I have seen a standout in turntable design and it is the Döhmann Helix 1.
It’s no surprise to anyone who’s read my frantic scratchings here the past few months that I am an analogoholic. I will never enter a 12-step program for this unabashed addiction from which I craft numerous fetishes. Rare Japanese MC cartridges? Check. Obscure step-up transformers? Check. British valve amps and phono stages? Check. Turntables designed by Mark Döhmann? CHECK.
Döhmann is quite well-known in international audio design and engineering circles for his advanced analog work since the ’80s with turntables and tonearms.
Scot Hull covered the Audio Salon room at RMAF just the other day, but while his attention was focused on one end of the room (the Stromtank S 5000 Independent Power Station), my attention was on the other end of the room where a table was supporting the ingenious new Helix 1 turntable ($40,000 USD) from Audio Union. The Helix 1 was sporting the SAT Pickup Arm ($28,000 USD), a Lyra Atlas MC cartridge ($9,900 USD) and a new Schroeder tonearm as well.
This turntable is the result of complex, and advanced engineering technologies, the likes of which I’m not getting into too much here, needless to say this is truly next-level thinking in design (to me). The people at Audio Union have a great breakdown on the tech here. The Helix 1 features advanced motion control and many proprietary technologies such as incorporating a Negative Stiffness Mechanism (NSM), Vibration Isolation with Mechanical Crossover Technology, and a Tri-Modal Platter system (to name just a few) that sees the 15 Kg platter fitted with an Edge Damping Ring.
From the Audio Union website:
“Helix 1 design is a significant enhancement on state of the art and its motion control defines what will become part of a new breed of “super turntables”.
The 120mm (four-inch) plinth is made from precision CNC aircraft grade aluminum and structural alloys and weighs close to 50 kg (100Lbs) when assembled. Connected by a series of interlocking plates which are fitted closely to the MinusK suspension system and allow for the mounting of the sub-systems such as motor, bearing, tonearm combinations. A laminated glass plate is used to add ballast and lower the center-of-mass. This glass plate provides visual access to the MinusK suspension for performance monitoring.
The 15Kg (30Lb) platter is made of triple layer of an engineered thermoplastic (made for Audio Union by a European supplier of polymers), and non-ferrous alloy machined to close tolerances. Each high-mass platter is balanced and shaped for lead-in groove and record label.
Special features include an EDR – Edge Damping Ring which damps the platter and LP edge and a damping mat to interface to the LP.”
I managed to get a hold of Döhmann down in Australia via email and a very enlightening phone call with Dave Kleinbeck, who is president of Audio Union International.
Here are the questions I asked, and Döhmann‘s responses:
PTA: Your long involvement in turntable design and research on many types of turntable drives, isolation, vibration control and damping has led you to Audio Union and the design and current production of the Helix 1. This is a radical design on many levels. How does it feel to have accomplished packing so much technology into one design and have the outcome be such tremendous musicality?
Döhmann: “I’m very proud to be part of a great team of very talented engineers, scientists and designers at Audio-Union. I admire the work of great watch designers who in the last 20 years have had to adapt to the almost ubiquitous use of digital technology and create timeless mechanical designs with ever more complex movements and features. Some of my favourite designs have a visual feature where you can see all the complex mechanical workings. The Helix One showcases the mechanics, so one can see the inner workings of the suspension system with all its intricate parts. These inner workings are key to the musicality of the table isolating the core systems from deleterious noise and vibration. It looks simple but to get all the mechanisms to fit without adding more and more outrigger devices is a challenge. We managed to do so using advanced software modelling tools. Having a clear vision of the architecture before starting did help too.”
PTA: What previous turntable designs and industrial or medical designs did you draw inspiration from in the design of the Helix 1?
Döhmann: “Emile Berliner, Thomas Edison, Garrard, Neumann, EMT, the great Japanese vintage tables, Rockport, and Meitner definitely provided the inspiration. Industrial designs include classic automotive icons and Frank Lloyd Wright, Denton Corker Marshall architectural influences and the pioneering work of George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic. Medical inspiration was provided by the great technicians at Scottish firm Glenmorangie. ;)”
PTA: How has the design and technology incorporated into the Helix 1 influenced your thoughts on future ideas for turntable design?
Döhmann: “Software driven systems where every parameter is adjustable and tunable. This is the future.”
PTA: Lastly, how critical, in your opinion, is the interface between tonearm and turntable, vs turntable and its environment.
Döhmann: “The foundation of a good house is often unseen as we focus on the parts we see. But build it on an unstable foundation and you will soon experience the lack of foresight and planning in a crumbling house. The foundation of a turntable is its isolation from the environment it sits on. The Tonearm benefits from this. Look back far enough and you will see speaker floor interactions showing up in Tonearm responses. Remove that interference and you advance the performance. Early EMT tables understood this. Helix One takes that to the level demanded by atomic force microscope users for critical operations. That’s where the world of science has opened the door to better music.”
The sound the Helix 1 was producing was incredibly compelling, engaging and supremely musical. The level of detail and nuance to the sound, the deep, authoritative bass and immense sound-stage scaling made available through the SAT arm and Lyra pick up were deeply involving. I’d be hard pressed to list another turntable that was as capable as the Helix 1 in producing such an absolutely black, dead-silent background for the music to leap from.
The Helix 1 was paired with Audio Alchemy‘s PPA-1 Phono Preamplifier ($1,795 USD) and a pair of DPA-1M 325 WATT Mono Amplifiers ($1,995 USD each) running Transparent Audio Plus Speaker and Interconnect cables into Wilson Sabrina loudspeakers ($15,900 USD).
I look forward to an opportunity to listen in far greater depth to the Helix 1 again, especially (for my tastes) in the context of a system that features valve stereo or mono amplification, a valve MM phono stage and a matched step-up transformer for the Lyra Atlas, and hope to have future discussions on turntable and tonearm design and theory with Mark Döhmann.