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February 2006
Superior Audio Equipment Review

Clearaudio Ambient Turntable, Satisfy CF Tonearm
And Stradivari Cartridge
Satisfying the analog kid.
Review By Steven R. Rochlin
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

Clearaudio Ambient Turntable

  The life of an analog junkie is always spinning. Sometimes at 33.3, other times at 45 rpm. A rare few try their hand at 78 rpm; though have not been bitten by that bug yet! There have been countless millions of vinyl record titles made, and a mere seven thousand or so of them in my home, it is hard to fall for some of those newfangled digital formats. It is a hard sell to convince a music lover such as myself to invest into a new format where a far cry of less that one tenth of one percent is available as compared to CD, let alone vinyl! "You fool!" the digiphiles cry as they proclaim audible victory over CD, but they forget that CD is a compressed format to begin with.

 

Say What?
Yes you heard me; CDs can be considered a compressed lossy audio format. Even back when CD was shiny and new, Soundstream and the like has all digital recorders that were capable of capturing information at higher than 16-bit/44.1kHz. Today we have people mastering at drastically higher levels such as 24-bit/192kHz, and digital effects process at 32-bit capabilities! So those touting how good CDs are should take a close look back at their huge collection of compressed media. After all, something has to be done from the master tape to the CD glass master, and that is called lossy compression.

Vinyl, on the other hand, simply accepts the analog output from the master tape. So the input to the cutter head can be 100 percent of the original signal in analog format, but like CD all is not perfect. They guy who claimed vinyl has "infinite resolution" is very far from the mark. Vinyl is limited in resolution by two key factors. The first factor is the molecular structure of the vinyl itself. One could calculate the resolution of vinyl by analyzing the ability of the substance to achieve the desired frequency output. Furthermore, because vinyl spins at a constant speed yet the length/amount of the groove traveling under the needle is reduced as the record reaches the center, the resolution is reduced.

This latter situation can be particularly perplexing because many classical recordings may have a less intricate signal in the beginning and more complexity towards the end of the song/movement. So this leaves us to have more resolution at the beginning when, in fact, it is needed at the end of the track, where vinyl's resolution is more limited. While i do not have any such vinyl recordings here, i have heard there are some that play from the inner groove to the outer grooves to benefit from the added available groove length at the outermost vinyl. Unfortunately, this technique is rare, but makes perfect sense. So the middle ground solution is that some titles employ 45 rpm speed versus 33.3 rpm to gain a healthy 35 percent more groove length (if my calculations are correct).

So why are we using 45 rpm and not 78 rpm for vinyl. Because at some point, i have been told, the inherent noise of the vinyl itself climbs to a point where at 78 rpm is more audible. Call it vinyl's natural noise factor and with move vinyl groove to travel, the more vinyl noise will be produced. So 45 rpm is considered by many to be a known good. Any yes i am avoiding the RIAA curve, decoding and other mastering/playback factors to be weighted in to the whole vinyl replay situation. Let it be simply stated...

There Is No Perfect Sound Forever Format

 

Analog: The System Approach
Some people are Linnies, others abide by Audio Note, and certain audiophile worldwide may know their Naim. The whole 'mix and match' technique has benefits, though one may also consider the fact of manufacturers who offer complete systems have designed their systems to work well together. These systems generally achieve some very impressive music reproduction. Of course each brand has various levels of product where, generally, the more you can afford the higher the ability to achieve musical bliss.

When it comes to analog replay, Clearaudio of Germany has many years of research, development, and customer feedback to rely upon. Each new product benefits from many years of experience. With many audiophiles realizing the benefits of vinyl replay, they may also be perplexed at the countless array of possibilities. There are cartridges, tonearms, turntables, and phonostages, all of which can make or break the outcome — the single that is fed into the preamplifier/amplifier. When a veteran manufacturer offers a 'system,' you can bet the resulting music replay should be very good.

