Welcome to what I like to think of as a pinnacle of editorial writing in my small world, as it combines two of my favourite things to do: Have a glass of whisky, and kick back to listen to a couple of albums. A pastime I’m sure some of you out there can identify with. How on Earth did I stumble into such remarkable luck to turn this into a monthly article moving ahead? It’s possible because of the forward-thinking mind of Edward Ku at Element Acoustics. Ku understands that there is a cultured crossroads where being an audiophile, and having a deep appreciation for the finer things in life intersect. It’s not just about the gear, or the music, but that space in between where living takes place, and this new series will do my best to discuss whisky, and a piece of gear paired together by Ku for my (our) enjoyment of life. This second instalment sees the Glen Garioch 12-year-old, single-malt whisky paired with the Vertere Acoustics SG-1 (Standard Groove) turntable, the SME-V/Oracle tonearm, and the Koetsu Onyx Platinum moving-coil cartridge. I hope you’ll enjoy reading along with my experiences, as much as I enjoy writing them for you.
This was a listening combo that packed both a literal, and figurative punch. Figuratively because the resolution, and bass this ‘table/arm/cart combination delivered in the context of my reference system was profoundly impactful, and literally because the Glen Garioch 12 (pronounced glen-gee-ree) weighs in at 48 per cent (96 proof). The ’12 was procured by Robb Neimann of Rutherford Audio specifically to go with the SG-1 ‘table because Vertere founder, and CEO Touraj Moghaddam’s favourite whisky is the Glen Garioch 30 (sadly not available in Canada). Neither the SG-1 or the ’12 were to be trifled with, and both will be sorely missed when they are gone. The nice thing is that I can grab another bottle of the Garioch for $60, the Vertere SG-1 on the other hand, runs $26,500 USD.
Located in what is considered an excellent barley-growing region in the eastern reaches of Scotland, in the Valley of Garioch, the distillery is a short drive from Aberdeen, and goes back to 1797. Using Spanish sherry casks, and American bourbon casks, the ’12 is a Highland malt that was first brought to market in 2010. If you read my previous Whisky & Listening, you know I touched on the appropriate, and complimentary nature of the Crown Royal Northern Harvest (World Whisky of the Year in 2016), and the VPI Scout Prime turntable that Edward Ku paired for that experience. The Garioch 12, and the Vertere combo is another inspired, and complimentary pairing for this review piece, as the complexity, and refinement of both the whisky, and turntable require time, and a mature palette to properly absorb, and appreciate. That’s not to say that both don’t deeply impress on the first go-round, they do, but to truly divine what is subjectively happening within the contexts of both musicality, and flavour, it takes longer-term exposure.
Before I did any serious listening with the Vertere combo, I sat, and took in the ’12 with a couple of small, tasting glasses. Like the Standard Groove, it wastes no time introducing itself as a strong performer, with a deep, complex personality that is revealed more over time. I started with the Garioch neat, but found a few drops of distilled water opened up the caramel, oak, and vanilla that had been somewhat shy at first blush neat. The initial splash that hits the mouth feels dry, with a slight apricot hint at the base of the nose, with dry fruits lightly piled on top towards the middle where traces of banana, citrus, brown sugar, and pepper then make their presence known. This is where I kept the ’12 on my tongue as long as possible – not an easy task as time goes on because of the pepper – so as to savour the origami-like unwrapping of gingerbread, butterscotch, hints of honeydew – or flower-like whiffs – and tinges of ripe pear. Later sessions with full-sized whisky tumblers gave flight to more malt-forward taste, I think in part to the continued exposure/mixture of air from glass-swirling which allowed for shadings of burnt toast with traces of salt to present amongst golden honey. Mouth feel is strong, and fulsome, if a slight bit oily in its ability to coat the tongue for that extended, peppery finish. For $60, this is an excellent value, and for all those souls who search for a balanced bottle to keep the smokey peat of Islay at bay, without going too sweet, this could be the lantern fuel you’ve been looking for.
With my notes taken regarding the first part of this review, it was time to turn to the listening aspect. The SG-1 is the second-tier offering (of three) from the London-based, boutique turntable, tonearm, and cable manufacturer Vertere Acoustics. Founded in 2006 by engineering legend Touraj Moghaddam, who had previously co-founded Roksan, Vertere is gaining traction, and notoriety not only for their high-fidelity contributions, but for wiring up some of the most seminal recording studios in the world: Abbey Road for example. Some of the SG-1s many features include an ‘precision crystal referenced,’ external motor-control unit for 33 1/3 & 45 rpm speeds, a cast acrylic triple-plinth/de-coupled chassis, an articulated Acetal platform motor mount, aluminum-alloy platter with a bonded-acrylic interface, and a copper-content phosphor-bronze bearing housing. Did I say how gorgeous this ‘table is? No? Well, it’s gorgeous to look at, especially in low light as the there is an integral light that glows through the clear-acrylic chassis with spectral intensity. Everyone who came to visit me while the SG-1 was on loan commented, and took time to examine the ‘table carefully – even those who have no interest in hifi were enamoured with the SG-1.
