Gramophone Dreams #20: Lounge Audio & MoFi UltraDeck Page 2

The biggest difference between top-shelf and more affordable phono stages is that the best speak with a quiet, measured specificity that makes even budget cartridges sound good, reproducing recorded energy as well as sound. The best deliver deep transparencies and consistent focus. The best keep the listener's attention on the music. Lower-priced gear can sound slow, blurred, hazy, or opaque.

Therefore, I wasn't surprised when Parasound's Halo JC 3+ ($3000) sounded more transparent and more emphatically detailed, and provided greater depth of space than the LCR Mk.III. I was surprised at how small these differences were. The Lounge delivered a full-bodied, accurately toned reproduction of Rena Kyriakou playing the piano music of Mendelssohn (3 LPs, Vox SVBX 5412). The Lounge and UltraDeck did an excellent job of directing my attention to Kyriakou's fleet-fingered, calmly detached playing. Most important, the LCR Mk.III delivered, right between my speakers, a wooden-cased piano with a substantial soundboard, a solid bass register, and real metal strings.

I replaced the LCR Mk.III with the Schiit Audio Mani. It had been a while since I'd heard the little Schiit, but I still wasn't surprised at how smooth, elastic, well toned, and tangible was its reproduction of Dom Um Romão's Saudades (LP, Water Lily Acoustics WLA-CS-16). And after the Mani had warmed up for 24 hours, I could almost have forgotten I wasn't listening to the Lounge. Detail, imaging, and spatial development were about two-thirds that delivered by the Lounge LCR, which in turn was about three-quarters of what Tavish Design Adagio produced—and which, in its own way, delivered about seven-eighths of the Parasound Halo JC 3+'s famously spectacular imaging. The Lounge's bass and treble extension were much better than the Schiit's, but nowhere near as strong or as resolved as the Tavish's or Parasound's.

Now that you've been introduced to the over-achieving Lounge LCR Mk.III phono stage, I can compare two radically different record-playing systems: the AMG Giro G9 turntable with standard 9W2 tonearm ($9900) and Reference phono cable ($1500), and EMT TSD 75 MC cartridge ($1950), driving an Auditorium 23 step-up transformer ($995) connected to the Parasound Halo JC 3+ ($3000)—and MoFi's UltraDeck turntable with Ultra tonearm, standard phono cable, and MasterTracker MM cartridge ($2198 total), driving the Lounge LCR Mk.III phono stage ($300). The AMG Giro sits on a matching HRS isolation platform ($2595), the UltraDeck on a PS Audio PerfectWave Power Base ($999). The respective grand totals are $19,940 vs $3497. Sounds unfair, right?

MoFi Electronics UltraDeck
Analog aficionados are always telling me, "Forget felt or rubber mats—the best interface between an LP and the turntable platter is vinyl, or something very similar." The idea is that an interface of vinyl with vinyl would most effectively disperse stylus-groove energies away from the point where the stylus contacts the groove. This view springs from the notion that felt or rubber record mats can isolate and damp but never actually dissipate energy. These aficionados say that this is bad, because that energy is stored, only to be released later, to smear the sound and sabotage its clarity. I'm no authority on this topic but I've always thought that putting a mostly non-flat record on a hard, perfectly flat surface of any material will produce, at best, unpredictable results. How much of the disc is actually in contact with the platter? So I've always favored felt mats (for damping) with belt-driven platters, and rubber mats (for isolation) with direct-drive turntables.

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That said, the platters of the AMG and MoFi turntables are made of an acetal, polyoxymethylene (POM), a thermoplastic polymer manufactured by DuPont under the name Delrin. It looks and feels a lot like the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) of which LPs are made. When I place a flat LP on either 'table, it sits flat. When I tap it on either 'table with my finger, it makes a low thud that's dull, not sharp—a very good sign.

The design of the UltraDeck is the result of a collaboration between MoFi engineers and Spiral Groove's Allen Perkins. The result is a striking, 25-lb record player measuring 19.69" wide by 6" high by 14.25" deep. Its 6.8-lb platter rotates on a 0.5"-diameter shaft with an inverted bearing that, per Perkins, "allows the belt to drive the platter closer to its plane of rotation. This reduces its tendency to oscillate. Reducing oscillation, by even very tiny amounts, reduces micro speed variations and that improves low-level resolution."

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Mounted in the UltraDeck's plinth is an AC synchronous motor that drives the platter via a fat yellow belt that contributes to the UltraDeck's distinctive look. The 1.3"-thick plinth comprises three separate 3/32" aluminum plates bonded to a core of beveled MDF.

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Setup consisted of lowering the platter over the prelubricated bearing shaft, then leveling the plinth by adjusting the UltraDeck's four feet (these developed by Harmonic Resolution Systems for MoFi), then stretching the belt around the platter's rim and the motor's pulley.

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On their website, MoFi states that "Motor vibrations are kept away from the platter and stylus by using advanced [damping] materials that decouple the motor from the rest of the turntable." With the motor running but the belt not yet installed, I used a stethoscope to listen separately to the UltraDeck's plinth, platter, and tonearm bearing yolk. I could easily hear the 300rpm motor vibrating through all three. The vibration's amplitude was similar to what I heard in Rega Research's Planar 3 turntable, and, as I said about the Rega in my February 2017 column, this obvious noise must contribute, however subliminally, to the sonic texture of the music being played.

