I should mention somewhere here that the Dr Feickert Blackbird I’m about to drool on is part of “my” Reference Rig, generously hosted at Command Performance A/V in Falls Church, VA. Jeff Fox, Proprietor, has been insanely gracious enough to leave me alone in his studio to play with, listen to, and review (if I feel like it) his gear. In order to maintain the power of the Jedi Mind Trick I’ve played on him, I don’t really go out of my way to abuse his gear too much. Apparently, he actually uses it for important people, like, say, paying customers. Anyway, my point is that disassembling a fully tweaked turntable was, sadly, out of the question. So, no, there will be no teardown or setup pics, unfortunately.
However, there is a very nice writeup on 6moons on the Blackbird, which won one of their Blue Moon awards. The reviewers were lucky enough to have the designer himself over to set up their table for them (seems like cheating to me), so perhaps it’s small wonder that the rig sounded great. Anyway, it does have some setup pics, so feel free to check it out if you’re curious — and now that I’ve mentioned it, you know you are.
What I will talk about, though, is a bit about why this table is interesting. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, we have four parameters to judge turntables by: speed stability, noise, materials, and usability.
I’m sure more may occur to me at some point, like, say, its mechanics, and of course there’s always elegance, charm, and beauty, too. But then, we’re not a shallow bunch are we? To hell with such superficial judgments — it’s all about function! Am I right?
Which is why that I’ll start my mini-review of the Dr. Feickert Blackbird turntable by saying, wow, what a hottie!
Techno (sex) appeal
Seeing is believing, as they say, and the Blackbird imposing. Not in the TW Acustic Raven AC3 kind of way, with its belts and pods and whatnot scattered all over the rack’s plinth like some sort of mechanized facehugger. No, the Blackbird is very clean, with everything contained (and constrained) by big slabs of aluminum that sandwich the guts of of the table. The motors (there are two of them) are integrated into the plinth itself, which is a bit unusual, because such a design practically begs you to ask about rumble.
It’s funny, when I asked another famous German turntable designer about the Feickert table (I guess I’m annoying that way), this was the criticism he made — “it’s noisy”. Funny, because it isn’t noisy. That is, there’s no obvious rumble at all. With the stylus down and the gain up, the background is as black as the vinyl — if it’s noisy vinyl, it’s a noisy backdrop. If not, then it’s as quiet as space. Darren Censullo, the head of Avatar Acoustics, the U.S. distributor for Dr. Feickert Analogue, offered that the motors are fully isolated within the plinth and that Dr. Feickert claims that the actual measured rumble on the Blackbird table is greater than 10dB below that of the rumble introduced by a record — that is, the table is presenting a background that is less than half as loud as the record itself (that means it’s silent, folks).
Darren had a few other interesting tidbits, too — the motors in the Blackbird are Pabst motors, the same as used by TW Acustic. The platter material, too, is the same as used by TW Acustic — POM. And the bearing? Same as the Raven.
Raven? Blackbird! Hmmm. Interesting ….
Aside from the obvious aesthetic differences, it might occur to you that these two German ‘tables are, rather, birds of a feather (ahem) — they seem to share quite a few design elements! So, what’s the difference? Aside from the aesthetic, the TW tables are all classical low-friction/low-torque designs, which rely on a high-mass platter to maintain speed and together with a low-friction bearing, eliminate rumble.
The Feickert turntabless, by contrast, are designed around a newer notion of a medium-mass (~12lbs) platter driven by high-torque motors on high-friction bearings. Let me say that another way — the bearing itself is strikingly similar to the Raven but the lubricant is totally different. In the Feickert, the bearing is a (relatively) high friction grease, which does help address rumble, but does not allow the platter to maintain speed and stability simply through it’s own inertia. Instead, the Blackbird relies upon a sophisticated chipset buried in the plinth for controlling speed of it’s two, opposed, high-torque motors. I should note that Chris Feickert actually does have a PhD in micro-electronic controller design, so I suppose you could say that controllers are sort of his specialty. The actual algorithm his chipset uses to implement his speed control scheme is, of course, proprietary, but the idea is that there are better ways to distribute this wow & flutter that make it less objectionable. If that makes you go “hmmm?”, well, it should. Speed control is the one thing that turntables need to do well to sound acceptable, much less good, and honestly, not much new has happened to turntable design in the last 30 years. But Feickert’s approach is one of those things.
Another aside: Dr Feickert also sells analysis and setup software, called “Adjust+”. There are two versions of this, the “regular” and the “Pro” version. The latter allows you to test wow and flutter measures — for any turntable. With this rather powerful tool, which also let’s you set things like azimuth, VTA and other important little things, Dr Feickert (and Darren) have tested the Blackbird and repeatedly shown that the the wow/flutter numbers are rather low. Unbelievably low. Like .04% for tables right out of the box. And half that (and lower!) for tables that have 100+ hours on them. Remember, .05% is below the threshold for perceptibility! And the whole reason vinylophiles are so nuts over direct drive turntables? They’re able to hit .05% wow & flutter. And about now you should be realizing that this Dr. Feickert Blackbird turntable has solved the issue with turntables. It’s done. Over. This is as good as it gets, folks.
