We take our sound testing very seriously and have a variety of hi-fi separates that can be configured for all musical types. Originally, our goal is to create a high quality authentic sound from the time when vinyl was in its heyday, the period between 1972 and 1982. That's why most of our equipment is from that period. A Jico VN35HE SAS/B styli attached to a Shure V15 III playing through a Linn or Thorens TD124 turntable, Yamaha CR2020 Receiver and Castle Acoustic Conway speakers is, to our ear, probably as good and authentic a sound as was possible for that time.
It's not that we believe that there isn't some fantastic (and very expensive) kit made these days, there is. It's just that we tend toward sound that's more crisp and melodic rather than precise and detailed. Like all things it's a matter of taste and preference. We happen to prefer the natural rich grain of a photograph created using film rather than the pixel sharp precision of its digital equivalent.
That said if we hear something better, then we'll buy it! That's why we've recently invested in a pair of B&W 804s. The quest for audio perfection continues...
1974 Linn Sondek, with a 1978 SME 3009 tonearm and Shure V15 mk3
Many would argue that the Linn deck is the finest turntable ever made, ours is an early Sondek so originally it came without a tonearm. We have a 1978 SME 3009 series ll improved fitted on ours. In keeping with our 70’s ish vibe* it's often played with an 80s Ortofon VMS 10E stylus and cartridge - yes, we actually have 2 original new 10E styli, probably the only ones left on the planet! To keep the output pure there’s an Ortofon CAP210 installed on the back of the cartridge, because as Ortofon put it “it keeps things flat between 10k and 20k hz”.
How does it sound? It has an easy, relaxed demeanour, it’s fantastically crisp and clear, picking out individual elements with a rounded fast, 3-dimensional soundstage. It’s perfect for classical, unplugged instrumental and vocals.
For every other genre, swapping over to our Shure V15/Jico SAS combo gives more attack and precision, great if you are listening to Jazz or Rock.
Thorens TD124 with a 1979 SME 3009 Series 2 Improved tonearm.
Update: as this was made in 1966/7 it needs some TLC so is away on furlough and being serviced by Dominic Harper of Northwest Analogue. When it's back and healthy again it'll be reunited with the SME 3009 and the custom made Rosewood plinth. Dom has suggested replacing the VMS 10E with our Shure V15 lll cart and a Jico SAS Stylus. Well, he is the expert, so we'll give that a try and hear how that sounds. We can't wait to drop it back onto the plinth!
Just over 4 months later, here it is, restored and working. We're still tweaking the set up but so far the 124 has a relaxed, detailed clarity that is very easy to listen to. That will only become more detailed as we refine the settings and make it sing. Already, we're liking this 60s icon a lot, actually more than a lot.
Now we've updated both the Thorens and the Linn to a SME3009 S2 Improved tonearm, we can swap the headshells around between them and have added a Denon DL 110 moving coil cartridge to the mix.
Is there a deiiference between the two? We've listened to both, side by side, with exactly the same arm/cart combo and yes there is, the Linn is slightly softer, more rhythmic the Thorens has more rich presence and depth. Who'd have thought that the 'spinning' bit could make such a difference!
Thorens TD160, don't be fooled by it's looks, even with the early 80's chic (or just plain ugly) standard TP-16 tonearm, this is can be a surprisingly detailed deck. Especially if you pimp the hell out of it, and we have. An 18mm MDF rubber coated baseboard sitting on three adjustable spikes makes the whole plinth more rigid, improving the resonance and deepening the bass. A Platter Damping Ring, Adjustable Motor Thust Bearing, 3mm Felt Platter Mat and Spindle Damping Device eliminate much of the unwanted feedback and turn it from an ugly ducking into a beautiful swan. It may not have the PRaT of the Linn or the rich musicality of the Thorens TD124 but it is very rewarding to listen to, and we do as it's our 'work horse' turntable.
Pioneer PL12D. Yes we know it's not the best deck ever built, but it's a good early budget classic. It's a touch agricultural in the way it delivers, subtle it isn't, it's the difference between a six clyinder Audi and a four clyinder Volvo engine. It'll get you there but won't be as smooth, relaxed or refined as a more upmarket marque. That said there is something about its honesty that we love. Oh, and a PL12D was the first serious deck we ever owned as teenagers!
Tonearms, Headshells, Cartridges and Styli
Recently we have added SME 3009 Series 2 Improved tonearms, with the fluid damper kit to our Linn and TD124 turntables. This has enabled us to use a variety of headshells, cartrdiges and styli on them. Some might think the 3009 a strange choice as the modern trend towards low-compliance MC carts has made the SME 3009 less popular as it was designed for high-compliance carts.
