Clearaudio's Champion Level 2 Turntable
My discovery of the upgradeable Clearaudio Champion turntable happened most fortuitously. A visit to a local distributor to hear some new horn speakers was arranged - the speakers were quite wonderful, even on the briefest of auditions. The Beauhorns were striking, but hooked up to the speakers was the Clearaudio Champion Level 2 turntable. Having a turntable attached in a listening room is becoming a rare occurrence, however, this distributor usually has one or two with which to listen as well as some beauties on static display. During the visit, while my ears were listening intently to the wonderful midrange playing through the speakers, my eyes were transfixed to this serious analog eye candy. With a little trepidation, I asked when I could get a Champion review sample. Moments later I was on the highway with a turntable in the trunk.
The German manufacturer has a history of producing superb turntables and benchmark cartridges and, once again, Clearaudio's distinctive stamp of excellence is all over this new design. Their attention to detail is legendary as is their use of top quality materials for accuracy and longevity. The Champion's development team have taken a page out of the Basis and VPI camps, initiating analogue excellence in an affordable frame. Then, by use of ingenious and upgradeable design practice, Clearaudio makes the upper echelon of sound accessible as funds become available.
As I had not heard one of their products at length, I was looking forward to examining the 'table for an extended period. With the Champion Series, Clearaudio has entered the midrange turntable wars. The competition in this area is considerable which is great news for analog enthusiasts -- just a decade ago, choice was quite limited. The Champion turntable is upgradeable to where the sound is commensurate with the entry level of Clearaudio's more esoteric turntables. Upgrades are achieved easily, with minimum fuss, and seem very reasonably priced. The Champion Level 2 is (at present) the end of the upgrade road.
The entry level Champion boasts much of what translates upwards to the Level 2: resonance optimized turntable chassis (made from the very expensive 'GS' acrylic and available in black or clear)/synchronous motor/silicon acrylic platter/bronze plated, hardened steel inverted bearing/acrylic cone feet/Rega OEM RB250ST tonearm. The Level 1 upgrade includes a second chassis and distance plate for the synchronous motor. The Level 2 upgrade adds the Rega OEM RB300ST tonearm, a 60mm platter, a higher quality inverted bearing, larger steel feet and chassis separators. All incarnations come with the Souther 'Clever Clamp', a simple, clear plastic device that seemed to do it's job of holding the vinyl firmly. While 'clever', the Souther technology has been bettered by VPI and others. As such, serious enthusiasts may like to try the turntable with one of the VPIs or go for the fantastic Black Diamond Racing 'Round Things' record clamp.
As a ham-fisted audiophile, I was quite content to take delivery of the turntable ready to play. Happily, the look of the machine portends ease of setup. The Champion then in my possession had the basic Benz Micro Silver mc cartridge attached correctly to the Rega OEM RB250ST arm. Anybody purchasing the Champion will, I'm sure, want to start at the very beginning and construct the platform. The good news is the setup is well documented and clear, as the well written instructions bear witness.
All Champions come with an acrylic arm board, interchangeable for most nine-inch tonearms. My board was factory fitted with Clearaudio's upgraded RB250ST. Changing the arm was a snap as I found out when upgrading the tonearm to the RB300ST. If you are a dab hand with an Allen key, changing arms and boards will present no problems. As foretold by the distributor, the arm upgrade improved the sound immediately. More air around the instruments, even more solid placement within the soundstage, and improved tonal quality were the results of the change. Closer tolerances and better wire do make a difference, it would seem.
The Level 2's huge platter is precision machined from silicon acrylic, highly polished, balanced, and connected by belt to the mass-loaded Clearaudio 'Synchron' motor. The physically separated solid metal case motor and its requisite (for the Level 2 upgrade) 'Motor Resonance Distanceplate' are built of the highest quality and sit approximately one centimeter from the top left of the chassis; the motor is both silent and deadly accurate. A quick switch of the stepped pulley changes speed from 33 to 45.
