Choosing a dream tableOver years of buying and upgrading, I've wondered if a point would come where I would reach satisfaction, when I would say 'this is it, I've bought my last (component)' I am not convinced you can ever fully get to this point if you also love the gear that reproduces the musical magic since there's always something new, maybe something better, but the idea remains fascinating. I tend to think there are a few areas of my rig where it might be possible to get near to this point, specifically speakers and turntable.
The turntable is a technology that really has not changed too much in basic form or operation over the decades. It also is one area where careful set up and matching of tonearms and cartridges are vital: getting it right can produce wonderful results, but fail to do so and your investment will yield only disappointment. When people ask me about where to put the emphasis on a turntable, I tell them to imagine they are the size of an ant and get to sit on a turntable plinth watching the action. At that scale, it is easier to conceive why foundation matters. As a record spins and a stylus traces the undulations of a groove, it matters that the vinyl is clean, of course, but you want those tiny movements of the stylus and cantilever to result only from the groove, not from something wobbling in the motor driving the platter, not from a resonance or vibration in the arm, not from something moving in the plinth. To get to the stage where the signal in the groove is coming through cleanly, everything preceding the contact must be able to deliver the stylus to groove interface without adding or losing anything else. This is why the placement of the table matters, why it must be level, why the motor must drive the platter to the correct speed, without noise, why, indeed, the tonearm matters. And that's before we talk of VTF, VTA and azimuth. This is why I always believe a cheaper cartridge in a great foundation can sound a lot better than a great cartridge on a delivery platform that has other weaknesses.
So, reaching the point where my LP collection has become the primary means of enjoying music at home, I figured that I should treat myself to the type of table that one only dreams of owning. No, the $100k+ options were never a consideration, but I figured if I stretched, bought a table that I'd keep for years, then the annual cost of ownership, assuming I continue to love listening to vinyl, would make something in the $10k-$20k range worthwhile. Yes, it is amazing the justifications we make to indulge this hobby, but, what if I settled for 10 years....would $1500 a year be unreasonable for a primary passion? And of course, at the end of 10 years, the table would not have zero residual value, so even that simple calculation overestimates annual cost. Perhaps this is why, over the years, I've upgraded tables at very little real cost as I've sold my older tables often for what I paid for them. Seven years with a VPI Aries cost me about $100 a year on balance. A gently used Rega 3 actually cost me nothing over 5 years, even with inflation. Buy well, keep it in good order, and there's invariably a buyer out there for any well designed table later.
Having lived happily enough with an old SME 20/2, which I bought used with an SME 309 arm, eventually upgrading to another used V arm, I had a real sense of what I wanted. A table that delivered the reliability and build quality of the SME with just a little more drive, resolution, and life. Scouring A'gon and reading reviews gave me a few options but let's face it, improving on the SME 20, in this price range, is no simple deal. What did catch my eye, and my reading attention over several months, were the Artisan Fidelity refurbishes of old Technics, Garrards and Lencos. Here were objects of beauty, modern specs, and, by all accounts, spectacular sonics.
Lust is a vice. And what is audiophilia but a form of lust: for performance, for gear, for the hedonistic pleasure of an aural delight. As Oscar Wilde put it, I can resist anything except temptation. A back and forth over a few weeks with Chris at Artisan Fidelity educated me on the options and processes involved, and at one point had me almost pull the trigger on a a ready-made solution, a Garrard 301 from a customer who decided not to close the deal, and at a price that was definitely in my budget. However, he who hesitates is lost, and in the time I spent mulling it over, someone else nabbed it. I took this as a sign: if you are going for the supposed last table, make sure it is exactly what you want.
The trouble with getting everything you want is you need to be able to underwrite the cost. Not sure I can ever get to that level so I decided to emphasize the essentials and compromise a little on extras. I'm not really a dual-arm table guy, nor a multi-cartridge owner, nice as I believe it must be to have a set up for mono and stereo records, or an ability to play around with different arm/cartridge combos, so that reduced my shopping list a bit. Also, while I am aiming to improve on an excellent SME 20/V arm combo, I do recognize that it's often easier to change arms, so maybe I should scale back the desire to reach the 'end point' and get near enough there, with the possibility of a final step to a dream arm later.
