Just looking at the Fat Bob’s lines you feel the clarity and simplicity of the design brief, conceived with a German single-mindedness in pursuit of sonic purity and the idea of the complete rejection of resonance.
This is an analog front-end that I was loathe to return to Edward Ku at Element Acoustics after having it in my system for a few weeks.
On the outside I smiled and helped him load it up, but on the inside I was uncomfortable. I felt a bit like when I was 16 years old and my first real girlfriend left for a trip with her family to Europe: I’d never see her again and be able to call her mine.
This roughly 85lbs behemoth of stainless steel, aluminum and brass, with its magnetic-bearing technology, had definitely cast a spell on me, and in a way changed how I critically listen to turntables.
I loved the solidity of this combo’s sound, you could literally feel the SME arm and Koetsu Onyx translating and articulating the ‘table’s mass behind every note; the sheer muscularity of the Fat Bob’s platter punching every guitar strum, pluck of bass string and vocal inflection with sonic authority into the air around my listening position.
Since this is my first in-depth turntable review, I’ve decided to approach it as holistically as I’m able. Not so much as cartridge this, tonearm that and turntable thus, but as the entire sum of its parts.
Transrotor Fat Bob
First off, let’s look at the Fat Bob’s build quality and the initial set-up.
The table looks massive and is impressive looking, but in reality it actually doesn’t have that big of a physical footprint – about the size of an LP, aside from the arm board, (you can mount two if you like) – other than keeping in mind you need room for the separate (and very heavy) motor housing and drive belt, the Fat Bob can be placed in surprisingly tight quarters.
The Fat Bob Reference features key Transrotor bearing tech, which is to say, in my opinion, the engineering minds behind this design are keen indeed. To be expected I guess, after all, Transrotor has been being doing it for over 40 years, but still, this is some serious thought and effort put into how to drive a high-mass platter.
I’m going to do my best to break it down, as it’s not easy to just explain it and have it make sense. I had to closely look at the physical parts of the turntable myself, and cull information from several sources online so I could get a solid handle on it:
The inverted magnetic bearing sits on a substantial steel shaft, which protrudes from the base assembly / plinth / arm housing on which the main platter and sub-platter mounts.
It’s called inverted because with most turntables (Rega for example) the shaft points down off the sub-platter and spins on a bearing set down the well of the shaft housing.
The Fat Bob has a two-part ceramic bearing design, with a ball bearing mounted in a cupped-recess at the top of the shaft, which spins in the sub-platter well itself. Now, visualize a spiral-cut groove running top-to-bottom of the interior of the bearing shaft; this forces oil to circulate constantly, saturating and lubricating the shaft and bearing.
So, when that massive platter is mounted you’d think the bearing would connect with its seat in the shaft well and that would be the friction point and no wonder you need so much oil forced into the shaft; but that’s not the case, and also where our German friends once again impress with their engineering prowess.
The bearing never touches – there is an actual gap between the ball bearing and the seat – because it’s an inverted magnetic bearing.
Super powerful magnets in the bearing/sub-platter assembly couple with their oppositely-charged partners in the platter: the charge is so strong that when the sub-platter gets spun it’s that magnetic lock that turns the platter – there is no physical connection between the motor drive belt and the platter.
One of the net effects of this dark magic is that it is supposed to drastically reduce wow and flutter.
One of the net effects to my ears was an incredibly smooth, powerful and solid sound that the music could base itself from.
The speed-controller unit is a very solid affair and can be placed wherever is convenient as long as the power umbilicus reaches the motor. It features a chunky, polished aluminum knob for selecting 33-1/3 and 45 RPM with an On/Off rocker switch on the rear panel. It also has two recessed adjustment screws for fine pitch control at either speed.
It’s got a detachable power cord, but I didn’t swap it out during the review, instead keeping my standard reference Volex AC cable plugged into it for the duration.
Anyone who came over while I had the Transrotor in the mix would usually mouth “WTF!?” when they saw it.
I had several hi-fi buddies come over for a listen or two, one who was seriously considering buying the unit. The fit and finish of every component is quite faultless and well thought out. The photos do a decent job of relaying that quality, but it’s when you actually, physically touch the turntable (on power-up, I always gave the platter a helping push to get it up to speed), or attempt to move it, that the world-class construction really comes through.
