World Premiere Review!
Brian Calaio, the owner and chief engineer of Analogue Artisan and I have two things in common. The first is our love of music; the second is that we both believe that once a high-end audio system gets to a certain level of refinement, everything contributes to the sound of the system. The problem is that if the manufacturer of a component believes that everything makes a difference, and designs equipment with that maxim in mind with no regards for price, things can get a bit hairy, that is, very expensive. Case in point is the subject of this review, the A1 series turntable and tonearm set-up (and their A1 isn't even Analogue Artisan's top-of-the-line model!). With Brian's background in engineering and machining, along with his objective of making the best turntable possible, puts him in league with other makers of no-holds-barred audio equipment that most of us can dream about, but will likely never be able to afford. But some can afford to buy these turntables, and that's who Analogue Artisan is designing and building these amazing machines for.
Judged on price alone, it seemed as if the potential owner of one of these turntables was going to have to be a very serious analog audiophile with plenty of money in the bank (or very good credit). I am certainly looking forward to hearing the Analogue Artisan A1 Series turntable and its matching 12-inch gold-plated tonearm setup in action, because on looks alone, it seemed as if I was going to have quite a good time listening to records. Nevertheless, I approached this review as I do all others, by listening to the equipment, and at the same time enjoying the music. Spoiler alert: I enjoyed the music played on the Analogue Artisan A1 turntable setup quite a bit.
Without a remote VTA, one can set one's VTA using a variety of methods, including electronic equipment, a microscope, etc. Or one can set VTA solely by ear, which might involve setting the VTA manually, going back to the listening position to judge the sound, to then going back to the turntable to change the VTA to another setting, walking back to the listening position, judging the resulting sound, ad nauseam, which ends up being a super-pain in the neck. Yes, one can use a friend or assistant to set the VTA while one listens, but this can be done only with some turntables which have a way of reproducing previous settings and can also be moved up and down in a very smooth manner. The Mongoose tonearms remote-control device allows one to evaluate the VTA while seated in the sweet spot, smoothly raising and lowering the tonearm while hearing the effects of the change. In real time. On the tonearm assembly's base is a meter (Indicator) that displays in thousands of an inch the height of the tonearm. This remote controlled VTA is an excellent development; there is no doubt about that. If that were the only feature of this turntable that set it apart from others, it might be enough to entice some analog devotees into considering the turntable setup, or perhaps simply viewing a photo of the A1, a work of audio art that has only one purpose, to accurately play our precious records.
After his father Sal passed away in 2011, Brian took control of Expressimo Audio and broadened its range of turntable accessories to work with more brands of turntables than just the Rega. In 2016 Brian also Created Analogue Artisan; a company that specializing in the handcrafted precision manufacturing of high-end audio turntables. Brian began rethinking his priorities, and that's when his research on high-end turntables started to accelerate. As time passed, he seemed to become obsessed with not only how to manufacture turntables and their components, but how to manufacture the best high-end turntables and their components. He began to experiment with different materials such as brass, Delrin, and stainless steel, different methods to implement these materials, all while applying the adage "everything matters" in earnest.
Skipping ahead to the present day, Brian Calaio produces the Analogue Artisan line, which consists of the top-of-the-line Reference turntable, and the turntable I'm reviewing here, the A1. To make these turntables perform to the best of their ability, they are matched with his Analogue Artisan Gold Mongoose tonearm and the Reference Precision AC Motor. Please understand that I am going to only touch upon a few details that make up this A1 turntable system. I could spend the rest of my days and perhaps a good amount of my allowable cloud storage space if I fully explained each part, and especially if I explained them to head engineer Brian Calaio's satisfaction. So, like the turntable's sound, I will describe the features of the A1 the best I can within my allowable space.
The external speed controller of the A1 deserves special mention. Brian Calaio says that when designing the controller his goal was to "out-do" all others on the market. In doing so, and because others have recognized his speed controller's engineering prowess, he now markets the extremely high-quality speed controllers for use on other brands of turntable setups. The Analogue Artisan speed controller has a digitally programmable frequency, which means when one chooses either 33.33 or 45 rpm one can be sure one is choosing the exact frequency that was set previously. To ensure this, the speed controller has 28-bit digital resolution frequency control, which provides an output of a perfect sine-wave at 115 (or if one chooses, 220) Volts AC. It is also quartz controlled, and with a provided strobe, one can accurately check the speed of the platter with push-buttons which are on the front panel of the controller. These "up" and "down" buttons can adjust the speed of the platter in 0.06 resolution increments. This might sound complex but setting the accurate speed of the platter is not – to set the speed with the provided strobe one needs only to press the up and down buttons on the speed controller's front panel until the speed is correctly set.
