Oracle Delphi Mk.VI Second Generation turntable Page 2

Through the undamped Oracle with Oracle SME tonearm and my own well-worn Denon DL-103 cartridge, both cuts were vibrantly colorful and present, with an absolutely enormous sense of scale; musically, they were good, but the playback lacked the really good sense of momentum and flow that I associate with my favorite record players. To be shallow and crass about it: The sound rated an 8 or a 9, the musicality a 6.

All right. Riendeau then lowered the damping fingers on the bottom of the subchassis ever so slightly, until their tips just barely dimpled the surface of the silicone pools below. I estimate that no more than 1/8" of each finger was submerged. We played the two recordings again, and Riendeau and I heard a considerable change for the better. Without putting words in Riendeau's mouth, I guessed from his tone and his facial expression that even he was a bit surprised by the degree of improvement. On the negative side of the ledger, the damping gave the playback a slightly smaller scale that was still by no means small; everything else was wildly positive. What benefited most was musical timing: The songs now unfolded in a natural way, the players and singer leaning into the music in a way I hadn't heard earlier. The sound was also a bit more open, and bass notes, such as they were—especially from Tony Rice's old Martin D-28, previously owned by the great Clarence White—were clearer, with more precise pitch.

But, again, this was all about the timing: Switching from no suspension damping to just a teensy bit was, for the Oracle Delphi, the difference between excellent sound and okay musicality on the one hand, and excellent sound and excellent musicality on the other. That same shallow, crass reviewer would now rate both at 8.

I'll spare you the agony of slogging through one of those setup epics; suffice it to say that that teensy amount of damping was our window—as we dialed in more, the benefits began to slip away, if not quite go to hell in a handbasket.

Anyway, by the time Riendeau finished, the Oracle sounded fine, to his and my satisfactions, with one exception: a slight hum that had begun life as a not-so-slight hum but had been beaten down by our trial-and-error grounding regimen. When M. Riendeau left to return to Quebec, the slight hum remained—and, as a certain M. Murphy might have predicted, within hours it got worse. Much worse. Worse in a way that made it clear that, all along, the problem had been in the tonearm's internal wiring: Lifting up the armtube by hand and moving it from the outer edge of a record toward the spindle created a racket of hums, buzzes, and crackles. To make a long story short, when Jacques Riendeau got home, he dispatched to me a new, presumably factory-fresh Oracle SME arm.

While waiting for the new arm, I set about transferring my review sample of the Abis SA-1.2 tonearm ($1775) from my Thorens TD 124 turntable to the Oracle. As (good) luck would have it, that wasn't nearly as daunting as it sounds: The Abis's arm collet has precisely the same inner diameter as the collet of my EMT 997 arm—and it just so happens that I have on hand a collet for the latter that was specially machined for use with the characteristic sliding mount of an SME arm. I needed to do only a bit of fiddling to rig an Abis mount that was not only rigid but infinitely adjustable in terms of spindle-to-pivot distance; consequently, I was able to swap the Abis arm between platforms with relative ease and speed—which, as you'll see below, helped me arrive at my conclusions about the Delphi's sound.

That was the happy part. The sad part was later having to install and set up, on my own, the new Oracle SME—at which time I realized, all too late, that I may not have paid sufficient attention to M. Riendeau's efforts in that regard: Whoops. The greatest challenges were posed by three aspects of the SME arm's design: 1) its cartridge-mounting provisions do not permit fine-tuning of offset angle; 2) the means of adjusting the height of its cueing platform are arcane and ineffective to the point of frustration; and 3) the fat end of its drastically flared armtube can foul against the edge of an LP—in the case of a warped LP, feel free to substitute will for can—within all but the tiniest range of arm-height and spindle-to-pivot settings.

This most recent experience of the SME V—I'd encountered the arm a couple of times before, when I was younger and more forgiving—left me thinking it a somewhat flawed design: An otherwise laudable if excessive fixation on some aspects of adjustability and ergonomics had resulted in very real shortcomings in others. (The means of adjusting and locking in arm height is also a bit of a goat-rope.) And the problems caused by the overly flared armtube indicate an even more fundamental design flaw: I can't help wondering if perhaps, by the time that shortcoming became apparent, it was simply too late to change the tube's dimensions without incurring financial ruin.