Apart from fitting into our 70's theme, we chose the 3009 Series 2 Improved for its all-round musicality and because they have a higher mass tonearm than the original 3009 fixed head. This makes a difference as the greater tonearm mass provides more flexibility to play both high and low compliance carts. This greater flexibility, was an acceptable compromise, especially with the addition for the fluid damper kit which transforms the sonic qualities of the tonearm, making it a much better arm for modern MC carts.
We also have a local connection, the 3009s were originally made just 8 miles from our main office/manufacturing facility.
Currently we have two of each of the SME series, 1, 2 and 3 headshells, attached to them are:
Shure V15 III - we have two of these because they fit very well with our late 70's vibe as well as still being one of the best MM carts around. It's a classic for a reason, we've listened to a lot of carts and always come back to it, we love the precise, mellow, relaxed sound. Both of ours have been upgraded with a Jico stylus (SAS and HE) and a solid Snake Wood housing that dramatically improved the detail and depth of sound.
Denon DL 110 - a good entry level quality MC cartridge that projects a detailed, deep soundstage. It pairs very well with the SME 3009 and the Thorens TD124.
Ortofon VMS - another classic cartridge, we have four of these with various configurations, again because they fit our 70's - 80's theme. Like most carts, they come to life when paired with a Jico stylus. So much so that compared to later Ortofon carts (Blue, Black), our preference is still the VMS/Jico combo.
Grado Black 1 - this is our basic MM cartridge, the cart we tend to use on vinyl of dubious origin, mainly from charity shop purchases. Subtle it isn't but produces a big gutsy sound.
Styli - As you may have already guessed our stylus of choice is anything made by Jico. They have a fantastic range, the quality is superb and they are great value for money. A single-crystal SAS laser cut diamond sitting on a Boron, Sapphire or Ruby cantilever on an upgraded Shure V15 III cartridge is in our opinion as good as MM gets.
Actually at Vinyl Clear we prefer a receiver to an amplifier. Why? Well they just look so cool! We have a preference for the Yamaha CR because we haven't yet found a receiver from that period that sounds better - and we've listened to, and owned a lot. For example we have had (and have still own) a number of Pioneer SX receivers of the same vintage and they just seem dry and two-dimensional in comparison. We often trial modern amps, including some very expensive and customised models, but so far haven't found anything we would swap the Yammies for.
Yamaha CR 2020.
This is as good as it got in the late 70's - actually in our honest opinion, as good as it got period. Built for quality and accuracy just before the time when the bean counters started taking countrol of many hi fi company boardrooms and dumbing down the quality for higher profits. Apart from the 110w per channel of crystal clear, pure natural sound, we bought the CR2020 for its MC cartridge phono option.
We have a couple of Denon Magnetic Coil Cartridges for the Thorens td124 and love the sensitive, expanded soundstage they create. They may not have the attack of the Jico but are a perfect match for vocal and accoustic soundtracks.
We couldn't help but plug the CR2020 in to drive the B&W 804s. It really needs to go away to be checked out by our engineer, but not just yet. We just love the clarity of sound produced by this big, heavy, beautiful beast.
Update, in May 2021 the CR2020 had a major service by our local audio electronics expert Mike Still. His opinion is that most quality 70's amps sound so much better than their modern counterparts. He had some very techincal arguements (that were frankly way over our heads) to back that up.
Our ears agree with Mike, sure they can look pretty and have some cool features but expensive modern amps just seem a bit flat and thin when compared to the CR2020. For us the CR2020 is a keeper and our benchmark.
Tuning range: FM, MW
Power output: 105 watts per channel into 8Ω (stereo)
Frequency response: 10Hz to 100kHz
Total harmonic distortion: 0.05%
Damping factor: 40
Input sensitivity: 0.05mV (MC), 2mV (MM), 120mV (DIN), 120mV (line)
Signal to noise ratio: 95dB (mic), 100dB (MC), 85dB (MM)
Output: 150mV (line), 30mV (DIN), 0.775V (Pre out)
Speaker load impedance: 4Ω (minimum)
Semiconductors: 6 x IC, 3 x FET, 109 x transistors, 58 x diodes, 7 x zener diodes
Dimensions: 540 x 167 x 415mm
Yamaha CR 1020 Receiver
At the top end of the CR range the 1020 is known for being neutral, detailed & transparent. Ours has been fully serviced and recapped where needed, so it’s the best it can be and with its legendary build quality it should be going long after we’ve stopped.
SpecificationsTuning range: FM, MW
Power output: 70 watts per channel into 8Ω (stereo)
Frequency response: 10Hz to 100kHz
Total harmonic distortion: 0.05%
Damping factor: 40
Input sensitivity: 2mV (MM), 120mV (line)
Signal to noise ratio: 81dB (MM), 100dB (line)
Output: 120mV (line)
Speaker load impedance: 4Ω to 16Ω
Semiconductors: 4 x IC, 3 x FET, 109 transistors, 58 x diodes, 7 x zener diodes
Dimensions: 540 x 167 x 415mm
Our other Receivers are:
Yamaha CR 1010 Receiver
As good as the 1020 but with slightly less grunt.
