Are we witnessing a quiet revolution in turntable design? Are we seeing significant advances in musical performance that result not from new technology or materials but from a recasting of relative priorities? Or, to put it slightly more contentious terms, has speed stability re-emerged at the top of the turntable performance heap for the first time since the LP12 read the last rights over the quartz locked, direct drive turntable? Of course, direct drive has made its own comeback in the form of the Grand Prix Audio Monaco, with other companies also pursuing the approach, but the rejuvenation of idler drive and renewed interest in multi motor systems also mine the same rich vein of musical communication. To date these evolutions have tended to be confined to the upper echelons of the market, but evidence is emerging that, if anything, they might be even more important with more affordable designs: enter Exhibit Two…
Stuart Michell’s SRM turntables* first appeared in these pages when JMH reviewed the original Arezzo model, along with the Arezzo Kinetic and Arezzo Ultra upgrade options, back in Issue 58. He was so impressed that he’s still using the Ultra version of the ‘table. Now comes the Arezzo Reference, a flagship model that whilst clearly a linear evolution of the earlier and more affordable versions, is actually an entirely separate design rather than an extension of them. Which means that the upgrade path ends with the Ultra, so the step up to the Reference involves a whole new deck. Having said that, as flagships go, the Arezzo Reference is surprisingly affordable – all the more so when you take in the material content.
* Please note that there’s no connection, familial or technological, with the long-established Michell Engineering of GyroDec fame.
Echoing the layered dissipation design of the other Arezzos, the Reference shares the basic structure of the Ultra. This involves a two-tier isolation base, with soft polymer pucks separating the layers and separating them from the outside world. On this stands a spike-decoupled plinth, supporting the motor and flywheel assembly (the latter still something of a rarity in the UK, although common in both Germany and the US). Top layer, comprises a sub-chassis again separated from the motor plinth on polymer pucks, which supports the main bearing and tonearm. In the case of the Reference, the four layers are all cut from black acrylic, adding a pleasingly sculptural quality to their curves and angled projections. Chromed metal work on the cones and discs that interface between the layers adds contrast and a subtle touch of elegance. Atop the lot sits the nicely profiled, opaque platter, machined from engineering polymer and decoupled from the main bearing shaft. The platter is instead supported by the acrylic sub-platter and located by a rubber bush around the record spindle, itself also decoupled from the bearing shaft proper. Talking of bearings, the long, standing shaft of the Reference bearing runs between widely spaced phospor-bronze bushes, sited to break up the main resonance, which is further damped by the oil bath bearing design, fully filled with a special, high-tech oil.
The almost obsessive decoupling extends further still, to encompass the tonearm. Only available in Rega mount at present (although other cuts will become available), the arm is bolted through a sandwich of Acrylic, neoprene and silicon rubber above and below the sub-chassis. This locates the tonearm by clamping it in place, but oversized holes in the sub-chassis prevent any direct contact between it and the arm or its mounting hardware, even though there’s no chance of the arm shifting. The arm-cable is carefully tied back to the sub-chassis, again to prevent any short-circuiting of the decoupling layers.
The drive system itself is closely related to the one used on the Ultra (a single square section belt driving the flywheel, with four similar belts driving the sub platter) but in this case the motor is a low-voltage synchronous design, fed from a massive external power supply. Housed in a matching acrylic case, complete with spikes and decoupling platform (of course) this is no fancy-Dan electronic supply. Instead it relies on good old-fashioned brute force, containing a pair of large toroidal transformers to isolate the motor from the worst vagaries of the AC supply. The lack of electronics also means that shifting to 45rpm necessitates lifting the platter and moving the belt onto a bigger pulley – well, I did say “old-fashioned”!
Along with all the essential parts that make up the deck, SRM also supply an assortment of different silicon rubber arm mounting rings to allow height adjustment of Rega arms, as well as fluids for cleaning the platter and the driving surfaces, and spare bearing oil. There are even comprehensive instructions – so there goes all pretence to high-end credibility…
With an RB1000 duly installed and a Dynavector DV20X mounted upfront, the Arezzo was installed atop a finite elemente HD03 rack. I also used the Lyra Skala to good effect, but there’s no escaping the exceptional value of the Arezzo/Rega/Dynavector package. But, before you get started, one word of warning: the Arezzo Reference provides no means of levelling and with so many compliant layers involved in its construction the chances of the platter and base being perfectly parallel in all planes are pretty slim. In other words, levelling the supporting surface isn’t good enough: you need to use the adjustments available to the shelf or rack to level the platter. No big deal, but it is easy to assume that getting the shelf level is good enough. It isn’t – and in turn, this ‘table is easily good enough to tell you that.