Two final setup notes that aren't really setup notes, but I don't know where else to put them: First, during my time with the Delphi, I didn't encounter any LPs that required the spindle washer in order to be pinned flat against the mat—but even if I had, I'm not sure I would have chanced such groove-bending. Second, every time I pressed the 331/3 or the 45rpm start button, there was a delay of 1.5 seconds, accompanied by a peevish little groan, before the platter began to turn. What's up with that?

My in-depth experience of the Oracle Delphi Mk.VI Second Generation really began when I combined it with the Abis SA-1.2 tonearm and Denon DL-103 cartridge. That trio's reproduction of "No Title Yet Blues," from Eric Weissberg, Marshall Brickman & Company's New Dimensions in Banjo & Bluegrass (LP, Elektra EKS-7238), was extremely impressive, and presented a textbook rendering of almost every facet of the LP's superiority over other playback media. Weissberg's competent banjo playing had an amazingly good sense of touch, with tone that comprised equal measures of richness and (appropriate) clatter. Jimmy Bond's double-bass playing was revealed as superb: nothing fancy in terms of his choices of notes, but his sense of momentum—his sheer drive—came through loud and clear. And against that steady temporal backdrop, the full brilliance of Clarence White's guitar playing was revealed, from the deliberately irregular timing of the bass lines he plays behind Weissberg's banjo to the way he arpeggiates a chord by raking his pick across the strings—this at the one point in his solo when the listener least expects it. This song, heard through this combination of gear, was a true Stop there and fetch my checkbook! moment—the sort that leads a listener to muse: If it gets better than this, it can't be by much.

Indeed, when I moved the Abis arm and Denon cartridge back over to my vintage Thorens turntable and replayed that track, the results were different but not necessarily better. Driven by the TD 124, the sound was a bit meatier, the sense of scale a bit larger—but timing and momentum were no better. The musicians leaned into the song to no greater or lesser extent than they had with the Oracle Delphi.

The Oracle-Abis combination also sounded wonderful with piano music. Liszt's Sonata in b, played by the great Clifford Curzon (LP, Decca/Speakers Corner SXL 6076), moved before my ears not like a machine but like a river, full of stored energy and unpredictability and human nuance. Chords and single notes alike bloomed with color and body. Adding another instrument to the mix, as with Mstislav Rostropovich and Martha Argerich's recording of Schumann's Adagio and Allegro for Cello and Piano in A-flat (LP, Deutsche Grammophon 2531 201), resulted in sound and music-making that was similarly involving, with the same caliber of realistic timing and excellent scale—though I noted slightly less bass weight than I hear from this great record when I play it on my combination of Garrard 301 turntable and EMT 997 tonearm. The Oracle player wasn't at all lean, but I would not have wanted any less bass extension than it gave.

Later on, after installing the second sample of the Oracle SME arm—and, of course, realigning the Denon cartridge—I returned to some of the tracks I'd played earlier, focusing in particular on the bluegrass album by Weissberg et al. There was much to admire: Gordon Terry's fiddle solo leapt from the speaker with, if anything, even greater presence, standing prouder of the rest of the mix than when I'd played this track using the Abis arm. And Clarence White's steel-string guitar had a distinctly richer tone, and a seemingly greater range of dynamic contrast between his background bass runs and his solo. But that solo no longer had the momentum I'd heard when the Abis arm did the honors—the arpeggiated chord ceased to be anything special—and Jimmy Bond's double bass no longer drove the song forward: Notes from that instrument were, again, temporally flat.

Replaying Curzon's Liszt Sonata in b with the Oracle SME revealed a similar recalculation of strengths. Again, forward momentum was diminished, but the music's dynamics were fine, inasmuch as sudden bursts of volume and intensity seemed natural, and occurred with great ease and naturalness. Listening to the Liszt, it was easy to get caught up in the colorful, billowing clouds of sound. The piece no longer had the tension or chaos I'd heard with the Abis SA-1.2 arm in place, but it had no shortage of drama of a different sort. With the SME arm, the sonata's Grandioso theme was all the more triumphant—and the final chords, by contrast, were meeker and more resigned, as is appropriate.

One of the many beautiful moments on Joanna Newsom's brilliant Divers (LP, Drag City DC561) occurs in the chorus of "You Will Not Take My Heart Alive"—and in the two measures leading up to it, as the tempo slows and the time signature changes. On my Thorens and Garrard rigs, those changes were accompanied by a palpable increase in musical tension and a slight increase in scale, as the music seemed to grow in size as well as in gravitas. The combo of Oracle turntable and Oracle SME arm missed that tension and that change in scale, though the song was otherwise colorful and engaging.

