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Positive Feedback ISSUE 8
Gyrodec SE Mk. II turntable
as reviewed by Brad Morrical
In this digital age, many of my friends and colleagues view the fact that I own a high end turntable as a bit strange, at least until they hear one of their favorite jazz or rock records on my system! Analog has come a long way from what most people remember, with their toy automatic changers or cheap players from the likes of Sony and Technics. Time and again, people ask "Isn't it inconvenient to change sides?" I reply that while it is a minor irritation, it is worth the benefit in sound quality, and besides, they are a bunch of lazy couch potatoes. This usually elicits one of two responses: (1) a look of total incomprehension that says I might as well be discussing molecular biology or global financial markets, or (2) a knowing understanding between like fellows (even, occasionally, women) who value quality over quantity and convenience.
In the quest for excellence in reproduced sound, I have been living with the Michell Engineering Gyrodec SE Mk. II for approximately a year and a half, and every time I look at it I smirk a little, as it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever owned. One look at this living, breathing work of art and you know that it was designed with no stone left unturned in the pursuit of excellence. When I drop the needle into the groove, my smirk turns to an ear-to-ear grin. I have seen a plethora of high end tables, some massive and some wispy, but all of them claiming technical superiority for one reason or another. Unlike most other audio components (with the possible exception of loudspeakers), it is possible to observe exactly how a turntable is functioning. Its function is relatively simple, but the devil is in the details, and the ability to execute a design well is what separates the best from the also-rans.
A turntable has to rotate at a constant speed while imparting into the music as little of the vibration that the turntable itself generates. If we take a look at the construction of the Gyrodec SE, we learn very quickly that its striking form does in fact follow function. There is not a purely aesthetic attribute on this table except the gold-plated name badge. From the inverted oil pumping bearing that constitutes the heart of this animal to the acrylic/vinyl copolymer of the non-resonant platter, all aspects of the Gyrodec have been thoroughly refined through successive generations. The Gyrodec SE (Spider Edition) retains the subchassis, bearing, platter, and motor of the Gyrodec MKV, but eschews the large acrylic plinth of the standard Gyrodec for a triangular plinth, also acrylic, that reminds me of those three-pronged boomerangs I had as a kid. The SE is now in its MkII iteration, the biggest change being the replacement of the AC motor with a DC version.
The copolymer platter has gold-plated brass weights that hang underneath. Beautiful you say? Of course, but theyre highly functional as well. By placing extra mass at the periphery of the turntable, the inertia of the turntable is increased, and hanging most of that weight below the bearing adds even more rotational stability. Making an inverted bearing without the use of materials that wear out easily required an ingenious method of bringing the oil to the bearing. In this case, the bronze bearing housing has spirals on the inside of its surface. As the bearing housing turns, these spirals lift oil up to the ball bearing that is sitting on top of the bearing shaft. The oil is returned to the reservoir by a small hole drilled into the bearing shaft. This proves to be simple and very effective, but it requires very close machining tolerance. While this is quite practical in the age of CNC machinery, it nonetheless requires a high level of technical competence to accomplish. The subchassis is made from cast aluminum, and is weighted with lead to counterbalance the tonearm. Along with the motor housing, it is the only thing breaking the beautiful symmetry of the design. In contrast to some earlier suspended designs, the springs of the Gyrodec SE are being extended (i.e., pulled down upon) by the subchassis, as opposed to being compressed. This accomplishes two things. First, there is less tendency for side-to-side rocking. As anyone who has tried to compress a spring knows, it has a tendency to want to "squirt" out from between your fingers. You are in effect storing a large amount of energy that is trying to go somewhere. The hanging, extended spring tends to exhibit a more perfect, harmonic-oscillator-type motion. This design also effectively puts the weight of the subchassis below the suspension and the bearing (because it is inverted), increasing overall stability.
Some assembly of the turntable is required, meaning that it is similar to IKEA furniture (in construction, definitely not in quality), and you get to put it all together by following the enclosed instructions. The instructions are clear, and things become more obvious once it starts going together, but someone who is not familiar with mechanical construction will find it a bit daunting. The manual was written by engineers who assume some knowledge on the part of the person doing the job, and this could lead to confusion. I suggest that if you are not mechanically inclined, allow your sales representative to assemble the table for you. It took about thirty minutes of assembly time, and then the fun task of leveling the table began. It is imperative that you have the top of the platter level, or you can eventually damage to the bearing through uneven wearing. Once the suspension is set up, it should bounce vertically, without any side-to-side motion. While in principle this sounds easy, in practice it took some effort to get it right. Take your time and refrain from getting frustrated, and keep in mind that once you get it right, it stays right.
