AOM Logo February 2008

Musical Life Basic Turntable with Fortissimo Tone Arm

Anthony Kershaw



The Germans aren't coming, they're here! The US and England have always seemed to be the homes of analogue, and the two countries still offer some of the finest turntables, arms and cartridges on the planet. But, the Germans are catching up fast. Sure, Germany's Clearaudio has always been a leader in high end analogue, but the estimable company has been joined by star names such as Amazon, Acoustic Signature, Acoustic Solid, and more. I've really enjoyed Acoustic Signature 'tables at shows (they look amazing, too), and I've reviewed the Amazon Model 2 and gave it a very positive review (I still remember the very fine Moerch arm). Our long-time readers will know of my admiration for Clearaudio products, from the reasonably priced entry level products to the company's analogue benchmarks (much of the review of the Musical Life Basic was written while listening to an attached Clearaudio Titanium mc cartridge).

We are lucky here in Toronto. Much of what is superb in high end is represented by distributors in Southern Ontario. I was happy for that, as I heard the Musical Life 'table in question at the 2007 Montreal Audio Show and requested one from a local distributor. I was expecting the floor model from the show, but the distributor had sold out by the show's end. The wait was on. Happily, the manufacturer sent another crate load in very short order and the review was on.


An accommodating fellow at the distributor's office was very kind and setup the 'table. The actual piecing together is very simple -- a little dab of grease on the bearing, adjust the legs, string the fishing line (!) between motor spindle and platter, and you're away. Before I could do that, my setup fellow drilled a couple of holes for the Fortissimo arm. The arm comes with a specific counterweight, but if you need a beefier one for a particular cartridge, one is available. You'll need a solid and completely level stand for the 'table. Mine is from Target. It was too small for the Basic's footprint -- a solid block of planed wood, Bluetack, and some matte black paint solved my problem. The 'table will not fit on a Target wall mount platform.


The turntable submitted for review was the entry-level Basic. The next-in-line Jazz looks to be a lateral move, with a significant jump in size and price to the Rapsody [sic] and top-of-the-line Symphony. Other than a platter upgrade from Basic to Basic 80 (a 40 mm platter compared to an 80 mm platter), the tables eschew the Clearaudio and VPI upgrade ability. Upgrades will have to be done with changes in arm and cartridge. The Basic uses an inverted bearing plate with 20 mm axle bearings and silicon nitride ceramic ball bearings. The motor is regulated DC and all surfaces are coated in 6 mm of acrylic. Finish is a beautiful piano black. The Basic has two sections -- a small block housing the motor with 33/45 toggle switch, and the primary plinth supporting the substantial platter. The supplied fishing line gets the platter moving in short order. The speed is adjustable.


The two arm models are Musical Life's top priced Conductor (more on this very interesting arm in an upcoming review) and the arm in use chez nous, the Fortissimo. The Fortissimo is a unipivot design with steel bearings, available in 9, 10 or 12 inch models and in many types of wood. The arm installed was a 10 inch in ebony. This is the third unipivot arm I have used (the others are Roksan and Morch). I really like the results. The Musical Life arms are very beefy and are easy to set up. They look wonderful, too. The mass of the arms varies between 10 and 25 grams, material and size dependent. The Fortissimo comes with a phono cable attached. It seemed to do a fine job. I'm not sure how rewiring with an upgraded cable would work. When I interviewed Touraj Moghaddam of Roksan, he mentioned that the weak link (read cost cutting measure) in his superb Radius Five 'table with Artemis arm was the phono cable. When Moghaddam did a significant upgrade in cable quality in the factory, he mentioned the increase was quite something. But the cost increased by 200 pounds! A cable upgrade may be an idea for future Musical Lifers with some spare cash.


In the three months the Musical Life has been in place, it has graced and enhanced my listening room. The manufacturer's name is most apt. The turntable is so darn musical and evocative -- it does what many good turntables achieve: low surface noise, excellent sound staging and imaging, accurate instrumental and vocal timbre, and presence, presence, presence. It maintained all these characteristics with cartridges from a fairly inexpensive Benz Glider (low output) to a midrange Clearaudio Concerto (I guess 2Gs is 'high end' midrange) to Clearaudio's magnificent Titanium cartridge, the last priced at almost six thousand dollars. This says great things for the turntable's sound essence. Now, let's be clear, the Glider did not sound as good as the Concerto, and is not anywhere near the Titanium, but what vinyl aficionados require, from budget carts to the very expensive, is crystal clear. As the cartridges grew in price, veils were lifted from the sound, the bass became clearer and deeper, instrument placement more specific, etc. You get the idea. Right up to the splendid Titanium. What a magnificent achievement this cartridge is -- lush and refulgent but never cloying. The instruments were fleshed out beautifully -- the ends of chords in classical music were especially spine tingling. The best players can let the instrument ring, especially in a good acoustic. When they nail it, the tuning is flawless and the effect is like a gentle brush on the skin -- tactile beyond words. The Titanium grabbed the sound and would not let go until the desired effect was acheived. The less expensive cartridges had a more difficult time portraying all the harmonics as the sound decayed, yet they still impressed.

