Cousin Of The Manual Gearbox: The Clearaudio Concept Turntables

By Tom Martin

July 27, 2021

 

Clearaudio is a highly-respected manufacturer of turntables who make a new line of turntables that we just love. Although the starting price of $1800 may seem like looney money, lots of racers chew up that budget in one weekend just for tires. The Clearaudio turntable will be around for years, not days, so cost per hour of enjoyment is maybe not too bad. Anyway, value is in the mind of the beholder and in high-end audio circles the Clearaudio Concept is considered affordable (e.g. Clearaudio’s Master Innovation turntable is $32,000). The Concept includes a carbon fiber tonearm and a high-quality phono cartridge (the $250 Concept MM; a Concept MC moving coil cartridge is an upgrade).

 

Clearaudio also offers the Concept Active turntable. One thing we love about the Concept Active is that it is easy to install because it has a built-in phono preamp (needed to connect to amps and speakers) and a built-in headphone amp so you could use it on a desktop as your whole audio system. Both of these integrated pieces are of very high quality, which is reflected in the $3799 price, which includes the excellent Clearaudio Concept moving coil cartridge ($1000 purchased separately). 

 

Of course, you need to want to listen to vinyl to bother with any of this, simple though setup may be. 

 

To understand why you might bother, let’s get away from audio and think more broadly. Consider manual transmissions. Purely from the perspective of effort, an automatic is a “better” transmission than an H-pattern manual. And yet, many car enthusiasts swear by manual transmissions and almost all race cars have them. The manual transmission creates a sense of involvement with driving that is noticeably better for some drivers, convenience be damned.

 

Similarly, while Spotify and Tidal and Apple Music take over the world, vinyl records are enjoying a resurgence. Once thought to be a twice-superseded technology (once by CDs and then by streaming), many music lovers are realizing that vinyl has an important place in their lives. This may remind you of manual gearboxes (or steel frame bikes) or any number of “outdated” things that turn out to have virtues that are lacking in their shiny “replacements”.

 

The virtues of vinyl come down to a handful of things. First, vinyl avoids certain digital distortions that some listeners are bugged by, sort of like some people can’t tolerate cilantro in their food. These distortions include the difficult to comprehend but easy to hear phenomenon of “pre-ringing” where sounds start before they did in the original performance, and plain old brittle-sounding treble from “ringing”. These are small but quite noticeable distortions that stand out because they are unlike sounds that occur in nature. It is much easier to notice a car horn beeping in the middle of a song than to notice extra harmonics added to the singing. Vinyl, by contrast, just sounds “right”, when it is well done. You pay extra for something like the Concept or Concept Active to avoid digital distortions without adding analog distortions which end up earasing the benefits. Clearaudio has specially engineered bearings, a high-accuracy motor drive and an excellent cartridge to keep the musical signal accurate and clean. 

 

The second, and possibly bigger, benefit of vinyl is the way it changes how you approach music. What many vinyl lovers notice is that with records, you put in some effort to choosing a disc and then you are, to a degree, stuck with it. This relaxes your mind from thinking about “should I hit the forward button and try another track or artist?” and focuses the mind on the music at hand. It encourages you to consider the album as the work of art, wherein the set of songs, in a specific order, is the performance (just like in a concert). This is another example of constraints being beneficial, though we usually view them as problematic. As with manual transmissions.

 

The Clearaudio Concepts, according to our expert partners at The Absolute Sound magazine, sounds very good, and these guys have high standards. They voted the Concept turntable one of the top turntables under $2000. "It held forth with an overall musicality, image focus, transient authenticity, and a dynamic conviction that was highly authoritative". The found that the Concept Active was even better, especially at the frequency extremes. We think Clearaudio's fit and finish are very nice and indicate high-quality manufacturing. The design is attractive in a mid-century modern sort of way, which rounds out the package to make it a real winner.