Systemdek • 3D Reference Mk II Turntable

by Roy Gregory | November 21, 2017

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Time was that any self-respecting turntable employed a suspended sub-chassis and a belt drive. From the seeds of the AR-XA and Thorens TD150 rose an all-conquering race of bouncy decks, from the Linn LP12, Pink Triangle and Logic DM101, to to the Sota Star Sapphire, Oracle and VPI HW-19. Indeed, so dominant was the format that it dictated the UK market to such an extent that when the Roksan Xerxes appeared, both its inclusion of a suspension and its price point (and thus engineering execution) were defined entirely by the LP12’s philosophical and sales hegemony. The result was a promising design compromised and ultimately hog tied by cost constraints and the use of inappropriate materials. Indeed, it wasn’t until the appearance of the TMS model nearly ten years later, with its extra plinth layer, composite polymer construction and elevated price tag, that the product really started to work. It’s a salutary lesson in just how stifling the influence of the suspended sub-chassis really was, and while it might have been less constrictive in the US and elsewhere, it still endured, almost unchallenged for an astonishingly long period of time.

My how things have changed! These days, not only are suspension systems a rarity, but belt drive’s ubiquity has been seriously eroded by the re-emergence of direct and idler drives. All of which places the Systemdek 3D Reference somewhere between a blast from the past and an anachronism, a welcome case of consistency or downright bloody mindedness. When it comes to the great British turntable revolution, brothers Derek and Ramsay Dunlop of Systemdek were there at the start and are still going strong. The original Systemdek three-point suspended design, a quiet but consistent competitor to the LP12, was created by their father, Peter. Working beside him and in stark contrast to most of the alternative offerings, they brought the three-point-suspension-and-belt-drive recipe to ever lower price points, first offering the cylindrical "biscuit tin" Systemdek II and then the IIX, mounted in a more conventional wooden plinth, a design that lives on as the Audio Note (UK) TT-1, as well as the basis for the multi-motor TT-2 and TT-3.

Now the story has come full circle, and after several years devoted to designing and building loudspeakers, the boys are back with a pair of new three-point suspended-sub-chassis designs -- the Reference and Precision models, of which the 3D Reference Mk II reviewed here is the flagship. Both ‘tables share a basic layout and appearance -- as well as a sense of shared DNA with the original Systemdek III. That deck always looked and felt different from its contemporaries, partly down to its beveled Nextel plinth and low-profile platter, more particularly because of its low-slung, low-frequency suspension, a setup that always seemed less nervous than the likes of the LP12 or Pink Triangle and which was mirrored in the calm assurance of the deck’s sound.

The new Systemdeks have that same soft, relaxed feel to their springing, but the mechanical similarities stop there. Both are built into machined aluminum plinths, with thick Delrin platters, use the same magnetically opposed bearing spinning on a highly polished 20mm shaft in a Teflon sleeved oil bath, are driven by the same precision AC motor and use the same twin-spring, mass-loaded, three-point suspension. Suspended mass is high (16kg/35 pounds in the case of the Reference), while the oval armboard and mass loading allow the use of anything between a 9" and 12" tonearm. The sub-chassis itself is a laminated carbon/aluminum sandwich, the substantial oval up-stand necessary to lift the 'arm relative to the 70mm-thick platter. The stainless-steel posts in each corner of the plinth stand on adjustable cones, an arrangement that makes leveling a breeze -- unlike with so many suspended designs of the past. The slow-speed motor in the Reference (and Precision) is housed in a standalone, stainless-steel tower and fed from an external, user-adjustable, microprocessor-controlled power supply. Its large-diameter pulley drives a rubber, circular-section peripheral belt.

At a glance it’s hard to tell the Reference and Precision models apart, especially in a photograph. In person, the distinction is rather more obvious, the Reference having a broader footprint and heavier proportions to go with a significantly heavier overall weight: 65kg (143 pounds), as opposed to the 45kg (99 pounds) of the Precision. That extra mass comes from a heavier and taller platter and a far more substantial plinth. In comparison, the Precision’s platter is almost an inch thinner and nearly five pounds lighter. In keeping with its massive plinth construction, the Reference also employs a laminated alloy and carbon-fiber sub-chassis as well as a carbon-fiber armboard to add stiffness and improve the ability of the sub-chassis to handle mechanical energy.

