Clearaudio of Germany has been dedicated to advancing the art of analog playback since 1978 with the introduction of their phono cartridges. Over the last decade, they gained a reputation by some of having abandoned the natural warmth of vinyl for speed and transparency in their turntable designs. I, for one, commend them for their thirty-year devotion to vinyl playback and not abandoning it for something more profitable. I feel compelled to say that today’s Clearaudio is a turntable maker whose products deserve to be revisited by many. Their newest turntables from the Ambient on up have added “Panzerholz” (a solid bulletproof wood that is used in Germany for limousines and some special armored trucks) to their plinths, and all of their tables above the Emotion model have the new “Ceramic Magnetic Bearing” that literally allows the platter to float on a layer of air. These two things have transformed the sound of Clearaudio turntables.
The addition of “Panzerholz” to the plinths seems to breathe life, warmth, and an overall more musical sound into these tables. The magnetic bearing brings a level of transparency and quietness to vinyl that I did not know was possible. If you had written off Clearaudio turntables as too detailed and analytical, then I’m here to tell you they will hold their own with some of the most musical tables being made and at the same time bring a level of transparency and quietness these other tables I’ve heard can’t match. Well, I got that off my chest, so let’s get on with the review.
Clearaudio describes the Reference Line model as the pinnacle of performance and design. At its price point, it had better be. On the Clearaudio U.S. importer’s website, they say:
“While the majority of High-End quality turntables seek to isolate the platter by suspending a sub-chassis with springs, Clearaudio’s “Reference” turntables makes use of the fact that the geometrical shape of a body has a fundamental influence on how it vibrates. Damping of vibrations is achieved by choosing an effective shape and through the choice of materials with particularly good damping properties. The platter is carved out of a solid block of acrylic. Naturally, the platter is precisely balanced to the very close tolerances required.”
They have chosen to address the problems of turntables by isolating the motor from the table, arm, and cartridge; by using weight, mass, and shape to deal with vibrations, and recently they have chosen to address friction with their highly successful “Ceramic Magnetic Bearing”, which I reviewed back in the mid-March release of Dagogo.com.
Description and Setup
The Anniversary is the starting point in Clearaudio’s Reference Line of tables. Its plinth has a three-spoke shape unlike my Ambient’s rectangular-shaped plinth. The “Panzerholz” on the Anniversary is twice as thick as that on the Ambient. At the end of each spoke, there are very large spikes that go down to support the table. Above the end of each of the three spokes are large and very heavy pods. These serve two important design plans. First, they make the table even more resistant to vibration. Second, they serve as a place to mount your arm boards. This is a table that makes using multiple arms a breeze, and I promise you I plan to make use of this for listening to mono records. You can look forward to some reviews of the best way to listen to mono records in the near future.
The isolated motor sits on its own heavy pod and is completely separated from the turntable itself. It has a pulley that allows you to play at different speeds by moving the belt up and down the pulley, but I chose to use their “Synchro Speed Controller.
I moved my Clearaudio “Carbon Fiber Satisfy” tonearm with the Benz Ebony TR cartridge from my Ambient, so the only variable that changed was the turntable. I was impressed with how easy it is to mount and set up a tonearm using one of their arm boards on one of the pods. You can simply pivot the arm board to get the distance from spindle to pivot. This is an elegant solution to mounting tonearms on turntables. Simply put, setting up and using the Clearaudio Anniversary is straightforward and easy.
Using the Clearaudio Anniversary AMG Wood CMB Turntable
I would not imagine using any table at half this price without a good clamp and peripheral ring.
The reason I mention this in the use and setup is that I just love the way you can put the peripheral ring on the huge platter, and then just give it a spin with my right hand and hit the power button with my left. I know it says something about my age, and of course, I put the cartridge on the record afterwards. I’m not fool enough to cue it, but just the big spin is fun.
I find using the Anniversary table as simple and easy to use as any table I have ever had. It is great when something so sophisticated, precise and eloquent is so user-friendly. Personally, I wish all audio designers would design their products with the same degree of sophistication, precision, and eloquence and yet intuitive in set up and use. The last thing I am looking for in my music reproduction equipment is a Rube Goldberg type of device that makes using it the center of my attention instead of the music I want to listen to.
But how does it produce music?
When I wrote my review of the Clearaudio Ambient, it was my first use of a turntable in a few years so I spent a lot of time being blown away by how much better it was than my wonderful VSEI 5+ Sony 777 SACD player. Now, I have spent a lot of time with vinyl and all the things I used to know and do have instinctively come back. I have also had the incredible Merrill/Scillia MS21 in for review and used it in my system for several months. So I feel I am now ready for this review.
