Music Hall Ikura LP player & Ortofon 2M Blue phono cartridge

The call I received from Music Hall's Leland Leard surprised me: "Hey, Bob, I think you'd be the perfect guy to review our new Ikura turntable!"

Hmm. It had been four years since I'd reviewed a record player: Pro-Ject's Debut III, in the February 2010 issue. And with the surging popularity of vinyl—hell, Rough Trade NYC's enormous new record store, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, even sells turntables—the thought of a plug-and-play turntable-tonearm-cartridge combination for $1200 intrigued me. Sure, Leland—send it on.

Design
The Ikura features a two-plinth design credited to Music Hall's Roy Hall—who admits that he stole the idea from the Revolver turntable, which he imported into the US over 20 years ago. The Ikura's motor, power switch, wiring, and electrical components are mounted on the bottom plinth, and its critical sound-reproducing elements—the main bearing and tonearm—on the top plinth. The plinths are separated by vulcanized rubber cones.

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But three features of the Ikura appear on no other Music Hall turntable. First, the Ikura has a platter made from medium-density fiberboard, a material chosen, Hall says, for its sonic sweetness. The platter supports a felt mat and sits on a stainless-steel ball bearing sheathed in Teflon; the bearing assembly comes pre-charged with lubricant. Second, the 'table features an isolated, asynchronous DC motor. But the biggest difference between the Ikura and other Music Hall 'tables is that it was designed jointly by Roy Hall and Michigan-based industrial designer James Kyroudis, an audiophile whom Hall met when Kyroudis had contacted him with technical questions about a Music Hall DAC. Hall told me that he provided the two-plinth design and other mechanical criteria, and Kyroudis the Ikura's cosmetics. Their goal was to design something that could be economically produced at the factory in the Czech Republic that produces all Music Hall turntables.

The Ikura is gorgeous, and a welcome departure from the boring-British-box look I've come to expect in this price range. Available painted gloss black or gloss white, it has an elegant, rounded, modern look, with an attractive design of swirling dots on its top surface. The dots remind Hall of the salmon roe typically served in sushi bars, hence the Japanese name: Ikura. The rounded dustcover is equally sexy.

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The Ikura's tonearm is a single piece of aluminum with an effective length of 9" and Swiss-made ABEC 7 stainless-steel bearings. Included in the price, and already installed, is an Ortofon 2M Blue moving-magnet cartridge ($236 when bought separately) with an elliptical diamond stylus that's user-replaceable. Hall told me he'd heard the 2M Blue at one of his dealers, installed in a different turntable, and had been very impressed with its sound. The Ikura comes with a rugged set of RCA phono jacks and a grounding post on its rear surface, as well as a set of interconnects with a built-in ground wire. I wish every turntable manufacturer would follow Music Hall's lead; I've grown weary of dealing with tonearms with fragile integrated cabling.

Setup
Setup was a breeze. Install the drive belt and the tonearm's counterweight and antiskating weight, dial in the recommended vertical tracking force (VTF)—Music Hall recommends 1.8gm—and you're good to go. The vertical tracking angle (VTA) is set at the factory. I'm sensitive to the sound of improper VTA, but Music Hall's factory setting sounded spot on to me. However, should you choose to use another cartridge, Music Hall provides all the necessary tools, and detailed setup instructions in its excellent manual, for setting overhang, azimuth, and VTA. I plugged the Ikura into the deluxe moving-magnet phono board built into my Creek Destiny integrated amplifier.

Sound
The Ikura's detailed, uncolored, sweet, airy midrange made it an excellent match for well-recorded voices. Singer Cassandra Wilson's lower range in her New Moon Daughter (LP, Blue Note 8 37183 1) was rich, open, bloomy, and without any touch of thickness, despite the husky quality of Wilson's voice. Doris Day's higher-pitched voice in her Cuttin' Capers (1959 LP, Columbia CL 1732) was bathed in a golden glow, with crystalline, airy highs. Even Mick Jagger's lower register in the Rolling Stones' underrated balladic tribute to Jane Asher, "Lady Jane" (German LP, London 320 050-1), was rich and glowing. For some more challenging vocal music, I listened to the extended vocal techniques of Singcircle on their Mouth Music, in arrangements for the five singers and percussion (LP, Hyperion A66060). The Ikura reproduced every subtle phrasing with crisp, clean, airy detail.

