The Clearaudio Champion Level 2 Turntable and Unify Unipivot Tonearm
|The Clearaudio Champion Level 2 Turntable and Unify Unipivot Tonearm|
31 October 2002
2-speed rubber O-ring belt-drive turntable
AC synchronous motor
Silicon Acrylic platter and double GS acrylic plinths
Weight: 79.2 lbs. (36 kgs.)
Unify Unipivot Tonearm:
Undamped carbon-fiber unipivot tonearm
Adjustable VTA and azimuth.
$925 ($800 if purchased with a Clearaudio turntable)
Clamp – $150
APG (Accurate Power Generator) – $1800
Sigma Wood MC Phono Cartridge – $1200
The Clearaudio Champion Level 2 is the pinnacle of Clearaudio’s Champion line of turntables. Owners of the Champion and the Champion Level 1 can upgrade to it by simply paying the difference in retail price. One can of course simply purchase the Level 2 complete. The Champion series also includes a list of options and accessories, including a new record weight, their APG (Accurate Power Generator) motor power supply, an edge of LP record clamp and a dedicated alignment protractor.
The Champion Level 2 turntable consists of 2 acrylic plinths (available in clear or black) separated by 4 cylindrical metal isolation feet. The top plinth holds the inverted platter bearing and the heavy and 2.5-inch tall silicon acrylic platter, along with the tonearm mount. The bottom plinth rests on 3 more of the cylindrical feet, terminated in small spikes. Clearaudio includes shelf protection cups in which the spikes rest. A swerve in the cut on both plinths produces a kind of bay, allowing placement and adjustment of the outboard synchronous motor’s position. Drive to the platter is via a round cross section rubber belt. The motor housing contains a flying AC cord lead and power switch and is contained in a heavy, metal cylinder whose isolation feet rest on still another heavy, metal cylinder, also with compliant feet. The drive pulley is held to the motor shaft by 3 plastic screws. Speed change is manual. The optional APG allows toggle-switch speed change from the APG unit.
The platter’s milky color contrasts with the GS acrylic of the plinths, the entire turntable presents an austere, precise and rather clinical appearance, somewhat monumental in presence, and evoking, in my case, the visuals of Fritz Lang’s movie Metropolis. The 79.2 lbs. weight puts the table into the high mass design school; there is no suspension as such.
The Champion is well packaged in 2 separate boxes and a complete tool kit is included along with a set of white gloves to keep from smudging the acrylic surfaces while setting up. The instruction manual could use a good re-write and expansion in the detail of the set-up. I may be the only US male willing to admit to reading instructions before beginning assembly of anything and the more precise and detailed the instructions, the happier I am. Clearaudio offers an optional alignment gauge at $150 that eases setting alignment and overhang. A Souther Clever Clamp is standard; Clearaudio’s clamp is a $150 option. Missing was a strobe disc, making setting speed (achieved by slightly rotating the motor housing and thus distance of the pulley from the platter) slightly ambiguous. I used a KEB strobe to check final results.
The Rega-based arms I used – Clearaudio’s RB 300 ST (re-wired with Clearaudio Sixstream cable, incorporating the heavy tonearm counter weight also used with the Unify arm, and the use of stainless steel in certain areas,) the Origin Live RB 300 and Silver 250 – mount by screwing the arm’s threaded pillar into the removable acrylic armboard, self-tapping the threads in the pre-cut board hole. The stock Rega locking nut is then used to lock the whole into place. This is also the method for adjusting arm height. Given the difficulty of this adjustment – loosen locknut, disconnect tonearm leads from preamp, rotate entire arm 360 degrees until required arm height is achieved, taking great care not to lunch stylus as it passes over the spindle and unwinding the captive arm lead as you rotate – changing arm height to tune VTA/SRA for individual records is not likely. It also made comparisons of the Ringmat to the stock clamp/bare platter set-up difficult and tedious.
The entire open-cylinder arm mounting platform can be slightly rotated by slackening 6 hard-to-access Allen head bolts under the top plinth at the bottom of the arm mount cylinder, allowing movement of the entire platform to set stylus overhang and tangency. This adjustment inspired heights of mechanical frustration and fury, as one has to find the Allen heads blind and in a narrow space between the two plinths prohibiting easy entrance of fingers. The reflections in the clear acrylic also produce parallax distortions that make matters even more of a pain. I would deeply welcome a change to this adjusting arrangement. Simply moving these bolts to the top of the arm platform would ease this crucial adjustment and facilitate arm board/arm swaps. The tonearm leads are not attached to the turntable chassis.
