POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 23
Impressions: The Walker Audio Proscenium Gold Signature Turntable System, a Photo Essay, Reflective Digression, & Review - Page 5
as reviewed by David Robinson
All images and image processing by Robinson; drawings by Bruce Walker & Dan Zimmerman
Extended notes on the Proscenium Gold Signature system
Over the past year it's been my privilege to spend a lot of time with the Walker Audio Proscenium system, and all the additional components and enhancements that Lloyd has sent along to me for evaluation. Though the traditional differences between solid state and tubed gear are being erased at the reference level in a kind of grand convergence of audio virtues, I will say that I have listened to the Proscenium with solid state gear (Linn's very fine Kontrol reference preamp on the Walker Audio Prologue Rack and Klimax monoblocks on Star Technologies Sistrum SP-101 stands @ 500 Watts, and the extraordinary darTZeel NHB-108 stereo amplifier at 100 Watts a side on the Walker Audio Prologue Rack, both in unbalanced and balanced input configurations), SETs (Wavac's superb HE-833 v1.3 monos @ 150 Watts per box mounted on Star Technologies Sistrum SP-101 stands), OTLs (Jud Barber's brilliant Rite of Passage monos @ 220 Watts per on Critical Mass Systems stands), and parallel push-pull (Red Rock's surprising Renaissance monos @ 50 Watts per tower on Walker Audio Prologue amp stands). This has given me the rare opportunity to assess the capabilities of the Proscenium system and of the Walker Audio approach to fine audio, and to evaluate the place of the Proscenium Gold Signature in the turntable pantheon. It has also allowed me to think through the character of the audio virtues that Walker Audio brings to the table (no pun intended…well, not much, anyway) in any system in which its philosophy and products are applied. I have come to the conclusion that these contributions to the audio arts are nothing less than revolutionary, for reasons I will explore.
We all love "best of" lists. Recordings, books, movies; cars, wines, single malts; cigars, writers, actors; composers, painters, sculptors; poets, writers, philosophers; architects, essayists, singers—all have their lists. Fine audio is no exception; ask any turntable connoisseur what his or her list of favorite 'tables, tonearms, cartridges, or phono amps would include, and you'll undoubtedly get an earful about the comparative strengths of their top contenders. Aficionados are passionate creatures, and quite often disagree more often than they agree. Nevertheless, there is, I think, a general agreement as to which knights belong at the round table of the of the turntable arts: certainly the SME 30, the Rockport System III Sirius, and the Walker Proscenium are almost always mentioned. To that short list might be added according to taste and in no particular order—stifle the flames, please—the Basis Work of Art, the Clearaudio Master Reference, the Transrotor Tourbillion Gold, the La Luce CS Centoventi, the Simon Yorke, the VYGER Indian Signature, the Verdier La Platine ...and the list could go on, according to taste.
Regardless, I don't think I've ever seen a list of the "top five turntables" that didn't have the Walker Audio Proscenium on it. The question of which is "the best" is probably unanswerable to the general satisfaction of all, but I do know what my experience is telling me after a year with this turntable.
The Walker Audio Proscenium Gold Signature is the finest turntable system that I have ever heard, bar none.
Now I've done it—ruined the suspense.
And here are some thoughts as to why I've come to this conclusion.
In a recent review of the SOTA Millennia, I summarized major categories of turntable design, and covered some basic concepts and terms. (See http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue22/sota_millennia.htm; please review that article if you are new to turntables.) In short, there are a number of different aspects to turntable design: the suspension, the drive system, the tonearm, the type of cartridge, vacuum vs. clamping vs. nothing for hold-down, and so on. Every turntable designer has his or her own take on which path to take; each has its combination of plusses and minuses.
The configuration that Lloyd Walker has chosen to execute is a very demanding one: a massive air-suspended plinth with a massive air bearing platter (totaling nearly 250 pounds all by themselves); a linear tracking, air-suspended carbon fiber toneararm with damping that's adjustable during playback; a high-precision motor with a silk belt drive and an adjustable platform; a heavy record clamp, but no vacuum hold-down (Lloyd considers these to degrade the sound); and meticulously crafted VTA and tracking force controls.