Given the inherent complexity of the chosen design path, the Reference Mk II's actual execution is a model of simplicity and high-quality materials, with nothing more complicated than it needs to be. Just observe the main bearing as an example: a beautifully engineered, low-friction, low-noise design that incorporates the latest thinking and materials into a simple, effective update on the conventional standing-post blueprint. Using opposed magnets to lift the bearing reduces the inherent noise without limiting platter mass, something that is a limitation if you use Teflon thrust plates. Instead, Teflon is used for lateral support, a slick surface to counteract the minimal side forces experienced in a standing bearing, while the hydraulic oil bath ensures that the shaft can’t bounce against the magnetic spring, disturbing the mechanical reference plane provided by the platter. It’s a thoughtful, well-executed but above all a cost-effective solution to this key component, a measure of the care and attention to detail that’s been lavished on the deck as a whole. The quality of the fit, finish and materials also suggests that the models will enjoy a similarly extended working life to their predecessors. In fact, I know several happy owners who still use their original Systemdek IIIs -- and show no inclination to give them up.

Aside from the substantial weight involved, setup is also simplicity itself -- as long as you remember, relearn or simply discover the basic rules for suspended designs: dress the 'arm lead so that it doesn’t impede the suspension; level the plinth; level the platter -- remembering to do it with a record on the platter, the 'arm halfway across it and any clamp or weight in place. The Systemdek suspension is adjustable from above using an Allen key, so as long as you remember to get everything just so, a lightweight and accurate spirit level is all you’ll need (I used the superb and super-accurate T-shaped model from Sonority Design). Although Systemdek supplies a record weight with their ‘tables, as is generally the case, I preferred the performance of the Stillpoints record weight and set the suspension accordingly.

Although the Reference Mk II will accept a wide range of 'arms and arrived fitted with an SME 12" board, I elected to use the Kuzma 4Poiint, and an armboard was cut and supplied overnight. The heavy Kuzma 'arm (nominally a 10.5" design with offset mounting and a 2050-gram/4.5-pound mass) was right on the limit of the suspension adjustment but still leveled -- and aside from the 4Point 14, you are unlikely to find anything heavier. If you do, then Systemdek can adjust the springing of your ‘table accordingly.

There’s one other point regarding set up that is worth making: where solid decks are intimately affected by their supporting surface and the degree of isolation/dissipation it provides, the suspended Systemdek is relatively unfussy. Give it a decent, level surface and that’s all it asks. It is equally at home on a standard audio rack (I used a Hutter Racktime) or a large wall shelf. The only thing to avoid is the sort of big, heavy cabinet apt to store energy and then release it at a frequency almost purposely designed to defeat the deck’s suspension. As well as a practical consideration, this also has significant cost implications for potential owners.

I’ll admit to being somewhat suspicious of the deck’s appearance on first arrival, its dove-gray plinth (technically, Bentley Ghost White, the ‘table being available in any automotive color), curved front and thick black platter looking awkward in combination, especially with the relatively sleek SME mounted. This is a big deck with a big footprint, and it really benefits from a big 'arm to go with it. The bulkier and more substantial Kuzma changed things dramatically, bringing a sense of visual balance to the combination, and suddenly the Systemdek started to look appealingly retro, reminiscent of the cast enameled plinths found on the likes of Garrard 301s and Thorens TD124s. That whole vintage thang isn’t really me, but the more time the Reference Mk II spent in the system, the more I began to appreciate its looks. For once, the external power supply looks all of a piece, extending the aesthetic, while setting speeds is extremely easy, using either the Feickert platter speed app or a strobe and battery powered lamp.

For anybody brought up on solid-plinth designs, a suspended deck may well feel alien, but the Systemdek’s suspension is stable enough that you’ll quickly get used to it. It's stable enough, in fact, to allow adjustment of the 4Point’s VTA on the fly. Likewise, for anybody brought up on (or exposed to) the LP12, suspended design probably equates to limited low-end extension and authority. Indeed, the argument in favor of high-mass, solid-plinth designs sits squarely on their lower registers and the palpable soundstage that results.

