Gramophone Dreams #8

Everyone in the room can hear the difference when I swap one phono cartridge for another. Same thing happens with loudspeakers. This is because both of these magnet-based transducer technologies are electromechanical devices, traditionally made of paper, wood, iron, and copper. (Nowadays, polymers, aluminum, and carbon composites are more typical.) Both are motor-generator mechanisms that either convert mechanical energy into electrical energy (cartridges) or vice versa (speakers). As audio devices, they are spool-and-wire simple, but even tiny changes in the materials and/or how those materials are configured can cause easily audible differences in how they transmit or present recordings of music. Why? Because every gross fragment and subatomic particle of these electromechanical contraptions is moving and shaking—shaking everything from the tiny jumping electrons to the wood, metal, and/or plastic containers that fix and locate these motor generators in space.

Think of the sounds made when you shake a tin bucket full of stuff (rattlesnakes, wood sticks, and iron bolts, for example). Then imagine I that swap the contents of your bucket for plastic dishes and ceramic shards. Imagine striking a series of bells, each made of a different material: brass, aluminum, stainless steel, carbon, or MDF. These imaginings describe the resonant nature of our audio systems, as impacted by the electromechanical shock waves of our music signals. These imaginings go a long ways toward illuminating why your hi-fi sounds more like a snake bucket than a live band.

Specifically, not only does a phono cartridge generate an electrical current, it also outputs mechanical pulses that, when impressed upon the combination of your hi-fi system and your listening room, act instantly—like a hammer blow—as a potent seismic wave on everything, from your tonearm to your speaker cones, listening room, back yard, and maybe even the entire universe. It's difficult to hear, but even on the molecular level, your whole stereo sounds like buckets of juddering bolts and ringing bells. Unavoidably, portions of this electromechanical cacophony become imprinted on our music in too many noisy, chattering, blurring ways to describe right now.

Today's story is about two very different phonographs at two very different price points: the German-built Acoustic Signature WOW XL turntable ($2295) and TA-1000 tonearm ($1595), and the latest US-made VPI Scout Jr. turntable, with its new stainless-steel tonearm ($1600 complete, with Ortofon 2M Red cartridge).

Acoustic Signature WOW XL turntable and TA-1000 tonearm
When I first noticed the Acoustic Signature WOW XL, I had this weird LSD flashback to Michael Fremer's September 2001 review of AS's Final Tool turntable, which then cost a reasonable $2000 (now discontinued, footnote 1). Final what? Who thought up that name? But then, who thought up WOW XL? And folks, didn't I just spend a few hundred words describing the wherefore and how-comes of "acoustic signatures"?

The new, belt-driven WOW XL is, remarkably, the lowest-priced high-quality turntable I know of that can be purchased with a blank armboard ready to fit your favorite 9" to 10" tonearm. It's also built like a German-engineered Ziegelscheisshaus. Its 14-lb aluminum platter rests on a 0.475"-diameter hardened steel bearing shaft that rotates within oil-impregnated, sintered bronze bushings. The entire axle-platter assembly rests on Acoustic Signature's own Tidorfolon thrust plate. It appears that one of the less obvious cost-saving features of AS's lower-priced WOW models is that their bearing axles are solid, one-piece designs whose shafts have rounded bottoms; the bearing shafts of their more expensive models—such as the Triple X ($5995), which Art Dudley reviewed in the September 2015 issue—have a captive ball.

The WOW XL's beveled plinth of "high-density wood" (MDF?) is 1" thick, and its elegant aluminum top plate is 7/16" thick. This sturdy, layered plinth is mounted on three stepped cone feet made of polished aluminum. Please forgive my youthful ignorance, but I'm not sure what—besides holding the plinth level and still—these attractive devices are intended to accomplish. Of course, they must in some fashion siphon energy away from the vibrating mass of the tonearm and plinth into whatever wood, metal, or stone support they're placed on. But does that mean these Devo-esque feet are equally good—maybe even better?—at transmitting floor- and rack-borne energies into the WOW XL? (When debating the ancient engineering paragone of turntable coupling vs isolation, my sentiments usually run toward isolation.)

That said, whatever it was that designer Gunther Frohnhöfer did with those feet, it seems to have worked: With this Acoustic Signature turntable, acoustic feedback was never a problem—and neither was structure-borne energy. Matter of fact, the WOW XL performed in a rock-steady, extremely quiet manner throughout its long stay in my isolated music bunker.

Walter Swanbon of Fidelis Music Systems, Acoustic Signature's US distributor, told me that many WOW XL users add a Rega Research 202 tonearm ($400) or, more often, a Rega 303 ($700). But he delivered my review sample with AS's own new TA-1000 ($1595), a 9" medium-mass arm made of aluminum and brass, with gimbal bearings and a Dual Carbon armtube (10" and 12" versions are also available).

Dual Carbon is a rather nifty concept: Frohnhöfer has created a tonearm wand that is actually one small, stiff carbon tube inside a larger carbon tube. The inner tube is centered within and connected to the outer via three longitudinal carbon "connecting elements." The inner tube would seem to offer both effective damping and extra rigidity without increasing mass (and thus energy storage) to any great extent.