The sophistication of Walker Audio's engineering doesn't end there. To support the design philosophy, Walker Audio has designed a no-holds-barred phono amp (the Walker Audio Reference Phono Amp, Second Edition) with its own dedicated dual mono power supply, a motor controller (the Walker Audio Ultimate Motor Controller), a complete set of isolation points and resonance tuning discs (the Walker Valid Points Resonance Control System), a power enhancer (the Walker Audio Velocitor Power Line Enhancer), and contact treatment (the Extreme Super Silver Treatment [E-SST] Contact Enhancer). These can (and should) be placed on his Walker Audio Prologue Racks, Platforms and Stands. That's not to mention his speaker enhancers (the Reference High Definition Links [HDL]), or his Ultra Vivid Picture and Sound Enhancement treatment. In 2006 Walker Audio plans to release their new Reference Line Preamp as well, filling in an obvious gap in the great chain of audio being.
At the groove end of things, Walker Audio firmly recommends the Micromagic Magic Diamond, a low-medium output, low compliance MC that Lloyd believes to provide the best signal for his turntable system. By the way, since the specifications for the Magic Diamond cartridge are hard to find, I am including these here, pro bono publico:
(Every phono cartridge is unique, with no two having exactly the same tracking force. After the preliminary nominal setup, Lloyd and Fred dialed in the exact tracking force by ear. By the end of some careful listening, they set the tracking force of my Magic Diamond review sample to about 2.25 grams. Lloyd recommends re-evaluating tracking force after the cantilever is broken in, since one can normally lighten the force a bit over time.)
All of the Walker Audio components are connected with a remarkable degree of synergy and good mojo by power cables and connectors by either Omega Mikro or Silent Source, depending on your environment and your taste for adventure. Lloyd has also identified key supporting products for LP playback, pre-eminently Duane Goldman's excellent Disc Doctor Miracle Record Cleaner (see http://www.discdoc.com/; Walker Audio also handles this Brutus Award-winning product).
In short, Walker Audio has taken the entire chain of LP audio playback from the groove/stylus outputs to the speaker inputs and optimized it for their vision of what LP playback can be. It's very rare to see this level of dedication to getting every last percentage point of performance from LP playback—but that's what Walker Audio is all about. That's also why they've taken the PFO Gizmo Award in both 2004 and 2005; these folks are true audiomaniacs! Harvey Rosenberg would be proud….
Keys to understanding the Proscenium design
As I see it, there are several elements in the Walker Audio philosophy that contribute to the quality of their design. Once you understand these, it is easier to understand the composition, topology, and uncompromising attention to detail that the Proscenium system embodies.
First off, it is clear that mass is at the heart of the turntable system itself. Walker Audio obviously rests its turntable design premises on the need for significant gravitas to provide maximum stability for LP playback. Many turntables have a platter composed of aluminum or acrylic that weighs perhaps 10-20 pounds; Walker Audio casts their platter of solid lead, polish it to very high precision, and encase it—the resulting platter tips the scale at a massive 75 pounds (!). Furthermore, the underlying plinth and chassis, constructed of a composite of marble, lead, and epoxy, brings another 170 pounds to the mix. All totaled, the Proscenium is some 245 pounds; by the time you add the Prologue Stand, the Prologue Rack (with its lead-filled brass legs), the Valid Points, and the other components, you have a system that weighs in at around 500 pounds. To increase the effect of mass loading, Walker's coated brass record clamp (another several pounds all by itself) firmly locks the LP to the underlying platter.