I asked Edward Ku at Element Acoustics to first situate the Fat Bob Reference on my teak credenza that runs along the left side of my listening room, but the unit is on castors (so I can easily roll it away from the wall to quickly access amps, cables, connectors, etc.) and while I’ve always felt this is a very solid base for my components (I still do), the weight of the ‘table threw off the balance of the credenza whenever I tried to roll it out to access components.
Also, despite being situated on a 25 lbs marble base, the sound seemed to suffer a softness and mild drift to the bottom end. So, after a day-and-a-half of listening and making weird faces I decided to pull the thing apart and set it up on my floor with a roughly 30lbs Maple base on four #4 Vibrapod Isolation cups.
It was not an easy process, and I’d recommend having someone on hand to help with set-up; connecting the rubber drive belt while mounting the bearing assembly/platter had me sweating with effort on the first go (it took two attempts). The motor spindle to platter spindle distance is, as far as I know and could hear, not critical other than being kept within 10” of each other.
SME TR 5009
The tonearm is dubbed the TR 5009, and is sourced from one of the kings of tonearm manufacturers: SME. Externally at first glance it looks like a gussied-up SME 309, but according to the nomenclature it features upgraded internal wiring and precision bearings that share more with the SME Series V arms.
The look and feel of the arm quietly exudes bespoke, much like a Super 220 Merino Wool suit does. Edward set up the 5009/Koetsu quickly and without fuss, a testament I’m sure to both his skills and the well-executed design that I’ve come to recognize SME employs throughout its tonearm range.
One of the coolest things about the arm is that the die-cast magnesium headshell is detachable (and interchangeable) from the arm tube, and it swaps out without screwing with the cartridge or wiring. A huge plus if you don’t have an extra $4,500 USD on hand for another arm and Transrotor armboard, but have multiple cartridges. The 5009 has anti-skate, VTA, HTA, and VTF adjustments, and both cartridge leads and internal wiring feature LCOFC litz cabling terminating into gold plated phono plugs.
I wasn’t a fan of the arm-lowering mechanism at all. It dropped the arm like a wet sack if you didn’t very carefully, and slowly, raise and lower the lever actuator. The height of the lift is adjustable, but not the motion. Many other designs allow you to simply drop the actuator and have the arm lower quite slowly and gently into the groove. Not here, and the first time the approx. $9,500 USD Koetsu Onyx Platinum hit the grooves I screamed.
Seriously, I screamed.
Edward included the very well made, and grounded Siltech Classic phono cable to marry the Fat Bob to my Auditorium 23 SUT.
My listening was done through DeVore O/96 loudspeakers, an Audio Note M1 Phono stage, Auditorium 23 SUT, Audio Note Oto Line SE integrated amplifier, and the Air Tight 201H integrated amplifier. All Audio Note UK interconnects, and Audio Note UK silver-plate banana plugs, silver soldered to Aralex copper shotgun-run speaker cable.
This brings us to the Onyx Platinum low-output MC cartridge from the house of venerable Japanese cartridge maker Koetsu.
If you’re into vinyl in any serious way, you’ve heard of how seductive these cartridges can be. Many owners are so smitten with Koetsu’s lush midrange that their fervor in describing said sound to anyone who’ll listen reminds me of drunken sailors beguiled by a Siren’s song who smash their ship’s upon the nearest jagged rocks in a paroxysm of ecstasy.
Koetsu was started by Yoshiaki Sugano. There’s not a lot written about him online, but I gathered Sugano was a brought up in a traditional turn-of-the-century, Japanese renaissance-man way. Born in Japan in 1908 he was raised as a sword maker and regarded as a formidable pugilist. He worked for many years in Toyota’s sales division and it was during this time he began studying and repairing various makes of phono cartridges. He retired and turned his skills to building cartridges full time, cartridges that many still pronounce some of the best ever crafted.
The Onyx Platinum looks the business, and exudes quality from every angle of it’s polished stone body. Featuring closely-matched coils and cores, its silver-plated, six-nines pure copper wiring (99.999 per cent copper) compliment the platinum-alloy magnets and boron cantilever. Outputting .3 mV, its listed specs for frequency range are 20Hz – 100kHz and an inner impedance of 5 Ohms which means ideal loading would be between 50 and 100 Ohms, or higher/lower depending on what floats your boat. Koetsu owners I’ve spoken with have tried everything from 30-ish Ohms to around 400 Ohms so flavor to taste seems to be the best bet.