I installed the Clearaudio RB 300ST, and placed the Champion 2 on the top shelf of my wood shelf/steel column rack. The top shelf of this rack is rated for 350 lbs. and the entire rack rests on a concrete floor. Initial sonic impressions with a variety of cartridges were of a rather laid back, slightly smeared presentation, though with smooth and very even tonal balance. Detail was subtly submerged and blurred quite a bit and was immersed in the sonic presentation, being neither obvious nor upfront. Dynamics and phrasing were subdued and the whole presentation, while pleasant enough and non-aggressive, had a kind of background listening, Muzak-type, fog-enshrouded effect. I experimented with various LP placements: neat on the platter, with the included Souther Clever Clamp, the optional $150 Clearaudio Clamp (really a record weight as it makes no attempt to clamp the LP to the platter), and the Ringmat Record Support System. The optional clamp proved well matched to the table and unlike many clamps that attempt to mate the LP with the mass of the platter, did not produce slow and turgid rhythms or other anomalies.
The Champion does not have a suspension as such and depends on high mass, internal self-damping, and mechanical decoupling to achieve isolation from internally-generated and external environmental vibrational interference. The sonic results had me suspecting that the blurring, smearing and overall foggy and musically un-involving results were the effect of inadequate isolation. Banging on the shelf on which the Champion II rested produced no acoustic breakthrough, but I’ve found this test pointless, as many tables unaffected by it still have problems dealing with subsonic interference.
I placed the turntable on Aurios PRO Media Isolation Bearings with Optional Top Ball (first placing the table on a separate board to allow the tripod Aurios to work) and was greeted by an immediate transmogrification of the blurred sound into something commensurate in quality with the price of the turntable. Much of the blurring went away: there were now identifiable transient starts and stops to notes, the space and time between notes finally emerged from the murk, and timbre and musical aspects of performance became clearer and better articulated. It started making musical sense. Placing the table on the Ganymede VCS had similar results; the 80 lb. weight of the Champion exceeded the weight tolerance of my Seismic Sinks, however, and thus precluded their use.
All was not perfect however, nor satisfactory: there was still some smearing apparent. About this time I received the new AC motor replacement for the original motor with which my review table had come. This new motor, sourced from an unnamed Northern European manufacturer, significantly tidied up the presentation by removing more of the haze and blurring, locating images in the sound field better, increasing focus, and improving the urge and general movement of the musical line.
I swapped the 300 ST arm for the OL RB300 and heard an immediate improvement in musical articulation and drive. The Origin Live arm, however, responds best when only just snugged up by the arm nut and the Champion’s threaded arm board arrangement compromised the OL’s bass articulation, control and drive, nullifying the crispness of attack and control of starts and stops of bass notes.
Finally, I mounted the Origin Live Silver 250 along with the Ortofon Jubilee moving coil cartridge and the Champion finally began to come alive and create music. Resting the table’s spikes into A.R.T. Q-Dampers instead of the supplied cups removed another layer of haze and fog. At this point, I finally began to get some musical satisfaction from the Champion 2.
The addition of Clearaudio’s $1800 Accurate Power Generator, or APG, offered an enormous increase in performance, so much so that I would consider it a necessity rather than an option. The addition of the APG, which outputs a pure 60 Hz frequency to the AC motor, improved the sense of drive and articulation of phrasing and musical lines from the merely good to very good. Transients were far less slurred: good motor control not only articulates the sounds, it also clarifies the silence between the sounds. Its effect on my basic AC motored AR/Merrill and Linn Sondek Nirvana was equally impressive, proof again that one cannot rely on the 60 Hz AC coming from one’s wall to adequately lock AC synchronous motors to their correct speed. I found the APG to be absolutely essential to the Champion’s musical performance.
There has been a vogue for unipivot arms in recent years in the high-end audiophile set. The Graham, VPI, and Naim Aro unipivot arms have become the darlings of high-end reviewers and de rigueur high-end recommendations. Clearaudio’s Unify, at $800 when purchased with a Clearaudio table, is the least expensive unipivot on the market. It incorporates a carbon fiber arm wand, upward-facing pivot, adjustable VTA and azimuth, and thread and bob-weight antiskate. The pivot is undamped. An undamped cueing lever and armrest are included, the lack of damping aiding a linear and more controllable descent of the arm while cueing a record.
I must admit a lack of enthusiasm for unipivot arms. Past experiences with the older unipivot arms, e.g., the Mayware Formula 4, Keith Monks, Magnepan and the Connoisseur SAU 4 and with more contemporary Grahams, Immedias, and VPI’s have never really raised a fire in my musical consciousness. To be blunt, unipivot arms are a pain in the ass to both set up and use. The Unify continues this unipivot tradition.
The problem with unipivots is that they are inherently unstable and would like nothing better than to fall off their single pivot bearing. A comparison is often made to a high wire performer who would immediately fall if not for his long balancing pole which produces the necessary balancing by placing the center of gravity below his feet. The cartridge, tonearm and its counterweight are roughly analogous to the balancing pole and balancing the whole mass depends on careful adjustment to avoid introducing distortion of stylus azimuth (a slight tilt to either side when viewing the stylus in the groove from the front), which can range in effect from the quite small (compromising stereo separation,) to large side-to-side wobbles which raise serious fears as to the safety of the stylus and the effect of the stylus wobbles on the record grooves. The problem is that the high wire artist must be constantly inching his feet and re-balancing the pole to keep from losing balance, which the pivot on the arm cannot do.