Yamaha CR 800 Receiver
We own 2 both of which need a service to get the very best out of them. They don't get much use because of the 2020 and 1020.
Yamaha CR600 Receiver
The baby of our Yamaha family but we have a real soft spot for this receiver, it's in 'as new' condition and even came in the original box with all the paperwork.
Pioneer SX 550
We love the retro styling of this mid-range Pioneer receiver and it pairs well with our Pioneer deck.
Bowers & Wilkins 804s
Okay, so these speakers are a break from our late 70s early 80s theme, but when something sounds this good perhaps it's right to be a little more flexible. A recent addition to our speaker stable, from circa 2008, these floorstanding 804s have a depth and detail we've not heard before. They project a rich 3 dimensional soundstage at all volumes that is a pleasure to listen to. Relaxed and refined, the B&W 804s are currently our favourite speaker, especially for instrumental, classical and vocals.
Castle Acoustic Conway 2 and 3
These unique 80s speakers are a hidden gem, in a world of chasing audio perfection, tweaking, testing and regular hardware updates these are definite keepers and have been since we stumbled across them. We were lucky enough to pick these up from an ex-employee who’d worked at the original Skipton factory. He told us they were a one off, carefully constructed from a design based on the Conway 2, built as an early prototype for the Conway 3 but ultimately they proved just too expensive to manufacture. That makes sense as they look like the classic Conway ll yet the original factory labels on the back of the speakers are marked as a Conway lll.
The Conway 3 were manufactured as a tower speaker, so our Conway speakers were archived, until they were bought by that employee and sold to us 30 years later.
The build quality is exquisite with 30mm mylar cone/dome tweeter, 80mm doped paper cone midrange and 210mm pulp cone bass unit placed symmetrically within a flame walnut veneer that is matched across all sides of the large cabinets. At 3’6” tall with the matching stands they are a big speaker, with an equally big sound. With a frequency response of 63hz to 20khz +-3db at 2m ( -6db at 38hz at 1m) with crossover points 750hz and 4khz you’d expect these to sound good.
They don’t disappoint, driven by our Yamaha CR1020 they become invisible projecting the sound around the room. The 52 litre cabinets give plenty of rich bass, with good speakers you'd expect to hear the depth and complexity of the bass, but with these you feel waves of air vibrate around you.
Then the exacting, clear midrange builds the a complex and 3 dimensional soundstage, with the sharp high-end filling in the spaces. Fast and detailed, these speakers just fall on the crisp side of neutral, which is a very modern trait. They can be a little too crisp with the wrong amplifier (they just didn't sound right with our Pioneer SX500 or the SX980 we used to own), but with a well serviced, re-capped Yamaha CR they just sing. These speakers are detailed enough to expose any weakness in your hi-fi set-up.
Jim Rogers 149 (red logo)
A world-renowned speaker maker, these little beauties are the iconic ‘can’ shape. The drive units used were from KEF: the classic B110 bextrene cone bass unit and matching T27 Mylar tweeters. We’ve found the JR149 is best placed close to the wall, with some toe-in, we do have some original wall mounts but have never used them. This little speaker really does produce a big, typically 70's warm hi-fi sound from a small cylinder.
The early JR 149s were designed to compete with the LS3/ 5A, ours are the sought after, early red logo. Contemporary tests of the JR149 were unanimous in their praise. Hifi News, Hifi For Pleasure and Practical Hifi each conducted a giant test of a number of loudspeakers and the JR149s beat all-comers - beating even the well respected LS3/5as and Quad ESLs! Compared to the LS3/5a they could play louder, the bass to go a bit deeper, and have clearer, detailed imaging. Not bad for a little can speaker!
All that said, hi fi is a personal thing, and to be honest the JR149 is a little too warm for our taste, although the soundstage is expansive and the JR149 does a pretty good job of ‘disappearing’.
We often run the Conway's and the JR149's together as they seem to compliment each other to give a extra depth and complexity to the soundstage.
Currently we're looking for another set of speakers to run with them.
Can you improve on our hi-fi equipment?
There’s always room for improvement, so we’re always looking for new bits of old kit. If you have a mid 70’s Marantz 2270, 2275 or Sansui Receiver in excellent condition, then we’d be interested in buying it. We're also looking for a good pair of JBL L100's, Spendor DC1's or Kef 107's. If you have any of these why not send us an email?
*Why do we focus on mid/late 70’s audio equipment? Well, the 70’s was the peak of analogue recording and the quality sound systems around at that time were designed to maximise the analogue sound, often irrespective of cost. The build quality was fantastic and the sound even better, more musical and warmer than the current trend to extract maximum detail. So, we tend towards the very best equipment from that golden age of vinyl.