There is a context to Walker Audio's use of mass, however. In addition to mass, the Proscenium accomplishes isolation in its non-suspended design through the use of air-suspension of both the chassis/plinth and the platter to provide maximum decoupling of the turntable from its heavily loaded and specially layered maple platform/rack. (Walker's maple stands and racks are not simple "butcher blocks"; their construction has been optimized to provide quickness and isolation without frequency anomalies.) This is not a low pressure air system; the Proscenium's sophisticated air pump and associated isolation tanks provide 45 PSI of constant air pressure, sufficient to suspend the plinth and platter and keep the tonearm guide clear of dust. Air spike isolation and humidity control is accomplished through a series of tanks, coils and chambers that provide a reliable flow to the turntable. In the full Proscenium system, the air-suspension is furthered by the sandwiching of Sorbothane between the Prologue Stand and the Prologue Rack. The linear tracking, air suspended tonearm also minimizes the interaction between the turntable's foundation and the tonearm/cartridge. Walker Audio's use of tonearm damping completes that package—one in which significant mass floats lightly on cushions of air. This represents a "best of both worlds" in LP playback design.
Of equal importance in the design and execution of the Proscenium system is the powerful emphasis that Walker places on adjustability. Of all the turntables that I have worked with, I don't think that I've ever seen one that allows the adjustment of so many LP parameters with such incredible precision. The Proscenium allows a listener to adjust tracking force to the nearest hundred of a gram. VTA can be adjusted for any thickness of LP: I now routinely do VTA for 130 or 140 gram, 160 gram, 180 gram, 200 gram, and 200+ gram pressings with ease, and could do anything in between, above, or below, due to the wide range and extreme precision of VTA adjustment allowed. 185 gram? 195 gram? Not a problem with the Proscenium. (Note that neither tracking force nor VTA are adjustable during playback, a deliberate design decision by Walker Audio.) Damping can be adjusted during playback by turning a simple brass screw on the damping trough any fraction of a turn desired; I can even adjust it by wicking a bit of damping oil onto the damping pin with the VTA locking tool at any moment. Leveling of the massive plinth/platter can be accomplished via the large brass leveling knob on the front of the plinth. Speed control for both 33.3 and 45 RPM is handled by adjusting calibration knobs on the Walker Ultimate Motor Controller while using the supplied KAB strobe and disc. (Since this is a linear tracking system, you don't have to worry about anti-skate, the bane of uni-pivot tonearms.) Drive belt tension can be adjusted quite easily using a large brass knob on the motor platform.
In other words, the Proscenium Gold Signature system provides a truly remarkable level of adjustability of all aspects of LP playback, and can do so with micrometer-level precision. I've never seen or used anything like it in my 16 years of audio reviewing.
A digression on "tweaky"—blowing this devil out of the water!
Given the extraordinary adjustability of the Proscenium system, I need to interrupt my thoughts to address one of the most commonly heard complaints about it. On a handful of occasions I've heard variations on the comment that the Proscenium is "quite a turntable, but it's too tweaky." By "tweaky," I take it that some turntable cognoscenti believe the Proscenium to be "too complex," with an underlying suspicion (I take it) that such a highly adjustable instrument must, of necessity, drift out of adjustment with grim regularity, leaving its user high and dry. Furthermore, such complexity must mean that the listener is overwhelmed with highly arcane procedures that he or she can't learn, and that they'll be frustrated because they'll be constantly "tweaking" the VTA, or the pump system, or the damping, or some other bloody thing that's always going wrong.
Having used the Proscenium system for over a year now, I can categorically state that the Proscenium Gold Signature turntable system is not "tweaky." Period!
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The Proscenium is extremely adjustable, and precisely so—it is engineered to be impeccable in that regard. You can use its capabilities whenever you require, to get absolutely the most out of vinyl playback. In fact, the Proscenium is so wonderfully adjustable that I have become quite practiced at shiftting the VTA from LP to LP, and don't think twice about it. Damping has become second nature. It isn't arcane or hard; getting the hang of it doesn't take long at all.
On the other hand, if you DON'T change a setting, it WON'T change all by itself. These settings stay where you leave them. They don't walk away. If you don't adjust them, they won't adjust themselves. And you WON'T be "tweaking" and cursing.
Which, my friends, is somewhere at the far edge of the known universe away from "tweaky."
During the past fourteen months, I have put constant use on the Proscenium review sample, carefully monitoring it for "drifting out of adjustment/calibration" (thus equaling the much dreaded "tweaky"). I constantly changed VTA as needed (some people never adjust VTA, and thus never get to know what their LPs can really do), kept damping right, and strobed for speed accuracy (these never drifted from being spot on). I kept an eye on the plinth level (it never changed), and made sure that the air pump's oil/water catch bottle was emptied when it became too full (only had to empty it once in 14 months). I watched the oil level in the pump (only had to add oil once in 14 months).