All we need is rumble and we’re done.
There are several ways to drive a platter. The most common method, currently at least, is by belt though this was not always so. In a belt-drive system, the motor sits off to one side of the platter to reduce rumble by, very obviously, not being in contact with the turntable at all. Contact is made with a flexible belt which is the only thing touching both the motor and the platter. Depending on the motor, and the belt, this can induce greater or lesser amounts of wow & flutter as the belt stretches, even as it reduces (or perhaps even eliminates) rumble. A once-popular (and now, largely bypassed) alternative is to drive the platter directly — that is, to place a motor up right up against the platter. Look ma, no belts! This, obviously, eliminates belt-flex as a source of speed variation (and hence, dramatically drops wow/flutter) as it entirely eliminates the belt, but does so at the very real risk of dramatically increased rumble. It’s a dilemma!
Well, the Dr. Feickerts are all belt-driven. The $5000 Woodpecker sports one motor and the $7500 Blackbird has two. The forthcoming Firebird, which should sit somewhere in the neighborhood of $13k and showcase a battery-driven linear power supply as well as vacuum hold-down (both of which will become aftermarket options for the other two tables in the line), will have three motors.
Why multiple motors? Well, this is something TW Acustic has been advertising as an upgrade for years. Their Raven One has, straightforwardly enough, one motor. The Raven AC has three. But none of the Raven ‘tables uses two. That’s a Feickert thing.
From Dr. Feickert’s website: “Putting the two motors in a 180° position around the bearing cancels out all reactive forces that could cause gyration of the platter. As a free add-on we achieve a better randomization of wow & flutter less disturbing the hearing process and lower bearing rumble at the same time.” In short, with two motors he knocks down both wow/flutter and rumble. Cool.
I took the liberty of tapping on the chassis, gently, while playing several records with it. On a lively chassis, you’d expect that such abusive behavior might cause the needle to jump or at the very least produce some other reaction to become audible over the speakers. Given that, in person, the table looks and feels a bit like a battleship, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when absolutely nothing at all happened. When he happened to be back in the room, I even had Jeff rap smartly on the chassis while I went over to the speakers. Still nothing. Nice plinth!
The Blackbird is a two-arm capable table, that is, if you decide to go to a two-arm solution because you’re either a reviewer or some other kind of crazed masochist, you have two slots for mounting your tonearms. The one on the left supports arms 9″-10″ long whereas the one on the right (shown) support arms from 9″-13″.
There are three tonearms that Dr. Feickert currently offers with his table, though of course you can add any arm you like. The arm shown here is the DFA 1o5, a 10.5″ s-shaped modified-by-Feickert Jelco tonearm that retails for $1000 and can only be purchased with the table. It has a detachable headshell, which is convenient for setup. This arm will probably be more than enough for most audiophiles, however, should you choose to outgrow it, I’m thinking it’d look spanky in that second slot.
Dr. Feickert also offers the DFA-90, a 9″ gimbal arm and at least according to the website, the frighteningly steam punk Kuzma Air Line, which retails for significantly more than the cost of the table. Again, both arms are only purchasable with a Feickert turntable as a package. Why, you ask?
Well, 2011 should introduce Dr. Feickert’s own suite of custom designed tonearms, including a 9″ and a 12″ pair that will retail in the $1750 area and another 9″ and 12″ pair that should land in or near the $3500 price point. Exact pricing hasn’t been set, according to Darren, but the tonearms will be designed to be “serious overachievers”, and expected to perform well above their price points — all while offering the full suite of adjustability sought in the current crop of super-arms, like the Graham Phantom or the Triplanar.
Set me up!
Did I mention that the Blackbird, like all Dr Feickert turntables, comes with a version of his Protractor integrated into the table? No? Well, they do. Each arm socket sports some serious calibration tools. Why should I care, you ask? Well, because it’s a little bit of awesome, just for you. Cartridge overhang and offset are a snap, regardless of the arm you choose to put on it. Each socket is marked with millimeter adjustments so you can get quite precise with setup of the arm overhang.
I don’t think I can really overstate how all of these little bits can streamline your setup time. If you’ve ever set up a Nottingham table, for example, the Dr. Feickert is (quoting Jeff) “an order of magnitude simpler”.
For example — take separated arm pods. Great for reducing rumble, right? Total isolation from both the motor, the platter, and everything. But a free-floating arm pod is also a hazard — what if it gets jostled? Pushed a tiny bit out of place because of a sudden inane desire to remove the layer of dust that’s accumulated? Well, there goes your overhang. Out comes your ruler and … tweak … tap … adjust … tweak … tap … adjust …. With the Blackbird, that’s simply not an issue. If for some reason your arm slips, just look up the overhang in the manual and find the matching measurement on the integrated Protractor. Bam. Ok, maybe this isn’t a huge issue, but it’s pretty nifty nonetheless. Especially since the integrated design does not seem to include any compromise on stability or isolation. And for overall ease of use, a set and forget design really has it’s merits.