What I did know was that I loved what I learned about Artisan Fidelity's renovations of the Garrards, and when I looked at the 301 and 401 models, it was the latter that caught my eye. There's just something about the look that captures a true 1960s vibe, a slightly modernistic sort of sci-fi groove that spoke to me as 'right'. The 301 might present the classic image of Garrard but the 401 hits my sweet-spot.
Yes, of course I wanted the upgraded bearing and platter offered by Artisan Fidelity and considered essential to the improvements offered, so that choice was also made. The questions remaining were finish and arm. There's barely a bad finish among those offered by Artisan, from various veneers to smooth car-paint style gloss. I wanted organic so veneer it was going to be. And of those on display at the website, I just fell for the gorgeous deep reddish hues of African Padauk.
Following some discussions with Chris, I determined that I really did want to get to a 12" tonearm, and of the choices that might allow me to move beyond what I love about the SME V, the Origin Live line of arms were deemed worthy of consideration. I'd received similar advice from others I trust that OL arms are very good, and since the only other option at the price point I wanted to hit was maybe an Ortofon (also very well regarded), I decided to take the plunge on a Conqueror Mk3C. Yes, I could upgrade to another arm, another time, if so inclined but the reality is I wanted something great now, and most folks told me the Conqueror was at least the equal and maybe even a step up from the SME V12 arm I might otherwise have stretched to attain (maybe, someday).
Content with this, I decided to proceed.
Placing the order, waiting for deliverySo, I placed an order in October of 2015. The promised lead time was 12-14 weeks but I was told it might be sooner, so with luck I would have it for the holidays. Terms are fairly standard, half down on order, half on completion. Money sent, I waited. Now if lust is the vice of audiophiles, patience is the virtue most lack, myself included. After a month of so of not hearing anything I checked on progress. Nothing much doing Chris explained, a table had been sourced and the wood was being prepared but he'd update me. By end of November I was hoping to get some of pictures of the table as it progressed but, none forthcoming, I just maintained my optimism for an early arrival.
By early December I was becoming a bit more restless, especially when in response to an update request in the second week of December Chris said 'maybe a few more weeks'....hum, how to interpret that one? I sort of gave up any hope of seeing it before end of year at that point and held off on listing my SME for sale. Late Dec Chris confirmed that production had been running a bit slow for the quarter and he hoped they'd catch up over the holidays. OK, time to put this out of my mind for a bit and just let it happen.
You sort of get the idea here. The 12 week deadline came and went. The 15 week upper bound faded into memory too. In fact, it would be mid-April 2016 before the invoice for completion was issued, fully 25 weeks later. Was I bothered by this? Yes, extremely, but being somewhat captive to the process by the 50% downpayment, the customer has little choice here. I'd like to say this was a one-off delay that only I experienced but I soon found from discussions with other owners who I had reached out to online that this was more typical than not. If you ask me, 5 months or longer is not unusual a duration from downpayment to delivery.
In May, a set of boxes arrive at my door. No signature apparently required by these delivery guys, I come home to see this on my doorstep. Given the weight, I doubt anyone walking by would consider making a quick getaway with one of these boxes. The wooden crate, housing the table body, really did weigh more than a man could lift. Yes, I did draw a little breath at the sheer bulk of this shipment, especially as I manoeuvred the boxes inside, and then reminded myself how crazy it is to be an audiophile, this is just the turntable! Promise to self, never move home again.
From box to rackUnpacking is simple enough. The cardboard boxes contained other boxes, with the platter, the tonearm, the Monarch Audio speed controller, etc distributed in these. The main crate required unscrewing to reveal inside a blanket lined covering, the plinth and platter-less Garrard, squeaky clean and waiting to be removed. This was the point at which you get a real sense of the table's weight. Lifting it out required some careful effort and a pre-determined place to locate it, you won't be carrying this around looking for a convenient location. I unpacked in a spare room with the top shelf of a rack ready and cleared.
