Clearaudio Champion 2 turntable & Unify tonearm with Benz Micro L2 phono cartridge Page 2
Most buyers of Champion 2s will not be using the turntable in a context quite as exotic and revealing as the reference system I used for this review (see Sidebar). The Champ 2 sat on a carefully leveled Grand Prix Audio Monaco stand fitted with an F1 carbon-fiber shelf. The Monaco was spiked through the carpet down to the concrete-slab floor of my listening room. Most auditioning was done with the $1000 Clearaudio Unify arm and $1295 Benz Micro L2 MC phono cartridge (see Sidebar). I also listened to the Champ 2 with my reference combination of Graham 2.2 tonearm and Dynavector XV-1S cartridge.
After giving the Benz Micro L2 a decent number of hours to break in, I began rooting around in my LP archives, listening to old favorites and long-lost treasures. The Champ 2 immediately demonstrated some significant strengths. Its speed stability was excellent, this particularly noticeable on piano recordings. Bass pitches were rendered with rock-solid stability. Despite its lack of a suspended subchassis, the Champ 2 proved itself impervious to acoustic breakthrough. This is certainly attributable in part to the excellent Grand Prix stand, but the Clearaudio's straightforward, heavyweight design is well-executed; the 'table should work excellently on any stand solid enough to hold its impressive bulk.
The Champ 2's bass performance was very good—it plumbed the organ's pedal points in Saint-Saëns' Symphony 3 (RCA/Classic LSC-2341) with excellent definition. The mega-bass of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's once-again-topical "Two Tribes (annihilation mix)" (12" single, UK ZTT 12 ZTAS 3) had major impact and commendable tautness. Cecil McBee's acoustic bass on the title track of Alice Coltrane's Journey in Satchidananda (Impulse! IMP 228) had a roundness and density that was very satisfying.
Though a bit light in character in the upper bass, the Clearaudio did an excellent job of communicating music's pulse and rhythmic structure. Phil Lesh's deftly contrapuntal bass-guitar work on the Grateful Dead's American Beauty (Warner Bros. WB 1983) was delightful via the Clearaudio/Benz rig. Far better a bit of lightness in the upper- and midbass than its opposite—a big but heavy, plodding, ill-defined sound that robs music of its rhythmic vitality.
The Champ 2 generally articulated music quite well. Vocals were clear and intelligible, with a natural warmth. The Dead's harmonies on "Box of Rain" were sweet and mellow, though there was just a hint of extra emphasis on Jerry Garcia's sibilants in "Candyman." There was a bit of blurriness on Pharaoh Sanders' speedy soprano-sax excursions on the Alice Coltrane LP, and in the denser passages of the solo piano in Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli's performance of Debussy's Images (DG 2530 196). Perhaps this is the sonic signature of all the acrylic used in the 'table's construction.
The Clearaudio consistently seemed to slightly accentuate the leading edges of transients. Acoustic guitars had a bit more "string" and slightly less "wood" sound than with my reference SOTA Cosmos Series III, and woodwinds had a jot or two more reedy bite than wooden roundness, but the Clearaudio's balance was in no way amusical or unnatural. With massed strings, the individuality of each section's multiple players was not forfeited, and timbre was consistently commendable. Brass had suitable weight and "blat" without undue harshness.
The Champion's presentation was on the forward side, but not unnaturally or aggressively so; "bold," "lively," and "up-front" were the best descriptors. On "McBride's," from Moving Hearts (WEA K 58387, UK), the Champ 2 brought Donal Lunny's bouzouki a bit more forward than I'm used to hearing it, and Zino Francescatti's violin had a bit of extra highlighting in Beethoven's Violin Concerto (Bruno Walter, Columbia Symphony, Columbia MS 6263). Treble performance was unremarkable in a positive way. Top-octave extension was good, without any unnatural highlighting or harshness, but there was a slight sense of air and height lacking, particularly on orchestral music. Nonetheless, the Champ 2 offered more than competent performance, and its minor subtractive colorations were not obtrusive.
When I listened with the highly neutral Graham-Dynavector combination, the Clearaudio's liveliness morphed into a slight edginess in the upper midrange/lower treble, and the midbass was decidedly thinner than with the Unify arm and Benz cartridge. Admittedly, this is not a huge issue, as it's unlikely that a Champion 2 purchaser would pair the 'table with an arm and cartridge so much more expensive than the 'table itself. It's always interesting, though, to see how a moderately priced component performs when used with top-shelf ancillaries, just to figure out where its performance ceiling is.
Soundstage breadth was consistently excellent. Widescreen orchestral recordings such as János Starker's performance of Dvorák's Cello Concerto (Antal Dorati, London Symphony, Mercury SR-90303) had broad, well-drawn soundstages with good image specificity and solid placement. Images were well-developed and free of wander, though lacking some of the bloom and airiness available from more expensive 'tables. Depth was good, but not exceptional in absolute terms; nothing ever sounded spatially squashed on the Clearaudio. Dynamic performance was also admirable, particularly in the middle ranges. From pianissimo to forte, the Clearaudio did a fine job. There was a bit of compression at the loudest moments, especially on orchestral music, and the lowest-level information at the back of the stage was a bit murky.
In a somewhat unfair direct comparison with my SOTA Cosmos Series III (see "Followup" in this issue), the Champ 2's wisely chosen compromises became clear. The Cosmos threw a much deeper stage, and resolved considerably more detail at the rear of that big stage. The Clearaudio's upper bass was, comparatively, somewhat lacking in authority, and top-octave air was moderately truncated. The Cosmos' dynamic range was also broader, particularly at the softest and loudest extremes, and the resolution of fine dynamic variations was more subtly presented. A reality check: The Cosmos costs two-and-a-half times what the Champion 2 does, and the latter's overall performance was far more than merely credible.
I can offer only a mixed verdict when all the points are added up. The Champion 2 is superbly styled and built, and has a lively, well-balanced, and engaging sound when paired with the Unify arm and Benz Micro L2 cartridge. However, the difficulty of its assembly and setup borders on the unacceptable. The typical Champ 2 buyer will most likely be upgrading from a decent entry-label 'table, most of which are bone-simple to get up and running (footnote 3). The Clearaudio will provide a very frustrating experience for the enthusiast expecting Rega-like ease of assembly and setup. I've owned and puttered around with a lot of turntables in my life, and not one offered anything like the Clearaudio's mechanical assembly challenges.
But on sonic grounds alone, the Champion 2 merits inclusion in Class C of "Recommended Components," and its high-quality engineering and finish only add to the fine impression it makes once assembled. Were Clearaudio to redesign the armboard mount to make its installation as painless as is listening to the result, my recommendation would be unqualified.
Clearaudio has chosen carefully and sensibly among the sonic compromises necessary to build to a price that's moderate for a high-end turntable. The straight skinny: The Champion 2 will provide very good overall performance when teamed with a well-considered match of tonearm and cartridge. In spite of my beefs about its ergonomics, the Clearaudio offers a commendably solid package and a lot of performance for a very reasonable tariff. That should be more than enough for most vinyl lovers.
Footnote 3: Another parallel is that, just as Jerry Bruck, the engineer for my record label, JMR, has used Grace professional gear on my projects, he has also used gear from Benchmark. Once again, I was well-disposed toward the product even before it arrived.