For us analogoholics, you can never have enough LPs or turntables to play them on! For the last few years, I have been blessed with the company of an AMG Viella V12 turntable. It’s big, it’s fast, and generates a sound that I have not been able to surpass with any digital setup to date. To change things up, I decided to put it on ice for a couple of months and listen to something smaller and simpler to see how it could fit the bill. Speaking to Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings, US importer of Clearaudio, we decided to pull together a synergistic combo of the Clearaudio Innovation Basic Turntable, Clearaudio TRACER tonearm and Hana ML moving coil cartridge. The total Clearaudio combo totaled $8500 USD plus $1200 USD for the Hana Cartridge.
Un-packing and assembly
When the boxes arrived, my first impression was just how well the Clearaudio Innovation was precisely packed with perfectly cut foam inserts that layered the various ingredients of the turntable inside it’s factory box. Dreading the moment when I needed to re-pack it, I had remorse that I didn’t document every element of the unboxing to allow me to easily piece it back together.
Once unboxed, what caught my attention was the level of simplicity. The beautiful Tri-Star plinth looked like it should be on display at the MoMA. The 3-pointed star shape plinth was originally introduced by Clearaudio over 20 years ago on their Master Reference turntable and is still used today across the Innovation series. From the manufacturer:
The original Tri-star plinths from the 1990s where made from acrylic and then upgraded circa 2003 with the aluminum skins to better rigidity and damping. Panzerholz, or iron wood, is a special high-tech wood laminate created by compressing multiple layers of Baltic birch ply using special adhesives and very high pressure. The resulting material has the strength of steel but without ringing or resonance due to its low Q. Panzerholz is used in limousines and state cars in Europe as a security shield due to its combination of strength and lightness, resulting in the name “Bullet-proof wood”.
Compared to other Clearaudio Innovation turntables, a shorter 40mm Delrin platter is used providing a non-resonate surface for your precious LPs. The Delrin material has similar characteristics to an LP record, removing the need to have a platter mat.
Sliding into the platter was Clearaudio’s Ceramic Magnetic Bearing. Once inserted into the platter and placed onto the plinth, the platter seemed to just float and spin with ease. When first installed, I dorked around for 3-4 minutes spinning it in awe of how it levitates over the plinth. From the manufacturer:
“Clearaudio’s patented platter bearing combines an inverted, polished ceramic axle mounted to the plinth with a magnetically levitated reciprocal bearing/spindle assembly. Reducing contact points and friction, the CMB eliminated the need for a ball bearing, thrust pad, or point of contact, dramatically lowering the noise floor while increasing speed stability.”
A 24-volt, three speed DC motor does the heavy lifting of making the Delrin platter dance over the plinth. The motor is mounted directly above one of the three feet to reduce vibration. Platter speed is handled by an optical speed control with the sensor mounted on the plinth under the platter. The OSC sensor constantly reads platter speed and communicates with the motor to maintain pitch/speed accuracy due to stylus drag.
Assembly of the components was straightforward. Insert the bearing into the platter and slowly lay it on the plinth followed by inserting the belt and leveling the feet. Last step, slowly insert the Tracer tonearm and you are ready to install your cartridge.
Tracer Tonearm & Hana Cartridge Mounting
The TRACER tonearm is Clearaudio’s newest pivoted design that uses a carbon fiber arm tube for low weight, stiffness, and very low resonant signature. The head shell is machined from solid aluminum and allows overhang, offset and azimuth adjustment. The hybrid bearing uses a horizontal sapphire bearing for the vertical plane and the vertical ball bearing of hardened steel is used for the radial motion of the tonearm. From the manufacturer:
“The under slung counterweight assembly provides an optimal center of gravity and is integral to the rear carbon fiber assembly, allowing fine tracking force adjustments. A second bolt-on counterweight provides a large range of cartridge compatibility as well as allowing optimal position of the counterweight.”
