North America Premiere Review!
It was supposed to be a nearly five-hour trip but my wife missed a turn on the shortcut and took the Shooting Brake through an all-terrain parking lot to buy lunch at Subway. Then there were accidents on I-80 to slow us down. Nevertheless, Bill Parish was all smiles, as usual, when we pulled into GTT Audio to get a listen to Louis Desjardins' latest masterpiece, the Kronos Discovery turntable. Bill had sent me his GTT video newsletter with a pow-wow after David W. Robinson, Editor in Chief and Senior Writer Maurice Jeffries of Positive Feedback had spent an afternoon listening to the new turntable. Emails flew and Louis sent me a copy of Alan Sircom's review in HiFi+ magazine.
I emailed Louis and told him I thought it was a very good review. He replied that he thought it was an Excellent! review that put the Discovery in proper context within the current high-end audio scene. I also noted Greg Weaver waxed rhapsodically over the Discovery in his YouTube review Enjoy the Music.com featured in September. Greg has recently upgraded from his Sparta to a Kronos Pro, so obviously he is bullish on Kronos turntables. On the other hand, yours truly has no way in Hell of buying a Discovery. My wife wouldn't let me, just for starters. And secondly, I'm personally drawn to the Sparta for its compact size and black architecture. I find serenity in living within my means and there are four great Kronos turntables to choose from.
My tenure with Bill Parish goes back to 2003 when he asked if I would like to review the Kharma speakers that are still my reference to this day. Almost everything in my rig save for the dedicated AC line has since been replaced or tweaked and the Kharma keeps getting better. Obviously, they are not the weakest link. They're probably my 'forever' speakers.
Louis Desjardins and I connected when he first started showing at the Montreal show back in 2011. Here's the photo and my comments from that show report:
"...this was the finest sounding room with an analog source that I heard at the show. The supporting cast for the turntable included Audio Research monoblocks and preamp. The phonostage was a Nagra. The $30,000 cost of the table includes the arm. And did I say this sounded really, really good? This room was presented by distributor Fidelio Audio who brings us those wonderful audiophile grade CDs and LPs and it easily ranks as one the Best Rooms at the show." [Actually, the price at the time had not yet been announced. It was ultimately introduced at $28,000 without an arm. RB]
The rooms in which he has partnered with other brands have been consistently awarded a Best Rooms designation and his Kronos Pro was typically a big part of that. I was honored with a chance to review his Sparta 0.5 turntable and convert it to full Sparta specs. Had I not been so obsessed with re-inventing and max'ing out my vintage Linn LP12 with aftermarket parts back in those days, I would have bought the review sample. It's the real deal. Louis Desjardins does not do voodoo engineering.
Is That so?
After the cordial greeting, Linda excused herself to go explore the quaint town of Long Valley in "rural" northern New Jersey. I set my camera tote bag and the Velcro'd tote with a dozen LPs beside the large leather ottoman that served as my desk for the next three hours. I had alerted Bill that I wanted to listen to some cuts from my compilation CD before we turned to the Kronos. I had been here before and heard the YG XV four-column speaker ensemble when they were first introduced, but that was a few years ago. Twenty minutes with segments of songs I've heard a thousand times since the early 2000s allows me to calibrate my brain to the system and the room.
The speakers are oriented on the shorter wall of the large room, maybe 8' in front of it. The sumptuous leather listening chairs sit low and are maybe 15' from the main speakers. A sofa is positioned behind the chairs and a desk is positioned behind the sofa. It's a big room. Probably three times as large as mine. And it sounds completely different given my speakers are on the long wall with the triangle of the speakers and my chair being 9' on each side. It's not that one way is right or wrong, but you can't expect one way to sound like the other.
What strikes you first in this room is the presence of music created in some real space that is not the room in which you're sitting. Buddy Guy was playing on a studio stage where every note was crystal clear — more precise than any venue where live music is imperfectly projected into the audience, save for the one time he leaped off the stage and came down the side aisle and leaned up against the chain-link fence, shoulder to shoulder with me, still singing and playing.
Bruce Springsteen was more resolved than with my rig, too, but I learned that the lines "with every wish, there comes a curse" the "se" of course is inaudible the first time and just barely present the second time it comes around. The tweeter of the YG is exceptional, so I'm left to conclude that Bruce either looked down at his guitar at the end of that line, cutting off his vocal cords, or turned his head away from the mike as the word faded.