The A1 turntable itself, which includes its plinth and its platter, are quite an engineering accomplishment! It looks darn good, too (and is mostly responsible for visitors to my listening room to elicit a gasp as they passed by it). For me, the piece de resistance of Brian Calaio's achievement is his Mongoose tonearm assembly with remote controlled VTA (which, by the way, looks extremely impressive, too). With just a push of a button on the remote one can dial in the ‘arm's VTA/SRA up or down in .001 thousandth of an inch increments. The arm pod also has a rather large dial indicator, so when one finds the exact arm height one can record this measurement for future reference. Setting the VTA has never been easier for me, and when doing this for the first time with the Mongoose arm I was amazed how easy it was to hear the impact the VTA had on the sound of the record. When slowly gliding through the settings, rather than setting the height, listening, re-setting the height, listening, etc. I could hear the setting gradually changing its sound. I found it fun to discover the perfect VTA for that record I was spinning!
Some audiophiles like to change the height of a tonearm depending on the thickness of a record, and so one can record the setting for future use and change the tonearm's height accordingly. Personally, I found that if I dialed in the "perfect" setting on a record with an average thickness, I was OK with the sound that was produced regardless of the thickness of the record. It's not that I'm too lazy to reset the VTA for each disc, but I'd much rather be listening to the music than futzing around with the VTA height. But that's just me. But there is no question that being able to set the VTA height with a remote control is the most accurate method I've ever used for this purpose. And it was kind of cool, too! But as you'll read, I was so impressed with the sound (or lack of sound, as the case may be) of the Analogue Artisan A1 that a few thousandths of an inch difference in the VTA was akin to lopping a few feet off the summit point of Mt. Everest.
For most of the review period the phono preamp was my Pass Labs XP-15, with time spent to review the Gryphon Sonett phono stage. The Nagra Classic Preamp was my line stage of choice for the bulk of the review, but the cables from the phono stage also spent time hooked up to a Merrill Audio Christina Reference, and occasionally a Mark Levinson No 523 full function preamp. The power amplifiers for this review were either the magnificent McIntosh MC611 monoblocks, my reference Pass Labs X350.5, and lastly a pair of Merrill Audio Element 118 monoblocks that I am having the pleasure of reviewing. The speakers for the entire review were the Sound Lab Majestic 545 full-range electrostatics, augmented by a pair of Velodyne HGS-15b' units, which have a fifteen-inch woofer powered by a 1250-Watt internal amplifier.
And in a word, that is my impression of the Analogue Artisan A1 Series Turntable with Remote Control VTA/SRA Mongoose Tonearm and Pod. Music. Never have I heard such source-less sounding analog music coming from my speakers. In my review of the EMM Labs A2 digital-to-analog converter, I described its admirable sonic qualities as being neither digital nor analog sounding, and I believe the Analogue Artisan A1 setup behaved in a similar fashion, because on certain recordings I couldn't tell whether I was listening to analog or digital, I was simply listening to music. The gold-plated Mongoose tonearm allowed the phono cartridge I was using to perform its best – on a clean record there was zero surface noise. Zero. And even when I used the less pricey, but still excellent sounding Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue MC cartridge, the music floated in space between, behind, and slightly in front of my speakers, enveloping me in music. And only music.
I could say that recently I've been listening to lots of Miles Davis, however, that's not entirely true – I've always listened to lots of Miles Davis! But I almost lost my Miles Davis card because I only recently acquired a copy of his In A Silent Way album on Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs that was released nearly four years ago. So, with the Analogue Artisan A1 turntable setup in my system I had some fun comparing this MFSL pressing with my treasured original 1969 Pitman two-eye pressing on Columbia, and at the same time enjoyed a few successive plays of this album to enjoy this groundbreaking post-bop, fusion, modal electro-acoustic jazz album multiple times, and to bask in this music as it spun on A1. The "sound" of the A1 setup was that it had no sound of its own. And so, when playing this Miles Davis LP, again, there was only the music, accompanied with a feeling of being transported by some sort of sonic time machine back to the cutting room of Columbia Studios where producer Teo Macero edited the sessions together to make this album of Miles leading his band of future jazz-rock legends.
Even though most consider this era of Miles Davis "electric", the fact is that most of these instruments on this album are acoustic instruments playing together in the same studio. Perhaps the presence of an electric guitar and electric piano are good enough for purists to correctly consider this a new era of jazz, or perhaps it's not even jazz. This doesn't really matter much, as Miles' goal was to attract a younger audience, and by all measures, he was successful. I bought my first copy of, In A Silent Way when I was 15 or 16 years old and convinced my father to buy it for me a department store, and after getting home and playing it shared space on my shelf with Lou Reed's Rock ‘n' Roll Animal, Jimi Hendrix's Band Of Gypsys, Led Zeppelin II, Pink Floyd's Meddle, and other LPs that make up the typical sonic diet of a suburban white kid in the 1970s.