The SME-V/Oracle specified tonearm that was fitted to the SG-1 is an engineering marvel in, and of itself. To look at it is to come to a renewed appreciation for the capabilities of tonearm manufacturers to create high-fidelity artwork, because it is – literally – a thing of beauty to behold. Spec’d to Oracle’s standards with MCS-150 (Mono Crystal Silver) internal wiring, and a Van Den Hul M.C. D-501 silver-hybrid halogen-free RCA cable, it retails for $7,250 USD, but in this particular case, Ku has replaced the Van Den Hul RCA with Siltech Classic Anniversary 550i interconnects which are a G7 silver-gold alloy cable. The SME-V owes its entire existence to the design principle of contributing zero detectable sound colouration of its own. Now, it’s hard for me to definitively ascertain whether this claim is true because I’ve not swapped out this arm in a head-to-head comparison with another. I can say that I’ve spent several weeks with the Koetsu Onyx Platinum on another SME arm (SME 5009, $4,500 USD), and that to my memory, that combination in comparison to this was close in it’s resolution capabilities. I will add that in this particular ‘table/arm/cart combo bass is considerably enhanced, from what I recall of the previous guise.
What to say about a Koetsu? In particular, what to say about a stone-bodied Koetsu? Many audiophiles fall in love with Koetsu, and their midrange abilities, but they are often lamented for their rolloff in the upper, and lower registers. One of my favourite all-time cartridges is the Rosewood Signature, which retails for $7,000 USD, and while that model is exquisite on the right ‘table/arm setup, the Onyx ($10,000 USD) takes it up a significant notch with its silver-plated copper-coil wiring, and platinum magnets. Where there is a more romantic, timbral saturation to the Rosewood, the Onyx is a few shades less warm, but scales the resolution – not only in the midband, but particularly in the upper, and lower frequency extension – dramatically. Most Koetsu diehards eventually rise up through the ranks to the stone-bodied models, and in my mind it is that treble, and bass resolution – in conjunction with their timbre, and tone – that keeps them firmly there.
Putting the Onyx Platinum, on the SME-V, and SG-1 is a truly curated combination in my opinion, and one that made for long listening sessions because of the rich timbral harmonics, extended, defined bass, smooth, un-etched treble, and deep emotional insight into recordings that the Onyx’s resolution afforded. I used a wide range of LPs for listening, with particular emphasis on jazz, electronic, vocal, acoustic, and classical, and was never disappointed. I ran the ‘table into my Audio Note S2 step-up transformer, an all-valve Audio Note Soro Phono SE Signature integrated amplifier with a built-in (valve) moving magnet phono stage, and Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE two-way loudspeakers. All cabling (except for the Siltech phono cable) was Audio Note. Power treatment was a combo of the Shindo Labs Mr. T, and the PS Audio P10.
I’m more than familiar with my current reference system, so sliding the Vertere combo into it was a straightforward matter that only required hooking it up, and levelling it. After I had played several LPs through it I noticed a suppleness start to creep into the entire frequency spectrum, but it was particularly noticeable initially in the upper, and lower registers, with the midrange coming on-song last. I’ve always found that every component I bring in for review requires at least a short bedding-in period regardless of how well broken-in the unit is. There’s something about being unhooked from the power grid, and moved – temperature changes – cables making new connections with different alloy types in RCA connectors, or speaker binding posts, that needs to make a signal-path handshake if you will, before the electrons can really start to flow. And, flow they did here. This combination in my system was one of the most tonally, and timbrally accurate analog sources – to my ears – that I’ve ever had in my home. Trumpets sounded spooky, brassy real, there was flesh-and-blood presence to Chet Baker’s embouchure work on Chet Baker in New York, just as there were involuntary jolts on my part from the life Elvin Jones was pounding out of the skins, and kick drum on The Real McCoy. The breathless, plaintive lilt to Astrid Gilberto’s voice on The Shadow of Your Smile kept me off-kilter, hanging onto every line she let drop just behind the beat. The electronic bassline creations, and sampling employed by Kruder & Dorfmeister on The K&D Sessions had visceral slam, and club-like sonics to the air, and decay around the album that no other turntable combos have been able to wrest from the groove… testament to the incredible resolution the Vertere/SME/Koetsu was capable of.
Summing things up, regardless of what type of music you have a preference for, I could find no shortcomings (other than being out of my price range) in the Vertere SG-1 or the accompanying SME-V tonearm, and Koetsu moving-coil cartridge. They outperformed my expectations – which were very high – from start to finish, and were capable of live-performance recreations at high volume levels with completely fatigue-free playback, and yet retained a full bottom end, and midrange timbral bloom with plenty of detail during low level listening sessions as well.