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music hall, creek, and goldring the MMF-7 turntable, OBH-8SE phono stage, and Eroica H cartridge
as reviewed by Mike Malter
I remember the moment very well, though it was over twenty years ago. I was getting ready to listen to some music. I had just cleaned my favorite record, and as it began to play on my Dual 1219, my heart sank as my ears were assaulted by loud pops and grunge. I had used too much cleaning liquid again, and it sounded like I was listening through a layer of chewing gum. At my wits end, I swore a holy oath that if there ever were a way to listen to music without all that surface noise, I would dump my record collection in a New York minute and jump on that bandwagon. I hated analog. It was dirty, messy, and complicated. Even taping records on my cassette deck or reel-to-reel fell short. Everything either wore out, or sounded worse every time I played it. I listened to music less and less, and over the years my sweet Sansui amp became nothing more than something to plug my TV into. I gave my turntable and record collection to a young family friend who came to work for me for the summer.
Fast forward many years to a newfound love for music that I backed into from home theater, and I am now fussing with mods to CD players and grappling with digital grit and glare. SACD? DVD-A? HDCD? Oversampling and brick wall filters? Are my speakers too hot? Are the glass doors on my fireplace causing first reflections? What about my coffee table? I did cover that up, didnt I? What about my TV, do I leave that blanket there? Why cant I love music like I used to? Was it just that everything was better at nineteen? Doesnt life begin at fifty?
Now Im back full circle. I am trying vinyl again, and thats what this review is about. Its not an expert review of a turntable and phono stage, as I dont have that expertise. This is about the journey of a disaffected digital guy back to vinyl. For my experiment, I settled on a combination of a Music Hall MMF-7 turntable with a Creek OBH-8SE phono stage. The Music Hall has a reputation for being very good value for the moneythe kind of turntable you pick up if you really love music, dont have deep pockets, and yet want to get something that will at least reveal the promise of the medium. It is the same with the Creek, not costly but bang for the buck. I purchased the turntable and phone stage, along with some cleaning and setup equipment and a few records, from Music Direct. Everything arrived double-boxed and in good shape.
The turntable was packed okay. The Goldring Eroica H cartridge comes mounted to the tonearm, making setup easy, but despite the fact that the plastic stylus guard was taped to the arm, it had been pushed up and over to one side. This could mean a poor job of packaging or that the box got a bump along the way and the stylus guard gave up its life doing its job. I spoke to Music Hall Vice President Leland Leard about the packaging, He said that they had had some problems early on, but found that taping the guard to the stylus helped. He also pointed out that when Goldring ships their cartridges, they use that same stylus guard minus the tape, and have few problems. I guess you just have to chalk it up to the complexity of shipping turntables. On balance, they get good grades for packaging.
The setup was difficult for me, and took a little over two hours because the instruction sheet was confusing. It is not that it is inaccurate, more that it had not been checked for clarity. The instructions were technically correct, but a little elaboration here and there would have saved me trouble. For example, there is a black plastic tube that the motor comes packaged in. It fits perfectly into the motor hole in the plinth, and it looks important, so I kept thinking it was part of the motor assembly. It wasnt. Bes Nievera at Music Direct was very helpful in walking me through this and other problems. He did not know I was reviewing the unit, so there was no special treatment.
Another problem was the anti-skate weight. It is attached to the end of a thin nylon chord that is supposed to have a loop in it, to be placed in one of the three notches on the end of the arm. That loop was missing, so I had to tie it myself. Welcome to the world of not enough hands and too-thick fingers, all too common in vinyl land. I at least had the presence of mind to tie it as close to the opposite end of the string as possible, to prevent the weight from catching on the hook as the tonearm tracked across the record. I did not know whether that was the right place to put the knot, and it was not clear to meeven though the directions did say sothat the loop was to be positioned in the middle notch. I put it at the end of the tonearm, which made my anti-skate force heavier that it should have been.
