Clearaudio Ovation & Clarify turntable & tonearm Page 2

The Ovation typically ships with the Clarify tonearm. Please describe it.

"The Clarify has a machined aluminum headshell with azimuth adjustment, a carbon-fiber armtube, a magnetic bearing, and a low-center-of-gravity counterweight with integral mechanism for adjusting the vertical tracking force (VTF). The magnetic bearing has two opposing magnets, for a friction- and wear-free bearing. The armwand is suspended via a wire loop that threads through the lower section of the tonearm bearing. A knob on the bottom of the arm is used to tension this wire for antiskate adjustment. The tonearm wire is Clearaudio's proprietary Direct Wire, a five-conductor configuration of copper with Teflon insulation, implemented as a direct run from the cartridge clips to a 1.2m tonearm cable terminated with RCA plugs. Typically, the Clarify prefers cartridges weighing between 7 and 12gm and tracking at between 1.5 and 3gm, and with medium to low compliance."

You fitted my sample of the Ovation with the Talismann V2 Gold moving-coil cartridge.

"The Talismann V2 Gold houses Clearaudio's patented symmetrical generator in a body of ebony wood, with a boron cantilever and micro HD stylus. The V2 Gold has eight super-neodymium magnets instead of the four used in the V1. There is one coil per channel, wound with 24K gold wire with an internal impedance of 30 ohms and an output of 0.7mV at 5cm/s. This is the generator that's used in the Concerto V2, the model above the Talismann."

Grooves to Bits
On a trip through Portland, Oregon, Musical Surroundings' Joe Wessling brought me my Ovation turntable and set it up on my 250-lb butcher-block audio rack. I was immediately struck by the Ovation's robust build quality. The plinth, made of Panzerholz and filled with shot, was far denser than its size and thickness might indicate. I adored the lacquered wood siding of the Ovation, and its top of black, machined aluminum; it all made for an elegant-looking 'table. In this world of wacky-looking turntables of all shapes and sizes, I truly appreciated the Ovation's classic and serious styling.

I connected the Ovation to Clearaudio's Basic+ phono preamp, then ran the signal into the analog inputs of my Bel Canto e.One DAC 3.5VB Mk.II. Now, before you all cry "Foul!" for my having hooked up this analog rig to a digital front-end, read John Atkinson's measurements of the Bel Canto's analog inputs in the June 2011 issue. The DAC 3.5VB digitizes the signal at the analog inputs to 192kHz with an AKM 5386 A/D converter chip at 24 bits, then feeds it to its digital processor section. JA found that the Bel Canto's analog inputs offered true 18-bit resolution—which is really, really good.

With the measurements on my side, and having listened to these inputs, I can confirm that the e.One DAC 3.5VB Mk.II makes a very nice analog/digital preamp. I also wanted to remove from my listening as many variables as possible, especially when I compared digital and analog sources. I also briefly listened to the Ovation via a Clearaudio Nano phono preamp directly feeding the Rogue M-180 monoblocks, and used the Nano's built-in gain attennator. Though the Nano did fine, I much preferred the sound of the Ovation through the Basic+ and Bel Canto DAC.

Funk to Funky
Right from the first few notes played by the Clearaudio Ovation, I knew I was working with a machine that loved making music. Everything I played had terrific body to the tone, and a harmonic cohesiveness from bass to treble that gave music a very natural and organic feel. The Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues (LP, Sub Pop 888) was well served by the Ovation. Each instrument and voice sat unambiguously in the soundstage with a largeness and roundness at its edges—the opposite of an analytic and etched sound. Yet there was very good resolution. The Fleet Foxes album often moves from very intimate sounds made by a single voice and guitar to sonic explosions of reverb-drenched percussion and harmonies—it can be a lot for an audio system to sort out. The Ovation was more than up to the task, very accurately capturing the vast dynamic and spatial swings of "Sim Sala Bim," adding a bit of fullness and body to the intimate moments, and offering good delineation of the larger moments.

