Townshend Audio Rock V Record Player (Hi-Fi+)

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Townshend Audio Rock V
Townshend Audio Rock V Record Player (Hi-Fi+)

Considering the apparent simplicity of playing a record and the sheer scope it offers when it comes to innovation and Heath-Robinson engineering, it’s remarkable how few new ideas have really stayed the course. Linear tracking tonearms remain, as do direct drive motors (recently enjoying a resurgence), but it’s remarkable just how many new record players represent a refinement or amalgamation of older thinking. Even the once omnipotent suspended sub-chassis seems to have had its day. Perhaps it reflects the fact that the engineering was indeed all too Heath- Robinson, a fact readily revealed by a problem that demands a pure engineering solution. Or perhaps it is the result of a lack of global thinking, in the sense that too many products offered solutions to a single problem rather than reflecting the all embracing and conflicting nature of the challenges. However, there are two obvious exceptions to this rule, and both attract small but vociferous and dedicated followings. One is Bill Firebaugh’s Well Tempered Arm and ‘Table, in all its various iterations. The other is the Rock…

Of course, the Rock isn’t a single turntable, just as there are various Well Tempered designs. Indeed, the various Rocks differ in almost as many ways as they possibly can, from solid plinth to suspended designs, universal motor units to integrated record players. But the one thing they all have in common, the thing that divides opinion into the pro and anti lobbies and in many respects, the thing that dominates the nature of their performance and musical presentation, is the front-end damping trough. That variation in design tells its own story: for every engineering challenge represented by a turntable or tonearm, there’s more than one solution – save one. Critical damping of the tonearm/cartridge resonance can only be achieved by applying that damping as close as possible to the source of energy, and that means the stylus record interface. That in turn dictates some form of front-end damping arrangement and nothing yet has superceded the fluid filled trough. “But why the fuss?” I hear you ask. After all, there’s plenty of wellregarded tonearms that use minimal damping applied at the pivot or no damping at all.

Interesting to note then, that that other great turntable innovator, Bill Firebaugh damped his entire tonearm tube with sand and effectively immersed the main bearings in a silicon-oil damping well. For controlling resonance in the pickup arm is one of the great, unsolved conundrums of record replay.

Look at it this way. Move the stylus and that movement is detected by the magnetic circuit contained in the cartridge body and thus produced as signal. But that signal depends on the movement of the coil relative to the stationary magnet (or vice versa in a moving magnet cartridge) so an accurate transcription depends on holding that magnet stable. But as the stylus is moved sideways by the record groove modulations, it will tend to drag the cartridge and tonearm in the same direction, creating inaccuracy in the signal: This is why designers refer to the closed loop between platter, arm and cartridge and place such emphasis on the rigidity of their arm bearings. And yet, herein lies the biggest conundrum of all.

The arm must dissipate mechanical energy that would otherwise move it in sympathy with the stylus and it must do so without creating dominant resonant peaks that would themselves be read as signal. Yet at the same time, it must allow the cartridge and stylus assembly the freedom to read microscopic variations in a groove and trace those grooves across the surface of the record, making lateral or vertical friction absolute killers when it comes to accurate reproduction.

You can tackle these issues in a number of ways involving the structure of the arm and its physical arrangements, moving potentially harmful resonance outside the audible band, damping the structure of the arm itself. But the fact that the Rock sounds so different to other turntables tells its own story.

The Rock solution is to place a fluid-damping trough right next to the cartridge, allowing slow, gradual movement, but resisting faster or more sudden deflections. At the same time it effectively offers a far shorter route to close the mechanical loop between platter and cartridge. You just need to remember that damping one end of the arm will encourage the other end to flap about, so you can’t afford to skimp on the bearings there, even if the frontend damping carries some of their load. Once you’ve engineered the practicalities of the design (allowing the trough to move for placing and replacing records, fixing the arm’s arc of travel and thus effective length) the rest of the deck can rely on established engineering principles. As I’ve already suggested, these have varied over the years, dictated by price and technology as much as anything else. However, to real understand the Rock V, we need to look at the stillborn Mark IV, or Rock Reference Master.

