|The Vinyl Word
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May 2002Clearaudio Champion Turntable
by Jason Thorpe
The looks are what first strike you about the Clearaudio Champion turntable. Yeah, I know, they're the first thing you notice about any audio component, but with the Champion, right off the hop, you get punched in the nose by the simplicity and translucent elegance of the thing. Everyone oohs and aahhs when they first see it. In my experience, its rare for a component to be built from the ground up with an elegant essence, or form, without a resultant compromise to its function. It can happen though, and when form meets function something exceptional can result. Is the Clearaudio Champion turntable such a component?
Unless youve been living in a cave for the past decade, the name Clearaudio undoubtedly rings an audiophile bell. This German company has been at the forefront of both statement-level cartridge production and turntable design for a number of years. But with the Champion, Clearaudio has thrown its hat into the affordable turntable arena, while managing to maintain their customary precision machining and attention to detail. At $1000 USD for the turntable without tonearm or cartridge, the Champion is somewhat more expensive than an entry-level turntable such as the Rega Planar 3. However, its immediately evident that the Champion is a significantly more sophisticated component.
The ability to be upgraded is an important feature thats built into the Champion right from the get-go. Clearaudio has designed a distinct path that starts with the base Champion as I reviewed it and, in two separate steps, upgrades it to a totally different record player. The first plateau, the Level One upgrade, adds a dual-plinth chassis (separated by isolation pods), anti-resonant metal feet, and an anti-resonant motor plate. This upgrade costs $700 above the initial cost of the Champion. If things are going particularly well for you this month, you can dive straight into the deep end and spring for the Level Two Champion. This, in addition to the aforementioned changes, adds a thicker 70mm platter, an upgraded bearing thats fitted to match it, and three more isolation feet. If youre moving up from the base Champion, the additional cost is $1200, which includes the entire Level One package.
The neat thing is that, should you decide that you want to purchase the Level One and Two upgrades right at the start, you would pay the same price as the base table plus that of the package of your choice. Either way, the price is the same.
On the base table as I received it, the plinth is made from a large, perfectly polished chunk of 1"-thick GS-acrylic. The review sample was clear (and I mean crystal clear), but black is also available. The three cone feet are also acrylic, and theyre threaded, which makes for easy leveling. The platter is made from 1" thick silicon-acrylic. Its frosted rather than clear, which makes for a nice contrast against the polished plinth. The perimeter on the review sample had some areas where the finish was unevenly applied, which showed up when it was turning. This in no way affects functionality, but it does detract a tiny bit from the aesthetic of the whole shebang once its in motion.
The Champion uses an inverted phosphor bronze bearing. Inverting the bearing makes a lot of sense, as it puts the pivot point up high, which keeps the platters center of gravity nice and low. It does mean, however, that getting lubrication up to the friction point is a bit of a problem. Clearaudio solves this by using fairly thick grease, which they supply in a syringe. I get the feeling that this grease ends up causing a fair bit of drag, as even without the belt attached, the platter will stop within 30 seconds after receiving an aggressive spin. Contrast this to my Roksan Xerxes, which will spin for close to 5 minutes if I detach the belt. I merely state this as a difference -- not as a defect -- as I noticed absolutely no bearing noise during my evaluation.
The motor is a chunky AC-synchronous standalone unit thats encased in a thick stainless steel case. As its a stand-alone motor assembly, the vibrations from the motor have little opportunity to interfere with the delicate stylus/groove interface. The power cord is generic and captive, and the pulley (two-stage for speed changes) is either plastic or acrylic and attaches to the motor shaft via two set screws. The pulley on my sample had a very, very slight eccentric wobble that I was unable to correct. The Champion can be leveled by unscrewing one or more of the three acrylic cones from the plinth. This is somewhat less than ideal as there is no lock nut to stiffen the cones when they are anything other than snug against the plinth.
The tonearm supplied with the Champion by Tri-Cell, Clearaudios Canadian distributor, was a modified OEM RB300. This arm is modified by Tri-Cell and is available for $500 through any Canadian Clearaudio retailer. The modification consists of rewiring the arm with one continuous, unbroken length of Cardas litz wire all the way from cartridge clips to RCAs. I first tried the arm with the Origin Live Heavyweight, but, after finding out that the arm isnt supplied this way by distributors in other countries, I switched back to the stock weight for the duration of the review.
Vertical tracking angle is adjustable on the Champion by screwing the whole tonearm up or down into the threaded armboard, then tightening a lock nut on the bottom of the tonearm shaft. This is an easy, sanitary VTA adjustment system, but its not exactly the hot ticket if you like to make frequent adjustments. Im a set-it-and-forget-it kind of guy, so as far as Im concerned, its ideal.
