Clearaudio Ovation & Clarify turntable & tonearm
Like many audiophiles, I cohabit with someone who understands my audio obsession but has no desire to share it. That someone is my wife. Since I began writing for Stereophile, Ashley has helped me carry amplifiers, tape up boxes for shipping, and found room in our house for all the extra components and their boxeswhich sometimes make the place look like a scene from an episode of Hoarders. She's a peach. Every time new gear comes to the house or to my studio, my wife has calmly helped me move stuff around while I dance around like a six-year-old on Christmas morning.
Occasionally, as a new DAC, amplifier, or speakers came through our door, my wife would ask, "When are you going to review some turntables?" So, in deference to my sweetie, I contacted Garth Leerer at Musical Surroundings, US distributor of Germany's Clearaudio Electronic GmbH, and asked him for two turntable setups: the Concept (system cost $1500$2000) and the Ovation ($5500$8250). Having read the buzz about both systems and learned about the technology that Clearaudio has packed into their price points, I thought they'd be great places to start.
I loved my time with the Clearaudio Concept (see my Follow-Up in the August 2012 Stereophile); it was fun, pleasant, and simple to use, and what it lacked in resolution and truth it made up for in musicality and grace.
Now to set my sights on something a bit more serious: the Ovation, Clearaudio's finest offering in a turntable with a traditional plinth ($4300 without arm). I was also excited that the Ovation system, with its Clarify tonearm ($1600), Talismann V2 Gold cartridge ($1750), and Basic+ phono preamp ($1000), costs about the same as my reference digital source, Bel Canto's Design's e.One DAC 3.5 VB with VBS1 power supply and e.One CD2 CD player. My goal for this review was to hear not only what the Ovation could do, but also how these high-quality digital and analog rigs compared to one another. In one fell swoop, I could keep the peace in my home with my wife and, once and for all, declare a decisive winner in the war of digital vs analog. By the end of the review, either the analog or the digital audio industry will be left in ruins. I'm sure that both shudder in dread as they wonder who will win and flourish, and who will lose and be condemned to a life of bankruptcy and destitution.
Horses to Water
Like most folks I've met in the audio industry, Musical Surroundings' Garth Leerer and Joe Wessling are wonderfully helpful, insightful, and enthusiastic about the brands they distribute. Leerer was uncommonly good at articulating the salient features of the Ovation turntable when, recently, I grilled him. So, straight from the horse's mouth . . .
How does the Ovation fit into Clearaudio's line and the greater world of turntables?
"The Ovation fits into the Clearaudio line as their best 'traditionally shaped,' rectangular-plinth turntable. It has the same footprint as the Concept and Performance models, [which are] priced below the Ovation, and uses all the technology of the more expensive Innovation series from Clearaudiohence the name, Ovation. At the $5000 price point there are turntables with big plinths and/or big platters, but the Ovation uses materials and technology unique at its price point."
What materials and technologies are unique to the Ovation?
"The chassis sandwiches Panzerholz, a high-tech wood laminate, between two sheets of machined aluminum. Panzerholz machines similarly to steel, has a high rigidity-to-mass ratio, a low Q, and a wideband resonant signature. This means it does not ring, and its sonic signature is rich and full. Because Clearaudio has to machine out space in the Panzerholz plinth for the platter bearing, motor, and armboard, they fill the rest of the cavity with a rubber damping tile filled with stainless-steel shot. This adds mass and damping. The Ovation is the least expensive Clearaudio turntable using Panzerholz."
The Ovation's motor is said to have some unique features. What are they?
"The motor on the Ovation features what we call an Optical Speed Control. An infrared sensor is mounted on the top of the plinth, and the metal subplatter has a fine strobe pattern inlaid on its bottom. The sensor monitors platter speed to regulate speed accuracy in the presence of stylus drag. The sensor reads the rotating platter speed via the strobe and, via a servo, tells the motor how to quickly compensate for speed accuracy. If you look at a vinyl record, soft passages are very small, fine groove modulations, while dynamic passages and crescendos are more widely spaced grooves. These large grooves can cause small speed variations, which are often perceived as soundstage collapse or glare. The speed accuracy also has benefits for piano and choral music, where pitch accuracy is paramount.
"The motor in the Ovation is the same custom DC motor used in the Innovation series, and is decoupled from the plinth with elastomer isolators. It uses a flat belt for accurate coupling. The advantage of the belt being hidden under the platter is that the rubber belt is isolated from UV, which can cause it to dry out and age prematurely. The Ovation runs at 331/3, 45, and 78rpm."
The Ovation employs a Ceramic Magnet Bearing. How does it work, and why do you use it?
"The Ceramic Magnet Bearing (CMB) was developed by Clearaudio about nine years ago. A traditional bearing goes down below the plinth, and the platter acts like a spinning top. An inverted bearing has the bearing shaft rising above the plinth, placing the bearing contact point, sometimes referred to as the thrust pad, right under the platter spindle. The argument for an inverted bearing is that it is more rotationally stable; the argument against it is that it places a potential noise sourcethe contact point of the spindle, ball bearing, and thrust padright under the spindle and, thus, the record. The spindle is typically hardened steel, the ball bearing steel or ceramic, and the thrust pad can be bronze, or a synthetic such as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). As these parts rotate and contact each other, there is the potential for not only vibrational noise but also for wear, which results in noise increasing over time. Typically, oil is used to lubricate all the parts to reduce friction and wear.
"The CMB addresses these issues. The upper bearing part is magnetically levitated above the lower, eliminating the need for a ball bearing and thrust pad. The spindle is a ceramic material with lower friction than steel, so vibration, noise, and wear are greatly reduced. Clearaudio provides a synthetic lubricant for the ceramic shaft to further lower friction."
The Ovation's platter seems particularly robust. What is it made of?
"The Ovation platter is 40mm-thick polyoxymethylene (POM), an engineering thermoplastic used in precision parts that require high stiffness, low friction, and excellent dimensional stability. Like many other synthetic polymers, it is produced and sold under many commercial names, including Delrin, Celcon, and Hostaform. POM platters are machined using traditional methods such as turning, milling, and drilling, and require sharp tools to maintain precise tolerances. The bottom of the platter is milled out for the metal subplatter to be inserted, and features a weighted rim for increased flywheel effect. Thus the Ovation uses both passive and active techniques for speed accuracy. POM is 'softer' than the acrylic previously used by Clearaudio, and is more similar to vinyl."