Cartridge mounting was quick and painless. Using a Feikert Protractor we mounted and aligned the Hana ML cartridge. Tracking force was set to the recommended 2 grams using both provided counterweights for the TRACER tonearm.
VTA was set by getting the tonearm level and then fine tuned by listening. The final VTA position had the tonearm lowered just slightly below level when using a standard 180 gram record.
I have been spoiled over the years by the ease of setting VTA on my AMG Viella turntable using a screw to make very small changes. This isn’t available on the TRACER arm, so you just need to apply a little extra care as you slowly move it up or down to adjust. Once VTA was set, re-adjustment was unnecessary.
I admit I have a cable addiction, and at first was not thrilled to be limited to a pre-attached tonearm cable on the TRACER. But the provided cable was a fine match for the tonearm. For most customers this will be a nice bonus because they do not need to purchase a tonearm cable.
Fully assembled, the table looks sharp and received praise from visitors as it proudly rested on the shelf holding its own next to its two armed German cousin the AMG Viella V12.
Before any serious listening I let the Hana ML break-in using the Cardas Frequency Sweep and Burn-in Record for about 30 hours to ensure things were flowing before my ears took notice.
The two tonearms on my AMG as well as the TRACER tonearm were all connected to my Dan D’Agostino Momentum phono stage at all times. This allowed me to switch and listen to any of the 3 arms. In my rig, the Hana ML sounded best loaded at 1.2K ohms.
I found myself frequently reaching to the smaller Clearaudio turntable to drop the needle during its 3-month stay in my room. It’s always zipped up to the designated speed almost instantly and had a sense of ease and simplicity that I enjoyed.
Through hours of use, I found that it seemed to always do its finest when the optional Clearaudio Twister record clamp was used ($150 USD). When the Twister Record Clamp was removed, recordings seamed to loose some life and definitely reduced engagement.
The manufacturer claims:
“The Twister Record Clamp from Clearaudio features an adjustable screw-down design that progressively tightens to your spindle, pressing the record against the platter. This clamping action securely interfaces your LPs to the platter reducing unwanted noise and vibration associated with poor record to platter interface. It is constructed of stainless steel and a highly damped space age polymer.”
Its hard to tell if my enjoyment was due to the Clearaudio table, the new TRACER or the Hana ML cartridge. But I do know that the combination of the three seemed to offer a level of synergy that left an impression on me.
Over the past few years I have come to appreciate wood body cartridges like the Miyajima Zero Mono or Miyajima Madake Snakewood that create a hypnotic sound with soul…. The Hana ML isn’t a Snakewood, but it had the ability to create a similar experience on a smaller scale, and I think that is what attracted me to it.
Let’s roll through a few albums of note to for test drive:
Esperaza Spalding is a knock-out on acoustic bass and vocals, and her album “Chamber Music Society” is one of my all-time favorites. But it’s an album that comes with crushing dynamics and has shown to be a good test over the years of how well a tonearm and cartridge can track real music. On some turntables that I have tried, this album will expose high pitched sibilants and spitty vocals that are nasty to listen to. This album tracks like a champ on the AMG, so I wanted to see what the TRACER + Hana ML could do.
As I started side one and listened to the first track, “Little Fly”, the TRACER tonearm with Hana slid through like butter. Within 5 seconds, I put down my paper and pen, and had no need to take notes. I just laid back and let the entire slide play.
As I listened, Esperanza’s acoustic bass just filled the room, the cello that layered on top gave me goose bumps. On the 2nd track, the separation between the Piano and vocal was perfect, as the cymbals floated with micro details like they were with me in the room.
If you are looking for a track to listen to for tonality, the 2nd track includes a piano solo that will leave you sliding in your seat.
Dynamics with Mercy Street
A long time favorite of mine is Peter Gabriel’s “SO” album. It’s timeless, and “Mercy Street” has some hidden low frequency energy that only seems to come to fruition on the best playback systems.
