For part two of my affordable vinyl project, I am reviewing a Clearaudio Concept Black Turntable with a Satisfy Black Tonearm and a Hana SL moving coil cartridge. For a phono preamp, I used the Musical Surroundings Phenomena II+. If you missed Part One of this series, you can read it here, but basically I’m looking at entry-level analog setups that you might want to consider if you want to get into vinyl.
The Clearaudio Concept Black is the latest version of Clearaudio’s most affordable turntable. You may remember that I include this table in my Turntable Eye Candy post at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest last fall. With the Satisfy Black tonearm and the Hana SL MC cartridge, the total retail cost is $2,750. The Musical Surroundings PhonomenaII+ will bring the total to $3,500 for everything you need to plug into a high-level input or an integrated amp. I had set out to keep the total under $3,000, but after hearing this combination in my reference system, I stretched the top price to $3,500 and will work down from there in reviews to come. All of these products are available at both brick and mortar stereo stores and online for purchase. The Clearaudio/Hana importer and manufacturer, Musical Surroundings, is located here in the San Francisco Bay area, and that’s where I got my review samples.
The Clearaudio Concept features a thick (30 mm thick) POM (polyoxymethylene) platter. The size and heft of this platter enables the table to keep the proper speed and stability while you play your LPs. The POM does a good job damping the platter without robbing the life from the music. It has an aluminum sub-platter and rear-mounted speed calibration.
If there is one tonearm I am familiar with, it’s the Clearaudio Satisfy. I have owned one and have reviewed it with three different tonearm tubes. One of the things I love about the Satisfy tonearm is its simple elegance. I am a firm believer in the KISS (keep it simple stupid) principle, especially in audio design. Even the anti-skating design is a lesson in simplicity.
The Satisfy tonearm is a simple nine-inch tonearm with good structural rigidity that is combined with ultra-low friction. They are precision, handcrafted, two-axis tonearms. The horizontal bearing shaft is made out of wolfram whose polished ends are mounted in sapphire watch bearings. The vertical tonearm bearing is very precise in its working and is made of long-life ceramic bearing
The Satisfy tonearm has the usual and simple adjustments for vertical tracking force, azimuth, anti-skating, and vertical tracking angle. You will need a tracking force gauge of some kind. The Satisfy arms are too simple in their design to have any kind of built-in tracking force setting; you simply move the counterbalance until you get the desired tracking force. The vertical tracking angle cannot be changed while playing, but it is easy enough to do. By the way, you do know that you change the VTA more when you change the tracking force than you do when you move the arm up and down some small amount, right?
The anti-skating and azimuth adjustments are just so elegantly simple. The Satisfy tonearm doesn’t really have headshells, as you can see in the pictures. It simply has a mounting bar that connects to the tonearm with one allen screw. This makes setting the tonearm up really quite simple. Likewise, it has an elegantly innovative and simple magnetic anti-skating control. There are three or four small magnets mounted in the outside of the bearing housing, and across from them is an adjustable screw that you can simply turn to vary the distance from the magnets to adjust the skating.
The Hana line of cartridges is made by Tokyo’s Excel Sound Corporation. According to their website, this 45-year-old company has been making cartridges for other companies for all of those years. Then, they decided to create their own brand of cartridges that would epitomize exceptional performance and value. The word Hana translates to “brilliant and gorgeous” and their cartridges use Excel’s best materials, including alnico magnets, cross-shaped armatures, and Excel uses proprietary manufacturing processes.
For this review, I used their Hana SL Shibata stylus/(low output). This cartridge has a well-earned reputation for sound quality far beyond its price point. It uses a nude Shibata stylus fitted to an aluminum cantilever. The recommended VTF (vertical tracking force) is 2 grams, and I found that is where it sounded best in the Satisfy Black tonearm. The outstanding build quality of the Hana cartridges is also impressive for its price.
The Phono Preamp
Designed by Michael Yee for Musical Surroundings, the PhonomenaII+ is based on the latest discrete circuitry of his Musical Surroundings Nova II but without the battery pack. It’s flexible and adjustable with rear-panel gain and loading DIP-switches. Having used similar priced phono preamps, l was surprised by how solid and heavy the bass extension is. The bloom when I listened to upright basses was stunning, especially the decay. But not only does it have good decay, but it is also very quick. I think the speed and the bass of the PhonomenaII++ is an especially good match for this turntable setup.
Setting up this combination is about as simple as setting up a turntable can be. All you’re expected to do really is to connect your power supply cord to your wall outlet and then connect your cables and ground wire. Next, you install the belt around both the motor pulley and sub-platter and place the platter over the spindle and on top of the sub-platter. Use the bubble level provided, and adjust the three turntable feet as necessary to get the player as level as possible.
Now comes the only part you might find a little difficult, and you can have your dealer do this for you if you’re not comfortable mounting cartridges. The Hana is the first cartridge I’ve used in a while that is not threaded for mounting screws. So, you will need to use the little nuts that come with it as well as the screws to mount it to the tonearm. After mounting it, use the stylus gauge to set the vertical tracking force and then set the VTA by loosening the allen screw just enough to adjust the arm up or down until it is level when the cartridge is sitting on the LP.
I placed the Concept Black on my Box Furniture Audio Rack and plugged it into the Musical Surroundings PhonomenaII+ phono preamp. The rest of the system was the Master1 and the Emia Remote Autoformer, which was hooked up to my Pass Lab XA30.8 to drive my Teresonic Ingenium XR speakers.
I have to admit that I had pretty high expectations for this combo for three reasons. First my favorite moving coil cartridge of all time, the Myabi Standard, used Alnico magnets as do some of my favorite speakers. Second, as I have already shared, I have great respect for all of the versions of the Satisfy tonearm. Third, my experience with Clearaudio turntables also gave me real optimism for the Concept Black turntable.
My first impression of this combo was that it’s quiet. It runs quite, the sound comes out of a very quiet background and the surface noise was very low compared to some more expensive turntables. This quiet background is one of the reasons that this combo has plenty of detail and a wide soundstage with excellent image solidity, and it sounds very three-dimensional.
Even though there is plenty detail, the overall sound is smooth and sweet. It is still sufficiently fast and precise enough to produce good transient performance, yet overall the sound is warm and slightly mellow. At this price point, I think this is a good thing as it makes for great female vocals and good tone from string instruments.
Bass performance was good in terms of extension, though the leading edge was somewhat slower than my reference system, but that’s no surprise. A slightly more mellow sound with this combination is very pleasing compared to bass that is too fast and too tight. No, it’s not the last word in slam, but the bass has good decay and nice air. This is a tradeoff I’d make any day. Micro-dynamics were very good, giving music a very realistic beat and rhythm.
By spending a few weeks listening to this entry-level turntable, I learned a few things. The first thing I learned is that it is possible to get a turntable, tonearm and moving coil cartridge of outstanding build quality at a reasonable price. I’ve seen so many poorly made vinyl setups that claimed to be high-end that it was wonderful to learn this. The second thing was that at this price point you can get sonic performance that handily beats any digital I have heard at this price point.
There’s practically no limit to how much money can spend on a vinyl setup, but I’m really pleased to say that for $3,500 for this system, you can get a good taste of why people love listening to vinyl and you may even have some money left to buy a few more LPs.