Turntables

Clearaudio Concept Turntable

ARTICLE INDEX

Introduction

Recently in reviews, I've talked about the Loudness Wars that have infected many modern recordings and how music that I enjoy is rendered almost unlistenable by a bad recording. I imagine it might surprise many people to learn that most releases on vinyl require a different mastering technique than the digital release of the same album, and so many of the flaws of the digital master won't be present on the vinyl release. I tested the Clearaudio Concept Turntable with some modern albums recorded digitally and released on CD as well as Vinyl to prove my point.

Specifications

  • Design: Belt-driven with Decoupled DC Motor
  • Speeds: 33, 45, and 78 RPM
  • Platter: 30mm thick Delrin
  • Cartridge: Concept MM, 20 Hz – 20 kHz, 3.3 mV Output, 47 kOhm Load Resistance, 8.0 grams
  • Dimensions: 5.5" H x 16.5" W x 13.8" D
  • Weight: 16.5 Pounds
  • MSRP: $1,499 USA
  • Clearaudio

I've had a turntable for a few years now and have used it a fair amount but still used my CD player or music server more often. Over the past few years, I have had the chance to hear much higher quality digital sources. I had wondered if moving up to a higher quality turntable would make as noticeable a difference as it had with a CD player, and it if would push me into listening to vinyl more often. After talking to Garth Leerer from Musical Surroundings at CEDIA, he was kind enough to send over their Clearaudio Concept turntable, along with their Nano Phono Preamp and the Concept MM and MC cartridges so I could see for myself.


Design and Setup

The Clearaudio Concept takes a modern approach with its aesthetic design, which I am quite fond of. It is the kind of component that you want to show off and not hide inside an AV cabinet. An aluminum finish surrounds the chassis, with three adjustable spiked feet on the base to provide a level-playing surface. The 30mm thick Delrin platter is a sturdy support for your media, and the Verify tonearm features a friction-free magnetic bearing. The motor is decoupled from the chassis to provide speed stability and minimize any added vibration, and a 3 position switch lets you easily select between 33, 45, and 78 RPM playback without messing around with belts, or an external speed control box.

Clearaudio has designed the Concept to be as plug-and-play as a turntable can be. The fussy nature of setting up a turntable for optimal playback is something that can turn people off from getting into vinyl. To make this easier, Clearaudio can ship it with either the Concept MM or MC cartridges pre-mounted for you. Once you remove it from the box, all you should need to do to begin playing is to put the platter back on the chassis, plug it into a phono preamp or phono input, and play. I would make sure to check the tracking force of the cartridge myself, as that is something that could easily be a slight bit off, but otherwise it is a very quick and simple setup process.

As my turntable came with the Concept MM cartridge pre-installed, I went for the easiest setup I could: Using the phono input of the Anthem Integrated 225 amplifier, which was powering a set of Paradigm Signature S2 speakers. For someone just getting into vinyl, or just getting back into vinyl after giving it up for the CD, this is a pretty simple and compact setup. I quickly leveled the table using the spiked feet and a bubble level and was ready to start listening.


In Use

The first album I pulled out was the recent remastering of Nirvana Unplugged. Recorded shortly before Kurt Cobain's death, and released posthumously, Nirvana Unplugged is one of the finest albums to come from the once great MTV series, along with Eric Clapton's Unplugged album. The remaster of this album was expertly done, with a dead quiet background, and vocals that seemed to come to life from the speakers. Compared to the sound of my entry level Music Hall turntable, the Clearaudio was far more dynamic, with better bass, a much larger soundstage, and a more natural sound. The midrange was crisp and clear, as the voice of the weary Cobain came through. The album was magnificently remastered and the Concept brought the recording to life.

I moved on to Radiohead's prior release, In Rainbows. The CD of the album is unfortunately not the best-mastered album in the world, which is too bad since the music on it is fantastic. To really see how the Clearaudio would stand out, I queued up the first side of the 45 RPM vinyl box on the Concept, and the CD on the Sony XA5400ES SACD player so I could switch back and forth. A couple of Radiohead-loving friends came over to join me for this experience as well. While most thought they would be able to clearly tell the difference, those characteristics they were expecting to hear wound up to be quite different than what they actually heard.

Compared to the vinyl version, the CD version of the album just sounded sterile. Guitars played a note, but had no texture or air that came along with the note. The dynamic range of the instruments was crushed due to the mastering of the CD, causing everything to bleed together and sound like a mess of instruments instead of a well-defined band. Everyone that expected the CD to sound more detailed, or clearer, left highly disappointed as they all had a strong preference for the vinyl release. This also helped to reaffirm my decision to buy all my new, popular music releases on vinyl instead of the CD version.

My Dad coming by the house gave me a good reason to put on the reissue of Neil Young's After The Gold Rush. Warner Brothers did a wonderful job on these reissues, down to using the same types of paper as the original versions that my Dad probably owned. From the piano on the title track, to the brash guitar on Southern Man, to Young's far more powerful and younger voice, everything came out clear from the Concept and pulled you back into the music. I think my Dad was a bit envious at the setup, and that he couldn't sit down and listen to the whole album that morning.