Another problem that definitely needs some rewriting in the manual concerns the counterweight. The tracking force recommended for the Eroica cartridge is 1.75 grams. I know this, not because of anything in the instruction sheet, but because I went on the web, researched Goldring, and found their published recommendations. The way Music Hall instructs you to dial in the appropriate weight is confusing. They tell you to screw on the counterweight, then detach the tonearm from its holder and adjust the weight until the tonearm floats. Then they tell you to move the numbers so that 0 is at the top and turn it to 17 for the proper weight. They dont tell you that the numbers are on a band that rotates, and when you move the number to 0 you want to rotate only the band, not the weight. Rotating the weight blows the baseline you just set, and that is exactly what I did. Luckily I ordered the Shure stylus gauge when I ordered the turntable, and when I double-checked the tracking force I caught my mistake. After I realized that you are supposed to move only the band, I went back and set the tonearm up again, just to see what would happen. This time I slid only the band to 0, then turned the whole assembly to 17. The tracking force was almost dead on.
Finally, there was one problem that was factory relatedoverhang. The cartridge was too far back. This is an important setting, because if the cartridge is too far forward or backward, the soundstage will sound lopsided. When I spoke with Leland about this problem, he knew immediately what to so. He told me to move the cartridge a little forward and listen to the Cardas setup record a few times, and I finally got it right.
A word here about tools. You really need to get a few things to get the most out of playing vinyl, and the following is not a definitive list. Youll need a stylus gauge to measure tracking force. You should get a test record with tones for each channel to clearly hear how measurements affect sound. Another helpful tool is a protractor to properly align your cartridge. Finally, the heart and soul of any record collection is a cleaning systemnot just a dry brush, which you will also need, but one of those systems with wet brushes and liquid. Clean your records before you play them for the first time. Youll reduce static and remove mold release and other gunk in the grooves. It will save wear and tear on your records and stylus, and I swear it will sound like you spent another thousand bucks on equipment.
The bad news about my setup experience was that there were problems. The good news is that the support network to help customers with those problems is alive and well. Both Music Hall and Music Direct were helpful and resolved any issues. My setup issues were speed bumps, and the results I have gotten have more than made up for them. The other thing is that vinyl is like that. You have to be a little more aware, more educated. Vinyl is not as convenient as those shiny round thingies.
Now that we are done with setup, lets look at the gear. The OBH-8SE lives up to its billing, producing transparent, dynamic, and revealing sound. It is a class A gain stage with passive RIAA equalization and zero negative feedback. The SE version is an upgraded configuration of the OBH-8units with the SE designation come with a higher-grade OBH-2 power supply. Creek says that they use higher grade and closer tolerance components in that unit, and it also has improved circuitry that is supposed to provide lower noise and distortion and higher gain. Creeks uses discrete transistors instead of integrated circuits. They say this provides the flexibility to use circuit topology more normally found in high end equipment. The OBH-8SE uses 1% metal film resistors and polypropylene capacitors. Creek also makes an OBH-9SE for moving coil cartridges.
Music Hall includes a really nice moving coil cartridge. The Goldring Eroica H, which comes mounted on the tonearm, sells for around $400 separately. Its posted frequency response is 20 Hz to 22 KHz. The "H" means that it is a high output moving coil cartridge. The output of the Eroica is 2.5 mV compared to Goldrings other MC offerings, the LX and Elite, which are both 0.5 mV. The output of the other Goldring moving magnet cartridges is 6.5 mV. In my opinion, a higher output MC cartridge gives you the best of both worldsthe musical nuance of an MC cartridge and the convenience and lower cost of using a higher output cartridge.
The features offered by the MMF-7 are outstanding at this price point. There is nothing I know of on the current market that even comes close to offering these features at its price. Vibration control is the major challenge in turntable design, and the MMF-7 does it right. The paradox here is that vibration is at once the villain and hero. The stylus has to vibrate to make music, but you want the right kind of vibration or music it aint. The MMF-7 eats unwanted vibrations for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Here is a small story about what I mean. Early on, I wanted to get a feel for how music would sound if I routed the signal through the regular analog inputs in my Parasound preamp. Normally, the leads from the Creek are plugged into the Parasounds analog bypass to get around the DSP. After I moved the leads, I started to compare the music in the different processor modes. There really are only two that have any relevance herestereo mode, which is just the two main speakers playing, and music mode, which blends output among all the speakers. After moving back and forth between stereo and music modes, I concluded that listening through the analog bypass sounded better, but I wanted to listen more closely to music mode to hear what the Parasound was doing. I switched over music mode and turned up the volume. After a few minutes I looked up, and it dawned on me that my turntable and center speaker were on the same shelf. I thought, "Not good!," then realized there was no distortion! Not recommended, but a mistake that revealed the extent of vibration damping on the MMF-7.