Precise phono cartridge alignment is eased by the inclusion of a high-quality, metal alignment protractor. Vertical tracking angle (VTA) and stylus rake angle (SRA) are adjusted by loosening and tightening an arm-base setscrew of the usual sort and moving the arm pillar up or down. Azimuth can be precisely if not so easily adjusted with three hex-head setscrews located where the arm passes through the horizontal bearing housing. Antiskate force is supplied by a weight on a string that's connected to a rear-facing lever on the aforementioned bearing housing; the weight hangs within a cylinder whose position can be adjusted so that the weight and string remain perpendicular to that lever: a nice touch.

I played the WOW XL with TA-1000 a lot: off and on for a year, including long stints with the Ortofon 2M Black moving magnet ($799) and Soundsmith Carmen moving-iron ($799) cartridges. I used also the Zu Denon DL-103 ($495) and Jasmine Turtle ($699) moving-coils, to hear how the medium-mass (9.3gm/237mm effective length) TA-1000 would handle the low-compliance (5 x 10–6cm/dyne) Zu Denon and the high-mass (14.5gm) Jasmine. Acoustic Signature specifies the TA-1000's ranges of cartridge mass and compliance as 4–22gm and 8–20cu. I thought the TA-1000 with the low-compliance Zu Denon DL-103 would have some tracking problems, but the Zu passed every challenge Shure's Era IV test record and my own ears could throw at it.

I've been spending my late nights listening and imagining in the early Christian world. Recordings of hymns, masses, chants, and "chapel pipes" have transported me to stone basilicas, their cold walls warmed only by fires, and monks in hoodies. One of the most outstanding discs I played on the WOW XL was Hans Heintze playing J.S. Bach's Prelude and Fugue in b, BWV 544, on the Arp Schnitger organ (1686) of the Ludgerikirche in Norden, Lower Saxony, Germany (LP, Nonesuch H-71321). Folks, this is music for which a hi-fi's ability to do grand scale, rich tone, and forward momentum are the minimum requirements for achieving blissful attentiveness and spiritual elation. The purpose of this famous contrapuntal composition is to draw you in (prelude), sit you down (exposition-imitation), set you up for a shift in consciousness (development), taking you from the dark realm of sin and suffering to the light realms of joy and exclamation.

Through my LFD LE phono stage, Line Magnetic LM-518IA integrated amplifier, and Technics SB-C700 speakers, the Acoustic Signature WOW XL and TA-1000 plus Ortofon 2M Black reproduced this music in a way that sounded so acoustically real and so physically tangible that I had to call all my friends and tell them about it. I first played it at 3:10pm, and was still listening to this same chest-shaking disc at 5:39. This combination of globally sourced components played this deep Bach with reach-into-my-chest humanity and power. The WOW XL, TA-1000, and 2M Black (or Soundsmith Carmen) played every recording I chose with balanced force, vivid color, and suave precision.

VPI Industries Scout Jr. turntable and tonearm
VPI Industries is a family business, founded in a New Jersey basement in 1978 by Sheila and Harry Weisfeld. Ever since, VPI has been manufacturing turntables, record-cleaning machines, and analog accessories. Their first product was a record weight. I bought their second product, the HW-16 record-cleaning machine, and their fifth, the HW-19 turntable.

My first-ever belt-drive 'table, the HW-19 replaced my Denon DP-3000 direct-drive machine. I loved my HW-19 and was loyal to it for many years—until I began a midlife-crisis affair with a Linn LP12 Valhalla. VPI, too, then abandoned the HW-19, and moved on to create the TNT, the Aries, the Scout, the Scoutmaster, and the Super Scoutmaster. Then, to celebrate their 30th year in business, VPI introduced my favorite in that lineage, the Classic ($3000)—a paradigm shift of design for VPI with its inboard motor and understated classic styling. Most recently, VPI added the entry-level Nomad, with built-in phono stage and headphone amplifier ($1000); the mid-level Prime ($4000); and the ferocious-looking, magnetic-drive Avenger ($9000 and up).

Footnote 1: See "Analog Corner" in the September 2001 issue, Vol.24 No.9.

fetuso's picture

Very entertaining reviews. I only started getting into vinyl again about 4 months ago and I'm enjoying it immensely. I'm already thinking about an upgrade of the music hall mmf 2.2 that I bought. You made that new VPI sound good enough to eat for dinner.

deckeda's picture

Thanks for the tip! I have the Onzow Zerodust which performs similarly, apparently. But I'll for sure be trying this less expensive stuff too.

Pity the Traveler. So much favorable ink was spilled on it but it never seemed quite sure of its place, with design revisions and price hikes, especially in light of the Scout Jr. I suppose lessons learned there begat Nomad.

georgehifi's picture

"Everyone in the room can hear the difference when I swap one phono cartridge for another. Same thing happens with loudspeakers etc etc"

Is it not more that because these two items in the audio chain are the least two flat measuring items there are? And one of which has very questionable channel separation as well.

Cheers George

torturegarden's picture

After reading this the other day I ordered a pack of Moongel which came in the post this morning. Wow! It really does work quite well, and it's inexpensive. I'll be recommending it to everyone I know that has a TT. Thanks.

avanti1960's picture

looks like a height gauge for setting the tonearm height.
i am interested, thanks.

volvic's picture

cartridge alignment protractor, used to get the right overhang for cartridge.