The Affordable Vinyl Project Part I; Introduction to the Clearaudio Concept Turntable

Constantine Soo of Dagogo recently asked me to do a guest review of the Triangle-Art Maestro Turntable, the Triangle-Art entry-level turntable that sells for $7,500 without a tonearm. I realize that this may not be entry level for most people. So, this reminded me that it has been a while since I have reviewed a real entry-level, high-end turntable. I was surprised to discover it has been longer than I thought; it was December of 2014 when I reviewed the Tri-Art The Audio Pebbles TA-1 turntable that sells for $1,300.

So, I have begun to look around at turntable, tonearm, phono cartridge and phono preamp combinations that cost less than or very close to $3,000. I picked this price point because a turntable at the $1,500 price point is probably the beginning of the turntable spectrum and represents a healthy jump up from a strictly budget turntable. By the time you add a decent phono cartridge and a phono preamplifier, you’ve invested a substantial amount of change to support your vinyl habit. I promise you, however, that you will get a huge jump in sound quality and musical enjoyment by moving from a budget turntable to an entry-level table.

Clearaudio Concept Turntable

When looking around and consulting friends, I decided the Clearaudio Concept, while not new to the market,  would enable me to build several different combinations below $3,000. So, I am starting this quest with it.

The Clearaudio Concept Black is the latest version of the German company’s most affordable turntable. The Concept Black incorporates all of the advanced parts, such as an aluminum sub-platter and rear-mounted speed calibration, that are found on the two-toned black and silver Concept. The Concept starts at $1,600 retail with a Clearaudio Concept tonearm, and there are special packages that include the Concept MM cartridge for $1,800 or the Concept MC cartridge for $2,400. The Concept Black is also available with the Satisfy Black tonearm and the Concept MC cartridge for $2,800.

Clearaudio also makes the Nano v2 Phono Preamp that sells for $450 that I will use with the moving Clearaudio cartridges. I will also review it with the Hana SL moving coil cartridge that retails for $750 and is package priced at $675 with the turntable. With the Hana SL cartridge, I will use the Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ phono preamp that sells for $750. This means that the least expensive combination would run you $2,250, and the most expensive combination costs $3,425. Now, remember that this is for a turntable, a tonearm, a cartridge and a phono preamp.

Description of the Concept Turntable

The Concept Black weighs in at approximately 16.5 pounds. It’s16.5 inches wide, 13.78 inches deep, and 4.92 inches tall. It features a 30mm thick POM (polyoxymethylene) platter, which is very impressive at this price point. In fact, it is the same material that is used for the Clearaudio Innovation turntables.The 5.5-lb platter sits on a subplatter assembly fitted to a polished shaft of tempered steel while riding on a Teflon thrust pad. The belt-driven table features a DC motor. You can easily switch the speed between 33, 45 and 78 r.p.m. with the selector switch on the left side of the table. While you will probably want a different cartridge to accommodate your 78 collection, the Concept could easily be used as a “78 only” table at minimal cost.

I unboxed the turntable and noted that it was packaged very well. Everything inside was safe and sound. The platter, power supply cord, manual, and additional tools are packed carefully underneath the turntable itself. If you buy the Concept with one of the cartridge options, it will arrive with the cartridge installed and setup at the factory. If the package includes the Concept tonearm, the counterweight is already attached, one of the virtues of the magnetic bearing. If the Concept package includes the Satisfy tonearm, all you will need to do is put on the counterweight and set the tracking force. Be sure to firmly hold the tonearm with one hand while using the other hand to install the threaded counterweight, as it fits very snugly. You should be spinning records in about 10 minutes from the time you open the box

The Concept tonearm features a “friction-free,” magnetic-attraction bearing. Magnets on the housing and arm are attracted to each other but are kept apart by a tension wire that exerts a downforce. As far as I know, this is the first implementation of this type of bearing design at anywhere near this price point. The Concept tonearm is hardwired with nice quality cables that have tight-fitting RCA plugs.

Concept Turntable Quality

The build quality of the Concept is impressive, and I would use the word refined to describe its look and quality. This is the kind of quality we have come to expect from German-engineered products. When you look at it and use it, you get a sense that this turntable is a complete product not just a collection of expensive parts. The curvature and beveled features are things you won’t find in products in this price range.

The Concept is designed for ease of use and high performance. The sound dampening chassis design uses MDF (medium density fiberboard) with aluminum surround trim and an upper layer incorporating a high tech synthetic compound. This makes for a well-damped turntable with a small footprint.

Choosing a Tonearm

You can also get the Concept with the Satisfy Black tonearm. It features high-quality, handmade Swiss vertical and lateral bearings composed of polished sapphire. The aluminum arm tube is both light and rigid, while the two-piece aluminum headshell with an adjustable azimuth allows for the accurate alignment of any phono cartridge type. Anti-skating control is applied by a magnetic system that acts on the side of the bearing housing. It uses a hard-wired Direct Wire tonearm cable that assures signal integrity.

When I reviewed the different versions of the Satisfy tonearm back in 2008 I said, “One of the things I love about the Satisfy tonearms is that they have a simple eloquence about them. 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 tonearms are simple nine-inch arms with an exceptional structural rigidity that is combined with ultra-low friction.” I don’t think anything has changed since my concluding thoughts in that review when I said, “I think the Satisfy tonearm is truly amazing for its price.”  

The Phono Preamp

I used two phono preamps for this project. Musical Surrounding’s own Phonomena II+ was used with the Hana moving coil cartridge. The Phonomena II+ is the successor to the original Michael Yee design fo Musical Surrounding’s affordable phono preamplifier series. It has an improved chassis design based on their more expensive Nova II, and it comes in both a black and a silver finish. They used a new circuit board layout, and the phono preamp has discrete dual-mono signal paths. They also point out that Phonomena II+ is proudly made in the USA.

For the Concept moving magnet cartridge, I used the Clearaudio Nano V2 phono preamp. It is encased in a solid CNC-machined, resonance-free aluminum chassis. It uses the latest sophisticated surface-mount technology in conjunction with precision electronic components, such as Burr-Brown (Texas Instruments) integrated circuits. The Nano v2’s extremely short signal paths lead to pure, noise-free music reproduction. It has a fully dual-mono design and features separate left and right switches for input loading and gain control. You can also select a moving coil or a moving magnet phono cartridge.

Stay Tuned for Part II

In Part II, I’m going to review the first set up, the Hana SL mounted in the Satisfy Black Tonearm and using the Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ phono preamp and then work down to the less expensive version of the Concept.

Keep on Boppin’, and check back soon for Part II.

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