Cheap and Cheerful
Blair Roger investigates two inexpensive ways to improve your analogue front end
Brazeau: A DIY Turntable
I have to admit that this was not my idea. Matt Brazeau, owner of the Analog Emporium in Hamilton, Ontario, remarked casually one day that he knew how to make a great turntable stand "really cheap". I listened intently. I pondered, "the shelf I made a couple of years ago is working just fine". Still, Matt's words of wisdom always have a truthful ring to them, and about a month later I found myself visiting my local building supply yard. I ordered up two 24"x24" cast concrete patio slabs and one 12" x 12" x 24" chimney flue piece. That's it. That's all you need. I made the turntable stand and it was a good one. Warning: this stuff is heavy. Do not attempt this project if you are not in good health! I'm serious folks. This tweak is a killer.
I won't insult your conceptual abilities by explaining how to assemble this project. The picture really is worth a thousand words. Instead, I will tell you that I was quite surprised at the sonic improvement wrought by the new stand. It made me realize that subsonic vibrations were being transmitted through the 2x4 wood frame of my previous turntable stand, all the way to the stylus. You know the result - sonic haze. It was subtle. I lived with it for years and never noticed it consciously. Perhaps the unsuspended design of my Well Tempered Table had something to do with the dramatic change I experienced in the sound of my system. I'm not sure. I am sure, though, that any decent set of ears will notice the improvements brought about by the new stand immediately, especially in the way details and nuances are revealed for the first time.
One test record I rely on to determine the quality of changes to my turntable setup is Caverna Magica by Andreas Vollenweider [CBS 37827]. The opening sequence is a soundscape of two people stumbling across an opening to a cave, and discovering a huge, wet, reverberant chamber inside. The echoes are, without doubt, artificial, but what fun it is to listen to. I am happy to report that I have never heard this subterranean gallery sound bigger or wetter. The sound of the splashing couple segues into a dreamy world of aural impressions. The 'scape is predominated by Vollenweider's harp, which is played with quick, syncopated plucks. This technique displays long vibrating decays, supported by the sonorous resonance of the instrument's deepest strings.
By the time the record ended, I knew Matt was right. And I'd say it was better than just a good turntable stand. Comparatively, it would be like upgrading from a "cheap and cheerful" Grado to a US$500 moving coil. I wonder what would happen if I filled the flue with sand?
The Benz-Aesthetix MC
Well, those days are only memories for most of us. But what about the analogue addicts who insist that this same magnetic buildup afflicts their precious MC cartridges after a hundred hours or so of playing time? I admit it. I wasn't convinced that the sound of my MC cartridge was negatively affected by such things, so I put off for years what I considered to be the ultimate audio luxury purchase: a cartridge demagnetizer.
Good news. The battery-operated Benz-Aesthetix MC Demagnetizer works, and works well. According to the owner's manual, a fixed, high-frequency signal is slowly increased from an amplitude of zero to an unspecified maximum level, where it is maintained for a fixed period of time. The signal is then slowly reduced in amplitude to zero again. Aesthetix claims that, unlike other cartridge demagnetizers, this one produces a very pure sine wave of extremely low distortion.
In practice, the Benz-Aesthetix demagnetizer is very easy to use. First, connect the RCA plugs terminating your phono cable to the colour-coded, gold plated jacks on the back of the demagnetizer. Then, depress the 'power' button on the front of the unit to illuminate the leftmost red LED, and place a record on the turntable's stationary platter. Place your cartridge/tonearm in the centre of the record and depress the 'active' button on the front panel of the unit - this will cause the rightmost red LED to glow and the demagnetization cycle to begin. In about thirty seconds, the rightmost LED will shut off, indicating that demagnetization of the cartridge is complete. At this point, the phono leads can be removed from the demagnetizer and re-inserted into your preamplifier's phono inputs. The demagnetizer can be turned off by once again depressing the 'power' button.
The little black box housing the demagnetizer feels substantial to the touch, and has a look of quality. It even comes with the two required 9-Volt batteries already installed. Aesthetix says that a muddied soundstage and/or tubby bass are a sure indication that a cartridge needs to be treated. Demagnetization can be performed as often as necessary, in their opinion. I tried it on my Lyra Lydian which had not been treated in at least 400 hours. The sound was at once clearer, cleaner, with the noise floor dropping noticeably. A more dimensional soundstage with better separation between players was noted on Iberia [Classic Records LSC-2222]. Percussion effects, castanets, and tambourine flourishes took on new, vivid dimensionality. Empty Bottle Blues by Philadelphia Jerry Ricks [Roksan RLP016] revealed more delicate overtones from his deftly plucked blues guitar and a larger, 'blacker' studio setting.
On the basis of my experience with the Benz-Aesthetix MC cartridge demagnetizer, I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to keep their moving coil cartridge in top form.
MC Cartridge Demagnetizer
US importer: Musical Surroundings
Phone (510) 420-0379
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