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April 2004Clearaudio Emotion Turntable, Satisfy Tonearm and Aurum Classics Wood Phono Cartridge
by Jason Thorpe
Ill let you in on a secret: Its not all fun and games here in reviewer-land. I dont expect you to feel sorry for me, as I do reap enormous satisfaction from opening the boxes of cutting-edge products and auditioning new equipment. However, after the initial novelty of a new piece of gear wears off, I still have to listen to the product for a significant period of time and write about it. My system is pretty much where I want it to be in terms of sound quality, and this synergistic combination of components is the vehicle that I choose when I want to listen to music for pleasure. So when I insert a review component into my system, it stands to reason that its either going to sound better or worse than what it replaces. When its better, well, that's great. When its not, theres a period of months during which Id rather have my own gear back.
The component that brings these musings to the forefront is the Emotion, Clearaudios new budget turntable offering, which is sold with or without Clearaudio's Satisfy tonearm and Aurum Classics Wood cartridge (I reviewed the three-piece band).
The Emotion is a striking turntable by any standard. The plinth is manufactured from a solid piece of GS acrylic, as are the three cone footers and the 20mm-thick platter. Whereas the plinths of the more expensive turntables in Clearaudios line are polished to within an inch of their lives, the Emotions plinth has a matte, bead-blasted finish. The immediate benefit of this type of finish is that its obviously much cheaper to accomplish, and I suspect that much of the cost savings compared to Clearaudio's Champion, for instance, are realized in this way.
A more subtle advantage of this frosted finish is that it doesnt show dust or fingerprints. When I reviewed the Champion two years ago, I was absolutely smitten by its glinting, crystalline plinth. That is, until I touched it and installed the first of many forensically obvious fingerprints. Also, the physical act of cleaning a record with my carbon-fiber record brush instantly deposited a layer of very visible dust on the plinth. The Emotion suffered neither of these plights. The frosted plinth is impervious to all but the greasiest of fingerprints, and dust is next to invisible.
The motor housing is another area where Clearaudio appears to have saved some money. Although it feels quite substantial, its physically lighter than the version supplied with the Champion, and the matte surface is finished to a lower standard. Since its hidden below and behind the plinth, this isnt really an issue as far as Im concerned, except that, because its lighter, it tends to move a bit when you engage the power switch. This is somewhat problematic if, like me, you remove the rubber o-ring from the perimeter of the motor housing. This o-ring is placed there so that the motor friction-fits into the hole cut in the plinth. By removing the o-ring, some distance is gained between the plinth and the motor housing, which allows you to totally isolate the motor from the plinth. The motor has a bit of residual vibration, and I definitely preferred the sound with the motor isolated. So each time you power up the Emotion, you have to check and see if youve moved it and if the motor is making contact with the plinth.
The Satisfy tonearm is manufactured by Clearaudio, and probably saves the company (and the purchaser) some money compared to the Rega RB300 that was packaged with the Champion. Although its likely built to a price point, the Satisfy 'arm is quite sturdy and attractive. According to Clearaudio, the horizontal bearings are the same as the jewels used in watches, while the vertical ones are made from long-life ceramic. Judging by my informal tests with the weight set to 0, the Satisfys bearings are very low in friction. The armtube is aluminum, and the headshell is steel, which is press-fitted.
Clearaudio has used an interesting design for the headshell/cartridge mount, which is somewhat reminiscent of that used on the Well Tempered Turntable. It's a crosspiece thats clamped to the vestigial headshell by one hex screw. The crosspiece is drilled for the two cartridge mounts, which you can snug up nice and tight before you align the cartridge. At that point, the cartridge that is now firmly mounted to the crosspiece is free to move on two axes, which makes for an easy alignment using the supplied protractor -- which is very accurate, I might add. Although mounting the cartridge in this manner looks a bit rickety, it ended up being much more rigid than I had first imagined. On a more expensive table/arm combo Id be somewhat unsettled by this arrangement, but at the Emotions price point it seems quite sensible.