The review and turntable took shape over an extended audition. Although my delivered Level 2 was armed with only the basic Rega OEM RB250ST and an entry level Benz Micro Silver cartridge, I looked forward to hearing the turntable at its upgraded best. Happily, I was promised the upgraded RB300ST arm (Cardas wire and RCAs) and a top-flight cartridge (Clearaudio's Sigma - review forthcoming) a short time after initial delivery. Right out of the box and on the stand, the Champion exhibited the best of what analogue has to offer -- timbral accuracy, definition between and around the instruments, and (thank the good Lord) the lowest noise floor it has been my pleasure not to hear. A near black background was enjoyed on LP after LP, and from vinyl of all vintages. And with the exception of some very old references, inner groove noise was mostly MIA. The fine sounds coming from the Champion became quite glorious when the new Rega OEM RB300ST arm and Clearaudio Sigma cartridge were connected. The new combination made instruments and voices sound joyous in delivery and execution.
The blues of Doug McLeod on Come to Find (Audioquest AQ-LP1027) was a perfect example of the benefit of the incredibly low distortion -- on the opening track, Bring it on Home, McLeod's unique musical bent was heard clearly, each of the musical strands weaving a lovely fabric of sound. These qualites were heard once again on the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields/Neville Marriner version of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. This Argo classic (ZRG 845) is recorded at a very low level (surprising form this source); to hear the intensity of some of the finest string playing ever recorded, the volume must be turned way up. It's been my experience that the Rega turntables have a problem handling this difficult LP, even the overachieving VPI Mk. III lost a little of its composure at the climax (coincidentally, the Regas and VPI I have reviewed sported the RB300 arm and entry-level Benz carts). No problem for the Clearaudio, though. It was a pleasure to hear the ASMF at its late seventies peak going for the absolute gusto all the while keeping the tone completely under control. Chalk up a big check mark for the Champion Level 2 and its associated equipment. Very impressive!
Many of the old standbys (Arcana/LAPO/Mehta/Decca 6550 -- Power of Three/Blue Note 85133 -- The Reiner Sound/RCA LSC-2183) benefited from this powerful combination of cartridge/arm/table. The ultimate power trip of Arcana blew the razor-sharp precision of Decca's vintage musical partnership through the Amphion Xenon speakers (review forthcoming) and across the boundaries of the room, whacking me unceremoniously upside the head. What an effect. Wrong word. What an experience. Musical and forthright. With musicality the watchword, Jim Hall, Michel Petrucianni, and Wayne Shorter were separated more cleanly than heard previously in their miraculous Power set from Montreux (even more than the VPI Aries/Audioquest/Micro Benz H20 of my experience). The power of the title was present not so much in volume but in the sheer genius of the music making. And speaking of genius, that old scowl Fritz Reiner's particular type was on hand in his marvelous Isle of the Dead. Rachmaninov (another famous walking scowl, to paraphrase Stravinsky) never had it so good chez nous with the Champion/Sigma combo. The LP was still a winner with the Benz Silver plowing the grooves, but the Clearaudio Sigma cartridge caressed a sound out of the old LSC that once heard was not easily forgotten.
The layering of musical lines and the ultra quietude is what remains with me of the Champion pedigree well after the review period. Clearly a winner, the Champion Level 2 will give more of the ultimate analogue experience than others in its price range, and with an arm upgrade (Souther?) and a cartridge of the heavens, the lofty ideal you seek is available in the here and now for less than you would think. Huge congratulations to our German friends.
Level 2 Turntable
Manufactured by clearaudio electronic GmbH
Spardorfer Str. 150, Unit 3, 91054 Erlangen, Germany
phone: 49 (0) 9131 - 59 59 5; fax 49 (0) 9131 - 51 68 3 web: http://www.clearaudio.de, e-mail: email@example.com
Price: US$2290.00 (with OEM RB300ST arm)
Source of review sample: Canadian Distributor
Analogue: Clearaudio Champion Level 2/RB300 ST/Clearaudio Sigma
Digital: Roksan Kandy KC-1 compact disc player
Preamplifier: Audio Research SP-9 Mk. III
Power Amplifiers: Audio Research VT100 Mk. II
Loudspeakers: Amphion Xenon, Gallo Nucleus Solo
Interconnects: Audioquest Emerald, Wireworld Polaris
Speaker wire: van den Hul
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