Clearaudio Concept Active Wood turntable
My friend Courtney Grant Winston has led a storied life. A photographer by trade, Courtney has a gift for revealing his subjects’ spirited personalities. He has photographed actor Morgan Freeman, Le Bernardin co-owner Maguy Le Coze, and celebrity chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Alain Ducasse, and Anthony Bourdain. Courtney took the iconic cover photo for Bourdain’s 2000 breakout biography, Kitchen Confidential. Courtney’s father was a Tuskegee Airman during World War II and a childhood friend of Billie Holiday. The voice of Courtney’s mother, Dorothy, can be heard in Billie the recent documentary, speaking about the celebrated jazz singer’s final days.
“Lady Day,” as tenor saxophonist Lester Young dubbed her, was a frequent guest at Courtney’s family home on Harman Street in Berkeley, California; Billie was godmother to Courtney and his siblings. Mid-’50s home photos taken with Holiday show the then–40-year-old singer relaxed and smiling with Courtney’s sisters and parents. In another photo, Holiday holds her chihuahuas, Chiquita and Pepe, with Dorothy prepped for what looks likely to be a night on the town.
Here in New York City, Courtney’s Upper West Side apartment is packed with cameras, photographs, a Sony PS-LX510 linear tracking turntable, and hundreds of records—many from his parents’ collection of 1950s-era vinyl. Courtney asked me to appraise the collection, which includes rare 10″ sides by Lou Mecca, Jimmy Raney, Helen Carr, and—of course—Billie Holiday, and original 12″ pressings of records by Cal Tjader, Lucky Thompson, Helen Merrill, and Duke Ellington. The fingerprints smudging these discs’ surfaces could be those of Holiday herself. I was gobsmacked.
Billie Holiday with Winston’s sisters and mother. Courtesy of Courtney Winston.
To me, there’s something very special about the sound of these late ’50s/early ’60s pressings. Perhaps it’s the vinyl composition, the stamper construction, the groove width and spacing. Whatever the reason is, these 60-year-old records have profound tone, depth, and presence that’s not equaled, in my opinion, by even today’s fanciest vinyl reissues. (I believe this holds true for original Blue Note 1500 and 4000 series LPs as well and explains part of their astronomical value.) Even marred by fingerprints and hairline abrasions, these vintage discs retain the power to hold the listener spellbound.
I took Courtney’s records back to my Greenwich Village bachelor’s shanty and removed decades of dirt, grime, and cigarette funk—including some fingerprints that may have belonged to Lady Day—using my Pro-Ject VC-S2 ALU and Audiodesksysteme Vinyl Cleaner Pro machines. I placed one of the 10″ black discs on the Clearaudio Concept Active Wood’s platter and turned the top-mounted aluminum control knob to “33.” That’s when the fun (and work) began.
The Clearaudio Concept Active Wood
The original Clearaudio Concept turntable was introduced in 2009, followed in 2015 by the Concept Wood, which replaced the original Concept’s medium-density fiberboard (MDF) plinth with a plinth made from constrained-layer multi-ply Baltic Birch. “Birch is denser and heavier, lowering the resonant signature and noise floor, creating increased dynamic range and clarity,” Garth Leerer, of Clearaudio’s US distributor, Musical Surroundings, told me in an email. Introduced last year, the Active version adds an onboard headphone amp and class-A MM/MC phono preamplifier. The Active Wood also has a subsonic filter.
The Concept Active Wood can be purchased in two finishes—dark wood or light wood—and with either of two Clearaudio tonearms and well-matched cartridges: the Satisfy Black with aluminum armwand and the Concept MM V2 cartridge ($3700 for the package) or the Satisfy CF with a carbon fiber armwand and the Concept MC cartridge, $4600. Both tonearms come outfitted with magnetic antiskate control and hardwired with Clearaudio’s Direct Wire tonearm cable. I received both tonearm/cartridge pairings.
The Active Wood’s 16.5″ × 14″ × 5.51″ structure contains a V2A stainless steel bearing shaft within a sintered bronze bushing running on a ruby thrust pad. The bearing shaft supports a 2.25lb, 1.18″ (30mm) thick, precision-milled (by CNC) polyoxymethylene (POM) platter driven by an aluminum subplatter connected, via a flat rubber belt, to a decoupled DC motor built into the turntable’s base. (POM is basically the same as DuPont’s Delrin—Delrin is a DuPont trademark—although specific formulations vary.)