The Satisfy tonearm doesnt come with a phono cable. Instead, you attach your own interconnects to the RCA jacks in the base of the tonearm pillar. Wide audiophile RCA jacks may end up with problems clearing the bottom of the plinth, especially if youre using a taller cartridge that requires a high VTA setting. I just barely got away with using Virtual Dynamics David interconnects and the supplied Clearaudio Classic Wood cartridge, but I had to back the VTA down a tiny bit from optimum in order to get the RCAs to clear the plinth. Anti-skating is accomplished by use of a magnetic screw that acts on the bearing housing.
The Satisfy tonearm is secured into the plinth via one setscrew. This is acceptable, but only just. Again, considering the price of the whole Clearaudio setup, I have no problem with this method of coupling the tonearm to the plinth, but with only one setscrew you have to keep in mind that the post is only really coupled to the plinth in two places. Another setscrew at a 90-degree angle to the first would greatly increase rigidity and only slightly add to the cost, I imagine.
The Emotion 'table comes bundled with an Aurum Classics Wood cartridge as an option. This moving-magnet cartridge is at the bottom of Clearaudios extensive line. Specified as 3.3mV output and a total mass of 6 grams, the Aurum Classics Wood uses an aluminum cantilever. As its name implies, part of the body is in fact made of wood.
I received the Emotion unassembled, and I give credit to Clearaudio for the tables high-quality packaging, clear instructions and ease of setup. Each piece is discovered in the box as its needed, and theres a minimum of fuss involved in the assembly. I had the whole thing up and running in fewer than 30 minutes, including mounting the cartridge.
The Emotion retails for $1199 USD, or $999 without the cartridge. However, for a limited time -- while supplies last, or while the Canuck buck holds against the Euro -- we frostbitten Canadian folks get a bit of a break. The Emotion package will retail in Canada at the same $1199, which ends up being about 25% cheaper than the US price, perhaps to compensate for the snappy-cold weather we've been having this winter.
For the bulk of my time with the Emotion I used the supplied Clearaudio cartridge, which I connected to my Sonic Frontiers SFP-1 Signature phono stage. For comparison's sake I also removed the Aurum Classics Wood and replaced it with my Roksan Shiraz moving-coil cartridge. The SFP-1 fed its signal to a Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamplifier, which in turn passed information to a Musical Fidelity A300cr power amplifier. Speakers were, for the most part, Hales Transcendence Fives, although the Ascendo System Z-f3 made a guest appearance late in the review period. Cables in this system were Virtual Dynamics' David series except for the speaker cables, which were Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval. Power was fed through a Chang Lightspeed 6400 ISO power conditioner.
Whats that about a book and its cover?
To be perfectly honest, I wasnt expecting much from the Aurum Classics Wood cartridge. After all, my thinking went, How good can a $199 moving-magnet cartridge thats bundled with a budget turntable really be? I fired up the turntable with a feeling of sympathy in my heart for those audioproles who listen to equipment at such a price point due to the amount of money spent on gin and lottery tickets. I planned to listen politely for just long enough to realize that the Aurum Classics Wood is kind of coarse, as are most inexpensive moving-magnet cartridges, and then quickly swap over to my Roksan Shiraz in order to hear the best possible performance from the turntable.
So much for expectations. After a short break-in period for the whole combination, I quickly began to enjoy each record I spun in spite of my belief that a budget cartridge couldnt possibly sound good on such an inexpensive turntable.
The Emotion package has a wonderful way of portraying dynamics and slam, which you just dont expect given the price. The attack on percussion instruments, which is the function of quick start/stop and wide dynamic range, was far beyond my expectations. The Classic Records reissue of Duke Ellingtons Blues in Orbit [Classic/Columbia CS 8241] shows off this trait. Ellingtons band rarely plays full out on this album, preferring to punctuate soft passages of most of the songs with the occasional blat from the brass section. The Clearaudio combo clearly delineates these phrases from the softness of the melody, accelerating from soft to loud with aplomb. I would like to make it pointedly clear that budget turntables, and especially budget cartridges, often dont get this right.