The Reference Master record player was vastly complex and so expensive to build that it was never to be a commercial reality, only one ever seeing the light of day. The Rock V takes much of the engineering and thinking involved in the IV project and recasts it in a more practical and realizable shape. So, gone is the three speed electronic power supply with fine pitch control; gone is the electronic adjustment of VTA and the motorized arm base that compensated automatically for tracking error – although these features, or facilities quite like them will feature as future options on the Rock V. However, core aspects and principles have been preserved through a novel and to some no doubt, shocking use of lateral thinking.

The logic goes like this: a turntable is a precision engineering product and what makes it expensive is the precision required and the you increase numbers. If you increase numbers a lot, then you’ll slash those costs, so why not cannibalize key parts from the World’s most successful and reliably engineered budget turntable, the Rega? And that’s exactly what Townshend have done. Look at the arm and you’ll notice that the bearings, base, arm-rest, arm-lift and bias arrangements are all taken directly from a Rega RB300, duly sandwiched between a new armtube and counterweight arrangement. Less obvious is that the motor pulley, sub-platter and main bearing as well as the glass disc that forms the basis of the main platter are also culled directly from Rega parts. By doing so, Townshend are able to rely on Rega’s engineering consistency and selection processes, where thousands of parts are matched to meet precise tolerances, to deliver parts at a price and quality that they could never achieve independently. Those savings can in turn be invested in other aspects of the design, to whit, the plinth, suspension, damping trough and tonearm parts.

The deck itself is a three-point suspended design, using a powder coated plated steel sub-chassis filled with cast plaster-of-paris sitting on small number of parts produced. But, whilst you can ill afford to reduce the precision or widen the tolerances, you can reduce costs if three coil-springs. Each spring is enclosed in a rubber bellows (or shock boot in cycling parlance) that is pierced by a small hole. Move the spring and you alter the internal pressure of the bellows, which thus resists movement until the air pressure equalizes, the rate of equalization defined by the size of the hole. It’s a form of damping much used where weight is an issue, so you find it on high-performance motorcycles and mountain bikes. Indeed, anybody who rides such a vehicle will instantly recognise the slight wheezing that accompanies violent displacement of the Rock V’s sub-chassis. The main plinth is also stainless-steel, chosen for its longevity, while three turned bosses provide parking points (left and right) for the record clamp and a drip tray for any escaping fluid from the parked arm’s damping wand, to prevent cosmetic marring of the shiny surface. Aluminium plates front and back dress and further damp the plinth, which sits on a 6mm thick steel base and four feet.

In the open area around the subplatter, rotating steel wedges allow users to disable the suspension for transit, although levelling beyond the factory setting depends on tweaking the spring mounts from below. The platter simply sits on the plastic moulding of the sub-platter, and consists of a Rega glass platter sandwiching a 4mm thick disk of damping compound bonded to a thick slab of white vinyl. The record spindle is threaded to take the small clamp, while the central boss can be wound up and down to vary the clamping action or even act as a record centre for 45s. The trough arrangement should be familiar, but has been reengineered. Height can be varied to accommodate different cartridges and it locks in place across the record using the front mounted cam lever. It feels reassuringly solid in use –which is just as well given the amount of silicon fluid it contains, poised just above your fragile record grooves. The arm design grafts a doublebarrelled front tube reminiscent of a Triplanar, onto the Rega bearing housing, secured via a pin and single bolt threading into what was the Rega arm-tube. The cradle arrangement that clamps the upper tube allows adjustment of overhang and azimuth. The headshell meets the tube on a shallow slant in established Excalibur style, and supports the magnesium spaceframe that carries the damping wand The arm-tube itself is additionally damped by a plastic sleeve. This structure allows the horizontal bearings to be positioned ideally in the plane of the record, while a plug on the arm cable that exits the upper tube enables the forward section to be exchanged complete with cartridge, although this is not a particularly simple or quick exercise. The twin counterweights are hung from a machined yoke, their small dimensions keeping them close to the pivot point, optimally positioned relative to the arm-tubes and out of the way when cueing. The result is rather striking (in a bits and pieces, 50’s science fiction sort of way) if not actually particularly elegant. It also incorporates Rega’s dynamic balancing tracking force adjustment and bias arrangement, both of which are well engineered solutions but whose scales are notoriously inaccurate – around 10% and 30% respectively on the review sample. Proper set-up using an accurate set of scales is essential. VTA is adjusted using a simple grub-screw through the side of the arm collar, reached via a groove in the white vinyl arm-board. Actually playing a record adds swinging the trough into place to the whole procedure, but it’s remarkable how natural this quickly becomes. It also allows you to listen with and without front-end damping: suffice to say, it’s a salutary demonstration and one which once undertaken will have you using the trough every time you play a record, which helps explain why most of the Rock turntables ever sold are still in use today, and any that crop up on the secondhand market are snapped up, often for more than their originally asking price.

