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the Fat Bob Reference and Leonardo turntables
as reviewed by Danny Kaey
I guess political correctness has not had any measurable impact in Europe, or there would be no way that a company would christen a turntable the "Fat Bob Reference." The Fat Bob is a stunningly imposing turntable designed by Jochen Räke and made by the respected German manufacturer Transrotor. As there has been much confusion about the relationship of Transrotor turntables to those of another German company, Clearaudio, let me provide a little history.
Jochen Räke began importing turntables made by the British company called Transcriptor to his home country, Germany, in 1971. Over time, having played around with all the Transcriptors he could sell, Räke started formulating his own ideas about turntable design. The problem was that the British company was not receptive to anyone else’s ideas, especially if they were as controversial as Räke’s. No matter how hard he tried, the Brits wouldn’t budge, so the resolution was simple—make his own turntables! Hence, in 1973, Räke went into business on his own, designing turntables in Germany but manufacturing them in England, and Transrotor took shape as one of the leading turntable manufacturers worldwide. Räke was the first to use the revolutionary new material AcrylicGlass in turntable manufacture. Why did he insist on using AcrylicGlass when wood was a tenth or twentieth of the price? The answer was that the neutrality and resonance stability was something no wood-based table could match. Another of Räke’s firsts was his extensive use of a new manufacturing technique. The idea was as simple as it was ingenious—build all turntables so that their parts could be easily upgraded. For example, having the motor unit be a separate physical entity from the turntable (though there were other reasons for this) meant that one could not only easily service, but upgrade it.
From the late 70s through the early 80s, Transrotor did very well, but unfortunately, starting in 1982, Räke’s business took a 40% nosedive. Can you guess the cause? Yes, "Perfect Sound Forever" decimated the vinyl biz, and Räke was in need of drastic measures to stay afloat. He designed and marketed all sorts of audio add-ons and must-haves—speaker pucks, cleaning fluids, etc. All sold well, and Räke was soon back to making good money. As the years passed, the high end came back to turntables. Thus, some thirty-plus years later, Transrotor is going strong, in fact stronger than ever. The company has well over twenty different turntables in production.
This review started the beginning of last summer, when Dave Clark, after relentless bugging on my part, offered me a chance to review the entry-level Transrotor Leonardo. The Leonardo came, went, and conquered, and my love for vinyl was sealed. Quite overnight, I became a record collector, dabbing in pop, rock, and classical music. I now have a collection of about 100 or so records, which grows each first Sunday of the month, when a friend and I drive to the biggest record swap meet in Southern California.
I was so impressed with the Leonardo that I purchased a Fat Bob Reference, so this review will be a double-hitter, covering both models. I have given this much personal history so that you will take my review for what it is—an audiophile’s entry into a new mode of musical transportation. My knowledge, understanding, and appreciation for this medium will undoubtedly grow as I become more familiar with it. What I can and will do is provide a look into the comparative nature of turntables vs. CD players (in my case the Cary Audio 308T). Please don’t expect me to pinpoint tonearm qualities, cartridge qualities, simply because of my lack of experience in setting up cartridges and the absence of any other cartridges to compare in my system.
In the short time I have been around turntables, I have learned several things. First, since the musical signal is so small compared to the output of a line source, the amount of care that needs to be devoted to the construction of a turntable is extraordinary. Second, once you have captured that tiny, tiny signal, you’d better make sure you don’t lose any of it while its on the way to your speakers. It follows that the tonearm plays a tremendous role in the musical quality of a turntable. Both the Leonardo and the Fat Bob were outfitted with the same arm, a heavily modified Rega 250, and cartridge, the Shelter 501. The drive motors used in both turntables are sourced from a company called Pabst. Both are independent of the plinth—in the case of the Leonardo, the motor sits inside a hole in the acrylic plinth, and in the case of the Fat Bob, the motor is completely free of the plinth. In both cases, the only physical connection to the platter is the round rubber drive belt. Other characteristics shared by both tables include a hydrodynamic main bearing. This inverted bearing sits atop a steel shaft, which holds the subplatter upon which the main platter rests. The steel shaft sits in an oil bath, and as the platter turns. The shaft continuously pumps the oil up into the bearing, thus ensuring that the bearing is always supplied with the correct amount of lubrication. Räke feels that the subplatter yields a further increase in performance.
