Our deck came supplied with the new Helena arm. A 10” version of the 12” Black Beauty unipivot tonearm (also designed and built by Andre Theriault of Montreal), it’s an arm within an arm, with wood fairings between the inner and outer carbon-fibre arm tubes. Louis Desjardins is convinced this arm tube design is virtually indestructible, and given he has a habit of whacking one against the architrave of a nearby door at full force, leaving a tonearm-shaped imprint on that door frame in the process, he’s probably right. Regardless, it’s extremely light, extremely rigid, and critically damped… the Holy Trinity of tonearm goodness.
Like the Black Beauty, the Helena is also an inverted unipivot (actually I think it’s a ‘non-inverted unipivot’ as opposed to most unipivot designs), using a large ball bearing on the armtube and a large oil-filled metal cup on the arm base. The counterweight (also doubling as the azimuth adjustment) is underslung, in the manner of Vertere and the Michell Technoweight). It connects to the outside world using a top-mounted twisted quartet of lead-out wires, which mount to a terminal block on the base of the Sparta. This makes it essentially a one-deck arm and there appear to be no plans to supply the arm for other turntables. Anti-skate is not needed because the arm’s pivot point is on the same horizontal plane as the groove/stylus contact point, thereby removing vertical leverage: why add an unnecessary oscillating system?
Moving away from Kronos-based products, we used this with a vdH Crimson XGW cartridge moving coil cartridge into the award-winning Pass Labs XP25 two-box phono stage to complete the vinyl playing front end of the system. This ended up being one of those perfectly balanced systems, with the energetic and exuberant way the Crimson cartridge pulls information off the disc being in perfect step with the harmonic structure the Pass Labs bestows to the RIAA equalisation process. In effect, this combination (aided by Dr. vdH’s obsessive attention to detail, itemising every parameter of that particular ‘Stradivarius’ cartridge, and the XP25’s ability to attend to those parameters perfectly from its front panel) dials out any upsets in the phono replay chain, and anything getting in the way comes down to the turntable and arm.
This honesty of cartridge and phono stage could be a death sentence for the reputation of some turntables, exposing upper-mid blooms here and ringing top ends there. But not the Sparta 0.5 and especially not the Sparta. The latter took everything thrown at the turntable in its stride. Let’s dispense with the well-recorded, neatly manicured LPs that form audiophile listening tests – it does supremely well with these – but let’s be honest: Cantate Domino [Proprius] has been used to sell record players for decades because it sounds great on almost anything. Contrast this LP with Main Offender, Keith Richards’ solo project from 1992 [Virgin]; a very well-recorded album, but one cut to give a very live feel. As a consequence, it’s a trade-off between the rim-shots of Steve Jordan’s drumming and the almost ‘back of the studio’ vague sound of the backing vocals. It teeters on a number of edges: too bright and the percussion swamps the recording; too dark and the vocals begin to sound like everyone has a heavy cold (and Richards sounds more ‘medicated’ than usual); too rhythmically imprecise and it sounds like a rehearsal.
Main Offender is an album that gives no quarter to the audio signal chain. But get it right and the whole thing comes together brilliantly, and it makes you realise that ‘Keef’ is more than just a caricature of a drug-addled guitarist. He can pen a good tune, and controls a surprisingly tight band using just those five strings (he famously never uses a low E string). You’ll never know that with turntables that are simply ‘good’ or ‘great’ – it will all sound a bit of a cacophony and a mess. Kronos is beyond that. The Sparta 0.5 untangles the sound-knot of the track ‘Bodytalk’ well, without sacrificing the music or the information. But the Sparta itself teases out a surprising amount over and above that. It makes it ‘real’. There is also a distinct by-product that this album highlights – Sparta allows you more scope to turn the music up. Once again, this comes down to the hidden good recording within; it can easily sound thin and compressed just like most Rolling Stones recordings, which gives Main Offender a very precise volume ceiling – play it too loud and it quickly becomes aggressive it seems. However, this is a mark of how good the Sparta 0.5 is and how the twin-tub Sparta improves on the basic performance of the single platter – you can play an LP loud on the 0.5 and really, really loud on the full-fat Sparta. The recording delivers more headroom through the 0.5, and then still more as you upgrade.
The Sparta isolates the LP from the rest of the world. I know this is seemingly the goal of every turntable maker from the dawn of time, but the Sparta follows the Kronos in actually delivering the goods. The only vibrations here seem to be from the groove itself. The Sparta 0.5 retains a tiny amount of mechanical vibration inherent in most vinyl replay systems, which comes across as almost a smearing of bass notes that you can just about detect on ‘The Word Girl’ by Scritti Pollitti [Cupid and Psyche ’85, Virgin]. But you can only notice this when hearing what the full Sparta is not doing and working back, so used are we to this sound from LP. Even the exceptional The New York Scene from the Marty Paich Big Band [Discovery] shows this – and that is a true audiophile record. Through the standard 0.5, this album has pace and dynamic range aplenty, but there is a touch of blurring of the horn section when the band is at full tilt. This is what I’ve come to expect from the record, because you heard that on everything this side of an old Voyd Reference. The full Sparta just sweeps that away, and all that’s left is the vinyl.
When I played the Kronos, I felt it was like the best of all decks with none of the downsides. In fairness, that the full counter-rotating system is permanently in place on the big deck meant it’s hard to process what is going on and what the Kronos was getting so right. The step from Sparta 0.5 to Sparta explains this perfectly. What you are getting is convergence: the lack of resonance, vibration, or anything from the full Sparta sets this deck apart from the rest, and the result is simply full vinyl disclosure. You might spend two hours or more stripping back the 0.5, adding the extra platter, rebuilding it, getting the two belts in place (perhaps the most fiddly part of the whole process) and getting the speed of the counter-rotating platters in sync… and then know it was money well spent within two bars of music for that reason.