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Reviewer: Mike Healey
Source: Audio Refinement CD player, Bel Canto Design DAC2, Technics turntable
Preamp/Integrated: Audio Refinement Complete integrated, BVaudio P1 preamplifier
Amp: BVaudio PA300 stereo amplifier
Speakers: Vienna Acoustics Haydn
Cables: Analysis Plus Oval 12 speaker cables, Analysis Plus Oval One interconnects, Analysis Plus Digital Oval, 2 x Audio Magic Xstream power cables, 2 x Shunyata Research DiamondBack power cables
Stands: Sumiko Foster & Lowell Standards, StudioTech Ultra 5-shelf audio rack
Powerline conditioning: Shunyata Guardian 4-HT
Sundry accessories: Cardas Signature RCA caps, Bybee Plug & Play speaker purifiers (for review)
Room size: 11' x 17' with 9' vaulted ceilings
Review component retail: $425
My wife told me about an article she read. Someone had created a psychological profile for a company by comparing its decision-making abilities to that of individual human beings. The results probably aren't too surprising - the study found that most companies are certifiably insane. Just look at the recording industry. Major music labels are reporting profits from their litigations against consumers. The new business mantra must be "If you can't sell 'em, sue 'em!"
Another business decision that was very profitable but disappointing to many people who enjoyed playing records was the replacing of LPs with CDs. I remember this paradigm shift (a sure sign of a manic personality) as record stores became CD stores. I was caught up in the mass hysteria and believed that CDs offered perfect sound, were as indestructible as an Ace comb and included features that I couldn't live without. My record collection dwindled from over 300 to less than 150 because I sold my vinyl to purchase their counterpart CDs. But I still kept my turntable and listened to my remaining records. When I finally began building my reference system, I could only afford one source component so naturally, I chose CD. However, I hung on to those old records and still thrilled to what, by implication, was the imperfect sound of analog.
What I didn't realize was how analog source technology continued developing over the next two decades with improved platter, tonearm and cartridge designs. Compared to the mass-marketed plastic plinth and aluminum platter of my old turntable, newer tables were being made with less resonant materials and an emphasis on improved sound over additional features. However, because my records sounded "good enough" on my old turntable (circa 1982), I assumed I would have to spend twice the price of my digital source to achieve equally satisfying sound. Boy was I wrong!
Made in the United Kingdom
Leland Leard of Music Hall Audio sent the Goldring GR-1 turntable to my doorstep along with the Creek T50 tuner I reviewed in October. The GR-1 arrived in perfect condition, safely packaged in a heavy cardboard box. I am amazed by all of the delicate items that can handle that infamous 3 foot drop between shipping conveyor systems (or is this just another urban myth?).
The GR-1 is an efficiently designed turntable that includes a plastic dustcover and an elegant aluminum tonearm with a Goldring Elektra cartridge. While it isn't flashy, the simplicity of the design has its own appeal. The GR-1 has homely black plastic corners on the plinth put to practical use as dustcover bumpers. People who want funky will probably paint it yellow, cover it with Chiquita banana stickers and add several layers of urethane for a glossy shine. The table and tonearm are both made in the UK. The particle-board plinth is supported by three (it's a magic number) large vibration-absorbing rubber feet. The platter is made of MDF "for low resonance" and rests on top of the spindle. To change speeds, the owner has to manually remove the felt mat and MDF platter to reseat the belt.
|The tonearm and cartridge are what make this entry-level turntable look and feel more upscale. The tonearm looks similar to the pictures I've seen of Rega tonearms and the Elektra cartridge looks nothing like Hildegard Behrens in the Strauss opera of the same name. Sorry about the opera joke. The tonearm is designed to be rigid and light in weight, with low resonance characteristics. The ball bearings in the tonearm are a double ball-race design set to a close tolerance to reduce the friction as the arm glides over the record.
|The brief instructions were easy to understand and made the assembly very simple. From unboxed to Bach in less than 15 minutes! I do wish the packaging included the specifications of the tonearm and cartridge but I was|
|perfectly willing to shut up, set up and start spinning. I found the specs on a retail website and double-checked the phono section of the BVaudio P-1 preamplifier to make sure the gain was set to 47 ohms. I warmed up the motor over the next few days and spun records as often as possible.