A Tale of Four Cartridges
I conducted many months of informal listening with four different cartridges, a Roksan Corus Black (essentially an OEM Goldring), a Lyra Lydian, a Denon DL 103, and an Ortofon Vero II. Many different amp, preamp, and speaker combinations were in and out of the system during this time, but with the exception of a two-month visit by a Pink Triangle Tarantella, the Gyrodec was the heart of my system. The first cartridge that I used with the Gyrodec was the Roksan. This is a high output (6.5mV) MM design, and is an excellent "starter" cartridge as it is relatively inexpensive and the performance, in my opinion, is superior to that of any other moving magnet cartridges in its price class. The first thing I noticed with the Corus Black was that everything sounded very dynamic and punchy. This was especially true with LPs from New Order (Substance, 1987) and Moby's latest album, 18. Bass was crisp and taut, with propulsive dynamics. The midrange was clean and crisp, with good articulation. However, the top end was a bit hard sounding, with some rather bright edge coming on as the volume was increased. At low listening levels, this manifested itself as a subtle increase in clarity, but at more normal listening levels, the top end was a bit too sharp. Still, the Gyrodec SE with a Rega RB300 arm and Roksan Corus Black cartridge really served up music, with a sense of excitement that made listening to rock and up tempo jazz albums a lot of fun, as long as they were well recorded and not given an excess of "engineering" in the control booth.
Since my phono stage had facilities for MC cartridges, I decided almost from the beginning to explore the fascinating world of these very exotic and potentially bank-account-wrecking devices. After doing much reading and price shopping, I settled on Scan-Tech's Lyra Lydian. This is a low output (0.3mV), medium compliance cartridge with a 300-micrometer boron cantilever and the tiniest diamond I have ever (not) seen! Under a microscope (I took it to work one day), the shape of this thing is quite lovely, and it is still amazing to me that something so small can be shaped with such precision. This is one serious, high-tech design, and I opted from the beginning to leave the aluminum body off, to reduce mass and resonance. Setting up the Lydian on the Gyrodec proved to be not too difficult because of the threaded holes in the cartridge. With some care, initial alignment was completed in about fifteen minutes, then refined over the course of the next two to three weeks. (The Lydian is INCREDIBLY sensitive to setup.)
Was there a difference, and if so, how much? Yes, there was a difference, and it wasn't small. First, almost nothing was lost in the way of dynamics and punch. Second, the soundstage opened up, and musicians in well-recorded jazz took their places on stage. Much more fine detail was being retrieved, especially ambient cues, but not at the expense of adding brightness, as this increase in detail and definition was occurring at all frequencies. Finally, the high frequencies, which were the source of the greatest annoyance with the Corus cartridge, sang very sweetly and delicately. This made the cymbals on such classic jazz albums as Sonny Rollins Saxophone Colossus (DCC reissue), and the bite of Miles Davis' trumpet on the incomparable Somethin' Else (Blue Note reissue), take on a very realistic character. This turntable/tonearm/cartridge combination had me spinning all of my favorite jazz albums far into the night. On " St. Thomas," the first track of Saxophone Colossus, there is a drum solo about four minutes or so into the song. The Gyrodec/Rega/Lyra very nicely captured the initial attack, then the decay of the skin along with the longer, rounded resonance from the body of the drums. Cymbal crashes were likewise extended and delicate. The next song "You Don't Know What Love Is," features Sonny front and center, and this turntable combination captured all the breathiness of his playing, giving me the feeling that he was right in front of me. In addition, his movements closer to and further away from the microphone were startlingly captured.
Strangely, rock music was not quite as well served with this arm/cartridge/TT combination. It was enjoyable, but I think that this ultra-revealing cartridge was revealing all the nasties of modern studio production and letting me hear perhaps too deeply into the recordings. Also, I found that the harmonic colors were ever so slightly washed out compared to live sound. I had heard something similar with the Roksan. A final observation with this cartridge was that record noise was substantially reduced, with an extreme quiet between tracks. Many friends commented that they were surprised that vinyl was so quiet, and not at all what they remembered.
