When discussing a turntable, it’s common practice to lump together in that term every bit of gear that precedes the phono stage. The turntable includes the platter and the motor that spins it, and often the tonearm as well. Then there’s the cartridge, which is an honest-to-god system component all by itself. The internal tonearm cable is most often captured -- but unlike the old silver plastic record players of my youth, most modern turntables have some sort of junction to facilitate the connection of aftermarket interconnects. So add an interconnect to the list of components that make up this rigmarole. And I guess we can continue to add to this catalog -- let’s include any item that remains in contact with the turntable while the record is in play, OK?
This is my column, so I get to make the rules.
So there’s still a whole gaggle of components involved -- each of which affects the sound far more than similar tweaks anywhere else in the system. This month, I tell you about two ancillary products with which I’m having exceptionally good luck.
Furutech Ag-16 phono cable
Some background: The Top Wing Blue Dragon cartridge, which I reviewed last September, produces the lowest output of any cartridge I’ve had in my system: just 0.2mV. The Blue Dragon requires so much gain that any noise in the system just rockets to the surface of the sound. That cable protruding from the Pro-Ject RPM 10 Carbon turntable can act as a one-meter-long antenna, picking up atmospheric or wired interference, any or all of which can end up being clearly audible. With a cartridge like the Blue Dragon, the phono cable is key to more than just tonal balance -- it’s a critical guardian against noise.
Recently, I’ve been listening to my Pro-Ject RPM 10 Carbon turntable via the Ag-16 phono cable ($1125 to $1275 USD, depending on configuration) from Furutech, of Japan. Furutech’s been in business since 1988, but it seems that in the last few years their product line has exploded. I’ve always lusted after their AC power connectors, but on checking their website I noted that they make a lot more than those plugs: AC sockets, jewelry-grade connectors, accessories, and entire lines of finished audio cables.
The Ag-16 is available in a number of configurations, including with unbalanced (RCA) or balanced (XLR) connectors, and straight or angled DIN plugs -- take your pick. I received two straight DIN cables for use with my RPM 10 Carbon, one set with RCAs, the other with XLRs to accommodate my Aqvox Phono 2Ci stage.
This is one beautifully finished product. It’s also reasonably supple -- I had no trouble dressing the right angle as it emerged from the Pro-Ject. The DIN plug itself, like the other connectors, is almost too pretty to hide. The exteriors of the RCA and XLR connectors are of stainless steel polished to a literal mirror finish. Wrapped around the perimeter of the connector is a band of carbon fiber that’s also flawlessly polished. According to Furutech, the Ag-16’s conductor of silver-plated, oxygen-free copper (OFC) is directly soldered to the body of the connector, itself made of a copper alloy and plated with rhodium. I tried to unscrew one of the RCAs to see what’s inside, but was unable to do so.
The Ag-16 is shielded to within an inch of its life. There are three layers of shielding: each pair of connectors has its own shield, there’s another shield around the entire assembly, and each OFC conductor is sheathed in nitrogen-injected foamed PE insulation.
Having experienced some RF noise -- including a foreign radio station -- through my combo of Nordost Heimdall phono cable and Blue Dragon cartridge, I was hoping a differently configured phono cable might sort things out. Well, with regard to RF interference, the Ag-16 was a champion. It utterly rejected the RF noise I’d been studiously trying to ignore, and while there was still some hum -- my own grounding issue, I believe -- it was no longer audible at my listening seat.
The Ag-16 is a very nice-sounding phono cable. The shimmering acoustic guitar and its harmonics in “The Wolf that Lives in Lindsey,” from Joni Mitchell’s Mingus (LP, Asylum X5E-505), gained a slight amount of lushness at the expense of some tightness of image. But just slightly down in frequency, the all-over-the-place percussion that’s waaaaay in the background had a little more meat on its bones, a tiny bit more solidity.
The Ag-16 also punched out the soundstage depth, pushing images a bit farther back on the stage, which I really liked. Image sizes grew, but the outlines of instruments lost some of their sharp edges. Throughout Frank Zappa’s Sleep Dirt (LP, Discreet DSK 2292), the sound of his electric lead guitar ranges from delicate to the edge of abrasively searing -- with the Ag-16, I was more conscious of the overall size, position, and density of the instrument than I was of its individual strings, or the feeling of metal strings on metal frets.
But my overriding impression of the Ag-16 was that it added a very slight, welcome creaminess to the sound. I’ve long been happy with the Nordost Heimdall phono cable, finding it exceptionally neutral, and a perfect antidote to the sometimes soggy combination of tubes and vinyl -- but Furutech’s Ag-16 proved an enjoyable change. In no way would I describe the Ag-16 as sounding lush, but it had a core of harmonic delicacy that stood in contrast to the Nordost’s tight grip and focus.
Furutech Monaco LP Stabilizer
Every once in a while when I receive a new component, I’ll just unbox the thing and start using it, without first researching it or reading the instructions. In some ways, I feel this is the ideal way to introduce myself to a component -- I can approach it without prejudice or preconception. That’s what happened with Furutech’s Monaco LP Stabilizer ($320). After all, the thing is, ostensibly, a record weight; I was fairly certain I could figger out how it worked.