For years i have been asking Clearaudio to send me such a system. Nothing over the top mind you, at least not their megabuck items. With the law of diminishing returns firmly still in place, a middle ground is preferred. Only a very select few could ever afford to invest over $20,000 to a single source component, and then we still need amplification, cables, and loudspeakers! It is interesting to note that my actual reference system has been declining in MSRP over the years while the performance has been increasing! The simple fact is, better sounding units are available today at lower cost than that of a decade ago.

Getting back on track, Clearaudio finally granted my wish with their Ambient turntable and Satisfy CF tonearm ($4,500) plus the company's new Stradivari MC cartridge ($3,000). Ok, so $7,000 in total may not seem like a real-world bargain, i'll give you that. But we must remember that at one time my reference setup included a Voyd Reference Turntable, Audio Note AN-1s silver wired tonearm, Audio Note Io-II cartridge, Audio Note AnS-6c silver step-up transformer, and Audio Note's very rare M2 Silver preamplifier. All told the value was well over $20,000 and this was Audio Note's system approach years ago. Fast forward a few years and today the table and arm have remained the same, though a Clearaudio's Insider Reference (reviewed here) and Ray Samuels XR-10B (reviewed here) or Art Audio Vinyl Reference (reviewed here) make up the remainder. This main rig setup is in the financial stratosphere! Now it is time to get back down to Earth.

This system has been King Of The Mountain here for well over five years. While turntables have come and gone, nothing has been able to unseat my highly tweaked out system. In the past few years i have been dedicating myself to loudspeakers and analog reviews. With three turntables, four cartridges, and too many tweaks to begin listing, it is now time to take the new Clearaudio system to task.

 

Clearaudio's System Approach
Cleardio Ambient Turntable and Satisfy TonearmThe Ambient consists of a main unit with outboard synchronous motor. While this is the usual game for many turntables, the Ambient's motor is enclosed within a matching structure and has a digital readout for speed. There are two small holes (note the two black spots on the left unit in photos above), as Clearaudio provides a small screwdriver that allows for small adjustments to the motor's speed. Below the motor in a backlit blue digital readout that informs users of the speed. A pair of buttons is above it, one for power and the other for choosing either 33.3 or 45 rpm.

The main platform naturally holds the platter and tonearm being Clearaudio's Satisfy tonearm with carbon fiber tube. The main plinth is made with many layers of solid wood flanked top and bottom by aluminum. The 40mm silicon acrylic platter rests on an inverted bearing with polished ball bearing. Of note is that the Satisfy carbon fiber tonearm has wires that are directly fed to your phonostage. There are no breaks of other connections from the cartridge itself to the RCA jack. The reason i highly favor this setup is that for each connection you can lose a few dB of single, plus suffer insertion loss, degrading connection over time, and other maladies.

Lastly, because this is a single motor design my guess is that Clearaudio decided that using three elastomer belts would provide speed stability combined with torque. Like automobiles, you have horsepower and torque. Horsepower may look good, but the ability to produce high torque is what wins races. Torque is the "force's tendency to produce torsion and rotation about an axis, equal to the vector product of the radius vector from the axis of rotation to the point of application of the force and the force vector" according to the American Heritage Dictionary. This is akin to high current in an audio amplifier versus wattage ratings. More torque to rotate a platter means it can more easily handle stopping and starting the weight of a table, and also provide stability in rotating said weight. 

The Satisfy carbon fiber tonearm has adjustments for weight, azimuth, and antiskating. Vertical tracking angle (VTA), once set, is not seamlessly adjustable unless you purchase a new accessory from Clearaudio (scheduled for review in the coming months). During setup you choose the desired VTA and tighten down to screws. Sure you could adjust VTA using these screws, but it makes precision adjustment and readjustment less than a joyous experience, and precisely why Clearaudio is offering a solution at added cost.