Because the cartridge is attached and aligned at the factory, I chose not to focus on the more challenging aspects of turntable adjustment. I am sure that fine adjustments could make the turntable achieve an improved sound but my eyes glazed over every time I re-read articles about VTA and tracking adjustment. Because the sound was fine right out of the box, I didn't feel like messing with the factory settings. I wonder if there is a lazy audiophile society (L.A.S.)? Maybe I'll look into this ... after my nap.
Because the GR-1 is designed for efficiency, the interconnects and power cable are hard-wired to the tonearm and motor, respectively. Adding output connectors and an IEC outlet would probably increase manufacturing (and consumer) costs significantly. To be honest, once the records started spinning, I wasn't concerned over wires.
For readers who live in dusty houses like me, the plastic dustcover is an essential part of the design. Holding on to the dustcover when resetting the tonearm or replacing a record wasn't much of a problem during short listening sessions. When I had time to listen for extended periods, I removed the dustcover entirely before dropping the needle.
|The felt turntable mat arrived slightly mushed and it stuck to my records if I pulled them off the platter too quickly but otherwise worked fine. A Ringmat would probably be the first upgrade I'd consider. However, be careful! After perusing several online retail stores that cater to analog playback, it is apparently very easy to drop hundreds of dollars worth of cash on accessories for turntables and hundreds more on vinyl care! You could easily fill a shopping cart with rice paper record|
|sleeves, space-goo stylus cleaner, anti-vibration platforms, cork turntable mats, heavy record clamps and the ubiquitous record brush with an English pedigree.
A record-cleaning machine is also a worthwhile investment if you expect to spend most of your time spinning vinyl. Several months before this review, I asked a friend with a VPI record-cleaning machine to clean a few records for me. While I didn't notice much of an audible improvement at the time (nor did I take notes), I could easily see the crud that was removed from my copies of Ella abraca Jobim and The Little Train of the Caipira. Records can get as filthy as computer keyboards. Don't believe me? Flip over your keyboard and give it a good shake. Bleagh!
|A Century of Analog Music
I asked Steve Reichert, PR Manager for Goldring, some questions about the history of the company. Goldring traces its history back to 1906 when the Scharf Brothers began manufacturing phonographs in Germany's Berlin. In 1933 the company moved to England, presumably to escape Nazi oppression, and continued to design and manufacture cartridges and turntables. Goldring cartridges have been sold in the US since the 1950s. The Scharf family later changed their name to Sharp and continued the family business until 1987. At this time, Gerry Sharp sold the company to the Goldring distributor, Veda-UK (which is now part of Armour Home Electronics).
|On the Goldring website, the timeline entry for 2004 announces, "The digital|
|age, Goldring release GR1 turntable". Apparently the people at Goldring have a wicked sense of humor. How else could a small company survive the onslaught of compact discs? According to Steve, "... Goldring has survived through the last two decades by not changing. Goldring has simply continued to do what it has always done, which is to design and manufacture high quality hi-fi cartridges and other turntable accessories."
The cool part of this story? There are more analog fans now than anyone would have guessed ten years ago. Even during the latest spate of format war, vinyl remains kewl. Maybe the major music labels aren't completely insane. Maybe digital downloads are to blame for sluggish CD sales. After all, the kids have to listen to something while waiting for the LP edition of a new release to arrive in the mail.
"I'm packing my bags for the Misty Mountains" - Led Zeppelin
So what happened when I started playing records again with the Goldring GR-1 turntable? I heard less inhibitions and conventions. Digital music with its mandatory clocking and re-clocking of the music data reminds me of people who take more than one shower each day, robbing their skin of essential oils. At its worst, digital music can sound lifeless and brittle. At its best, digital sounds - well, analog! The GR-1 brought me back to the unwashed '70s - a time when what you had to say meant as much as your appearance. Some of the finest Rock bands were downright homely! Remember when teeth whitening was weird and plastic surgery was optional? People weren't quite as obsessed about looking like the digitally enhanced images that fill today's media.
