Pre Audio ASP-1501 Turntable
Ever since the advent of the vinyl record, mankind has been grappling with the problem of how to play this piece of black plastic with the most fidelity to the original recorded sound. Womankind, on the other hand, has been wondering what the fuss is all about and why mankind is so obsessed with minute little details such as these, but are quite happy to let them get on with their silly little pastimes as long as no harm is caused. I would bet my bottom dollar that if womankind knew what a little Polish company called Pre Audio is doing to further the cause of this silly little pastime, but at a cost that is so palatable to all concerned that it engenders very little harm indeed, then womankind will consider it and its owner worthy of sainthood. However, I am getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack a little.
Very briefly, since many of you enlightened readers already know this like the back of your hand, perhaps the single biggest issue with accurate LP music reproduction has been the disparity between how a record is cut, versus how it is being played. When cutting records, a device called a cutting lathe is used, to which is connected a tonearm-like contraption that actually cuts the groove on the acetate that goes towards creating the final stamped records. You can see the cutting head in the picture of a famous Neumann lathe below; just to the right of the turntable is the triangle-shaped cutting head, not the one on the left which is a regular tonearm for monitoring purposes. The cutting head moves in a straight line from starting position towards the spindle, cutting the groove in one continuous unbroken path.
Without going into complicated mathematics, it would stand to reason that the best way to listen to a record cut this way is to follow the same straight-line path used by the cutting head. Why? Because a pivoted arm traces a path across the record in an arc, not a straight line. This means, depending on the actual positioning of the cartridge vis-à-vis this theoretical perfect straight line, that the cartridge on a pivoted arm will only coincide perfectly with the position of the cutting head once, perhaps twice in the entire arc. The rest of the time, the cartridge is tracking the groove out of alignment. Vinylphiles refer to this as “tracking error”.
It would further stand to reason that a tonearm made to mimic the way the cutting head moved would be the best solution to reduce tracking error to zero, instead of using a pivoted arm. Indeed, such straight arms have existed for over 50 years and they are called “linear trackers.” This begs the question, if tracking error is so undesirable, why do we not see more linear tracking arms on turntables, instead of the much more common pivoted arms? The answer is a choice between two evils. Linear tracking tonearms are horrendously difficult and expensive to get right, and to keep working consistently throughout its lifetime. Not all music lovers are sound engineers, and most would not want to get a technical certification in how to operate their turntables just so they can cue up their favourite Barry Manilow record on a Sunday afternoon. Pivoted arms offer a much more user-friendly process which is low-cost, low-maintenance and almost idiot-proof, tracking error be damned.
This does not mean that nobody has tried to bring quality linear tracking tonearms to the market at some point in our brief audiophile history. Rabco is one famous brand that tried harder than many other manufacturers, and with whose arm I am relatively familiar, having played with a Harman Kardon ST-7 for some appreciable time. I can attest to the clean elegance of a linear tracker (when it is working correctly), and to the amazing sounds that it can reproduce (when it is working correctly). My sample did not give me much problems, but I know of people who consider it the spawn of the devil and would not touch it with a ten-foot barge pole and Hazmat clothing. The problem is that the arm has to move along a rail all the way from the start of the record to its end, and at any point during its travels, it can easily bind onto the rail. This is an endless source of frustration for many users, and led manufacturers to the next chapter of the linear tracker – the air bearing.
In a heroic effort to reduce the friction between arm and rail, audio engineers turned to a tried and tested method of moving heavy objects with minimum effort – air bearings. These bearings seemed the perfect solution. Think of air hockey, the game you may have played at county fairs or video arcades. The puck floats on air most of the time and makes it easy to push around with a paddle. The same principle applies here; float the arm on a bed of leaky air, and let the groove take the cartridge and arm naturally along the rail, and hey presto, no more binding. But as always, there is a fly in the ointment. The pump used to produce that bed of air is usually very expensive and noisy, and had to be housed in a separate room. Add to that the necessity of very high tolerance parts in a device that floats on a layer of air only microns thick, you can imagine how much early air bearing arms cost. This explains why the air bearing linear tracking tonearm is both the Holy Grail and unholy bane of the audiophile industry.