Clearaudio Satasfy Carbon Fiber TonearmSetting up virtually any precision turntable can be an exercise in frustration! If anyone reading this has endured setup or tweaking of a Goldmund Reference turntable and tonearm as i have, you have my heartfelt respect. Other turntables, such as a Linn LP12, are a fair bit easier yet still take time, knowledge and experience. Upon opening the box to this new Clearaudio setup was the owners manual, a vinyl record, and other tools. If there is an award for extremely informative instructions, supplying appropriate tools, and other bits for proper setup, then i hereby award Clearaudio as the very best. Without a doubt the Clearaudio Ambient turntable and Satisfy tonearm package included very informative setup instructions combined with very clear images on precisely what is to be performed. After decades of suffering through manuals, to award Clearaudio's as the very best attests to their ability in conveying instructions to insure proper operation. That they also supply all necessary tools further shows how much they care about those who have invested in their products.

Clearaudio has long been known for their unique and extremely impressive cartridges. As part of the new lineup launched only a few months ago, the Stradivari features a special multi-finger resonance control body. The looks of which remind me of a cog and is unlike any other manufacturer's cartridge. This is part of the overall resonance control to increase resolution and reduce any distortions. Another factor is their use of low mass coils than found in previous designs. This, combined with high efficiency magnets and Micro HD stylus allow for a fairly healthy 0.6 mV output. Clearaudio has been proponents of using 24-carat gold wire coils and naturally they are employed within this design. With this design, there is less weight that must shift to follow the ever-moving groove and stronger magnets to insure good output. Like loudspeaker cone design, you want as little weight as possible, yet it must be such that it does not introduce any resonances (distortion) and have the ability to convey multiple frequencies. Not an easy task!

Clearaudio StradivariAs an added note, and said in my review of the Clearaudio Insider Reference wood body cartridge, "The magnet structure is unlike any other cartridge in that it is very well balanced in both the side-to-side and front to rear axis. This balancing act allows the total elimination of the usual cantilever suspension! Anyone who has spend major dollars on a cartridge knows that after a few years the cartridge's suspension wears out to the point it needs replacing. With the patented balanced Clearaudio design you never need to worry about the detrimental effects a suspension can have."

 

All Together Now
The best laid plans of mice and men... No, that is not a good way to begin my listening notes. How about this instead, "Patience is a virtue, but i was never said to be a man of virtue."  Ah, much better. After extremely careful setup, using the free Enjoy the Music.com two point cartridge alignment tool (available here) that jived perfectly with the one supplied by Clearaudio, the sound was still a bit off. The problem was probably in the way i was breaking in the cartridge, because i decided to accelerate things by using my DJ vinyl. You know, major bass dance tracks, house, trance, trip-hop and the like. After only two records of what could be referred to as bass head music, the setup was singing gloriously. Finally, it was now time i could really get down to digging into the Ambient and Satisfy with Stradivari cartridge!

Because so many words have already been written, will avoid the pre-tweak notes and get right to the post. After many hours of tweaking and careful listening the system was very good, but there was something that i just could not quite fully optimize. So i took the leather mat off the Acoustic Solid turntable rig that is here and that did make a nice change, but i was still not fully satisfied, and then it hit me! Our esteemed Rick Becker has been touting the Boston Audio turntable mat, which in fact earned our Best Of 2005 Blue Note Award (reviewed here). So i called them up and within a few days the Mat 1 arrived.

Yumpin' yimminie this thing works! It was exactly what i felt was needed. Everything came into precise focus; the overall harmonics were smoother and more cohesive too! (Said in good humor as i have always highly respected Rick's aural opinions) Rick, i hereby take back all those things i said about, well... you know. So with the Boston Audio Mat 1 in place and the VTA reset for the mat's added height away we went...

Like all other moving coil Clearaudio cartridges i have heard in the past, the sheer speed and tracking ability was leagues better than any other manufacturers' cartridge. The difference was not subtle! One listen to Prodigy Fat Of The Land [XL Recordings XLLP 121) song called "Breathe" is proof enough as the 32nd bass notes fly while fast-paced synthesized cymbals and other sounds fill the soundspace. This track has single-handedly tore apart an over $250,000 showpiece systems at a Los Angeles show that featured thousands of watts and panel loudspeakers larger than the face of an industrial refrigerator! Sure this is a bit childish and immature, but i find it may be the only way to bring down to Earth those retentive audiophile types who showcase their system with Gwendolyn DuPree and her Magic Singling Lute. Needless to say, real guys like me enjoy not just small ensemble jazz, but also full orchestra, rock, and dance music.