Instructions with this table were on the thin side, three sheets of photocopied paper extracted from what seems to be an original Garrard manual and an email from Chris to loosen the transit screws first. The trouble is, the location of the transit screws is something of a mystery without a clear diagram (they are not pointed out in the sheets) and trust me, when you look into the belly of the Garrard without a plinth, there's plenty of screws staring back at you. A quick look online sort of solved this problem, and further confirmation emails from Chris to a marked up picture I took with my iPhone ensured a happy first step here. But if you've never done this before, here's some help (red arrows point to those transit screws, the green one is another matter):
That green one? Ah, the manual page talked of adjusting the speed and I identified this as the relevant one. Don't do it. Despite what the instructions suggest, you are not to mess with speed settings internally on the Artisan Fidelity mods. So just ignore that instruction. In fact, it seems you can ignore most of what is provided as instruction here, save the advice on cleaning and lubricating so am not really sure why these pages are even included. And in case you think this is just me, I can assure you, other owners tell me they were equally confused at first blush. Definitely room for improvement here and a long-term time-saver for Chris whom I am sure could do without the inevitable email questions and phone-calls on basic set up by new customers.
That little problem out of the way, I still had the arm to install. I'd gone for the Origin Live 12" Conqueror 3c and it looked good in the box, though clearly showing signs of having been removed and replaced in the packing (I'd given Chris permission to show the table at an audio show before it shipped to me). As an SME tonearm user, I have high standards for fit and finish. I also have a bit of dislike for unipivots after several years with a VPI table, but the Origin Live design is a sort of hybrid, a captive dual pivot that has the near solidity of a gimbaled design. The arm tube has a lovely elegance but I confess to not liking the bolt on assembly which has a single nut, hand-tightened under the armboard, to hold everything in place. The SME V had really spoilt me in this regard, have a far more solid feel. The OL manual makes the case that a tight connection of arm to board is not as appropriate as people imagine but that's their story, I remain unconvinced so far and regard this mounting as lacking the quality one imagines in an expensive tonearm.
First runSafely mounted, and with my Sumiko Pearwood Celebration II installed, it was time to take the table for a spin. Before doing this I checked everything was level and made some minor adjustments on the supplied Stillpoints feet to make sure the platter was true. Arm parameters allow for most major adjustments relatively simply, and the OL arm might even make adjusting arm height a little easier than the SME V, at least in moving down, which with the SME V is a sort of push and hope affair. Speed seemed in need of some tuning, even after run in (and being reminded that the Garrard likes to be fed by a 50v/130hz setting on the Monarch Audio power supply) but thanks to a clarification to the accompanying instructions from Chris (see above), the deck's speed adjustment dial helped me nail in accuracy using the Feickert app and a test tone.
What I failed to mention is the beauty of the platter on this 401. The Artisan Fidelity copper-topped design weighs a proverbial ton and moves as smoothly as silk, without a perturbance or hint of inconsistency. Switching off the power leaves the platter rotating cleanly for what seems an age but might not even notice without close examination. This is one of key modifications Artisan Fidelity make to the design, their bearing and platter combo being available separately for almost $4000, but operating in a manner that doesn't leave much room for doubt in terms of quality. There's a certainty to the operation once dialed in that makes its own case for these tables. The plinths might catch the eyes but it's the bearing and platter that floats my boat.
At last....listeningOddly, after all the fussing, I can't quite remember the first LP I chose to hear on the new table. You'd think the moment would be fraught with significance but to be honest, I was still in extended set-up mode and I wanted to make sure all was working. I am sure some of the usual records I spin when changing turntable parameters or cartridge were pulled out: Joan Armatrading's Show Some Emotion, Van's Avalon Sunset, Kenny Burrell's Midnight Blue on the latest Blue Note Music Matters reissue. These would have been in rotation for sure as I finalized arm and cartridge set up.