Until now. Pre Audio, a Polish company run by owner designer Daniel Prendecki (from which is derived the word “Pre” in the brand name), has devised a reliable tangential tonearm using air bearing which he is able to manufacture and sell at a price that is well below the stratospheric. In this day and age, it is hard to believe how anyone can sell anything remotely resembling what Pre Audio is offering with this price tag. Prendecki’s middle of the range ‘table and tonearm combination, the ASP-1501, boasts a belt-driven turntable with an air bearing linear tracking tonearm for the princely sum of $5k (US). These days, this sum may not even buy you a high end cartridge. The tonearm used here is made of acrylic for the arm tube, which Prendecki claims will minimise resonances and cancel out any remaining unevenness in the trolley drive, making the arm less sensitive to deviation in parts tolerances. Using an arm tube of about 9cm also ensures that it is less sensitive to record warps and VTA, although you can adjust VTA in between records if you wish to do so. The piece de resistance is their air pump –a beautifully crafted box that puts out 0.03MPa of pressure but only makes 20dB worth of noise. To put it in context, that is just 1 dB louder than my air conditioner set to Quiet mode and lowest fan setting. You can therefore site the pump right next to the turntable with no deleterious effects –audio or video - whatsoever.
Setting up the ASP-1501 from the box is not as difficult as local lore may suggest. Unlike most other linear tracking turntables, you have the option of requesting for it to be pre-assembled in the factory. Once you remove this from the box, you are unlikely to find that any of the adjustments required to bring the ASP-1501 to working order will be particularly difficult to make. As long as you work carefully and methodically – and read the instruction manual, for goodness’ sakes! – then you will be fine.
Remember that with a linear tracking tonearm, the turntable must be set as level as possible. After you have done that, not forgetting to set the stylus tracking force to the right amount, then all you need to do is turn on the motor, wait for the platter to spin up to speed, move the cartridge over to the lead in groove, lower it via the cuing level, and that’s it.
In my listening sessions, I made use of a very good value for money cartridge, the Ortofon Quintet Bronze. Based on the overall price of the ASP-1501, I believe a cartridge of this level is most likely to be paired with it.
The ASP-1501 surprised me in many ways. Most of all, although I liked to think that I didn’t need the lesson, it taught me not to judge by price tag alone. After all, I do love and use some inexpensive Chinese-made gear and I wouldn’t have believed it if someone told me I had a snobbish bone in me. This turntable combo showed me that something costing this amount can still, in this day and age, stand up to scrutiny and not be embarrassed in a much more extravagant milieu.
Take for example the opening track of “Tin Pan Alley” by the redoubtable Stevie Ray Vaughn taken from his double LP album Couldn’t Stand the Weather (Epic PPAN 39304). When the stylus hit the groove, I was immediately greeted by a very stable, self-assured sound that I was not expecting from it at all. The soundscape was big and bold, and SRV’s Muddy Waters-inspired blues-infested guitar rang across the room with a clean, pristine, and dare I say it, expensive quality. Every time Otis Layton executed a rim shot, the noise floor was low enough to reveal a nice clean reverb. Then when the vocals kicked in, I was treated to a reasonable facsimile of the human textures that one would hear at a live event. All in all, a very promising start indeed.
And the good things kept coming. I heard the same positive, bold and forward dobro guitar reproduction from Dire Straits’ “Private Investigations” from their Love Over Gold album (Vertigo 6359109). I loved the authoritative way the ASP-1501 managed to reproduce the flurry of toms and kicks right at the end of the track, sounding very believable and satisfying. Yet, none of this was by way of committing the usual sin of being initially bright and impressive but ultimately wearing, a trait all too commonly found in equipment at the mass end of the market. The Pre-Audio combo, with its audiophile flash and bang, managed to remain musically coherent and communicative throughout the time I spent with it.