MoFi's Ultra tonearm has a straight, 10"-long aluminum armwand, a gimbaled bearing, and wiring by Cardas Audio. My review sample came with MoFi's MasterTracker MM cartridge already installed and aligned; all I had to do was attach the arm's counterweight, set the vertical tracking force (VTF) to the recommended 2gm, and thread the little orange-stringed antiskating weight on the back of the arm. I positioned the weight thread's noose at the center of its calibrated rod, as recommended in the simple but well-written owner's manual.

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Using a variety of test records, meters, and alignment gauges, I verified the MasterTracker's alignment, tracking ability, azimuth, antiskating, vertical tracking angle (VTA), and stylus rake angle (SRA). All was in good order, straight from the factory.

MoFi currently makes two turntable models: The StudioDeck ($1149.99) comes standard with a factory-installed MoFi StudioTracker MM cartridge ($199 if bought separately), and the UltraDeck ($1999.99) comes standard with a MoFi UltraTracker MM ($499 if bought separately). The UltraTracker has a nude elliptical stylus and a body of "silver billet 6061." I chose MoFi's best cartridge, the MasterTracker, with 3mV output and Microline stylus, to experience the full potential of MoFi's newest analog venture.

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The first recording I played was the exorcistic, contrapuntal "Ketjak: The Ramayana Monkey Chant," taped in Bali by David Lewiston and released in 1969 as Golden Rain (LP, Nonesuch Explorer Series H-72028): 200 bare-chested chanters, crowded together in a circle and sitting on the ground in a temple courtyard. The unpredictable broken lines of its melody are intended to literally chase devils away. I didn't see any devils flying, but the MoFi-Lounge partnering showed me an exceedingly clear picture of that monastery courtyard. I couldn't quite tell how high the stereo mikes were positioned—that was more clear with the AMG—but I could almost see the chanting monks' raised hands waving in unison. I had never ever experienced such vitality and sharp focus from an MM cartridge. More surprisingly, this sharp focus did not come from lean, dry, or overdamped sound. The MasterTracker was simply getting all of the energy information off the record.

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As I type this paragraph I'm playing this stunning recording again, and its sound character can be defined only by what it is not: neither warm nor cool, hard nor soft, light nor dark. Contrasts are extremely well portrayed. To use an old photographic analogy, maybe the music's texture is a little Tri-X grainy, but contrasts of tone and mutating rhythms are elegantly portrayed.

It reminds me to tell you that, with the Lounge LCR Mk.III more than with the more dark- and neutral-sounding Parasound Halo JC 3+, the MasterTracker could develop a kind of fall-sunshine midrange that enhanced my vision of monks chanting outdoors. This enjoyable "sunlight" appeared with no unpleasant glare or loss of image focus.

Nothing about the MoFi UltraDeck's sound could be described as staid or dark. It had stronger energy, achieved bigger dynamic swings, and was more detailed than comparatively priced 'tables from VPI and Rega—it wasn't as bright as Rega's Planar 3 or as quiet as VPI's Scout Jr. The UltraDeck didn't deliver the AMG Giro G9's deep "black" backgrounds or enormous sound spaces, but it did present me with an infectious, easy-flowing, liquid vitality that distinguished it from all its competition. This was its main good trait.

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When I removed the $300 Lounge LCR Mark III and replaced it with the $3000 Parasound Halo JC 3+, the first thing I noticed was how much darker, quieter, more understated, more transparent, and more whole the UltraDeck's sound became. This change was not subtle. Everything sounded more together—deeper, richer, more fleshed out, more authoritative. But not ten times more of any of those qualities.

When I replaced the Lounge with the Tavish Adagio, the MoFi went up a few notches on the boogie vividness scale. The Tavish made the MoFi sound more alive, open, and fresh, but a bit less colorful, than the Lounge or Parasound. The Tavish let the UltraDeck reproduce recordings of choruses, rock, and opera with more grace and vivo. It was less quiet and well mannered than the Parasound, but more rhythmic, dynamic, and exciting.

With every phono stage I tried, the MoFi MasterTracker proved itself the music-rendering equal of any high-output cartridge at any price.

I can only imagine how the MoFi Electronics combo of UltraDeck turntable and MasterTracker cartridge might sound hooked up to the Ypsilon VPS-100, but from what I've heard so far, its ultimate quality seems limited mostly by what else is in the chain. As I said at the beginning: The sound quality of any analog source component will depend on the sound quality of the phono stage it's connected to. The MoFi UltraDeck is one of the most lucid-, engaging-, and natural-sounding record players available for under $5000. Highly recommended.

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COMMENTS
Robin Landseadel's picture

Thank you so much for reviewing real-world gear and placing it in the context of what's possible—I'm seriously Juggling between the Lounge and the Schitt [couldn't resist, go blame Mike Moffat], but I've heard the CTC Blowtorch in John Curl's living room, so I've got some context to work with. Thank you for supplying context.

Herb Reichert's picture

my cherished Denon DL-102 (mono)

really is a down home honest-Abe mono cartridge when mounted on an Abyss AB1 tonearm

Ortofan's picture

... test measurements on the UltraDeck so that we might be able to compare the speed accuracy and stability of this turntable with some of the others that MF has reviewed?

Herb Reichert's picture

I wish I could but my Feickert speed test app stopped working when I updated my iPhone.

I am looking now for a new app to replace it. :-(

Old Audiophile's picture

Herb, between this Mofi/Mastertracker deck and the Rega P6/Exact MM (or Ortofon Bronze), which deck do you imagine would fair better with a McIntosh MA 5200 or would it be a virtual toss up?

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