Listening #106 Page 2
The user who opts for the new Oracle cartridge will find that that's been pre-installedaccurately, as far as I could tell. Neither the tonearm's cartridge platform nor the cartridge's machined body have any of the sorts of straight lines that are useful in making or checking alignment (footnote 3), but to the extent that I could see, overhang and offset were correct for standard Baerwald alignment.
For the high-output and, apparently, high-compliance Oracle Paris moving-coil cartridge, Oracle recommends a downforce of 1.6gm and a load of 47k ohms. The latter spec deserves special mention: I usually make a good-faith effort to toe any manufacturer's line, and particularly when it comes to phono setup, and so it was with the Oracle's "straight-in" load recommendation. Unfortunately, that sounded bass-shy, drama-shy, and altogether unconvincingso I regressed to the behavior expected of me and tried a few different step-up transformers. Although the Oracle didn't need the gain per se, it loved the load provided it by the Silvercore One-to-Tenwhich is, after all, designed for other high-output MC cartridges (the EMT TSD 15, in particular). All the performance comments that follow are based on using the Paris cartridge with the Silvercore transformer.
Finally we have the arm-damping adjustment, which wasn't difficult at all (though it did require a bit of patience to wait for the thick gel to settle in the damping trough). The instructions told me to: fill the stationary trough with the supplied silicone goo to a point just 1/32" below its edge; adjust the setscrew so that its tip barely touched the silicone bath when the stylus contacted the surface of an LP; and lower the setscrew toward and into the bath by one full turn. Fair enough. But, like some Europeans, I began my evening by skipping the bath.
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Again, the first track I tried sounded a bit ball-less: a shame, since it was "21st Century Schizoid Man," from a recent and altogether excellent reissue of King Crimson's debut, In the Court of the Crimson King (LP, Panegyric/Inner Knot KCLP1, footnote 4). But when I inserted the Silvercore transformer between the Oracle tonearm's output and my preamp's moving-magnet phono input, I heard a massive improvement in both bass extension and overall impact. Now the performance was absolutely riveting. The drum sound on this record is distinctly compressed, of course, yet it still had a believable timbral and dynamic impact that the Paris system put across to engaging good effectand the stacked saxes in the improv section stood out from the rest of the mix beautifully well.
Emboldened, I reached for the always-fun In Too Much Too Soon, by the New York Dolls (LP, Mercury 0698): a pretty good-sounding record, especially if it's played loud enough. Side 2's one-two punch of "Puss 'N' Boots" and "Chatterbox" sounded great on the Paris. Arthur Kane's electric bass was deep and colorful, Jerry Nolan's drumming sounded punchy and right, and Johnny Thunders' guitar toneespecially in "Chatterbox"was awesome: appropriately stringy, physical, clangy, and, again, colorful. Way colorful. And in "Puss 'N' Boots," the tambourine in the repeating bridge had just the right musical effect and sonic presence, without drilling into one ear and out the other, as has been known to happen.
Now I was on a roll, and it occurred to me, without my having to think too hard: This player rocks! Indeed, the Oracle Paris played up-tempo music with apparent freedom from the timing distortions that make other players sound slow, or temporally muddled and indistinct. Subsequent records produced the same good results, from R.E.M.'s New Adventures in Hi-Fi (LP, Warner Bros. 9362-46320-1, footnote 5) and Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (LP, Merge MRG295) to, God bless them, Mott the Hoople's Brain Capers (LP, Atlantic SD 8304).
It also occurred to me: Whatever one has to do to make a record player that shrugs off and ignores surface noise, Oracle has partly succeeded. I bought my copy of Brain Capers on the day it came out in 1972; it didn't sound terrible on the Paris, but it didn't sound great, eitherand on my reference player (Garrard 301 with Schick Tonearm and Ortofon SPU A), it sounded somewhat less noisy.
In search of loftier goals, I went looking for my copy of Schoenberg's Suite for Clarinet Trio, String Trio, and Piano, Op.29, played by the Melos Ensemble of London (LP, L'Oiseau-Lyre SOL 282): noisily delightful stuff that uses the clarinets' color and bounce to wonderful effect. The Oracle did a fine job, although my reference player found even more color and bounce, not to mention more textureas it damn well should for the additional cost and trouble.
Enough: It was time to try the goo. I followed the instructions described above, then retried the Schoenberg Suite. I expected a reduction in treble extension, and I was rightbut only to the slightest extent imaginable. The more noticeable effect was a reduction in groove noise, and in random ticks and pops: not a huge improvement, but enough to say so.
Even more was an altogether unexpected increase in scale. I like music that sounds big when it's supposed to, and the Oracle Paris with a damped tonearm was huge. The piano in the Schoenberg "looked" like a piano. The orchestra in Colin Davis's recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra of Mendelssohn's Symphony 4 (LP, Philips 9500 068) seemed to spread out in all directions, compared to its sound with the undamped arm. I listened for drawbacks to the damping and heard none.
Some anecdotal observations: Without the silicone bath, the Oracle's resistance to footfalls was okay: not the worst, not the best. With the silicone bath, it was distinctly better. Also with the silicone bath, according to the Hi-Fi News & Record Review Test Record (LP, Hi-Fi News HFN 001), the combined Oracle arm and cartridge exhibited a moderate lateral resonance at 9Hz and a very mild vertical resonance at 10Hz; without the damping, the frequency points remained the same, but the degree of "wobbling" was more severe.
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Let's not beat around the bush: This isn't the sort of record player I usually tend to like. I tend to like big, high-mass tonearms, and low-compliance phono pickups with spherical styli big enough that you can see them through a grease-paper window with one eye shut. The turntables I like are big and old and torquey, and have at least three speeds. At least.
I still do. And I still prefer my reference Garrard/Schick/Ortofon player to the Oracle Paris Mk.V. But the thing is, the Paris plays my records in a way that makes sonic and musical sense. In other words, this thing just plain worksto a greater extent than you'd guess from its price of $5000 (which, whether you like it or not, does in fact qualify as "affordable, sort of" these days).
And as I listened to the very huge, rumbling piano in Alban Berg's Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op.5 (from the same LP as the Schoenberg), I thought: Damn good record player.
Footnote 3: One might argue against using the headshell or even the cartridge body as a visual indicator of proper alignment, since there's no guarantee that the cartridge's motor unit is properly aligned with those things. One would be correctthus setting the stage for the hobbyist blessed with good vision to make adjustments based on the cantilever itself. However, having now examined a number of styli under a microscope, I know that the chance of finding a stylus shank that's improperly aligned in its cantilever is at least as strong as the chance of finding a cantilever that's been misaligned with respect to the cartridge body, thus catapulting the entire argument squarely into the file folder labeled Try your best, but don't beat yourself up, because it's pointless.
Footnote 4: I would point out that this album is subtitled, with acnefied pretension, An Observation by King Crimson, but I'd probably get hate mail from the same pathetic hipster who got mad the last time I wrote something about The Greatest Band Ever that was less than 100% adulatory.
Footnote 5: Unauditioned for over a decade, and indeed a better record than I thought it was at the time of its release.