Fat Bob S Turntable
as reviewed by Marshall Nack
Fun with Analog
If you are partisan to the mass loading approach, as so many of us are these days, you'll love the name. What could be better than a turntable called Fat Bob? More precisely, the Transrotor Fat Bob S? Evocative, yes, but hopefully not in all the implied ways. We shall see.
Upon arrival, I had the FB configured as follows:
Fat Bob S (MSRP $7500), with Transrotor JR 3500 tonearm (MSRP $3600), Phase Tech P-3G cartridge ($2195) and Kubala-Sosna Expression Phono cable (MSRP $1800).
My reference table is the VYGER Baltic M, which I have configured thus:
VYGER Baltic M with SME 312 arm (MSRP $8200 for both), Shelter Harmony cartridge ($5300) and K-S Emotion phono cable (MSRP $3000).
Turntables are arguably the most difficult components to review, what with all of the hardware and setup variables that come into play. Ideally, in order to tell what is happening, you want to eliminate all but one. For the purposes of this review, let's consider the table/arm pairings listed above as a single variable—they came that way and both manufacturers recommend them.
As you can see, the FB was down on two counts: the cartridge and the phono cable. C'est la vie: I decided to put aside A/B testing and listened exclusively to the FB until such time as I could get the playing field level.
Phase Tech P-3G Cartridge
The Phase Tech P-3G is a low output (.27 mV) cartridge from Japan. I loaded it at 100 ohms, set the VTA level, and used the same gain as with my Shelter Harmony: 56 dB.
The FB with the P-3G mounted was very different from what I'm used to. Clarity and BIG dynamics were prominent, as well as high levels of control, speed and focus. But it wasn't a warm sound and bloom was just adequate. It was more along the lines of a "just the facts, please," kind of presentation. On the report card: noise was minimal; tracking was clean from outer rim to inner grooves. It was different, but very good all the same. There were no issues to report.
In short order I was able to procure a second K-S Emotion Phono cable and thus neutralize that variable. I resurrected the sleeping VYGER. With this single phono cable move, the pendulum of opinion began leaning towards the FB.
The Emotion Phono cable brings, shall we say, extra satisfaction in two major areas. First, in terms of scale, images inflate from say 1/25 life-size to approximately 1/15 scale. Dynamic range expands comparably and sounds more powerful. Secondly, finer particles of the timbral envelope are exposed.
Joe Kubala says the Emotion cable has more "geometry," meaning the conductor configuration is more complicated—and harder to construct. It uses finer strands of copper wires but is a heavier gauge overall. The difference between the Expression and Emotion is significant—larger than you would expect.
Shelter 901 Mk II Cartridge
Soon a Shelter 901 Mk. II low output MC from Japan came in for a tryout (MSRP $2100).
After 60 hours of burn-in, the 901 already exhibits more bloom and texture than the P-3G, but there were issues with deep bass and high treble. At 100 hours, frequency extremes were brought in—from triangles through bass drum, it's now all there, and tight.
Speaking of tight, with either the 901 or the P-3G, the FBs images had decidedly tight waistlines and chiseled torsos. You "see" them discretely with a lot of space between one image and the next.
When it comes to French orchestral music, I've always enjoyed Pierre Monteau. I'd recommend Pierre Monteau Conducts the London Symphony Orchestra (London CS 6248, "Blue Back" LP), a great recording dating from 1962.
The 901 enhanced string tone in the Nuages movement of the Debussy Nocturnes, and crescendos on the Fêtes movement were again HUGE, although nothing I've heard yet matches the Phase Tech for dynamics.
With either cartridge, the FB was fast, accurate, and clean tracking right to the inner grooves. The table refused to soften or sweeten transients. This left the treble component exposed and it sometimes bordered on aggressive. But they never reached that point: they certainly hit with full force, but yet always managed to be non-fatiguing—nice. It's rare to encounter transients that aren't blunted. This is why many people like mass loading, for the body and support it lends.
Shelter Harmony Cartridge
Then, just when I thought I had the FB's signature pretty well nailed, along comes the long-awaited, top-of-the-line Shelter Harmony cartridge.