I anticipated that the Monaco might shift the sound of my LPs in one direction or another, but was surprised to discover that it dramatically reduced the sound of static. Covering the platter of the VPI Prime Signature turntable is a felt record mat, and as the weather gets colder here in Toronto, the humidity inside my house drops and static charges in my LPs commensurately increase. As fall moves toward winter, more often than not the mat lifts off the platter along with the LP when I change records. With the chunky little Monaco LP Stabilizer, I immediately noted that the static charge was significantly dissipated.
Intrigued, I delved into Furutech’s website to find out what was going on. Turns out the Monaco LP Stabilizer is formed around a body of nonmagnetic stainless steel garnished with high-gloss carbon fiber. The rubber-like surface that makes contact with the record is made of a damping material that incorporates Furutech’s Piezo Ceramic technology. I’ll let Furutech explain:
We create a unique material to fashion the products that combines two “active” materials: Nano-sized ceramic particles and powdered carbon. It seems that only nano-sized ceramic particles effectively couples with carbon powder. Nylon and fiberglass are incorporated as well forming an extremely effective, welldamped, mechanically and electrically nonresonantmaterial.
Further reading indicates that one of the properties of Furutech’s piezoelectric compound is its ability to dissipate static electricity. So there you go!
Every 15 or 20 minutes, you’ll need to lift any record weight off the record, and then put it back on another record, so it better be comfortable and easy to grasp. Which the Furutech Monaco LP Stabilizer is. It feels very satisfying in the hand -- a key part of its job, in my opinion. The Monaco sounded eerily similar to my own HRS Analog Disk record weight: both provided the overall sound with more coherence, more of a feeling of focus and precision, in comparison to Pro-Ject’s stock record weight. However, the Furutech Monaco surpassed the HRS Analog Disk in bass tautness -- kick drums and the lower registers of double basses had more crispness and definition.
The Monaco LP Stabilizer is a very good-sounding accessory, but what most appealed to me are its physical properties. Its ease and convenience of handling, and its ability to reduce static, make it a welcome addition to my turntable’s little family.
All of my puttering around with analog accessories drives home to me the point that no other audio component responds to changes within its own system as much as does a turntable. If you already own a turntable, I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know. Perhaps I can provide you with some assurance that you’re not losing your mind when you find yourself baffled at the humungous alterations in your system’s sound when you change one tiny thing. On the flip side, if you’re wondering if you should dip your toe in analog waters, take heed: This sport can drive you nuts. Some changes are not repeatable, and that’s just not how the universe should work. Slip in one cable, and maybe you won’t like it as much -- so you put the old one back in and suddenly it doesn’t sound as good as it did before the swap. Two days later, without you having made any other changes whatsoever, it’s sounding great again. When shit like this happens, you can roll with it or lose your mind.
So if you’re keen to get into analog, be prepared to handle such inconsistencies with a mix of wonder and frustration. Or you can get your system sounding great (it’s not that hard) and just leave it the fuck alone.
In the next installment, I detail the sad, sad story of how I met the principals of Little Fwend, the makers of the incredibly cute and clever Little Fwend Automatic Tonearm Lifter.
How much Jack White is too much Jack White?
I mentioned a few months ago that I’d signed up for Third Man Records’ Vault Subscription service, partly in order to get their deluxe reissue of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, and partly so I could apply their $15 discount code to my Tidal subscription. However, I was skeptical about having Jack White’s choice of records pushed through the Canada Post pipeline and into my living room every three months. The next release was a live Jack White album, which made me wince -- I do like Boarding House Reach, but not enough to listen to it live. I listened to one of this album’s four sides (because one LP wouldn’t be nearly enough live Jack White), then filed it in my record rack under “W,” where I expect it will rest undisturbed until the collapse of civilization. But what the hell, it’s White’s label -- I decided to stick with it a while longer.
On first impression, the next release was another eye-roller: a reissue of the Raconteurs’ 2008 album, Consolers of the Lonely. In other words: more Jack White. I was fairly certain that this album would be Third Man Records’ Waterloo, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt, and I’m glad I did. First, the packaging of this double album (because one LP wouldn’t be nearly enough Raconteurs) is magnificent. The LPs themselves are stamped on translucent, copper-colored vinyl, and the pressings are dead flat and silent. There’s also a copper-colored single containing two new songs that I’m unable to play as I can’t find my 45rpm adapter. Also included are lots of little inserts, including sexy-looking, sepia-tinted photo portraits of the band members suitable for framing [gah!]. The music is, for the most part, straight-ahead rock’n’roll, and the songs are clever, ironic, and tinged with American and Mexican folk influences.
The sound quality is fantastic -- this is a studio album, but there’s tons of presence and spit, with an immediate, gritty feel that you don’t get with lo-fi recording techniques. I listened to all four sides in one sitting.
Maybe two LPs is just enough Raconteurs.
I think I’ll stick with Third Man Records’ Vault Subscription a while longer.
. . . Jason Thorpe