adjustments -- the kind that give you fits when you have to make them by moving the cartridge after it's been loosely attached to the headshell. To aid you, Purevox includes a printed jig that fits over the spindle. You simply align the headshell's outline and you're done. For personal edification, I double-checked the alignment with a Mobile Fidelity Geo-Disc and it was spot on.
Fine-tuning the 'arm and cartridge didn't go quite as well. Adjusting the counterweight, which is normally simple to do, is irksome. You need an Allen wrench to move the counterweight, and another of a different size to lock it in place. The weighted anti-skating mechanism is familiar -- a string looped over a small pulley that moves an adjustable weight to apply outward force -- but it comes with far more monofilament line than is necessary, and it's not tightly connected at the end, so it slips until it's wound around its spool enough times to grab. The biggest issue, however, is with the VTA tower, which is locked in place by a single, very small grub screw. After you've made a VTA adjustment, you tighten the screw, which may move the tonearm, altering the cartridge alignment. This could be corrected by using either a larger-diameter screw that is threaded into the VTA tower's post and therefore doesn't allow movement, or with screws in the mounting base that hold the 'arm in place while you tighten the small grub screw. Finally, the cueing mechanism has a very small range of motion, so with thick LPs the stylus was unnervingly close to the record surface.
To its credit, Purevox has reportedly addressed these issues, and its tonearms are now much easier to set up and fine-tune. I didn't receive an updated tonearm to confirm this, however.
A pure voice
Unlike all the other pieces of an audio system, a turntable doesn't have a musical signal pass through it, yet, as knowledgeable listeners know, each turntable has a unique sonic signature, a set of traits that define its individual sound. It derives these largely from the way it addresses the nonmusical energy it creates as well as that in the listening room. The signal from the cartridge is exceedingly tiny and has to be amplified enormously by the phono stage. Any stray noise the cartridge picks up is also amplified, coloring the signal before it's boosted again by the preamplifier and then by the amp. Thus, a turntable maker's first job is devising ways to deal with noise -- either by eliminating it to begin with or isolating the stylus from it.
It doesn't take much engineering knowledge to understand that the Purevox PV-I was designed with addressing unwanted noise as a primary goal. Its two-tier stand doesn't give vibration an effective pathway to the turntable, and the floating subplatter effectively isolates the record-playing surface from bearing friction and noise from the motor. You can hear this in the PV-I's sound, which is uncolored, highly detailed and quiet. In fact, I suspect this last trait is responsible to a great degree for the first two, the lack of unwanted noise allowing the 'table to be a neutral platform for the tonearm and cartridge.
No LPs illustrate this better than those from Music Matters, which were created with the goal of sounding better than original Blue Note pressings. How can a copy be better than the original? Think of the era in which the LPs first appeared. The audio equipment available then was not nearly as honest to the musical signal as what we have today. Consequently, the sound of LPs was deliberately contoured, especially in the treble, and this means they generally sound brighter than normal by today's standards. I have an original stereo pressing of Art Blakey's Mosaic [Blue Note BST-84090], and it has so much high-frequency energy that it sounds the way an overexposed photograph looks -- bleached, devoid of any contrast. The PV-I gives it no shelter -- I couldn't stand to finish more than one cut on each side. The Blue Note RVG CD sounds civilized in comparison.
Yet, with a Music Matters reissue recorded five months earlier in the same studio, the first of Dexter Gordon's comeback records, Doin' Allright [Blue Note/Music Matters MMBST-84077], the music had an honest spectral balance, including ample bass, along with freewheeling dynamics. The differences were obvious with the PV-I, the reissue sounding much more genuine than the genuine release. If you have any interest in Blue Note jazz, you should buy these remarkable Music Matters reissues while they're available at their $50 list price. This important music has never sounded so realistic -- and probably won't ever again.