Bruce's overdubbed refrain on "57 Channels" is another tough one to resolve and this rig did it a bit better than I've been able to eke out on my own rig. Likewise, the over-dubs at the end of the song were clearly resolved and I could pick out slight differences between each overlay.
I reacted to the Chinese drum cut with something less polite than "Jeez" when they started pounding on the big boys. Tight, deep bass that revealed the timbre of the skin. I think I now need subwoofers.
And from a James Taylor Live cut of "Steamroller Blues" the applause and cheering of the audience and the resolution of the cymbals were notably precise and engaging. Audience clapping is always revealing.
Finally, from American Folk Blues '70, Shakey Horton's opening solo on the harmonica right into the mic was perfectly resolved, just as if we had been in the small club where the live recording was made. It was also so loud and piercing that it would have sent Bill diving for the volume control had I not forewarned him.
Those six musical segments gave me a clear picture of what the system could do with the kind of music I like to listen to. I was primed to hear what the Discovery could do with my motley sack of records that included some well-worn garage sale treasures, though I assured him they had all been cleaned on my Nessie record vacuum.
"Which reminds me, Bill, was that a Degritter record cleaning machine on the shelf behind you guys in the Positive Feedback video?"
Bill chuckled, "Yeah, I was wondering why I sold four of them the next week."
Dreadful subliminal advertising. LOL!
The Dirty Dozen
Leonard Cohen, Songs of Love and Hate. Bill cued up "Last Year's Man", noting that Leonard Cohen hailed from Montreal, where the Kronos Discovery was made. This was a very well-worn copy I had used when making a film to this song back in the '70s. Even so, it came across with virtually no surface noise. Just the high frequencies were missing and the rounded attack of the notes and words, which reminded me of what an old friend this record was.
Neil Young, Harvest Moon, "Natural Beauty". This remaster was a gift from my audio buddy, Tom Lathrop, who helps with second opinions on my reviews from time to time. It's 33.3 rpm, and in mint condition with only a few plays. It was pretty stunning to hear this familiar tune on a rig with no restriction on frequency extension or power. (I have the CD and a well-worn LP, too.) Effortless playback with no awareness of the physical LP. The words of this eco-sensitive song moved me even more now, with California burning, than it did in 1992 when it first came out.
Rickie Lee Jones, self-titled. "Chuck E.'s in Love". This is an excellent original pressing from 1979 that I had recently used to compare 33.3 rpm copy with Tom's remastered 45 rpm copy. I don't know the lyrics to this LP very well at all, but the clarity and presence allowed me to pick out most of them, which is no small feat with RLJ. The song just bops along and drew me in without drawing any attention to what must have been spot-on PRAT.
Mario Rom's Interzone, Everything is Permitted. This was an LP I picked up at the Rochester International Jazz Festival after hearing this Austrian group perform. Bill cued up the title track and it took me right back to the Little Theater where I've heard them not once, but twice! I wasn't expecting much after stuffing the LP under my leather jacket to ride home on my motorcycle that night, but it turned out to be an outstanding pressing on 180g vinyl. Again, it was just so easy to imagine them being here, live. Bill was pretty impressed with this trumpet/bass/drum trio, too.
Joe Cocker, With a Little Help From My Friends. This was a British pressing on EMI and we played the title track, which was his signature song. It was obviously not the same recording I have on a greatest hits CD at home, but was enjoyable, nevertheless. Lots of instrumentation and lots of backup singers, and all was very well sorted out and well presented in a very big soundstage.
Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms. We started with the old warhorse "Ride Across the River" and kept going with "The Man's Too Strong" to catch some dynamic drum attacks. True audiophiles never get tired of this song and I've heard it on many systems at shows over the years. This was likely an original pressing from 1985 as the jacket tells me it was also available on cassette and compact disc. The little green sticker with "50 cents" written on it tells me I picked it up at a garage sale. Like I did with my records when I was older, I think this one was played once while recording to cassette and never played again. It was in mint condition and the music just floated in the room like so much of Mark K. Snopfler's music does. I definitely got goosebumps on this one.
