A clever Concept
TIs the hassle of setting up a turntable putting you off vinyl? Fear not, this one’s ready to roll out of the box! HE other day, a young friend of mine dropped by with a stack of ancient 78rpm records someone had left with him years ago. First glance told me they needed cleaning. The last time they were spun was probably on a wind-up record player a few decades ago!
Once I had cleaned a couple of the records, the system was fired up them and I risked playing them on the new Clearaudio Concept turntabletable that had been sent over to be reviewed. Risked, because these 78s are not meant for modern cartridges.
Anyway, the records were noisy, like the sound of a heavy drizzle, but the music, in mono, was lovely. It was the sound of acoustic instruments recorded direct, no overdubs or fancy modern tricks. And the level of musicianship was sheer bliss to our ears.
My friend remarked that after a while, he could filter out the noise from his head and enjoy just the performance. I agreed – the musicians swung effortlessly, and the level of depth and detail in the recordings, going back more than 50 years, was indeed breathtaking.
Okay, getting to my point – the Concept turntable has a 78rpm mode. Now, that’s a rare feature indeed on a modern turntable!
Good to go
Turntables are generally – and rightly so – perceived as fiddly to set up but over the years, manufacturers catering to the masses have simplified the procedure. Thus, you have models from the likes of Rega and Pro-Ject packaged with a cartridge, almost good to go out of the box. The German-made Concept takes Clearaudio into this territory – all you need to do is remove the packing and protective pads. Even the counterweight comes mounted!
The Concept package includes the Verify tonearm, which sports a friction-free magnetic bearing, and the Concept MM cartridge (the MC version costs more). All adjustments – cartridge geometry, tracking force, azimuth and anti-skating – are factory set. Should you want to muck around with the counterweight, get a proper gauge. However, tampering with the other parameters is not recommended as it entails getting under the tonearm base.
The turntable’s plinth is made from a composite material, hemmed by an aluminium strip. A rotary dial on its lower left corner powers up the turntable and is also used for the speed settings – 33 1/3, 45 and 78rpm.
The onboard DC motor is de-coupled from the platform via low-noise bearings. The spindle is a polished shaft of tempered steel with bronze IF you haven’t noticed it already, digital-to-analogue converters (DACs) are all the rage these days. Stand-alone DACs have always represented a viable (and most times, cheaper) upgrade path than changing the entire CD player rig, and this remains true now, even without the advent of computer-based audio.
Even with a budget CD player, a quality DAC can and will bring about significant improvements. The Lead Audio LA-100 DAC represents such a product, with the additional ability to integrate the computer into the hi-fi system ... and more.
Lead Audio is relatively new to the industry, but has Søren Mac Larsen as its chief product designer, a person with considerable experience in designing top-notch audio gear for other Danish audio companies (like Copland).
The LA-100 first took its place in the resident system between a Marantz DV-7600 player and Euphonic Research ATT-600/Amp-80 pre/power amplifiers driving Magnepan SMGb speakers, temporarily displacing a diyparadise Monica 3 DAC.
The unit will not take up much space on your hi-fi rack, measuring only 35 x 108 x 135mm (h/w/d). However, it promises top-grade components such as a Burr Brown 24/192 upsampling chip, Wima condensers for the power supply and a Collpitts oscillator clock within its diminutive chassis.
For its asking price, you can’t really fault it. It did perform better than the analogue outputs on the Marantz, but the Monica 3 DAC trumped it in most areas.
However, that’s not to say that the LA-100 sounded bad – far from it. It had an underlying musicality to it, always naturalsounding with hardly any hint of over-etched treble or bloated bass. This, for me, was its main distinguishing factor from most bushings, while the black “Delrin” platter, 30mm in thickness, marks a departure from the familiar acrylic units.
The Concept’s footprint is compact – 420 x 350 x 140mm (w/d/h) – and this should go down well if you have space constraints, while the whole package weighs a comfortable 7.5kg.
As one would expect, the Concept is finished to a high standard, with adjustable feet to enable proper levelling. The wall-wart power supply plugs in at the rear.
The Concept cartridge, which has an aluminium cantilever, puts out 3.6mV and weighs 10g. Its frequency spread is 22Hz to 20kHz, with a tracking force range of 2-2.5g (optimal, 2.2g). The captive wiring means you don’t have to worry about buying interconnects, but placement becomes significant as you’re limited by the length of the provided RCAterminated wires.
One note – the Concept rests on three adjustable feet, and you would think this makes levelling a breeze. However, the cones comprising the supports are on the shallow side and mounted well inside the perimeter of the plinth. There is about 11mm of clearance from whatever platform on which it rests, making adjustments a chore if you don’t have long and slim digits!
An alluring turn
As promised in the literature, setting up the Concept was a breeze, but I checked anyway to confirm tracking force, anti-skating and azimuth were all within acceptable parameters – they were! I also let the cartridge run in for a few hours with a test record.
The Concept was first plugged into the Odyssey Tempest 2 preamp’s phono input and routed to the Khartago Extreme SE monoblocs and Magneplanar MG1.7 speakers. Initial impressions were ambiguous – I had to turn up the preamp’s volume well beyond the usual levels (the Maggies are not easy to drive) and the sound other budget-priced components out there.
It also had a nicely-constructed soundstage and imaging, with good detail retrieval. While I may have heard bettersounding components, the LA-100 kept my attention focused on the music – and any product that can do that is a champion in my book.
Where I felt the LA-100 came into its own was as a compan- seemed a bit lack-lustre (which was not the case with a Clearaudio Maestro MM cartridge I had used on my VPI Aries 3 turntable earlier). However, after a few hours at it, the Concept opened up, and began to reveal what it could achieve.
Still not wholly happy, I plugged the turntable into the Frank Acoustics Pipit 22L phono preamp, dialled in the MM setting, and messed about with various levels of gain, finally finding the appropriate level. And then, the Concept set-up began to sing and swing.
The overall sound was quite different from what I had heard in Clearaudio turntables I owned – the Concept was less in-the-face and more organic, perhaps even a bit laid-back in comparison. Perhaps moving away from the acrylic platter contributes to a more alluring and less strident presentation.
Yet, the Concept never shied away from detail and finer nuances, delivering a well spaced out and airy sound stage, with little indication of congestion. In fact, it excelled at image separation, with an inviting treble, and smooth and refined midrange.
Bass, it had ample, although I’ve heard other turntables – costlier ones like the VPI Classic – dig deeper into the lower extremes and sound more majestic. Not that the Concept was bass-shy, it wasn’t as assertive in this area as it was beguiling in the other departments at which it excelled. Most listeners, though, will not complain, given the rhythmic essence of the music the Concept conveyed to the listener.
A fine piece
Having been curious about the Clearaudio Concept since its launch and not having been able to procure one until now, I was understandably curious. Well, I certainly was not disappointed, although I’ll be the first to admit that this plug-and-play system won’t appeal to those who are fastidious about their vinyl set up, as hands-on adjustment here can be messy.
This aside, the cleverly-designed Concept package is a very fine piece of analogue equipment that should give owners years of pleasure and service. For many, this and a good phono preamp are all they will need for countless hours of hassle-free enjoyment.