Musicality was also the order of the day when Ben Webster’s “The Touch of Your Lips” (Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson Verve MG V6-8349) was put into the system. I heard a big bold sound of the tenor sax and Peterson’s almost metrically precise runs were all laid bare. There was lots of detail but more importantly, the ‘table timed so well that I lost myself in the rhythmic drive of the track, toe-tapping gleefully with the groove. This was really nice, I thought. I wondered what it would do with an old audiophile gem, the Persuasive Percussion LP by Terry Snyder and friends (Command RS 800SD) which boasts some of the best session musicians of that era, despite its candy-fluff reputation. I was not disappointed by the gamut of congas and bongos arrayed before me in hard left and right, with the tight skin timbre of the hand-struck percussion reproduced confidently and with power to spare. Timbre of wind instruments such as trumpet and oboe, and not to mention strings, were also cleanly and realistically presented, as attested to by Resphigi’s famous “Pines of Rome” (Classic Records re-issue of RCA LSC-2436, Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner). I found the way the ASP-1501 balanced the tonal demands of different orchestral instruments, and the way it re-constructed layers and depth of image, quite impressive.
As expected, at no time did tracking error distortion ever rear its ugly head during my listening sessions. All the tracks I used for evaluation were taken from different positions on the record, and the ASP-1501 sailed through all of them with equal aplomb. The last track of each LP sounded as pristine and unmolested as the first, a conclusion that really should be foregone when using a really good linear tracker such as this.
Now, I would be justly accused of being a newly-minted Pre Audio fanboy of if I did not mention the ASP-1501’s foibles, of which there were but a couple. I did detect a slightly overblown mid- to low-bass which sacrificed control and absolute tonal accuracy, presumably a trade-off for greater impact. SRV’s “Tin Pan Alley” suffered from this quirk, as did the Dire Straits track, but the Persuasive Percussion album loved it as it played to its primary strengths, namely percussive attack and power. As to how much it will bother you, I rely on the good old gasoline disclaimer.
I also felt that, while the ASP-1501 was definitely able to deliver a bold forthright sound, it did sound a bit like an eager teenager showing off his muscles but lacking the requisite maturity to do it with discretion. Macro-dynamically, it seemed a little flat, as if some invisible compressor was at work restricting the total loudness range. This is especially important in classical music where the differences in dynamic markings can swing from ppp to fff, sometimes in a heartbeat, and a system’s ultimate goal is reproduce those faithfully as captured by the recording. In this regard, I felt the Pre Audio fell a little short in this regard, as evinced by both the Resphigi and the Persuasive Percussion albums. How much of this fault can be laid at the feet of the ‘table and arm combo, or the cartridge, was something I did not have enough time to ascertain. The Ortofon Quintet Bronze is certainly an amazing sounding cartridge for the money, but I have no doubt that the ASP-1501 is more than capable of taking on a much more expensive cartridge, and had I done so, things may have turned out quite differently.
If you are in the market for a turntable, whether or not you have experience with linear tracking tonearms, do have a listen to the ASP-1501. If my experience is anything to go by, pleasant and/or shocked surprise should be the order of the day. Just listen with no pre-conceived notions of how it should sound, keep an open mind, and you might just be blown away. The fact that you are getting a piece of audio ingenuity that solves one of vinyl’s oldest and most intractable problems, at this price, is probably just icing on the cake.
And when - not if - you do reach for your wallet and pull out plastic, I would urge you to look into different, pricier cartridges to use with this ‘table. I have no doubt that the ASP-1501 is more than able to handle ancillaries that you may not instinctively consider compatible, including cables and phono stages. And I bet you (and any irate feminists out there) that the surprises will just keep rolling in.
Price: $5000.00 with arm