Acoustic Signature Montana NEO turntable Page 2

The arm's gimbaled ball/race bearing system is secured within a high-mass collar into which fits a uniform-diameter carbon fiber tube damped with a 3D-printed insert (though it was still "lively" to the tap and transmitted more "tap" to the speakers than expected). The gold-plated brass counterweight rotates on a fine-pitch–threaded stub and locks to it via a trio of set screws. If it's needed, A-S supplies an auxiliary bolt-on counterweight that allows the arm to handle cartridges weighing 4–16gm.


Silver internal arm wire terminates in a DIN jack at the base of the arm pillar. A-S supplies AudioQuest's entry-level "Wildcat" "Perfect Surface" copper DIN-to-RCA cable ($119.95)—which makes sense since people will want to be able to play the Montana immediately, and yet most end-users will want to make their own, more costly choice. Also supplied is a rigid, precise alignment jig set to Löfgren A geometry (66mm and 121mm null points; my fave), though it's not identified as such in the instructions, which, like the careful packaging, are well organized and commensurate with the arm's price.

If you read this month's Analog Corner column, you might skip this section or briefly peruse it and chuckle. If measurements are the guide, just get a CD player and be done with it. To reiterate what I wrote in the column, these measurements are mainly for entertainment purposes, although I think they are still "baseline" useful.


Using the Platterspeed app, the Montana's absolute raw-frequency deviation (fig.1, right) was bettered by the direct drive turntables (the SAT XD1 and the OMA K3), but the Montana NEO bettered both of the far more costly direct drives on the low-pass–filtered measurements, though by infinitesimal amounts.

The shaknspin measurements show significantly more average speed deviation for the Montana (0.34%) than in either the OMA (0.08%) or SAT (0.07%) 'tables. The other numbers were mostly a wash, with differences in the 0.001% range one way or the other.

What counts most is how the Acoustic Signature turntable sounds and not how it measures—right? Louder! I can't hear you!

I set up an Ortofon A95 phono cartridge and ran it, alternately, into the transformer-coupled Ypsilon VPS-100S phono preamp, via the MC-20L SUT and one of the CH Precision P1/X1 combo's two transimpedance inputs. Both phono preamps cost more than the turntable/arm combo does—not that the A-S is cheap!


I chose the low-coloration A95 to hear how it would mate with what I was expecting to be a well-damped, perhaps austere-sounding turntable. Both the lateral and vertical resonant frequencies of the arm-cartridge combo measured ideally, approximately 10Hz, using the Hi-Fi News & Record Review Test Record (HFN001).


First up, I tried a 3-LP set, Liszt Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra (EMI Electrola SLS 5207), performed by pianist Michel Béroff—a late–19th/early–20th-century specialist with a major in Messiaen—with Kurt Masur conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. I've never before played this 1980 release—it's on eBay for $130—so why not start now? I'm tired of playing the same old, same old. It matters not that you've probably never heard this record.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra's first musical director was Felix Mendelssohn—no slouch he—and among later conductors were Wilhelm Furtwängler and Bruno Walter, one a Nazi sympathizer, the other a Jew who exited in 1933: what a world! The orchestra's home, built in 1885, was bombed in 1944. It moved to a new home in 1981. I don't know where in the German Democratic Republic this 1980 release was recorded. But the hall sounds magnificent—not like a small studio with added artificial reverb, though I'm okay with being embarrassed to find out it was.

Pressed by Pallas during its glory days—not that they're not pressing great records now—this is six sides of pressing perfection of a sonically honest and spectacularly natural recording of a dazzling performance captured from a midhall perspective. It's best heard at midvolume.

Played back on the Montana NEO, there was nothing austere about the timbral, spatial, or dynamic presentation, which was warm and inviting and intensely three-dimensional.

Concentrating on side 4's Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Tunes for Piano and Orchestra, the picture produced by the A95/Montana combo, with either phono preamp, was visually deep and physically gripping. The illusion, well-established from the first note, was of a hall with a warm-sounding orchestra laid out three-dimensionally in a spatial cushion. In front, stage left, sat the pianist (and of course the piano). Both preamps delivered this, but the sound clicked magically in the mids with the Ypsilon's tube-based circuitry.