Let’s get down to the sound.
This combo of cartridge, ‘arm and ‘table delivered an incredibly smooth, refined sound that had absolute authority and solidity on the bottom end and allowed the music to literally launch from that massive platter which gave every note a propulsive momentum.
I cannot stress enough how rock-solid the foundation is that the Fat Bob provided the SME and Koetsu. Sound-staging was wide, deep and gave instruments and voices ample room to interact, plenty of space around everything, I never felt like an acoustic guitar was in competition with a bass guitar for clarity, rather, instruments and voices were in a constant complimentary cycle. The Koetsu and SME worked seamlessly together to provide a startlingly clear window into every nuance of the performance on any LP I threw at it; and I threw a lot of variation at this combo to see if I could make it take a misstep or trip up, strain or lose its way. Regardless of what I played, the kit threaded its way with accuracy, aplomb and emotional intensity.
Is the Onyx Platinum laid back like many say Koetsu cartridges are? Yes it is, but it never feels so laid back that I wasn’t constantly tapping my feet, bobbing my head or grooving as I made copious amounts of notes while listening.
Despite what some have said regarding a sameness to the sound that Koetsu lends to every recording (which I wouldn’t necessarily argue with), I felt more that the cartridge in conjunction with the SME 5009 was able to tap into the musical heart of the recording. To be able to really get the best out of many recordings that I normally would wince at in certain parts on other turntables, with other cartridges and ‘arms.
Is making every recording sound better – perhaps with a sameness that errors on the side of forgiving – a bad thing? It’s up to you to decide. Those who’ve had ‘sameness’ carts might know what I’m getting at, but here I don’t think it’s applicable as ‘sameness.’ The cart just really has a way of massaging every cut and bringing out the best in it, rather than the worst, which is what I’ve found on some high-end cartridges: great recordings sound amazing, not-so-great end up sounding like crap. I don’t think that has to be the way it is, and this Koetsu, on this tonearm, on this turntable, in my system proved that to me. YMMV.
Joni Mitchell’s 180g LP Blue for example (Reprise, stereo re-issue courtesy Rhino, cut by Kevin Gray and mastered by Steve Hoffman), is the mastering that many swear by as the one to own of this LP. I like it, but I find Mitchell’s voice quite hot at times, but that could be my example, I’m sure others may disagree. Here are my notes:
“All I Want”:
A sense of tipping over into the music, I felt compelled to lean forward and into the music. Spatial imaging is rock solid on instruments, with a full-bodied, completely realistic sound to Mitchell’s guitar.
“My Old Man”:
Mitchell’s voice is not etched in certain passages, (which I’ve heard many times on different ‘tables) with the overall sound of the recording predicated on a massive foundation; a concrete, black-velvet draped stage if you will, with a solidity to the presentation that I’ve not heard on other turntables in this price range (Think Triangle Art).
There is an addictive delicacy and immediacy to Mitchell’s voice; every breath, every nuance with a real, physical connection between her voice and the guitar she’s playing. She is not presented as a disembodied voice and hand plucking guitar strings in a jumbled mass at the centre of some cavernously-deep sound stage, rather she is personified; made whole, corporeal, a human being. The performance is not translated as (her voice here and her guitar there), rather, they are one. The intense physicality of her performance and the palpable, visceral connection of her body between her voice and her hands playing the guitar is communicated in a manner that few other analog front ends have ever been able to recreate in my experience. The completely human expression the ‘table, arm and cart spoke of during replay literally had the weight of a physical presence in the room on the recorded performance.
Ella and Louis (2x45rpm, mono) Analogue Productions, Quality Records (mastered by George Marino, Sterling Sound). OK, this album is just twisted-sick great. George Marino and whomever originally mic’d this recording are obviously in league with warlocks, witches and the Dark Arts, because they must have sold their souls to get a recording to sound this real. This LP is hallucinogenic in it’s ability to place Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong in the room with you. I sometimes freak out a bit while listening to it because it’s just so visceral. Some have complained that Armstrong’s horn is a tad hot or revealed to be out of tune by the transparency of the master tapes. Whatever. There’s not a man, woman or child that I’ve played this gorgeous, dead-silent, double-45rpm slab of vinyl for that hasn’t got downright weird and squirrelly about the sound.