Returning to the vinyl source brought me back to my musical origins - when record covers were art and music was meant to be flipped over and played some more. Sure, the format has imperfections like warps, pops and scratches. My ears may be more tolerant of these imperfections than someone raised on perfect sound. Except for the skips, they can be relatively easy to tune out, especially for someone like me who grew up with vinyl recordings. If you're a birdwatcher and you hear a whippoorwill at night, the sound is music pure and simple. The fact that you can also hear the nearby highway may be annoying but your mind can tune it out. Good recordings with the right turntable can make the music outshine any deficiencies in the format, just like the whippoorwill's song.
I can't say if one format is better than another because I don't own the best equipment or best pressings in either format. Vinyl fans were cheated when hastily mastered CDs first took over the music store shelves, but digital playback has come a long way since then. You will have to decide which format you prefer. All I can tell you is the sonic strengths and weaknesses as I hear them. The natural ease of listening to an analog source component is unique. When I played "Misty Mountain Hop" from a non-audiophile pressing of Led Zeppelin's Runes LP [Atlantic, 1971], I realized that something was still missing from the remastered Led Zeppelin CDs. The Runes album is a magical experience filled with myth, love and primordial instinct. On vinyl, those aspects of the experience are fully realized. CD has to work much harder (and at significantly greater expense) to develop the myth, share the love and provoke an instinctual listener response. Like Star Wars before Lucas dickered with it, the original pressings were a very different experience. Not necessarily better but definitely different. With a resolving turntable like the GR-1, Led Zeppelin sounded mysterious again and I felt transported by the listening experience.
My copy of Runes is old and worn, partially because I tried to listen for backwards masking on "Stairway to Heaven". Yes, I spun the record under the needle in reverse. It was an old turntable and I was a lot younger and more susceptible to overactive hormones. At the precise moment where the devil reputedly asks for his due, all I heard was the sound of someone with his head stuck in a flushing toilet - definitely a thing of evil but assuredly not what the religious right supposedly heard!
|However, in spite of the noisy background of a 20+ year-old LP, the GR-1 made the experience significantly quieter than I was expecting. The turntable hardly made a sound while the platter spun, so I heard more of what is on the record. Unfortunately, I was also more aware of the slightly murky production on some of the tracks but the GR-1 was not so ultra-revealing as to make this recording unlistenable. During "The Battle of Evermore", Robert Plant's wail was clearer and harder to misunderstand than on my old plastic turntable. I could actually hear sibilants again and distinguish Sandy Denny's vocals from Robert's when they sang together. Returning to 'Misty Mountain Hop", the incredible weight of Bonham's drums was delivered with improved speed and presence. It was also exciting to hear the growling electric lead and bass guitars. The GR-1 delivered more substantial bass to my speakers than my old turntable|
|ever could. It wasn't as tightly controlled as with my digital source electronics but I could feel more of it. The GR-1 made the music groovy.
The resolution of the GR-1 also made my Jazz recordings sing. Ella abraca Jobim is a decent recording of Ella Fitzgerald in her sixties, joined by excellent artists to create an easy fusion of jazz, swing and bossa nova. Her voice sounded a little huskier than on recordings made earlier in her career and the GR-1 clearly revealed a slight warble in her usually steady vibrato. However, I still sat on the edge of my futon, captivated by Ella's careful enunciation. Cymbals had a lively sounding 'ting' and the leading edges of notes played by the horns sounded fast and exciting. The harmonica cut through to the front of the soundstage while the electric bass and percussion danced comfortably in the back.
|What I noticed most about the GR-1 was how well it got out of the way of the music and let the analog signal fill my listening room with all of the missing bits that never made it onto my CDs. The Bel Canto DAC-2 that I own is a successful attempt to re-shape the digital bits into a signal that is more truthful to an analog waveform but, for significantly less cash, the GR-1 gave me the analog truth. Most of what was on the recording could be heard in my room, the only limitation being the limited frequency extension of my bookshelf loudspeakers. On really clean recordings, background noise levels were very slight and easy to ignore. The brass section on Harry James' The King James Version [Sheffield Lab 3, 1976] sounded fantastic with all of the edgy excitement a swing jazz band can muster. No glare, no fatigue, just plenty of brass! On All My Loving [Music Lab 540059, 2004], Jheena Lodwick's voice sounded warm and natural|
|with appropriate jazzy charm. RUSH's Signals [Mercury 14063, 1982] took me all the way back to the "high school halls" and "shopping malls" of my adolescence, but with improved clarity and an accurate pace that I only remembered hearing on music systems I couldn't afford at the time.
