Listening #106

In 2010, sales of motorcycles equipped with sidecars accounted for only 4% of total motorcycle sales in the US. But that was a significant increase over 2009, which was itself an increase over 2008. While numbers remain low overall, sales of sidecar motorcycles are going up at a decent rate, while sales of most other motorcycles are in the toilet.

It seems reasonable to think that bike manufacturers who accommodate this trend should have a better chance of surviving. Indeed, the Russian manufacturer of Ural motorcycles has worked to focus consumer attention on their all-sidecar line (and their increasingly popular vintage styling); consequently, they've gone from the red to the black. Harley-Davidson, on the other hand, stopped making sidecars three years ago, in apparent ignorance of the fact that the median age of their own customers is 49 and rising. (Their ship remains afloat—to the great relief of their dedicated workforce—only because H-D now makes more money from the licensing of their logo than from the products they manufacture.)

Is any of this beginning to sound familiar?

At least partly in response to steadily rising sales of LPs, a number of domestic audio manufacturers continue to create new turntables, tonearms, phono cartridges, and phono preamplifiers for audio perfectionists. Those are the clever ones: the ones who want to be healthy, not Harley.

Sure, the prevalence of grotesquely unaffordable ego-wank products among that lot remains the dominant trend within the trend, and a contributing factor to our industry's sad slide toward irrelevance. But there's cause for optimism whenever someone introduces a record player that's affordable (footnote 1) or at least relatively so. Thus my pleasure at seeing the smart new Paris turntable from Oracle Audio Technologies, the Canadian firm that earned a place in audio history with their very first product: the striking and similarly smart Delphi turntable (footnote 2).

The Oracle Paris Mk.V is offered in a number of configurations: with and without various tonearm choices, with and without Oracle's own cartridge, with and without a dustcover, and so forth. As a turntable only, minus tonearm and cartridge and everything else, the Paris sells for $3150. Oracle recently sent me a fully lit Paris, with its fluid-damped carbon-fiber tonearm and its high-output moving-coil cartridge, all for the less-than-extortionate sum of $5000.

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When I first saw the Oracle Paris, at the 2011 Salon Son et Image show in Montreal, I assumed it was a solid-plinth design—either that, or a design in the spirit of the first Roksan Xerxes, whereby the arm-mount area is defined by a slot routed into an otherwise solid board. As it turns out, the Paris's platter and tonearm are completely and, I think, cleverly isolated from the rest of the works. The subchassis, for want of a better term, is a 1"-thick wooden plank a little over 1' long, oriented in a straight line between the platter bearing and tonearm mount fastened to it. Two stiffly flexible fiber-glass rods pass through the subchassis and extend, laterally, into the plinth itself, with soft Sorbothane washers at all contact points. At the very ends of the suspension rods, those rubber washers are encased by hard plastic tubes, movable up or down by means of threaded rods that are accessed from underneath the turntable. Thus the user can raise, lower, and level the platter and tonearm relative to the motor and plinth.

The Paris's alloy main platter bearing combines a low-viscosity oil bath with a polished steel spindle, the latter machined to a point much like that of the Linn LP12, but notably smaller in diameter. Also like the Linn's, the Oracle's bearing is fitted with high-tech polymer sleeves, and is used without a thrust ball. The spindle is press-fitted to a machined alloy subplatter, the rim of which is 0.375" tall: not a whole lot more than the width of the flat drive belt itself. The AC synchronous drive motor is mounted 4" away from the platter bearing, fastened to an alloy cradle on the underside of the plinth and damped with a soft polymer ring. The convex running surface of the brass motor pulley is even narrower than the rim of the subplatter—hence the importance of being able to line up the plinth with the subchassis. The transformer for the Paris's 24V power supply is contained in a wall wart—a decent one, with a rugged connector and a cable that's slightly less wispy than the norm—while the phasing circuit, regulators, and other electronic components are housed in the plinth itself.