One of things that has really surprised me in comparing turntables is what a big difference the table itself makes on the amount of record or surface noise you hear. There is no doubt my Ambient is superior to all the budget tables I have heard and even superior to any direct-drive or rim-drive I have heard in regard to surface noise, ticks, and pops. The Merrill/Scillia MS21 and the Clearaudio Anniversary both raised this to a whole new level. It seems that everybody who listens to either of these tables at my house has asked me how I get my records to sound so quiet. (And your answer to me was, “This is how vinyl is supposed to be.” –Ed.)
Let me tell you right off the bat that this table has been a real shock to me.
Yes, the Merrill had better musical flow, was a little quieter, and was slightly better at the frequency extremes than my Ambient. The Anniversary is a whole different story though. It is considerably more transparent, quieter, and more dynamic than my Ambient, or for that matter, the Merrill MS21. As I said, this came as quite a shock to me. As I mentioned, I made a decision to do this review with the Clearaudio Satisfy tonearm which may seem a little ridiculous, but I wanted to be sure what I was hearing was the differences in the tables not the arms. I will be getting the Helius Omega Silver/Ruby arm in soon and will be reviewing it on the Anniversary.
The Anniversary with the Synchro Speed Controller has the same exceptional pitch control as the Ambient, which is the best I have ever heard from any belt-drive. If I remember right, I said of the Ambient’s “ability to hold pitch is really quite incredible”; well ditto for the Anniversary. They are both in the league with the very best direct-drive tables when it comes to pitch stability; this is so obvious on solo piano recordings. The Clearaudio Anniversary, with its pitch accuracy combined with its ability to let the natural weight and dynamics of the instruments come through, is a real winner on piano music.
When I had the MS21 in, I was amazed at the quality of its silence. I remember clearly thinking what an improvement it was over the Ambient. This is very hard to put in words, for its one thing for a system to be quiet, but it is quite another thing to hear the silence that is on the recording. I guess it requires extreme quietness to hear silence. As I reread the last two statements I know it sounds like a bunch of bull, but as I sit here and listen to a recording from Carnegie Hall, I am impressed by just how important this silence is. It fills a large portion of the performance and the soundstage. I have always heard the saying that you can’t be a great dancer if you don’t have good stillness, so I guess it’s fair to say that to produce music that’s the least bit like artificial sound, it has to have good silence.
When I think about it, it was the lack of this very quality that robbed many of the early-generation Clearaudio and other massive tables that used a lot of acrylic from sounding as alive as Linns and such. So I want to just let you know that the Clearaudio Anniversary with the wood in the bass and the patter floating on air will give you every bit of the quality silence I heard with the Merrill/Scillia MS21. I think it is even better, but with the MS21 having been gone for several months, I can only tell you that I know it holds its own and I am shocked, because I had mistakenly believed the Merrill/Scillia MS21 was built on a more musical design than the Clearaudio tables. I was wrong again.
This is the area where this table absolutely breaks new ground for me. I thought the VSEI Level 5+ Sony 777ES SACD player was the most transparent playback system I had ever heard. It didn’t flow, like vinyl, it wasn’t as natural sounding as vinyl, and it surely didn’t sound as much like music, but it was oh-so-transparent. Well, I want to tell you the Clearaudio Anniversary just blows away the SACD player and any turntable I have had at my house. With the Clearaudio Anniversary table in my system I was able to hear the details of a recording with a sense of ease and relaxation I had not heard and encountered before. Plucked strings, fingering work, as well as bowed strings all came through in a visceral and emotionally satisfying manner. I never once thought it overemphasized or too detailed, but it always let you hear the breath of the singer, the air in and around instruments and a lot of the more of the hall than I’ve heard in my system before.
I know there are a lot of vinyl aficionados in both the floating-suspension camp and the rim-drive camps who don’ t think a turntable can be this transparent or detailed and still sound like music. All I can say is, try to get a chance to listen to one of the new Clearaudio tables with their “Panzerholz” plinths and “Ceramic Magnetic Bearings”. I will admit that this table is not as warm as a Linn, Oracle, or even the not overly warm Merrill/Scillia MS21. I will admit that, but I will not admit it is not warm enough to sound like live music. No, like my WGA Ikonoklast Model 3s, it is only warm when the music is warm, but it is never, and I mean never cold or sterile.
PraT, Drive, and Dynamics
Both the Ambient and the Anniversary are superb here. The Anniversary is still a little better. They may not be quite as good as the very best rim-driven tables I have heard, but they are superior to any spring-suspension table I have heard. This ability to have the natural drive of live music and its pace and rhythm lets you get emotionally involved in the music.
