Blackbird Turntable - It's All About Materials and Geometry
as reviewed by Marshall Nack
Blackbird with Kuzma tonearm
Word of mouth began trickling in over the past year. The grapevine, a highly sensitive medium, was abuzz about a moderately priced turntable my audio cronies had heard at the latest audio show: the Woodpecker, the entry-level model from Dr. Feickert Analogue (MSRP $5495). After several of these ticklers, I heard that Soulution, the ultra high-end Swiss firm, was using the Feickert Blackbird, the model next up in the line, in their referencesystem. Well, that was the clincher—I contacted Avatar Acoustics, the importer, and arranged to get the Blackbird, which was introduced about a year ago.
Chris Feickert, the designer and proprietor, and Darren Censulo, the North American importer, paid me a visit to do the installation. Chris had it assembled in half an hour.
It took about the same amount of time to get the cartridge dialed in. First you do the general alignment using the Feickert Protractor. (A special version of this tool is included with the Blackbird, a $250 value.)
Next came fine tuning the azimuth, for which Dr. Feickert has developed a new computer-assisted tool, Feickert Adjust +, which is sold separately. You play a test record to generate calibration signals into your phono stage.
That output is then fed into this application on your computer. Meanwhile, you can observe in real time the accuracy of your setup as far as channel balance, phase angle, wow, flutter and frequency response.
As you make adjustments, they are displayed on your computer's monitor. You'll know when you have achieved optimal positioning of the stylus in the groove and minimized crosstalk; there's no more reliance on approximate visual inspection. These are professional tools that take all the guesswork out of cartridge setup.
My sample came with a manufacturer recommended 12", S-shaped DFA-12.0 tonearm. For the purposes of this review, I'm going to consider this table/tonearm pairing as the product under evaluation. I was able to have nearly parallel setups at the start of this review. Both the Blackbird / DFA-12.0 and my reference VYGER Baltic M / SME 312 front-ends were wired with Kubala-Sosna Elation! power cords and newly improved K-S Emotion phono cables.
Both sat on Vibraplane ELpF platforms and fed into my ASR Basis Exclusive phono stage, which is ideal for the purpose as it has two independent inputs. A flick of the input switch is all it takes to toggle between tables.
That left the cartridge as the only variable at this point. The Blackbird had the well-respected Shelter 501 Mk. II (MSRP $1100). The VYGER had the top-of-the-line Shelter Harmony (MSRP $5300). This turned out to be very significant.
On first listen the Blackbird offered solid playback and evidenced no mechanical issues or colorations. A couple of things were notable like staging, dynamics and transient speed. However, the performance gap between the tables was so wide I had to abandon A/B testing.The cartridge variable was too powerful. As I found in my Transrotor Fat Bob review, the Harmony on its own changes everything. It buys you timbre, body, image size, and above all finesse—I'll stop there, I'm sure you get the point. It moves you to a higher class of sound. I continued to listen to the Blackbird, but considered this period just prep time for when a second Shelter Harmony would arrive.
The Harmony Arrives
When that day came, things got mighty interesting—not at all what I was expecting. Now, when I did the A/B, the initial impression was the tables were within spitting distance of each other. I mean, in a large swath of the audio report card—timbre, tonality, dynamics, staging, you name it—the Blackbird slightly bettered the VYGER, but it was close.
BTW, this result supports my recent conclusions about the pecking order in an analog front-end. Assuming we're talking about Class A table/arm combinations, to my mind the cartridge sits on top in order of importance—it makes the most difference. I'll surprise you again: I'm tempted to say the next slot is shared by the phono stage and, yes, the phono cable. I've auditioned a battery of those; I can assure you, the phono cable is a high priority item. Note: This pecking order would be turned topsy-turvy if we were talking about lower-priced tables/arms.
About half of my listening panel reported both tables sounded great, and close enough to nullify spending the extra $1200 for the Blackbird. (MSRP for the Blackbird alone is $7995; with the DFA-12.0 arm it's $9500. The VYGER lists at $8300 MSRP, including the SME 312 arm.) Keep in mind that the VYGER Baltic M is a very strong contender at its price point, so to say the Blackbird is slightly better is already saying a lot.
But hold on a minute, because the other half of my panel weighed in with some keen observations in the comparison, which tipped the scales drastically.
For my first A/B with matched cartridges I used the old Capitol LP Landmarks of a Distinguished Career, with Stokowski and his orchestra. These early Capitol LPs are notable for great sound—in fact, a few of the Stokowski Capitols made it to the TAS List.
For the curious, all LPs were cleaned with the Walker Prelude four-fluid cleaning system, time consuming and not for everybody, but definitely the most thorough LP wash I've encountered.
Let's begin with The Swan of Tuonela, a dark and brooding Sibelius tone poem. Famous for his idiosyncratic interpretations and musical ear, Stokowski handpicked the finest players on the scene to form his orchestra. The first-chair players are a remarkable collection, and you won't find many better than Robert Bloom on English horn. Perhaps this rendering is not as dynamically punctuated as the Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra rendition on Columbia, with Louis Rosenblatt on English horn—Stokowski liked to spike his interpretations with tasteful dollops of schmaltz.