The bass was certainly tight, clean and tuneful. It was notable for the way in which it portrayed the size and reach of instruments such as acoustic bass. At the rate Im playing it, Ill soon need a new copy of Holly Coles Temptation [Classic/Blue Note JP500 3], which consists entirely of Tom Waits songs. Most of the cuts on this album are arranged for Cole's backing piano trio, and the bass is recorded in a manner that brings that big, bulbous instrument right into the room. On "Tango 'Til Theyre Sore" the Clearaudio combo made for a rich and delicious listen, with almost no hint of its budget origin. The acoustic bass had a firm, well-delineated outline and a sense of reach into the lower registers that was completely at odds with my expectations. The Clearaudio package did slightly truncate some of the complex overtones in the bass, instead concentrating on the fundamental note. An example of this, again from Temptation, is "Invitation to the Blues," where the bass is low and droning. Via the Clearaudio turntable, the low rumble of the opening notes came through with a splendid sense of force, but some of the subtle overtones that tell you the bass is coming from a stringed instrument were missing. This is definitely not a crime in a component of the Emotion's price, but it is a sin of omission.
The bass up through the midrange was the heart and soul of the Emotion, and the firm, deep bottom-end was backed up by a sense of warmth in the midbass that accentuated acoustic bass and kick drum in a most flattering manner. A little higher up into the midrange, the good news continues. My ultimate test for any analog component is Ella Fitzgeralds voice. Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie [Classic/Verve V/V6-4053] is one of my all-time favorites, and the Emotion didnt let me down. Pretty much all of the depth that Im used to was reproduced faithfully, and the Emotion communicated the inner nuance of Ellas textured, tube-miked voice. The word that comes to mind here is accuracy -- the Emotion and the Aurum Classics Wood cartridge neither butter up the sound nor do they turn coarse through the midrange.
As youd pretty much expect, this $1199 package has its limits. The upper midrange through the lower treble could turn harsh and break up on dynamic peaks. This is a difficult area for any cartridge, and its here that the Aurum Classics Wood reveals its budget origin. On some of the more complex passages in Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie this high-frequency harshness became evident. This occurred when Ellas voice peaked, most notably on busier songs such as the title track. Mind you, it was easy to listen through this breakup, and it was nothing that I havent heard on other low-priced systems. The Aurum Classics Wood is the culprit in this instance, and although its still a good deal at its $199 price, the old adage that says you get what you pay for still applies.
The upper treble was also a bit of a mixed bag with the Aurum Classics Wood. Considering the outstanding nature of the Emotions bass and midrange, the cartridge's upper registers didnt quite hold up to the turntable's promise down below. However, this isnt necessarily a bad thing, as the Emotion packages performance far exceeds its price in every other area. Treble could end up sounding a bit clinical and hashy, and the entire region seemed somewhat elevated in level. Id noticed this trait with the Aurum Beta S mounted on the Clearaudio Champion, too. The Champion turntable doesnt sound laid-back, and neither does the Aurum Beta S cartridge. I wasnt overly stuck on the combination, far preferring the Aurum Beta S when mounted on a Rega table. I must say, though, that Im much happier listening to the Emotion with the Aurum Classics Wood than I was with the Champion fronted by the Aurum Beta S. The Emotion/Aurum Classics Wood still got the musical message across in spades.
Swapping over to my Roksan Shiraz cartridge (which retails for more than twice the price of the entire Emotion package) revealed some of the additional performance thats lurking in the Emotion/Satisfy package. The crisp, rhythmic nature of the Shiraz upped the ante and added a significant amount of sophistication and grainless detail. No, mounting the Shiraz on the Satisfy 'arm didnt turn the Clearaudio turntable into a Roksan-beater, but it did show that the Emotion/Satisfy combination holds considerable promise, and that money spent replacing the Aurum Classics Wood with a better cartridge wont be money thats wasted.