Doin' Allright also displayed a true strength of the Purevox turntable-tonearm combination: the ability to excavate the lowest of low-level detail on any record. This is where the absence of noise pays its more obvious dividend, and hearing it requires exceptionally quiet vinyl. Perhaps a half step ahead of Music Matters in this regard is Speakers Corner, whose Pallas-pressed releases have nary a stray tick or pop, let alone any patches of crackly distortion. They always look perfect as well, visual quality control likely leading to quieter records. One of the most coveted recent releases, for jazz fans anyway, is the Jazz at the Philharmonic in Europe box set [Verve/Speakers Corner V 8538-V 8542]. For some inexplicable reason, this music hasn't been released on CD -- ever -- and that makes this four-LP set all the more desirable. There is some sonic distance to the stage with these live mono recordings, along with acute layering of instruments. The sound is rife with subtleties, and the Purevox 'table and 'arm were able to define even the lowest-level musical parts from the outer edges of the stage, important because there are sometimes as many as eight first-rate musicians at work.
I was also delighted by the PV-I's transient speed, which brought extra liveliness to pop and rock. I bought a stack of LPs during CES earlier this year, including some in great condition for a dollar or two. One of these was Luka Bloom's Riverside [Reprise 26092-1]. Bloom is the younger brother of Irish singer/songwriter Christy Moore, from whose shadow he emerged after moving to the US and changing his name. I've used "Delirious" from the Riverside CD as a demo cut; its twelve-string guitar displays the complex overtones and power of the real thing. The CD couldn't compete with the LP played on the PV-I, however. Analog did everything better, the guitar part thrusting into the room like a sharpened saber. Here again the PV-I's low noise -- and high respect for the musical signal -- made for listening that was truly thrilling.
Low frequencies were always well delineated and quick-paced with the PV-I. Albums as diverse as Beck's Sea Change [Geffen/Mobile Fidelity MFSL 2-308] and Sonny Rollins' Vol. 1 [Blue Note/Music Matters MMBLP-1542] displayed impressive bass that was anything but similar. The PV-I made the differences plain, unraveling the density and layering throughout Sea Change and nimbly tracking the line of the upright bass on Vol.1. The PV-I's bass wasn't the last word in weight and bloom; it emphasized precision and rhythmic drive over sheer might. This also applied to the way in which it handled voices, the vocals on Sinatra and Sextet: Live in Paris [Rhino/Mobile Fidelity MFSL 2-312] sounding light and lithe.
With good-sounding recordings, and especially ones well suited to the PV-I's and Series VII's collective strengths, the sort of magic that defines great analog sound happened again and again. The Purevox 'table and 'arm defied analysis of their sound and enhanced understanding of each recording -- and the music captured there.
Headquartered in Germany, TW-Acustic has made great inroads into the US market through enthusiastic representation from Jeff Catalano of High Water Sound, an analog aficionado of the highest order. While my TW-Acustic Raven AC turntable ($14,500) is my sonic reference, the anvil against which I pound out reviews of other turntables, it is also a cherished part of my audio system. Listening to records with the Raven AC has never been anything less than a rare and beautiful experience, and I often find that it's revelatory, especially when I'm not doing anything related to reviewing and simply riding along with whatever music I'm playing.
I have two tonearms mounted on my Raven AC -- a Tri-Planar Mk. VII UII and a Graham B-44 Phantom II -- and while they do not sound similar, neither overwhelms the 'table's own sonic signature, which is sumptuous and robust, with a full, physical midrange and weighty, potent low frequencies. The Raven AC seemingly concentrates all that is alluring about analog playback into one turntable, and does so in a flexible package that can accommodate up to four tonearms and three motors. While I covet TW-Acustic's top-of-the-line Black Night, I continue to be delighted three years on with my Raven AC.
As I've mentioned, I wasn't able to use my tonearms on the Purevox turntable or the Purevox tonearms on my Raven AC, so testing every possible combination of products was out of the question -- thankfully. I did use the same cartridges on each 'table/'arm combo, and the same phono cable with the Graham and Purevox tonearms (the Tri-Planar has a captive cable).
