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Clearaudio Master Innovation turntable system Review

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Clearaudio MI 1e

Clearaudio offers only one model above the Master Innovation, the $200k Statement, a profound statement to the capabilities of the MI; my expectations of the turntable can’t be helped but thus escalated. Aesthetically, the Master Innovation appears distinctly European, its four-piece, massive, overlaying superstructure being made of a sandwich of aluminum and Panzerholz “bullet-proof” wood, per Garth. European living room décor is seldom flashy just for the sake of it and often interjects wood finishes judiciously over objects of metallic base for a less cold gaze. In its cultured mannerism, there is still enough aluminum area on the MI for the showroom aspect, too. The POM black platters themselves were polished to such smoothness that their rotation was virtually imperceptible until upon close examination, so much so that I once forgot to check the power LED and left the platters rotating overnight.

AMG 12J2 tonearm

The analog playback chain downstream of the Clearaudio currently in play in my home, from the AMG 12J2 tonearm, Koetsu Jade Platinum cartridge, Stealth Audio Cables Helios phono cable to the Pass Laboratories Xs Phono and companion Xs Preamp, sharply illustrates the nature of the analog format and its upgradability. All interconnection downstream of the Xs Phono was of Audio Reference Technology Analyst SE XLR and Super SE XLR. I have no doubt there’ll come a time when I must hear Clearaudio’s flagship linear-tracking arm and statement cartridge with the Master Innovation, but I am loving the AMG tonearm and the Koetsu too much now to be distracted by anything else.

The capability of the Master Innovation revealed itself when I played the 1999 Classic Records reissue of the 1959 Audio Fidelity two-microphone stereo recording of Satchmo Plays King Oliver. Having enjoyed this record with the same cartridge and phono stage with previous turntables, the Clearaudio unraveled yet such deeper layers of tonal clarity, focus and intensity that for the first time I heard the instruments seemingly leap out of the panels. It was rewarding to experience an old recording such as this attaining a level of sonic splendor not possessed by many modern recordings. The liner notes describe the use of two microphones housed in the same chassis, a Telefunken MS 2 and M251, arranged in 90-degrees to each other to create “complete separation as well as absolute registration on the entire area recorded.” The innovative recording technique applied to this recording over half a century ago is awe-inspiring, and the Clearaudio provided the ultimate platform for me to experience it. Unplugging the Smart Power battery power supply and reverting the turntable back to using its own AC adaptor diminished the MI’s prowess in producing the glow and presence, but not enough to defeat the turntable’s superiority.

The Master Innovation’s superlative degree of finesse among turntables was such that its very low noise floor accentuated the intrinsic dynamics of the recordings. Case in point was the 1984 half-speed remastered “.5” edition re-release of the infamous 1956 RCA recording of the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2 that pianist Arthur Rubinstein recorded with conductor Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Sounding ordinary on all other tables before the Clearaudio, the first note of the strings section leaped out at me for the first time following the solo piano intro, sounding almost like a 45rpm. Such realistic dynamic rendition of the music brought the joy and fun factor in music appreciation up a good, big notch, and I finished the entire LP.

My heavily played 1967 classic of a classical disk of Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic of Adagio was given a new lease in life. On the Master Innovation, the BP strings took on an uncanny pristineness and sonority that is age-defying. The spatiality in the separation of the strings from the organ was simply not there with turntables before the Master Innovation.

More so than the SACD edition, the Proprius Cantate Domino LP harbors vocal delicacies and spatial cues the likes of which I hadn’t thought possible until it took a spin on the Master Innovation. The sustaining visceral and ethereal bottom-end of the church pipe organ provided for a solid testimonial on how a groove scratching medium continues to generate electrical signals of such fidelity that remains to be surpassed. The LP and SACD don’t sound the same. For the highs, the LP format is electronically capped at the teens via the RIAA equalization as implemented dutifully by the Pass Labs Xs Phono but did it sound clear and spacious like a bell nonetheless.

The John Barry apex of a soundtrack, the 1986 Grammy awarded Out of Africa, and the only John Barry piece to have won a Golden Globe Award, was arguably never surpassed in the composer’s own repertoire that spanned over half a century. The Master Innovation brought forth the tubas, trombones and double cellos in a most evocative rendering of the storytelling. This is the kind of score that effectuates vast canvases of the movie in the listener’s mind.

John Barry’s other scores of the same era must be sampled again, then. The 1977 The Deep, the 1979 The Black Hole, the 1979 Moonraker and the 1980 Somewhere in Time sounded fresh and more dynamically powerful on the Master Innovation than with previous turntables. The Clearaudio continued to set down the most definitive platform for regular records to sound extraordinary.

One of the more frequently played selections on my system these days has been the 2014 Deutsche Grammophon release of the Bruckner Symphony No. 9 under Claudio Abbado, available via online retailer Elusive Disc. There was a time when the de facto masterpiece to conduct for the closing call and testimony to one’s lifetime achievement as a conductor, and for people to remember one by, was the Beethoven “Ode to Joy” from the Choral Symphony. It is, of course, equally nice if one is memorialized by his/her work on Beethoven’s other symphonies, such as Bruno Walter for the Beethoven Sixth, or Carlos Kleiber on Orfeo for the Beethoven Fourth live. Those that chose some other composer’s work, albeit no less notorious than Beethoven in many minds, were often considered lesser figures, somehow a minor conductor whose confidence in his artistry extended not to the realm of Beethoven and found the established repertoire of Beethoven Cycles by names such as Furtwangler, Karajan, Toscanini too intimidating.