Still, you won't hear more refined English horn playing. Such tonal delicacies—every phrase is a delight! And with the Blackbird you had a magnifying glass into the technique employed to create them. The Blackbird dredged up such insights as Mr. Bloom's breath control, the speed of his vibrato, along with the variety of dynamic and tonal shadings. There was no softening of transients, no elongation of decays, no smearing in between, just a clear-sighted look into the recorded signal. The Blackbird may have similar tone, timbre and dynamics as the VYGER, but we found it dug deeper and brought forth a whole new layer of resolution.
The Blackbird dredged up similar keen insights into the action of the piano on An American In Paris (RCA LSC-2367, Shaded Dog label). You can tell the lid is up on the instrument because your ear seems to be where the microphone was—right inside the cabinet. You hear what the mike heard. Or, to put it more simply, the Blackbird delivered more truth from the groove and less varnishing of the signal.
It was also a matter of how the information was presented. Both tables created approximately the same illusion in terms of soundstage dimension and image placement. With both, images were occasionally locked in the speaker cabinet.
But the Blackbird's images were upright and unwavering, like little soldiers standing at attention. Their placement was precisely delineated without being etched, with vacant space between them and perhaps less of that "air" we sometimes talk about. It was almost sculptural. Audiophiles describe this vaunted characteristic as see-through transparency and the Blackbird was masterful at it.
Both tables were great at maintaining composure under stress. There might be a sudden triple forte orchestral attack, with a pounding bass drum emanating from deep in the hall's recesses. Meanwhile, the flute, oboe and clarinet continue their sweet melody center stage and forward. Both events occur simultaneously and the VYGER managed to keep them as independent events on the soundstage. But the Blackbird did it without compromising soundstage integrity at all. Some listeners felt this kind of separation and independence bordered on spotlighting. That may be, and if so, then there was a spot on every inch of the stage—left to right, front to back. However you look at it, the consensus was that it contributed to an amazing level of transparency. In this regard, when the source was good, the Blackbird rivaled much more expensive tables.
Maybe a gender analogy would help here: where the Blackbird threw a firm, decisive, masculine stage, the VYGER's was soft focus, almost feminine. (I know these gender assignments are old-fashioned, but they do serve a purpose. I know, too, they are largely obsolete; in just which ways makes for a very interesting discussion, but I'll save that for another day.)
Now, what audiophile doesn't want that? Isn't this the Holy Grail? Curious question. But on LP after LP, Lynn's reaction was, "I like how they are playing, but it's too closely miked." Not that it was dry or lean or bright—nay to all of these negatives that are often associated with hyper resolution. I told you; the Blackbird has the body and tone of the VYGER.
The question then becomes, did God intend us to hear all this stuff? Some of it contributes musically. Some is distracting. I also heard the mechanical action of the keys on the English horn. Only an audiophile is interested in that—the music lovers I know would prefer it spliced out. Many would also prefer something approximating a mid-hall perspective, something more distant and forgiving. That's what you get with the VYGER.
I, too, experienced sensory shock. But I'm an audiophile: the shock lasted about two minutes and then morphed into awe, as a state of amazement settled in. It does take getting used to, because the leap is substantial. But once adjusted, there is no going back: you will miss it. After the first "getting used to" session with the Blackbird, nobody asked to listen to the VYGER again.
I've experienced this kind of a leap once or twice before. On those occasions it was caused by a component upgrade at considerably more expense.
The Blackbird looks cool. Stripped down but elegant, with nice proportions and clean lines, it doesn't suggest expensive manufacture, just what is needed to get the job done.
Some visitors thought it too plain or utilitarian for the asking price. Solely from appearances (and before listening), they felt it would benefit from more elaborate resonance control and damping.
It's All About Materials and Geometry
But the good doctor has reasons behind every aspect of the Blackbird's appearance. The rather large plinth dimensions (21 W x 5" H x 16.5 D) are not by accident. They have been carefully calculated to prevent resonances from propagating.
There is a well-known rule in room acoustics. If you set about constructing the perfect sound room, a little research will tell you to avoid certain combinations, such as any two dimensions being equal or one side being double the other. This avoids propagating identical wavelengths in more than one dimension, to insure they don't double-up and become obnoxious. But I've never heard of the rule being applied to chassis design.
All 90-degree angles are avoided. Based on standard vibrational analysis, right angles concentrate resonances; round corners give a soft sound. In a general way, the Blackbird's proportions respect golden ratio math and engineering combinations.
The platter material is poly-oxy-methylene (POM), a rather slow compound in terms of propagation of sonic energy, but one that is similar to the vinyl used to manufacture records. The arm board and the record clamp are made of the same substance. POM has anti-static properties, which help suppress clicks and pops in playback.