The MMF-7 comes with a felt mat that helps to diminish vibrations transmitted from the platter to the record itself. Its an obvious point, but you want only the records grooves moving the stylus. A twist type record clamp is included. The clamp couples the record to the platter to reduce vibration and provide a flat surfaceyou want the needle to move on a surface that does not move, except to turn. You get three spiked feet that screw into the bottom plinth. These not only work to prevent vibration from entering the turntable from the surface it is resting on, but they can be twisted to level the table. Metal disks to rest the feet in are also included if you dont want to mark up the surface you place your turntable on. There is a spirit levelneeded to level the turntable so that the platter spins with the least amount of resistancebuilt into the turntable, so you dont need to go out and buy one. This is especially convenient during setup, when you might be moving the turntable around a bit. Its really great to be able to give those spiked feet a slight twist to get an exact level.
More isolation is provided by the plinth, which is split into two layers separated by Sorbothane. The black gel separating the two plinths dissipates any vibration that gets past the spiked feet. The interconnects are connected to the bottom layer for further isolation. The acrylic platter is one of those middle-of-the-road things. You need a material that will provide the right amount of energy absorption. Too soft, and it will absorb too much of the energy of the needle. Too hard, and it becomes microphonic and will vibrate back into the vinyl. If you want an idea of the amount of energy that goes back into the platter, play a record with the volume turned all the way down. What you are hearing is what the platter has to deal with.
The MMF-7 comes with the Project Nine tonearm, which, according to the Music Hall website, has a headshell and shaft drawn from one piece of aluminum tubing. The bearings are made from hardened stainless steel points set in sturdy ring cages. The arm, which has adjustable VTA, is very inert. If you tap a fingernail against the tonearm you will not hear anything through your speakers. The MMF-7s motor is 12-volt AC, and has a separate power supply. Its transformer is way down toward the plug, keeping it away from sensitive electronics. Theres a blue light right next to the on/off switch that is to die for. The turntable is so quiet that in dim light, the only way to know it is spinning is to see that the little blue light is on. Speaking of quiet, the motor is further isolated from the turntable and tonearm. It does not touch the plinth, but sits in a cutout, and is placed in a cup with Sorbothane feet to prevent vibrations from going back into the turntable. The turntable is driven by an elastic belt, which dampens the vibration of the motor. The motor pulley has two positions for the belt, to regulate the speed of the platterin the upper position the platter turns at 33 1/3 rpm, and in the lower position, 45 rpm.
I contacted the Creek distributor, Roy Hall, who told me that the MMF-7 grew from the MMF-5. He said that the 5 had a simple solution for isolation and that he was really happy with it. Why the MMF-7, then? "Frankly, I got bored," he said. He set a goal of a market price of $1000, then challenged himself to better the 5. After that, he said, it was just trial and error. Try one thing and listen, then try something else and compare. "Somebody had to make the decision of what sounded best and the overall sound was determined by what I thought was good. I just listened and heard immediately if I liked it or not. Life is easier in that regard." He explained that he separated the motor from the plinth because of the microscopic vibrations caused by torque. He put the motor on the left on the diagonal axis to the tonearm because it sounded better that way. "Along the length of the arm the stylus moves side to side. Front to back motion does not influence the stylus." Why an acrylic platter? "The acrylic platter is dead material and sounded better than glass." He said he also tried MDF and metal platters. Hall used the Project tonearm because he knew it and liked it, though he realized that the choice of the Eroica H cartridge was pushing against the river. "The market is more accepting of a moving magnet cartridge," he said, "and it was actually less expensive than the Eroica, but the Eroica produced sound that was more delicate." He also emphasized that listening tests were done with the supplied cable. "I tried different materials and listened. I used good bearings and common sense." Our conversation then switched to the Creek phono stage. He said that the Creek is underrated: "It is musical and has timbre." He said that when he demos his equipment at shows, he uses the Creek and the MMF-7 along with the supplied cable.
