POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 15
Reference LP 1.0 turntable
as reviewed by Francisco Duran
Let's get this straight from the start—LPs sounds much better than CDs! There is a catch, as usual. Turntables have to be set up properly and LPs need to be in good condition before decent sound can be brought forth from them. Tools and experience are needed to properly set up a turntable. If you can't perform the setup yourself, you should enlist the aid of an experienced person. Anyone who scours audio magazines, print or internet, knows that there is healthy competition in the turntable arena. The fact that a new company like Opera Audio is even offering a table says a lot about the company, and about the market in general.
This is a beautiful turntable, with a solid yet streamlined appearance. It looks similar to tables from Eurolab, Amazon, and even the new offering from Bottlehead, the Bix. Our sample came with a Consonance PM-6, a solid state phono stage that can accommodate moving magnet and moving coil cartridges, and that retails for $399. The table also came with a stock Rega RB-250 tonearm and a Grado Gold cartridge that lists for $180.
The plinth of the Opera Audio 1.0 is a massive piece of machined aluminum. My sample came in anodized black, with a small, nice-looking metal plate silk-screened with the word "Opera." The bearing is a large-diameter, inverted fixed spindle with a polished ceramic ball on a Teflon thrust plate. Why so much bearing? It has to support the machined 39mm acrylic platter. Opera went for the frosted look, but I would have preferred a clear platter. Some of the frosting rubbed off from handling and from the rubbing of the belt. With continued use, perhaps it will become polished to a clear finish! The monofilament belt, which looks thinner than most dental floss, wraps around both the platter and a Belgian-made, high-torque DC motor. On top of the round motor housing is a small switch that enables the user to run the unit in 33 1/3 or 45 RPM. The center position turns off the motor. Just above the switch are two holes, inside of which are slotted attenuators for speed adjustment—one for each speed. It takes a steady hand, a flashlight, and in my case, reading glasses in order to adjust the speed. With the aid of my newly-acquired Clearaudio strobe disc and strobe light (thanks to Mike Callen of Musical Surroundings), perfect speed was attained in no time. The Clearaudio disc should be used with a record playing, as the drag from the arm and cartridge should be part of the equation.
The arm base is comprised of four metal sections. First a rectangular plate is bolted to the underside of the plinth at a 45-degree angle. Bolted to the end of this plate are two round columns about the size of a roll of quarters. The top column is shorter than the bottom one (at least that is how the diagram in the instructions had it, and it ultimately proved to be correct). The armboard is then bolted to this column. The table came with two armplates, one to mount a Rega arm and the other to mount an SME. Stephen Monte, Opera's distributor, told me that the shorter of the two columns can be taken out in order to have space for adjusting VTA. After bolting this assembly together, we noticed that this left no room for VTA adjustment, but fortunately the VTA proved to be just right. There is a hole on the other side of the plinth to accommodate another arm base, which will prove rewarding for the vinyl enthusiast with more than one tonearm. The 1.0's arm mounting arrangement is quite different than the typical one-piece kind. It seems that because the base is in separate parts, unwanted vibrations will have several break-up points, while a one-piece unit creates an unobstructed path down which vibrations can travel.
Once the Opera 1.0 is bolted together, it is very solid. There are no loose screws or shifting parts of any kind. I placed the turntable on a three-tier Target rack directly behind one of my speakers. The table came with three pointy aluminum cones that screw into the bottom. There is also a copper and rubber cone option. The Target rack proved a solid foundation for the table.
It has been a long time—too long—since a turntable has been in my system, so to say that I was a little apprehensive to review a full-blown turntable setup is not an exaggeration, but with a little help from a friend, I was off and running in no time. This friend is an analog man extraordinaire from way back, so I called on his experience to set up the Opera. After the setup and the initial break-in period, everything was fine, but soon after, the sound, instead of improving, got progressively worse. The first thing I noticed was that during dynamic peaks, vocal or instrumental, there was quite a bit of distortion. After wondering if everything from the VTA to the SRA were okay, I went through my entire system to make sure everything else was working properly. So many things were swapped to make sure that the problem wasn't in the system, I literally went through two systems! Suspect records were played on yet another system to make sure the records weren't bad.
