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|The Sound of Clearaudio
The sound of the Clearaudio full analog setup is, unsurprisingly and above all else, clear - and more. The terms that leap to mind include quick, incisive and transparent. Needless to say, it is hard to determine exactly which of the various components contributed to the overall sound of the Clearaudio front end. Still, some attributions seem well supported by the evidence. Let's begin with the Everest stand. The entire analog setup was seemingly immune to external vibrations. I couldn't get the arm to skip or the table to miss a beat by jumping on the floor adjacent to the stand. The wood floor of my room is suspended and has a bit of bounce in it. But nothing disturbed the tracking. In general, the Clearaudio exhibited the lowest apparent noise floor of any analog system I've had in house.
Mind you, none of this establishes that the Everest stand provides broadband resonance control with respect to all forms of mechanically induced resonance - but it did seem to perform in this regard as well as my reference Harmonic Resolution Systems rack. It should. It costs nearly as much for the Everest stand as it does for the entire HRS rack.
The motor setup of the table itself was dead quiet and worked flawlessly as advertised, which contributed to the overall darkness of the background. The arm tracked without interruption or misstep and was not nearly as difficult for me to keep appropriately set up as I had been led to believe it would be.
The biggest difference between this and other Clearaudio analog front ends that I have heard previously was the cartridge. Though the Stradivari is nowhere near the most expensive cartridge among the new generation of Clearaudio moving coils, it shares a family resemblance to them all and one that sets it far apart from previous generations of Clearaudios. I had spent some time listening to a Clearaudio Insider which was a much praised transducer but it presented music from the inside - much more skeletal than fleshed out. Some refer to this attribute as 'high resolution' but to my mind it is anything but. Instead, the sound was unbalanced with a distinct transient emphasis at the expense of body and harmonics. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the Stradivari will remind one of a Koetsu Rosewood, but it might remind one of the Benz family of cartridges (but for the new LP, which in the short time I listened to it struck me as moving more in the direction of the Lyra Titan - less warmth and color than other Benz cartridges but more articulate).
No matter the speakers, I experienced music played through the full Clearaudio analog front end as decisive, detailed, transparent, agile, open, highly informative, confident, firmly controlled and dynamic. There was no mush, no fat, no soft underbelly to the music, no artificial sweetness or sugar coating on top. Tonally, the sound was very honest if ever so slightly cooler than, say a Well Tempered Reference, Brinkmann or Yorke.
|The Clearaudio presented musical details against an eerily black background. This contributed to the table's ability to sort out and locate details with a precision that was unmatched in my experience. This was especially evident in musical passages involving larger groups singing harmonies as in the concluding segments and fade of Paul Simon "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" from his Negotiations and Love Songs collection [Warner Brothers 9257891]. Here the Clearaudio sorted and located the voices better than any table I recall having in house, including my personal reference.
The combination of focused, readily distinguishable details emerging from and located against a dark if somewhat less dense background has led some reviewers to characterize the high-end Clearaudio table sound as somewhat 'digital'. That is something of a cheap shot. The sound is very modern and so too is digital. In both cases, the background is black but apparently unoccupied. The space between instruments and performers is seemingly infinite and empty, which is part of the reason imaging is so pinpoint and focused in space. On the other hand, it is a bit harder to get a sense of depth. As a result, lateral imaging is spectacular but a bit less so front to back.
|While informative and detailed, there was no etch or hardness in the upper registers. Massed strings were well rendered but not sweet. Horns had real bite and energy. John Coltrane's saxophone on Johnny Griffin's A Blowing Session Vol. 2 [Blue Note 1559] came across as fueled by high octane whereas his playing on John Coltrane [Prestige 24003], while equally alive, exhibited a bit less body.
In general, musical information from the highest registers through the presence region were harmonically slightly less well developed than they were on some other tables in the same general price range (for example, the Brinkmann Balance).
