Clearaudio Concept record player Page 2
My review sample came equipped with Clearaudio's Concept MC moving-coil cartridge already installed. The MC weighs 8gm and has a moderately high output of 0.4mV at 5cm/s. Its body is made of an alloy of aluminum and magnesium coated with a layer of ceramic, and its boron cantilever is fitted with a Micro Line stylus. The suggested vertical tracking force (VTF) is 2gm, ±0.2gm; the recommended loading is 100 ohms.
Setup and Use
The Concept was really easy to set up. Leveling the turntable was a simple matter of placing the included spirit level on the platter and turning the three threaded feet while keeping an eye on the level's bubble. Although the Verify tonearm comes completely preset, it's important to double-check every setup parameter, particularly VTF. Once that's done and the tonearm leads are connected, you're ready to play records. For the purposes of this review, I used the system as delivered rather than try other cartridges. I think most buyers attracted to the Concept's ease of setup and use will buy it with the cartridge installed and ready to play.
A turntable's first job is to spin the record at the correct speed. Using Dr. Feickert's free iPhone app (search Apple's App Store for "platterspeed"; it requires a 3150Hz test-tone band), the Concept ran slightly fast, at approximately 33.6 and 45.4rpm, which is still very good.
My first impressions were of a very smooth-sounding, quiet turntable-tonearm-cartridge assembly. Those ended up being my lasting impressions as well. For someone used to digital's generally flat, "zingy" sound, a cozy evening with the Concept might prove a game changeras will the suave sound of the Concept MC cartridge for anyone used to Clearaudio's old, bright, crystalline sound. My ears comfortably slipped into the MC's airy, relaxed overall sound as if into a pair of fleece-lined slippers.
The Concept turntable delivered "blacker" backgrounds than I'm accustomed to at this price. The 'table ran quietly, physically and sonically, and the system was extremely well damped. A tap on the plinth while a record was playing produced very little outputnot that an impulse test like that has anything to do with a turntable's rejection of outboard musical feedback. The Concept was completely free of the cardboardy or hollow, drum-like colorations often produced by moderately priced 'tables. At normal to moderate listening levels, the sound of the stylus riding in the lead-out groove was barely audible.
Also missing were the other usual trouble spots at the frequency extremes: high-frequency hash or edge, and bottom-end bloat. The Concept's extremely good behavior in those areas helped produce a low-coloration ride that was rich in the midrange and mesmerizingly three-dimensional, and it was particularly adept at reproducing voicesthey sounded full-bodied and fleshy, with smooth, natural-sounding sibilants. Muddy Waters' voice on his Folk Singer, for example, was reproduced with a rich three-dimensionality that was unmistakably analog. The system missed some of the acoustic guitar's sparkle, and the studio reverb was somewhat truncated compared to what I've heard from far more expensive analog rigs, but what was present was so pleasing and inviting that I simply didn't care about what wasn't present. The Concept's rich presentation will provide a pleasing alternative for those used to the flat imaging of digital sound.
The Concept does a fantastic job in the midrange, where it's smooth, clean, notably transparent, and relatively uncolored. This cartridge-turntable combo's smooth sound had me pulling out recordings by singers: vinyl reissues of albums by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Bobby Darin from Boxstar and MoFiespecially Darin's That's All (mono, Boxstar 3008) and Love Swings (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab 1-005)and enjoying the image solidity and dimensionality you just don't get from digits.
While the Concept's sonic personality was ideally suited to acoustic music and voices, it did a pretty good job with rock, too. This was the same turntable that swamped the CD reissue of Pantera's Vulgar Display of Power at last fall's AES convention (footnote 1) which I wrote about in the February "Analog Corner."
What don't you get for $1400? For starters, the Concept's sins are those of omission, which are far preferable than such glaring sins of commission as thumpy, out-of-control bass and/or etchy highs. The Concept's sins include only moderate deep-bass extension, and dynamic compression relative to far more expensive 'tables, accompanied by a loss of rhythmic control as well as an uncertain attack in the upper octaves, where a softness prevailed, instead of the clean "snap" you get from more expensive, more accomplished 'tables.
So the Concept shaves off some of the high-frequency transients, doesn't offer the full measure of air on top or deep, tight extension on the bottom, and somewhat limits full dynamic expression. In my opinion, these won't be great losses in a moderately priced system with smaller speakers that are limited in frequency response and dynamic rangespeakers that often have midbass colorations, and are often driven by electronics that add their shares of grit and etch, all of which are the last things such a system needs. Which means that the moderately priced Concept is an ideal companion for a moderately priced system. Its strengths are that it has no glaring weaknesses, and that in most of the systems in which it's likely to be used, what it doesn't do won't be missed.
Fitted with the Concept MC cartridge, Clearaudio's plug'n'play Concept turntable-tonearm-cartridge combo is exceptionally attractive, easy to set up and use, and seems better built than its price would suggest. It's a quiet, smooth performer that excels at midrange smoothness and transparency of the sort that makes speakers seem to vanisheven my $65,000/pair speakers.
The Concept doesn't scale the heights or plumb the depths of the audioband, nor does it express the full dynamic range preserved on the best LPsranges that, despite the measurements, often seem greater than what's heard from CDs. You have to pay more to get more in those departments. But what's most likable about the Clearaudio Concept is that it gives what it can and withholds almost completely what it can'tsort of like having an old girlfriend as a houseguest. (Did I just write that?)
Even for someone with a bigger rig that does only digits, a well-made, attractive-looking turntable such as the Concept would make a pleasing-sounding analog alternative, and afford easy entry into the growing world of new and reissued vinyl. From there, it's only a matter of time before you're crawling on all fours, spitting dust at Goodwill.
Footnote 1: I've seen some comments online that claim that that comparison was unfair, as Doug Sax cut the lacquer without compression, while Masterdisk's Howie Weinberg apparently "smashed" it for the CD edition. Well, if the more commercial format gets the more commercial mastering treatment, which seems to be the norm these days, and the vinyl gets the more dynamic audiophile treatment, what's unfair? I've conducted comparisons of LPs and CDs for decades, with CD fans making the musical selections. Vinyl almost always wins.