After all of this. I determined that the Grado had gone bad, so a new plan was hatched. Instead of getting my friend to install another cartridge, I did the job myself. I bought a Blue Point 2 from Sumiko, and with the help of a newly acquired Hi Fi News and Record Review test disc, which includes an excellent cartridge alignment tool, installed it on the Rega arm. The test record confirmed that I did the work as well as could be expected. The Blue Point tracked the disc with little or no distortion or arm drift. The Blue Point, a high-output moving coil design with a load impedance of 47 ohms, is close in price to the Grado Gold, so I innocently assumed it would be close in performance, but while the Grado was on the full, lush, and slightly forgiving side, the Blue Point leans to the other side of that scale. It sounds very clean and quick. More money will buy you more detail, space, and dynamics, but I have never felt cheated when listening to the Blue Point 2. When the Opera table is gone, it will be my reference cartridge.
While the new cartridge was breaking in, I would come home from work and play six to eight albums in a row. Vinyl would be spinning as long as the rest of my family could tolerate it. It was only later that I realized what was happening. Six to eight albums at a stretch, without listener fatigue! As a record was playing, my only thought was which one I would play next. This never happens when I listen to CDs! With CDs, I tend to turn to my favorite tracks, or switch discs before the CD plays through. I am sure that this is partly due to the convenience of the CD medium, but how many times have you gone to the house of one of your audio buddies to listen to music, and it turns into an audio demonstration? Listening turns into sound bites from specific tracks on certain CDs. Boring!
I am sure most of you are proud of your CD rigs, what with the special cables, supports, and magic mods of all kinds, inside and out, to aid in the reproduction of those CD sound bites. I too am the proud owner of such digital band-aids. The Opera Audio 1.0, on the other hand, was a stock turntable with a stock arm and an affordable cartridge, sitting on a Target rack that didn't even have sand in its legs, and no tweaky isolation platform under it. It was even located behind my speakers, which have rear-firing ports. Nevertheless, this analog rig drew me into every slab of vinyl like the Sirens did to Ulysses, and managed to bitch-slap my $2000 modified CD/DVD rig with ease. The sonic superiority vinyl over CD is mentioned in just about every turntable review ever written—it even shows up in CD player reviews! It certainly held true in my listening to the Opera Audio turntable.
LPs generally do sound better than their CD counterparts, but credit has to be given to the Opera 1.0. This is one very, very quiet turntable. The bearing configuration, the massive plinth and platter, and the separate motor all contribute to its silent operation. I presume that the four-piece arm base is also a factor. I performed the usual homespun stress tests to confirm what I was hearing, or more exactly, not hearing—pounding (lightly) on the platter while it was not spinning, flicking the plinth and platter and middle of the tonearm (at rest), and so on. None of it proved of consequence. The Opera 1.0 provides a solid foundation for the extraction of music from LP grooves.
I started my listening using Opera's $400 PM-6 phono preamp. This rather small unit comes with a separate power supply and has no negative feedback. It sports a beautiful wooden faceplate with engraved lettering. It can handle MM or MC cartridges, with a load impedance of 47K ohms for MM and 3 to 800 ohms for MC. Gain is 40dB and 60 dB respectively. The PM-6 sounded relatively clean, and handled dynamics very well. Bass weight was very good, as was soundstaging. The only problem was that there were two other phono stages of note in my house at the same time. First was the phono section from ATC's new SCA-2 preamplifier. Compared to the ATC, the PM-6 sounded very slow. The two units had similar timbre and tone, but the PM-6's bass was not as deep, and it had a trace of grain. It was the Cary PH-302 phono preamp that brought out the best from the Opera table. Words like "airy," "clear," and "clean" apply in spades to this unit. In his PFO review of the PH-302, Bob Levi mentioned "master-tape-like nuance and clarity." I would add "smooth and accurate, with very good bass and dynamics." For these reasons, I used it for the bulk of my listening to the Opera 1.0.
I once took pride in resisting the temptation to buy a CD that I already had on vinyl. After all, I would soon acquire a turntable to replace my old AR ES-1, right? Since this never happened, resistance gave way to temptation, and many of my LPs now share shelf space with their CD counterparts. At first, it was hard not to compare them, not only to verify what has been written by countless audio scribes, but to reassure myself that I hadn't saved my old LPs all these years for nothing. It was interesting to discover that albums like the first two releases by Mike and the Mechanics, or Robert Plant's solo efforts, Pictures at Eleven and The Principal of Moments, sounded almost as bad on LP as they did on CD, although despite the frequently harsh, sterile, and glaring sound of these LPs, they had an inviting appeal when played on the Opera 1.0. They certainly sounded less flat than the CDs, and had a wholeness of sound that could be easily heard. I was better able to listen through entire LP sides. The lack of noise of the Opera 1.0—again one of its big strengths—brought out what was on these records. If your arm and cartridge are up to it, the 1.0 will produce no mechanical artifacts.