After upgrading the cartridge from the Concept MM to the MC and introducing the Nano preamp to the setup (the Anthem phono stage is for MM or high gain MC only), I went to one of my all time favorite albums, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from Wilco. I had bought the two LP set from Sundazed before I even had a turntable, so I would have a copy in the future if I ever did and I have always been happy with that purchase. However, once I started to play it back, I was totally unprepared for what I would hear. Of all the gear I have listened to, and the components auditioned, this was the closest anything had come to recreating the sound of someone actually singing in front of me. Jeff Tweedy seemed to be standing in front of me, as the nuances of the recording came to life. I could hear his breathing between lines, and perfectly picture him standing there, recording the song in front of me. I have listened to this album countless times over the years, but nothing had ever brought it to life like the Clearaudio Concept had for me.

During the rest of my time with the Concept, I must have listened to 70-80 albums on it. I kept reaching into my library to find titles that I hadn't heard, or going out shopping to pick up albums that I couldn't wait to hear on it. My previous thoughts on vinyl that it can be a bit of a pain to maintain and demanding to listen to albums on were gone with the Concept. Listening was always a pleasure, and aside from the initial setup I never needed to adjust anything on the table the whole time I had it. Listening to a 45 RPM album required me getting up to flip it over fairly often, but my effort was rewarded with magical sound coming out from my speakers.


On The Bench

I'm sure many people are looking at this graph and see the THD+N number and wonder how I could have possibly written what I did. The Concept with its MM cart installed showed around a 45 dB drop between its primary harmonic and secondary harmonic values. You'll notice a spike there at around 60 Hz, which is noise from the power lines making it's way into the test results. Since turntables have far lower output compared to a digital source over their line level outputs, interference from the power lines can show up more easily. That spike changed in size as I readjusted the cables, and I never heard a hum coming while I played the Concept in my system, but that spike is present on the graph.

Next, you'll see a graph of the same turntable playing a rumble track. This is a track with no music at all, but it gives you an example of the noise floor of the turntable:

Here you see the noise floor is overall very low, except for that noise from 60 Hz. With a turntable, it's more important than with other devices to keep the output cables away from power cables, since the signal level is so low that any extra noise that could be introduced by a power cable should be avoided. After this was done, I installed the MC cartridge on the Concept.

The graph looks similar to the one for the MM cart, though the level of the harmonics drops off quicker, even with the higher output voltage. Unfortunately I don't have a rumble track for the MC cartridge due to a mistake I made during the bench testing. As an MC cart has an even lower output level than an MM cart, it's even more prone to picking up that AC noise on the bench tests, and also far more dependent on the quality of phono stage you use with it to amplify the signal and avoid introducing noise.

Using the recently released Platter Speed app from Dr. Feickert on my iPhone along with a 3150 Hz test track, the Concept measured remarkably close to it's rated speed. Just slightly fast at 33 RPM and slightly slow at 45 RPM, but very close and I could never tell a tone or pitch shift with my ears.


Conclusions

It's not hard to guess that I enjoyed my time with the Concept. I went through nearly my entire vinyl collection in the couple of months that I had it around, and couldn't wait to hear what it had in store for me. The most enjoyable part was inviting over friends that had never listened to vinyl before and having them experience the beautiful sound it can produce.

For many people my age, our recollections of vinyl are the worn out records our parents had kept since college, full of crackles and pops, played back on a low end table with a far too worn down cartridge and stylus. To be the person that is able to allow them to experience the wonderful, warm experience of settling in to listen to an album on vinyl for the first time is a rewarding experience. In addition, while the manual labor of flipping an album between songs can seem archaic when we have music servers that can play your entire library back continuously, having to be so involved in the activity makes you really sit back and listen to the music, instead of so often treating it as a passive, background noise.

I'm sure some people are going to look at the bench tests and scream "Even the worst CD players have far better technical specs than that!" or worse, that I'm just deluded into hearing things that I want to hear and since others say that vinyl is better, then I'm just another audio-fool. To those I'd counter that I don't like to spend my money on things that I don't think are better just to be part of a club. Most of my money now goes to vinyl instead of digital recordings, and the whole time the Concept was here, I had trouble pulling myself away from it to review anything else, even amazingly digital sources.

I might have not bought the review unit, one of my friends that came to listen to vinyl for the first time did and he couldn't be happier with his purchase. I can also assure you that adding one to my system is at the top of my list. Once you've gone to a quality vinyl setup, you might never go back to digital again. Recommended as highly as any component that I have used in my system.

After I finished this review, I dropped by the house of the fellow writer that purchased the review table. We threw on the brand new 2 LP, 45 RPM remastered version of Rumours from Fleetwood Mac, which had just arrived earlier that week. Listening to "Never Going Back Again" was just something magical, and sounded as real and natural as music at home really can be. If you go out and experience the Concept turntable after a life of digital music, you too may be "Never Going Back Again" to your CD player.