Gramophone Dreams #37: JSikora Initial turntable & Grado Aeon3 phono cartridge

My most cherished intangibles—love, beauty, glimpses of higher realms—enter my awareness only after I prepare my psyche to receive them. Extended bathing, lighting candles, making tea, and preparing food are ritual work forms that prepare my senses to accept both pleasure and illumination. In like manner, collecting LPs and storing them properly, setting up turntables, aligning cartridges, and cleaning styli are ritual actions that prepare me for the high moments of focused musical pleasure only a black disc can provide.

The black-disc high moments I am about to describe were inspired by my turntable guru and setter-upper friend Michael Trei. In one of our regular late-night phone conversations, he mentioned the made-in-Poland J.Sikora turntables. He said he'd set up a few and noticed some kind of intangible something he thought I might appreciate and be able to describe to my readers.

When I scouted the J.Sikora website (footnote 1), I was attracted to the elemental beauty of designer Janusz Sikora's lowest-priced model, the Initial. The more expensive two-motor Standard and the four-motor (!) Reference models feature thicker, wider composite bases, thicker composite platters, taller composite motor and tonearm towers, and, to my artist/sculptor eyes, a cluttered, disorienting appearance that seems to be de rigueur in today's oligarch-priced turntables.

The bare-bones Initial costs $8995 with either a blank arm mount or a mount predrilled for Kuzma, Jelco, Ortofon, Origin Live, or SME tonearms. The Initial package I chose costs $9995 and includes J.Sikora's High Quality Power Supply and a 10.5" Jelco TK-850M tonearm. No cartridge. I chose the Jelco arm because it kept the price down and would make it easier to switch cartridges. I thought it might also make comparisons to my reference Dr. Feickert Blackbird turntable (which uses a 12" Jelco arm) fairer and more relevant. In order that I might glimpse some of the sonic potentials of J.Sikora's higher-priced offerings, I ordered my Initial with the optional $259 glass platter mat; an optional two-piece record weight added $799 more.

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Total cost of this record playing system: $11,053, not including phono cartridge or phono stage.

Just before the Initial arrived, I received the latest updated (summer 2019) version of Grado Lab's new Lineage Series Aeon3 moving-iron phono cartridge ($6000, footnote 2). In 2017, Michael Fremer raved about the Aeon's more expensive sibling, the Epoch (original version, $12,000) Mikey's rave put Grado cartridges back on my radar. I was anxious to experience the Aeon3, so I figured that when Trei arrived to set up the Initial, I would ask him to install the fat, wood-bodied Grado at the same time.

During the course of this review, I used only the Parasound JC 3+ ($2995) and the Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ ($750) phono stages, because both could provide the 55–60dB of gain into the 47k ohm load that the moving-iron Grado Aeon requires. The rest of my system consisted of the Rogue RP-7 line-level preamp feeding either the EleKit TU-8600R or the Rogue Audio Stereo 100 amplifiers driving the DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93 loudspeakers, connected with Cardas Clear Cygnus speaker cables.

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Setup
When my hands don't shake and the light is bright enough, I can set up turntables at a level maybe a notch or two down from the pros. For this report, I just held the flashlight, watched, and asked dumb questions while Michael Trei opened the Initial's heavy wood crate and assembled the table on my rack, next to my Dr. Feickert Blackbird.

"So, Michael, what is that plinth made of?"

"It's solid aluminum with some concentric cutouts surrounding the bearing mount."

"What are the cutouts for? To subvert standing waves or randomize vibrations?"

"Something like that."

On the more expensive models, there are no cutouts: Instead, Janusz and his son Robert Sikora use a sandwich plinth with layers of different materials of varying density. The complete Initial turntable weighs only 62lb, while the Reference deck weighs more than 220lb!

"What are those white glass balls?"

"Those are the things you don't want to drop on the floor, 'cause you'll never find them. They sit under the plinth's three footer cones."

