Spiral Groove SG2 turntable Page 3

But even these subtle differences were elusive. When I listened to the VPI, it seemed as if the cellos and double basses had more power and richer timbres. When I switched back to the Spiral Groove, however, I was hard-pressed to find differences in loudness or timbre. It was clear, however, that the notes started and stopped a bit more precisely with the SG2, and that individual instruments within a section could be discerned more distinctly. Perhaps the best way to summarize the differences I heard in the back-to-back comparisons is to say that the SG2's temporal and spatial precision gave it a leaner, more authoritative sound than the VPI, but with no loss of musicality.

The SG2-Tri-Planar combo let both cartridges produce large, open soundstages, albeit ones slightly different than with the HR-X. Through the SG2, the stage of the Rachmaninoff recording was a rectangular box that filled the space between and behind the speakers, its width and height roughly constant from front to back. In contrast, the HR-X produced a wider stage that extended beyond the speakers by a distance equal to about one-fourth the distance between them. The VPI's stage was shallower than SG2's, however, and shaped more like a truncated pyramid, with both width and height decreasing toward the back of the stage.

The SG2-Tri-Planar combo also did a superb job of resolving fine spatial detail and re-creating the ambience of a recording space, whether it was Chicago's Orchestra Hall or a small booth surrounding a singer in a multitracked studio recording. The wonderful boxed set San Francisco Opera Gala (London OSA 1441) was a fascinating study in microphone placement and mixing. The singers were beautifully portrayed, and clearly positioned on a stage set within a smallish but exquisite portrait of War Memorial Opera House. The orchestra, on the other hand, while positioned more or less correctly at the foot of the stage, was completely separate from the singers—a kind of "box o' orchestra" assembled from multiple microphone feeds, each recording an instrument or section too closely to capture any real hall ambience. These inconsistencies didn't matter at all with respect to enjoying the performance—that's not the point. The point is that the spatial resolution of the SG2-Tri-Planar combo made these sorts of details blindingly obvious, when I chose to listen for them.

Focusing more closely, individual images were perhaps slightly smaller with the SG2-Tri-Planar than with either the HR-X or CDs, but, as with the timbral differences, it was difficult to be certain because the images were better focused and more sharply bounded. A great example of this was Friday Night in San Francisco, a spectacular live recording of guitarists Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco De Lucia playing at the Warfield Theater (Columbia Half-speed Mastered HC 47152). Each guitarist was a tightly focused, detailed image through the Spiral Groove system—it was easy to picture the three players, their instruments, the stage around them, the audience—all within a single, coherent space. I'd never before heard so clearly how each moved slightly around his microphone as with the Spiral Groove.

The SG2 did a particularly good job of locating and defining the guitarists in the z, or depth, dimension. The space behind each player was just that: space, filled with the Warfield's ambience and stretching from the performer back to the rear wall of the stage. As a kind of flip side to the SG2's focus and sharp boundaries, I sometimes felt as if the VPI setup were producing a more natural, or at least a more evocative, portrayal of how performers mesh with a surrounding space. The differences were subtle, but sometimes it seemed as if the SG2 were actively placing images on the stage, like chessmen on a board. With the VPI, the images and surrounding stage were simply there.

Why does it sound the way it does? Art or science?
The function of a turntable-tonearm combination is simply to describe. It must position an LP and cartridge so that the only relative motion between the two is the groove moving by at a constant, specific speed, along a line that produces zero cartridge output. Accomplishing this is difficult. The undulations in a record groove can be as small as a few hundred nanometers (about 0.00001", or 1/400 the width of a human hair). Call your local machine shop and ask how much it costs to measure these sorts of dimensions, let alone machine them. The answer will help explain the prices of the best turntables and tonearms. Retrieving ever more information from those tiny grooves gets real expensive real fast.

Allen Perkins's design goals of simplicity, stability, channeling vibrations away from the stylus/record interface, and eliminating all extraneous movement—all make perfect sense when you consider a turntable's function and the scale of the information to be retrieved. His major design elements—no springs or exoskeleton, a very rigid armboard, a dense and multilayered chassis and platter, a motor and spindle respectively decoupled from the chassis and bearing, materials that drain vibrations away from the record, a pure-sinewave power supply, maintaining a constant friction on the bearing—all reflect a solid technical basis and sound engineering.

On the other hand, exactly how Perkins makes all of these elements work together is an art based on his decades of experience. It also reflects the way he wants an audio system to sound: clean, detailed, and precise, with a great sense of the music's timing and a huge, open soundstage populated by tightly focused, three-dimensional images. He explained to me every aspect of his design of the SG2, and while all of the big stuff made sense, most of the details were things I would never have thought of, and some were completely counterintuitive—I still don't think they should work. But they do.

The net result
The Spiral Groove SG2 performed its functions very, very well. Its pace and drive, and the precision with which notes started and stopped, indicated exceptional speed stability, and suggest that any variations are several orders of magnitude smaller than the approximately 0.5–1.0% changes that are clearly audible as such. The superb resolution of detail, the spatial precision of the images and soundstage, showed that the SG2 did excellent jobs of managing vibrations and resonances, both external and its own, and of preventing them from affecting the relative positions of the cartridge and record.

The SG2 also meets Allen Perkins's design goals of aesthetics and ease of use. This turntable is understated but very nice looking. It's well built, simple to set up, and bulletproof in operation. Mating it with a Tri-Planar tonearm created a superb, stable platform that allowed two very different cartridges to sound their best, the only caveat being that the Grado's body hung low, very close to the record surface, and occasionally touched slightly warped LPs. The SG2 has only a center clamp, which didn't hold down the records as securely as does the VPI's perimeter-clamping system, or as would a vacuum hold-down system of the sort Perkins used in the SOTA Cosmos.

Is this combination of art and science worth $15,000?
$15,000 is a lot of money; adding the Tri-Planar and the Titan or Grado cartridge brings the tab to nearly $25,000. Is it worth it? That depends on your priorities, and whether the competition is a new roof, your kids' first year of college, or a different vase for the foyer. Sure, I could live with a good $1000 front end or digital sources, but if I did, I'd listen to a lot less music than I do now. I can't make value judgments or choices for anyone else, but I can say that the SG2 is as good as any turntable I've heard, regardless of price.

The Spiral Groove SG2 exists at the intersection of art and science, of theory and practice, of calculation and experience. It combines both halves of each pairing of those influences, and, like other examples of the very best high-end gear, it transcends expectations—it's something special. Mated with either of my cartridges, it created the best analog front end I've had in my system, and one as good as any I've heard. The combination faithfully transcribed the energy and beauty encoded in the grooves by the artists and engineers, and provided a more lifelike energy and drive than I've heard with other systems. A Spiral Groove SG2, a Tri-Planar tonearm, and a high-end cartridge will have you tapping your foot and sitting on the edge of your seat. Don't audition unless you're prepared to buy.

Spiral Groove
1516 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 559-2050