If the number of new introductions of turntables, tonearms, cartridges, and phonostages at CES and THE Show is any indication, analog playback is alive and well. The plethora of significant releases in each category was amazing. Coupled with a host of new vinyl releases and reissues, analog is looking healthier than it has for a long time.
European companies took the lead at CES with many new turntable releases. Pro-ject’s, Debut III USB ($449), distributed by Sumiko, is not only an ideal entry-level turntable, but includes an Ortofon cartridge, a built-in moving-magnet phonostage, an A/D converter, and a USB output so you can transfer your vinyl collection to your computer. A new RM-5 SE bundle ($899) improves upon the performance of the RM-5 with the addition of an upgraded, multilayer platter, and a pre-mounted Blue Point II cartridge. In contrast to its mass loaded RM9.1 and RM10 designs, Pro-ject’s new PerspX (less than $2000) is a fully suspended table using opposing magnets for the suspension, a sub-chassis made of a very dense Corian-like material, an acrylic plinth, and a sandwich platter with a top section made from recycled records. The PerspX includes a new single-piece carbon-fiber arm, the Pro-ject 9cc Evolution, improving upon the 9cc with upgraded bearings, a larger bearing housing, and a Sorbothane-ringed counterweight to help damp the arm.
Indeed, magnets are being increasingly applied to turntables. Several Clearaudio ’tables employ its proprietary ceramic magnetic bearing (CMB) technology, lightweight but dense Panzer Holtz plinths, and excellent VTA mechanism which allow continuous VTA adjustment during play, including the Ambient CMB VTA ($6000) and Ambient Magnum CMB VTA ($7500). Magnum versions of the Performance ($4200) and Ambient add 70mm platters instead of their standard 40mm ones, and the new Solution Basic ($3000) can be configured with multiple tonearms and is field upgradeable all the way up to the Maximum Solution AMG Wood CMB.
TransRotor appears to be making a serious push in the U.S. with its extensive line of turntables. Several of its ’tables use magnetic drive, including its flagship Artus ($150,000), or magnetic repulsion to float the platter, like the Enya 12 ($12,000) which also includes TransRotor’s Merlo MC cartridge and 5012 arm, derived from SME’s outstanding 12" tonearm. Continuum’s Criterion turntable ($49,995), based on the Caliburn turntable, was making great music in the VTL, Continuum, Koetsu, and BAT rooms. It uses a magnesium alloy for both the platter and the chassis and includes vacuum holddown, a unique motion control system, and a new decoupled armboard design using magnetic stabilization. While all the units I saw used Continuum’s “Copperhead” tonearm, the Criterion can be used with other arms. Despite the formidable acoustic challenges of the ballroom floor, the Criterion (coupled with an Air Tight PC-1, Artus electronics, and German Physiks Carbon Mk IV speakers) spinning a test pressing of a live Crosby, Stills, and Nash concert was one of the best sounds I heard at the show with natural timbre, fine detail, spaciousness, and image solidity.
The VPI HR-X with the new Rim Drive option was producing a wonderfully spacious and natural soundstage, with excellent speed stability, in concert with Herron Audio electronics and custom speakers. Although the Rim Drive is surprisingly massive, it can be easily added to several VPI models. A new custom turntable from PBN Audio uses a VPI drive system and platter, SME 312S, and a plinth made of four layers of maple ($8000 with arm). Combined with a Clearaudio Accurate cartridge, PBN electronics, and the Montana KAS2, it produced music with a great sense of hall acoustic, delicacy, and slam, without stress or strain.
Last year, I was very impressed by Merrill-Scillia’s MS21 turntable ($24,000) with its aerospace machining, advanced suspended design, and sophisticated speed control. Its performance has been improved by new precision-machined springs, providing even compression and eliminating side deflections. Combined with a Tri-planar VII arm and Ortofon Jubilee, it offered rock-solid speed stability, jet-black backgrounds, and incredible inner detail. A less costly version, the MS2 ($8000) has the same spring technology and “guts” as the MS21 and can be upgraded with the MS21’s digital 2-speed power supply.
Another great analog front-end featured Artemis Labs’ new turntable (~$6000), designed by Frank Schroeder, incorporating a multilayered plinth made of bamboo, a 15-pound platter fashioned from aircraft aluminum, and a huge bearing. It uses a self-tensioning tape drive, comes with a universal armboard, and will be manufactured in the U.S. The demo ’table sported a Schroeder arm and a Soundsmith “Voice” cartridge, with Artemis Labs electronics driving Verity Fidelio speakers. The sound was as natural as I heard at both shows.