Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part CLII: 21st Century Turntable Innovations

One of the most comforting things about listening to vinyl is that the basic technologies were seemingly perfected many decades ago. We've tried to come up with new and better ways to play records, but for the most part, we've stuck to the core designs and focused on better materials and tighter tolerances, not to mention more effective ways of reducing vibrations from the motor--and the rest of the world--and keeping them away from the stylus tip. Occasionally we try to reinvent the analog wheel. Over the decades, we've tried laser beam turntables and record players placed on their sides and other novel yet always flawed solutions, but we always come back to the graceful simplicity of platters, plinths, tonearms and needles.

That's why there's still considerable interest in the older turntable designs from the '50's and '60's, the Garrard 301s and the Thorens TD-124s and the EMT 927s and the Technics SP-10s. Solid engineering and attention to detail carried us most of the way to excellent sound in the early days of the turntable, and I find it amazing how most modern turntables still follow the same basic blueprint.

Quite remarkably, the idea that there's nothing new under the analog sun has been disproven repeatedly in the last few years. For example, a Japanese company named DS Audio came up with the concept of an optical phono cartridge. At first, everyone assumed this was a variant on those laser beam turntables--a design that resurfaces every few years and never quite catches on. The laser beam 'tables, which used a laser to digitally interpret the grooves just like a CD player, worked well when conditions were ideal. But these turntables didn't play records that were dirty, warped or somehow divergent from the concept of a perfect pressing. Plus, these 'tables were prohibitively expensive and difficult to repair.

No, the optical cartridges from DS Audio are quite different. The needle still lands in the groove and reads the information through mechanical means. But an optical cartridge doesn't use magnets to relay the signal--it uses light. As DS Audio explains, "Optical cartridges detect music signals by capturing shadow changes (brightness changes) using LEDs and PD (photo cells). Because MM/MC cartridges generate electricity by cutting off the magnetic field, magnetic resistance always occurs when the magnet (or coil) moves."

An optical cartridge from DS Audio looks very similar to a conventional MM or MC cartridge--it does light up, however, and there is a small light tower that sits next to the turntable and shines a light on the needle. Plus, you'll need a specialized phono preamplifier to read a completely different type of signal. That requires unique equalization from then preamp that is very different from the standard RIAA equalization needed in conventional analog playback rigs.

What are the advantages to this design? Well, a needle can move more freely through the grooves when there is no magnetic field forcing the movement one way or another. It's not any more complicated than that. The result is a sound that seems cleaner, more direct, more natural. When the DS Audio cartridges first came out a few years, audiophiles were skeptical--especially since the prices were so high. But I've noticed something at all the trade shows I've attended over the last couple of years, and all of the high-end audio dealers I've visited: DS Audio optical cartridges are EVERYWHERE now. These days, if you want the best, you buy a DS Audio cartridge.

In fact, an entire cottage industry has sprung up in the high-end audio industry due to the advent of the optical cartridge. Several manufacturers such as Aavik, EMM Labs and Meitner have developed their own phono preamplifiers for use with optical cartridges. (I assume DS Audio has a patent on optical cartridges, so no one's trying to make their own optical carts--yet.) It's clear, at least to me, that optical cartridges are here to stay. They represent a lasting innovation to analog playback, one we haven't seen since direct-drive was offered as a more accurate alternative to belts and idler drives. The only downside, of course, is the cost--DS Audio cartridges start at around $2,500, and march steadily toward six figures when you include the cost of the specialized preamp.

The second big innovation in modern analog playback also comes from DS Audio (all the money they're making from the optical cartridge technology probably funds a lot of R&D). The ES-001 Eccentricity Detection Stabilizer looks like a fairly large record weight that sits on top of the turntable spindle. This device measures how true the record spins, again through lasers, and a set of crosshairs appear at the top of the device so that you can line up the record perfectly. Nakamichi made a turntable a few decades ago that did the same thing, and those 'tables are now rare and very desirable. The ES-001, however, can be used with any turntable on the market.

Does a perfectly centered record sound better? Of course it does. Just try playing a 7" single without a 45 RPM adapter and see how difficult it is to achieve the best sound. But what seems surprising about "eccentricity detection" is that it's a problem at all, much less an easily fixable one. Most of the time my LP's fit rather tightly on the spindle; occasionally I must press down hard on the LP, harder than I want, just to get the spindle through the hole. It's rare, in my experience, to deal with a loose fit between the LP and the spindle. But it does happen. In addition, sometimes the hole is the right size but it's not perfectly centered. I'm not sure how the ES-001 fixes that, but at least you'll know your LP is defective.

Does the ES-001 work? Yeah, it does. Having a perfectly centered record always sounds much better because the stylus isn't sporadically favoring one channel over the other while the record spins. You can use the ES-001--and it's a lot of fun to use--and immediately hear improvements in the sound once the placement of the LP on the platter is corrected. The only downside, once again, is the cost: the ES-001 is about $6,000. But if you're obsessive about vinyl playback, you'll use one and then you'll want one.

The final analog innovation is something that will benefit everyone who owns a turntable. Soundsmith, a legendary cartridge manufacturer in the US, has just announced their new IROX line of cartridges--the IROX Blue ($999.95), the IROX Ultimate ($1,999.95) and the IROX Ultimate Dual Coil Mono ($2,299.95). What's so special about these cartridges? According to Soundsmith's Peter Lederman, the IROX cartridges are unbreakable!

I just felt a chill down my spine.

This excites me, and not just because I've destroyed two very expensive Koetsu cartridges in my life. The IROX cartridges are ideal for "heavy duty use, parties, institutions, and anywhere there is a potential handling issue or danger of misuse." I know there are plenty of vinyl lovers out there who stress out about handling cartridges, especially when it comes to installing and aligning them. The IROX cartridges aren't clunky beasts that look like the needle on a Fisher Price record player--they're Soundsmith cartridge designs through and through. They're just designed to be durable.

If you do manage to break this unbreakable cartridge, you can relax. Soundsmith charges only 10-15% of the original MSRP to retip most of their cartridges. Most cartridge makers charge 50% or more--some are close to 80%. That's why most audiophiles opt to buy a new cartridge rather than send the old one back to the factory. That means it costs only $180 to retip an IROX Blue, and $360 to retip the Ultimate.

I've just concluded a rather busy year where I attended high-end audio shows all over the world, and there are plenty of extraordinary turntable designs that include small innovations (just recently I saw a turntable with a fluid-filled platter--which makes a lot of sense). But optical cartridges are changing the landscape in a very measurable way, and the other two innovations address problems we've all encountered in our love of playing vinyl.

Innovation, of course, is reserved for established technologies, and it's a truly healthy sign for the analog industry that so many people are working to solve these decades-old problems in a meaningful way. Vinyl isn't going anywhere.

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