Renaissance. Back in the early noughties, at the dawn of the iPod and iTunes, vinyl’s comeback could’ve been foreseen by almost nobody. The mainstream consumer was busy embracing a digital audio word, albeit a lossy one. Audiophiles were ripping their CDs to lossless formats.
Diehards kept the vinyl faith and a decade later the big black disk almost inexplicably returned from its status as a marginal interest in an already marginal audiophile world. Those diehards now sip nightly from the chalice of vindication; so sweet the taste of saying “We told you so” out loud.
For more humble folk it’s largely an unspoken message. A few make with the face of smug satisfaction whilst others just get on with enjoying vinyl’s most cherished qualities: its tangibility, the cover art, the act of tipping the record from its sleeve without touching the surface before dropping it onto the platter and lowering the tonearm lever. The needle hitting the record’s surface and finding its groove is a delicious moment. Vinyl is the slow food of music playback.
As much as I enjoy spinning records, I enjoy buying them. Dropping into various records stores is all part and parcel of the black stuff’s charm. Doing so overseas doubles the appeal; walking straight past a record store without going in isn’t an option. A record store’s allure goes deeper than its stock of used items. It’s the possibility of turning up a long forgotten or long sought after gem that maintains ongoing custom. For yours truly, it’s FOMO (fear of missing out).
For this primarily digital dude, thumbing through racks of records is more enjoyable than mouse-clicking digital download sites like Boomkat or Bleep. Even purchases from virtual stores like Amazon and CC Music cause the postman to deliver 12” squared treats to my door weekly. Readers wanting to continue travelling on this train of thought are directed to “The Loneliness of the digital audiophile”.
Many of my non-audiophile pals talk about the thrill of the chase, the artwork, the nostalgia, the pride of ownership, its associated bragging rights and vinyl’s tangibility with similar fervour. And yet nearly of all them own turntables that would make Powel Crosley wince. The electronics and loudspeakers into which they are plugged would give lie to the received wisdom that these same mates like to pay forward: that vinyl sounds “rich/er” and “warm/er”. In the context of their systems at least I’m calling bullshit.
When we buy a turntable, attach a cartridge to its arm and plug the output into a phono-preamplifier we are introducing layers of colour to the playback chain, just as we would with a DAC and its computer or streamer feed. These filters can range from from cool to warm. They can make music sound dark or bright, thin or chunky.
Everything placed in the chain brings colour but with mechanical transduction fundamental to vinyl playback I’d contend that these colours are broader in nature and magnitude than that found with digital. Please do not mistake this assertion for an inherent assumption that digital is superior to vinyl.
Many modern records are pressed direct from hi-res files that sold by digital download stores like Qobuz and HDTracks. With a PCM/DSD file landed directly hard drive it is then fired from computer to D/A converter.
The vinyl record however takes the long way round: an acetate is cut from the master before being electro-plated with nickel and converted to a stamper that is used to press each record. This short video from the Discovery Channel (Part 1 then Part 2) shows the process in more detail. The narrator concludes by saying that records are enjoyed by those who refuse to buy into the digital revolution and who (also) believe that vinyl is “a cut above”.
That’s a sentiment we hear loud and often when the mainstream press covers vinyl’s resurgence in popularity. Less so that vinyl is the choice of digital refuseniks. “Nothing sounds better than vinyl – not even digital”. Repeat it often enough and we have a meme that embeds itself into the broader conversation about sound quality. Perhaps this is how my (and your!) non-audiophiles pals pick up and pay forward the notion of the black stuff’s superiority? Perhaps it’s a self-justifying mechanism for a buying into tangibility and artwork even when one’s turntable setup doesn’t cut the mustard?
Earlier this year I investigated how a record, presumably cut from a 24bit studio master file and played back on an entry-level turntable, compared to a CD rip of the same. I then extended this experiment: comparing a mid-80s record to two subsequent 90s and 00s remasters on CD, again ripped to FLAC.
The vinyl playback in both cases was digitised with the PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter and snippets were made available for download to readers who were asked to vote according to audible preference – CD rip or digitised vinyl? The latter came up short on both occasions. Vinyl sounded tepid compared the CD. It lacked dynamic punch and resolution. The vote count from each poll supported these findings.
The turntable deployed for this experimental investigation was the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC – arguably one of the best available for less than $500. It was fitted with an Ortofon OM10 cartridge. One could argue that a better cart might have narrowed the differential with digital but I doubt it would have significantly improved the turntable’s fundamental personality. New shoes help a little but they don’t make you a better runner.
The question then presented: would a more deluxe Pro-Ject turntable close the gap previously heard between Debut Carbon and digital? Not wanting to spend dance the middle ground represented by Pro-Ject’s RPM line, I opted for the Xtension 10 Evolution; not quite Pro-Ject’s range summit, but not far off. Only the Xtension 12, Signature 10 and Signature 12 take us further north on price and (presumably) fit, finish and sound quality.
The Xtension 10 Evolution is stickered at 3300Euros in Europe, US$3499 in the USA and AU$5499 in Australia.