I can't say the earth-moved or that I sat back and went 'wow' as so many others seem to do. I certainly liked what I was hearing but it was not a case of black and white differences between the Garrard and the SME. I will say I thought the music had a tad more body, a bit more detail and generally the sort of resolution one likes from great vinyl. But compared to moving to the SME from the VPI Aries I previously owned where the differences were immediately heard from the first bars, this step was more subtle. Clearly I was in the ballpark and things were sounding good but it was early days and the set up would need final tweaking to get it sounding its best.
So far, so good until trouble raised its head. First there was the hum. Every time I touched the arm a distinct and audible hum emanated from the speakers. Chris at AF sort of blew me off with 'this happens' but it was obvious and repetitive. Further, it was occurring only with the table being added to a previously silent system with a dedicated circuit and line conditioning. I tried running the ground cable to the table, to the amp, adding another and then taking them off. The hum remained, lessened only slightly by not connecting the tonearm ground to the phono stage at all. Perhaps that should have been a clue.
After a few days of listening and tweaking I noticed a further problem. The music would drop out in the left channel mid way across some records and then come back fine after a couple of minutes. At first I thought I was nuts, this made no sense but it kept happening mid-way through LPs. I'd cue up a record, it would play great then suddenly the soundstage would shift, coming back later as the arm made its way across the record.
I queried some folks on the most reliable turntable forum I know, the ever responsive Vinyl Engine, and pointers from a few folks had me checking the connections at the cartridge and the amp end. Finally it seemed clear -- there was something wrong with the internal wiring of the OL arm. After a few back and forths with AF and OL, it was confirmed -- this was not good.
So, consider this for a moment. You've spent some serious dough on a dream set-up. You've waited twice as long as you've initially been told for the component to arrive. And it arrives with a problem. What do you imagine a fair response is now? Well the folks I spent my money with think the answer is 'oops, better send the arm back and see what we can do'. Not quite the answer I'd hoped to hear.
I pressed a little harder for an option that would not leave me without a functioning table. OL's chief, Mark Baker had one final suggestion -- take the arm off, remove the DIN connection in the base and see how it all looks. Well, why not? The access to the DIN connector in the arm base is limited, as I'd been warned, but I managed to slide it out. What it revealed was a rather mashed up set of copper wires that looked as if they'd been rather roughly assembled.
Not too easy to see with these photos but the dangling wires form the connection to the pins and a grounding wire that I think is designed to sit outside the DIN assembly so as to touch the inside of the arm. After some careful readjustment of two pin connecting wires that seemed to be touching each other and of the frayed set that seemed to serve as the grounding wire, I reassembled the arm and remounted it on the table.
As soon as I powered up I knew things had improved. The hum that seemed to occur every time I touched the arm was gone and the music played in both channels across the full LP side. Could I have cured the problem?
As this was a Friday when I made the fix, I was more than happy to enjoy spinning records for the weekend and it did indeed seem that the fix was in: no hum, full sound across all records, life was good. But of course, you know it's never as simple as you want. My joy was not exactly short-lived as this result seemed to hold for a month or so before I started to notice a related problem. Sometimes, returning the arm to rest at end of a side, I noticed a little crackling noise. Not every time, but increasingly so. OK, this is not good but as long as I can still play, not the end of the world I convinced myself.
But then, one evening, with the crackling noise sort of regularly occurring with every return trip, the old signal drop out problem occurred mid-side again. 'Oh no, surely not', says I to myself. 'Not again' (that's the polite version!) OK, deep breath, it's probably just a loose wire again in the base, perhaps I did not quite dress the wires as perfectly as I could when I did the original 'fix'. So I decided to stay calm, give myself some time, and tackle the job again with real attention to detail.
Well, I tried. I really did. But nothing I could adjust seemed to matter, this problem would not be resolved so I decided I had enough. Clearly there was something wrong with this arm wiring that was beyond my abilities, my toolset, and, frankly, my patience to resolve. A rather testy email to both OL and AF later, I have instructions to ship the arm back to the UK for 'repair under warranty'. The arm went back and I started listening to CDs again.