Two seconds later, a ball hit the oak floor with a loud clack, bounced high, then ran off to nowhere like a scared mouse. I found it hiding under a speaker and needed chopsticks to get it out.

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I watched as Trei applied two oil drops and installed the inverted ceramic ball platter-bearing and the black, 8.8lb, 2"-thick platter.

"So, Michael, is that a Delrin platter? Like the ones on the Feickert and AMG turntables?"

"I think so."

DuPont's Delrin is an acetal homo-polymer called polyoxymethylene, which, I am told, has a density very similar to that of vinyl records.

Next, Michael installed the beveled 11mm-thick crystal-glass platter mat, which is isolated from the spindle by a 4.25" diameter stainless steel center puck.

"Michael, doesn't Brinkmann also offer a crystal-glass platter mat? If I remember right, the Brinkman mat cost, like, $1500. This one costs only $259."

"Yeah . . . Brinkmann does." (footnote 4)

"Seems like these European record decks are cross-pollinating."

As Michael positioned the heavy stainless-steel motor housing, I blurted out, "Why is the motor under the tonearm? Isn't that weird?" He said, "That's what keeps the turntable's footprint modest." (The plinth measures 17"W × 13"D.)

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"What kind of motor is that? 'A high-torque Pabst DC motor.'" Before the two belts were installed, and after Mike connected the motor to the outboard speed controller, I listened with my stethoscope to the plinth area between the motor—running at 33.3 rpm—and the tonearm mount. To my surprise, the sound of the Initial's high-torque motor was nearly inaudible. The bearing housing on the Jelco TK-850M tonearm was even closer to silent. The glass platter mat was silent.

The machined aluminum controller box features an attractive, easy-to-read display and five pushbuttons that select 33.3 and 45rpm, stop, and +/– for fine speed trim.

The Grado Aeon3
I never dreamed I'd see cartridges like those in Grado's new Lineage Series. The Lineage Aeon3 (described herein) and the latest version of the Lineage Epoch3 are obviously radical attempts by John Grado to make the best cartridge ever, period. (I can imagine John in his basement lab in his factory in Brooklyn: "Screw these moving-coil guys. I'll show 'em what a real cartridge sounds like . . . !") In case you forgot, John Grado's legendary uncle Joe Grado was not only one of the founding fathers of audiophile audio: He was granted a patent on the stereo moving-coil phono cartridge. But Joe abandoned the MC principle and began manufacturing moving-iron cartridges because, according to his nephew John, "he understood moving-coil's defects better than anyone."

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I could not remember the last time a Grado cartridge was competing for best cartridge in production, but Mikey's review concluded, "Install the Epoch in the right system, put on an LP of the right music, sit down, . . . and you are done."

I asked Michael Trei to install the Aeon3 because I feared its broad shadow-casting cocobolo wood body would challenge my weak-eyed setup skills. But, according to John Grado, the wide wood body serves a less-than-obvious purpose: It allows more of the cartridge's 12gm mass to be balanced around the stylus point, presumably stabilizing the motions of the cantilever.

After Trei left, I found myself in the strange un-reviewer-like position of listening to a new turntable with a new cartridge and no hard point of sonic reference. The only familiar part was the venerable John Curl–designed Parasound JC 3+ phono stage, set to "MC 47k," making a proper load and maximum gain for Grado's 1mV output.


Footnote 1: J.Sikora, 20-817 Lublin ul.Poligonowa 41 Poland. Tel: +48 501 236 108 Web: jsikora.pl. US distributor: Notable Audio Products 115 Park Ave., Suite 2 Falls Church, VA 22046. Tel: (855) 966-8225. Web: notableaudio.com

Footnote 2: Grado Labs, 4614 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11220. Tel: (718) 435-5340. Web: gradolabs.com

Footnote 3: Mikey also reviewed the Epoch3 in the April 2020 Analog Corner.