Those eyeing the possibility of a grey import should take notice of this turntable’s weight and its shipping cost implications. The Xtension 10 Evolution tips the scales at a not insignificant 22kg. The MDF shipping ‘crate’ piles on a few more. At ten times the price of the Debut Carbon, the Xtension 10 Evolution’s high mass design means you literally feel like you get a lot of turntable for your money. You could lift a Debut Carbon with one arm tied behind your back. Not so the Xtension 10 Evolution.
The high mass vs. low mass turntable debate is a long and twisted road. High mass plinths are designed to absorb vibrations whilst light/rigid turntables – like those favoured by Rega’s Roy Gandy – are designed to transfer vibrations away and out of the turntable as quickly as possible. One isn’t necessarily better than the other – it’s the implementation that matters most – but a turntable’s ability to repel vibrations, no matter how small, influences its performance.
Pro-Ject Audio founder Heinz Lichtenegger was exceedingly complementary of Gandy’s designs when I chatted with him briefly at this year’s Munich High End Show. It’s amazing to think that Lichtenegger started Pro-Ject in 1990, just as the vinyl market began contracting. Respect goes to Lichtenegger for keeping the faith and riding out the leaner years with diversification. Pro-Ject also offers a range of wallet-sensitive electronics and loudspeakers.
Back in Sydney, lifting the Xtension 10 Evolution’s plinth from the box takes strength and care. Care because the high-gloss finish is fundamental to its aesthetic appeal – the Xtension 10 Evolution looks like a gorgeous piece of furniture – and strength because concealed within its “acoustically neutral” MDF structure is a mixture of metallic granules and sand. Visually at least, this Pro-Ject splits the difference between VPI’s more traditional looking (and hence named) Classic and the more ‘out there’ industrial design of Rega’s RP8.
Supporting the Xtension 10 Evolution’s plinth are adjustable isolation feet. When mounted on a high-mass surface such as sandstone, the plinth acts as a magnetically floated sub-chassis. Any lateral (side-to-side) vibrations are transferred through the feet, which also sport some degree of vertical vibration isolation so that damping takes place when mounted on lower-mass hi-fi racks. My review unit sat atop an IKEA Expedit rack chock full of vinyl; the shelving unit’s measured depth is coincidentally identical to that of the turntable itself – 40cm.
The notion of isolation from negative external influences extends to the Xtension 10 Evolution’s power supply. The plinth internalises the circuitry found in Pro-Ject’s Speedbox accessory: it regenerates AC current from a DC source for electrical isolation. The LCD readout and associated trio of push buttons sit directly below the needle with the arm cradled at its resting point.
One quick push to the middle of the three buttons gets the table turning. Push again at it changes speed. A long push brings it to a standstill.
The platter’s 5.6kg weight means it is slow to pick up speed – it takes full twenty seconds to go from 0 – 33.3rpm. I used that time to ready the heavyweight puck, run a brush across the record’s surface and give the anti-static gun a few squeezes.
What cause the platter to be so heavy? Alternate layers of alloy and Sorbothane are sandwiched together and topped with a layer of recycled vinyl, sourced from GZ’s record pressing plant that sits three-hours’ drive from Pro-Ject factory in the Czech Republic.
With no mat required (or recommended), a vinyl record sits directly on a vinyl-topped platter, the thinking behind this being that with ‘acoustic impedance’ matched, vibrations are more speedily transferred away from the record itself. Tasked with a similar resonance-eradicating job underneath the platter is a magnetically suspended ceramic bearing, inverted and embedded in the plinth to ensure freedom from moving parts.
Then there’s the ‘10cc’ arm. 10”, ‘continuous carbon’ fibre and a low mass design, it demands a little more care with cartridge compliance matching than does the ultra-low mass arm seen on the Debut Carbon; 8.6”, effective 6g.
The 10cc’s higher effective tonearm mass of 8.5g requires a lower compliance cartridge to put the pair in the resonant frequency sweet spot. Think of the suspension system of a car. A compromise must be found between the smoothness of the ride and the driver’s ability to feel the road. A heavier car (arm) necessitates stiffer suspension (lower cartridge compliance) whilst a lighter car can play it a little looser (with higher compliance).
The Debut Carbon ships with an Ortofon 2M Red in the USA, reflecting Pro-Ject’s implied preference for Ortofon cartridges.
The initial pairing of an Ortofon 2M Black with the Xtension 10 Evolution brought decidedly underwhelming results. My turntable setup (guru) buddy and I agreed that resulting sound was thin and a little ragged and lacking in dynamics.
Following the Australian Distributor’s advice to try a moving coil (MC) with an elliptical stylus, I switched the 2M Black over to the less expensive Dynavector 10×5 whose previous tour of duty was on a VPI Scout 1.1. Bingo! This cartridge stayed put for the duration of the review period.
The final piece of the setup puzzle would be to select a phono pre-amplifier. Schiit Audio’s entry-level Mani retails for US$129 but gets found out within thirty seconds of playback. Despite it sounded murky with this high/er end table, the Mani’s prowess at the entry level remains un-blunted.