Music played on the Rock V is characterized by its incredibly low noise floor and a sense of calm stability. The carefully sculpted phrases and heavily shaped notes of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’, their stretched and contorted length laid over the chuggy insistence of that infectious bass line thrive on the ‘table’s easy, unforced sense of space and timing. The measured pace of the track and the slow, elongated delivery of the vocals can easily lag if they’re allowed to, but the lock-step quality of the Rock’s low-frequencies keeps the rhythmic momentum and signature clear and precise, perfect foundation for the beautifully resolved reverb and effortlessly separated backing harmonies. It’s no one-pace wonder either. ‘Heart Shaped World’ runs it through the gears, its rhythmic hesitations and changes of pace, together with its fast-fingered, undulating bass line demonstrates the sure-footed solidity this deck instils in music’s nether regions. Even the life and energy of the kick-step tempo of ‘Heart Full Of Soul’ is encompassed with ease. If you are worried that “damped” means “dead” – don’t be. The uncluttered transparency of the Rock V’s lower registers keeps things clear and perfectly placed, its low noise floor delivering the dynamic goods, both in terms of nuance and absolute dynamic range.

allowing you to concentrate on the performers. It’s a quality that’s especially apparent on less than wonderful recordings, where the deck’s poise and control seem to iron out some of the disc’s worst excesses without stamping on the music. Playing a recent repressing of Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush, a record marred by splashy upper-mids that infect the singer’s nasal drawl, the Rock cleans up the hash and renders Young’s voice both more pleasant and more accurate, a neat trick indeed if you can do it…

Much of the listening was conducted with the Wilson Duette/ WATCH Dog combination reviewed elsewhere in this issue, both with and without the sub. It was an interesting match, as it underlined the extent to which the cleanliness of the turntable’s lower register opened out the Duette’s Okay, so we’ve dealt with that: There’s nothing slow or lifeless about the Rock’s reproduction. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. There’s a naturalness to recordings that is quite uncanny and which seems to push the system into the background, placement, the shape and duration of notes as well as their harmonic structure in much the same way as the sub-woofer does. Likewise, the stability of the platform provided by the tonearm allowed the Lyra Skala to deliver greater resolution and detail to go along with its customary presence and dynamic contrast. This was never more apparent than in the flourishes and decaying arpeggios so often used by acoustic guitarists to close a song. The turntable’s grasp of each note’s tail, its shape and duration, the growing space between it and the leading edge of the next note, was held with such poise and delicately textured definition that it becomes a tiny, poignant microcosm in itself, with its own accent and emotional slant, the perfect parting shot; just as it should be.