The differences were so apparent that I could have picked each turntable in a blind test. With the Raven AC, Sea Change took on a lush opulence that makes this music the equivalent of chocolate mousse, while with the Purevox PV-I, the layering of the production dominated amidst a dusky, dense backdrop -- a fine but important distinction. With symphonic music, the Raven AC was masterful at portraying the orchestra as a forceful mass, while the PV-I better parsed each section of the orchestra from the next. With recordings that sound big, like an original Living Stereo pressing of Offenbach's Gaîté Parisienne performed by the Boston Pops [RCA LSC-1817], both turntables acutely placed the musicians in vast space, and their dynamic prowess was on full display. Still, the Raven AC emphasized weight and fullness, the PV-I detail down into the noise floor and overall agility.
This is not to say that the Raven AC didn't sound fleet and detailed, because it did, or that the PV-I was wispy and disembodied, because it wasn't. There were simply different proficiencies on display that emphasized different things about the music. If you're a dogmatic audiophile, you'll undoubtedly fixate on the notion that one of these has to be wrong if the other is right, whereas listeners with a more cosmopolitan view will hear the sonic validity of either approach and likely value one over the other.
While building turntables and tonearms during this time of heightened interest in analog playback may seem like a smart way to make money, it's daunting for a start-up, and especially so for a Chinese company, which has to make its way among those already well established in the market. Producing a line of turntables and tonearms as Purevox has done certainly shows commitment, but in the price range of the PV-I turntable and Series VII tonearm, performance commensurate with their cost is vital. They deliver, addressing the deleterious effects of noise and thereby providing an unfettered sonic experience. I encountered a few bumps during setup that Purevox has supposedly corrected, but once the records started spinning, the snappy, exacting sound became a testament to the company's goal of zapping noise before it gets to the stylus.
In the case of the PV-I and Series VII, Chinese manufacturing hasn't led to products that look spectacular and have shockingly low prices. It has led to competitive products with competitive prices. That, along with Purevox's obvious design and manufacturing expertise, should be enough for the brand to survive -- and perhaps even thrive. I'm curious to see where things go from here.
Prices: turntable, $24,500; tonearm, $4900.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Purevox Audio, Inc.
Bertrand Audio Imports
49 Fairview Ave.
Nashuan, NH 03060
Analog: TW-Acustic Raven AC and VPI Classic turntables, Graham B-44 Phantom Series II and Tri-Planar Mk VII UII tonearms, Dynavector XV-1s (stereo and mono) and Audio-Technica AT33EV cartridges, AudioQuest LeoPard phono cable, Lamm Industries LP2 and Audio Research PH7 phono stages.
Digital: Audio Research Reference CD8 CD player, Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP universal player, Zanden Audio Model 2000P CD transport and Model 5000S digital-to-analog converter.
Preamplifiers: Convergent Audio Technology SL1 Legend with phono stage, Lamm Industries LL1 Signature, Zanden Model 3000.
Power amplifiers: Audio Research Reference 110 stereo amp, Lamm Industries M1.2 Reference and Zanden Model 9600 monoblocks.
Loudspeakers: Tidal Audio Contriva Diacera SE, Vivid Audio G1 Giya, Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX Series 3.
Interconnects: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Shunyata Research Aeros Aurora-IC.
Speaker cables: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Shunyata Research Aeros Aurora-SP.
Power conditioners: Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference, Shunyata Research Hydra V-Ray Version II.
Power cords: Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference, Shunyata Research Anaconda Helix CX and Python Helix CX, Zanden Audio power cords.
Equipment rack and platforms: Silent Running Audio Craz 4 Reference isoRack plus and Ohio Class XL Plus2 platforms (under Lamm M1.2 amps), Harmonic Resolution Systems M3 isolation bases under digital gear.