Setup of the Champion was astonishingly easy, as the distributor did it for me. That said, it looks like a pretty easy job based on the instructions provided with the unit. An especially nice touch is the inclusion of cotton gloves so that you can avoid getting finger oils on the acrylic plinth which, let me tell you, shows every mark (especially dust, as the Champion doesnt come with a dustcover).
The one complaint that I had with the Champion as delivered was that the arms arc, while the requisite distance from the spindle, was a little too far up (the hole for the armboard was drilled at 1 oclock, as opposed to 2 oclock). This resulted in the armtube bumping the armrest when I lowered the cueing arm into the lead-in groove. I fixed this by simply loosening the arm mounting nut and rotating the arm 20 degrees clockwise. This made the table look a little wonky, as the arm was no longer parallel to the right edge of the plinth, but it didnt affect the sound at all.
I inserted the Champion into my main system, which consists of a Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamp, an SFP-1 Signature phono stage and EAR-509 monoblocks. Speakers were Hales Transcendence Fives. The Champion replaced my Roksan Xerxes/Artemiz/Shiraz combo; I also had a Rega Planar 25 for comparison. The cables used were, for the most part, Acoustic Zen Satori speaker cables and Matrix Reference interconnects, except for a short flirtation with Kimber KCAG and KCTG.
The Champion is very sensitive to the support upon which it sits. I initially plonked it down on a BBC sandbox which resides on the top shelf of my Target stand, but it didnt sound anywhere near as good as I thought it should, considering its pedigree. After much cartridge swapping and head scratching, I removed the sandbox and placed the table down on a stiff, springy Baltic birch shelf. This improved the sound drastically and far more than I expected, and there the Champion sat for the duration of the review.
Operationally, the Champion performed flawlessly throughout the review period.
Sure shes cute, but can she dance?
When you take a look at the quality components that go into the Clearaudio Champion, it would be surprising if it didnt sound good. Acrylic is a material that has a history of making for good-sounding turntables. The RB300 is well known to be a killer tonearm. Add in a stand-alone motor and -- presto! -- you have a great-sounding rig.
The mids and highs of the Champion, regardless of which cartridge I had on it, were precise, clear and detailed, but not overly bright. This isnt a lush, romantic turntable; its more of a precision instrument thats designed to present the music as it is, rather than as it could be with just a bit of editorializing. The Champion did, however, infuse the upper mids with a tiny bit of additional energy, which enhanced the sense of detail, but at the expense of ease. This trait is very slight, and I hesitate to mention it, as I had to listen for quite an extended period of time in order to nail down this characteristic. This was one of the reasons why music sounded incisive and lively through the Champion.
You might think that a table that epitomizes accuracy would be at somewhat of a loss with rock, instead being more comfortable with chamber music or Gregorian chant. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the Champion managed to keep its precise nature while letting the sloppy fun thats inherent in much rock music shine through.
Take Simple Minds New Gold Dream [A&M SP-64298], for instance. The loping bass line that drives the title track relies on a really steady-sounding turntable to keep the rhythm going. Rather than the embellished richness of some other tables, the Champion provides a distinct feeling of attack, which accentuates the sharp start-stop of the rhythm section.
A good turntable needs to reach down low with authority -- not so much to the subsonic level, but in the power region of the cello and, below that, into the roundness of acoustic bass, which is where much of the drive of the music is. The Champions bass was solid and tight, and it had an almost single-ended feel. By this I dont mean that it was loose or undefined. Rather, I sensed an almost organic texture to the bass, which is similar to what Ive experienced in the midrange with some systems that use SET amps. Would you think any less of me if I told you about the Dutch pressing of Rushs Farewell to Kings [Mercury 6338 834] that I recently picked up? On the title track, the Champion presented the correct bite to Geddy Lees Rickenbacker bass. Theres a tendency for most turntables to gloss over the low-end growl, burying the lower midrange of the instrument in the ambient level of the music. Already strident, Lees voice didnt take on any additional glare or edge, which, for me at least, is an important acid test.
I cant stress strongly enough how well the Champion kept a tight grip on the music. Soundstaging and image specificity were controlled, precise and accurate. I get the feeling that Im overusing these adjectives, but they just keep popping into my head whenever I try to ascribe a sonic characteristic to this table.