But here Abbado, a rising star when Karajan, Solti and Bernstein were the overlords of the classical music scene, now having matured post-Karajan era, finally arrived at the ripe age of 80 and recorded a Bruckner Ninth on August 26, 2013 as the final note of the 2013 Lucerne Festival, five months before his death on January 20, 2014. The composer himself never lived to complete the fourth Movement more than a century prior which ended in the third, “Adagio” Movement. Dedicated to “the beloved God,” this adagio is arguably Bruckner’s most personal and earnest. Karajan, himself unbeknownst of his looming death on July 16, 1989, recorded the composer’s epic Eighth in November, 1988 and proceeded to record the composer’s Seventh in April of the following year, both with his beloved Vienna Philharmonic, and to hear Abbado leading the Lucerne Festival Orchestra which he founded in 2003 is almost an acute case of déjà vu. The difference being that while Karajan obviously was intending to get to the Ninth as well, he never made it, and Abbado just skipped the rest and went for the Ninth.

The sound of this record on the Clearaudio was more engaging than with other turntables before it. There was a stronger sense of emotions and palpability, and the human touch of the orchestra under Abbado’s baton was more communicative. I’ve auditioned this record with the Koetsu Jade Platinum cartridge on other turntables and the Clearaudio allowed the cartridge to produce the most superior dynamic contrasts and low-level details. The only other turntable producing a similar sense of stability and continuity was the Spiral Groove Revolution with its similarly integrated belt-drive system and outboard power supply, but it concedes in the ultimate spaciousness and naturalness of tone to the Clearaudio.

Not all last testaments of conductors are definitive testaments, but the Abbado “Adagio” is one to remember, and Deutsche Grammophon did a peculiar thing on this record. There’s no audible audience throughout as if it was a studio recording. Then there is the thing that the whole symphony is issued on two LPs, one Movement per side, leaving the fourth side blank.

Finally, instruments such as piano, brass, strings, and woodwinds all consistently carried just that little bit more tonal richness through the Master Innovation. For instance, the Columbia 6-eye LP Bruckner Symphony No. 9 under Bruno Walter and Columbia Symphony Orchestra on the Clearaudio turntable revealed more complex and realistic tonality than the 24/96 remastered edition from HDtracks with a myriad of DACs, with the exception of the $150,000 Audio Note UK Fifth Element/Fifth Force 24/96 coaxial DAC (review to come).



Art connects people and empowers all of us to relate to the next person. It facilitates inward perspectives on ourselves and our place in this world.

Vinyl printed in the sixties and on are often musical and sonic testaments to the legitimacy of the format even by today’s standards, while their CD versions are often disappointing sonic artifacts. To date, there remains a huge library of records with no SACD or high-res edition released or announced.

Vinyl disks in general come with an attendant, small booklet that sheds lights on the music and its creative process. Hard-disk playback and streaming, on the other hand, are more convenient and can even be on par with some analog systems in performance. Streaming platforms such as Tidal, Qobuz, Amazon Music and others encompass such a vast catalog of music that they likely can fulfill most everyone’s musical needs. But audio streaming does not match the analog sound and represents yet another step away from the learning experience a listener gets with vinyl playback via the liner notes. It won’t do neither to package an SACD or Blu-ray disc in an album-like large cover when the form doesn’t fit actuality, inviting only market rejection. The vinyl experience simply connects one to the deeper emotional and intellectual level more directly. Bless those that put their precious recordings up for sale in retirement.

More than half of my record playing sessions see Deutsche Grammophon records of the 1980s on the platter, and they are hardly the last word in resolution. I play some of them so frequently that I’m on second and third copies. What I get out of using the Clearaudio Master Innovation is fresh testimonials to the efforts of the musicians, the recording engineers and the label’s art department.

Recordings of significant artistic value will always be re-issued on new formats from the original master tapes. Curiosity about sonically promising formats will always drive a consumer demand for new formats, and while that’s the brilliance of product marketing, it remains a fact that having only one audio format as my only resource on a certain recording is such less fun. I deem the times we live in as the closing era that sees remaining copies of multiple formats becoming available. I believe that every audiophile and music lover should have fifty or so favorite recordings in both analog and digital formats as his core staple.

The question regarding music listening via the online music retailers, then, is not on the quality of the hi-res digital files but that of the playback system. For a DAC good enough to be able to reproduce the master tape-caliber audio files faithfully, what will it cost? Investing in a DAC is the same as investing in a turntable, cartridge/tonearm, cable system, amplification or speakers, in that higher-end ones usually represent performance that are leaps and bounds above others and thus will remain ahead of the curve for a good number of years. The analog format, however, differs in that virtually every part of it can be upgraded incrementally so you can start from the bottom and work your way up over the years.