Emotion and Musical Expression
I put on the Debussy Nocturnes. The sound and its psychoacoustic impact on the listener were fundamentally transformed. It conjured up a pastoral scene of "watching the clouds pass by" in the Nuages movement. The Fêtes was evocative of a "festival with excited crowds." It wonderfully re-created the recording venue, with double brass choirs coming from right and left, leaving nothing to the imagination. The off-stage trumpets are so far away, barely audible, yet ineffable. And consider that this section of the LP is tracking at the inner grooves.
What a difference a cartridge makes! For the listener, it was the equivalent of a competent, but perfunctory, live performance vs. one that communicates something beyond the notation on the score. In audiophile terms, the tight focus common to both P-3G and 901 loosened up and the unbundled tonal cores spread out, packed with nuance and low-level details. Instruments bloomed in a spray of natural overtones. Sweet, warm tones kept coming all the way to the inner grooves.
And the instruments were no longer hugging the speakers. The front line of the stage was unbroken with center and side instruments on the same plane. Moving backwards, layered depth is vividly arrayed in the conventional orchestral seating. This is more like how it should be.
With the introduction of the Harmony, I have to revise the ordering of adjectives that describe the FB: timbre moved to first place. The Harmony marries the well-organized stage of the 901 Mk. II and the P-3G with warmth and timbral development. However, resolution and dynamics took a small hit.
With the playing field leveled—on to the turntables! I had completely parallel front-ends, from cartridge all the way to the phono cable. Only one variable was in play, the FB/JR3500 and the VYGER/SME312 arm. My ASR Basis Exclusive has two independent inputs and I had them configured identically. This was ideal: I was able to swap between tables with the flick of the Selector switch on the ASR.
For software, I lined up two pristine copies of An American In Paris with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops orchestra (LSC 2287). While both are "Shaded Dogs," one is a 7S pressing and the other an 8S—close enough. Both were cleaned with the Walker Prelude system, the most elaborate and thorough wash available.
And now what you've been waiting for: In direct comparison table A and table B have similar timbre, tonal balance, staging dynamics, you name it. The tables sounded a great deal alike—similar, but not exactly alike. For instance, both tables resolved the hall, it was just laid out cleaner with the FB.
Engineers often resorted to gimmicks in the olden days of stereo for special effects. Consider Track 1 of More Music From Peter Gunn, a Henry Mancini outing from 1959 (LSP-2040). The flute has an odd, pronounced reverb. Quite possibly, this was done using a technique called "natural reverb." A mike was placed in front of the flute player and the signal fed to a speaker in a reverberant space, such as an empty mens' room. Then another mike in front of that speaker fed it back into the recording studio, where it blended with the live session taking place. Heck, call it what you will, it sure sounds hokey. In fact, there's hokum on every track of this delightful LP. But great sound, too. More of this hokum is revealed through the FB.
Leopold Stokowski's legendary magic is evident everywhere on Landmarks of a Distinguished Career: Stokowski, an early Capitol LP (SP8399). He had an interest in sound and was known to spend time in the recording booth. Even more so, he knew how to pick his soloists. Check out The Swan of Tuonela, featuring the great Robert Bloom on English horn. You hear more of Bloom's artistry with the FB.
Another example of Stokowski's magic in the studio, perhaps his most famous audiophile bon bon, is The Plow that Broke the Plains (Vanguard Stereolab VSD 2095, black label original issue). This has fantastic staging and orchestral dynamics.
The FB is a fast-moving machine. It has great control over the start and stop of notes, especially round, textured bass notes. Transients and trails have a high degree of coherency—all of this without shorting them.
I expected the VYGER/SME to be quieter. Indeed, I've read articles to the effect that 12" arms have precisely this advantage at the beginning and end of the LP. With the longer arm, the pivot point is further away and the tracking angle deviates less from the ideal.
I didn't hear that with these two tables: to my ears, the 9" arm on the FB evidenced less breakup than the 12" on the VYGER. I even swapped LPs, just to rule out pressing condition. On heavily modulated passages anywhere, there was less distortion with the FB.