The drums come in on this track with every brush stroke on the skins clearly different, imbued with the organic texture and subtlety of human syncopation, yet the rhythm is there in the bass and is truly full-bodied (it sounds insanely real, perfect in its ability to convey size, timbre, and internal spatial volume of the body of the instrument itself); every nuance and slight variance of impact and stroke on the strings. The vocals are liquid smooth and seem to vault out from the inky-blackness between the speakers, almost startling at times with their impact. The piano has that rounded-off ivory tinkle of real, in-the-room-with-you piano that you only get if you’ve heard a lot of it played in person. Armstrong’s trumpet blasts forth with friction-hued color; the very air through its tubing creating a sense of drag on each note as he labors to birth this tune.
This cut shows off Armstrong’s punchy and jammy trumpet style, the ‘braaaaap-brap’ of each note muscling through the sound stage. Every gurgle, rasp and spittle fleck from his voice is laid bare in stark contrast next to Fitzgerald’s creamy mezzo-soprano. Armstrong hangs his vocal notes like dirty shirts off a rough, twine clothesline while Fitzgerald is the cool breeze that makes them sway. Textural differences between them are delineated absolutely without any frequency smear overlapping their voices and there’s clear space between them on the sound stage, something I’ve heard other pricey carts unable to pull off with conviction, rather, bunching them together down the middle or slightly behind one another. Not here.
Gorillaz S/T, 2x33rpm, 2001, Parlophone
This is an album that has a lot sonically, and musically, going on for it. Tons of instruments, tons of effects, samples, reverb – you name it. It’s downtempo, lo-fi, Leftfield Brit-electronica at it’s best, and the mastering and production is first-class. An audiophile-grade pressing that comes spread across two LPs in a Stoughton gatefold jacket, this album will let you know if your system lacks speed and dynamics.
Once again, a huge sound stage thrown up by the Fat Bob kit. Excellent attack and decay on display on bass and guitar notes and riffs with noticeable speed in the percussion and drums. The SME and Koetsu do an honest impression of starting and stopping on a dime here with that massive platter once again muscling everything around the sound stage with ease and locking it into place.
“Tomorrow Comes Today”:
This cut features a sing-song whistling that floats through the mix and this set-up allows the whistling to be threaded through the other instruments on the sound stage with an intricate and delicate interplay that I’ve not come across in other recordings so far. The spatial imaging between the whistling and the guitar, drums and bass as well as what sounds like an accordion is spectacular. The cartridge, tonearm and turntable’s ability to present vastly different sonic textures simultaneously is impressive. The dry, papery textures of the drum skins and Damon Albarn’s altered/oily vocals never bleed into one another, rather they maintain a clear delineation despite sharing very close quarters on the sound stage.
Neil Young Live at Massey Hall 1971, (2x33rpm), Reprise/NYAPS
To me, this is one of those LPs that can really show whether or not your system can convincingly recreate the spatial cues necessary to reproducing a live performance. Things like how large the venue is, where the artists are situated, height of the stage, depth of artists from the mics, audience placement, etc. This is a simple recording in many ways, it’s Neil and his guitars and piano. That’s it. Yet, it sounds completely different from the recording done two months previously at the Cellar Door (Live at the Cellar Door) in Washington, DC of mostly the same material, played the same way (guitars and piano only) which was recorded just before he started his North American tour in ’70/’71.
“On The Way Home/Tell Me Why”:
The authority and impact of every guitar strum is staggering; the sheer depth between the notes reveals a sense of space of Young – alone on the stage – more than 20 feet back into the sound stage. No small feat to pull off in any sound system, but here, made even more impressive because of the enormous size of Massey Hall; which is conveyed convincingly by the Koetsu and SME thanks to the rock-solid foundation the Transrotor allows the cart and ‘arm to translate. Every nuance and change of pitch in Young’s voice is clearly articulated whether he tilts his head back to belt out a line, or whisper intimately: “Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself, When you’re old enough to repay but young enough to sell?” Every difference in the physical relationship between his mouth and the mic, and the way his voice projects out, off the stage at Massey Hall allows for your brain to engage in the suspension of disbelief that Young is not actually performing for you.
