Erick Lichte, August 2012
It was high time I reviewed a turntable for Stereophile. One of the more intriguing and inexpensive ones I've seen lately is Clearaudio's Concept, and after reading Michael Fremer's review of the Concept in the June 2011 issue, I wanted to try one for myself. I also thought it might be nice for our readers to see what a raised-on-digital analog type (me) might think of Clearaudio's entry-level system.
The Concept ($1400 alone) is a turnkey analog rig that comes with platter, tonearm, and cartridge: a Concept MC moving-coil ($2000 total) or a Concept moving-magnet ($1500 total). The package arrives almost entirely preassembled, and adjusted for vertical tracking force (VTF), vertical tracking angle (VTA), and azimuth. All you have to do is take it out of the box, peel off the tape securing its delicate parts, place the platter on the spindle, plug it into the wall and your rig, and you're playing music. I had mine up and running in about 15 minutes.
I won't waste space here rehashing the Concept's features and specificationsMikey did a great job of that in his reviewbut you should know that I began listening to it with Clearaudio's standard Concept MM cartridge. (MF listened only with the Concept MC cartridge.) I also listened using Clearaudio's Nano ($400), a tiny, well-made phono stage that will accept MM or MC cartridges, and offers a few different resistance values to best match your cartridge.
I already had some vinyl on hand, but the Concept's arrival definitely meant a trip to Everyday Records, on W. Burnside Street in Portland, Oregon, to see what more I could score. I came back with a bunch of new LPs and a load of used ones, and began my listening with Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues (LP, Sub Pop 888, footnote 1). I was immediately struck by how well the midrange was fleshed out, offering good texture and detail. Images, though not huge, had a nice roundness, and guitars had a good balance between snap of string and body of tone. Most cheap turntables that I have heard have a lightweight, cardboardy sort of sound. Not the Concept. Instruments had a surprising amount of body and thereness compared to some other, cheaper 'tables I've heard. Though the feel of music was certainly analog, the Concept didn't remind me at every turn of its platter that I was listening to a turntable, and an affordable one at that.
For me, the attraction of getting into vinyl is the possibility of owning some crazy old records: music I might like but that most people have forgotten, or want to forget. I took my chance on an album I didn't have: Hold On, by R.J.'s Latest Arrival (LP, Manhattan/EMI ST-53037). Listening to the band's remix of their only (minor) hit, "Shackles '87," I was kickin' it old school. The Clearaudio Concept had me dancing around like an idiot. I didn't care so much about the soundthe very fact that I now had access to the weird, wild, wonderful world of used records had me grinning from ear to ear. For me, the Concept's best feature was its ability to play obscure music that I like.
Bass, especially the mid- and upper bass, was surprisingly rich and full. The Concept did not project the often hollow sound I hear from inexpensive turntables. The one area lacking was the top octaves. With the MM cartridge, the treble was a bit opaque and closed in. It was never harsh, but music, especially Amon Tobin's ISAM (LP, Ninja Tune ZEN168), clearly lacked air and extension of overtones. That was soon to change.
About halfway through my listening to the Concept, Joe Wessling of Musical Surroundings, Clearaudio's US distributor, traveled through Portland. He stopped by one night with a new Concept kitted out with Clearaudio's stock MC cartridge, the Concept MC. He also brought along a sample of Clearaudio's Ovation turntable (look for a review from me soon). Wessling made adjustments to the Nano phono preamp, and we gave a listen to what the Concept MC, a $500 upgrade from the Concept MM, could do.
Right away, I was struck by how much more open, extended, and delicate the treble was. The midrange was further fleshed out, and the bass was slightly more extended and neutral, but mainly, the treble was far more refined. I was so happy with the sound that I took Wessling out to taste Oregon's finest beers at some essential hipster nightspots.
The weeks that followed only confirmed those initial impressions. Listening to Portishead's etched 12" single of "Machine Gun," from their deluxe release of Third (LP, Island 1766390), I realized how much closer the Concept with Concept MC sounded to my reference digital version through the Bel Canto DAC 3.5 VBS Mk.II. I mean that in a good way. The MC cartridge's sweeter, more extended treble helped define the rest of the music, revealing more harmonic color to instruments, more space between aural images, better-defined transients, and a generally clearer window onto the music.
The midrange, too, gained much greater detail and palpability through the MC cartridge. I picked up an old LP from 1981: a cappella male choir Chanticleer's On Tour, recorded at St. Ignatius Church, in San Francisco, by none other than Prof. Keith O. Johnson (Sounds Wonderful SW-8101). The program is a mixed bag, but I was really taken with the group's performance of Holst's arrangement of "Swansea Town." Even 30 years ago, Chanticleer's signature sound was present, though not as refined as it would later be. It was nice to hear the group in a recording that seemed to have been more about capturing an actual performance than something over-edited and overproduced. The humanity of these singers came through via the Clearaudio Concept; the clarity and truthfulness of the 'table's midrange really brought this music to life.
The Clearaudio Concept is a winner. It offers great build quality, plug'n'play ease, and is fully upgradable. But even in one of its basic packages, it offers superior performance for the price. For many, it may be the turntable that gets them into this hobby. Others may find it all the turntable they'll ever need.Erick Lichte
Footnote 1: See my review of the Audio Research Reference 150 in the July 2012 issue for details of my system.Erick Lichte