The main difference between the Leonardo and the Fat Bob is in the choice of materials. The Leonardo is made of the now famous AcrylGlass, while the Fat Bob (like most of the tables in the 2004 lineup) is made of aluminum, which puts it into the class of massive designs. The Fat Bob weighs more than seventy pounds! The Leonardo by comparison is in the welterweight category, around thirty pounds. In theory, mass equals rigidity, momentum, and solidity. While the tonearm is mounted directly onto the plinth in the case of the Leonardo, the Fat Bob utilizes a beam mounting system. The arm is mounted onto a solid beam of aluminum that bolts onto the plinth. You can mount up to two tonearms on the Fat Bob, as opposed to the single arm on the Leonardo. This was one reason why I chose the Fat Bob, as I felt that a reviewer should be able to play around with different tonearms and cartridges. Changing armboards is simple—you call Art Manzano at Axxis Distribution, tell him what arm you will be mounting, and several weeks later you are in possession of your new board, which will cost around $400, and be made to exact specifications.
The seemingly simple-looking Leonardo is not without upgrade options—a second subchassis, a heftier main platter, and a tonearm upgrade, as well as a beefier power supply, are all available to the Leonardo owner. The Fat Bob ships with the "Fine" power supply, which is stock on all tables above the $5K price point. I am told that Transrotor will introduce the "ultimate" power supply upgrade at CES, which will feature on-the-fly adjustments for speed, pitch, etc. It is also easy to add an additional drive motor to the Fat Bob, for a total of two. Again, the idea is simple—more motors theoretically equal more control of the platter, thus facilitating better speed control. The Fat Bob can thus be upgraded to quite the setup. I have no doubt that each upgrade will yield a corresponding increase in performance.
Let’s get down to the business of sound. The aspect of vinyl replay that really gets me going is taking a record out of the jacket, placing it on the platter, and putting the needle on the record. The entire mechanical interaction is absolutely fascinating to me, and sometimes I catch myself just watching a record play—the stylus grazing through the grooves, picking up musical information and sending it through the cartridge, the tonearm, and the cables into a phono preamplifier (in my case, an E.A.R. 834P, soon to be upgraded to the new and very, very good E.A.R. 324), from there to a preamp, and finally outputted to the speakers through the amplifier. Wow! What a journey for such a tiny signal to go through! Almost like finding Nemo.
A few of the records in my ever-growing collection come from Mike Hobson and his company, Classic Records. Take, for example, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. I have the remastered CD version of this jazz classic for direct comparison to the Classic reissue, and the results, using the Leonardo, are quite amazing. The music takes on a more lifelike character when vinyl is played. Resolution, timbre, soundstaging, and dynamics are all improved over the CD, in my opinion. I am not sure which of the Leonardo’s characteristics is the cause. Quite possibly, none is solely responsible, rather it is the sum of the parts. Even my wife, who is about as interested in sitting down to listen to music as I am in playing golf, intuitively distinguishes CD from vinyl. By the way, this LP is so quiet that there are NO surface noises to inform you that it is a record being played.
When I cued up the same track on the Fat Bob, the recording became even more believable. The timing, rhythm, and pace were improved over the Leonardo’s. Since the cartridge and tonearm were identical, it seems logical to conclude that the difference was due to the benefits of having a high-mass system. To elaborate on that premise, I played back a rather simple recording, Holly Cole’s double LP, also on Classic Records. Wow! This was truly a knock-you-off-your-feet experience—the album shone with its fabulous bass lines. I never imagined that vinyl could sound so good, particularly in the lower end of the sound spectrum. I have played this record to many friends, all of whom walk away in utter disbelief that an LP can sound so good. Playing that track on the Fat Bob almost seemed like perfect sound forever—imaging, dynamics, pace, et al., took on an in your-the-room quality. Close your eyes, dim the lights, and you have the Holly Cole Quintet in your room.
