Erick Lichte, August 2012

Erick Lichte wrote about the Clearaudio Concept in August 2012 (Vol.35 No.8):

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 specifications—Mikey did a great job of that in his review—but 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 sound—the 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
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

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

 

...that clean Bergmann look! Love it!

WillWeber's picture

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

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

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

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

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

Et Quelle's picture

Maybe with a cart that cost more than the table, you will experience that slam. Isn't a table just a set for a cart to perform? Goldring Legacy or Transfiguration Axia?

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