I became a kid in a candy store, shopping for more licorice! How about Shaggy's Hot Shot LP, which I bought at this year's CES in anticipation of being able to play it? Or, let's try Bob Marley's Uprising and Stevie Wonder's Hotter than July. I picked up those two at the monthly Pasadena record swap meet. They are in great shape, and sounded solid, full, and rock steady on the Opera table. I loved the keyboards on Marley's "Could This Be Love." The rhythms were fast and tight, and the instrument filled a wide pocket behind and around the chorus, with Marley's textured but smooth vocals popping out in the front of the stage.
On the song "Master Jammer," on Hotter Than July, the organ comes in delicately from deep in the rear of the stage while the horns blast slightly in front of it and the bass and drums lay down a solid, tight, almost haunting riff. On the Shaggy LP, the low-frequency synth notes filled my listening room. My favorite track on this double album has to be "It Wasn't Me," a tale of getting caught in the act! The line,"Honey came in and she caught me red handed freaking with the girl next door" says it all. Get out your air bass guitars on this one, guys.
To get the dynamic sweep of a full orchestra, I played a Mobile Fidelity release from a few years ago, Respighi's Pines of Rome and Feste Romane with Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra. On several crescendos on this disc, a musical tidal wave was reproduced in front of me. Of course, my new Dali Euphonia MS-4 speakers helped here, plummeting effortlessly to below 30Hz.
Bass and dynamics aren't the only things I crave. With a little luck, I picked up Lee Ritenour's Festival LP at Amoeba Records for the princely sum of $1.95. My CD copy of this has almost been worn to the other side. As much as I love this record, the CD sounds flat, flat, flat in comparison to the LP, which has much more air, spaciousness, and body. Ritenour is famous for his clean and precise playing. Turntables with large plinths and platters have the reputation of being ponderous and slow in some audio circles, but this was absolutely not the case with the Opera table. One cut, "Latin Lovers," showcases Ritenour's fast, but impeccably fluid picking style (eat your heart out, Eddie V). This turntable did not hinder his greased lightning lead acoustic guitar part one iota. The excellent speed stability of this table surely helps account for its excellent performance in this area.
Another of my favorite ax men is Pat Metheney. The Opera displayed the subtle interplay of acoustic and electric guitars on tracks like "Daybreak," from New Chautauqua. The color and texture of each instrument was easily discernible. There is a decay of the guitar sound at the end of several tracks on this album. The Opera turntable never truncated or exaggerated this musical artifact, but reproduced it naturally.
I then called two albums from the early 80s into action, Kittyhawk's self-titled debut and their Race For the Oasis LP. This group showcased an instrument called the Chapman Stick, played by group members Daniel Bortz and Paul Edwards. This ten-string instrument goes from the bass frequencies to the treble ones with ease. The title track of Race for the Oasis really shows the prowess of the Stick, and the Opera table allowed its fluidity and dynamics to come through unimpeded. The drums were taut and fast, the sax natural and realistic, and the Chapman Stick vibrant and vivid. The Opera transported me back to those fusion days!
On Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with Van Cliburn and Eric Satie: Piano Music Volume 1 on Angel, pitch stability was very good. The notes never sounded wobbly, nor did the piano's image waver. The piano on the Satie disc sounded especially solid and holographic. It was solidly placed on the stage, with plenty of air surrounding it. It felt real good to dust off this album, and to once again revel in the beauty of this master's work.
The last thing I wanted to do was to take this table apart and return it to National Distribution, but before wrapping up this article, I indulged in a little music party. No, I didn't play Belafonte at Carnage Hall, or Patricia Barber, or the direct-to-disc LP of the singing Bulgarian ladies. How about Hard Again from Muddy Waters, Drinking TNT and Smoking Dynamite from Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, and The Chambers Brothers' Greatest Hits? This was the kind of action elicited by this turntable. It made me want to play LP after LP, and wallow in the gorgeous music. With this turntable, audiophile albums are not a prerequisite for musical enjoyment.
I cannot comment about how well the Opera 1.0 stands up to turntables costing two, three, or even four times its price, but it handily beat two well-known British turntables of roughly equivalent price. This proved that to better the performance of the Opera, it will be necessary to spend considerably more than its asking price. While improvements could be made with a better arm and cartridge, with isolation support, or with a record clamp, the 1.0 shone in stock form. I tried my Ginkgo Cloud 10 under the 1.0, and the improvements were very positive, offering greater separation of instruments and a more open and musical sound. If you buy this turntable, tweak to your heart's content! The Opera 1.0 turntable inspired me to play music for hours upon hours without fatigue. It provides a solid and stable platform on which to build a very enjoyable analog future. Francisco Duran