Was it the JR3500 arm or the FB that bestowed this outstanding advantage? Or was it the combo?
What's Most Important?
Which leads right into… What is the most important link in an analog front-end? Is it the turntable, the cartridge, or the tonearm? I've been querying my industry associates. Opinions ranged widely—someone even suggested I consider the phono preamp.
I always thought the cartridge was primary. Now I have the evidence. Upgrading to the Harmony was a HUGE leap, about a 20 - 25% improvement. It dwarfed the difference between the tables, where I'd give the FB a 12% advantage over the VYGER. The order of priority, at least in this experiment, left no doubt: the cartridge gives you the bigger bang.
The FB has a gleaming, polished aluminum finish and parts quality is well beyond expectations. You won't be blinded by the view, but the FB may well turn your head by its cool appearance. Really, I think the table may be misnamed. It's actually a compact design with a minimal footprint, no bigger than an LP. This is not one of those over-built behemoths that leave visitors with puzzled expressions. All of the parts have an obvious function. Nothing is superfluous, and nothing is redundant.
The massive 12" platter is 60mm thick and weighs 25 lbs. It sits on a shorter 40mm thick, 20 lb plinth. They are identically finished and appear visually seamless. A large tonearm base protrudes from the gap between platter and plinth. The 55 lbs of it all is made from solid aluminum and rests on three adjustable tiptoes.
The motor is freestanding and you can place it anywhere within 10 inches of the platter spindle.
Placement of the Power Supply Unit is also non-critical. It can go anywhere within reach of the 1 meter umbilical between it and the motor. The Speed Selector Switch has On/Off, 33 1/3, and 45 RPM, and a fine pitch control. The power cord is detachable and, sure enough, swapping power cords made a difference. Even what I placed under the Power Supply Unit had an effect on the sound.
The FB has several innovative design concepts.
There's no doubt that the low noise and notable coherency of the FB are indebted to these innovations.
JR 3500 Tonearm
Transrotor repackages a SME 5 tonearm and calls it the JR 3500. It retains the magnesium arm tube but the headshell is swapped out for an SME 309 detachable one, among other things. This makes cartridge mounting a breeze. The JR3500 is an SME 5 without the frills. It retails for $3600.
The Transrotor Fat Bob S turntable has an amusing name that belies an elegant, even minimal design. Beautifully constructed and finished and as simple to get up and running as it gets, mine came outfitted with Transrotor's JR3500 arm and handily beat my reference VYGER Baltic M turntable with SME312 arm.
With all three cartridges tested, the FB breezed through all program material I threw at it, as evidenced by its uncommonly well-defined soundstage and its unwavering composure under stress. Not only was there less noise on heavily modulated passages, but the FB with the 9" JR3500 arm evidenced less breakup and tracking issues at the inner and outer grooves than the VYGER with 12" SME312. It was Class A all the way—I found nothing to criticize.
At $11,100 for the arm/ table package, I'm impressed. I can't say I'm intimate with the competition it faces at this price point, but I will say it is decidedly superior to the less-expensive tables I know. I'm tempted to get out the checkbook. Eventually I'll know where it falls short, but not until something better comes along to point it out.
That said, I don't want to give the impression that the difference between the two tables was that big. I would estimate it at around 12%. Still, that percent improvement is well worth the $3000 difference in price.
I want to point out a secondary finding that was actually more powerful than the difference in turntables. Related to the question I raised earlier, "What is the pecking order in an analog front-end?" The performance of the FB with either the Phase Tech P-3G or the Shelter 901 Mk. 2 cartridges ($2195 and $2100, respectively) was about on par. However, when the Shelter Harmony cartridge moved in ($5300), the difference was like night and day. The extra $3000 now yielded more like a 20 - 25% improvement. The secondary conclusion is if you already own a good mid-level rig, your next move should be acquisition of a top-notch cartridge. After that, think about replacing the turntable. Marshall Nack
Fat Bob S turntable
JR 3500 tonearm
Phase Tech P-3G Cartridge
Shelter 901 Mk II Cartridge
Shelter Harmony Cartridge
AXISS Audio, Inc.