The first couple times I listened to it, Peter’s smoky voice made an appearance in the room, but it wasn’t as airy as I have heard it and Tony’s bass was missing a little bit of texture. I knew that there was more in those grooves and had every intention on figuring out how to maximize it. I wondered if it was related to the Clearaudio Twister Clamp and decided to swap the Clearaudio Twister for a Stillpoints LP Isolator clamp.
BOOM. All of the goodness I been experiencing with the Clearaudio Twister only got better with the Stillpoints clamp in place that uses their secret sauce to reduce vibration on the LP. This time I was hearing air that I was missing and that last bit of texture on Tony’s bass came forward.
The end result, this table can dig deep, but I encourage you to try the Stillpoints clamp. This is very similar to experiences I had in the past with former VPI tables.
Quick Analog vs. Digital Comparison
Earlier in the week, I had matched levels between The Clearaudio + TRACER + Hana ML + D’Agostino Momentum Phono vs. my dCS Vivaldi Digital stack. So I decided to have some fun and listen to Mercy Street on a Vinyl LP vs. Mercy Street in DSD.
I started the track on both devices simultaneously and switched back and forth. Sure there were differences (some LP noise for example), but in general I didn’t prefer one over the other. YES, I usually prefer the AMG Viella V12 over the dCS for a lot of content, but in this case the Clearaudio + D’Agostino Momentum was just as enjoyable as listening to that track on the gold standard dCS Vivaldi.
Tonality with Ben Harper
My favorite work from Ben Harper are his acoustic tracks that present just Ben and a guitar. On his “Live from Mars” album, starting on side 3A, you get a series of songs that never get old starting with “Waiting on an Angel”.
I like to play it soft. When reproduced well, you quickly close your eyes and get taken away by Ben’s voice. The time to time annoying scream from the audience is reproduced perfectly, so much that you feel like the idiot (in the crowd) who is screaming is in your listening room right next to you.
On the next track “Roses from my friends”, I slowly bring the volume up and I hear the guitar and Ben’s voice sing into my listening room.
MoFi Ultra 1-Step – Marvin Gaye
The day before I was packing up the Clearaudio review sample, my copy of the MoFi Ultra One Step issue of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going on?” arrived.
I’ll admit, although I used to love this album, it has been years since I listened to it. I wasn’t sure what to expect. As I dropped the needle, dude, this isn’t the Marvin Gaye I remember. His voice had layers of texture. His voice had a soul and emotion to it that I hadn’t experienced before. My feet were tapping, at one point I think I got up and felt the need to dance in my living room. This is what happens when no one is around.
I enjoyed my time with the Clearaudio, TRACER and Hana ML combination. It gave me a new appreciation for Clearaudio and raised my interest in spending more time with the Hana ML in the future.
This combination isn’t cheap, but at that same time its not insane versus some of the super tables out there. My biggest beef with this table is it’s name, “Basic”. There isn’t anything Basic about the Clearaudio Innovation Basic Turntable. The Hana ML impressed me more then I expected. At $1200, it set a new bar, has soul and is something I recommend you listen to.
Do I still love my AMG Viella V12, HECK YES! It is the basic LP playback that I have achieved in my room.
But if I needed to build a turntable setup under 10k USD, this Clearaudio combination would be on my short list. Recommended with no hesitation.
Loudspeaker: Wilson Audio Alexia Series-2
Amplifier: Dan D’Agostino Momentum Stereo S250
Pre-Amp: Pass Labs XP-30
Phono Pre-Amp: Dan D’Agostino Momentum Phono
Turntable: AMG Viella V12, Lyra Atlas, Miyajima Mono Zero, Miyajima Madake Snakewood Cartridges. Miyajima Mono Step-Up transformer (ETR-MONO)
Digital: dCS Vivaldi DAC and Network Bridge
Cables: Transparent Opus Gen 5 Interconnects, Transparent Ref XL Gen 5 Speaker Cable & Transparent XL Gen 5 Digital Cables
Power: Audioquest Dragon Power cables & Niagara 7000 Power Conditioner
Stands: HRS Platforms, Vortex feet, Nimbus couplers, Plates