Herb Reichert | Jun 2, 2020
My most cherished intangibles—love, beauty, glimpses of higher realms—enter my awareness only after I prepare my psyche to receive them. Extended bathing, lighting candles, making tea, and preparing food are ritual work forms that prepare my senses to accept both pleasure and illumination. In like manner, collecting LPs and storing them properly, setting up turntables, aligning cartridges, and cleaning styli are ritual actions that prepare me for the high moments of focused musical pleasure only a black disc can provide.
The black-disc high moments I am about to describe were inspired by my turntable guru and setter-upper friend Michael Trei. In one of our regular late-night phone conversations, he mentioned the made-in-Poland J.Sikora turntables. He said he’d set up a few and noticed some kind of intangible something he thought I might appreciate and be able to describe to my readers.
When I scouted the J.Sikora website (footnote 1), I was attracted to the elemental beauty of designer Janusz Sikora’s lowest-priced model, the Initial. The more expensive two-motor Standard and the four-motor (!) Reference models feature thicker, wider composite bases, thicker composite platters, taller composite motor and tonearm towers, and, to my artist/sculptor eyes, a cluttered, disorienting appearance that seems to be de rigueur in today’s oligarch-priced turntables.
The bare-bones Initial costs $8995 with either a blank arm mount or a mount predrilled for Kuzma, Jelco, Ortofon, Origin Live, or SME tonearms. The Initial package I chose costs $9995 and includes J.Sikora’s High Quality Power Supply and a 10.5″ Jelco TK-850M tonearm. No cartridge. I chose the Jelco arm because it kept the price down and would make it easier to switch cartridges. I thought it might also make comparisons to my reference Dr. Feickert Blackbird turntable (which uses a 12″ Jelco arm) fairer and more relevant. In order that I might glimpse some of the sonic potentials of J.Sikora’s higher-priced offerings, I ordered my Initial with the optional $259 glass platter mat; an optional two-piece record weight added $799 more.
Total cost of this record playing system: $11,053, not including phono cartridge or phono stage.
Just before the Initial arrived, I received the latest updated (summer 2019) version of Grado Lab’s new Lineage Series Aeon3 moving-iron phono cartridge ($6000, footnote 2). In 2017, Michael Fremer raved about the Aeon’s more expensive sibling, the Epoch (original version, $12,000) Mikey’s rave put Grado cartridges back on my radar. I was anxious to experience the Aeon3, so I figured that when Trei arrived to set up the Initial, I would ask him to install the fat, wood-bodied Grado at the same time.
During the course of this review, I used only the Parasound JC 3+ ($2995) and the Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ ($750) phono stages, because both could provide the 55–60dB of gain into the 47k ohm load that the moving-iron Grado Aeon requires. The rest of my system consisted of the Rogue RP-7 line-level preamp feeding either the EleKit TU-8600R or the Rogue Audio Stereo 100 amplifiers driving the DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93 loudspeakers, connected with Cardas Clear Cygnus speaker cables.
When my hands don’t shake and the light is bright enough, I can set up turntables at a level maybe a notch or two down from the pros. For this report, I just held the flashlight, watched, and asked dumb questions while Michael Trei opened the Initial’s heavy wood crate and assembled the table on my rack, next to my Dr. Feickert Blackbird.
“So, Michael, what is that plinth made of?”
“It’s solid aluminum with some concentric cutouts surrounding the bearing mount.”
“What are the cutouts for? To subvert standing waves or randomize vibrations?”
“Something like that.”
On the more expensive models, there are no cutouts: Instead, Janusz and his son Robert Sikora use a sandwich plinth with layers of different materials of varying density. The complete Initial turntable weighs only 62lb, while the Reference deck weighs more than 220lb!
“What are those white glass balls?”
“Those are the things you don’t want to drop on the floor, ’cause you’ll never find them. They sit under the plinth’s three footer cones.”
Two seconds later, a ball hit the oak floor with a loud clack, bounced high, then ran off to nowhere like a scared mouse. I found it hiding under a speaker and needed chopsticks to get it out.
I watched as Trei applied two oil drops and installed the inverted ceramic ball platter-bearing and the black, 8.8lb, 2″-thick platter.
“So, Michael, is that a Delrin platter? Like the ones on the Feickert and AMG turntables?”