Trying some old classical recordings (a few in glorious mono) reiterated how the GR-1 really delves into the details without overdoing it. I listened to Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performing Sibelius' First Symphony [Columbia Masterworks ML4653]. My other turntable is so noisy that I never could make out the subtler passages of this recording. With the GR-1, I could finally hear the pizzicato strings in the first movement, which sound like a steady patter of raindrops in the musical background. Crescendos were also more startling and appropriately tragic. With the GR-1, I definitely got a greater sense of the emotion conveyed by the music. My old turntable sounds wheezing and listless in comparison.
The pitch of the woodwind instruments sounded fine to my ears, indicating that the GR-1 was not guilty of any gross errors in turntable speed. Perhaps a better (and probably more expensive) turntable could offer a slightly larger soundstage, better bass control or even greater detail of the stringed instruments in classical recordings. However, I never felt the GR-1 was lacking in any specific area. It performed wonderfully with a wide variety of music.
|What, are you nuts?
I was going to try and compare some of my analog recordings with their digital counterparts but as I listened, I realized that comparing the two formats requires exactly the same source material. The CDs I have of Led Zeppelin and Walter Gieseking's performance of the Debussy Preludes have both been remastered. And there are even more recent remasterings of the Gieseking recordings. The LPs I own sound different, not only because of differences in the formats but because of different aspects of the music that were changed during remastering. The Led Zeppelin CDs sound more forward than the LP, with emphasis on the guitars (big surprise - Jimmy Page oversaw the remastering), so the original LP sounds slightly recessed and murky by comparison. The Gieseking LP was less dynamically startling than the CD but the piano on vinyl sounded more like a piano. What a headache! I'll say no more on the subject.
How much prodding do you need to dip a toe into vinyl waters? The Goldring GR-1 appears to be competitively priced for the US market, although I have not heard less expensive turntables from Pro-Jekt or Music Hall. $425 is a fair price for a turntable that offers so much of what I remembered and love about analog recordings. Plus, the purchase price for the GR-1 includes that nifty tonearm, the Elektra cartridge and the essential dustcover. The low cost means that you can probably also afford a decent phono preamp (if your preamp doesn't have a phono section), some of which cost less than $200! That should encourage Daddy-o-philes on a budget to start crunching numbers for payment plans.
The GR-1 offers greater detail, quieter backgrounds, pace, bass and a midrange that reminded me about what I missed most about analog recordings. The GR-1 is an entry-level table but more like Lauren Bacall's entry in the film To Have and Have Not: Sleek, young, sophisticated and outspoken on important subjects (like whistling). The GR-1 reminded me that analog music is very easy on the ears and satisfying to the heart. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to music with the Goldring GR-1 and can easily recommend it as an affordable first step atop the analog wave.
Saturday Night in Toledo, Ohio
Recently a friend of my parents, Larry Remillard, heard that I still played records and offered to give me his entire collection for free. He used his PC to digitize and store all of his music so he feels he doesn't need to keep the originals. Larry's originals include recordings on the Sheffield Labs and Concord Jazz labels, as well as comprehensive boxed set collections of the greatest big bands (I love swing) and several complete operas with (gasp!) legible libretti! Opera collectors who switched over from LP to CD will understand the shock. In terms of packaging, vinyl completely trounces CD, hands down! Larry's collection also includes easy pop music from the '70s, Hawaiian music, Jazz, musicals, classical, some test LPs, John Denver and a whole lotta Nat King Cole. Thank you very kindly, Larry Remillard! You gave a lot of wonderful music to my family, which we shall be enjoying for many years to come.
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