A few months ago, Dave and Carol Clark of Positive Feedback made a social media post where they told friends in the industry they were looking for a new turntable and asked everyone an audiophile’s favorite question—what should we get? The usual suspects made recommendations of the usual brands, and I decided not to hop into the discussion because, quite frankly, that was a very crowded thread for a few days. It didn’t matter, because they ultimately went with something that I’d consider if I’d been asked in private—the Fern & Roby Montrose turntable.
Why? Dave and Carol are endlessly interesting people, both artistic and intelligent, and the Fern and Roby Montrose turntable has plenty of personality as well. On the surface, it seems like a perfect match. Read their review and you’ll understand.
It’s such a unique ‘table. The Montrose doesn’t look like anyone else’s turntable. All three turntables in the Fern and Roby line are this visually distinctive—this entry level Montrose, the top-of-the line Tredegar, which weighs over 100 pounds, and a middle child named the Montrose Heirloom that uses the much heavier Tredegar platter on top of a Montrose everything-else. All three have the heavy-duty found object look, rich with patina and stories of long ago.
It’s a look often described by words such as industrial and steampunk. The former word does capture part of the essence of the Montrose design; the Fern and Roby Montrose turntable is incredibly solid. Those “heirloom” imperfections—slight marks deep in the metal, especially in the bronze inserts in the platter, that reveal a former life—add to the worth in an unexpected way. I’m not as sold on the steampunk aspect, which always tries to suggest that despite all the ornate civility of late 19th century, London was still home to Jack the Ripper. The Montrose operates like it’s from now, not then.
In other words, you probably won’t gaze upon the Montrose and instantly wonder if it’s an old idler-wheel turntable like a Thorens or a Garrard that’s been meticulously restored. There’s a precision to the Montrose that can only be produced by modern machinery. But there’s also that distinct feeling that 100 years from now, this Montrose will still look exactly the same. It won’t age. If it does, it will be in a good way.
Enough About the Looks
Yes, the Fern and Roby Montrose turntable/arm combination is a looker, a conversation piece, an objet d’art. Despite all that, the Montrose is saturated with purpose and reason. Christopher Hildebrand and his team at Tektonics Design Group have created an analog rig that is exact in its execution. Everything is there for a reason, and even the smallest details reveal considerable thought.
Still, the Montrose captures the essence of great engineering—elegance and simplicity. It’s heavy, but not too heavy, thanks to its relatively compact dimensions. Its plinth is made from Richlite, the same material Christopher uses for the baffles on his Raven line of loudspeakers. It’s made from recycled paper and resin, and it’s exceptionally dense. The heavy platter is also made from Richlite and the inserts are brass.
Once you get past that rather basic description of the Fern and Roby Montrose, which includes adjectives such as solid and simple and straightforward, you start to notice those thoughtful little touches—the bubble level built into the plinth, the clip on the back that helps you to create that perfect arc for the phono cable, the precise fit of the spikes into the divots in the supplied isolation feet, the leveling screws that are easily accessible through holes on the top surface of the plinth. You can easily detect multiple examples of Christopher looking at an aspect of the design and saying, “How can I make this better?”
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the drive unit, which is called the MAP Drive. It’s computer-controlled and completely modular, which means you can unplug it and send it in for repair if necessary. That’s a lot easier than sending the whole ‘table.
When I first talked to Christopher about his turntable designs over a year ago, he offered the Schroder CB tonearm. I thought this was a curious move, considering how difficult it is to buy Schroder tonearms. I’ve heard countless stories of people ordering an arm from Frank Schroder, paying for it, and waiting a year or more for it to be built. In my opinion, the Schroder tonearms are one of the two or three greatest tonearms made (the others would include Breuer and Kuzma), and serious audiophiles are more than willing to wait for the best.
Christopher explained that he bought Schroder arms in small groups (the CB is manufactured for Schroder by Thrax) and could order more as needed. If he did manage to run out of arms, he’d simply include one of his own unipivot arms until the Schroder arrived, and then the customer could swap it out.
That approach evolved over time, and now the Fern & Roby unipivot arm comes with the Montrose. The Schroder CB is still available as an option. The Fern & Roby arm, however, is as solid and simple as the Montrose. Christopher designed the unipivot interface to minimize movement through the shape of the cup—this arm is one of the least fiddly and precarious unipivots I’ve used.
Mounting and aligning cartridges is also a breeze with this arm. You’ll find precise markings for all of the alignment parameters, and the VTA adjustment wheel at the tonearm base is one of the most precise I’ve seen. The headshell is also visually distinctive—most people who see it remark upon its coolness—and thanks to a separate mounting plate it’s very easy to get the overhang right.
Maverick Phono Preamplifier
My Fern and Roby Montrose came equipped with the plug-in version of the Maverick MM/MC phono stage, which slides into the back panel of the Montrose, largely out of sight. I only used this occasionally since I’ve had so many phono pres in for review over the last year, but my initial impressions were that it was a capable phono stage with no obvious shortcomings.
About halfway into the review process, Christopher sent me a new version of the Maverick, an outboard unit with a separate power supply. This new unit, a joint project between Christopher and Mark Schneider of Linear Tube Audio, retails for an additional $1950. I’ll discuss it in further depth in an upcoming review.
The Fern and Roby Montrose turntable with arm, isolation feet and, of course, one of the phenomenal aluminum record weights, costs just $6950. Just is a relative term, of course, but the longer I used the Montrose, the more that price seemed reasonable.
