A clever Con­cept

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - Afile@thes­tar.com.my By SUJESH PAVITHRAN By JOSEPH LOH

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.

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