The dark acrylic platter measures just under 1" thick, and its outermost edge is grooved in a manner that suggests circumference drive by a long belt of round cross-section—although that's not the case. The platter's surface is machined flat, intended for intimate record contact facilitated by a two-piece Delrin clamp that threads onto the top of the spindle. (The use of a separate record mat is not encouraged, and none is supplied.)

If the Oracle Paris is any indication, turntables may themselves be going from black to red: My sample matched perfectly the scarlet box in which Ortofon still packages their old-style SPU pickup heads. Go ahead and reach for one of yours, and see if you don't agree.

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The new Oracle tonearm, available separately for $950, begins life as a Pro-Ject 9cc: an interesting arm in its own right. The stock Pro-Ject arm comes with a set of ABEC7-spec (that's good) ball bearings, a decoupled and calibrated counterweight, and a cartridge platform that's perfectly centered with the arm-bearing axis, notwithstanding the requisite offset angle. But the arm's real calling card is its one-piece tapered armtube of carbon fiber, a material said to confer rigidity and low resonant behavior while allowing the effective mass to remain low enough for use with medium- and high-compliance cartridges. Indeed, the specified effective mass of the Pro-Ject 9cc is 25% lower than that of the ubiquitous Rega RB300 family of arms—yet its armtube appears every bit as rigid and imperturbable.

Oracle adds to this an accessory they call their Micro Vibration Silicone Damping Device: essentially, the same kind of trough-and-paddle affair that Max Townshend crafted for his Rock turntables of the 1980s, albeit one in which the trough doesn't extend over the record itself, and wherein the role of the paddle—which moves with the armtube as the cartridge traverses from the outer groove to the inner—is played by the tip of an adjustable setscrew. The farther the user lowers the setscrew into the stationary silicone bath, the greater the damping effect. Notably, the portion of Oracle's Damping Device that carries the paddle/setscrew is a two-piece clamp, made of Delrin, fastened to the fat end of the armtube; it seems reasonable to wonder if this also confers a damping effect to the carbon-fiber tube.

Other arm details: Cueing is accomplished with a lift/lower device of the usual sort; antiskating force is provided by a thread and falling weight; and cartridge azimuth can be adjusted by rotating the entire armtube, which is otherwise locked in place with a setscrew near the arm bearings.

In terms of setup difficulty, the Oracle Paris proved slightly more daunting than a Rega P1, but still within the capabilities of most audio hobbyists. Two small wooden blocks hold the suspension still during shipping, and those have to be removed and set to one side—after which the user installs the bearing oil, bearing spindle (with subplatter), drive belt, and platter. Then the subchassis is adjusted from underneath by turning four small, knurled knobs that are fairly easy to get at. The idea there is to level the subchassis by adjusting the gap between platter and plinth with a small plastic gauge (provided), after which the turntable as a whole can be leveled absolutely by adjusting its three threaded Delrin feet. The motor requires no special attention, apart from plugging the wall wart into an AC outlet and connecting its five-conductor plug to a socket on the rear edge of the plinth.

The Oracle arm, which arrived premounted on the Paris's subchassis, is a bit trickier, if only because of that damping device. Its calibrated counterweight is surprisingly accurate: After leveling the arm and setting its counterweight to 1.6gm, I was rewarded with a measured downforce of about 1.65gm. Not bad!



Footnote 1: Recently, I was dismayed to receive a press release—from an intelligent, honest publicist of my acquaintance—describing a new $5000 CD transport as "affordable." I can only assume that the messaging software on his iPhone accidentally substituted affordable for silver or big.

Footnote 2: Oracle Audio Technologies, 6136 Blvd. Bertrand Fabi, Suite 101, Sherbrooke, Quebec J1N 2P3, Canada. Tel: (819) 864-0480. Fax: (819) 864-9641. Web: www.oracle-audio.com.

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JohnnyR's picture
Comparing Apples to Oranges

You state the turntable with tone arm costs a bit under $5000 then act shocked and dismayed when some one else suggests a CD player , oh excuse me ......TRANSPORT for the same amount? I find both suggestions quite humorous frankly.

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