Next up, the PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter. Whilst netting better overall results than the Schiit, the Colorado-built unit sounded a little dry here and a little strained in the throat there. Its tendency towards the more analytical end of the spectrum is fine in isolation but – reminding ourselves of this assignment’s context and intent – couldn’t quite match the acoustic mass, dynamic avidity and (most critically) all-round easefulness of equivalent CD rips played via an Antipodes DX music server feeding a Resonessence Labs INVICTA DAC over USB with a LightHarmonic LightSpeed Cable. Amplification came from Vinnie Rossi’s LIO (review here) driving either Zu Soul MKII or KEF LS50 loudspeakers.
The hallelujah moment arrived with the move to the LIO’s internal phono board. Hard to know whether the LIO’s off-grid power supply or the phono stage’s circuit design (or both) is what makes it such an over-achiever. Even at the module’s new price of US$895 it easily bests the two units that preceded it.
Most importantly, the LIO board proved to be the final piece of the puzzle that would allow the Xtension 10 Evolution’s audible talents to shine through unimpeded. Either that or it adds its own layer of most enjoyable colour.
The Xtension 10 Evolution is a big table with a mighty sound. The low end isn’t so much bombastic or fat as it is weighty. I wrote this in my notepad: “music sounds like its tied to the core of the earth”. Read literally it sounds silly but you can probably understand what I was driving at. I know not of a better way to connote how well this turntable creates the illusion of a presentation that seems anchored as opposed to one that’s freefloating.
To say that the Xtension 10 Evolution sounds better than the Debut Carbon is to do it a gross disservice. It’s not only better but – with the right phono pre-amplifier – an altogether different listening experience. Looking back down the price line the Debut Carbon lacks heft and resolution. And we already know of its stifled dynamics and muted top end when compared to digital. What about the pricier Pro-Ject? How would it compare to a digital source?
For the staunch digiphile, I have some good news and some bad news. From the Sugarcubes to Grant Lee Buffalo to Monolake, the Antipodes + Light Harmonic + Resonessence Labs combination offers superior separation with an generally cleaner sound. The Pro-Ject + Dynavector + Vinni Rossi is a shade more congealed. Or is that cohesive? Qualities such as cymbal shimmer (and its attendant decay) and guitar tone aren’t necessarily un-coloured but they are more satisfying when sourced from the vinyl rig. Cripes.
Transient keenness is a core talent of the Xtension 10 Evolution – something that I found a little lacking in less expensive models from VPI and Clearaudio. What sets the Pro-Ject apart from digital delivery is the manner in which transient attack is delivered. Once again, a car analogy assists. Pressure applied to the foot brake isn’t continuous. An easing up is required just prior to the car coming to a complete standstill; otherwise the halting of forward motion jars necks. Learner drivers often discover this the hard way.
Now mentally invert that analogy and apply it to acceleration: an initial burst of energy precedes an easing up before the transient’s tail end. I hear this when I listen to the big Pro-Ject. Is that why it sounds so elegant in its conveyance of micro-dynamic drama? The digital rig sounds more matter of fact and comparatively stunted with the minutest levels of vapour trail decay. Being truer to the source doesn’t necessarily translate to aural satisfaction.
Is this why vinyl heads complain that digital playback sounds uptight, stiff in the joints, and that vinyl is just easier to listen to for longer? Maybe. The Pro-Ject/Dynavector pairing doesn’t eradicate surface noise, something that’s (obviously) wholly absent from the server/DAC combo.
The qualitative differences between digital and vinyl rigs narrows when the INVITCA DAC is swapped out for PS Audio’s DirectStream running the Yale operating system. This underscores my comments in the DirectStream review (here) that is the DAC most likely to offer the best of both worlds. Note that I refuse to say that the PS Audio converter ‘sounds like analogue’. Analogue is a broad church with many different facets (types of sound) and obfuscates the modern practice of pressing vinyl from digital (master) files.
Having a DAC decode those hi-res files directly is one route to happiness. Having them pressed to vinyl and rotated as a needle rides the grooves is another. At the entry-level, I’d take digital every time if optimising sound quality were the ultimate goal. And that’s before we enter into a discussion about vinyl’s software pricing, beyond the scope of this review. All I’ll say is that it isn’t cheap, particularly (and ironically) if you’re a Neil Young fan.
Focusing on hardware, not all vinyl front-ends are the same. Just as digital’s audible performance is a function of streamer/server and D/A converter, a vinyl system is built around the triumvirate of turntable, cartridge and phono stage. One could subdivide the picture further once interchangeable tonearms are possible..
At the higher-end, our digital vs. vinyl story brings a plot twist. The Pro-Ject Xtension 10 Evolution sees this fella’s preference for digital lose its grip. More dollars dropped on a Pro-Ject project evens the playing field between digital and vinyl. Asked to choose only one rig I’d probably give the nod to the turntable-centric solution. How’s that for unsettling? Did you feel the earth move as digital audio diehards across world over did their best Rumplestiltskin?
DAR-KO award? How on earth could I not?