I live in Zürich Switzerland, and this affords me the opportunity to hear live music nearly every night if I want to take the time and money to do so. I often go to hear live, unamplified jazz and classical music, so getting calibrated to what real music sounds like is relatively easy. As a result, this is what I strive for in my music system. The Gryrodec/Rega/Lydian system got me very close to a live feeling on those well-recorded classics from the late 50s and 60s, and only that slight thinness in the lower midrange sometimes spoiled the illusion. I have never felt that rock recordings were live sounding, as the recording engineers squeeze and squeeze and squeeze until all that sound fits into a boombox. When you hear it live, there can be so much power its downright scary, but when recorded, it always to me seems a shadow of itself. In my opinion, CD sounds no worse for rock music, so I buy rock LPs sparingly. One example, the most recent Red Hot Chili Peppers album, By The Way, is a very clean recording, but is it compressed!!! For a time I used an inexpensive solid state amplifier when I was between amps. This amp had power meters, and during listening sessions, I would continually be amazed that the needle was only fluctuating between 2 and 10 watts. Given my speakers approximately 86db sensitivity, this means the sound level was only between about 89 and 96 dB (at 1 meter), and this is only an approximately 7dB dynamic range! How could it sound anything but terrible when a boombox is being used for the final mix? End of rant against compression, on with the review.
I was getting somewhere in characterizing the sound contribution from the Gyrodec/RB300 combination. Or was I? From my listening with these two cartridges, I had determined that the table/arm combo provided good dynamics, with a propulsiveness that gave a strong, muscular feel to music with a powerful beat. I had found a bit of leanness in the lower midrange, which at times seemed to rob the lower registers on a tenor sax or on a male singers lower range. Another thing I had determined was that the surface noise on good vinyl depended on the cartridge being used. With the Lyra, surface noise was nearly nonexistent, while with the Corus Black it was much more noticeable, yet in both cases the noise seemed diffuse and not attached to the music, and this went a long way in making it possible to ignore what noise there was. I was curious to see if these traits would be consistent with a third cartridge, so out went the Lydian and in went the Denon DL 103. This is about as anti-modern an MC cartridge as you can still buy today. It is the antithesis of the Lydian in everything except output voltage (both are rated at 0.3mV). The Lydian is a medium-compliance cartridge, while the Denon is a low-compliance cartridge designed for the broadcast industry and, truth be told, a heavier arm than my Rega. However, it was cheap, and had been reported to possess excellent cohesiveness. Getting this cartridge mounted on to any arm was a bit like playing Twister with my fingers. Since the Denon doesn't have the luxury of the Lyras threaded holes, you have to hold the cartridge in place while at the same time manipulating tiny screws and nuts. It took me about two hours, and when it was done, I wanted to get away from my stereo for a while.
Upon my getting back, the Denon immediately sounded completely different than the Lyra. First, and most importantly, this cartridge had a big, rich, and utterly cohesive sound. The Lyras midbass leanness was completely gone! Returning to some of my favorite records, such as Nippon Soul (on Riverside, reissued by Fantasy), a live recording of the Cannonball Adderly Quintet in Japan, or Bill Evans Interplay (also on Riverside), I found that the foundation of the music was more full and lifelike. The dynamics and drive I had noted with the other cartridges did not diminish with the Denon, and I became more convinced that this is a characteristic of the Gyrodec/Rega combination. The midbass leanness that I had thought to be a characteristic of the turntable had given way to a much more lush and full sound, and it became clear that what I had been hearing was the contribution of the cartridge and not the table. Surface noise was somewhat increased with the DL 103, but tracking was far superior to that of either the Lydian or the Corus Black. (The Denon actually made it through the +18db torture track on the HFNRR test record.) This manifested itself in smoother crescendos on the Saxophone Colossus record, where, with the Lydian, I could sometimes hear a bit of breakup. On the negative side, a bit of the Lydians see-through transparency was lost, but the Denon was comparable on this respect to the Corus. Also, the deeper bass had become a bit leaden and plodding and the high frequencies had lost the sweetness and delicacy I had become accustomed to with the Lydian. There was not just a loss of air, but also the addition of a bit of graininess. Still, the Gyrodec/Rega combo allowed the unified sonic picture created by this cartridge to come through.