This ability to separate and preserve micro-dynamic information and the temporal terrain of the music translates just as effectively to largescale works. The Reiner/Chicago Lt. Kije is reproduced with a beautifully tangible acoustic and a stability to the placement of instruments that escapes all but the best (and often the heaviest) ‘tables. Individual separation and tonality is again superb, as is the portrayal of Reiner’s masterful control over pace and tempo. The orchestral climaxes are kept in rein, never tumbling out of the speakers or stepping forward in the stage, although here the more fulsome lower end of a deck like the TNT delivers a greater sense of physical presence and explosive power. That’s a call you’ll need to make for yourself, trading definition and separation against the sheer gusto that comes with the VPI. Likewise, although there’s plenty of air around instruments the Rock has less obvious high frequency energy than other ‘tables. In part that’s a function of the cleanliness it brings to upper registers, rather like the apparently subdued performance of a diamond tweeter. But there’s also a lack of extension and resolution of absolute detail, especially when it comes to the shimmer and rattle of beaded cymbals, the crisp snap of wood blocks or the upper harmonics of violin. I’d point a finger at the Rega bearing assembly and arm-base, having heard a similar loss of detail with Rega’s own arms, but that is just supposition on my part. The loss is subtle enough to be pleasant rather than debilitating and again contributes to the Rock’s forgiving way with less than perfect discs. Considering that the Rock V is very much a work in progress, the musical results are extremely impressive as well as artistically beguiling. There’s no missing the natural, unforced quality or easy pace and separation, sweetened top and solid bass that this ‘table delivers. It’s a sound I could easily grow to love and a sense of poise and unexaggerated clarity that I’ll miss when it goes. So why not install it on a permanent basis? The lack of real interchangability in the arm (meaning no mono replay), the lack of interchangability of arms full stop, and the lack of VTA adjustment on the fly are all issues for me. The lack of a lid – given the amount of silicon fluid around – is also a problem (albeit shortly to be solved) and I’d like to see a more sophisticated power supply. Most of these things are possible future options, especially the VTA adjustment and external power supply. Until they arrive however, the Rock V is remarkable to me for the performance it achieves without these refinements. This early sample also lacks the levels of fit and finish that you get with more expensive and longer established designs, but then, they don’t have a trough and once you’ve heard what a trough can do, you might just become addicted too. That’s when concerns about the way a product looks recede into the background (besides which the latest units are far prettier than this early, well travelled sample). Because one thing’s for sure: the engineering basis that’s under-pinned every single Rock design is alive and kicking in the V – and so is the music it plays.

Trough Line… The early development and family history of the Rock project

The collection of (in some cases revolutionary) ideas that were to combine in the creation of the original Cranfield Rock turntable emerged under the tutelage of Jack Dinsdale, already the creator of the first output transformerless solid-state amplifier and a well-received range of horn loaded loudspeaker designs. But it was in his role as head of the Department for the Design of Machine Systems at the Cranfield Institute of Technology that he guided the development of what was to become the Rock. As part of their Masters thesis, each student on his graduate teaching course had to complete a six-month project. Earlier work at CUPE (Cranfield Unit for Precision Engineering) had produced a novel, zero-contact fluid bearing (subsequently licensed but never used by Garrard) and a synthetic mineral material, Granitan S100, both of which lent themselves to the design of a high-quality record player. With Dinsdale’s proven interest in audio reproduction, it was a natural step to encourage students to pursue this path.

In 1977-78, one student, John Hardwick extended the scope of the project by moving into the area of tonearm design and resonance. His work concentrated on creating a system to effectively damp the mechanical resonance established through the playing of a vinyl record. Dissatisfied with the mechanical disadvantages of traditional damping systems set near the arm’s pivot, the obvious route was to damp the tonearm’s movement as near to the stylus/ record interface as possible. Thus was born the (in)famous trough, defining aspect of each and every Rock turntable. But it wasn’t until the following year that another student, Michael Clayforth-Carr undertook the construction of a prototype plinth, constructed from laminated layers of chipboard and aluminium, to combine the bearing design with a simple belt driven platter and a frontend damping trough. It was this model that attracted the attention of Max Townshend, who promptly offered to sponsor further development work.