Well, the Systemdek 3D Reference Mk II certainly debunks those assumptions. It may use a floating bearing sitting on a floating sub-chassis, but there was nothing floaty or insubstantial about this deck’s sound, a point underlined by the explosive dynamics of the Louis Fremaux/CBSO recording of Massanet’s score for Le Cid [EMI/Klavier KS 522]. It’s not just that the tuttis arrived with the requisite bang, those crescendos had real density and substance to match the expansive acoustic. A deck like the Stabi M gives slightly more side-wall information and more explicit delineation of depth, but the Systemdek offered greater immediacy and an attractive sense of musical enthusiasm.

Perhaps not surprisingly (given the historical precedents) that emphatic dynamic delivery was accompanied by a fluid and expressive rhythmic articulation. Bass lines had weight, shape, texture and propulsive properties just as they should have, as a quick spin with any of Intervention Records’ Joe Jackson titles will quickly show, Graham Maby’s penchant for playing long clearly apparent in the tactile, motive lines he spins. Jackson’s piano had body, shape and attack, but it was the solidity and articulation of the vocals on I’m The Man [A&M/Intervention Records IR-004] that really stood out -- that and the way that the whole band and their performance hung together.

There was an easy, relaxed grace and confidence underpinning the big Systemdek’s performance -- a confidence that was happy to let the music bite when it needed to, whether that was Jackson’s angst-filled snarl or the bottom-end detonations in a ballet score, the ones that make the dancers jump, whether they meant to or not. Listen to something suitably majestic and that graceful quality was immediately apparent. Playing the Stuttgart Winds’ recording of the Mozart Serenade KV361 [Tacet L209] the Reference Mk II may have lacked the explicit placement of a big, solid ‘table, but tonal separation was effortlessly unforced, while the whole performance breathed with an easy, pulsing sense of life, natural pace and intimate ensemble that brought its own (arguably more musical) appeal. The convoluted, interlocking lines flowed into and around each other to re-create the elegant, melodic dance that’s at the heart of this most unashamedly beautiful piece.

Most of my listening employed the Lyra Etna, and this cartridge’s combination of vibrant tonality, high resolution, detail and articulation proved a perfect foil for the Reference Mk II/4Point rig. Even so, the sound retained a subtle rounding and softness, the flip side of that lack of edge or glare and I suspect an instrumental element in the easy sense of unimpeded musical progress that flowed so smoothly from the big Systemdek. That velvety-smooth presentation was something that I’ve often heard from other decks employing heavy Delrin platters and a suspension, notably the Michell Orbe, and it seems that the musical qualities inherent in the early three-point suspended designs have survived intact in this latest incarnation, but significantly ameliorated by the higher suspended mass, choice of materials and engineering execution. The inherently self-damped sub-chassis and the superb main bearing are, I believe, key contributors, as is the massive platter. Delrin might not be perfect as a platter material, but its failings (that subtle smoothing and slight darkening of the sound) also make it musically forgiving -- which is no bad thing. It was noticeable just how musically catholic the Reference Mk II was: happy to play any genre, unperturbed by quality of recording or pressing, it had that happy knack of making the most of any record I played. Eschewing fancy terms like transcription turntable, this is first and foremost a record player, and it does exactly what it says on the tin: plays records -- any records, all records, whatever record you might want to play.

One area that challenges any suspended design is speed stability, and in this respect the Reference Mk II was no different. Bracketing on the Feickert Platter Speed app was noticeably more lax than on the close-coupled decks like the Kuzma Stabi M or VPI Classic 4, and playing piano recordings in particular, the lack of absolute pitch and temporal security was apparent, whether in the diminished dexterity of Benedetti Michelangeli or the subtle lack of physical substance underpinning the instrument on Nick Cave’s "Into My Arms" (The Boatman’s Call [Stumm 142]). Is this a deal-breaker? No. Indeed, until the appearance of decks like the VPI Classic and the Grand Prix Audio Monaco, the sonic impact of relatively poor speed stability was the dirty secret we all lived with. Those decks weren’t the first (or even close to being the first) to advance the cause of temporal accuracy -- but they were the ones that dragged the issue kicking and screaming into the harsh light of audiophile day. It’s possible to argue that the Systemdek Reference Mk   II’s approach is outdated, but that would be to ignore the musical swings it brings to counteract the developmental roundabout. Besides which, its speed stability was way better than that of most of the suspended designs I’ve used -- doubtless helped by the high-suspended mass and sophisticated power supply. Sure, I’ve heard Michelangeli, "the Condor," sound more emphatic, and Nick Cave’s accompaniment sound even more sonorous and fatalistic, but we’re talking nuance here, and I’ll readily admit to the Reference Mk II’s more seductive qualities.