The POM platter has “a weighted rim for increased flywheel effect, providing greater speed stability,” the Clearaudio website states. The platter has a bare, matless, textured surface; POM’s density matches up well with that of vinyl, which should allow the record to couple acoustically, especially when used with a Concept clamp ($135). The Active Wood gets power from a high-quality wall wart.
The design of the Active Wood is simple, elegant, and spare, with, front left, a speed selector knob, front right, a small volume control dial for the built-in class-A headphone amplifier, which is happiest with headphones with impedance between 30 and 300 ohms. A ¼” headphone jack is around the side.
On the Active Wood’s rear panel is a grounding screw, a pair of gold-plated RCA jacks (a 1m pair of Clearaudio Smart Wire interconnects is provided; they’re $150/pair when bought separately), and four small toggle switches. The first switch manages the subsonic filter (on or off), and the second offers a choice of low, mid, or high phono-preamp gain. The third allows you to choose between moving coil (MC) or moving magnet (MM) cartridges. The fourth toggle sets the output: “passive,” for use with an external phono stage; “active,” to engage the internal phono preamp; and “variable” to engage the preamp and activate the top-mounted volume dial. A 12V power receptacle completes the back panel array.
The Satisfy tonearm
Designed by Clearaudio founder Peter Suchy with his sons Robert and Patrick, the Satisfy series tonearms are constructed of aluminum (except, optionally, the armwand) including a two-part headshell, cueing lever, tonearm collar, counterweight, and rear threaded armtube. “Satisfy Black uses an aluminum arm tube,” Leerer wrote, “while the CF arm uses a woven carbon fiber arm tube providing extra stiffness and lower resonance.” Both Satisfy CF and Black tonearms use Swiss-made vertical and lateral bearings comprised of polished tungsten steel points against a ruby thrust pad.
“This arm takes more time to precisely manufacture the three points of contact,” Leerer said. “The Satisfy mechanical bearing is very exacting regarding cartridge weight, compliance, antiskate and tracking force, extracting more performance from a wider range of higher-quality cartridges.”
Instead of the usual dangling weight or spiral spring, the Satisfy arms use a magnetic antiskate system, adjusted by turning a side-mounted thumbscrew attached to the tonearm’s base. The Clearaudio website describes this as “a precise, magnetic antiskating adjustment with a gentle sensitiveness, without mechanic disturbance.”
“Magnets are inserted on the right side of the round bearing housing of the arm,” Leerer explained. “To the right of the arm is the thumbscrew containing an internal magnet that allows you to vary the distance and magnetic force between the bearing housing magnets and thumbscrew magnet. Magnets in the arm bearing housing are situated to change (repel then attract) the thumbscrew magnet for dynamic antiskate.” The well-written tonearm manual offers instructions on how to adjust the small thumbscrew control, which was preset at the factory. I didn’t touch the antiskate settings on either arm. I didn’t need to.
The class-A Concept Active phono preamp is preset to load MM cartridges with 47k ohms and MC carts with 110 ohms. The design employs JFET discrete transistors in the first and second gain stages, no negative feedback applied.
Clearaudio Concept Active Wood plinth
The Clearaudio Concept Active Wood is supported by three threaded, aluminum leveling feet equipped with rubber domes. Best practice is to make sure the support platform is level then screw down the ‘table’s adjusting feet. Still, the Active Wood has leveling feet if you need them.
The Active Wood speed—33.3, 45, or 78rpm—is selected via a smoothly rotating electronic speed control knob. “Smooth” is the operative term for describing the Concept Active Wood turntable. Everything about it feels well-engineered and clearly thought out, from the snugly fitting packaging inserts to the small, half-moon–shaped rubber collar that grips the tonearm in resting position.
The tonearm finger lift is the best I’ve seen on any tonearm, superior to the spindly, ½” screw-in arm lift found on my Kuzma 4Point 11″ tonearm. The 1″ long, square aluminum arm lift that juts out from the Satisfy headshell feels stocky and substantial. Tonearm alignment is aided by a small dimple atop the rear tonearm collar, stationed directly above the pivot point. There’s no guesswork! Clearaudio Concept Active Wood is user-friendly.
Published at Wed, 02 Jun 2021 16:38:52 +0000