This became the province of yet another student, John Bugge, and it was he who created the first Granitan plinth, and refined the drive system, trough and tonearm design, the latter concentrating all the forces acting on the arm along with its centre of gravity at a single point and in the plane of the record. It was this design that was widely demonstrated to the public and was to evolve into the first commercial product, the Elite Cranfield Rock, released in 1982. Sadly, with the incorporation of a complex fluid damped suspension along with the other developments (save the fluid bearing, which was never released by Garrard or used in a commercial record player design) the deck proved too costly and time consuming to produce and Bugge’s manufacturing company was wound up in 1983, having only produced some 250 ‘tables. Development now passed to Max’s Elite Gramophone company, and the first commercially viable designs soon followed. The Rock Mk II, launched in 1984, was a massively simplified version based on a solid, plaster filled plinth and platter (a poor man’s equivalent to Granitan), a simple belt drive and of course, the trademark trough. A precision inverted bearing was employed while “suspension” was handled by a quartet of Sorbothane blobs. Available with the Bugge designed Excalibur arm from the Cranfield Rock, it was also offered as a motor unit with a headshell-mounted outrigger to support the damping paddle. Later, a wooden picture frame outer plinth was created to soften the rather utilitarian looks and support a plastic lid. Despite the almost brutal simplicity of the design, it was the Mk II that firmly established the Rock and the concept of front-end damping in the hearts and minds of the record playing public. And whilst even its father struggles to describe it as beautiful, it was affordable and undeniably effective. Used with the just launched Rega RB300 arm the combination became a veritable giant killer, appealing to those who wanted nothing more than to drive a wedge into the first cracks then appearing in the LP12 edifice; 3890 wedges to be exact. But this was also the period when industrial design really gained its first toehold in the world of hi-fi, and soon products like the Arcam Alpha, Cyrus 1 and Musical Fidelity A1 were showing that affordability and superior aesthetics needn’t be mutually exclusive. The Mk II’s functional exterior and prosaic standards of finish were quickly becoming unacceptable, resulting in the emergence of a cheaper but prettier budget model, the Avalon, based on less labour intensive production techniques and materials and retaining only the trough from the original Cranfield design. Launched in 1988 it wasn’t a huge success, but aesthetically it paved the way for arguable the most accomplished Rock design to date, the Reference launched in 1989.

table, imposingly black in appearance, once again returned to the precision engineered roots of the original design. The massive composite platter involved PVC, machined aluminium, lead, damping materials and plaster: It was belt driven from an electronically controlled motor, and once again suspended by a fluid damped suspension on a plaster damped sub-chassis. Bearing was a development of the Mk II inverted design, but using a Tungsten Carbide insert in the tip of the post. The logo and speed indicators were LDR controlled to self adjust to ambient light conditions, with the whole mounted in a handsome timber and Perspex plinth. The trough and Excalibur arm were carried over almost unchanged but the fit, finish and presentation were fully commensurate with the high asking price, which didn’t seem to deter customers at all. Finally, the Rock’s sonic Perhaps ironically, it leaves a lasting homage to its heritage in the shape of its main bearing, which can be retro-fitted to the original Cranfield model. That ‘table used a variation on the original hydrodynamic design which was ultimately to prove problematic. The reference bearing used with a Gyrodec belt is the perfect substitute. Next up was the Rock Mk III, launched in 1994 and riding on the wave of the vinyl revival. Basically consisting of Mk II mechanicals and an acrylic platter built into a Seismic Sink isolation platform, it built on the classical simplicity of the donor unit, but added a more finished appearance and better isolation. It was a considerable success in the US, with close to 3000 being produced. The Rock Reference Master (or Mk IV in numerical terms) was a massive, stainless steel clad development of the original Reference. Offering fine pitch control over 33, 45 and 78 speeds, its two major innovations centred on the arm, which now offered motorized and remote control operation of VTA, complete with numerical readout, but more importantly, a cam actuated drive system that moved the arm-base in an arc to compensate for tracking error across the record. Within the plinth the suspension system had moved forward too, the oil-damped brass bellows finally replaced with air-damped coil springs, a technology familiar to anybody who rides a mountain bike. The problem with the fluid damping was that whilst it certainly damped motion it also acted to couple the suspended chassis to the plinth, just like the trough couples the arm. The airdamping provides far greater isolation. In practice, the Reference Master was all but stillborn, only one ever being built. However, its importance lies in the bridge it provided to the Mk V, establishing new techniques and materials to further advance the design. The V might not be as lavishly complex as the Master, but it will ultimately offer many of the same facilities and solutions. Whether those options include a zero tracing error arm we’ll have to wait and see, but motorized VTA is definitely on the way…

 

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