At the end of the day, you pay your money and take your choice -- and in the case of the Reference Mk II it’s no small amount we’re talking about: 29,995 plus an 'arm and cartridge, to be precise. If you are in the US you can take 20% sales tax off that ticket, but then you have to factor in shipping and duty, so any way you look at it, the 3D Reference Mk II is anything but a cheap date. This cost also puts this latest Systemdek slap up against some serious competition -- but then that’s nothing the brand’s not used to and the Reference Mk II more than holds its own. It may not be the most fashionable deck out there. It may not tick the niche boxes of idler drive, direct drive or really extortionate pricing (with its implied guarantee of superior performance). It may not shout about itself in the way that some other decks do, but what it does do is play records, quietly, confidently and in an unfailingly engaging and musical manner.

Is the Systemdek 3D Reference Mk II the antidote to audiophile fashion? Quite possibly. But what it definitely is is a thoroughly engineered and entertaining turntable. Some might see it as a blast from the past or view it through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. I just see it as a capable and impressive update on the most successful turntable format ever -- and that fact alone should give you pause for thought. For many a listener, tiring of the current sonic rigor (mortis?) infecting so many turntables, I suspect it will be a case of old-fashioned -- and it will be all the better for it.

Price: 29,995.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.

Systemdek Turntables
3 Dukes Road
Troon, Ayrshire, Scotland KA10 6QR
www.systemdek.co.uk

Associated Equipment

Analog: VPI Classic 4 with SDS and VPI JMW 12.7 and Tri-Planar Mk VII tonearms; Kuzma Stabi M turntable with 4Point 14 tonearm; Allnic Puritas and Puritas Mono, Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, Fuuga, Kuzma CAR-50, Lyra Atlas, Etna, Dorian and Dorian Mono cartridges; DS Audio DS-W1 cartridge with matching equilizer; Stillpoints Ultra LP Isolator record weight; Connoisseur 4.2 PLE and Tom Evans Audio Designs Master Groove phono stages.

Digital: Wadia S7i and Neodeo Origine S1 CD players, CEC TL-3N CD transport.

Preamplifiers: Connoisseur 4.2 LE, Tom Evans Audio Designs The Vibe and VTL TL-7.5 Series III Reference.

Power amplifiers: Berning Quadrature Z and Jadis JA30 monoblocks, two VTL S-400 Series II Signature stereo amps.

Speakers: Wilson Audio Sasha W/P Series 2 and two WATCH Dog subwoofers, Wilson Benesch Square Five and Endeavour.

Cables: Complete looms of Nordost Odin or Valhalla 2, or Crystal Cable Absolute Dream from AC socket to speaker terminals. Power distribution was via Quantum QB8s or Crystal Cable Power Strip Diamonds, with a mix of Quantum Qx2 and Qx4 power purifiers and Qv2 AC harmonizers.

Supports: Harmonic Resolution Systems RXR, Hutter Racktime or Quadraspire SVT Bamboo racks. These are used with Nordost SortKone or HRS Nimbus equipment couplers and damping plates throughout. Cables are elevated on HECC Panda Feet.

Acoustic treatment: As well as the broadband absorption placed behind the listening seat, I employ a combination of RPG Skyline and LeadingEdge D Panel and Flat Panel microperforated acoustic devices.

Accessories: Essential accessories include the SmarTractor protractor, a USB microscope (so that I can see what I’m doing, not for attempting to measure stylus rake angle) and Aesthetix cartridge demagnetizer, a precision spirit level and laser, a really long tape measure and plenty of low-tack masking tape. I also make extensive use of the Furutech anti-static and demagnetizing devices and the VPI Typhoon record-cleaning machine. The Dr. Feikert PlatterSpeed app has to be the best ever case of digital aiding analog.

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