Audiomeca Mephisto II

The upward journey into my system's source now splits into two tributaries, digital and analogue. The digital life spring recently made a spectacular leap forward. I replaced the excellent un-digital-sounding Cary 303 -- sterling service for 2½ years -- with Pierre Lurne's Audiomeca Mephisto II. This is a very interesting machine using the Lurne transport and a state-of- the-art Anagram DAC (review pending). This player is the first that doesn't instantly make me think I'd rather be listening to Vinyl.

Scheu (Eurolab Premier)

Vinyl has taken a lot of my time and attention over the last few years - scheming on how to get a good rig together, sacrificing to afford one. My guess? Committing to a turntable is one of the most stressful moments in audiophilia. Whatever we do, we'll end up either living with it for ages or taking a severe financial hammering should we sell. Most people allocate the big money on the table up front, then improve arm and cartridge as the bank balance recovers. I spent a year researching turntables. I was about to settle for the Nouvelle Platine Verdier (at a then whacking £2500) when fate intervened - an Internet DIY turntable post which sent me off to Germany's

I instantly fell in love with their massive inverted bearing design, 80mm thick acrylic platter thread-driven by an offboard collector-less DC motor. The acrylic plinth is recessed and filled with stabilizing lead shot. Bearings and platter are precision-machined to 1/100mm tolerance. It's a simple yet particularly elegant design. And the price? About £900 at the time, less than half the NPV. The downside? Factory-direct only. In the end I called them, arranged for return if I didn't like it and sent off my money.

What a turntable it turned out to be, clearly in a different league from my old suspended design. It's not going anywhere soon, either. If I was trying to assemble a budget exotica system, the Scheu would be the first building block. My current phono stage is a Tom Evans Microgroove Plus. It is such a highly considered piece that further comments are scarcely required - except to remind us that a phono stage adds ca. 60dB of gain to a typical moving coil cartridge. Compare this to an amp's 30dB-at-best and consider how the signal off the record is so far more fragile than the one past your preamp. Paying special attention to the quality of one's phono stage then becomes mandatory. Nuff said!


The Schroder Model 2 arm is the single-most exciting and cherished component of my system. Head-over-heels stuff. Like the table, it's elegant and simple, a standard uni-pivot design with brass headshell/counterweight on a carbon fibre arm. Yet it's got a clever trick up its sleeve. In a standard uni-pivot, the arm wand rests on a single needle point to act as bearing. In the Schroder, the arm wand dangles by a single thread tensioned below by a magnet for a truly frictionless bearing. That's what it sounds like, too - surprisingly natural and open, never dominating. At £1300 it's not cheap, but after having been there, no going back.


Finally the Allaerts MCIS cartridge. When I first heard one on a Schroder Reference and Platine Verdier, I had no doubts that this was the arm-cartridge combination I ultimately wanted. The Schroder Reference will have to wait, probably for quite a while, so the Allaerts is the one for me. At £1500, I agree that it's completely insane. Don't forget the thing wears out, too. Is it worth it? In absolute terms, I have no idea. In terms of pleasure produced, without a doubt.

The Gubbins

What else? I'll leave the home-made stands for later. Maybe the electricity's worth mentioning. Early on, I decided to install an independent spur for the audio system. DIY appealed to me - play dangerous games with the mains box, drill holes through two feet of walls and wind three 40-meter electrical cables around each other tied to a drill head. Frustrating work. The reward? It sounded exactly like the standard mains ring. With considerable disappointment, I put one down to experience. Regardless, I've plugged my system into it for years. A few weeks back, one of the plugs acted up so I jacked the turntable into the standard mains. Suddenly female vocals turned flat and gray, not to mention the large hole at the centre of the soundstage. This was by no means subtle. Perhaps the dedicated feed hadn't been in vein after all, merely requiring break-in? I like to think so. Finally, racks and power cords are mostly DIY as is the vacuum record cleaner.