 

Flashbacks And Tweaking Part 2
(Because Part 1 Already Happened)
Speed is the very first thing that will probably get the attention of most new users, and why it is also the very first thing mentioned within the aural part of this review. Because of my experience, and subsequent ownership, with Clearaudio's Insider Reference wood body it was par for the course. The next situation i felt could be improved was the lack of boogie. Ok, so a mega-buck Goldmund Reference will never boogies while a much less expensive Linn LP12 boogie oogie oogies, i took a look at this new setup and made changes. So what to so?

Many years ago, when first receiving the Voyd turntable, i remember the owners manual said to use two belts. Keep in mind this was the first three motor turntable, so the additional belt would provide extreme torque, but it also was said to reduce the turntable's ability. Another factor is that any noise that may be caused by a belt has now two times the possibilities. Like a diligent reviewer i setup the Clearaudio Ambient with all three belts, and eventually decided to experiment. First came just the top and bottom belt, which resulted in a very slight improvement in boogie, but not much. So to make a long story short, i decided upon a single belt in the middle position (and yes, i tried all three positions). Did i ever mention that analog tweaking is fun? It is, i swear it is! What type of real tweaking interaction can we do with a seedie player? Never mind, forget i asked that.

So on came Funkadelic, old ZZ Top, and new jazz titles from Cisco Records.  Oh yeah baby, all that time tweaking has paid off in spades! But i better get back to the music, you know, describing the imaging, harmonics.. the usual audiophile stuff. Or perhaps all the above just goes to show how much i loved the music being produced and was too busy trying to get ever higher. Is analog a legal drug? An does Bush know about, or will he find a way to control it, or spy on my musical preferences? Oh wait, that is the RIAA's (and Sony too of course) to decide things like that and track it accordingly.

 

The Music (I Swear, Just The Music)
Ok, so you already know that amazing speed, the ability to follow complex passages, is a given. Harmonically, i would call this system on the neutral side to perhaps a very slight richness. Of interest is that with three belts i would say it is totally neutral, but then we lose the ability to boogie. Pick your poisons or you could just install and remove belts for the chosen music title. Imaging is as good as it gets, quiet frankly. In fact Clearaudio measures each cartridge to insure quality, and i have in my hands the sheet showing separation, RIAA adherence, and frequency response measurements against absolutes. This is not a reviewer special, but something that is included with all their cartridges.

From small and large symphony pieces to jazz and rock, i would say this setup is very impressive and probably one of the best most people have heard, but it is not perfect. My Voyd/Silver Arm/Insider Reference setup can render more harmonic colorations. Also, the very quest passages are a bit blacker while dynamics are a bit more expanded. This is not to say the Ambient/Satisfy/Stradivari is compressed. We are merely talking about further enhancements, but then again this is not Clearaudio's top-line models either. Like the Voyd rig, odds are you will start paying out multiples of funds to squeeze out the very last few percentages. And now i can understand why they sent me this specific setup.

The midrange is truly impressive and has a natural, not embellished, richness when it is within the material. Orchestral music that includes bells and triangle, the radiant sound had proper sheen and glistened, with very impressive upper harmonic extension. With the aid of the Boston Audio Mat 1 and Clearaudio's unique cartridge design, the bass was blindly fast, tight, and as deep as i have ever heard on any system. There is more to bass than just a flub or impact, there is also inner tone that can vary as 32-foot pipe organ pedals are different than synthesized dance music, or bass drum. Indeed this also includes bass not just below 50Hz, but the upper harmonics that are in the midbass regions. For those who have never tried a Clearaudio cartridge should find a store that allows some form of audition to realize the sheer resolution ability at all audible and sub frequencies.

What is obvious is that this setup totally destroyed the Acoustic Solid Small Royal/Rega RB250/Linn Adikt MM Cartridge system. It was not even a close contest. Call it utter embarrassment. The attack, decay, and imaging were the most obvious improvements. Harmonically and frequency-wise, it was a smaller improvement. Feel free to read my review of the Acoustic Solid setup (seen here).