“I think so.”
DuPont’s Delrin is an acetal homo-polymer called polyoxymethylene, which, I am told, has a density very similar to that of vinyl records.
Next, Michael installed the beveled 11mm-thick crystal-glass platter mat, which is isolated from the spindle by a 4.25″ diameter stainless steel center puck.
“Michael, doesn’t Brinkmann also offer a crystal-glass platter mat? If I remember right, the Brinkman mat cost, like, $1500. This one costs only $259.”
“Yeah . . . Brinkmann does.” (footnote 4)
“Seems like these European record decks are cross-pollinating.”
As Michael positioned the heavy stainless-steel motor housing, I blurted out, “Why is the motor under the tonearm? Isn’t that weird?” He said, “That’s what keeps the turntable’s footprint modest.” (The plinth measures 17″W × 13″D.)
“What kind of motor is that? ‘A high-torque Pabst DC motor.'” Before the two belts were installed, and after Mike connected the motor to the outboard speed controller, I listened with my stethoscope to the plinth area between the motor—running at 33.3 rpm—and the tonearm mount. To my surprise, the sound of the Initial’s high-torque motor was nearly inaudible. The bearing housing on the Jelco TK-850M tonearm was even closer to silent. The glass platter mat was silent.
The machined aluminum controller box features an attractive, easy-to-read display and five pushbuttons that select 33.3 and 45rpm, stop, and +/– for fine speed trim.
The Grado Aeon3
I never dreamed I’d see cartridges like those in Grado’s new Lineage Series. The Lineage Aeon3 (described herein) and the latest version of the Lineage Epoch3 are obviously radical attempts by John Grado to make the best cartridge ever, period. (I can imagine John in his basement lab in his factory in Brooklyn: “Screw these moving-coil guys. I’ll show ’em what a real cartridge sounds like . . . !”) In case you forgot, John Grado’s legendary uncle Joe Grado was not only one of the founding fathers of audiophile audio: He was granted a patent on the stereo moving-coil phono cartridge. But Joe abandoned the MC principle and began manufacturing moving-iron cartridges because, according to his nephew John, “he understood moving-coil’s defects better than anyone.”
I could not remember the last time a Grado cartridge was competing for best cartridge in production, but Mikey’s review concluded, “Install the Epoch in the right system, put on an LP of the right music, sit down, . . . and you are done.”
I asked Michael Trei to install the Aeon3 because I feared its broad shadow-casting cocobolo wood body would challenge my weak-eyed setup skills. But, according to John Grado, the wide wood body serves a less-than-obvious purpose: It allows more of the cartridge’s 12gm mass to be balanced around the stylus point, presumably stabilizing the motions of the cantilever.
After Trei left, I found myself in the strange un-reviewer-like position of listening to a new turntable with a new cartridge and no hard point of sonic reference. The only familiar part was the venerable John Curl–designed Parasound JC 3+ phono stage, set to “MC 47k,” making a proper load and maximum gain for Grado’s 1mV output.
Footnote 1: J.Sikora, 20-817 Lublin ul.Poligonowa 41 Poland. Tel: +48 501 236 108 Web: jsikora.pl. US distributor: Notable Audio Products 115 Park Ave., Suite 2 Falls Church, VA 22046. Tel: (855) 966-8225. Web: notableaudio.com
Footnote 2: Grado Labs, 4614 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11220. Tel: (718) 435-5340. Web: gradolabs.com
Footnote 3: Mikey also reviewed the Epoch3 in the April 2020 Analog Corner.
Footnote 4: In his wonderfully-written review of the JSikora Initial turntable, Herb asks Michael Trei, “Michael, doesn’t Brinkmann also offer a crystal-glass platter mat? If I remember right, the Brinkmann mat cost, like, $1500 . . .” Please note that all Brinkmann turntables—Balance, Taurus, Spyder, Bardo and Oasis—come with a Crystal-Glass platter mat as standard equipment. This mat is integral to our proprietary alloy platter, is permanently bonded to it and is considered an essential component of Brinkmann turntable design. On behalf of everyone at Brinkmann, thanks for making your readership aware of this important technical aspect of Brinkmann turntables.—Anthony Chiarella, Director, US Sales & Marketing, Brinkmann