If you look back at the three previous recordings Ive used as examples, youll notice that they're Classic Records reissues. Theyre all beautifully cut and pressed, and they show off any LP-based system to its best advantage. But how about a regular pressing? Glad you asked. Nirvanas MTV Unplugged in New York [DGC 24727] certainly isnt an audiophile disc, but Ive garnered huge satisfaction from the intensity of the music and the crisp, detailed quality of the recording. The Emotion combo easily portrayed the huge acoustic of this album, and in this instance its slight high-frequency bias proved to be an advantage. On "Oh My," Curt Cobains voice was impressive in both its size and depth in space. There was no lack of ambience, and the space in which the album was recorded was clearly audible. The Emotion added a delicious bite to the backing guitars, which were kept separate and in their correct locations in space. The very subtle cymbal work also was precisely rendered in the soundstage. Wonderful!
This seems like the right place to mention that for a portion of the review period I was using the Emotion package as the front-end in a system that culminated with the $20,000+ Ascendo System Z-f3 speaker (review forthcoming). The Ascendos are incredibly revealing speakers, and Ive been playing with amplification and positioning incessantly in order to extract that last molecule of performance from them. Common sense would indicate that a $1200 source would have to be the weak link in a system of this nature, and that a pair of cost-no-object (well, as far as my budget is concerned) speakers would reveal the Emotion to be beneath consideration. Well, thats most definitely not the case. Although my Roksan rig is the better performer by a significant margin, this Clearaudio package still portrayed the music in an incredibly, well, satisfying manner.
I had originally planned to compare the Emotion/Satisfy combo to my Roksan Xerxes/Artemiz, using my Shiraz cartridge as a constant, viewing the Aurum Classics Wood as a sort of freebie thats beneath consideration as a serious contender. After listening to the full Clearaudio package, I decided that it should stand on its own three feet and bear comparison to my entire Roksan rig. Im not trying to say that the Clearaudio package sounds as good as the Roksan -- it doesn't -- but rather that a comparison is warranted by the high overall sound and build quality of this German table, 'arm and cartridge.
Where the Clearaudio is all about dynamics, snap, and excitement, the Roksan stresses the rhythmic flow and ebb of the music. Theres a real sense of vigor to the way the Clearaudio 'table portrays a soundstage, forcing the image forward and enhancing the edges of instruments. By contrast, the Roksan is more laid-back, with images slightly back from the plane of the speakers. The Roksan makes for a much more relaxing listen, but the enthusiastic Clearaudio also has its lure.
Bass-wise, these two tables couldnt be more different. The Clearaudio has bass -- big, meaty, authoritative bass that energizes a room. Unfortunately, bass on that scale isnt always called for, and in some instances instruments were portrayed as larger than they deserved to be. The Roksan, on the other hand, is subtle about the lower registers and in my opinion this is the more accurate approach. I suspect that some people may prefer the Clearaudio because of its low-frequency excitement, as its hard to believe that a component can have too much bass, right?
But its in the treble where the British table struts its stuff. This is also where the Emotion shows its budget lineage, as theres a hardening of textures, a coarseness to its highs. Changing from the Aurum Classics Wood to the Shiraz helped, but didnt entirely ameliorate the difficulties that the Clearaudio package encountered when reproducing cymbals, guitar overtones and the upper registers of female voice. This was the only overt trait that I encountered with the Clearaudio that detracted from the music. However, at no time did I find it overly objectionable, and I was consistently able to look past this problem and enjoy the record that I was listening to.
So yeah, Im holding the Clearaudio to an exceptionally high standard by comparing it to a turntable thats many times its price (over $8000 nowadays), but with good reason. For this simple budget table to hang in there in this comparison, even though its bettered significantly in one area, is an outstanding performance.
Everyone loves to be pleasantly surprised, and thats just what happened to me with the Clearaudio Emotion turntable, Satisfy tonearm, and Aurum Classics Wood cartridge. Its deep, authoritative bass and articulate midrange make for an energizing listen, and theres a real synergy between the turntable, tonearm and cartridge. Also, the Emotions elegant appearance adds some additional spice compared to many of the frumpy wood rectangles that also compete in this price range.
The Emotion as supplied with the Satisfy tonearm and Aurum Classics Wood cartridge is an analog package thats very likely to charm. If you live in Canada, youd better hustle to your local Clearaudio dealer so you can get one at the introductory price. Hurry!
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