The timbral and transient physical piano apparition was pinpoint-stable, naturally focused, and believable both when played solo and within the orchestral picture. The hall caressed but never enveloped or buried the piano. When Béroff went for the keyboard's top octaves, whether pianissimo or mezzo-forte, the image and timbral authenticity held firm. The balance of attack and soundboard sustain, in the context of an orchestra and hall that can easily swamp the balance, was a tribute to both Tonmeister Eberhard Richter (with whom I was previously unfamiliar) and the turntable/arm combo.

I had no point of reference whatsoever, which is what made the listen so fascinating. The presentation's attack was concise and solid, the sustain reasonably generous. The music decayed into a very black backdrop. It was convincing—not the overdamped, drop-too-quickly-into-black presentation I remember from the original Ascona. (Some people love that sound.)

The well-damped but not overdamped, fully controlled, supremely well-focused, rock-solid stable presentation produced a memorable 3D picture; clearly the Acoustic Signature "sound" based on the engineering scheme. As I played this same side several times, I was not able to imagine what might be added by the far more expensive direct-drive next-door neighbors.

Want to confuse yourself big time? Head next door! Enjoy some music with the wealthy neighbors, drink some wine, light up a fat one. The SAT XD-1/CF1-09ti setup with the Lyra Etna Lambda SL delivered a closer-to-the-stage perspective with more reflected hall sound due to more generous sustain, greater harmonic generosity and color, and more string sheen and emphasis on the low end produced by the big strings' majesty—all in what sounded like a bigger space, with more side- and rear-wall reflections. The piano produced more rear-stage reflections, too.


Yet, even if they didn't know the huge price difference, those more interested in detail, clarity, nimble, supertight, locked-in, pinpoint-precise imaging and separation of individual notes without hyperanalytical, unnatural etchiness—qualities particularly noticeable when the pianist unleashes long strings of rapid-fire glissandos—might prefer the Montana's superorganized conciseness and find the SAT (or the similar-sounding OMA) sounded somewhat diffuse or blurry. On the other hand, when it came to generosity of dynamic contrast, orchestral breath, and the creation of a supple living-music bubble, it was a no-contest win by the bigger, more costly 'tables. As it should be. I'd expect a direct Montana–Invictus comparison to yield similar results.

I swapped the two cartridges. It was time consuming but useful. It made clear that the A95's sonic personality—its image focus, detailed 3D presentation, tight, muscular bass, and honest but less-than-lush midrange—reinforced the Montana's similar sonic personality, helping to produce the vivid, 3D excitement I described above. The Etna Lambda SL on the TA-7000/Montana produced a more generous, rich, full midrange and midbass, a presentation that added spatial context and richness to vocals and acoustic instruments.


The double LP Carole King & James Taylor Live at the Troubador (Craft CR00209)—a Boomer delight—arrived midreview. This LP was recorded during the duo's 2007 appearance backed by The Section (Danny Kortchmar, Leland Sklar, and Russ Kunkel). Bernie Grundman clearly cut from files (air-brake cymbals, one-note sibilants) that were mastered by the late Doug Sax and Sangwook "Sunny" Nam at The Mastering Lab with QRP plating and pressing.

With the Etna, I heard more of the small, wide, not-particularly-deep West Hollywood 500 seater—I played there once!—than I heard through the A95. King and Taylor were reproduced with more three-dimensionality and solidity. The Etna put me in the first few rows in front of the stage. The comparison demonstrated that the Montana's designers met their goal of producing a neutral, well-damped cartridge-carrier that lets through varied transducer personalities without limiting them in any way.

Though the arm/'table combo will set you back nearly $50,000, my experience was that every time I put a record on the platter, pressed "on"—even the push buttons delivered precise authority—and lowered the stylus into the lead-in groove, I had no doubt about where the money went, especially because, having set up the turntable myself, I hear the 'table's well-hidden, ingeniously designed, skillfully executed guts in every play.