In fact, during the past 14 months, not one parameter of the Proscenium Gold Signature ever "drifted out of adjustment" in any way. If I didn't change it, it was nailed down. (I should also point out that this is the experience of other Proscenium users, as well. Albert Porter of PFO told me that his Proscenium hasn't "drifted" in years, and has been trouble-free. I suspect that other Proscenium owners could chime in with variations on that theme.) To put it another way, I found the Proscenium to be trouble-free, stable, and reliable. No break-downs; no hassles; no muss; no fuss.
So much for "tweaky"; in my experience, the notion doesn't apply to the Proscenium at all.
In sum: with the Proscenium, "highly adjustable" does not mean "always drifting away," "complex" does not mean "always breaking down," and "extraordinary precision" does not equate to "hopelessly arcane." In my experience, these are complete misconceptions, and are simply wrong in the case of the Proscenium.
You need not fear constant fiddling and twiddling with the Proscenium system. In fact, it will almost certainly be the most stable and reliable source component in your audio system.
Enough said on the subject.
To complete the profile of key elements in the Walker Audio design philosophy, I should also mention Walker's commitment to optimized design as opposed to "plug and pray" mix 'n match approaches to LP playback. By this I mean that every component in the Proscenium system chain has been vigorously (some would say "maniacally") evaluated for the maximum degree of performance with all other links in the playback chain. Lloyd and Fred listen to capacitors …and to varieties of silver wire …and to MC cartridges…and to wood…and to lead …and to tuning discs…and to materials of all sorts …and to non-cryo vs. cryo (no surprise, they chose cryo) …and are always fighting to find "another 5%-10%." They've gotten the PFO Gizmo Award two years running because they never quit trying to find the next level of design optimization.
Which leads me to a final design distinctive for Walker Audio: they have a clear understanding and appreciation for the primary importance of system synergy. Anyone who's been reading my work over many years now knows the significance that I assigned to synergy very early on. Walker's optimized design in the Proscenium have clearly been focused on achieving the maximum synergy possible—even if it meant going to extraordinary lengths to get that last few percentage points.
And this is exactly what Walker has done.
Mass. High adjustability and precision. Optimized design. System synergy.
That's the Proscenium Gold Signature system in a nutshell.
Extended listening impressions
From the initial listening session to the present day, my appreciation for what the Proscenium Gold Signature and the related system of Walker Audio gear can do for vinyl playback has deepened from an initial amazement, to a profound delight. When Lloyd and Fred first fired up the Proscenium on day one, it left the PFO group with a pretty powerful impression. I think that everyone there would agree that we were in the presence of an extremely important turntable design. The only question was really as to how fine the Proscenium was. Top o' the heap? Or just one of the top 3-5?
To do this sort of evaluation takes time. As mentioned in the photo essay section, I had the opportunity to hear the Proscenium Gold Signature system with a number of other reference grade amplifier topologies over 14 months: solid state (Linn and darTZeel), SET (Wavac), OTL (Joule Electra), and parallel push-pull (Red Rock). In each case, my impressions were confirmed as being independent of these topologies; the Proscenium system had the same strengths no matter what was handling the signal downstream.
And so, how would I characterize the complete Walker Audio Proscenium Gold Signature system with the Magic Diamond MC and the Omega Mikro/Silent Source cabling? What were the strengths and weaknesses?
Well, as to weaknesses…frankly, I haven't noticed any. There wasn't any aspect of vinyl playback performance that I could fault. In part, I attribute this to the remarkable linear tracking system that Lloyd and Fred have developed. The usual grumpiness about inner groove nasties and the lack of frequency accuracy and balance across the surface of an LP simply don't apply at all. In fact, I found that I didn't have to clean the Magic Diamond but once in a blue moon; the linear tracking of this turntable keeps the MC nicely parallel to the groove, thus cutting vinyl wear to an absolute minimum. (I do keep my LPs very clean; this helps as well.)