The famous recording of Falla's The Three-Cornered Hat by Ernest Ansermet and L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (my copy is London CS 6224, though it's more famous in its UK Decca incarnation) is one of the most spectacular recordings ever made of a symphony orchestra; the combination of Oracle turntable and Oracle SME tonearm did the sound justice, and brought to the music-making enough tension and impact to keep me very involved. I'm by no means a "soundstaging" obsessive—far from it—yet even I could not help enjoying the exceptional width, depth, and even height of the imaginary stage. Massed strings had tremendous color and texture: every bit the equals of the Thorens-Abis combination. The bottom two octaves sounded magnificent: the kettledrums didn't have quite as much weight as I hear when I play this on my Garrard-EMT combination—the former in a notably hefty stacked-plywood plinth—yet the sound was weighty enough, and bass clarity, especially in the piano parts, was exceptional. Another Stop there moment, for sure, and as fine a place as any to wrap up.

While preparing this review, I did a Google image search on the Oracle Delphi, expecting to see a simple, graphic narrative of the changes visited upon the model across its 37-year history. Instead, the results were a geeky twist on the archetypal horror-movie scene in which photographic evidence suggests an antagonist who has walked the Earth waaaay longer than the rest of us: In picture after picture, the Oracle looked ageless and constant, with its partnering tonearms and cartridges cast as variables: hapless mortals, all too vulnerable to the insults of age and death—and fashion. In one photo, an S-shaped Alphason arm stuck out like an unfortunate Christmas sweater; in another, an Infinity Black Widow arm looked about as dignified as a white-belted polyester leisure suit. It was actually kind of creepy.

The constants were the Delphi's basic ideas, technological and aesthetic; Oracle's means of realizing them were the things that had evolved, mostly unobserved beneath pretty skin. The Delphi appeared to have been enduringly nourished by a steady diet of new ideas, most of them subtle instead of radical.

How many high-end turntables have come and gone since 1979? I can think of dozens, including the Linn Axis, the CJ Walker CJ-55, the Conrad-Johnson (née Sonographe) SG-3, the Voyd, the Pink Triangle, the Micro Seiki, the original Roksan Xerxes—the list goes on and on. Each was worthy in its way, and some (the Xerxes and the Voyd) were especially brilliant.

Yet the Oracle Delphi saw them all off.

A simple recommendation of the Oracle Delphi Mk.VI Second Generation could begin and end there, but this is a review: I didn't set out to tout this player, but began with as neutral a point of view as I've ever brought to a new product. I assumed this one would sound at least okay, while realizing that my ultimate opinion could go either higher or lower than that. At the end of the day, I was pleasantly surprised: I found that my enjoyment of the new Delphi was considerably higher than usual for a new turntable. As for pricing, my enthusiasm is slightly more nuanced: Compared with $16,500 for a full-monty Delphi plus Oracle SME tonearm, the $11,525 cost of the same turntable with Abis SA-1.2 tonearm is an excellent value—and offers better performance in the ways that matter most to me.

I won't be leaving my Garrard or my Thorenses by the curb any time soon, but during their absence from my system, the Oracle Delphi Mk.VI Second Generation entertained and fulfilled me in a way that most things don't.

Oracle Audio Technologies
6136 Boulevard Bertrand Fabi, Suite 101
Sherbrooke, Quebec J1N 2P3
(819) 864-0480

spacehound's picture

Sometimes I wish CDs and computer audio had never been invented.

Only then could I justify such a beautiful thing to myself.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

O, how lovely! Acrylic and stainless steel, flashy & pretty, but the least absorbent material. Is that an SME II or III? Why not a V?

BogdanR's picture

... not stainless steel.

BogdanR's picture

I own an upgraded Mk3 Delphi with a Turbo power supply and an old Alphason HR 100. Nothing creepy or Christmasy about it. There are people out there with unipivot arms on suspended decks. Much scarier, especially in use.
There are many "unfortunate" combinations possible on a Delphi, linear tracking arms leaning (all puns intended) perhaps toward the end of the scale. Why the Alphason or Infinity reference then? Perhaps they cannot protest, that's why...
As a Stereophile reviewer, especially one into vintage stuff, you might find one of those ridiculously old arms holding their weight (all puns intended again) rather well even compared to the exotic stuff on the market today. Try one of those old Alphasons, who knows, it might turn to be just like Christmas...