The build quality of both is good, although fit and finish are best considered to be… OK. The problem any turntable designer has in 2017 is there are some extremely high standards of finish as you move further and further up the price scale. The contrast between the lacquered arm and acrylic deck in particular is noticeable, and the lacquering – though good – is not the kind of thing that might make Japanese marquetry experts nod in approval. The Helius deck and arm are not – in fairness – priced in the SME territory, but they will be compared to this ne plus ultra chunk of up-market production engineering mastery. The fact that SME has a team of finishers to bring the product up to its high standard and Helius has, basically, Owen notwithstanding, the finish is more Nottingham Analogue than it is SME, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. What’s perhaps more important here is there are few screws that might strip like you are throwing twenties at them.
Similarly, the level of instruction supplied with the turntable is… also OK. In fact, the manual supplied with the turntable is pretty good, combining a step-by-step list of instructions coupled with a few engineering drawings. Whether this fits well with the YouTube generation who might panic at the sight of two pages of type and three line drawings, remains to be seen. There were no instructions supplied for the arm, but muscle memory (and a good alignment protractor and downforce stylus gauge) helped here.
The benefits of both deck and arm seem congruent, in that the ideas behind both seem to fall to limiting the compromises placed on that item by other parts in the chain. The arm is designed to work well with the largest number of cartridges with no complaint, while the deck is made to eliminate the ingress of the outside world on the slab of vinyl.
You can hear this working out almost immediately in a number of fairly obvious ways. There is a lot of detail on offer here, with a huge amount of layering to any image, and yet at the same time a really profound sense of stability of image. This is not a ‘phat’ or lush sounding design; it stays the right side of lean and has a very dry, but fundamentally right sounding, tonal balance. If anything, this puts the tonal onus on the cartridge: too bright, or too woody, and the deck will let you know. It’s not so revealing of cartridge that it’s a deck in constant search of the right partners, but neither is the Helius the sort of turntable you can use in a corner-cutting exercise and plant down any cheap stylus. It wants more than that, and you’ll want to feed it something in the £1,000 or so region. In terms of cartridge choices, tonally the Helius sounds more comfy with Lyras and Benz’ than it does with AudioTechnica or Ortofon. Although, if you want hyper-analytical, a good Ortofon and the Helius will let you know everything that is on the record, good or bad.
As many of us have spent years listening to LP and digital in equal measure, so we have become acutely aware of pitch stability. Digital’s admittedly surface rendition of pitch is so much more accurate than analogue as we know it that we quickly notice the wavering treble of vinyl. It’s almost imperceptible (and certainly not as thick-set as the watery mids and top of low-grade MP3) but when comparing like with like, you can sometimes pick out a very slight trilling of the top end of a soprano’s voice on vinyl that isn’t there on digital. We don’t worry too much about this because the rest of the vinyl performance is more enthralling, but it’s there all the same. Here, though, that pitch precision shone through, in a manner very, very few decks can muster. Given the next deck in price terms that I’ve heard that has this kind of pitch stability without losing a lot in the process is a Spiral Groove, and you might be able to buy an Alexia for every room in the house for the price of a Spiral Groove, this is a major feather in the Alexia’s cap. A great – albeit soprano-free – example of this is the D’Oyly Carte performance of the overture to Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, which I have both on Decca SXL from the 1950s on vinyl and on the Australian Decca Eloquence label on CD. Toward the crescendo of the overture there is a perfectly clear triangle hit repeatedly. It sits in its own physical space in the recording and is remarkably high-pitched and pure-toned. It’s usually the one place where the CD outperforms the vinyl, but not through the Helius.