Footnote 4: In his wonderfully-written review of the JSikora Initial turntable, Herb asks Michael Trei, "Michael, doesn't Brinkmann also offer a crystal-glass platter mat? If I remember right, the Brinkmann mat cost, like, $1500 . . ." Please note that all Brinkmann turntables—Balance, Taurus, Spyder, Bardo and Oasis—come with a Crystal-Glass platter mat as standard equipment. This mat is integral to our proprietary alloy platter, is permanently bonded to it and is considered an essential component of Brinkmann turntable design. On behalf of everyone at Brinkmann, thanks for making your readership aware of this important technical aspect of Brinkmann turntables.—Anthony Chiarella, Director, US Sales & Marketing, Brinkmann

COMMENTS
dworkman's picture

Herb, this is opening paragraph of yours is one of the greatest things that I have read in recent memory. You have such a beautiful way with words! Please keep doing what you do, you are fantastic!

"My most cherished intangibles—love, beauty, glimpses of higher realms—enter my awareness only after I prepare my psyche to receive them. Extended bathing, lighting candles, making tea, and preparing food are ritual work forms that prepare my senses to accept both pleasure and illumination. In like manner, collecting LPs and storing them properly, setting up turntables, aligning cartridges, and cleaning styli are ritual actions that prepare me for the high moments of focused musical pleasure only a black disc can provide."

Bogolu Haranath's picture

No 'lava lamps'? ...... Just kidding :-) .......

Herb Reichert's picture

for your kind words. I am grateful for your attentions and the opportunity to present thoughts like those in public. But!!!!!!

do you know how badly I want to change: "...aligning cartridges, and cleaning styli are " to "cleansing styli" ?????

Its driving me crazy.

thank you again

herb

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Is HR gonna buy direct-to-disc Bruckner#7 for $221? ...... See, AnalogPlanet :-) ........

Jim Austin's picture

I would not mind spending $221 for a record. Bruckner, on the other hand. ...

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Bruckner 9 symphonies Karajan Berlin Philharmonic, 9 CDs/Blu-ray, $54, available at Amazon :-) ........

davip's picture

I'll sound like a cracked record (sorry, "black disc") here, but I'll say it again -- if only because I know that the author of this piece agrees: Let's have standardised accelerometer traces taken on the plinth of every turntable reviewed (Stereophile can afford 200 bucks, right?). Screw speed-stability, 'exotic' plinth materials and cut-outs -- a record player is a mechanical device whose sound quality derives Entirely from resisting (and preferably blocking outright) vibration, external AND internal, from reaching the platter, tonearm, and transducer.

To that effect, what is the motor -- the principal source of vibration in Every turntable -- doing ON the plinth in this $10K design?? The Sondek is 'quiet' for a reason -- because it isolates arm and cartridge from its own intrinsic motor noise by a suspended chassis, unlike 99.9% of TTs on the market today (indeed, Linn, SOTA, and Michell is it, no?). There's an equally obvious reason that those 99.9% don't -- because it's easier and cheaper to not bother engineering what you design anymore and simply bolt a motor to a piece of MDF for five-grand (or aluminium for ten).

I'd be willing to bet that such traces would reveal the totality of perceived (subjective) sound-quality differences in audiophile TTs to lie in the degree of isolation (or otherwise) from motor noise. In so measuring, your magazine could steal the same march here that it has in its combined subjective-objective assessment of electronics and loudspeakers...

That "...the sound of the Initial's high-torque motor was nearly inaudible" is manifestly not good enough in an ostensibly high-fidelity mechanical device that asks for $10k. Your stethoscoping is to be lauded Herb, but if 'nearly inaudible' is what this qualitative test reveals (at the high-end, no less) then whoever's-God only knows what an accelerometer will reveal quantitatively.

