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Positive Feedback ISSUE49
Diva II turntable
as reviewed by Ed Kobesky
It seems like everyone's spending less lately. One of my friends is even thinking about replacing his aging full-size Lexus with a Hyundai Genesis. It's not just thousands of dollars cheaper, he pointed out—it's tens of thousands. I haven't driven it, but I did poke my head into one at the dealership. It looks and feels expensive. It even smells kind'a like a Lexus inside. Still, I'd rather settle for a smaller Lexus. Call me a snob.
That's why I like Avid's $2395 Diva II: it has all the pedigree of its costlier siblings and an accessible price. Made in England, by people who earn a living wage, it looks just like one of the family. Sounds expensive, too: quiet, confident and detailed. With rudimentary care and maintenance, it'll probably last a few decades. The whole package screams sophistication in stark contrast to today's pretentious, blue-backlit audio jewelry. But not to worry, non-audiophiles will still think you're a wasteful asshole for buying one.
Basic elements of the company's flagship design philosophy trickled down to the Diva II, including the one-piece aluminum plinth, bearing and record clamping system. Cost cutting (such as it is) comes most noticeably in the form of an MDF platter and a less sophisticated isolation scheme (i.e., big gobs of sorbothane) plus a notable lack of chrome accents compared to five-figure Avids.
Setup may look a little daunting at first, but once you get the pieces out of the box, it's easy to imagine how they fit together. Simply place the bare chassis on your audio rack and assemble the main bearing, which is so precisely machined it needs no wet lubrication. Then position the motor in the cutout at the left hand side of the chassis. Slide the belt over the motor pulley and subplatter, then attach the platter. Plug the supplied tonearm cable into the arm. Plug the motor into the power supply. Plug the power supply into the wall. You can be up and running in 10 or 15 minutes.
Take your time and enjoy though, because the assembly process should add substantially to your pride of ownership. It reveals the high level of quality and sensible engineering at work here. For example, the chassis itself might seem small at first, especially if you subscribe to the popular ‘bigger is better' philosophy of high-end audio. However, small is good for a budget turntable because it's easier and cheaper to engineer something small and rigid than large and rigid. The platter is the most perfectly machined piece of round MDF I've ever seen on a turntable, while the bare chassis looks and feels like it fell off a Boeing.
You can buy the Diva II armless, or in the case of the review sample, pre-fitted with a Jelco SA-250T straight tonearm. Derivatives over the years have included models from Sumiko, Audioquest and even Graham. I like it. It's easily on par with entry-level Regas while offering far more adjustability, not to mention an easily upgradeable DIN phono cable. Unlike its S-shaped variant, the headshell is fixed, but the leads are removable. If you accidentally nip off a cartridge clip with your needle nose pliers, you can simply replace the entire wire instead of dragging out the soldering iron. Since Avid can supply pre-cut replacement arm boards and adapters, you can easily swap out the Jelco for something better if and when you feel like it. (Good as the SA-250ST is, I have no doubt Jelco's own SA-750 would be noticeably better. Then again, why not an SME 309 if you can swing it?)
I split my listening between a number of cartridges in the $200-$1000 range, played through either an Audio Research PH1 or Pro-Ject Tube Box SE phono stage. As you might expect given the rigid chassis and stout motor, the Diva II has striking immediacy. It does what the direct drive Technics 1200 can—superb dynamics, slam and attack, plus detail and remarkable pitch stability—without the truncated lateral soundstage, or lack of air, ambiance and inner detail.
Properly applied, I believe that a powerful, torquey motor is a good thing. Combined with a heavy platter for flywheel effect (the Diva II's MDF platter has surprising heft), it's a recipe for gripping, start-stop bass, musical notes that decay naturally and highs that shimmer. The Diva II serves up all of that, along with black backgrounds that add to the aliveness of the presentation. A very carefully arranged soundstage with superb image placement, depth and scaling adds to the sophistication. Music jumps off every record. On some recordings, I found it hard to divide my attention as note after note grabbed me and pulled me away from my book or laptop.
Rhythmically, it's fully competent but that's not an outstanding characteristic here. The Diva II draws you into the music head first, not feet first, by offering truly excellent overall resolution and ease rather than overt tunefulness, sorting out complex musical lines—ven in the background—with stunning alacrity. The downside is, like some other modern designs, it can sound vaguely aloof: technically excellent but emotionally detached. I suspect the liberal use of sorbthane in place of the sophisticated suspensions of more expensive Avids may contribute to this, compounded by the acoustically ‘dead' but dark-sounding MDF platter. A commendably tight but not super-extended low end adds to a sense of stoicism. To be clear, however, this is a matter of character, not coloration.
Cartridge selection is key. For example, while Denons sounded strangely dull, Dynavectors worked great, particularly the 10x5 model recommended by Music Direct. An older Benz Glider H slotted somewhere in between, with more detail and finesse than the 10x5 but less go-for-it fun factor. Ortofon's thrifty entry-level moving coil, the high-output MC-1 Turbo, made agreeable music for just $175. Sound Smith's $500 handmade, high-value Carmen should delight those who value pure, honest musicality—check back for a more detailed evaluation in a few months. Based on my experience, I wouldn't spend a lot on a cartridge without upgrading the arm first; $600 feels like the point of diminishing returns.
On a practical note, the Diva's external power supply merely turns the motor on and off. If you want to change speeds, you have to move the belt manually to the corresponding pulley. The record clamp can also be a little fiddly to use. I sometimes had to try a few times before I got the threads lined up, but it did function perfectly well and records generally sounded more focused with the clamp on.
Taken together, the negatives never rise above trivial given the price point, which proves how hard it is to criticize the Diva II. You can even send it back to Avid for an upgrade to next-level SP status. They'll replace the MDF platter with one made from machined aluminum and swap the basic power supply for a sophisticated speed control unit with convenient pushbutton switching between 33 and 45. They'll also add an improved bearing and replace the drive system with a dual-belt affair that is said to further reduce motor noise and vibration. With this kind of built-in upgradeability, it could be your last turntable purchase.
But even bone stock, the Avid Diva II is an excellent performer. It'll be a seismic step up for those currently living with entry-level analog. Yet it's so controlled, confident and effortlessly detailed that downsizing from more expensive gear doesn't have to feel like a huge sacrifice. The best part is, because the Diva II delivers solid value and lasting quality, it's a guilt-free purchase either way—a very, very slick little machine. Ed Kobesky