Get it right or suffer the consequences: a review
I have had the great fortune over the years of meeting several gentlemen who are truly passionate about the art of analog record playback. Each of them embarked on his own journey in turntable design. Tom Vu is one such recent acquaintance. Last year we met over the phone and ended up discussing vintage and current phono cartridge design, tonearms, and other personal favorites of all things analog. This was a conversation that led to my reviewing the ZYX Omega-S phono cartridge, which Tom’s company, KT Audio Imports used to distribute in this country. During that conversation, Tom mentioned his background in turntable design and we shared many stories regarding our mutual trials and travails in pursuing this sort of project. Here we are, just a short 15 months later, and the “Reference,” a turntable design highly influenced by Tom, is available from Triangle Art.
The Triangle Art Reference is one of two turntables currently offered by this company.
As the name suggests, the Reference is currently their flagship product with an MSRP of $13,990.
The Reference from Triangle Art is what I like to call a “naked” or skeletal belt-drive design. In other words, it lacks a plinth. The tone arm, platter/bearing, and motor are therefore located in three largely independent structures. The entire turntable, with the exception of the threaded cone footers, is constructed of machined aluminum and steel; roughly 250 pounds of it. It sports a massive main structural base that houses the bearing well, tonearm mounting pod, and three struts that are finished with threaded brass leveling cones. The massive 4-inch thick 45-pound, aluminum platter is driven by a belt that is run from a detached AC synchronous motor nested inside a 20-pound housing. The platter speed is controlled by the included outboard Kelly Audio 2-speed drive controller. The extra long center spindle is threaded so as to facilitate use of a clamp or weight of your choice (neither of which is provided). Triangle Art provides a custom-drilled aluminum tone arm board that is made to fit the tonearm the purchaser intends to use. The standard board will accommodate 9-inch tonearms and there is an optional specialty board for 12-inch tonearms. After some consideration as well as time constraints, I opted to utilize the standard tone arm board and my modified vintage Technics EPA 500 tone arm system for the purposes of this review.
Set-up and Installation
The turntable arrived in a large reinforced wooden crate. Each massive component of the turntable was separately wrapped and packaged to assure safe delivery. Thankfully, since the turntable is of a skeletal design and therefore largely modular, it was relatively easy to move upstairs to my sound room piece-by-piece, though still quite a workout – a secondary healthful “benefit” to buying a turntable of this heft! For initial set-up, I assembled the massive 3-legged structure directly on the Billy Bags rack’s composite top, mounted my EPA 500, and got the turntable system up and running. Over the following ten days or so, I went through much iteration of listening tests, position corrections, and tweaks until I determined that I was hearing the Triangle Arts “Reference” at its optimal. During that process, I determined that the best turntable performance was achieved through the use of a Delrin plate platform (more about this later). I also chose a Delrin clamp over a brass and aluminum center weight for use throughout the review process. Both the plate and clamp provided the most neutral interface with the turntable-rack as well as with the vinyl-platter combinations.
The most interesting and in my view, telling, bit of this process was the fact that this massive beast of a turntable still needed tweaking in the vertical plane for isolation. The prodigious mass and the brass cone footers were simply not enough to effect true isolation from any vibration intrusion coming through the lead-filled steel audio rack system, which manifested as a blurring of bass notes and clouding of the lower midrange. While I went through the process of evaluating different options, I realized that indeed I would not have had the absolute clarity in diagnosing and correcting this issue without the use of my trusty EPA-500 tonearm system and matching cartridge combinations that I know so intimately well.
Taming the Beast
As I alluded to in my description of the set-up process, initial findings can be very misleading, especially when it comes to analog because of the many variables that are at play in evaluating a turntable, especially a skeletal one. During my first Sunday extended listening session, I wanted to assure that the overall analog system was sounding reasonably good and working well as an integral system. For this, I depend upon some old Sheffield Direct-to-Disc favorites as well as some less-than-audiophile-oriented acoustic recordings. My initial findings were surprising, at least, to me. The turntable was exhibiting poor bass control on dynamic material, an indistinct soundstage, and had an overall blurring of the lower vocal registers. Base on my experiences, this suggested either a poor tonearm-turntable interface, aka the tonearm mounting plate, or the that turntable was having isolation issues. Since it was Sunday and therefore wasn’t likely to stir up much enthusiasm from my machinist friend to CNC a tonearm board for me out of acetal plate, I opted to play with different footing materials for the entire aluminum/steel/brass beast.