Stephen Mejias hipped me to Amon Tobin's Isam (LP, Ninja Tune ZEN168) an album that revels in colorful, kaleidoscopic electronica. Much of this music lacks tunes or even good grooves. Instead, it communicates through timbral shifts and its sheer expanse of sound. Isam is chill-out music without the chilling out—beautiful, but at times intense and insistent. The pressing must be very good; the Ovation gave me enormous amounts of low bass, vast soundstages, great scale, and a treble that was open and extended yet sweet. It let me not only enjoy the music but the sound of the music on this album—and I think that's partially what Tobin had in mind while making it.

Kraftwerk's The Man-Machine (LP, Astralwerks/Capitol/EMI STUMM 306) sounded brilliant on the Clearaudio Ovation, which lent just enough warmth and body to the sound to humanize this music while not obscuring its drive and pulse, its stops and starts. "The Model" sounded supremely funky and warm, with excellent continuity and coherence from bass through treble. The highs, in particular, were extended yet nuanced, and the midrange had a slight glow that made those old Moog synthesizers really sing. The bass was taut yet full. In fact, The Man-Machine sounded so good on the Clearaudio that I returned to it again and again.

Apples to Apples
Compared to Clearaudio's Concept, the Ovation was clearly a much more resolving and nuanced turntable—as it should be for more than twice the price. While the overall balances of the two 'tables were quite similar, image density, weight, and realness were significantly greater via the Ovation. The Concept's images of musicians and instruments were lovely, but seemed slightly ghostly compared to their solidity through the Ovation. The Concept showed me the shadows dancing on the walls of Plato's Cave; the Ovation let me turn around and look straight at the dancers. The Concept's sound was admirable and musical; the Ovation brought me far closer to the music in each disc's grooves.

Apples to Oranges
I'm a digital guy. I began buying CDs in ninth grade, and that was 1991, just when CDs began to sell in big numbers. CDs and digital are what I know, and how I've always listened to music and recorded my own. As an audiophile, however, I've had some amazing experiences with super-high-end analog rigs, and I've spent a decent amount of time listening to turntables costing upward of $20,000—I know how good vinyl can sound. I've also spent a good deal of time with entry-level analog rigs. I was interested to hear how a good digital system and a good analog rig, both priced in the middle of what our hobby offers, would compare playing LPs and CDs of the same recordings.

First, I compared the CD edition of Portishead's magnificent Third (CD, Mercury B0011141-02) with that album's deluxe LP boxed set (LP, Island 1766390). Listening to "Machine Gun," I was shocked at how similar LP and CD sounded—not what I'd expected. Now I knew that this shoot-out, like most things in life, would be harder than I'd thought. "Machine Gun," one of the most bravely produced songs I know, relies on nothing but a single machine-gun ostinato and the voice of Beth Gibbons. The LP had a slightly fuller upper and midbass; the CD had less lower-treble hardness, more air and extension in the top treble, and better drive and articulation, especially in the low bass. The sounds of the two formats in this track were very similar; I liked both.

When I played the LP and CD versions of the same album's "Deep Water," a simple little ditty featuring Gibbons and a ukulele, the differences were more pronounced. The LP added a halo of sound around her voice. The Ovation didn't smear or obscure what was on the record, but there was clearly a warm glow of reverberation around Gibbons. Also, her voice sounded bigger on LP, while lacking distinctly defined edges. This effect served the music quite well; I think many would prefer the LP for this track. But if you held a (machine) gun to my head and asked me which playback was more faithful to what I thought was on the master, I'd have to conjecture that the CD was a bit (no pun intended) more truthful. By no means did the CD, via the Bel Canto DAC 3.5VB Mk.II, ever sound thin or analytical; in fact, I was amazed at how warm it sounded in direct comparison to the vinyl. I love this album, and both the Bel Canto and the Clearaudio had me enjoying it more than I ever have.

Next I turned to some classical fare. I have long loved my CD set of Artur Rubinstein playing Chopin's complete Nocturnes (2 CDs, RCA Victor Red Seal 63049-2) I few weeks ago I scored LPs of the same recordings. It was in fantastic shape—the records looked as if they'd never been played. After matching the levels of CD and LP, I cued up the first LP and simultaneously hit Play on my CD player, so that I could toggle back and forth as the two played in sync. The LP's surface noise was a problem with the music, which was delicately played and recorded. I never found it so distracting that I couldn't focus on the music, but the tiny pops and ticks kept me from enjoying true silence between notes. This factor, as well as the beautiful halo of ambience that the Ovation cast around each sound, made me feel this music very differently from when I listened to the CDs. Then, I became acutely aware of the way Rubinstein plays with the spaces and silences between notes, as well as how each note decays in the surrounding space and within the piano itself.