The Sound

This system's key features are transparency and refinement, with timbre, tonal colors and dynamics its chief strengths. It has an unusually wide soundstage. With a good record, its presence fools me into thinking that the musicians have parked their chairs in front of my bay window. The sound is quite three-dimensional, as though you could step between the instruments. The thing most people notice upon first hearing it? A friend called it "sound without fury". There's very little grain or hash. You can turn it up quite loud, still continue a relaxed conversation without raising your voice while the sound is filling the room. Turn the volume up farther and instruments grow larger and more lifelike without turning harsh - unless the recording is.

I've heard systems that do better by some audiophile criteria, but I would describe mine as well-balanced overall. Of course, there's a whole list of components I'd love to hear, starting with a trio of horns: the Living Voice Air Partners, Be Yamamura' monsters and the visually stunning Jadis Eurithmie. But these are in a different, stratospheric league and the stuff of dreams.

My original sonic goal was to create a system that didn't get in the way of the musicians. That is a matter of taste, trial and error but achievable. Increasingly, I'm wondering though. Am I actually looking for something else now? It's difficult to describe, like wanting to be as close as possible to what is viscerally moving the musicians to produce the sounds they do, the "essence" of why they're playing a particular piece that way. Whatever communicates that best is what I'm striving for.

This quality might well be different from the standard audiophile checklist. Getting closer to the music doesn't necessarily happen through a vast soundstage, incredible dynamics or neutrality across the spectrum. In fact, any of these qualities may be at odds with it. The other day I heard a statement rig with musical inertia - a cheap copy which bore no relationship to the expressiveness of the musicians trapped on their CD.


I do most of my listening on Vinyl. With the addition of the Audiomeca, I hope that will change. What are the differences? When an artist paints a figure, he or she begins by drawing the outline to subsequently fill shapes with color. Until the renaissance, this standard procedure created two-dimensional renderings. Artists in Italy and the Netherlands then discovered shading, which they referred to as chiaroscuro. The effect of adding shading to shapes created a much closer verisimilitude to the three-dimensional images our eyes perceive. The first and most noticable difference is that vinyl comes across as considerably more three-dimensional, not to be confused with soundstage. The body of each note radiates energy in more of a 360-degree pattern, while digital comes across flatter like a movie screen. Vinyl also appears to contain greater energy within the note's body itself. The way the harmonic energy flows appears closer to that in real life. The harmonic envelope is denser near its source and might well spread more quickly or effortlessly. The effect is one of greater darkness or silence between the instruments, making it easier to walk between the sounds. Digital has gained a lot with the arrival of my Audiomeca (now considerably improved by the Audio Magic Mini Stealth). My guess? The Audiomeca/Stealth combo goes about 70% of the way while the Cary 303 had a much flatter posture. My wife -- who hates everything but her boom box -- finds vinyl more 'lively' and hears this difference easily.

I've started buying more CDs now. One of the great things about living in my neighborhood of London are the three record exchanges nearby - one for classical, one for rock, one for hip-hop, soul and jazz. I'd love to give you a favorite-10 list but that usually changes every month. At the moment I still count Arvo Pärt's Te Deum as a perennial favorite. Pergolesi's Stabat Mater is another. Virginia Rogrigues' Nos. Anything by Abdullah Ibrahim. Leonard Cohen's Ten New Songs. Miles of course. Bach's unaccompanied cello suites.

I'm exploring some club and world chillout music, from the Buddha Beat CDs to zero7 and Chilled Ibiza. My collection consists basically of 40% classical, 30% Rock, with jazz and world music making up the remainder. This last category is harder to obtain on vinyl but I expect it will grow now. This week's absolute favorite song is Van Morrison's "On Hynford Street" from his Hymns to the Silence CD. This is one of his rare spoken rather than sung numbers. Still, if they're going to put a CD on the next Voyager outer space mission, this has got to be my choice for describing what we as human beings are really all about.

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