While listening to Talking Heads Little Creatures [Warner 92 53051], I was struck by how well the Champion pinpointed and layered images within what can only be described as a soundfield. The percussion instruments on "Stay up Late" were always placed precisely, and were never homogenized. David Byrnes voice occupied a large portion of the soundstage, with no lack of presence evident. The sense of an actual talking head in between my speakers was accentuated by the slightly forward midrange, but in a manner that served the music rather than detracted from it. The Champions soundstaging and imaging performance were nothing short of excellent.
The treble region proved very sensitive to both supporting shelf and cartridge choice. Once the Champion was placed directly on a light, stiff shelf, things meshed perfectly. A huge layer of itchy grain was lifted from the lower treble, the removal of which made the Champion pleasant to listen to for extended periods of time. A swap-over from Kimber KCAG, which proved to be a bit too hot in the upper mids, to Acoustic Zen interconnects, also helped in this regard. While this table is capable of treble performance commensurate with -- and extending beyond -- its price, the setup is vitally important if you want to get this crucial frequency band correct.
Soup to nuts
When it comes to comparing turntables, there are so many variables to take into consideration that you almost might as well not bother. A turntable is a system that includes the wire in the tonearm, the tonearm, the cartridge, and shelf the table sits on. Hell, even what youre wearing and the weather that day seem to make a sonic difference. However, if you plug away at it, and swap those variables around enough, some characteristics become evident.
The Clearaudio Aurum Beta S cartridge and the Champion share a similar tonal balance, and if I were to describe it using one word, that word would be accurate. When I changed over to my current reference, the Roksan Shiraz moving-coil cartridge, some but not all of this penchant for Accuracy Above All Else was replaced by a bit of swing. With the Shiraz on point, the bottom end was a touch fatter, but also slightly more tuneful.
With the Shiraz leading the way, the Champion sounded quite different from both the Roksan Xerxes and Rega Planar 25. While listening to the Planar 25, I did indeed experience the signature foot-tapping Rega sound. This rhythmic looseness was distinctly at odds with the taut, controlled nature of the Champion. Im going to sit on the fence here and not say which sound I preferred. Rather, I will say that I could happily live with either. The Rega seemed to get out of the way of the music on a more consistent basis. Images were less tightly specified in comparison to the Champions outstanding precision. With the Rega, I could read, watch TV, or play with the cats and still enjoy it. The Champion captured my attention and made me more of a conscious listener.
In comparison to the Roksan turntable, the Champion lacked a touch of dynamics. The same Talking Heads LP came alive with even more depth and jump via the British table; "Stay Up Late" benefited from a snappier yet more refined presentation.
The Xerxes also imparted a silkier, more sophisticated feeling to music, especially in the midrange. While Hank Mobleys Soul Station [Blue Note ST 46528] was eminently listenable and rhythmically assured via the Champion, the Xerxes managed to infuse an extra degree of refinement that was characterized by a completely grain-free midrange. Mobleys sax had a slightly more believable image via the Roksan; it was large and brassy, while with the Champion, the image was just a bit smaller. I really dont want to make very much of this difference, as it took quite a while before I was able to nail it down.
In its favor, the Clearaudio was just as quiet as the Roksan, and had slightly deeper and tighter bass. Also, keep in mind that the Xerxes looks rather dumpy next to the ethereal Champion, especially when it has a copy of Rushs Hemispheres in red vinyl on the platter. (Satan, Ive found your turntable.) Considering the difference in price between these two 'tables (the Roksan combo lists for more than four times the price of the Clearaudio), the Champion can hold its head high and feel no shame about being bettered in a couple of areas.
So what do you think, Jason?
When all is right, the Clearaudio Champion shines. Its easy for a turntable to err on the side of lushness, but much harder for one to portray an accurate sound without becoming edgy. The Champion rides this fine line with a firm, yet delicate hand, and it incorporates this accuracy without sounding sterile. The sonic signature of this Clearaudio table reminds me of that of a good CD player -- one with soul. All of the attributes that draw me toward LP playback are there -- the richness, life and intimacy -- but many of the drawbacks of CD have been minimized.
The Champion is also an excellent value. While its not exactly cheap, it does offer superior sound for a reasonable price. Once you factor in the upgrade path, the Clearaudio actually could save you money as compared to buying an inexpensive table now and selling it at a loss later when you want to upgrade. In fact, this turntable should appeal to a wide variety of budgets. Theres no sonic penalty associated with buying the base-level Champion, and theres no financial penalty involved should you buy that base model and decide to upgrade later.
Partnered with an appropriate cartridge and careful placement, the Clearaudio Champion succeeds in marrying gorgeous appearance with top-notch sound. I moved my rack over from behind one of the speakers just so that I could see the Champion from my listening seat. Damn, it looked good. More importantly, it sounded good too.
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