The CD also brought out the Nocturnes' pointillistic qualities while offering rich, clear, beautiful tone. Conversely, the LP tended to emphasis the music's swellings, its overall ebb and flow. Through the Clearaudio Ovation, the music was a steady stream of sound that quickly became a river, then just a few drops. The music's overall gestalt changed drastically depending on the format. I found both interpretations compelling, and each correct in its own way. I count myself lucky to be able to choose how I want to hear Rubinstein play Chopin with the flick of a button on my remote control.

Lastly, I turned my attention again to pop music. I listened to Destroyer's Kaputt (LP, Merge MRG50369; CD, Merge MRG369) and Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues on CD and LP. Fleet Foxes were well served by both formats, the differences sounding very negligible. In general, the LP had a more fleshed-out midbass and slightly more sparkle in the top octaves, whereas the CD excelled in giving me truly black backgrounds, and better image depth and bass extension. That last was also very apparent with the CD of Kaputt, which offered almost a full octave more bass information while also sounding far more controlled, driving, and articulate down low. I realize that this lack of bass could have been a result of the mastering and pressing of the LP, but that's what I heard. The rest of the tonal balance was quite similar on CD and LP, the CD offering a slightly more forward upper midrange. The Ovation had much sweeter, more polite highs; the CD offered more ultimate extension on top.

Overall, I was shocked at how similar my digital rig and the Clearaudio Ovation system sounded. Both formats made compelling, truthful, balanced music. It was great to know that both analog and digital formats are capable of making such amazing music with gear costing around $5000. My little shoot-out didn't leave us with a clear and undisputed champion in the war of digital vs analog. I'm just glad we live in a time when this level of musical satisfaction is possible from both formats.

Dollars to Doughnuts
I can tell my wife that the Clearaudio Ovation is a serious turntable. It is resolving, musical, and beautifully built. Clearaudio's innovative use of materials and well-executed design make it a joy to use, to see, and to hear. Highly recommended.

Clearaudio Electronic GmbH
US distributor: Musical Surroundings
5662 Shattuck Avenue
Oakland, CA 94609
(510) 547-5006

Stephen Scharf's picture

I think transducing an LP with a superb cartridge like the Talismann V2 and table as beautiful as the Ovation and then digitizing it, only to turn it back into analog again is just about the silliest thing I've ever heard. You gotta be kidding me...

John should have sent that table to me for to review. 


IgAK's picture

Must be kidding. As interesting technically as this table is, the review cannot be. Extra conversions are never a plus at best even for those who only hear measurements. But, more to the point, doing this homogenizes the result with either signal being run through the same DAC section, so no wonder at all Erick is shocked at how similar these sounded. I, OTOH, am not without even having been there, this was predictable at a distance. I would have been far more shocked had they sounded very different. Denature (or should I say re-nature?) what makes analog attractive and then convert back after stamping a digital signature on it, however well done...what can you expect? One does not have to be audio-partisan, digiphobic or psychic to see that coming. This was a pointless exercise done this way, not a "leveler". But the turntable description is interesting and attractive.

You're a lucky man, Erick, to have a tolerant wife. Now borrow a pre that doesn't make "bits is bits" macerated and masticated digits out of the analog music first, and you probably won't have to tell your wife how serious this table is because she just may wind up telling you how good it sounds instead.

Sigh, indeed...

davip's picture

What must a reviewer do to be censured by JA? This is just about the dumbest thing that I have ever read in Stereophile, but for Lavorgna's arm-waving in the sister-rag Audiostream where he raved about the 'Tea for the Tillerman' SACD and its obvious superiority over PCM without realising that the SACD was PCM-derived. Would you buy a $10k DAC on the word of someone who has his audiophile head turned by a bit of ultrasonic noise while spending the rest of his time listening to imagined differences between ethernet cables and sd cards?

What a sad digitised legacy for JGH...