The sound of this Miles Davis album does not attempt to sound "real". Regardless, when played on the A1 turntable setup each instrument took on a very lifelike semblance. Even though these instruments were separated by what seemed like a half-meter each, they were arranged in a somewhat haphazard manner, but in their individual spaces in the huge soundstage -- the spaces between the instruments filled with studio reverb added after the fact, plus more than a bit of tape hiss. Never had I heard this album reproduced with so many realistic sounding details, even though the old Columbia pressing's midrange was a bit exaggerated compared to the more neutral MFSL, this midrange boost gave the sonic impression that the A1 turntable was able to dig in a bit more and expose more details from sounds that had more midrange energy. But pressings sounded great when played by the Analogue Artisan A1 setup, and even though I don't think collectors should fear that the Columbia pressing will lose value because of the MFSL, I would be remiss not to stress that I think everyone who likes this period of Miles Davis' career should grab a copy of the MFSL before they're all spoken for. It's a heck of a lot less expensive and easier than tracking down one of these rare Columbia pressings.
On In A Silent Way, the electric guitar played by John McLaughlin and there are three (count ‘em, three) keyboard players, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul on electric pianos and organ. I'm pretty sure Dave Holland's bass is acoustic, but I can't be sure. These electric instruments help turn the sessions into what Miles Davis called rock ‘n' roll, even though any student of modern jazz can easily hear that Mr. Davis is instead inventing a new genre called "fusion" or "jazz/rock fusion", but at the same time retaining his signature trumpet sound and Wayne Shorter's harmonically complex sax (soprano, on this outing). The outstanding Tony Williams is on drums, and although he plays in a style that is extremely different than anything he's ever done with Miles when he was a member of his second great quintet, the drums are mic'ed in a conventional manner. Also, the acoustic instruments, basically trumpet, sax, and drums, although bathed in reverb are still very natural sounding on this recording.
I realize that some might doubt my claim that the A1's vanishing low amount of distortion is a characteristic of the turntable itself, that this characteristic is predominantly a trait of the phono cartridge I used for most of the review, the Gold Note Tuscany. This cartridge is quite a top-notch performer for its relatively low price (it costs $8000, but compared to other top performers, it is not nearly the most expensive that's available). I've touted its high-performance in many reviews since it first appeared as part of my system, when I wrote about it as part of Gold Note's Mediterraneo turntable a couple of years ago. With this in mind, many are aware that when rating the importance of a turntable's setup the most important component that determines its final sound is the turntable itself, followed by the tonearm, and lastly the phono cartridge. Yes, as Analogue Artisan's Brian Calaio himself has said, everything matters, therefore, all three major components of a turntable setup are important in determining what one will hear through their loudspeakers, and there are certainly many other variables that come into play when setting up a good turntable system. But in this case, it is obvious, at least to me, that there are no weak links in the chain of the Analogue Artisan A1 turntable setup, which includes the myriad components that make up the A1 turntable and Mongoose tonearm that is responsible for the amazing sound that I enjoyed throughout the review period. I have mounted this Gold Note cartridge on quite a few turntables before this review, and never, ever before has it performed as it has when part of the Analogue Artisan system, especially its attribute of generating an imperceptible amount of groove distortion.
Just before finishing up my first draft of this review I listened to a pristine copy of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 (often titled Titan) conducted by George Solti on Decca Records, catalog number SXL 6113, which was pressed in 1964. This is a long symphony, not compared to Mahler's other works, which might last 90 minutes or more, but long for a symphony to be pressed on only two sides of an LP. To manufacture a stereo LP with nearly 30 minutes of program material on each side compromises must be made. To accommodate this lengthy album side, the result is that the volume must be lowered by about 6 dB. This is partly due to the size of the grooves on the record must be made closer together to be able to fit all this music on just one side. The most consequential sonic results of these compromises will be that there will be more background noise because of the lowered volume, and there will be more distortion because of the tightly spaced grooves.
I love this rendition of Mahler's First. I also love the sound I get when playing this record, even though the surface noise of the record is quite noticeable during quiet passages, and there is often distortion during the climaxes. Yet, I'm still able to enjoy this record quite a bit. There has been at least one publication that called this symphony a "crazily ambitious project", but I think that might only be in comparison to other popular classical works at the time Mahler composed it (around 1889), and there have been lots of other works that make this symphony sound staid in comparison.
Nevertheless, when I played this symphony on the Analogue Artisan A1 setup, if just listening for distortion and surface noise, it was practically akin to listening to this symphony on a CD, with the tape hiss being the only "noise" other than the music, but with all the benefits of listening to a record that was recorded on magnetic tape and pressed onto vinyl using an analog master. Combined with all the other sonic benefits I lauded upon this magnificent turntable / tonearm / speed controller combination made it as I was listening to a very large orchestra, in this case the forces of the London Symphony Orchestra, albeit in miniature. Decca is known for producing some fantastic recordings during this vinyl era, yet this album is rarely mentioned on anyone's "best of" list. This is likely due to the compromises that were made to fit this epic symphony on one LP, thus avoiding breaking up movements if it was to be released as a two-LP set. Played on the A1 turntable setup I would rank this LP in the same sonic category as the rest of Solti's Mahler cycle on Decca.
Gold Mongoose Tonearm
Price: A1 Turntable including Mongoose tonearm: $40,000, includes setup by Analogue Artisan anywhere in continental USA