In addition to bringing home the natural relative proportions of instruments’ physical scale and dynamic contrast, the Tri-Planar Mk VII is a master of soundstaging and imaging within. Where many audio components tend to sheer off the outer edges of the soundstage, and increasingly so as depth recedes, the Tri-Planar does not. Instead, and this is of course dependent on the record and associated gear, it seems to open up the farthest reaches of the stage, as if illuminating previously dark corners. Within that space, voices and instruments “materialize” with particular vividness and tangibility. This can be heard on any number of LPs, but two that immediately spring to mind are Classic Records’ 45rpm single-sided pressing of the Royal Ballet, and Wilco’s a ghost is born [Nonesuch/Rhino], where each allowed the already superb and transparent Kharma 3.2 speakers to display a heady level of sonic “invisibility.”
At $3900, the Tri-Planar continues to sit among a small handful of today’s top-tier pickup arms, and it’s one with quite a long track record, too. Under Mai’s stewardship, that should continue for years to come. Mai’s final words to me were, “Our advice to owners of the arm is to enjoy it for ten years before thinking about any upgrades.”
Records are becoming iconic, almost like electric guitars, reflecting a certain point in history,” Musical Surroundings’ Garth Leerer mused the other day, adding, “One of the cooler aspects of Clearaudio’s Solution Series is its upgradeability. Another is the ability to mount three arms. As more arms and cartridges become available, including mono cartridges, the serious record collector and hobbyist has more options.”
Occupying the middle ground in Clearaudio’s range of acrylic-centric turntables, the Solution Series is available in three different incarnations—the Solution ($2000), Master Solution AMG ($5000), and Maximum Solution ($10,000). While each shares the same three-point star-shaped plinth, three-arm capability, a bronze-plated inverted bearing of hardened steel, and belt-driven outboard motor, the Solution uses a 30mm platter, while the Master and Maximum feature 70mm platters and the company’s 12mm “reference” ceramic bearing. Moreover, the Maximum is a three-motor unit with a second three-pointed plinth that properly stations each motor for precise belt tension, and the design includes the outboard APG (Accurate Power Generator), which also allows fine-tuning of each speed. The Solution and Master Solution are field-upgradeable: Solution to Master costs $3000; Solution to Maximum is $11,000, and Master to Maximum is $7500.
I lived with a Solution for a few months before Leerer sent me the Master Solution AMG upgrade kit. This includes the 70mm platter and matching bearing, aluminum/magnesium (AMG) skins for the acrylic plinth, and three large stainless-steel pods for mass coupling and mounting/raising of armboards to appropriate heights vis-à-vis the platter. About the kit, Leerer noted, “Regarding the pricing, we decided to offer the Solution without the AMG skins to make this a very affordable threearm ’table. The skins come with the Master or with the upgrade kit, as we are positioning this as the best bang for the buck in the line. The AMG skins are important for both adding rigidity and damping to the acrylic plinth, but I believe more so when the heavier platter/ bearing is added, i.e., in the Master Solution, Maximum Solution, and Master Reference models.” (I’ve not heard the Maximum, but Editor-in-Chief Robert Harley uses one in his reference system.)
Though I have yet to take advantage of the multi-arm capability (I used the Tri-Planar only), I did experiment with two optional accessories—the outboard Synchro Speed Controller ($1000) and the Outer Limit ($900), a hefty stainless ring that serves to heighten the platter’s flywheel effect (aiding speed stability), dampen records, and double as a warp flattening device.
The essential sound of these Clearaudio models is, well, clear, with a fine sense of quickness and transient speed. “The concept is to take away from the products what you don’t need, i.e., a huge base,” Leerer said. “By removing the large plinth you improve clarity, and by spreading out the feet the tripod effect brings greater speed and clarity.”
After months of using these models I found great similarity in their sounds (though once I hit the Master level, I never went back). The Solution is nimble and clean of presentation, and the sound is light and open with a nice sense of overall balance and detail. But because it isn’t the most full-bodied sounding ’table out there, Starker’s cello, the Royal Opera House Orchestra, and the Monk and Wilco records don’t have the weight, power, or dynamic force they do when you jump to the Master Solution (and I assume the Maximum delivers more of same).