I first elevated the entire structure onto a plank of Birch plywood and had a quick listen. Indeed the sound had changed. Not necessarily improved, but definitely changed. I next repositioned the plank so that the outboard motor rested directly in the rack and the turntable on the plank of wood. This time around, there was definite improvement in dimensionality and clarity. So, to my ears, this meant that whatever I do next, I should maintain the motor and the turntable on separate planes for improved isolation.
The next several iterations of changes involved rolling through different footer materials including Cocobolo wood, 1-inch aluminum plate, glass-filled Polycarbonate, and a ?-inch acetal plate. After several hours, the turntable “popped” into a sweet spot with the acetal. Not satisfied that I had done everything possible to exact maximum performance from the Triangle Art Reference, I got to work on the outboard motor. I rolled through the same materials and though the differences (yes, some caused the sound to worsen) were slight when compared to the changes they wrought on the main turntable, it was clear that the optimal footer for the motor was the 1-inch aluminum plate. If all of this sounds way too anal-retentive, well perhaps it should. This is really what it takes to optimize your system environment. There is no such thing as plug-and-play once you get into high performance 2-channel audio. The more elevated your system gets in terms of detail and clarity, the more obvious these small warts become. Having lived with full-range electrostatic speakers for close to 10 years I am used to this built-in challenge: Get it right or suffer the consequences. In this case, I was certain that I finally got it right!
The Listening Sessions
Armed with the absolute confidence in my knowledge of the sonic signature of the two tonearm-cartridge combinations I used, I played a long list of LP’s from my collection that I knew would get to the heart of what the Triangle Art Reference was all about.
Suffice it to say that the included Kelly Audio speed controller did an excellent job of locking in the speeds of 33 1/3 and 45 RPM without drama, and as quietly as any speed controller I have had in my system.
Going right for the wide dynamics, speed, and top-to-bottom punch, I played an old favorite Direct-to-Disc recording from Sheffield Labs, James Newton-Howard and Friends. The results were indeed surprising. I suppose I must have done a very adequate job of isolating the various pieces of the playback system because indeed, the definitive soundstaging, powerful dynamics, and pristine cymbals clearly bested my reference – a highly modified and optimized VPI TNT, fitted with a 3-phase Papst thread-drive system.
The Triangle Art Reference appeared to elevate the sonic performance of my Nakatsuka-San designed Accuphase phono cartridge to that of the Gold-Coiled ZYX-branded Nakatsuka cartridges. In other words, high frequency distortion was vanishingly low and had a breathy delicate sweetness on cymbals and bells that is as good as any analog set-up I have heard. As good as the high frequency performance was, the bass was even better news. Once optimized with proper footing, the Triangle Art Reference produced deep, rich, powerful, bass with no hint of overhang, tell-tale cloudiness or loss of focus, or what I like to call “death-sign.” Death-sign is when the platter/vinyl interface is so heavily damped that the dynamics are actually underdeveloped or otherwise severely limited. A quick listen to another classic from my arsenal, a first pressing of Octopus by Gentle Giant (UK Vertigo label), proved to be even more compelling. Of particular note was the clean, powerful, and explosive energy when playing the cuts “Knots” and “Boys in the Band.” These, once again, came through as effortless-yet-powerful, portraying a particular lack of distortion in both ends of the frequency extremes.