The midrange was lovely and the detail and resolution of the table made listening to jazz vocalists such as June Christy's Something Cool [Capitol T516] a real treat. Recordings that are a bit too chesty sounding for my tastes -- the Ray Charles and Betty Carter album of the same name [DCC LPZ 22] for example -- came across as cleaner and leaner and hence more enjoyable.
The midbass packed an incredible wallop and the bass will plumb the depths effortlessly. While weighty and more than adequately authoritative, the lowest registers were not quite as resolute as was everything from the midbass on up. I don't know which part of the analog chain to attribute this to and the difference in relative resolution was very small. I had the table in house for quite some time and after a while, I started listening for the purposes of making the most fine-grained distinctions I could in the context of the systems on hand. These are not differences one would notice in anything but the most highly resolving systems - and you have to be listening for differences to do so.
As you can tell I was very impressed by the Clearaudio front end. There was much to praise and little to fault. Still, I found myself admiring the table in every respect without falling in love with it. The sound was by no means sterile or cold but it was a bit lacking in soul.
The high-end Clearaudio sound is (to my ears) more precise than flattering. It prefers to be honest to the facts even when you might prefer being lied to or at least mislead. After all, much romance (and almost all sex) depends on sustaining a fantasy that is mostly but not entirely a matter of the facts. The Clearaudio walks a very fine line given its extraordinary capacity to reveal information and to focus the information it reveals.
In my experience, the lower-priced Clearaudio tables are a bit looser in their presentation. They have a somewhat different character and aspiration. If they walk the same line, they are more likely to fall to the side of fun than fact. These tables are a great way for the novice and music lover to find her way into analog. As one scales the price list, the engineering and precision increase and a little of the love is lost. The Maximum solution setup was very much more a reviewer's tool - and a damn good one at that.
A number of my guitarist friends attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston. Those who left invariably did so because they preferred being sloppy every once in a while in order to take a risk or be creative. They didn't want to be measured all the time by whether they had made mistakes. The Clearaudio strives to make no mistakes and largely succeeds in its ambition, but just a bit at the cost of being something I could love.
The Clearaudio in context
The four speakers I used were very different from one another and the Clearaudio rig made those differences crystal clear - differences that were smoothed over a bit by my digital front end, which was itself very revealing and resolute. To my mind, digital recordings are sonically more similar than different. Most are processed to the point of bordering on artificial. Too many cross the borderline and cannot be rescued by even the most loving digital front end.
This has not been my experience with LPs which can and do sound very different from one another, all more natural than digital even if some of them sound much worse and are much less enjoyable to listen to. The Clearaudio will not paper over these differences. The Clearaudio delivers the facts, warts and all. The Stradivari cartridge, however, makes hearing the truth a somewhat more comfortable if not necessarily soothing experience than did previous generations of the Clearaudio cartridges.
In many ways, the best combination I had on hand was that of the Clearaudio/Silverback Reference pairing. The speaker extends to 40KHz and is incredibly transparent and open. Properly set up, partnered with equally revealing equipment in a good room, this speaker just disappears. The Clearaudio has similar characteristics but also packs a dynamic wallop in the midbass that compliments the Silverback, which is just a bit reserved in this area. Together, this combination is a reviewer's dream. Nothing will go unnoticed.
|The Clearaudio/Vivaldi combination was less successful. The Vivaldi is one of the best and most musical Lowther based speakers I have heard, with other favorites the Hørnings and Beauhorns. Even though the Vivaldi minimizes the dreaded Lowther peak, it does not eliminate it altogether. And even though the Vivaldi has a very punchy bass, it does not plumb the depths the way either the Silverbacks or the Tannoys do. Matched with the Clearaudio front end, the sound was a bit lightweight and tonally tipped up. This was in stark contrast to either of the Clearaudio/Tannoy combinations.
