Clearaudio Concept Active Wood turntable Page 2

"Clearaudio turntables, arms and cartridges are made in Erlangen, Germany," Leerer informed me. "Known as a high-tech city in Northern Bavaria near Nuremberg, it's also home to Siemens Resonance Imaging Division and [the] Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light." Old-school tech meets new-school tech here.

The Active Wood and Satisfy CF tonearm arrived with all the key adjustments preset at the factory, so setup was a breeze. Upon unpacking the various components of the Active Wood turntable, the user will find a small level gauge, two Allen keys, power supply including adaptor, alignment protractor, ground wire, bearing oil, a 1m pair of Clearaudio interconnects (footnote 1), a user manual, and warranty card. The installer need only level the support platform (or adjust the leveling feet), attach the belt between motor spindle and aluminum subplatter, mount the platter, remove the gray spongy material wedged into the rear tonearm collar, slide the counterweight onto the threaded tube until it aligns with a small black ring, remove the tape from the headshell, attach the wall wart, and play records.

The Clearaudio Active Wood with the Satisfy CF tonearm and the Concept MC cartridge was clear, dynamic, rhythmic, and transparent; the combo excelled at playing black discs with detail and quiet backgrounds, with a large soundstage populated with well-sized images. The Active Wood/Satisfy CF/ Concept MC consistently removed itself from the picture and let music flow—vividly and at times intensely.

Its silent backgrounds and energetic release of notes gave music a sense of naturalness, of instruments moving air in space, said instruments located precisely in the concert hall or recording studio. The sound was refined, lucid, and precise.


I started by listening to just the 'table—not its electronics—in Passive mode, connected to my Tavish Design Adagio phono preamp. The Active Wood provided fresh insight to my usual evaluation discs, including Miles Davis's Steamin' (Prestige PRLP 7200), Kraftwerk's Tour de France (Kling Klang 50999 9 66109), Erich Leinsdorf and the London Philharmonic Orchestra's version of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (London Records SPC 21114), Kode9 & Burial's Fabriclive 100 (Fabric fabric200LP), and Don Cherry/Ed Blackwell's El Corazón (ECM Records ECM 1230).


I played records from Courtney's 10" collection. Billie Holiday's Billie Holiday Sings (1954, Clef MGC-118) is a great example of her early vocal style: her subtle sense of humor, sly, swinging delivery, and knowing ways. The Clearaudio placed Holiday front and center, the rhythm section of Ray Brown's booming bass, Barney Kessel's guitar and Alvin Stoller's drums directly behind her, the trumpet shouts of Charlie Shavers easily the loudest thing in the mix. The Clearaudio revealed the record's truth, Holiday's youthful vocal entirely playful and swinging. Clarity, groove, and fluidity marked the Holiday 10" through the Active Wood package.


Guitarist Jimmy Raney's Jimmy Raney 1955 (Prestige LP 199) sounded muted by comparison, while a 1955 10" disc by another guitarist, Lou Mecca, on Blue Note (BLP 5067) delivered power and presence through the Active Wood, a fiery performance including Jimmy Campbell's drums, Vinnie Burke's acoustic bass, and Jack Hitchcock's vibraphone. The Active Wood's fine transparency and surgical (but not clinical) resolution cast each 10" in its own unique mien, revealing the character of these small recording labels and their respective recording approaches. Garth Leerer's claim that the use of Baltic Birch in the turntable's plinth "lower[ed] the resonant signature and noise floor" would appear to be true. The Active Wood spoke with a consistently revealing, transparent voice.


Staying with the Satisfy CF tonearm and Concept MC cart but switching to the Clearaudio's internal phono pre, Billie Holiday Sings was not as full-sounding, but Holiday's voice was still alive and vibrant and Shavers's trumpet still resounding. Bass was tighter than through the tubed Tavish phono stage. The best traits of the recording were present, though not as large in scale. Guitarist Lou Mecca's Blue Note 10" was still riveting but lighter in absolute weight and a little smaller in size. Vibraphone lacked the large, luminous glow it had when played through the Tavish, but the guitar solo seemed more direct, better-defined, and more tactile, as did the drums and bass—all upfront and energetic.

