My dad, now retired, is a mechanical engineer, and from looking over his shoulder throughout his career I learned that the field could be a strange and wonderful marriage of art and science. Great designers have a flair for creating solutions where practical mechanics and pleasing aesthetics become one, and where invention flows freely from a seemingly endless river of fresh ideas. Such is the case with the turntable and tonearm designs of the Slovenian engineer Franc Kuzma. In fact, if you lined up Kuzma’s products in a row they would seem so different in concept and execution that you might think each was the brainchild of a different man. Plainly, Kuzma is one of those rare individuals who can see and solve problems from many different angles. Interestingly, though, it is one of Kuzma’s least costly and most deceptively simple designs that first catches many enthusiasts’ eyes: the minimalist Stabi S belt-drive turntable and Stogi S hydraulically-damped unipivot tonearm. This elegant turntable and arm look quite striking, but their appearance gives only a hint of what’s in store when listeners hear them in action.
The mission of any turntable is to rotate records at precise and stable speeds without introducing (or sustaining) noises or vibrations that could disrupt the playback process. We want turntables to be dead quiet, and yet veteran analog enthusiasts recognize that there are subtle yet audible tonal-quality differences in the background silences that various turntables produce. About now, you might be wondering if silences can even have tonal qualities, but I would argue they can and do. (Picture in your mind the difference between, say, the quiet of a church sanctuary at midnight and the interior of a warehouse at that same hour, and you’ll grasp my point.)
The single quality that most defines the Stabi S is its ability to produce deep, quiet, ever-so-slightly-warm-sounding backgrounds that remind me of the profound hush you hear in a concert hall, just before the music begins. While the Stabi S may not be quite as quiet as toptier Kuzma models such as the Stabi Reference or Stabi XL, it makes a highly satisfying alternative, and at a price point normal mortals can handle. Performance is no doubt helped by the outboard power-supply/speed-control box supplied with the deluxe version of the Stabi S that I tested. If the Stabi S’s background silence were a color, I’d call that color a “warm black.” By contrast, most Clearaudio ’tables I’ve heard, and many recent-generation VPIs as well, seem to produce an equally deep but colder silence that I would characterize as an icy “blue-black” background behind the music.
One could probably build a case for either background color, but I prefer the Stabi S’s rendition of silence for two musically defensible reasons. Its warm black backgrounds are strongly reminiscent of those you might hear in live music venues. I find this quality helps promote listening for the overall gestalt of the music, which—in my book—is a good thing. And this is really important: I find that the way individual notes emerge from and then decay back into the Stabi S’s noise floor sounds much more natural and continuous than does the notes-stand-out-in-sharp-relief presentation of the colder-sounding ’tables. Does this mean the Stabi swallows or obscures transient information or fine details? Certainly not. It’s just that the Stabi S lets the information in the record grooves unfold in a natural way, without imparting even a hint of momentarily exciting, but ultimately fatiguing transient zing. There are more “lively-sounding” ’tables than the Stabi S on the market, but in many cases I can’t reconcile their sound with that of live music.
The Stogi S is a highly cost-effective, hydraulically-damped unipivot tonearm that has the ability to unleash the strengths of top-tier cartridges such as Shelter’s 90X—cartridges that cost many times what the arm does. It enables cartridges to produce bass that is energetic, deeply extended, and yet tightly focused. For instance, near the opening of “Overture—Cotton Avenue” from Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter [Asylum], Jaco Pastorius strikes a subterranean, thunderclap-like note on an open bass-guitar string, and the Stogi S/Shelter combo captures everything that note has to offer, including its fierce attack, richly modulated envelope, and long, slow decay that rings with sustained low-frequency energy. Other good arm/cartridge pairs I’ve heard typically can’t produce bass like this—bass that hits with sledgehammer force, yet speaks with vox humana expressiveness.
At midrange and treble frequencies, the Stogi S facilitates the cartridge’s precise and invigorating retrieval of transient and harmonic details, while at the same time fostering an overall sound that is graceful and smooth. I attribute this elusive combination of detail and smoothness to the Stogi S’s damping system, and it is pure magic. For me, it was a revelation to revisit classic CTI jazz recordings from the 1970s, such as Freddy Hubbard’s Red Clay or Jim Hall’s Concierto, and the Stabi S/Stogi S pair proved a perfect “time machine,” unlocking incredibly fine timbral and textural details in those old records in a way no analog rig from the ’70s could have done. Hubbard’s trumpet and Hall’s guitar just sound so right through the Stogi S/Shelter pair, with details pouring forth as from a natural spring, without any artificial edge enhancement to mar the presentation.