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.
Trends in turntable design shift back and forth over time, each "advance" turning out to be a mostly sideways move. Over its long history, VPI's founder and designer, Harry Weisfeld, has moved the analog goalposts back and forth as he's refined his thinking. His early turntables were mostly standard spring-suspension designs of normal size. By the time Weisfeld produced his fully tricked-out TNT model, which was originally designed to stably hold the heavy moving mass of Eminent Technology's ET2 air-bearing arm, he'd moved to a massive, oversized, sandwiched plinth with isolating feet at the corners. He first used springs and, later, air bladders originally designed to cushion a tractor-trailer's load, and which he'd found in a trucker's supply catalog. Via an O-ring, the TNT's outboard motor drove one of three pulleys that protruded from holes in the plinth, and attached to a T-shaped subchassis that, in turn, drove the other two pulleys via two additional O-rings.
The phono preamplifiers reviewed this month are both affordable ($400$1960) and highly accomplished, and the most expensive of them offers versatility that's unprecedented in my experience. Three of them are designed to be used only with moving-magnet, moving-iron, and high-output moving-coil cartridges, so I installed Shure's V15VxMR cartridge in VPI's Classic 3 turntable and listened in MM mode to all of them, beginning with the least expensive.
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:
That is not a typo. The company is named Soulutionas in soul commitment to designing and manufacturing the finest audio gear it knows how, as in souldiering on in the face of skeptics who can't imagine why a power amplifier that puts out 130Wpc into 8 ohms or 260 into 4 ohms should cost $45,000, or weigh as much as a small pickup truck.
Though essentially a two-man operation based in Athens, Greece, Ypsilon Electronics has been, since 1995, turning ears and eyes throughout the audiophile world with purist, hand-crafted electronics whose sound seems to defy characterization. Even under audio-show conditions in difficult hotel rooms, and often driving unfamiliar loudspeakers, the sound of Ypsilon electronics seems to evaporate in ways that few products manage, leaving behind less residue and more music.
Enticing more music lovers to try vinyl requires a foolproof, plug'n'play solution. Asking a member of the digital generation to install a cartridge in a tonearm and then set up the VTA, SRA, VTF, etc. is asking too much. It's easier to make such a request of someone already bitten by the analog bug, but with turntables, wishing someone beginner's luck will not guarantee success.
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.
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."
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.