Dr. John, In a Sentimental Mood. This is a record to die for. Most of it was recorded by Alan Sides at Ocean Way Studio in LA and originally mastered by Doug Sax at The Mastering Lab, LA. We played "Makin' Whoopee" and it felt like the entire ensemble of musicians was right in the room with us — and you know trumpets when you hear them. And I know Dr. John from watching him perform at the Rochester International Jazz Fest from right at the fence, a distance of about 12 feet, just a year or two before he passed away.
I quipped to Bill that our listening session was beginning to feel like the "Dead Poet Society." Dr. John was certainly acclaimed by the music industry with more than a handful of Grammys and induction in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, but he deserved more popular acclaim in his long career.
ZZ Top, Fandango! "Blue Jean Blues" If I was ever to make another rock video, this would be it. And I got to see these guys up close and personal — like 15 feet, at the Main Street Armory in Rochester when they made a last-minute addition to their tour. Sadly, another Dead Poet Society candidate with the recent passing of Dusty Hill, but the band will play on. My rig is more colored than this one, with more bloom, and I usually listen to this cut in the dark, so this experience was not as emotionally fulfilling. But I sure had the sense that I was hearing exactly what was left on this worn LP.
The Platters, Encore of Golden Hits. We rocked "The Great Pretender" from 1955, a song I remember listening to when I was first getting interested in girls and music. Mercury Records was so proud of this monaural LP from the early 1960s containing their hits from 1955 through 1959 that they listed the recording equipment right down to the BBC Grampian Feedback Cutting Head.
While the now vintage microphone they used was clearly evident, the sound formed a beehive shape between and a bit beyond the speakers with a level of resolution that was not available back in the day, except perhaps in recording studios. I turned to Bill and asked "Why did they invent stereo?" But that's a project for another day. Besides, Bill is too young to know the answer to that question. More members of the Dead Poet Society here, along with fond memories.
Jackson Browne, Running on Empty."The Load Out"/"Stay" is a classic demo combo and one that I've used heavily over the years for its multitude of aural signifiers. Once again, this was another garage sale LP but in reasonable condition for its 44 years. The Kronos told me how much life was still left in this old record.
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Couldn't Stand the Weather, playing the classic "Tin Pan Alley", of course, for the same reason as Dire Straits, above. This one had been graded M- and sold for $11 originally back in 1984 (also available on cassette) but I'm sure I didn't pay more than a buck for it in the 1990s. The presentation here was as good as I've ever heard it, if memory serves me at all. And I've heard it in a lot of rooms at shows over the years. Goosebumps once again.
George Thorogood & The Destroyers, Live, was another opportunity Linda missed to dance with me on "Who Do You Love?" This was another performer I had a chance to see live at JazzFest in Rochester, though only from a distance, which probably served me ears better anyway. This mint recording put me right at the main stage on Chestnut Street, save for the reverberation caused by the tall buildings on either side of the street that hemmed in the venue.
Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A. This is an LP I bought new, played once to record it on cassette, then stashed away for safekeeping. We rocked the title track on this one and filled the whole front wall of GTT with a raucous soundstage. I mused how the voices of certain singers like Elvis and Bruce become so perfectly ingrained in a culture's collective mind as I rubbed my hands over my arms to smooth the skin once again.
Pharoah Sanders, Tauhid.We cued up "Japan" a more abstract piece of jazz with Sanders not only on saxophone, but also vocalizing. It could well play on Hearts of Space. Nat Hentoff quotes Sanders talking about his 1966 trip to Japan with John Coltrane:
"I was particularly impressed by the spiritual qualities of a lot of the people I met there — the respect they have for one another and for you. What I mean is that if you come from another culture, they accept you for what you are. The don't put down strangeness, but instead are open to what you have to offer them."
We could use some of this thinking in America today. It also reminded me of the Nordic jazz group Kuara with Per Jorgensen on trumpet and voice who played at the Lutheran Church at JazzFest years ago. Tauhidwas mastered by Rudy Van Gelder for Impulse and the sound quality was excellent with the music filling the room at GTT.
Linda entered the room during this cut (It's not her kind of music.) so that was my signal to draw the session to a close. I felt like I could have gone on through the night but we'd already eclipsed my "dirty dozen". I quipped to Bill "Man, we haven't even touched on classical," to which he assured me that it sounds great!