The Tannoy 10" Reds are very articulate and open, a bit more efficient than the 10" Golds and also slightly more forward in the presence region - not bright, just forward. Like all older model Tannoy drivers (don't ask me why Tannoy doesn't reissue their great concentric drivers of yore), the 10" Reds have excellent drive from the mid bass on up to the lower midrange. They lack extension down low and up above. Mated with the Clearaudio as a source, the sound was incredibly dynamic, fulsome and balanced if a bit forward and incompletely developed in the presence region.
|My favorite partnership was between the Clearaudio and the big Tannoy 15" Golds. Tannoy aficionados love the 15s for their weight,|
|authority and dynamics down low, which usually comes at the expense of the speaker being saddled by a tire around its midsection. Not so the 15s, at least not in this cabinet. While the speaker wasn't fat or ambiguous in the lower mids and upper bass, the overall tonal balance was shifted down a bit. In general, the 15 is a bit less articulate than the 10. With this speaker at the end of the chain and the Clearaudio at its beginning, the sound was terrific. The Clearaudio's incisiveness cut right through the less than fully articulate midbass and lower midrange of the Tannoys.
Think of the Tannoy sound like a big R&B rhythm section of horns, keyboards, bas and drums. If you were the guitarist, you wouldn't be inclined to play a modern Les Paul and you certainly wouldn't play partial chords or fills with the lower strings. You would do what Steve Cropper does. You'd get yourself a Fender Esquire and you'd play partial chords and thirds from off the higher strings. It's what you'd have to do to have your part heard and cut through the full big rhythm section. That's just the way the Clearaudio cuts through the rich, full Tannoy sound.
Again, the Clearaudio's dynamism in conjunction with the Tannoys' similar strengths led to explosive dynamics with what sounded like the right resolution of detail. At the same time, the Clearaudio's informative and detailed nature in the presence region balanced the Tannoy's slight reticence. But the synergy was greater still as the somewhat less than fully developed harmonics of the Clearaudio in this same region and above were aided by the Tannoy's richness. Partnering a fun speaker with a lot of soul and warmth with an incredibly precise and resolute turntable (with the right electronics) is a match that is about as good as one could hope for.
As always, it's about system matching. This truly high-end analog front end represents a distinctive approach. The aim is to eliminate all unwanted vibrations and to then transmit all the information on every LP with a minimum of editorializing and with the precision of a fine Swiss watch. The table succeeds in every way. It is not for everyone. Nothing is. It does nothing to flatter an LP and this may render it too much like a scientific instrument for some. For others, its Archimedean and neutral observer's point of view is just what the doctor ordered.
I would be reluctant to recommend the Clearaudio setup to someone whose system is already a bit on the cool and light side of things. With such a system, many of the Clearaudio's most striking virtues -- its transparency, incisiveness, informativeness and resolution -- may prove to be too much of a good thing. On the other hand, the Clearaudio analog front end is a perfect match for systems that are a bit warm and lush to begin with (think Sonus Faber speakers and Audio Note UK electronics).
The Clearaudio Maximum Solution/TQ1 arm/Stradivari cartridge combination (all nestled comfortably on the extraordinarily effective Everest stand) is a truly outstanding analog source system. It plays music with precision, energy and insight. If your preference in sports cars runs to the likes of older Triumphs, MGs and even Jaquar XKEs, the Clearaudio is unlikely to be your cup of tea. However, if your taste runs to the Audi TT -- nimble, distinctively stylish, altogether modern -- it may be just your ticket. Whether or not the Clearaudio is just what you are looking for, there is not denying that it is a substantial statement product that represents a significant achievement. If its voicing and approach is what you crave -- and it is easy to see why it would -- then you are not likely to find a better analog front end.
|Garth Leerer responds:
Thanks for the nice words and hard work you have put into the Clearaudio setup. This table and stand have been in production since 2002, the arm since the late 1990s. Musical Surroundings has distributed Clearaudio in the US since the summer 2001 and we have ca. 60 US dealers out of which the 10 15 top ones typically deal with this top model.