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.

Performance
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 changer—as 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 output—not 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 voices—they 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 MoFi—especially 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 range—speakers 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.

Conclusions
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 vanish—even 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 LPs—ranges 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't—sort 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.
Company Info
Clearaudio Electronic GmbH
US distributor: Musical Surroundings
5662 Shattuck Avenue
Oakland, CA 94609
(510) 547-5006
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Comments
volvic's picture
Linn Majik vs Clearaudio Concept

Going to stick my neck out but I have to think that the Concept would probably sound as good as a Linn LP12 Majik (the basic version) for less money than the Linn costs, which shows what great value and quality entry level turntables have become.  I know some will disagree but as someone who has owned an LP12 this has been my observation over the years.  Here come the arrows!

soulful.terrain's picture
It has...

 

...that clean Bergmann look! Love it!

WillWeber's picture
Simplicity is a virtue. Or can be.

If done well, simplicity has a lot to offer, and little to go wrong. Or compromise.

This Concept design appears elegant; as yet its reliability is unknown.

The price/performance gets good marks from reviewers who mostly rave about this ‘table. I wonder though about the tone arm suspension. It is indeed a simple design with few parts and little to wear (sounds kinda naked). What is the tradeoff? Is it firm to its tangential holding assignment (now stop those thoughts)? Or does it react to the changing drag of needle-in-groove as the music density ebbs and flows (sorry)? If so, this would be the relative equivalent of micro speed changes of the record, which might account for the slight lack of dynamics and transient attack Mr. Fremer reports.

BTW: My wild guess is that anti-skating is provided by torsion of the filament, which would indeed be a touchy adjustment on the anchor end.

Simple and elegant; I am tempted at this price point. Just wondering how it compares to other giant killers near this class like the VPI Scout, Rega P5, Pro-Ject Xperience, etc. Been holding off on vinyl hardware to see how the hi-def downloads market goes, ever since my trusty old Dual 1229Q had its final flight. That old bird was the inverse of simplicity, an alternate fashion of elegance, sorely missed by my vinyls.

Stephen Scharf's picture
How the Concept stacks up

I have a Concept and it is a fantastic TT for the money. Most importantly, it sounds like music. The arm is fantastic, and IMO, worth $1500 alone. Hands down the best TT for $1500 or under and it punches way above it's weight class; sounds better than a P5 and a Scout if you ask me; almost as good as my Michell Gyro SE MKII/SME V deck. Fremer's review is accurate, and if he says the Concept doesn't plumb the depths of detail and weight of LPs the way the best TTs do, it's beause those TTs cost 20X to 100X as much as a Concept. Remember, his reference is a Continuum Caliburn, for goodness sake. 

Compared to your Dual, it will rip the arms and legs off your Dual, and blow the rest into the weeds. 

WillWeber's picture
Concept stacks up

Thanks Stephen for your feedback,

You do point to my problem with Mr. Fremer's review. His bar is so high that nothing without rockets can scale over. I'm sure he is accurate, but he does not compare the table to earthly models. However, I am glad he was assigned this review, that alone is an indication of the respect that the Concept must have among the staff, and if he has only minor complaints that's quite significant. And yup, I didn't expect that my 35 year old Dual would compete (now defunct, already dismembered after encountering a careless piano tuner) . You see, I was not planning on spending big to replace my analog rig until the HD digital market shakes out. But this new table may change the equation, and has me rethinking. Your comments are helpful.

What cartridge did you put on your Concept?

Cheers,

Will

Stephen Scharf's picture
Cartridges for Concept

Hi Will, 

My Concept is actually a dedicated mono only deck, so I am using a Grado Reference Sonata1 mono cartridge on it. I have heard it with my stereo Grado Reference Sonata (not the 1 series) and it was very good with that, dynamic, full, punchy with excellent bass and very musical but not the last word in detail. The 1-series Grados are even better, so I expect a Grado Reference Sonata1 stereo cart would also be excellent (the newest series 1 Grados have much better detail, smoothness and upper octave air, a big improvement over the original series). The Concept is also reputed to work very well with the Clearaudio Maestro Wood, and the Benz wood-bodied moving coils, so I expect any of those would be a great match. I also expect it would work well with one of the Soundsmith wood-bodied moving iron designs that have a medium compliance cantilever. 

Get it; you will not be disappointed. It's a *killer* table for the money. 

 

Cheers,

Stephen.

WillWeber's picture
cartidge suggestions

Thanks Stephen,

The Maestro and the Benz Woods are actually at the top of my list. Nice to have some confirmation about this. Here we apparently have one of the "best" MM compared to a very fine MC, my amp can take either. Wish I could audition them on my system. It's very detailed and revealing, yet smooth as silk, musical transcendance. It would not be satisfied with lesser groove moves.

Interesting news about the new series Grados, I am not so keen on the traditional Grado softness. So I will check out the latest.

Tunefully,

Will

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