 

Finally
The sad part of this review reality is that a follow up will happen because Clearaudio will be sending me their new accessory that will allow easy VTA adjustment. It was a pain in the arse to adjust for normal records versus 180 or 200 gram counterparts, so listening sessions were done with sessions of certain thickness, and not one normal, then a 180 gram, then a normal, then a 200 gram. Also, the supplied center hold down is good, but Robert Suchy of Clearaudio insisted at the CES i should continue tweaking by trying one of their top range units.

So all in all it should be obvious by now i love this setup. It may not be as good as my over twice the cost Voyd/Silver Arm/Clearaudio Reference cartridge unit, but just the $8,000 cartridge on that system can buy this entire system! And for just the cost of a cartridge, you can get about 92 percent of an over twice the cost rig. Did i mention that my home's reference system has been decreasing in overall value over the years while the performance has increased? Ok, so in this instance it appears the main rig's price will remain the same, but it is quite titillating to know that you can get so much performance for so much less.

Oh, and if you have to have the very best regardless of cost to achieve the very last few percentage points of performance, Clearaudio does offer their Statement turntable (69,000€) and Goldfinger cartridge (7500€). The great news is that technology developed from their nearly $80,000 setup can make it down to less than a tenth of the cost. Perhaps now you can see why this $7,500 setup is able to do so much so what some may feel is a relatively reasonable cost. Sure over $7.5k is a lot of cashola, yet those who desire the very best in vinyl replay may find that spending anything more will simply be donating to that steep curve called diminishing returns.

Lastly, my partner Linda has never, ever made any comments concerning all the items that have resided in our humble abode. That is, she never has until this turntable arrived and was setup. She feels it is the best looking piece of all the others to date. As i said, she has never commented before, so this is truly a compliment of the highest standard, as Linda has a keen eye for visual beauty. Of course in the end what really matters is that you...

Enjoy the Music (Peter Gabriel So song titled "Sledgehammer" right now on vinyl... and see his studio tour here),

Steven R. Rochlin

 

"You could have a steam train

If you'd just lay down your tracks
You could have an aeroplane flying
If you bring your blue sky back

All you do is call me
I'll be anything you need

You could have a big dipper
Going up and down, all around the bends
You could have a bumper car, bumping
This amusement never ends

I want to be your sledgehammer
Why don't you call my name
Oh let me be your sledgehammer
This will be my testimony..."

 

Specifications
Clearaudio Ambient and Satisfy CF Tonearm

Type: Turntable with tonearm

Construction: Resonance optimized chassis’s shape, belt driven, 70 layers wood sandwich, silver anodized aluminum top & bottom plate

Speed: 33.3 and 45 rpm (75 rpm optional)

Speed variation: +- 0,1 0/0

Drive Unit: Decoupled synchronous motor

Rumble: DIN IEC 98 procedure A / 83 dB

Bearing: Patented, inverted bearing with polished ball inside

Platter: Silicon acrylic, 40 mm

Weight: Approximately 12 kg

Dimensions: 535 x 330 x 150 (WxDxH in mm)

Warranty: 5 years

Price: $5,500

 

Clearaudio Stradivari MC Cartridge

Type: Moving coil cartridge

Loading Setting: 47 kOhms

Capacitance Setting: 220

Output: 0.6 mV

Tracking Force: 2.8 grams

Price: $3,000

 

 

Company Information
Clearaudio electronic GmbH
Spardorfer Straße 150 
91054 Erlangen
Germany

Voice:: +49 (0) 9131 - 59 59 5
Fax: +49 (0) 9131 - 51 68 3
Website: www.clearaudio.de
E-mail: info@clearaudio.de

 

US Importer/Distributor
Musical Surroundings
2625 Alcatraz Avenue, Suite 501
Berkeley, CA 94705

Voice: (510) 420-0379
E-mail: info@musicalsurroundings.com
Website: www.musicalsurroundings.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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