The Ikura's high-frequency performance was impressive for a $1200 turntable. There was no compromise in the sound of the highs—all recordings sounded clear, uncolored, and extended. In Vivaldi's Concerto for Two Trumpets in C Major, with trumpeters Ian Wilson and Michael Laird, and Christopher Hogwood conducting the Academy of Ancient Music (LP, L'Oiseau-Lyre DSL 0544), the orchestral violins were searing and extended, with the requisite amount of bite, while retaining the instrument's natural sweetness.

The Ikura's bass performance was even more impressive. All bass instruments were clean, quick, and extended, with no touch of overhang or loss of definition. The pedal notes in Poulenc's Organ Concerto, with organist Maurice Duruflé, and Georges Prêtre conducting the French National Radio Orchestra (LP, EMI ASD 283), were forceful and dramatic, with no sense of bottom-end rolloff. I liked the Ikura's rendition of double basses in jazz recordings. Spanky DeBrest's walking bass lines in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk (LP, Atlantic 1278) were clean, uniform, and airy, with perfect pacing—the instrument's woody tone was clearly delineated. In "Clean Plate," from Anton Fier and Arto Lindsay's The Golden Palominos (UK LP, OAO 1001), there's some dueling lower-register work between Jamaaladeen Tacuma's Steinberger bass guitar and Bill Laswell's prepared fretless and six-string basses. The Ikura was able to perfectly separate these gentlemen's sounds; it was very easy to follow their individual bass lines.

The Music Hall's ability to render inner detail made it a spectacular showcase for well-recorded classical works. I never tire listening to George Crumb's Makrokosmos III: Music for a Summer Evening, with Gilbert Kalish and James Freeman on amplified piano, and percussionists Raymond Des Roches and Richard Fitz (LP, Nonesuch H-71311). The rendering of hall sound and stage ambience was superb, and it was easy to follow the inner detail of every instrument, even during the most complexly cacophonous passages. Even during the most dense and dissonant passages of Gyîrgy Ligeti's Melodien, with the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Atherton (UK LP, Head/Decca 12), the Ikura unraveled the orchestra's inner details, leaving intact all of the subtle upper-register textures of the strings, woodwinds, and percussion. And with Stravinsky's Les Noces, with the Columbia Percussion Ensemble and, on piano, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, and Roger Sessions—how's that for a supergroup?—the Ikura cleanly unraveled the four piano parts (UK LP, CBS BRG 72071).

I also liked the way the Ikura player rendered transients. All of pianist Paul Bley's articulate phrasings on The Paul Bley Quartet (LP, ECM 1365) were quite clear, even in his dissonant, rapid-fire solo passages. And in Jeanne Kirstein's prepared-piano work in John Cage's Music for Keyboards 1935–1948 (2 LPs, Columbia M2S 819), all of the subtle harmonic inflections of each piano preparation were rendered intact.

The Ikura was also capable of reproducing wide dynamic swings. The Crumb recording has a dynamic range of ppp to fff, and the Ikura reproduced the entire range. Even "Starless," from A Young Person's Guide to King Crimson (LP, Editions EG KC10), was reproduced with the full dynamic range and drama of a classical orchestral recording. But the Ikura reproduced subtlety and delicacy as well. In the quieter passages of Penderecki's A Polish Requiem, with Antoni Wit conducting the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Polish Radio and Television Chorus, and the Cracow Philharmonic Choir, the orchestra's phrasings in the range of ppp to piano were reproduced with a realism that that I've heard only when I attended a concert performance of this work.

