Oracle Delphi turntable MF & Delphi Mk.V
You always remember your first one. For me it was an Oracle Delphi turntable back in 1982. I'd gone to Christopher Hansen's in LA to buy a brand-new one, but as luck would have it, a barely used one had just been traded in by film director Roger Corman's son, and I was able to get the Delphi/Magnepan unipivot tonearm combo for a few hundred dollars less than the cost of a new 'table. My first exposure to a wobbly-armed unipivot gave me the creeps, but the deal was too good to pass up.
My LP playback system at that point was a chipboard-plinthed Rotel fitted with a massive Denon direct-drive motor and an S-shaped, high-mass Lustre GST-1 arm with adjustable VTA (good) and a bayonet-type removable headshell (bad) that would slip and change azimuth if you looked at it funny. The headshell was damped with Star typewriter cleaner, the platter was packed with Mortite, and I forget which sticky mat I was using toward the endmaybe the AudioQuest Sorbothane, which now damps vibrations from my saltwater fishtank's air pump.
The cartridge was the star of the show: a sexy Dynavector Ruby I'd picked out from then-importer Mark Schifter's personal stash. That happened only because the Ruby was in such short supply back in the late '70s that I'd switched coasts while waiting for it to show up! When the dealer called to tell me the importer had finally gotten a fresh shipment, I asked him, in those pre-FedEx days, "Why should I wait for the importer to ship it back to Beantown and for you to ship it to me, when he's right here in Westlake Village and I can go pick it up myself? I want that Ruby NOW!!!!!!"
Schifter (late of Audio Alchemy, then with Genesis) generously let me search through the boxes for the flattest frequency-response trace. That cartridge was a honey. I'll never forget the first time I lowered it into the grooves: it was MoFi's pressing of Fleetwood Mac. "WOW! Now that's what cymbals sound like!" I kvelled.
I couldn't wait for the tech at Chris Hansen to install that Ruby in the Magnepan arm so I could take it home and play "Monday Morning." After nervously laying out more moneyabout $1200for an audio component than I'd ever spent before, I went to pick up the 'table and noticed something strange: the Ruby's cantilever was hanging down from the cartridge body like a severed arm.
"We didn't do this," the tech said.
"Well, I sure as hell didn't!" I replied. A pleasant afternoon ensued. I should have made them replace that Ruby, but I was a wuss and we compromised: I'd buy an AudioQuest 404i at Hansen's cost, and tack another coupla hundred onto the already breathtaking bill. The 404i was a nice cartridgein some ways smoother and more refined than the Rubybut it didn't do inner detail or dynamics nearly as well, it wasn't as transparent, and it sure didn't look as sexy. In fairness to the tech (who may very well be reading this), Ruby cantilevers were known to let go if you sneezed in the next room so it could have been a coincidencebut how he set the overhang with that dangling cantilever I'll never know.
The Canadian-built Delphi was a revelation. It was as if the noise floor had been dropped from an airplane. Images floated focused in space, and... Well, I'll spare you a review of a 15-year-old 'turntable. Later, I did an ignorant thing: I put an Eminent Technology I arm on the Delphi. Not a good idea to put a large shifting mass on a highly compliant sprung 'table, but what did I know? Still, the results were spectacularand the tweaking was endless. Back then, I had both the time and the constipation.
A Musical Fidelity (not the British company) power-supply upgrade and a trip to setup guru Brooks Berdan gave me better sound yet, but eventually the shifting-weight thing and my desire to use the even heavier Eminent Technology ET2 tonearm had me selling the Delphi to a friend in favor of a more stable VPI TNT I'd reviewed for The Abso!ute Sound. That Delphi, fitted with a Sumiko MMT arm, still makes sweet music at a friend's house.
Birth of a legend: If you're not old enough to remember the Oracle's debut, or if audiophilia had yet to infect you at the time, the introduction of the Oracle created a sensation. Of course, there was the dramatic and revolutionary look of the thing. Win Labs had created a "plinthless" 'table earlier, but the Oracle caught the public's fancy as few other turntables had. It was revolutionary, and it worked. Among its many innovations: an integral screw-on record clamp.
Marcel Riendeau had been a Toronto audio dealer/distributor, a philosophy teacher at Sherbrooke University 100 miles east of Montréal, and a musician when he began developing the 'tableat a time when Linn was the only serious game in town. His brother Jacques was a Caterpillar tractor mechanic.
When the prototype was finished, the brothers shipped it off to International Audio Review's J. Peter Moncrieff, who listened, measured, and, backed by a series of graphs, declared the new $800 'table "634 times better than the Linn." The Oracle became an overnight sensation and the Riendaus were swamped with 600 ordersalmost one for every reason the 'table was better than the Linn.
"The learning curve was difficult," Jacques Riendeau told me over dinner the other day, "given that my brother was a philosopher and I was a heavy-equipment mechanic," but the brothers managed to build over 500 of the original Oracle. What the other 100 who wanted them bought, I guess we'll never know.
The legend returns: Over 10,000 Oracles were built and sold throughout the world, and at its peak, the company had distribution in 30 countries. However, the late '80s were not kind to analog, and even less so to Oracle, which had not diversified in preparation for the digital age (though there was a loudspeaker project). The end, when it came in 1994, was slow and messy; I'll spare you the ugly details. But the dream remained in the heart of Jacques Riendeau, who'd been with the company from 1979 to 1990. In 1996along with Robin Blanchard, who'd been with Oracle from 1981 to 1989, and a "silent investor"Riendeau formed a new company, Agence Commerciale Inc. The Oracle turntable was reborn.
Before SOTA bit the dust last year, I was sent a "new" top-of-the-line Millennium for review. Consisting of SOTA Cosmos parts (subchassis, bearing assembly, vacuum platter, motor) configured to current expectations (four-corner springless suspension, external motor drive), the Millennium constituted a last-ditch attempt to resurrect SOTA by creating a new "flagship" model out of existing partswhich is exactly what it was. It sounded pretty good, actually, but before I could finish the writeup, the company folded.
I wanted to make sure the new Oracle was the real deal and not some second-rate rehash, and I wanted to hear the old and new Oracle story directly from the head flywheel. I'd seen the new 'table at a few hi-fi shows and had been impressed by what I'd seen and heard, but you know what kind of zoos those events are. I was glad to have the hands-on opportunity at home.