I packed away my LPs and pulled my camera out of its bag. When I first walked into the room earlier in the day, I glanced at the Discovery, but like the presence of a beautiful woman, I didn't stare or engage with it. First I took some photos of the YG XV and inquired about the JL subwoofers near the front wall behind them. Yes, Bill said, they were active during our listening, coming in at 24Hz and below. That's the realm of room tone.
Welcome Back To Those Who Skipped The LP Review
Beneath the counter-rotating platter assembly with their individual motors lie the banks of supercapacitors and charging station that automatically switches from one to the other so the turntable is always operating off-grid—a big reason it runs so quietly. And then there is the phono stage with its power supply and the rack itself, which is really an extension of the turntable's exo-skeleton. Louis had shown me a piece of this new constrained-layer vibration technology that he was developing for the turntable several years ago and mentioned that he was also thinking of building a rack. He was not thinking small. Let's take a closer look from the top down in the photo above.
Top Layer: This is the conventionally rotating platter and plinth with the new Kronoscope tonearm attached to it.
2nd Layer: This is the counter-rotating platter which is identical to the top platter. The platters have a beveled outer edge to facilitate lifting the LP. The platters are resonance tuned compressed phenolic/aluminum/copper with a carbon fiber mat, each weighing 18 pounds (8.2 kg).
3rd Layer: Contains two independent electronic speed control units — one for each motor. (The Pro has only one CPU for both motors.) These CPU keep the wow & flutter down to 0.015% by processing the signals from three magnetic sensors on the side of each platter 60 times per rotation. The cylindrical readout at the front is the speed selector and the readout of the actual speed of each platter. They reach a steady speed within a few seconds, well before you can cue up the tonearm. This layer also contains the standard power supply with super-capacitors that delivers pure class A linear DC to the two Maxon DCX motors that drive the platters.
4th Layer: This is the optional SCPS-D Super-Capacitor Power Supply which will charge while the standard power supply is running off-grid during playback. When the standard power supply runs down, this second power supply will kick in while the standard power supply recharges. The readout on this level displays the percentage of the charge available in the SCPS-D and the standard power supply. This readout is more information than you may need to know as the system reportedly runs flawlessly by itself. As you can see in the photo above, after three hours of continuous use, the main power supply is still at 90% capacity.
5th Layer: This is the chassis for the all-tube signal part of the Kronos Reference Phono Stage. The wiring in the phono stage is the same as the tonearm wire. There is an optional suspension system available for this unit, similar to the suspension system for the platters for optimum isolation.
6th Layer: The chassis shown above is the Discovery's SCPS-D power supply that is part of the optional SCPS-D on the 4th layer.
7th Layer: Power supply for the Kronos Reference Phono Stage on the 5th layer. The phono stage runs continuously on the grid-like most phono stages, except it is a complete dual-mono design right down to using two AC power cords.
If you wish to use your own phono stage and just buy the Discovery turntable to put on your rack, you would have layers 1, 2, and 3 as shown above. The Discovery will accept a second tonearm mounted at the slot in the left rear corner of the top plinth. It is adjustable for tonearms from 9" to 12" but Louis tells me that 97% of his previous customers have ordered the Black Beauty with the Kronos Pro model and he expects similar results with the Discovery.
The new Kronoscope tonearm is his unipivot design with a new conical sphere bearing. Louis estimates it to be a 50% improvement over the Black Beauty. There is a lot more work and quality invested in this new arm with special attention given to the interface with the plinth. Louis found this to be a critical area of the overall design and used multiple materials to deal with the micro-vibrations and resonances.
The tonearm is held on the armrest by a magnet and the cueing mechanism is super-smooth. There was no audible indication of the stylus contacting the LP when the tonearm was lowered. The cartridge used during my visit was the My Sonic Lab Signature Platinum which retails for $10,995.
What's Not To Hear?
Actually, I can't really say I heard the Kronos Discovery apart from the entire rig and room. My listening experience here would easily rank among the Best Rooms at any show. While the music was familiar, the audible experience created here by Bill Parish seemed to be designed for lovers of classical music which is probably the primary customer for gear at this level of performance and lofty price. There was a huge soundstage with great depth behind the main speakers and the overall perspective was one of sitting midway back at the orchestra level in one of the top music halls in the country.