Another aspect the Clearaudio Anniversary really excels at is in both dynamics and micro-dynamic. I was honestly shocked that my Ikonoklast speakers were capable of as much slam as they have with the Anniversary in the system, and you should hear the dynamics and drive when I used the big Teresonic Ingeniums. One of the most amazing things about the new Ikonoklast High Output speaker is how dynamic they can be and then on the next recording how relaxed they can sound. In other words, they don’t make every recording sound dynamic, fast, and exciting. The same can be said for the Clearaudio Anniversary. It can have the most incredible dynamics I have ever heard on one record, but on another it might be the smoothest recording I have ever heard. This is the way audio experiences should be, but in my experience seldom is.
The Midrange where Music come to Life
The Clearaudio Anniversary and the Merrill/Scillia MS21 combined with the Benz Ebony TR let music come into my room like no other sources I have heard. I think this may be the reason we who love vinyl, love it so much. To us, vinyl just brings us closer to a live performance. This is a quality that is very difficult to put into words. For example, the spoken voice sounds more real, because the rhythm of their phrasing comes through so easily; horns cut through with more startle because they come out of such a quiet background with such dynamic power and drive, but never in a way that sounds bright or irritating, just more like a horn.
It’s not just about things sounding more like themselves though. It’s more than looking into a mirror. It’s about how music flows, how the rhythm pulses life into sound. Heck, like I said to start with, it just sounds more alive. While this may be hard to describe, it’s not hard to hear. People who have never heard anything but digital recordings in their life hear it immediately and are amazed. (Don’t push it. –Ed.)
The Clearaudio Anniversary is one of the two or three turntables I have heard where you don’t have to choose whether you want quality or quantity when it comes to bass. By quality, I mean bass that breathes, bass that lets you hear the air, and the wood bodies of cellos. With quality bass you don’t just get tight, well-defined bass; you also get to hear the nuances, timbers, and rhythm of real instruments. The Merrill/Scillia was really good in these areas, while giving up just a little bit in quantity and slam. The Clearaudio Anniversary equals the MS21 in quality and is superior in the quantity. The bass with the Clearaudio Anniversary is the best combination I have heard of quality and quantity. I think it produces better bass than most speakers can reproduce.
Soundstage and Scale
Music played on the Clearaudio Anniversary was able to achieve the organic cohesive soundstage I look so hard for and seldom find. At the same time, it had excellent width, depth and height. The table is equally good at producing a realistic scale in regard to an individual instrument, a whole ensemble, or even a whole orchestra. It can portray music correctly huge or small if your amp and speakers are up to it.
When you combine its ability to let you hear a soundstage with this correct sense of scale along with the natural air and ambience, you get a really wonderful sense of what stereo was supposed to be all about. The Clearaudio Anniversary also allows you to hear the side walls, the stage floor, and the top of the soundstage. I think these abilities are some of the reasons this table allows you to hear music with such weight and presence.
While I find it fun and quickly got used to spinning the platter as part of turning the table on, some may not like it and think for this kind of money a table should come up to speed without any help. It will, of course, if you have more patience than I did. Personally, even if I didn’t like spinning the platter, I would still think this is a small price to pay for having such realistic music in my home. I should point out that a turntable of this sophistication takes a little more care and effort to set up. By comparison, my previous reference, Clearaudio’s own Ambient, was the closest thing I have seen to a plug-and-play, at the same time a solid high-end turntable and arm system. Having said this, the Anniversary is much easier to set up in memory than most turntables with floating chassis.
I did everything I could to be sure what I was hearing was the table and not other things. As you have read, there was just no comparison between the Clearaudio Ambient and the Anniversary. I really hate that; I wanted the beautiful little Ambient that I already owned to be an absolute giant killer. The Ambient is still the best table I have heard anywhere near its price, and it is almost plug-and-play. Oh, and it is also still one of the two or three most beautiful turntables I have ever seen.
I wish I could compare the MS21 and the Anniversary head to head; I could not, but they were here only a couple of months apart. So feel safe in the comparisons I have drawn in the review.
I also have to mention I have never spent any time listening to the more expensive Clearaudio turntables in my system; so I can’t tell you how they compare. Garth at Musical Surroundings, Clearaudio’s importers, told me he thought the Anniversary was the table at the most strategic point in their lineup. Before experiencing Clearaudio’s Ceramic Magnetic Bearings and the “Panzerholz” wooden plinths, I didn’t know it was possible to get vinyl this transparent without sacrificing the natural warmth of a great vinyl setup.
In my review of the Merrill/Scillia MS21 I said “there is plenty of room for personal taste in this hobby. I’m just trying to let you know what the MS21 sounds like and to tell you that it made wonderfully lifelike music in my house.” Well I stick by that statement. Except this time it’s the Clearaudio Anniversary Wood CMB making the wonderful music in my house. I could live a lifetime with either of these tables, but in the end the transparency and warmth of the Anniversary is a little more to my taste.
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