The Magic Diamond MC provided exceptionally detailed output, with deep bass, glorious mids, and extended upper frequencies. Once Walker had gone to twisted pair silver and completed calibration, the Walker Audio Reference Phono Amp with its gain of approximately 64dB was exceptionally quiet. It helped that the Magic Diamond has a medium output (.38 mV) rather than a low output; the resulting volume and dynamics were extraordinary, even on vinyl that I'd listened to for many a year. As a matter of fact, from the very first listening session the Proscenium system left me awestruck. Since then, my admiration for its playback has simply grown.
The strengths of the Proscenium system are legion. Here's my summary list:
It's my understanding that some audio commentators have carped that the Proscenium can't be properly evaluated, since it has "no sound of its own," or is "too adjustable," or some such other sad stuff.
This leaves me both a- and be-mused. I believe that such comments may reflect a fundamental error in understanding the goal of fine audio reproduction. I believe that fine audio's goal is to reproduce the original mic feed or master tape with all possible faithfulness—with what we traditionally called "high fidelity"—so that "accuracy" (equivalence to the original source signal) and "musicality" (the emotional connection with the music, bridging with the realm of the Spirit) may become one. [As a corollary: If "accuracy" produces something that is not "musical," then we need to better what we're doing in the studio and in production. Pouring treacle on ugly recordings is not the way to glory in fine audio.]
Let me put it this way. I would agree—most emphatically—that the Proscenium system as I have it in my listening room, has no sound of its own. But that is exactly the measure of its true greatness as an audio design. The Proscenium's exceptional array of controls, once mastered, allows the listener to pull the purest, most faithful possible signal from LPs.
The "sound" of the Proscenium, properly handled, is the sound of the LP—nothing else.
And, in my opinion, that's the way it should be.
Every person's audio continuum has its own superlative, that summum bonum that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. On the question of fine turntables, the question has been answered for me. The Walker Audio Proscenium Gold Signature turntable system, with all the ancillary Walker Audio gear listed below, is absolutely the very best vinyl playback system that I've ever heard, without qualification. I doubt that there is a better turntable on the planet.
Can I be absolutely categorical about this? No, in all honesty, I cannot. Since I haven't heard several other well-regarded turntable/tonearm/MC combinations (e.g., the SME 30 with the new Graham arm and a reference grade Koetsu, the current favorite of my audiobud Brian Hartsell, or the Basis Work of Art, or the Clearaudio Master Reference, or the Simon Yorke) in my own listening room—or even in listening rooms that I know and trust—I'd have to reserve the hammer of categorical judgment. I don't doubt that the fine audio pantheon of turntables would include at least 6-10 other designs, some of which I may explore in the coming years, the devil of logistics permitting. But I do doubt that any of these would be fighting for anything other than second place and below on my personal reference list.
So, unless a turntable system arrives that does things that I can't even imagine—and I can imagine a lot, you know—the Walker Audio Proscenium Gold Signature system with the Magic Diamond MC will remain at the very top of the list, that rarest of the rare: my global reference standard for what is possible in turntable playback.
As a matter of fact, I feel so strongly about this that I am making every effort to purchase the review system in toto, which for me will be a major financial sacrifice. If it turns out to be possible, then the Proscenium system/Omega Mikro/Silent Source matrix will not be leaving here.
You can do the same. If you have the means, and are looking for the very finest turntable, one that will give you everything your grooves are trying to bring to you, for better or worse, look no further than the Walker Audio Proscenium Gold Signature system—I think this is it.
System as reviewed:
Approximate system price: $85,000
IMPORTANT NOTE: Once again, I reminder the reader that the purchase of a Walker Audio Proscenium system now includes the cost of Lloyd Walker and Fred Law personally setting up and optimizing the system, as they did for me. Call Walker Audio for details.
For current component/system pricing, see the Walker Audio website, or contact Walker Audio via phone. Walker Audio can also advise you about the Magic Diamond MC cartridge, Omega Mikro cables, Silent Source cables, and The Disc Doctor LP cleaning system.