No one has ever accused Franc Kuzma of designing glamorous audio jewelry. His turntables and tonearms are industrial-strength examples of engineering know-how and machining excellence. But to those who appreciate such things, his products are truly beautiful, even if they're not adorned with chrome, wood, and sleekly polished surfaces. And if looking at the 4Point tonearm ($6500) in pebbly Darth Vader black doesn't get your analog juices flowing, perhaps its innovative design will. But first, this message:
The lacquers from which LPs are pressed are cut in a straight line, and that's how the LP groove should be traced. Even when set up perfectly, a pivoted arm describes an arc across the disc surface, maintaining tangency to the groove at only two points on that arc. Yet despite numerous attempts at building and selling linear-tracking tonearms, few remain on the market, and most are fraught with technical problems. Linear-tracking arms can be anything but linear, committing more sins of geometry as they meander across the record surface than do their pivoted brethren.
Almost immediately on entering the analog marketplace in 1982, Franc Kuzma, a mechanical engineer based in Slovenia, then part of the former Yugoslavia, established a reputation for manufacturing finely engineered, high-performance products that sold at reasonable prices. Kuzma's early industrial designs, however, while serviceable, looked less than distinguished.
Even as the gulf narrows between the sounds of the best solid-state and the best tubed amplifiers, most listeners remain staunch members of one or the other camp. Similarly, when it comes to video displays, the plasma and liquid-crystal technologies each has its partisans, though that conflict's intensity is relatively mild, perhaps because video performance, unlike audio, is based on a mastering standard that establishes color temperature, gray-scale tracking, color points, and the like (I'm deeply in the plasma camp). But in audio, the "standard" is whatever monitoring loudspeaker and sonic balance the mastering engineer prefers, which makes somewhat questionable the pursuit of "sonic accuracy." Still, in a power amplifier, a relative lack of coloration is preferable to amps that Stereophile editor John Atkinson has characterized as "tone controls"usually, if not exclusively, of the tubed variety.
In an ideal world, I'd have every phono section I've reviewed in the past 16 years on hand to compare with these three and with all that arrive in the future. But because I have a life, I don't, and I wouldn't even if I could, though some readers (and one retailer) have insisted that that's the only way that I could possibly be of any use to them. Ha! And for those who are concerned that I've neglected the Manley Steelhead, not so! It's still my reference.
The all-FET, class-A, B2B-1 phono preamplifier ($1749), made in the US by Liberty Audio, is beautifully built inside and out, and comes in a heavy-duty aluminum chassis with a baked-on crackle finish and a 3/8"-thick, black-anodized faceplate. The overall build quality and physical appearance suggest something that costs more than $3000, which is probably what it would cost were it sold through retailers and not factory direct. It comes with a two-week return policy.
Long before the Swedes at Ikea did it, the singular Scotsman Ivor Tiefenbrun began giving his products funny-sounding names. For some reason positively phobic about the letter c, he banned its use in any of those names. Someone once told me his real last name is Tiefencrun, but since it wouldn't sound any different with a k, he settled for a b. "I could have been Ivor Tiefendrun, or Tiefenfrun, or Tiefengrun, for that matter," he's quoted as having said once while krunching a krakker.
London phono cartridges still carry the famous Decca name (even if only in parentheses), but they are now produced by John Wright, a precision engineer and ex-Decca employee. Wright (not to be confused with his IMF and more recent TDL loudspeaker-designer namesake) was assigned the rights in 1989 by Decca's Special Products division (footnote 1), when the company's new owner, Racal, decided that they didn't want to be involved in the manufacture of audio equipment. Wright worked for 20 years in Decca's phono-cartridge division, where he gained a wealth of experience. As well as manufacturing the current range of London cartridges, he is also responsible for servicing and overhauling older Decca models.
Rarely has the debut of a new loudspeaker company and its inaugural model created as big a buzz as did Lumen White and their Whitelight speaker at the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show. Driven by Vaic tube amplifiers in one of the larger corner rooms at the Alexis Park Hotel, the big Whitelights had a look and a sound that attracted continuous crowds. Of the questions among audio cognoscenti that I overheard at the end of each day, two of the most common were "Hey, did you hear those Lumen Whites?" and "What? Can you speak louder?"