A neutral and revealing carrier like the Montana NEO/TA-7000 NEO combo means your final satisfaction with it will depend on the cartridge you pair it with—more so than on a less precise turntable. The combo exhibited plenty of warmth when the recording produced it, even with a cool customer like the A95. If you care to warm it up further, there are many cartridges and/or phono preamps that can do that. I imagine the Analog Relax 1000 on this combo would be spectacular, and the Lyra Etna Lambda SL definitely is.

If you prefer to emphasize the sonic precision, superior spatial performance, background quiet, and solid imaging? Many phono preamps and cartridges can do that including the CH Precision P1/Xi and the big Boulder 2108 combined with the new Ortofon Verismo or Anna Diamond.

Wherever you wish to go sonically, the Montana NEO/TA-7000 NEO combo can reliably take you there. The pair makes the choosing so much easier because it so clearly self-defines its performance. Once it's packed up and shipped back, I'll surely miss it.

Someday, if I decide to downsize—who knows?—I can see myself moving to Montana.

Made by AS-Distribution GmbH
US distributor: Rutherford Audio
14 Inverness Drive East, Unit G-108, Englewood, CO 80112
(888) 279-6765

Oldsoul's picture

While I never owned one of their tables, I have seen a few in the wild and have always admired them. I have never owned a belt-driven table for that matter, but I promised myself that someday if I ever need to replace my current turntables, I would take a hard consideration of Acoustic Signature. Of course at that time their lowest priced table was around $3400 with arm. Not bad at all for what you get!
Of course, that model is long discontinued (but likely still giving great service to owners) and as with everything now the prices is also long from $3400 for the "lowest model". All the models at least to me are pleasing to eye as well.
So while I don't foresee myself ever able to own one now, their "lowest priced" model I see as nearly the same as their high $50k model in craftsmanship, quality and performance. There is nothing shoddy about any products from this company it seems.
My current tables are from the early 70s and 80s respectively and all direct drive. The early 70s tables are built like brick chicken houses, you have to hit them with at least two hand grenades to do any real damage it seems. So while I don't have choice of tone arm and whatever, they are deadly accurate at speed and can be dialed in just as close as the higher-end arms and such. (Although I admit that in the area of SRA, WallyTools would be required).So while needing to replace my tables may be an unlikely event (unless someone does toss real hand grenades at them) I would still look at the Acoustic Signature tables first.

volvic's picture

This turntable oozes quality and means business. If I had the cash, I would put it on my short list along with the Nagra. Great review.

Anton's picture

If it weren't for Stereophile and its Analog Planet satellite, I would have no awareness of this new range of ultra-turntables.

I don't know if that's a good thing, or a bad thing! :-D

Indydan's picture

This "turntable" is a monstrosity and is gross. If vinyl needs this kind of contraption to sound decent, then it isn't a viable format.

It's time for Fremer to stop gaslighting audiophiles!

Michael Fremer's picture

And you get a foolish answer. You hit the jackpot: foolish question and answer! Congratulations! Vinyl can sound "decent" on a less costly turntable but it sounds better on a better one. MQA works too. So you are the gaslighter here...

Indydan's picture

So Fremer is not only a vinyl gaslighter, but a shill for MQA. Hey Fremer, I suggest you educate yourself with the following, before you continue making a fool of yourself:

ok's picture

..sound fine nowadays and are actually preferable to some hi-end monsters that mostly expose the weaknesses and limitations of the medium. Turntables have considerably evolved, vinyl per se not so.

windansea's picture

mid-level gear might be the sweet spot for enjoyable listening. At the high end, the limitations of any recording are exposed, not just with vinyl. Critical listening is not so fun. At the extreme end of audiophilia, the high prices warrant high expectations, which is a recipe for disappointment.

Michael Fremer's picture

Tastes delicious.

Anton's picture

I thought dental floss jokes in a turntable review would be related to Forsell, but I get you, man!

I'll be going to Montana, soon.