The transparency and resolution were first-rate and the low-frequency extension of this system recreated the ambient room tone present at the recording venue. Of course, while the resolution and transparency might have been even greater than being at a live concert, it's tough to recreate the emotional reactions of being physically present at a live performance. And for many, that's part of the beauty of listening at home.
I've alluded to many of the sonic characteristics of the rig & room in my comments above on the musical selections I heard. It was always an enjoyable experience and never was it irritating. No hissing "S"es, no clipping of the amplifiers at either end of the spectrum. Only on one cut was the deep bass muddy, but I could tell it was the recording because other tracks, just as deep, were clean.
Overall, it felt like the bass in the room was too strong in the lowest octave, but that's probably because I don't hear anything that deep at home. I might have been able to rave about the black background, but the rig was so good at reproducing the low-level room tone of the recording venue that it was seldom, if ever, black. The turntable simply drew so much information out of the groove that the venues were ever-present. Dead quiet, yes, as in no surface noise from the LPs. Even the well-worn ones were quiet, only revealing their wear in the softened music without the crisp attack and edges to the notes that we get with fresh vinyl.
The tonearm controlled the cartridge so well that the stylus glided through the grooves with such ease that the two or three clicks or pops I heard were easily dismissed. When the music gets this good, I have to start asking myself about the deficiencies in my system.
About Louis Desjardins
Over the years he has continued to refine his design and promote it globally, making it an acclaimed commercial success. And while the first reports of his new Discovery are just now coming out, he has already sold out the first production run. His joy, he says, comes from the discovery of innovations. The financial success is what allows him to continue his pursuit of excellence. The sophistication of his designs and the degree of perfection require the prices his turntables command.
In my review of the Sparta turntable I was able to easily disconnect the lower platter and experience the noise and distortion of torque-induced vibrations. The counter-rotating platter virtually eliminates this and imparts a more holographic presentation of the musicians that I have not experienced with any single-platter turntable — and I've heard several in the price league of the Discovery. Yet, in listening to the Discovery this holographic presentation did not stand out for me. The reason, I suspect, is due to further advances Louis made with the Discovery.
Looking at the Discovery, there is a strong family resemblance to the original Kronos, the more affordable Sparta, and the Kronos Pro. While he retained the same basic concept of his previous work, Louis took a fresh look at every aspect of the design in an attempt to reduce vibration to an absolute minimum. Drawing from other fields (he mentioned the design of earthquake-resistant skyscrapers) he devised a new exo-skeleton and looked at how energy transmission could be minimized at every junction and in every part of the design. The photo of the tonearm design and interface with the plinth is a graphic example of the extent of exploration and discovery he pursued in climbing this mountain toward perfection. The complexity of the record clamp is another.
Looking closely at the plinths, we see a multitude of hex bolts that are evidence of soft clamping layers of aluminum, phenolic, and some secret sauce, glued together and torqued down to a specific degree to keep residual energy transfer neutral and dissipate as much energy as possible to heat. While the number of bolts may look "busy" in the photos, in real life they are part of a tapestry of materials, layers, and complex design elements that come together like a fine quilt.
Both the three-layer Discovery turntable by itself and the entire free-standing ensemble with phono stage, which he calls the "Complete Analog Solution," will have a formidable presence in the most serious audiophile systems. The brushed nickel finish, black anodized aluminum, phenolic, Delrin, copper, and the carbon fiber mat ensure visual attention and practically command you to fire up the amps and play music.
While Louis drew the name Discovery from his journey of discovering new improvements to the basic design at every connection and interface, as a listener, I would have named it "The Presence" because that is the effect that it brings to music reproduction. If the rest of the system is up to the task and properly implemented in the room, the music will have an extraordinary presence. It is this presence, I surmise, that captivates my attention in multiple dimensions — both physical and musical — that envelops the three-dimensionality of the earlier Kronos models by taking the musical experience to a higher plane.
Is this the greatest turntable in the world? I don't think anyone can truly answer that question. I came. I listened. I was immensely impressed with what I heard. I decided the question is irrelevant. Louis Desjardins has reached his mountain top with the Discovery. There may be others who reverse engineer his design someday, but the trip down the mountain is always less rewarding than the climb up. For those who can afford to climb this mountain, it is the time spent at the peak that is most treasured — enjoying your music. The view is spectacular.