I recently posted to AnalogPlanet.com’s YouTube channel a video that compares VPI’s Prime turntable and JMW 3D-printed tonearm ($3995) with Continuum Audio Labs’ Caliburn turntable (ca $150,000 with arm and stand, discontinued) fitted with the Swedish Analog Technologies arm ($28,000). Both played “Braziljah,” a snazzy track from the New Zion Trio’s latest album, Sunshine Seas (LP, RareNoise RNR065LP), featuring guest Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista.
The Prime was fitted with a Lyra Helikon SL cartridge (ca $2500, discontinued), driving a reasonably priced phono preamplifier: the Audio Alchemy PPA-1 ($1795, currently under review for AnalogPlanet). Accompanying the Continuum Caliburn and SAT arm were Audio-Technica’s AT-ART1000 cartridge ($5000), and Ypsilon’s MC-16L step-up transformer ($6200) and VPS-100 Silver phono preamplifier ($65,000)total cost, more than I paid for my first house, in 1992.
In terms of the great disparities in cost and sound quality, the comparison was absurd. My point was to show how much good sound could be gotten from a high-performance turntable at a relatively modest price. But even through YouTube’s audio compression, it was clear to all that the big rig sounded far bettersome commenters were astonishedbut also that the Prime system produced really sweet, very pleasing sound.
However, one YouTube commenter insisted that, had the same cartridge been used in both tonearms, the easily audible sonic differences would have evaporated. How do you argue with someone so dogmatic?
Easy! A while back, I posted on YouTube a video of the Andrew Hill tune “Laverne,” from jazz pianist Frank Kimbrough’s Meantime (Newvelle NV 001LP), played on the Kuzma combo of Stabi M turntable and 4Point 14″ tonearm (footnote 1) with the Lyra Atlas cartridge, driving Audio Tekne’s very rich-sounding TEA-8695 PCS tubed phono preamp (footnote 2). More recently, I posted another video of the same cut, this time played with Acoustic Signature’s Ascona Mk.2 turntable and TA-9000 tonearm, fitted with the same Lyra Atlas. I used the Ypsilon electronics because the Audio Tekne had been returned to the manufacturer, yet comparing the two recordings clearly indicates that the newer video has sound that’s richer and fuller in the midrange. This didn’t at all surprise methe Kuzma combo of Stabi M turntable and 4Point arm was noticeably lean in the midrange, and sounded so even with the lush Audio Tekne phono preamp.
On the other hand, the Kuzma combo had a tightly focused, well-extended bottom-end response, most of which survived its trip through the Audio Tekne’s lushness, while the Acoustic Signature combo made the bottom end more lean and somewhat softer, even though it had the benefit of the Ypsilon’s far punchier bottom end. Turntablesand, of course, tonearmsdo “sound”!
Acoustic Signature Ascona Mk.2 turntable
Acoustic Signature’s Ascona Mk.2 turntable ($32,995, footnote 3), which is exquisitely machined from aluminum, is massive yet surprisingly compact. Ingeniously designed by Gunther Frohnhöfer, its tasteful bling also makes it one of today’s more visually attractive platter spinners.
The Ascona’s unique design features a main chassis in the shape of an equilateral triangle, near each apex of which is a European-made AC synchronous motor encased in its own aluminum pedestal, and driven by a digitally derived signal from Acoustic Signature’s new AlphaDIG motor-drive electronics, which the company describes as “State of the Art.”
Three massive, circular receptacles attached to the top of the lower chassis accept the upper chassis’ three domed, cylindrical threaded brass feet, each having a cross-piece that fits into a slot machined into the lower-chassis receptacle. This locks the feet in place so that the upper chassis can be leveled by turning the knob at each apex. Ingenious and well thought out.
The upper chassis holds Acoustic Signature’s signature hand-tuned, low-clearance bearing, with sintered bronze sleevessaid to be self-lubricatingand a Tidorfolon thrust plate. Between the bottom of the hardened-steel bearing shaft and the Tidorfolon plate is a tungsten-carbide ball.
The rim of the large-diameter, one-piece aluminum subplatter comes within a few millimeters of each of the three motor pulleys. An elastomer drive belt loops around the rim and pulleys to produce a large contact areaand enough torque to get the Ascona Mk.2’s massive platter (its weight is not specified) up to speed relatively quickly. The subplatter’s shape incorporates an unusually tall and wide cone, precision-machined to mate with the platter, which is fabricated from what Acoustic Signature describes as a soft alloy, its lower surface coated with a resonance-damping material. The sturdy design and execution of the Ascona Mk.2 is a showcase of machining excellence.
