Turntables are back. Actually, they never really went away, but during the dark decade of 1990 when compact discs threatened to make vinyl records extinct, it sure seemed so. Although we’re living in the age of digital downloads, vinyl lovers have a bounty of spoils to satisfy their analog Jones. There is a constant flow of LPs being reissued by labels such as Rhino, and new turntables and accessories make 2010 a superb time to get into or rediscover vinyl.
At one time, the Japanese held a significant share of the turntable – and hi-fi – market, with brands such as Technics and Denon enjoying widespread popularity across the U.S. Now, China has moved into high-end audio, and some of the greatest bargains are coming from The People’s Republic. And the build quality can be very good.
I’ve had great success with all-things Chinese coming from Grant Fidelity. This Calgary, Alberta, audio concern is the North American distributor of brands including Opera-Consonance, a Chinese turntable manufacturer that’s been going for more than 15 years. O-C recently released the LP 6.1 turntable and T988 tonearm, designed for high analog performance on a budget. Packaged together, the ‘table and arm list for $1,325; but, they are offered directly through Grant’s Web site for just $1,125.
When I spoke with Grant Fidelity’s founder, Ian Grant, he also mentioned a new isolation platform that used the opposing forces of earth magnets to create a pocket of air between the component and the stand itself. It was in fact a levitating platform, capable of supporting up to 50 pounds. “Interested?” he asked. Absolutely.
Design and Setup
The LP 6.1 employs an elegant and minimalist plinth: A longer, central rectangular bar is affixed to a shorter side “leg” and an additional block that houses the low-noise DC motor. The short leg houses the platter bearing, while the far end of the long leg is pre-drilled for the tonearm. The plinth is made of solid aluminum and finished with an attractive powder coating. Three feet, standing on hard plastic bumpers, are arranged in a triangle pattern to anchor the works.
The uni-pivot T988 is a 9-inch arm composed of carbon fiber, a popular choice for arm tubes as the material is lightweight, very strong and helps reduce vibrations. Uni-pivot tonearms can be intimidating at first. Such arms pivot freely on a bearing at just one contact point. There’s nothing to keep the arm from moving – in space – from side to side or up and down. From an audio standpoint, uni-pivot arms are favorable because that single contact point minimizes bearing friction and tracking force variations as a cartridge and stylus navigate a record’s walls and valleys. The result is greater dynamics and more natural and musical playback. The T988 is also versatile: the oil-damped pivot makes it possible to use moving coil and moving magnet cartridges of varying weights. Grant included a Dynavector DV-20X ($750) moving coil cartridge for the review.
The first step is filling the bearing with oil to a prescribed level and then fitting the 1-inch thick acrylic platter into the bearing seat. A pair of white cotton gloves are included for clean-room like setup. Installing the belt is a bit tricky, as it’s really just light-test monofilament fishing line. It took my not-so-nimble fingers several attempts before I successfully threaded the belt from the motor pulley around the platter. The motor pulley houses two ruts: one for 33 rpm playback and the other for 45 rpm. Set the belt in the desired rut. The ‘table comes with two belts, in case you snap or lose one.
Once the belt is in place, it’s time to fit the cartridge and make adjustments to the tonearm. The T988 is a marvel in simplicity, but it does require some work to set right. The tonearm cable connection fits directly into the top of the base, secured by an Allen screw. An RCA connector attaches to the audio wire connectors, which then go directly to the RCA cables connecting the phono stage. The tonearm base holds a bearing well, where the “male” and “female” bearings meet. To keep this pivot smooth, a few drops of silicon oil are applied from a plastic syringe. Users can ultimately add more oil to the surrounding tonearm oil cup, if greater damping is desired. The remaining steps require trial-fitting the counterweight, mounting the cartridge, setting tracking force, aligning the cartridge, securing the anti-skate weight to one of three positions according to the mass of the cartridge and adjusting vertical tracking angle. A strobe disc is included to perform a final speed check. Then, it’s time to play records! (The LP 6.1 comes with a foam record mat. I’m still on the fence about such products. I played dozens of records with and without the mat and didn’t come to a hard conclusion.)