So, after that lengthy preamble, how does it sound? In a word, ‘confident’. JMH was wowed (if you’ll forgive the terminology) by the other Arezzos’ speed stability and the Reference is no different. I can’t say, without having the junior versions here, whether the flagship is superior in this regard, although the power supply and platter in combination with the same drive system would suggest that it should be, but one thing is clear: this ‘table possesses a rock-like stability and unflappable mastery of the time domain that sets it apart from all but the most accomplished competition.
How does this quality manifest itself? Firstly, in the sheer stability of the musical picture. This may not be as immediately apparent with a multi-mic’d, studio recording as it is with a minimalist, acoustic one, but it is no less important. The ability of the system to hold instruments and voices really stable in space is key to both the sense of musical presence but also the ease with which we listen and relax. Machines (both turntables and most CD players) that allow the musical picture to shift or shimmer microscopically undermine our suspension of disbelief. It’s yet another clue to our brain that it’s hearing a recording rather than the real thing. Of course, our brain can hear past this effect, but remove the need and it’s rather like switching off our error correction. It might be subtle but it is also pervasive, and if you can remove it, listening becomes much more relaxed and the musical performance more involving and convincing. It’s exactly this trick that the SRM Reference achieves.
The second aspect to this more convincing performance is the placement and spacing of notes, which is both more natural and far easier to decipher. The shape and accenting of melodic lines becomes much clearer, the inter-relationship between the musicians much more apparent; it’s simply more obvious why a note is where it is and how it is. The result is that musical tempi are much freer and less forced, the thumbprint of mechanical reproduction reduced from a greasy smear to an almost invisible texture. Like the absence of shimmer in the image, this is far more apparent once you’ve heard it removed – evidence of just how adaptable our perception is. But live without this intrusive effect for even a short while and its influence will become all too obvious as soon as it is reintroduced.
I was so intrigued by the SRM’s advances in these important respects that I conducted a few LP versus CD comparisons, using the superb Wadia 781. But as good as the digital player is (and it’s very good indeed) there’s no escaping the fact that the turntable consistently generates a more natural perspective and an easier, more fluid and graceful sense of musical line. The images themselves are more dimensional and much better defined in terms of height. The easy swing that makes "Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me" (This One’s For Blanton) escapes all but the best systems, reducing the track to a tedious, clash of ponderous bass notes and glassy, strident piano chords. But the SRM captures the loping stride of Ray Brown’s phrasing, the stabbed interjections of the Duke’s rhythmic accents, the elasticity of his longer phrases with a complete absence of apparent effort or drama. This is how it is, this is how it should be, seems to be the message – a musical message that’ll have you playing through whole sides instead of just the track you thought you’d try. Indeed, whether it’s the underlying sense behind a vocal (the very different demeanours of Lloyd Cole, Leonard Cohen or Robert Smith – miserablists all, but each in their own distinct way) or the stylistic variation between instrumentalists (Heifetz, Perlman and Marty for instance) the SRM lays these musical differences bare.
One other thing underpins its fluid, rhythmic performance and natural sense of instrumental weight; the even energy spectrum from bottom to top. There are no bands of emphasis, thickening or subtle thinning on show here. While a little extra heft down below can add a sense of weight or power, a leaner mid can add a sense of transparency and focus, the Reference is pleasingly devoid of undue emphasis, instead deriving definition and drama from the recording itself. If it has a character (and what doesn’t) then it’s a slight tonal lightness that increases its deft sense of musical agility. It does not go as deep and is not as texturally explicit at the lowest frequencies as the likes of the Grand Prix or the Kuzma XL4. However, while this is consistent across cartridges, I haven’t been able to remove the RB1000 from the equation so this might be more to do with the arm than the ‘table. Certainly, the notion of mounting the JMW on the SRM is tantalizing indeed…
As it stands, the SRM deck delivers an engaging and incredibly informative musical performance. It’s quick and dynamic without being obvious, unobtrusive yet capable and unflappable. Above all it offers a level of musical insight and involvement, together with a visual elegance that I thought was well beyond ‘tables in this price range. Neat, petite and sonically discrete, this is one player that can deliver both musical and domestic harmony in equal measure – and that alone sets it apart from the crowd.
An unqualified recommendation then? Oh yes – but for one little caveat. Waiting in the wings is Exhibit One: the VPI Classic, a turntable of similar price that also shows similar concerns, even if its approach is diametrically opposed to that of the SRM (so much so that if you love one you’ll almost certainly turn your nose up at the other). The comparison is fascinating – but alas, will have to wait for the next issue, where I’ll also place these two giant killers in the context of the much more expensive decks out there.
SRM Arezzo Reference Turntable
Type: Belt driven turntable with integral fly-wheel
Speeds: 33 and 45 (manually adjusted)
Motor: AC synchronous
Lid: Yes, free standing
Dimensions (WxDxH): Turntable: 438x390x125mm
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