Speed control on the Blackbird is another rather simple and elegant affair — push the button for 33 or 45 and you’re off. Has the speed drifted? Not likely. But want to check anyway? Got your strobe? Well, once you’ve convinced yourself that adjustment must happen, those little holes there on the side of the speed selectors are for adjustment. Tap, and go.
A wee bit o’ cash
The Blackbird retails for $7500, so it’s hardly chump change, though I suppose that that could be considered on the low side of the high end at least where turntables price out as. Said another way, the Blackbird boxes way above it’s weight class, which, not surprisingly, is a goal of the Dr. Feickert brand: do more for less.
So the question is, does it?
That’s a great question! Glad I asked it. In short, the answer is “yes”, but a longer answer will have to wait. But in the meantime, it’s worth noting the following. CES is around the corner and no less than 5 of Dr. Feickert’s turntables will be making appearances, fronting systems with speakers alone that will cost over $50k. Coincidence?
Oh, another thing: any Dr. Feickert turntable can come pre-configured by Dr. Chris Feickert himself. I mean, not like the 6moons review where he actually shows up and does the install, though if you live in Germany, I guess anything is possible. Anyway, Jeff Fox tells me that you can order the Blackbird with a DFA 1o5 arm mounted with that Ortofon Rondo Bronze you see in the photos, all preconfigured with perfect VTA, VTF, offset, azimuth and whatnot and run in for a full 100 hours, all for a cool $9500 MSRP.
The package deal is just such a sweet deal, it should be quite tempting, and almost $1ok for an analog front end really does buy you a full dose of high-fidelity analog sound while still allowing a very low threshold for pain. It does not get you everything, however. The sound of the turntable+arm+cartridge is very nice, yes, but it’s definitely not the last word on bass or treble extension. My own reference cartridge, the Ortofon Cadenza Black, is almost three times the cost of the Rondo Bronze, and sounds like it. And that brings me to another point — the cartridge here is really very nice, but remember the arm and cart together retail for third what a Graham Phantom (or Triplanar Ultimate or Dynavector XV-1s or Benz-Micro LP-S) might cost. Lots of room for improvement there. I, in my ideal world, would be looking to put that DFA-1o5 into the 2nd armboard position and put something like a mega-arm up front sporting a much fancier cartridge. Two arms is just cool!
Until then, I look forward to continuing to love and cherish my (sadly, still vicarious) reference. For me, the plot to bring this bad boy home has already begun.
Color me impressed.
In my reviews of the Joseph Audio loudspeakers, I’ve mentioned how tremendous this turntable has sounded. Let’s revisit for moment, shall we?
- 180g Analog Productions reissue of Bill Evans, Waltz for Debby.
- 180g Cisco reissue of Herbie Hancock’s, Takin’ Off.
- 200g Blue Note reissue of Canonball Adderly’s, Somethin’ Else.
- 200g Blue Note reissue of Miles Davis’, Kind of Blue
- 180g Classic reissue of Chet Baker’s, Chet
- 180g Analog Productions reissue of Sonny Rollins’, Way Out West
- 180g Warner Bros. Dire Straits, Brothers In Arms
- 180g Mobile Fidelity reissue of Natalie Merchant’s, Tigerlily.
Some comments. First, all of these records sound stunning. Playback on the Blackbird via the Manley Labs Steelhead into the Luxman C-800 an M-800 combo and then out via the Joseph Audio Pearl2 speakers had me riveted to my seat, with my brain feverishly trying to devise a plan to afford the pile of gear or, failing that, to steal it all.
Piano tracks saw incisive attacks and sustained decays. Male and female vocals filled a very believable life-sized space. Trumpets, sax, drums were by turns sultry and staggering. Bass was full, robust, articulate, fast and coherent. The only problem I could identify with the turntable during playback was when Natalie Merchant’s voice inexplicably dropped an octave or two, but then I changed the platter speed to 45RPM and everything was made right with the world. Ahem.
Sadly, I didn’t have this turntable at home to compare with my Pro-Ject 9.1. Honestly, I don’t think it would leave if it did ever make the trip. The comparison of the Blackbird to my Pro-Ject is grossly unfair — the little Pro-Ject costs about a third what the Blackbird retails for. That’s a big gap. And for that gap, you get a fully isolated pair of high torque motors constrained in a metal plinth with the most accurate and stable speed control of any turntable on the market today. You also get room for two tonearms, so what’s not to like?
The Dr. Feickert Blackbird is a departure in some ways. High-mass, low-friction, belt (or direct) driven turntables have come along way over the last 30+ years. Today’s offerings, at least as I sampled them at RMAF this past year, are truly remarkable. But none of them are as accurate as a Feickert.