Oh, and for my money the Sikora is fugly -- I've worked on prettier oil-rigs...

dial's picture

Of course this was what I needed : from cartridges to turntables to racks, everything to the soundlab ! And pronto ! Also pictures of carts on tonearms are missing.

davip's picture

This is an Audiophile magazine -- Bose exists for those who don't really care about sound-quality (and if you don't, why are you here?)

tonykaz's picture

I was a Turntable Specialist importing every Brand Europe made. ( 1980s , I came from GM Corp. research & engineering )

Turntables are unstable, arms are unstable and Phono Cartridges are unstable.

In fact, their performance is in a constant 'drift'.

We listeners will unknowingly 're-tune' our synapsis to maintain a stable performance until the darn system goes so far out of tune that it needs another rework. Turntables are pretty much like Ferrari 12 Cylinder Cars that go Off-tune and run horribly.

Of course, when a Turntable in On-Song it's performance can be thrilling.

This transducer device 'reads' like it's one of the tweaky ones that benefit from constant fiddling. The good old Linn LP12 and early VPI tables were among the most stable.

Good Grief, I'd hate to have to 'support' owners of this outfits products.

Tony in Venice

ps. still, tweaky gear is part of what being an audiophile is all about, isn't it? and, where was the Cramolin treatment for the electrical connections??

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The new Technics limited edition SL-1210GAE is less expensive ....... See, AnalogPlanet :-) ........

Mars2k's picture

Did the chopstick come with the table?

AaronGarrett's picture

I haven't read a review in a long time that I enjoyed as much as this one. And I neither have a turntable nor plan on buying one. But "should I buy this or not?" is not the sole reason to read a great review

michaelavorgna's picture

"...with a more serene, dream-like, swans-on-a-pond beauty"

Swans on a pond beauty is some seriously beautiful imagery.

Thanks Herb.

Anton's picture

After reading this review, I would not shop upstream in this line. I'd stop right here!

These are all above my budget, but if I were able to participate at that level, Herb would have just saved me a lot of money, so to speak.

Also fascinating how we see different tables perform with such an array of different platter materials.

Glass is back, baby!

I have an Oswald Mills slate turntable mat that I love, it would be fun to find a nice aftermarket glass platter to compare now!

_

Side note: We miss you, man. I hope all is well.

Sad note: I lost my damned Hi Fi Vitruvian Man. :-(

michaelavorgna's picture

I hope all is well with you & yours.

Send me an email with your address - I think I have a replacement for your lost print.

Cheers

Bogolu Haranath's picture

There seems to be a job vacancy at AudioStream ...... May be Mr.ML could be interested? :-) .......

mghcanuck's picture

Hello Michael,

Nice to see you posting here at times recently. I miss your contributions to the art of audio. Hope you and yours are as well as can be.

Regards,

Max

michaelavorgna's picture

Thanks for the kind words.

Cheers,
Michael

PECwines's picture

I know this will sound like complaining, but it’s not, I promise. As a music lover and “audiophile” (whatever that seems to mean) I both love and hate reading reviews like this, for gear that is unobtanium in light of my budget. My humble setup is not perfect (though I work on tweaking it with every ounce of my being) but I DO love reading reviews, nae essays, whose prose inspire me to keep reaching, while simply enjoying what I have. Wonderful recordings, even on a more modest system, are a pleasure and joy that many have not experienced.

Thank you, Herb.

oregontreat's picture

As a NYC kind of guy, is Herb even aware that Oldsmobile no longer exists?

mghcanuck's picture

Dear Herb,

I say/write this with the greatest of respect for the dearly departed Art, whose writing was a pleasure, in its humour, breadth of knowledge and experience, curiosity and appropriate seriousness of intent, to read. Your writing is as much a pleasure to read, largely for similar reasons. I found myself chuckling aloud a few times reading this piece, a boon in these highly challenging times. So, I simply want to thank you for what you do.

Kind regards,

Max
Ottawa, Canada

Glotz's picture

Such a great review... Obviously brilliant writing. Involving your Michael was a nice touch and approach to the review. Nailed the review as well.

Fine words Max.. Art brought a tear to my eye more than once this week.

RIP Art. Play a duet with God for me, man.

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