If any single link in the audio chain should be free of sonic personality, it's the preamplifier. Though a preamplifier's basic job description is "source selector with volume control," from hi-fi's earliest days preamps have been the designated dashboard: the more dials, switches, and lights, the better. All that control came at the cost of quiet, transparency, and tonal neutrality. Still, the quixotic quest for the mythical "straight wire with gain" continued to lead to minimalist designs, including impractical unbuffered "passive" preamps, in which cable length, thus capacitance, affected frequency response.
As it did for so many other designers and manufacturers of specialty audio gear, the current occupation of Basis owner/designer A.J. Conti began as a hobby and personal quest. A longtime audiophile and home-based dealer of brands like Krell and Quicksilver, Conti decided to build his own "killer" turntable using a fluid-damped suspension.
Bo Christensen, who was the guiding light behind, first, Primare, then Bow Technologies, graduated as an architectnot surprising, considering his products' drop-dead-gorgeous looks. I talked with Bo while preparing my review of his Bow Technologies ZZ-Eight CD player (see Stereophile, August 1998, Vol.21 No.8), and started by asking him if his knowledge of electronics was self-taught.
It's not every Consumer Electronics Show that someone introduces a $29,000 solid-state phono preamplifier—and I miss it. The 2002 CES was one. My show report in the April issue made it seem as if I'd found out about it there, but the fact is, someone clued me in after I'd returned home. I needed to come clean on that.
Brinkmann's 9.6 tonearm ($3990) resembles the German company's longer, more expensive 10.5 and 12.1 arms, which in turn resemble the legendary Breuer. The new arm includes the same headshell, armtube, mounting socket, and cueing device used in the other arms. The bearing system differs, though the Swiss-made ball bearings are identical.
While the more expensive arms use traditional fixed-gimbal bearings, the 9.6 has a unipivot-like construction for the horizontal bearing. The weighted arm housing sits on a small ball that rests on a pivot, also as in a typical unipivot design. A second ball at the bottom of the housing prevents "arm lean," but since the arm's weight rests on the top ball, the lower one isn't critical, and I could feel some play when I handled the arm. Vertical arm motion is effected via a second pair of captured bearings. This arrangement allowed the use of less costly parts and kept the price down, Brinkmann says. The arm's effective length is 248mm (231.5 from pivot to spindle, plus 16.5mm of overhang), while its effective mass, referenced to the center position of the headshell slot, is 12gm.
I won't debate here how to make a turntable's platter go around. Choose your favorite: belt vs direct drive, idler wheel vs belt, spring-windup vs wind power, whatever. As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing to debate. Each of these technologies has its pluses and minuses, but none can produce CD's accuracy of speed and inherent freedom from wow and flutter.
Everyone's got their prejudices, and mine are against turntables with box-like plinths and big slabs of undamped acrylic. I have no problem with either in models that cost a few grand or less, but once you get into high-priced terrain, less plinth and less acrylic usually yields better performance. Generally, though, all a plinth gets you is a vibrating surface to transmit or store and release energy. Who needs that? If your high-performance 'table has a plinth, you need to heroically damp it the way SME does in its Model 30, and the way Rockport did in its System III Sirius.
The Brinkmann Pi cartridge's Benz-Micro heritage was obvious from the get-go. The motor is built to Brinkmann's specifications by Benz-Micro and includes a Micro-Ridge stylus. The cantilever material is not specified. The Pi's output is approximately 0.25mV, and its compliance is moderate at 15µm/mN. Recommended are a tracking force of 1.82gm, a VTA of 23°, and a resistive load of 600 ohms.
Helmut Brinkmann says he tweaked the Pi's design for a year and a half before he achieved the results he desired, including making the tiny set screws out of various materials. The Pi, with a body of machined aluminum designed to control the dissipation of resonant energy, weighs a hefty 14gm. Brinkmann supplies aluminum screws and titanium washers, which, he claims, in combination with special damping between the cartridge body and headshell, have been "sonically tuned to create a unique musical instrument."
Hang around long enough, and your reward is often to be taken for granted or ignored. Canadian electronics manufacturer Bryston Ltd. has been around since the mid-1970s, and whileif coverage by Stereophile is any indicationthe company has hardly been ignored, it's often taken for granted.