I had a chance at this point to compare the performance of the Gyrodec/Rega RB300/Denon Dl 103 to that of a Pink Triangle Tarantella with a Rega RB250 and Denon DL103. I felt that this was a fair comparison, because the two turntables were nearly in the same price category, and were possessed of nearly the same arm and the same cartridge. The Tarantella is as striking a design as the Gyrodec and both will make people stop and take notice. Sonically, the Tarantella was light on its feet and very good at delivering the rhythm, but a bit of the richness of the music was being lost. The Gyrodec combo seemed to fill out the music and allow it to breathe more freely. Still, the differences were small, and had I not been able to compare the two turntables directly, they might have gone unnoticed for quite some time. Butand this is a big butwe are talking about long term satisfaction here, are we not? All too many items impress right away, and only later do I find that the charm has worn off and I am actively seeking a replacement.
The final chapter in this four-cartridge odyssey was an Orotofon Vero II, a cartridge that I find strikes a good balance between the Lydian and the Denon. It retains the Denon's full-bodied sound through the upper bass/lower midrange, while giving a livelier deep bass and sweeter, more extended high frequencies. The same propulsive dynamics are present, as well as good cohesion. Surface noise is again very low (it must be the line contact styli in both the Lydian and the Vero), and the Vero has enough output to be used with the MM stage (0.5mV), and this should mean less electronic noise due to lower gain. However, it is still not the equal of the Lydian in terms of transparency and low-level information retrieval. In these respects, the Lydian was the top of the heap of cartridges I tried on the Gyrodec.
What to make of all this mixing and matching? First I would like to point out that each cartridge spent at least three months in my system, so I feel that I have a pretty good idea what each brought to the party. It may seem that this review is a bit like four cartridge reviews, but this makes a point. The differences between cartridges that I heard using the Gyrodec were obvious, and even non-audiophiles could easily hear them. In fact, the only characteristic that I could pin down to the table itself was its dynamics and propulsiveness. Each cartridge change brought about great differences in tonal balance, inner detail, transparency, tracking, macro dynamics, surface noise, and the way the music hung together. The fact that these areas of performance changed so much with each cartridge suggests that they were artifacts of the cartridge, and that the Gyrodec/Rega combo simply got out of the way and imparted very little of its own sonic signature.
In direct comparison with the Tarantella, the Gyrodec showed itself to be more harmonically correct, while both possessed a good sense of rhythm. The Gyrodec provided more harmonic richness, which I believe means that it drew information from the grooves that was not being retrieved by the Tarantella. What this ultimately means to the owner of this table is that a cheap cartridge just won't do. It is my opinion that the Gyrodec can easily reveal all of the potential in a $1000-plus cartridge, as well as the flaws. The Lyra Lydian (now replaced by the Argon) was a $1000 cartridge in its day, and the Vero II costs nearly $800. The Denon, although it can be had very cheaply, performs at a much higher level than its modest price. The Gyrodec allowed each cartridge to reach its full potential, and the turntables performance seems to be dictated by the cartridge that is strapped to it. This turntable does very little editorializing. It is as romantic, transparent, irritating, dynamic, etc. as the cartridge and the material being played.
Other than slightly demanding assembly and alignment requirements compared to a non-suspended table, the setup of the Gyrodec was not overly difficult. Still, if you cannot handle mechanical assembly, it is best to allow your dealer to assemble it for you, as the parts are built to a quite high tolerance and shouldn't be scratched or dinged. I would also be remiss to point out that even though the record clamp is optional, it should be purchased and used. No record is truly flat, and since the Gyrodecs platter is flat, non-flat records will slip, causing speed errors. Unfortunately, the Michell clamp is not the greatest. It holds the record in place, but does not always get it flat to the platter, which can introduce more noise, although this wasn't too noticeable. My biggest problem was with 180gm records, because they don't bend so easily.
Once you hear the Gyrodec SE Mk.II (or rather, don't hear it), you know its going to be in your system for the long haul. With a naturally balanced cartridge, I have not heard reproduced music sounding closer to live than through the Gyrodec. I don't see the need to spend more on a turntable, even after hearing the big boys at various high end shows. This turntable is designed to provide long-term satisfaction, and is most highly recommended. Brad Morrical