Thanks to a curious combination of historical events, the UK does without a truly nationwide hi-fi show. For a truly large scale exhibition, you'll need to start by going to an airport. Slightly curiously though, one show held in Bristol every February has continued to hold its own and in the absence of much else; it has become a meaningful event for the UK press and public. Held in the Marriott Hotel- a building that looks a little like someone was given 72 hours to make a multi story carpark habitable- it doesn't generally serve as the global launch point for products but it represents the first time we see products announced at CES in the UK.
This year, I headed down for what was alarmingly, my thirteenth Bristol show in order to knock up a few show reports, check out some worthwhile new product and meet up with the same reprobates that make up my friends and colleagues in the industry. As befits a show in 2016, there was a fair amount of vinyl hardware at the show and there was a pleasing amount of interest in it. Rather than rehash what is now rather old news, I'm going to focus on three new turntables that were on show.
The reason for this is that none of them are outlandishly expensive- they will all cost in the region of $1,000- and they represent three different ways of encouraging you to part with your cash. They also come from a newcomer, a returning industry veteran and an incumbent further shaping their design choices. In microcosm, they show the different approaches available to companies trying to sell turntables to the public.
If you haven't heard of Elipson, don't beat yourself up too much. The French company, if it is known at all, is known as a manufacturer of speakers yhat were originally designed for monitoring the output of the French state broadcaster. In recent years, the company has seen fresh investment and moved into electronics as well as speakers. Having initially approached an existing manufacturer of turntables to see if they could produce something on their behalf and been underwhelmed by the results, they have gone and produced their own design.
The result of this is actually two models built around the same basic platform. This is, with the exception of the Ortofon cartridge fitted to all models, a completely bespoke piece of equipment. The focus has been to produce a turntable that can be lifted out the box set on a level surface and be ready to play records almost instantly. This is then combined with strong emphasis on specification. Most models have electronic speed control which is rare at the price and internal phono preamps are also fitted to many models. A more unusual feature is the presence of a Bluetooth transmitter in the flagship model for a wire and hassle free connection system.
All this is encased in a piece of mechanical design that has some of the flair that Elipson has brought to their other products. The Elipson manages to look elegant and a little different to its rivals at the same time. In entering an already busy market, Elipson has gone for the approach of easy setup and extra functionality to make their design stand out. Of course, that isn't the only approach available.
The Returning Veteran
There was a time when Sony could stake a claim to being one of the very biggest brands in the world and certainly the biggest electronics brand going. They are responsible for some mighty pieces of audio equipment as well. Having almost completely abandoned two channel audio, the company has recently returned to the category in force and has been building a range of equipment focussed around the concept of High Res Audio- a badged standard cropping up on multiple products.
In vinyl terms, this is a bit of a problem as embracing a sixty year old format doesn't sit terribly well with the shiny and modern concept of high res. As such, the Sony PS-HX500 is designed to try and reconcile these rather contradictory demands. On the face of it, the Sony looks normal enough. It is a belt driven unsuspended deck which is supplied complete and like the Elipson, includes an internal phono preamp. Where the Sony deviates sharply from the norm is that Sony has designed it to be a means f creating high res audio to feed your Walkman (yes, they still exist) and other digital products. To this end, the PS-HX500 is able to encode the material it plays into WAV and DSD files for playback on suitable devices.
Ripping vinyl has traditionally been something of a thankless task and to Sony's credit, a brief look at the bundled software does suggest that this is going to be the best option on the market for doing this but it still leaves the PS-HX500 looking a bit odd- a turntable designed to help you not play your records. Nonetheless, high res needledrops are capable of sounding excellent so if you are looking for a new turntable and a means of creating them, this might be the deck for you.
Unlike the other two brands here, Rega Research is neither new to analogue nor has it ever stopped making turntables- even during the very quiet years at the turn of the century. The company started making the Planar 3 in 1977 and it or its descendents have been in continuous production ever since. New for 2016, the P3 is at once almost entirely new and almost entirely the same.
This means you get a slim plinth that is braced between the arm and bearing for added stiffness. The platter is made of glass and the RB330 arm- while heavily revised- is still recognisably from the same family as the original RB300. There is also little question that next to the bells and whistles Elipson and software driven Sony, the Rega comes across as rather spartan. There is no phono preamp, no speed control and unless you ask for one, Rega doesn't supply a cartridge.
There is a method in the madness though. Unlike the other models, Rega doesn't really want you to consider yourself 'done' at the purchase of a P3. They make turntables up past the $5,000 point and the P3 is designed to be both a taster of that and a means of working towards it. As such, aspects of the Rega are upgradeable and if you do choose to sell it, there is always a ready market for your old deck. This is the purist approach to vinyl- one of the more affordable ways into doing such a thing with a warranty and manufacturer support. It isn't equipped with every bell and whistle going and neither is it entirely plug and play (although it is hardly a challenge) and this is in many ways the point.
So which is best? Does it matter? In essence, these three decks represent three different ways of bringing analogue to customers and one that is being repeated with different brands at different price points. The market- for now at least- has the capacity to support all three approaches and it is up to you as to which one you feel suits your approach best. It is faintly remarkable though that the vinyl resurgence has reached the point where simply making a turntable isn't enough and you need a unique approach to stand out from the crowd. I imagine that I'll be reconvening in Bristol in 2017 to see how the different approaches have fared.
Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.
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