Checking the date at this time, it was almost 11 months since I placed the original order. Artisan did sell me the arm but it turns out they are not really a tonearm dealer and actually don't have spares in stock. I should have known this when my original purchase turned up without a tonearm cable as OL had failed to supply one to AF so OL shipped one directly to me from the UK later. As the Labor Day holiday weekend came and went, I think that somewhere along the line, customer service has taken a back seat. Were this a car, I'd invoke lemon laws. Is it unreasonable to expect AF might have tried to accommodate me with a loaner arm or a replacement new one? They did offer to sell me another arm, which is not quite the same thing in my book.
Update Sept 9th The arm was shipped from the US three weeks ago. It arrived at OL in Southampton, England two weeks ago today according to Fed Ex. I've not heard a word from OL or AF. But then again, they already have my money. I do intend to keep updating this so others can learn from the experience. Judge for yourself.
Update Sept 16th Hearing nothing, I ask AF's Chris if he has heard anything. No, he says, and asks if I have contacted OL myself. Oh, apparently it's on me....So I email to ask Mr Baker at OL for an update on the 'repair' of the new arm I paid for a over three months ago. I also suggest to Mr Thornton at AF that perhaps his customer service is lacking. Is it time for me to contact AMEX yet and have this whole deal investigated?
Update Sept 24th After two emails from AF to OL, a reply finally comes through them, apparently there is nothing to report yet but an update is promised next Monday. Does this constitute reasonable progress? Yeah, me neither. The arm has now been with OL for a month, this is the first reply they've provided, and it's essentially content-free. Frustrating.
Update Sept 28th The promised Monday update never arrived so I asked on Tue, Sept 29th for some guidance on what to do next. Wed morning AF forward a response from OL that the person overseeing the repair was on vacation last week and now is ill, so while they normally would be turning this around quickly (do they get many such warranty repairs then?) it was just bad luck with regards to the timing of this problem. Oh it sure was! I should note, for those of you following along, that my arm has been with OL for a month so am not sure why last week's vacation would be the hold up if fast turnaround is the norm. Curiously, Mr Baker at OL does not update me or reply to my emails, only to Chris' at AF.
Update Sept 30th It's getting crazier. OL replied through AF that they had tested the arm and it was fine. No problems. Huh? They suggest the likeliest explanation is that the phono cable is the source of the problem as they had seen instances of RCA barrels not making a clean connection in the phono stage. Personally, I've never seen this and the cable I was using (a Purist Audio Design which I have used for a couple of years without problems) they tell me should also have been sent back with the arm for them to check. Wait! What? Now they tell me this?
To add to the craziness, Mr Baker actually then replied at last to my original email of Sept 15th with a note that he had determined there was no problem with the arm 10 days ago! What's that you say? Up to Sept 27th he was claiming that he had not managed to get around to the arm test as his staff member in charge of repairs was out on vacation or ill. This really was beginning to sound like I'd entered the Twilight Zone. At this point, I really think there must be some confusion at OL's end and maybe, just maybe, they had mixed up two different repairs and were discussing someone else's tonearm when talking to me. Who knows for sure? OL don't actually communicate directly with me so it's impossible to know what's going on there.
Goodbye Origin Live, what's next?
Thankfully, Chris finally got to speak with Mr Baker and explained the tests I'd done on the arm myself which essentially ruled out the cable-phono stage interface, the phono amp itself, or the phono cable as causal in the signal loss. Not sure what went down between them but today AF tell me OL has agreed to rewire the arm, insert a new DIN connector, and send it back next week. Hallelujah! Am I getting heard at last? Finally, it seems someone at OL's end recognized a problem here.
The arm returned. I arrived home Oct 7th to find a box sitting on my doorstep, and lo and behold, there lay the Origin Live Conqueror, back in the same box in which I shipped it in August, its shipment unannounced, waiting for me to claim it. By this point, I was actually not feeling too excited but I was glad to resolve this step.
