One of the most exciting — and by “exciting”, I mean “most excitedly talked about” — was the room that Fern & Roby shared with Bettinger Audio Design/GAS Audio and Luminous Audio. The thing that got all the lips-a-flappin’? A cast iron turntable. Cast. Iron.
It turns out that designer Christopher Hildebrand is actually a blacksmith. I’m going to let that sit there a minute and wax a bit philosophic about how awesome the Capital Audiofest is as a venue. This was the latest in a long string of demo rooms, dominated by designers that are probably better thought of as “craftsmen” and not just engineers. Hipster, meet audio nerd!
The Fern & Roby “thing”, at least as far as I can tell, is that audio gear doesn’t have to look boring, uniform, or factory-made. Take the cast iron turntable plinth with the cast bronze platter — neither are “perfect”, where “perfect” = indistinguishable from each other. There are flaws. Imperfections that are sonically irrelevant, but aesthetically critical. Like Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with precious metals, treating the breakage and its repair as part of the intrinsic value of the object. I’ve beaten this drum before — don’t hide your materials, designers. If your wood is covered in plastic, it will look like plastic, not wood. Fern & Roby have not only embraced this “natural value” aesthetic, they’ve taken it a bit farther. Just check out the pics of the platter — each will be unique. That’s cool.
As for the cast iron bit — I think the argument is more around “mass”. Sure, iron will resonate. But as Chris discussed, cast iron as opposed to forged iron is radically less so. He used the description of a cast anvil vs a forged one — the latter rings like a bell, the former, not so much. That, and the sheer density (and the cork platform it sits on), will do much to deal with resonance. The motor in the plinth, as well as the electronics doing the on-the-fly self-correction speed control, was designed by Luke Smith.
As you can see from the photos, the turntable is belt-driven. Price is expected to be $4,500 and does not include a tonearm. From the website:
Our turntable couples a traditional synchronous AC motor with modern digital speed control techniques including real-time measurements of the platter speed, with an optical sensor feedback to control the platter speed and make micro adjustments as needed. Most turntables in its class use the 60Hz of the AC mains to turn the motor at a fixed speed and then rely on pulley size ratios to achieve the desired platter speed (33 ⅓ or 45 RPM). In this topology, there is no way to account for belt slip, pulley wear or the effects of temperature change on the system. In addition, the mass of the platter design is constrained by the “stall torque” of the motor. A platter of desirable (large) mass would require a motor of undesirable size and noise.
By synthesizing the sinusoidal drive waveforms required to turn the motor, the Fern & Roby system is not limited to a fixed motor speed or fixed drive power. This allows for a design with extravagant platter mass coupled to a modestly sized motor. From a standstill, the platter is accelerated gradually to the desired speed in order to stay below the motor’s stall torque. The platter’s speed is determined 48 times per revolution with a precision-cut optical interrupter wheel mounted on its underside.
Once at the target speed, the motor’s drive power is reduced to the bare minimum that is required to overcome bearing friction and stylus drag. Reduced motor drive power reduces noise and vibration. Tiny adjustments are made infrequently to the drive speed as needed to maintain exact platter speed. These dynamic drive speed adjustments are limited to 0.003% and only happen one time per revolution of the platter. This delicate approach to speed control minimizes “wow” distortion.
A green LED indicator beside the mode selector switch is used to indicate “in-bounds” platter speed. Any time the platter speed is more than 0.23% above or below the target speed, the LED indicator switches from green to orange while the motor control compensates to correct the speed into the desired rpm.
Probably the first thing that catches the eye, however, are the loudspeakers — the Beam Towers ($4,500/pair). These are made out of solid wood and are actually split-logs, stitched back together. A 1″ horn-loaded SEAS aluminum tweeter is matched to an 8″ Scanspeak woofer yielding a 90dB, 4Ω speaker that can reach 35Hz. It looks the berries, too. Got a thing for Craftsman style architecture? Fern & Roby has your speakers.
Also new in the room, the new Integrated Amplifier ($2,350). It’s chassis is also a cast iron (with bronze knobs) to match that of the turntable. The amp is a 30wpc Class A/B stereo design and includes a MM phono input. Dropping the phonostage allows for a bigger/beefier power supply — and actually adds another $500 to the retail price.
Last but hardly least requires a quarter-turn over to Bettinger Audio Design. Mike Bettinger is the guy behind the clever audio guts of the integrated amplifier and the spectacularly-well-received new Arion phono stage ($6,500 — a joint venture with Luminous Audio). I have one of those latter here and will offer that Michael Fremer nailed the character of that phono pretty spectacularly; I think it is one of the very best solid-state phono preamplifiers on the market today.
Sonically, this room was harder to get a handle on. Not because things weren’t smooth and refined — there were too damn many people wandering about to do more than browse. Like I said, it was a very popular room. But what I did hear? I think these guys are on to something. I dig the aesthetic. I dig the artisanal approach. And I want more.
Very well done.