So how does it sound? I wish I could transport you to my living room to hear the angels sing. The first LP I played was Brahms Concerto #1 in D Minor, Op 15 with Arthur Rubenstein and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Fritz Reiner. My notes read as follows:
My favorite instrument has always been the pianoRubensteins renditions of Liszt and Chopin kept me sane during my time in Vietnambut I just cannot listen to piano on CD. As a result, I thought that my musical tastes had somehow changed. I gravitated to electronic music and anything with drums, bass, and heavy imaging. Music was dead for me. It has now come alive
The next record was Kind of Blue. The first thing that hit me was that I could hear the reedy sound that the saxes made. A sax should sound reedy and metallic, not harsh or brassy. I could hear the drummer brushing his cymbals so clearly. Everyone was in their place, and the imaging was spectacular. The piano sounded like someone was hitting the keys right in the room. When the trumpet kicked in and started wailing, I thought back to my CD days and realized that this passage would have driven me through the ceiling. Now it is clear and musical. The music is alive.
At this point I was only about three hours into breaking in the cartridge and phono stage. Since I dont have experience in vinyl, it is impossible for me to say what component was producing what kind of sound. I cant say that the reedy sax sound was really the OBH-8SE, or that the clear swoosh of the cymbals was the Goldring or the turntable. I can say that as a combination, the MMF-7 and OBH-8SE reproduced recorded music unlike any component I have heard, and this was before anything was fully broken in. Music Hall says the Creek needs at least forty hours. I couldnt find any data for the Goldring Eroica. At this early stage, the soundstage was very diffuse, and I thought I could hear some distortion during crescendos.
Back to Kind of Blue. When the bass kicked in, I could hear the sound of the strings vibrating. I realized that compared to CDs, LPs have more information. Hour Four, and I noticed that the soundstage was starting to widen and coalesce. The alto sax was to the left and behind the speakers. I could almost see Cannonball Adderley standing there playing it. However, when the tenor sax began to play, Coltrane was positioned firmly to the right, but in the same plane as the drummer, so three-dimensional imaging wasnt there yet, but just listen to those cymbals shimmer! Now we are on the last cut, and Bill Evans is just barely touching the keys. He sends one note out, and as it begins to fade he breathes new life into it and sends out another one. I hear the notes hang and fade like those sunsets where the sun has gone down and all that is left is the ambient light fading slowly into the night.
Hour Five, and I am listening to Richard Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra with George Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I had to dial down the volume to the normal setting on my Vandersteen subwoofers because the bass was so overwhelming. This was unbelievable to me, as my subs have never really delivered, and I had always had to crank them up to get what I wanted. Where was all of this bass coming from? I could really hear the detail of the violins vibrato. They sounded like individual instruments playing together. Also, the violin crescendos did not make my head ache.
Hour Six, and the system is sounding a little harsh, though there is more detail. I am playing Beethovens Emperor Concerto, with Hans Knappertsbusch conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and I can really hear the hall. The bass is sumptuous. On to Brahms Symphony #1 with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. I can really feel the power of the first movement. If the sky is the daily bread of the eyes, vinyl is the food of the soul!
Fast forward twenty hours into break in, and it is like a veil has been lifted from the music. The soundstage has completely opened up, and the imaging is more three dimensional quality. Instead of just a top and a bottom, now there is a front and a back. The soundstage is beyond the edges of my speakers, a little in front as well as behind them. Each instrument sounds like it should. There is detail in the highs, air around the instruments, and bass is ample and tight. I am hearing notes making love to each other, and frankly I have given up all pretense of trying to describe what I am hearing. It is as if all of my gear has dissolved and there is nothing left but music. I can sum up my vinyl experience thus far in one wordjoy!
There are limitations. You have to get up to turn the record over when its done, or at least get up and move the tonearm back to its holder. You have to keep your records clean, or you will hear all sorts popping and crackling noises. Even if you do keep your records clean, you will still hear popping and crackling noises. You have to know how to align a cartridge, and if you goof it up, you might not be able to undo it. Records wear every time you play them. The stylus wears every time you play it. I could go on.
Still, it is late, and the still of the night colors the air. My wife and I are listening to "Flamenco Sketches" from Kind of Blue. The lights are low, and the fireplace is casting that warm golden glow into our living room. She has fallen asleep in front of the fireplace for the first time ever, with our cat melting into the rug beside her. Miles Davis and his muted trumpet are playing softly and sweetly. Bill Evans is here, too. Slowly, the notes get quieter, quieter, and quieter still. Silence, and then, tick-tick, tick-tick, tick-tick. Thats the end of that cut, and this review. Until next time. Mike Malter
OBH-8SE phono stage