The Ikura presented most recordings with a relaxed, easy sound. The lower brasses and saxes in Charles Mingus's Mingus Ah Um (LP, Columbia CS 8171) blended with a sense of liquid and linear ease. And in Virgil Thomson's The Plow that Broke the Plains, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Symphony of the Air (LP, Vanguard/Analogue Productions LAPC 001), the strings and woodwinds floated into my listening room on a silky bed of air, blooming with ease.

The only times I felt the Ikura got a bit flustered were the occasional highly modulated passages with significant high-frequency content. With both the Crumb and King Crimson recordings, such passages seemed a bit tense at times, and less relaxed than less demanding passages.

I spent more time listening to the Music Hall than I have to most of the components I've reviewed over the last six months—not because I had any trouble reaching a conclusion about its sound quality but because I so much enjoyed listening to music with it that I found myself digging out some favorite recordings I hadn't played in years and listening to them in their entireties. A while back, I was telling my audiophile friend Bob Penfold how I'd rediscovered Focus's wonderful Moving Waves. I was amazed by how this largely instrumental art-rock recording from the early 1970s still sounded fresh, and how well it showcased the brilliant artistry of Jan Akkerman—a rock guitarist whose licks were derived from classical music rather than the blues. Bob surprised me with an original pressing (LP, Sire SAS-7401); playing it on the Ikura, I reveled in the pristine, extended, high-frequency delicacy of Akkerman's acoustic and electric guitars. I also noted how Cyril Havermann's bass sounded clean, forceful, and natural.

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I also rediscovered the magic of Chick Corea's The Mad Hatter (LP, Polydor PD-1-6130). When I went shopping for my very first stereo, in the late 1970s, I played the first four tracks of this, my favorite Corea recording, in every store: In just under 14 minutes, Corea takes his group through so many acoustic and electronic textures that it's easy to unravel the subtleties of a stereo system. The opening track, "The Woods," is a through-composed work with Corea playing piano, six different analog synthesizers, and percussion. The Ikura reproduced the pianissimos with delicacy and air, and the portamento of the descending bass synth at the end punched me in the chest and shook the room. The transients and bloom of the string quartet in "Tweedle Dee" were reproduced with no trace of coloration or smear, and Steve Gadd's snare-drum transients in "The Trial" locked in nicely with double-bassist Eddie Gomez's great glissando lines. Finally, Gomez's rapid walking bass in "Humpty Dumpty" was clean, fast, and uncolored—but I found that this track did get a bit tense in the hairier parts of Corea's solos, which coincided with Gadd's busier snare work and loud cymbal crashes.

Comparisons
I compared the Music Hall Ikura with the affordable analog reference I've used to test inexpensive speakers and electronics over the last 12 years: a Rega Research Planar 3 turntable with Syrinx PU-3 tonearm and Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood cartridge (totaling ca $2000 when these components last available). The Rega rig had more delicacy, air, and decay, and revealed even more midrange and high-frequency detail than the Ikura. Through the Rega, transients were a bit more relaxed and slow than through the Music Hall. Which was more accurate? Probably a matter of taste. Vocal sibilants were also a bit softer through my reference. The bass wasn't as forceful or as extended through the Rega as through the Music Hall, and while the dynamic ranges of both 'tables were wide, I think the Ikura bettered the Rega a touch in its ability to hit bombastic fff passages. Finally, in highly modulated passages, the Rega had less of a sense of coagulation and tension and more of a sense of ease.

Conclusions
The Music Hall Ikura impressed me—it did just about everything I want a turntable to do, without any of the tradeoffs I've come to associate with inexpensive turntables. Its plug-and-play design makes it a user-friendly way for any music lover to add a vinyl source to his or her system.

I'd go a step further. If your analog front-end is 10 years old or older, originally cost between $1000 and $2000, and you're considering upgrading your cartridge, you may want to consider donating your old rig to a needy young audiophile and buying an Ikura. You may be in for a pleasant surprise.

Another step further: The Music Hall Ikura is good enough that, if I had to live with it as my only means of playing vinyl, I'd be quite happy.

COMPANY INFO
Music Hall
108 Station Road
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 487-3663
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