Set-up of the Unify was harrowing and anxiety-inducing: angel hair tonearm/cartridge lead wiring looked completely intolerant of mechanical slip-ups, tracking force adjustment and overhang complicated by the Unify wobbling side-to-side. Routing the arm wire and its fastener to the tonearm base and then on to the RCA connector box (an option which allows one to choose one’s own interconnect) had to be done just so, as the wire can foul the antiskate arm if not attached properly. This wire is also very thin so as not to add resistance to movement of the arm as it laterally tracks the record. I’ve always hated thread and hanging bob-weight anti-skate devices and I hate them even more on the Unify: the slightest swinging of the bob-weight introduces wobble in the arm. Adjusting azimuth is wisely achieved by the slight rotation possible in the headshell (an Allen bolt allows this adjustment to be then locked-in) rather than by moving the center of balance of the counterweight off to either side.
Operation of the tonearm requires learning a new set of handling procedures to minimize the arm wobbling. Once the stylus is in the groove, so the unipivot theory goes, it is quite stable: the trick is to get the stylus into the groove and stabilized. Clearaudio chose not to damp the pivot for sonic reasons, and the resulting trade-off is more wobble when the arm is moved while off the record. Removing the tonearm from its armrest lock begins the wobble, exacerbated by the swinging anti-skate bob weight. Lightly touching the bob-weight to stop it swinging after moving the arm to its cueing platform helps. The cueing is undamped and directly linear so one can slowly lower the arm to the record and just ease off at the end of the cue, but even with my best Slow-Hand skills (compromised because the height of the platter eliminates a place to rest and stabilize one’s cueing hand) there was still a momentary wobble after the stylus touched the record. Waiting for the arm to stabilize in the groove evoked deep sympathy and concern for what was happening to the stylus until the wobble stopped. Cueing the arm up presented no difficulties.
It took substantial and conscious applied phenomenological ‘bracketing’ to remove my reservations about unipivot arms and to let the phenomenon speak for itself (I did, however, hedge my bets by using easily replaceable LPs and was thankful that I was using Clearaudio’s loaned Sigma Wood rather than one of my own cartridges.) Reservations didn’t translate into audibility, however: in audiophile terms the Unify/Sigma was truly superb, offering a balanced, wide and tautly controlled bandwidth with an extremely neutral-sounding frequency response, superb and solid imaging placement and rendering of the sound field/scape, and top-drawer resolution of fine detail at the frequency extremes. The Unify/Champion/Sigma sounded very impressive indeed in the usual audiophile sorts of ways. But it was only very good in allowing the basics of music to be communicated.
The tracking of subtle volume changes in playing, while not mechanical and lock step, was nevertheless not as fluid as the best tables, and was somewhat homogenized and averaged, failing to completely track the differing and subtle volume levels and the dynamic gradations of multiple instruments playing together. Consequently musical punctuation, phrasing emphasis and arrival, and the emotional (and even the intellectual) meaning of the playing was obscured enough to cause a curious lack of involvement in what was going on, despite the spectacular sonics. Rhythm was also short of the very best. The overall effect played more to cerebral appreciation, rather than to the heart, and while not alienating, clinical, or chilly in its results, nevertheless, resulted in listening to music becoming an intellectual, sonic, audiophile experience: I was never moved to ecstasy, rage, tears, joy or exaltation. And, perhaps the worst for me, there was no direct insight into the consciousness of the performers behind the otherwise superb sonics.
Admittedly this limitation was largely the sonic signature of the Champion turntable – it was present in all its incarnations during my auditioning – and was not a contribution of the Unify/Sigma. Nor was it a function of the Clearaudio Sixstream interconnect running from the RCA arm-wire junction box, as this interconnect proved the best of a variety of other interconnects that I tried.
All in all, I’d have to view the Champion/Unify in the context of other high-end, high mass audiophile turntable/unipivot arms I’ve spent time with or sold in the retail world. Sonically, the table was excellent with superb and transparent rendition of timbre and precise positioning within and delineation of the soundfield, and was without the usual plodding rhythmic aspect that so dims my enthusiasm for other high-end high-mass turntables. Only its lack of intense musical communication – stemming from less than top-drawer rhythmic drive and dynamic articulation – kept me from shouting “Eureka!” and giving it the highest recommendation. I predict though that audiophile listeners with a bent toward intellect and sonic-based listening (and with the motivation to develop delicate arm-handling techniques) will go absolutely ga-ga over the Champion and Unify. More so than ever, a close audition will be absolutely necessary to determine whether its lack of ultimate musical communication evokes the same lack of involvement that the combination produced in me.
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