When I used the Clearaudio's internal phono pre, it seemed I had to turn the volume a smidgen louder to get similar punch and dynamics as when using the Tavish phono stage, but I could do it and with good results. The Clearaudio's internal phono pre sounded quite good overall: palpable, solid, and upfront.

I sometimes forget how good a dialed-in MM cartridge can sound. The Concept MM V2 cart mounted to the Satisfy Black aluminum tonearm quickly reminded me. Still using the Clearaudio's internal phono preamp, the sound of Holiday's 10" became rounder, softer, and more relaxed than with the moving coil cart. Singing "You Turned the Tables on Me," her voice took on a richer hue, with the tone or bloom of some notes exaggerated. Acoustic bass grew unruly, a large image that boomed across the music. The moving magnet presentation offered richness, warmth, and a similarly sized soundstage as the Satisfy arm and Concept MC cartridge through the internal phono pre, with minor losses in clarity and precision.

Spinning the Lou Mecca disc and his quartet's version of "All the Things You Are" provided similar results: The soundstage grew larger and less well-defined than with the Satisfy CF arm/Concept MC pairing. Vibraphone notes became rounder with more sustain; brushes on snare drum lost some precision but gained depth; Mecca's guitar was less sleek but more powerful. What the Satisfy Black tonearm/Concept MM V2 cart gave up in transparency, refinement, and focus, it gained in richness, warmth, and relaxation. I could easily live with either setup and greatly enjoy the music they produced. The Clearaudio had a knack for making records sing.

Not unlike my Thorens TD-124 turntable/Denon DL-103 MC cartridge, the Active Wood/Satisfy CF/ Concept MC was perpetually fun, robust, and perceptive, turning the vinyl ritual into a boogie party, with gusto and resolution to spare, keeping its cool while drilling down into the details of every recording.

Instead of just appraising it, I ended up buying Courtney's collection, and I learned some things from the experience. Even with really dirty early-vintage pressings—even records with visible surface wear and scratches—a thorough cleaning makes the music sound almost pristine. I asked Fred Cohen of New York's Jazz Record Center how that is possible, and he told me the grooves on these old records are spaced wider than they are on modern records, so surface scratches have less chance of damaging the actual grooves. Whether for that reason or some other, after a cleaning, these records sound great.


At $3700 (with the aluminum armtube and the Concept V2 MM cartridge) or $4600 (with the carbon fiber armtube and the Concept MC cartridge), the Clearaudio Concept Active Wood isn't cheap, but it is a good value. It acquitted itself well both as a standalone turntable/tonearm/cartridge combo (with either tonearm/cartridge pairing) and as part of an integrated turntable/phono preamp package; the electronics, too, are of high quality.

Both setups include a headphone amp, and both versions played music with a sense of fun and playfulness that can sometimes get lost in the nuts-and-bolts process of reviewing hi-fi. The Clearaudio's sense of fun may be its greatest attribute.

Its first-rate build quality and sound, and its ease of setup and versatility, make the Clearaudio Active Wood a solid choice for both turntable purists and enthusiasts—for anyone looking for the next step in their journey through sound, and all the music, joy, and fun that vinyl playback brings.

Footnote 1: As stated earlier, the tonearm is direct-wired, but those wires terminate inside the plinth, so RCA cables are required to connect the Wood to your system.
Clearaudio Electronic Gmbh
US Distributor: Musical Surroundings
5662 Shattuck Ave.
Oakland, CA 94609
(510) 547-5006

dc_bruce's picture

but it would be nice if it were available without the included phono stage . . . at an appropriate price reduction.

volvic's picture

The Technics 1200GR, can even play 78s. BTW, great read, lucky man now owning those historical records. A good mono cartridge and you are laughing. When do I get invited over for a listen?

red99's picture

See here:

tnargs's picture

At least I don’t have to bend my poor mind around the Concept of Active Wood!