Fern and Roby doesn’t make its own cartridges—yet—but Christopher can sell you a model from Soundsmith, Hana, Ortofon and Denon (a 103, obviously). The Clarks went with a Soundsmith MIMC Star, and excellent choice at the $2000 mark.
I had the Montrose for quite a while, so I was able to try several cartridges including the Hana ML, the ZYX Bloom 3 and the Sumiko Songbird, along with my Denon 103 modified with The Cap. Over time, I found that I enjoyed the Hana on the Palmer 2.5i turntable with the Audio Origami tonearm, and the ZYX Bloom 3 on the Montrose. (I’ve been bugging Christopher about giving this combo a try.)
Over the last couple of years I’ve used a few heavy, high-mass turntables and I’ve come away a big fan. I love that solid, quiet feeling in the groove, the weight in the low frequencies, the incredibly low noise floor. Big turntables sound big in all the best ways.
The Fern and Roby Montrose turntable seemed to capture that high-mass sound with ease—in a package that is smaller and less expensive than those other rigs. And yet it also produced a sound that’s identified with lighter turntables such as Regas, an energy and liveliness that’s full of air and light. In high-end audio, we often talk about overdoing it when it comes to damping and vibration control. Too much and you wind up with a sound that’s a little dead inside, a denizen of the dreaded “uncanny valley” syndrome. I’ve heard this before with huge turntables that cost a lot of money. Huge, heavy turntables that require three men to move around. You probably have heard this as well.
What the Fern and Roby Montrose turntable suggests is that the truth resides somewhere in the middle (my life’s motto, by the way). The Montrose sits between those massive and inert record playing machines made of iron and blood and fire and those delicate open-architecture ‘tables that look like they can be folded up and put in a briefcase. That’s when I started thinking…is it the Richlite? Is it the perfect compromise between everything and nothing?
It’s possible. At the same time, the Fern and Roby Tredegar has a 65-pound plinth made from cast iron. I’ve listened to it a couple of times and it’s anything but lifeless. I’m sure it’s the better-sounding turntable when compared side by side to the Montrose. Still, I kept feeling that the Fern and Roby Montrose was more than just a good all-arounder that finds the middle ground in almost every category. There’s a Gestalt here that’s hard to ignore—I was getting everything I needed from the Montrose, sound-wise, and I couldn’t produce one single valid complaint.
Once again this is a case where I had the Fern and Roby Montrose for a long time, and I listened to a lot of records. (Every time I see a reviewer list two or three reference albums, I subconsciously think “Is that all you listened to?”) But I will talk about a couple of recordings that offered particular epiphanies via the Montrose.
First, I’m going to fall back on my current sonic faves, the MoFi remasters of Dire Straits’ Making Movies and Love Over Gold. I know, last year I kept using Lyn Stanley’s Live at Bernie’s over and over, like it was the only LP I owned, and I’m dangerously close to repeating that same bad habit with these two albums.
But I have to tell you about “Private Investigations.” Most of you are familiar with this song—it’s a true reference track. But my old copy had too much surface noise and I waited for the day when I could hear this song in its true glory. I finally did. Picture this: Stenheim Alumine 2 loudspeakers, Pureaudio Duo2 power amplifier and Control preamplifier, Jeff Rowland Design Group Conductor phono stage, Cardas Audio Clear cabling and the Montrose with the ZYX Bloom 3.
I’ve never heard this song sound better. Everything was just perfect, in the zone. All the space and the details in this melodramatic seven-minute adventure were rendered perfectly, in realistic proportions. The low bass energy was powerful and succinct. Here’s how realistic it sounded—Lucy, my Miniature Schnauzer, joined me on the couch during the playing of this song. She was transfixed. Her head followed the music and her expression seemed to ask, “Who is that guy, Dad? Why is he running?” She jumped at the right moments and sat perfectly still when required. When it was over, she looked up at me. Can you play that again? So I did.
To mention the other epiphany, I’d have to break a promise. Yes, I mentioned that I would stop mentioning Lyn Stanley’s direct-to-disc LP London with a Twist in equipment reviews. But it was the LP I was compelled to bring out and play on the Montrose—especially in conjunction with reviewing the Conductor phono stage. I’ll just say this—Lyn took a step or two closer to me during these songs, and I could almost smell her intoxicating perfume.
In their review, Dave and Carol Clark concluded with “We are buying the turntable and cartridge. Not leaving the room. Sold.”
I can totally see why. The Fern and Roby Montrose ‘table offers so much for the money that it’s simply hard to ignore. You can’t say that it’s too much money, because it’s not. Every Christopher Hildebrand design has that aforementioned heirloom quality, so you can leave this virtually indestructible machine to your children or grandchildren in your will. You’ll get your money’s worth.
I can’t quibble with the sound quality, either. Maybe the Tredegar does something the Montrose doesn’t, but I’m not sure what that is yet. The Montrose offers such a balanced sound, solid yet ethereal when necessary, potent yet full of life and kindness.
The obvious reason to buy a Montrose, of course, is the looks. People will enter your home, see it and walk straight toward it. They’ll have plenty of questions for you. It’s breathtaking. It’s a sculpture. It’s art. Audiophiles tend to downplay such things, especially when there’s a premium attached. In this case, no premium is charged.
Is the Fern and Roby Montrose turntable and arm the “best”? There is no such thing, obviously, but for $7000 this seems like a gift. This is a turntable that’s designed not only for those who appreciate the finer things, but those who don’t walk the beaten path and are always looking for things that express their unique and singular values. Like everything else from Fern and Roby, the Montrose will become a part of you.