Once again the spatial volume of the guitar body is portrayed with startling accuracy on the sound stage. The timbre of the guitar strings, the resonance and interaction of the guitar’s body with every textured strum from Young’s fingers brushing over the strings is beautifully articulated – the overlapping attack and decay from each string being hit, the note hanging in the air around the aural image of the guitar body and neck is truly impressive – and I find myself leaning further and further forward into the sound field.
In conclusion the question I keep coming back to is, at this price point, what else can do as a good a job?
I’ve written previously over at The Audio Traveler of my love for the sound that Danny Kaey of Sonic Flare, shared with listeners at T.H.E. Show in Newport Beach this summer. The combination of a Brinkmann Spyder turntable with a 10.5″ Brinkman arm and Transfiguration Proteus MC cartridge (about $25,000 all in, so on par with this kit) was close to unbeatable for its sound.
So how does the Transrotor, SME and Koetsu compare to a sound I described thus:
Kaey cued up the Brinkman with Nina Simone’s Little Girl Blue, an as-yet unreleased Chad Kassem (Acoustic Sounds) remaster, and it sounded so good I literally closed my eyes and let myself be carried away for several minutes. The pressing was incredibly silent, the very few pops or ticks pushed far away into the background by the Transfiguration cartridge, and the comings and goings of several people entering and leaving the room did nothing to dispel my reverie, my sanctuary, my communion with this system.
The answer: quite favorably. Both tables bring an incredible solidity to the sound and allow the ‘arm and cart to extract the maximum any LP’s grooves have to offer, but the differences weren’t subtle. The Proteus was more frank in its presentation than the Onyx, just as transparent, and more forward (my memory isn’t perfect though, this is based on my gut too), but I’d probably give the nod to the Koetsu and SME for the midrange magic they worked on vocals and stringed instruments in particular. Less gutsy than the Proteus and Brinkman perhaps, but more appealing to my taste. Think color hues: the Koetsu is more orange, yellow and red, the Proteus more green, blue and green, if that makes any sense to you.
The Transrotor Fat Bob Reference with the SME 5009 modified tonearm and Koetsu Onyx Platinum is a music lovers analog front end with few peers in this price range that I’ve heard. It handled itself with aplomb on every LP I threw at it and consistently surprised me at not only its composure, but its ability to let its hair down and just rock. Don’t ever let anyone tell you Koetsu is for acoustic, jazz, blues and classical. Yes, it excels in these genres, but it is just as at home with punk, rock, electronic and some heavy metal I threw its way (Black Sabbath, Master of Reality). Sibilants were handled with ease, there was never any hint of smearing or blurring of detail, it was all there, micro-dynamics aplenty, but this kit was able to translate those infinitesimal sonic canyons and mountains cut into the vinyl into something less like sound and more like art, and that is something that takes real understanding of the intensity of life locked into those tiny grooves just waiting to be released in a way that touches the heart and the soul. In my mind, if you’ve got $25,000 invested into an analog rig and it doesn’t make you laugh out loud with unadulterated joy or weep shamelessly in despair at the raw emotions so many musicians bleed and sweat to put down on tape for us, then you’ve not spent wisely.
This is a wise investment.
- Transrotor Fat Bob Reference: $9,500 USD
- Transrotor TR5009 tonearm $3,500 USD
- Koetsu Onyx Platinum $9,500 USD
- Siltech Classic phono cable $1,500 USD
About the Author
Rafe got his start listening to music young thanks to his father’s love of vinyl and big speakers. He was finally able to start down the audiophile path in the last several years and hasn’t looked back.
A passion for music, high-end gear, clean vinyl records and its ability to transport the listener through time to the jazz studios of the ‘50s and ‘60s is what helps drive his tube gear fetish and recent lust for large horn speakers.
Akira Kurosawa films, ’80s teen comedies, two crazy children, crate digging, craft beer and frequent road trips to Portland helps keep him sane.
An award-winning photojournalist for over a decade, Rafe now finances his audio-hardware sickness as a news videographer in Vancouver, B.C.