I love hearing new turntables. Those first moments, as the cartridge and stylus meet the LP groove and music emerges, are part of a reviewer’s joy. That anticipation held me as I set Mobile Fidelity’s reissue of The Allman Brothers Band’s Idlewild South onto the LP 6.1’s platter. The Southern rock classic “Revival” is one of the most joyous in the canon, featuring the velvety guitar tones of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts and a gospel-like chorus. What struck me most was the dynamic force of the music – a sense of energy that I can only describe as “slam.” Don’t mistake that for lack of nuance; rather, the Opera system brought out the force and presence of the music. Side 1 close with the instrumental “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed,” a guitar lament that builds into a full-on jam. Instead of a jumbled mess, the Opera sketched each instrument’s place in the mix, giving weight to Berry Oakley’s bass, along with Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson’s driving drums and and percussion.
Analog aficionados will contend that a properly set-up turntable trounces CD sound, but turntables have a more utilitarian function. What about the thousands of LPs that have either never been issued on compact disc or have gone out of print and are available only at collector prices? That puts a lot of potential music on the shelf. Take Poco’s 1976 album Rose Of Cimarron. It remains out of print, domestically, on compact disc even though the recording is one of the finest in the country-rock genre.
So, I’ll stick with my vinyl, thank you. The 6.1 brought out the music’s bloom and organic-like development, particularly on the astonishing title track. Rusty Young’s tour de force performance across pedal steel, dobro and electric guitars paint a scene of wide-open spaces, yet the music is delivered with crisp detail and finery.
Guitarist Alex de Grassi was one of the kingpins upon whom the Windham Hill record label made its name. His 1979 release, Slow Circle, showcases a virtuosity expressed not so much in technique – though de Grassi’s picking skills are formidable – but in the melding of classical, jazz and folk stylings into compositions that truly color the air with sound. De Grassi’s mastery of alternate tunings opens the door to a fantastical world of sonic shapes and moods. His music carries the nuances of clouds and the light of summer sun. Details, such as the intonation of strings bending, fingertips striking strings and legato passages came to life through the LP 6.1, whether on the spry wings of “Causeway” or the haunting arpeggios of “Sleeping Lady.”
I was curious how the outfit would play using a lesser cartridge. The Dynavector was swapped for Audio Technica’s AT 95E, a budget-priced moving magnet unit that can be found new for around $50. Although the moving magnet couldn’t match the dynamic slam of the Dynavector, taken as a whole the LP 6.1 and T988 arm paired with the AT 95E still delivered a lot of the dynamic “pow” that won me over with the Dynavector. Listening to British jazz-rock quartet Isotope’s 1975 release,Illusion, was proof among many LPs that the Opera-Consonance outfit was designed not just to work with but work well matched to different phono cartridges. The swift drums and cymbals, angular guitar lines, washes of electric piano and bass bubbled with lithe energy, and Illusion became my go-to record when playing the Opera-Consonance system for friends.
Listening in Isolation
Now, back to the levitating platform. Nobility Furnishings is a Chinese manufacturer of audio “furniture,” including the WMP-1A Magnetic Levitation Platform Audio Table. Audiophiles are always looking for ways to rid components of undesired resonances and vibrations, and the WMP-1A does this by floating the table on air. The platform is built solid of American walnut and all the wood joints are hand-joined and glued, keeping the structure free of nails and screws. Eight earth magnets are used in opposition, with four set in recesses at the corners of the table’s underside. Below each of these is an opposing magnet, affixed to a walnut leg terminated with a brass spike. The spike then fits into the groove of a brass “button” just below.
I had no prior experience with earth magnets, and I soon learned a painful lesson in respect. During transit, one of the magnets had come loose from the machined screw that holds it in place on the table’s underside. When I was setting up the platform, the magnet became detached from table and quickly found its mate, locking on with vice-like ferocity. I tried prying them apart with my bare hands, and just as I was achieving success the magnet’s rejoined, pinching my left ring fingertip in the process and nearly crushing the entire nail. I finally put the two between a beach towel and slowly slid them apart without further injury. Once accomplished, I was able to set up the platform and enjoy the benefits of levitating isolation.
Even without the platform, the LP 6.1 operates with stone-like silence – the only thing to hear is the music. Resting on air, the ‘table brews up a pot of even blacker backgrounds, that vacuum-esque nirvana of audiophiles. At $550, the WMP-1A isn’t cheap, but it’s well built, attractive and delivers on its promise. And it’s just plain cool.
The LP 6.1 and T988 system will appeal to hard-core vinyl spinners and those seeking an upgrade path without spending megabucks. I recommend it especially if your musical tastes tend toward blues, rock or jazz. High-end sound and design come together here for budget-minded audiophiles. Yes, my friends, turntables are back.