These results were indeed a good sign for the next battery of LP’s, female vocal, and male vocal. Playing tracks from purely acoustic recordings such as Neil Young’s, “Falling of the Face of the Earth” and title track from the excellently recorded Prairie Wind, the soundstage was detailed, wide and deep, as only a Nakatsuka-San cartridge can make it. So, too, was the pace, rhythm, and timing, full head-bobbing goodness complete with rich bass and mid-bass without ever getting heavy or muddy as can easily happen if there is something awry with platter resonance or tonearm support resonance, or even motor noise. Something noteworthy about the title track is that in lesser analog rigs or analog playback systems that are poorly set-up, many of the warts are normally exposed. This is usually in the form of highly sibilant vocals, peakiness, stridency, and an unnatural-sounding harmonica. I’m happy to report that the Triangle Art Reference did not exhibit any of these ills and provided a solid and consistent richness in tone and textures.
Playing other excellent recordings such as Peter Gabriel’s “Scratch My Back” and the Townsend/Lane classic, “Rough Mix” echoed my notes written about Neil Young. Indeed, the rock solid, well-constructed and massive platform provided by the Triangle Art Reference made my tonearm and cartridge shine as never before.
After a brief hiatus to cover the 2011 AXPONA in Atlanta, I immediately returned with urgency to rock out. I guess I was inspired on the last day of the show when I walked in on The Who’s “Quadrophenia” playing in one of the rooms. This caused a persistent earworm that would not go away until I got home, fired up the system, and blasted “Love Reign O’er Me”. Of course, it didn’t happen quite that impulsively because every thing needed to get plugged in, warmed up, and tonearm wand and cartridge hot-swapped to my ballsy rocker in the stable, the 205CMK3, but you get the picture. Anyway, that started a storm of rock and punk albums getting played that entire week. Each and every LP sounding clean and dirty in all the right places, powerful, and with great control in the bass and midrange, regardless of volume levels. Indeed, the Triangle Art Reference acquitted itself very well.
Evaluating a 100% modular turntable is a tricky endeavor. There are turntable designs out there that appear to be of a modular or skeletal design, but also provide a base that is optimized and tuned as a singular platform for the various components of the turntable. Not so with the Triangle Art Reference. The heavy lifting of the set-up process is left largely to you, the end user. This is not to say that its design concept and execution are any less valid than an integral turntable, far from it. Personally, since I’m a born tweaker, I enjoy the ritualistic and methodical set-up process and I happen to love all things analog, as do many of us. However, by the same token, I realize that there are just as many who are not so inclined, for whom set-it-and-forget-it reigns supreme. That’s all well and good.
A good friend and turntable designer once told me that if you throw enough mass into a modular turntable, it is going to sound good no matter what. Perhaps there is some truth to that. However, in an integrated turntable design, you are left in the hands of the designer’s thoroughness of concept, R&D, quality of materials, and manufacture. There are designers who have the gift and get it right, so right; but not all do. In a totally modular design such as the Triangle Art Reference you are given a rock solid, high quality analog playback kit, if you will; a crate of high quality parts that can be configured and joined together into a harmonious and wonderful sounding analog playback system. My only quibble is that to me, it seems rather incomplete. While I understand that the Triangle Art’s design philosophy is to be modular and “open” enough to allow the end user to craft the playback system in the way that suits them, I find that there is some lack in functional design. For instance, in a design such as this, I would have included two or even three tonearm structural pods, so that multiple tonearm systems may be used. I also would have spaced the main tonearm pod at a distance greater from the spindle in order to accommodate up to 12- tonearms without any special oval tonearm board. The turntable also lacks a center weight or clamp. While I understand that this is meant to be for flexibility to the end user, it also needs to be said that due to the platter’s finish and composition, it is quite impossible to play a record without either a weight or clamp. So why not include one or make either one a choice at time of purchase?
In the end, these are all minor quibbles. Anyone who is going to spend $13,990 on an armless turntable is likely not going to be a novice at turntable set-up nor have a problem with any additional expenditures in associated and necessary accessories. In summary, the Triangle Art Reference is an excellent turntable platform with which to build a top-flight analog playback system. Congratulations to Tom Vu and the rest of the involved designers. I look forward to whatever else they may have up their sleeves!