I always throw on Jean Martinon's superb performance of Shostakovich's First Symphony (LSC 2322) to test the bass response. Nothing like the clear rumble of London Transport's tube trains deep below Kingsway Hall. At this session, the trains were running on time. About every three or four minutes! The best I've heard can replicate the individual wheels as they roll along the track. That particular setup was well over $50,000. This far more reasonable setup could not differentiate between wheels, but the rumble was clear and defined. Some setups, with speakers that give a mid bass boost, allow the bass to bloom too much. As such, the bass is not in harmony with the higher tessituras. The Musical Life Basic enjoyed my ancillary gear. All was harmonious and balanced.

During the review period, I was guest conducting a local orchestra. The board asked me to program Capriccio Italien, an old Tchaikovsky warhorse. Interestingly, Tchaikovsky only composed two pieces for money, Capriccio Italien and the 1812 Overture (money was rarely a problem as he was sponsored for many years by the mysterious Madame von Meck). Both pieces lack Tchaikovsky's genius for form and coherence -- they are primarily a hodgepodge of connected melodies. Travelogues for the masses. That said, Italien does have some good tunes and has the reputation of being quite difficult to perform and conduct. I was in a quandary as I had never performed it. I had the score. I needed a recording. Happily, I have an original Camden pressing of LSC 2323. An odd pairing of Kiril Kondrashin and the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra (basically, the New York Phil), but they get the job done, and in glorious sound. The Basic really strutted its stuff with this record -- a fifty year old pressing, with some surface noise. It portrayed the sunny climes of Italy beautifully, from the overly grand opening to the plangent oboe barcarolle, to the bustle of the allegro and to the final bacchanale. Heard under the best conditions, this LP can sound a little congested in the midrange in comparison to the finest LSCs. The congestion was still there -- no magic bullet for this RCA. But, the turntable and arm controlled the sound superbly, especially with the Titanium cartridge.

In a recent clear out of the basement, I finally got to organize my LPs. Nothing like John Cusack in High Fidelity (analogue fans, get the DVD for the love of vinyl and superb writing), but just a general tidy up. At the bottom of a stack of Classic Record reissues was Fritz Reiner's Iberia, LSC 2222. No record was more worthy of an immaculate re release. It received it under the care of Classic Records. I threw it on the Musical Life Basic as the final test of the equipment. What a magnificent achievement this Chicago Symphony performance is; so musical, so tasteful, and technically flawless. All this virtuosity was captured to perfection by the combination of Basic, Fortissimo and Titanium. It was a perfect coda to this review. The inner detail was clearer than I have heard and the unique temperaments of the solo players was heard ruthlessly. No sweat for the combination. It was so breathtaking as a performance and recording, that the final brilliant chords had me shaking my head in admiration and disbelief. A wonderful ending to a most musical three months.

Amplification was via the phono stage of an ARC SP9 Mk. III (with a much loved NOS Mullard tube) and the ModWright SWP 9.0SE. The latter was much more adjustable and presented a rich and vibrant sound (more on this piece in a later review), but I kept returning to the ARC for natural and well-balanced performances.


Any caveats? A couple of niggles. It does not come with a clamp/record weight. The distributor came to my rescue and supplied an HRS record weight. I did find a very slight difference (focus in lower midrange was better), especially heard with the expensive cartridge. I guess most of the problem is psychological -- I like the idea of the record clamped firmly onto the surface. I also like the idea of zero wiggle room for the stylus in the groove. Warped records get a fair shot at sounding better, too. Also, the feet were a little difficult to adjust accurately. I would have preferred feet threaded into the base. This guy also likes an arm clamp. The Fortissimo just sits there, free to the world, no inhibitions, naked as a jay bird! I have one or two inhibitions, and, as such, would like an arm clamp. And that's it as far as a wish list!


At a price of $4750.00 (incl. arm), the Musical Life Basic has some serious competition. Imagine that in this digital age? Well, it does, and audiophiles are the better for it. I've heard many 'tables at this price. Most have the superb musical attributes that only good vinyl brings -- the presence and ambiance of the particular event, the harmonics, the balance, and the amazing timbre. All of those tenets are heard in spades from the Basic, and it holds its own against the competition easily. The success of the system is, in no small part, due to the superb Fortissimo arm. It is beautifully designed and realized. It really enhances the look of the 'table and adds to the overall superb sound. And the good news? It can't be maxxed out with a great cartridge. Well, maybe an Insider would be pushing it!

I really enjoyed the last three months in my listening room. The sound was so musical and the turntable was so easy to use. I will be requesting the splendid looking Symphony for my next analogue review. The 'Conductor' arm that is supplied is supposed to be unique. That should add to the fun. But, in the here and now, I can offer you my warmest recommendation for the Musical Life Basic turntable and Fortissimo arm.


Manufactured by Musical Life

Michael Stolz Laufwerksbau
Latrop 41
57392 Schmallenberg/Latrop

Tel: 02972/978390

Source of review sample: Distributor loan


Musical Life website