LR: The underside of the Ascona’s upper chassis; outer and inner armtubes for the TA-9000; the Ascona’s lower chassis.
Thirty small brass cylinders, called Silencers, are arrayed around the 13.8″ platter’s lower periphery; these plus 24 larger Silencers embedded in the platter’s record-bearing surface are claimed to eliminate airborne and coupled acoustic energy from the LP being played. The Silencers protrude slightly from the platter surface. Acoustic Signature supplies a thin mat made of a rubbery/leathery material, with holes cut in it that match the tops of the Silencers, though the result is still not a flat surface. According to AS’s importer, Fidelis Music Systems, this arrangement produces the most neutral tonal balance, but I don’t understand the rationale for itI think a tight coupling of record to mat to platter is always a good idea.
The ‘table can accommodate up to three tonearms on thick aluminum mounting plates that slide in and out of slots in the chassis, to set the pivot-to-spindle distance; those plates are then locked in place by tightening pairs of bolts. Accessing the bolts to loosen, slide, and tighten them requires sliding the Ascona to the edge of the surface on which it’s installed. It’s not the most convenient system, but it’s eminently doable.
Despite its relatively small dimensions of 26.5″ (673mm) wide × 8.4″ (214mm) high × 19.3″ (489mm) deep, the Ascona Mk.2 weighs an incredible 176lb (79.8kg)! But thanks to its modular design, hoisting its various parts atop my HRS stand proved not at all difficult. The $32,995 price, while high, seems reasonable, given the build quality. This is a substantial turntable, and its design intricacies and machining set the bar high.
For an additional $4995, you can add an all-new, three-layer Invictus platter made of a sandwich of aluminum and brass, also incorporating a total of 54 Silencers. This platter comes standard on Acoustic Signature’s flagship turntable, the six-motor Invictus ($150,000). Acoustic Signature’s position is that if you’re spending $32,995 on a turntable, you can easily spend another $4995 for the better platter. One was supplied for this review.
Acoustic Signature TA-9000 tonearm
Acoustic Signature’s top tonearm model is available in lengths of 9″ or 12″; I chose the 9″ version of this very handsome design ($17,995). The arm pivots, horizontally and vertically, on preloaded precision ball bearings produced in the US by Timken and adjusted in-house by a bearing specialist.
Much of the arm’s cost is due to its innovative armtube. Gunther Frohnhöfer claims that you can go “stiff and light” with carbon fiber, with the disadvantage of undamped resonances within the audioband, or opt for die-cast aluminum or magnesium tubes, which are relatively stiff, but heavy and also not well damped. Frohnhöfer’s solution to the problem of producing a lightweight, extremely stiff, well-damped armtube was to use two concentric aluminum tubes, both with conical exteriors. The tubes are bound together with more than 700 branch-like connecting pads, arranged in a spiral around the inner tubean incredibly complex construction.
The relationship between the inner and outer tubes of the TA-9000
Vertical tracking angle (VTA) and stylus rake angle (SRA) are adjustable on a very rudimentary level: loosen a clamping screw in the arm base and, unless you hold it up, the arm pillar drops; you can raise or lower the pillar by hand, then hold it in place as you retighten the screw. You can use a ruler to determine a reference height and work from there, or use a marking pen to put lines on the post, but for $17,995 you might expect an arrangement something like the one used in SME’s V or the SAT arm, which supports the arm with a vertical screw that can be turned to raise or lower the arm before tightening the clamping screw. The headshell can be rotated for azimuth adjustment by loosening and retightening its own clamping screw.
Other features include: compatibility with SME arm mounts; continuous, pure silver internal wiring terminated with a straight, five-pin DIN connector; and a threaded counterweight stub and brass counterweight. The review sample came with an AudioQuest DIN-to-RCA phono cable.
Footnote 1: See my review of the Kuzmas in the November 2016 “Analog Corner.”
Footnote 2: See my review of the Audio Tekne in the November 2016 “Analog Corner.”
Footnote 3: Acoustic Signature, AS-Distribution GmbH, Ulmer Strasse 123, D-73037 Göppingen, Germany. Tel: (49) (0)7161-3898135. Fax: (49) (0)7161-3898137. Web: www.acoustic-signature.com. US distributor: Fidelis Music Systems, 460 Amherst Street (Route 101A), Nashua, NH 03063. Tel: (603) 880-4434. Fax: (603) 880-4433. Web: www.fidelisav.com
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