Playing records with even heavier bass lines, from such artists as Yello or Bill Laswell, I was really and truly in audio heaven. Laswell’s bass lines carry such impact and force that your pants will flap if you don’t tie them down! I have this recording on CD as well, and the Cary 308T is no match for the robust and unshakable Fat Bob. By comparison, the 308T has a somewhat elevated bass line, with a tiny bit of congestion. It’s quite possible that the sound of the Cary could be improved by tweaking, but let’s keep things in perspective here—the Cary is a $2500 CD player with a tube output stage vs. a $5500 turntable and arm combo, plus a $900 cartridge and a $1000 phono stage, making a grand total of $7500. It’s not really a fair comparison, is it? Of course, the Leonardo, priced more comparably at $2000, does a number on the Cary as well.
I recently purchased about fifteen LPs by jazz master Art Farmer on eBay. Though the recording varied in style, performance, and arrangement, one thing remained constant—Farmer’s mastery of the flugelhorn. I don’t own any of his CDs, so couldn’t make comparisons, but suffice it to say that his flugelhorn really comes alive on these records. The Leonardo excels in the areas of image size, definition, and resolution, giving very real and lifelike renditions. Speed, agility, and pace set the Fat Bob apart from the Leonardo—what the Leonardo has, the Fat Bob improves upon, though mind you at more than 2.5 times the price. I played the soundtrack to Star Trek’s The Motion Picture, a recording that is extremely dynamic, fluid, and simply glorious. Its enormous orchestral arrangement, which shines in soundstaging, instrument placement, and explosive dynamics, gave the Fat Bob the perfect opportunity to shine. This record shows what Transrotors can do. It has a very straightforward, no-BS presentation, aided both by the Transrotor and by the luscious presentation of the Shelter cartridge.
I spent several months and sixty bucks on eBay to find the quintessential Madonna album of the 90s, Ray of Light. Expertly composed by electronic guru and master mixer William Orbit, this tour de force of electronic pop shows off Madonna at her finest, and is perhaps her most groundbreaking performance. This double-LP, in a German Warner pressing, has the same tracks as the CD, and the sound quality was reported to be several notches higher. Charged up and ready to go, I placed the CD in the 308T and pressed play. The slow-ish opening track is very well produced, and quite revealing of system quality. If the sound is muted and ill defined, you have a problem! The Cary did a great job recreating Orbit’s imaginary soundstage. Depth, width, and presence were nicely executed, and the musical effects came across as intended. Putting the record on the two Transrotors revealed an even higher level of playback. Depth increased, and the overall sound was much more believable and focused. I preferred the sound of the Leonardo to the CD, and adding the Fat Bob to the mix made an even stronger case for the vinyl version. Pace, rhythm, and timing ascended to a whole new level, and the Cary was simply no match.
As time passes, I am becoming more and more drawn to the new/old world of vinyl. The reasons for this are quite simple—thousands of superb recordings are available on the format at quite reasonable prices (save for hard-to-find, deluxe collectors items). I typically find music for anywhere from one to five bucks, frequently with really good sound quality. Compare that to CD prices of around fifteen dollars per title, and you can easily figure out that spending a proportionally higher amount on an LP front end will still allow you to gain a substantial record collection. In addition, after years of hard sell, the market still has not settled in any meaningful way on the benefits of SACD and DVD-A. Who knows what the future will bring, but as I personally witnessed at this year’s CES, vinyl is here to stay and then some. Clearly, more has been done to elevate vinyl playback quality in recent years than during the heyday of the LP. Most important, entry-level gear, like the Music Hall tables or the Transrotor Leonardo, yield an astounding level of playback. Want ultra-high-rez playback? Forget SACD or DVD-A. Go to your local record store, swap meet, or eBay and get some vinyl, baby!
As for these two fine German products, the Leonardo, at $2K, is a bargain, especially considering the fact that it is capable of being considerably upgraded. The Fat Bob, even stock, has such a refined quality of playback that it is not necessary to go further unless you are looking for an absolutely reference-level analog playback source. On the other hand, did I mention that Transrotor’s Gravita is available for around $70K? Danny Kaey
For another take on the Leonardo, read Roger Gordon's review.
Importer for Transrotor and Shelter