The act of high-end vinyl playback hinges on each component in the chain performing its best, and it is quite literally the competency of the turntable that determines the result and is relied upon as the foundation, unless some readers of Dagogo change flagship tables more often than cartridges and tonearms.

Using the Clearaudio helped me realize how visceral and earnest an effort the company has been dispensing in advancing the art of vinyl playback. The sheer physical structure of the turntable was visually complex and presented most beautifully at the same time. By all counts, the Clearaudio folks have gone mental creating the Master Innovation: The stacked trios of pillars raised the platters in the most thoughtful use of space I’ve seen in turntable design, housing the motor mechanism, speed adjustment panel and operating control panel in one pillar and three mounting platforms on top of each pillar. The result is a turntable system of reference caliber with a décor friendly physique and system-friendly footprint, that looks more and more to me like developing ultra high-performance turntable systems is just part of the natural things they do. How else can one explain the length to which the company has gone in the singular pursuit of the musically most exemplary in analog playback?

Of turntables with multiple superstructures, the Clearaudio is the only one that I’m aware of with complex sensors and electronics built into the platters and the control pillar. The Master Innovation is much more than just a heavy-duty turntable, it is a marvel of modern day technology. Operating the turntable is a constantly rewarding experience. There are few top analog platform like the Clearaudio Master Innovation.

The sheer technological marvel that is the Clearaudio Master Innovation sets it apart from all others. Whereas in my previous experiences the purity and dynamics of the Pass Laboratories Xs Phono Preamp revealed itself to me as the all-important link in the analog playback chain, followed closely by the caliber of the phono cable, and then even more closely by the level of resolution of the cartridge, the Clearaudio Master Innovation with the Smart Power 24 power supply brought a whole new level of sonic purity to my enjoyment of music, wiping all my prior, established system-building notions clear. This turntable is the clearest-, quietest-, smoothest-, most natural-, stable- and precise-sounding and most integrated design-wise and, in a nutshell, the highest-performing analog playback machine I’ve experienced thus far, and it is a statement in itself that the company considers the $200,000 flagship as the next worthy upgrade to the Master Innovation. The Clearaudio Master Innovation is one for the books.

The source technologies have always been the driving force of the industry, and the eighties were the golden age of high-end audio. The plethora of turntable products, cassette decks and compact disc players of that era drove the surge in interest in everything else, from the compact disc to vinyl to cassette technologies, then trickled down to innovations in amplification and loudspeakers. Diversity was celebrated. The sterile environment in which we find ourselves today must be reversed. It should not always be about the ultimate in fidelity but the most fun we can have. Was there any doubt that had the cassette tape technology been developed continuously it’d been capable of so much more?

To date, I have written about four high-end turntables. The Clearaudio manages to fulfill the criteria most important to me: speed stability, ease of placement, operational convenience, technological maturity, aesthetics and performance. Except for the first criterion of speed stability, all were confirmed rather early on, but I had a bad experience with one of the previous turntables post-review, so I wanted to observe the Clearaudio long-term before I made it my reference. It’s been almost a year in use now, and it operates flawlessly. It is now my reference.


Copy editor: Dan Rubin

Review system:

PS Audio DirectStream Power Plant 20 AC regenerator

Acoustic Sciences Corporation TubeTraps
Audio Reference Technology Analysts EVO interconnects, power cable
Audio Reference Technology Analysts SE interconnects, power cables
Audio Reference Technology Super SE interconnects, power cables
Stealth Audio Cables Helios phono cable

Clearaudio Master Innovation turntable
AMG 12J2 tonearm
Koetsu Jade Platinum moving coil cartridge

Pass Laboratories Xs Phono
Pass Laboratories Xs Preamp
Pass Laboratories XA200.8 pure class A monoblocks
Bricasti Design M28 class AB monoblocks
Margules Audio u-280SC Black ultralinear tube monoblocks
Sound Lab Majestic 645 electrostatic panels

One Response to Clearaudio Master Innovation turntable system Review

  1. Jack Pot says:

    Glad that some reviewers still remark on the intrinsic superior audio quality of vinyl.

    I personally own a MI on its Olympic rack. Give it a try and be amazed. Also, I always use the Statement Clamp when playing records. Absurd, what a “simple” clamp can achieve. And for serious listening, the locator + outer limit. One turntable comes very near: the diminutive Grand Prix Monaco 2.

    But the MI outperforms by a clear margin everything on the market when equipped with the proprietary TT1-parallel arm: the sound stage attains “life” performance size (location, width, depth) and “colour”. I suspect the MI was designed with the TT1 in mind.

    Finally, good ground decoupling is essential: I gravitated toward the Olympic rack for aesthetic and space as well as audio considerations. But putting the MI on an ACapella base is already a huge leap forward. (I
    experimented with many bases, ACapella is a sure choice)

    Enjoy your listening.

    Cartridge: Ortofon Century, Phono cable: Nordost Odin2.


    PS: I have the Abbado/LFO/Bruckner 9 on both cd and vinyl. I listen to digital using a dCS Vivladi 2 3-piece suite. The sense of space and flow of the MI is unsurpassed.

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