In fact, I'd had a back and forth with Chris about how much I was turned off Origin Live (and, in fairness, by Artisan Fidelity too) by their handling of this problem arm and in the course of our exchange, we hatched a plan. Chris suggested a couple of options for better arms and agreed, if I wanted to do this, to take the OL back at full credit and work with me on an alternative. I'm exercising this option. I was tempted to put the OL back on, just to be sure that the rewire worked but I wanted whoever got it to have that pleasure, so I just shipped it unopened on to Artisan.
Me? I consider myself burned by the experience and now I just prefer not to deal with OL or their tonearms again. Let me extract my investment (though not my time) back out of this deal and move on. If they had sent just a replacement two months ago instead of insisting on repairing a faulty, brand new $3500 tonearm (and only then after trying to tell me the problem was not in the arm) then I might have felt differently but I consider their treatment of a customer who spends that amount of money on one of their products unacceptable. If you have had a different experience with them, good luck to you, I only know what it felt like to spend my money and be treated like this.
Update Nov 1st. It's now over a year since I first placed an order and made a deposit. Since then I've had a working table for maybe 6 weeks, and nothing for the last two months. After discussions with Chris I went for a new Ikeda arm. Chris has mentioned it being a two week order, and it was due to be shipped from Japan 7 days ago. No sign of it yet.
Update Nov 3rd. This is like a soap opera isn' it? Today I checked with Chris. Surprise, it just arrived as I was writing. Imagine that. Better yet, if I rushed through my final payment, he could get it shipped out to me tonight. I promised to do so when I got home if he agreed to ship via Fed Ex overnight. All sounds positive for both parties. I go home to pay, confirm it, and then apparently Fed Ex forgot to pick up from Artisan so a new shipping order had to be agreed. Par for the course really, how could I imagine anything going painlessly in this deal? So, it's apparently really coming....stay tuned.
Update Nov 5th. I don't want to end anything on a bum note so let me get this part out of the way here. Chris contacts me to say he opened up the OL Conquerer package I forwarded onto him. Remember, I never opened it when it came back from the UK, I had agreed a new deal and just shipped it to Artisan in the same box I'd received from the UK one afternoon. Well, what do you know...OL had failed to pack the counterweight or anti-skating loop, or the mounting nut and washer. Naturally Chris asked if I had them. Of course, you'd hardly think a company affecting an in-warranty repair of a faulty tonearm would fail to send these on, so presumably they never had them, right? Except they did. I shipped the whole arm back the way it came to me. Oops, OL strikes again. Let's just imagine for a minute what I would be saying here if I had decided to accept the 'repaired' item and tried to install it, only to find they had failed to ship the full arm back to me. Bullet dodged, for this owner and trust me, for Origin Live. Get with it Mr Baker, your company is really not delivering the goods, despite what your friends in the UK press might say. That's it, no more from me on that company and its 'award winning' products. Proceed with caution those of you who are in the market for a tonearm.
Far more positive is the fact that I've now installed a wonderful Ikeda 407 tonearm. It arrived 3 weeks after ordering, beautifully packaged in its own wooden case as shown here.
Of course, packaging comes extra but the fit, finish, and experience of opening suggest quality from the start. Even the support material in the lid fits so closely that you are taken aback by the presentation. Even the SME V seems casually presented in comparison.
Now the instructions are another matter, especially when it comes to setting up the anti-skate mechanism, thing of beauty that is it is in its own right, but somehow, the journey remains enjoyable when you feel the solidity and admire the finish of the tonearm in all its glory.
The Ikeda CR407 comes with its own tonearm cable, a straight DIN connector on the end which makes for a snug on the Artisan Fidelity plinth. I've not tried any other cable on hand but it's early days. Am also reminded that I do have a connector that can allow me to drive the tonearm cable with a CD signal for break-in purposes (not sure where I picked that trick up but I recall reading from someone (no, not the connector manufacturer!) that the signal from a cartridge are too low to ever break the tonearm cable in properly. Might have to give that a try when I have a spare week but for now I'll let everything work as supplied.