The plinth is constructed of aluminum top and bottom layers with mdf and POM layers in the middle. Here is where you can test the effectiveness of its damping and resonance control. Give the plinth the old knuckle-wrap test—you won't hear a thing. Even if you have the system on when you do this, there will be no microphonic feedback through the speakers.
The Record Clamp
The clamp is made of the same material as the platter. When he was installing the table, Chris told me that the clamp didn't make much difference—you might as well leave it off.
But I found it pretty significant. It gave the sound weight. Definition and dynamics were more than slightly improved, too. Apart from that, without the clamp quiet passages were recessive. (Forte passages were forward regardless of clamp on or off.)
Late breaking news: The clamp has been revised and improved. I'm told the new one is screw-down like the old but is made from aluminum with a special 3M coating on the bottom surface where it touches the record label. It will be included as standard with the table.
Chris feels mass loading is good up to a point—it has to be done right. If the platter is too heavy relative to the plinth, it makes the sound slow and too damped. If the plinth is too heavy, it suppresses the treble and causes an unbalanced tonal response. In the Blackbird, the platter is around 9 lbs and the plinth is around 38. The weight of the chassis and the platter must correlate.
Two Motors, One Belt
One of the principal differences between the entry-level Woodpecker and the Blackbird is the latter has two motors. Are two motors better than one? Not having the Woodpecker nearby, I really couldn't say. But from discussion with the designer, a single motor will tend to pull the platter towards it. With two motors on opposite sides, the reactive forces are equalized and thus canceled. There is less gyration of the platter.
A secondary benefit is the motor on the left side feeds back some information to the one on the right via a controller for the purpose of achieving a better randomization of wow and flutter. (The human ear is highly sensitive to regularly occurring patterns of wow and flutter. Random occurrences do not register nearly as much.) The motors are expensive, three-phase asynchronous types.
I have not seen a wide, flat belt like the one that's slung low around the platter and the two motor pulleys. This is quite different from most, which tend to be as skinny as possible. Its purpose is to provide high torque and high friction. Which it certainly does: Good luck to you if you try to start or stop the platter manually—you won't be able to. Speed ramps up to 33 1/3 in about a second. And it shuts off just as quickly
There are three, adjustable and resonance tuned, stabilizer feet made from isosorbothane and aluminum, with rubber gasket rings around them like those used for damping tubes.
You can get the recommended DFA-12.0 tonearm with the Blackbird as a package for an additional $1500. Or you can use your own arm—just let your dealer know the model and the appropriate armboard will be made up. Many people like to dedicate a second arm to mono playback. Or, maybe the time may come when you want to switch arms. Again, you supply the arm—the Blackbird has provision for two—and they'll make up the armboard. The first armboard is included with the table and free of charge. Additional armboards cost $300.
While the DFA-12.0 tonearm had no issues, I can't help thinking the table deserves better. The good news is Dr. Feickert is designing an arm, which is due out by CES 2012. Advance word is there will actually be two models, one around $2000 and another at $3500. While we're at it, a much more expensive table called the Firebird is also in the works, priced around $13,000.
The Spindle Issue
The spindle is machined to the theoretical diameter of the LP center cutout. It is precisely engineered to leave no wiggle room for the record to shift around. Fine in theory, but it presented a problem with vintage 1950s pressings, where the cutout was approximate and smaller than it's supposed to be. Some of my antiques don't fit over the spindle. Others fit very tightly and are a pain to get off.
Careful choice of cartridge is warranted. The Shelter 501 exacerbated the table's analytical tendencies—not a good choice. The Harmony was perfect. In addition to the ASR, the Blackbird saw plenty of playing time with the Concert Fidelity SPA-4C and the Ypsilon VPS 100 (review coming shortly) phono stages.
Since, the Blackbird takes a straight DIN plug that enters from underneath the plinth and makes a sharp bend as it exits, the phono cable must be flexible. The K-S Emotion is a good choice here.
Power is supplied by a small plastic AC / DC converter box. The first thing I recommend you upgrade is its power cord. A thin wire exits the converter box and plugs into the under side of the table via a little headphone jack.
The Dr. Feickert Blackbird turntable's German Bauhaus aesthetics stripped down and basic. But the good doctor has a reason for everything you see .Furthermore, that appearance belies the machine's capability.
Superficially, the Blackbird sounds close to my reference VYGER Baltic M. It slightly betters the VYGER in every performance parameter. About half of my panel left it at that. They felt the difference was not enough to warrant the extra $1200.
But in a couple of criteria the Blackbird zooms ahead. More acute listeners discovered unheard of resolving power and soundstage transparency at this price point. Some even found this disturbing. Isn't that something—the Blackbird presents such a quantity of information and was so transparent as to possibly shock a listener.
Initially I was one of them. But this phase passes quickly and then I found its wide-open window so addictive that my reference was sidelined, accumulating dust motes for the duration of the review period.
I was so impressed that I've already arranged to have the soon-to-be-released Firebird sent over when it becomes available. Marshall Nack
DFA-12.0 12 inch tonearm
Dr. Feickert Analog