Words and photos by Rafe Arnott
A turntable has a narrow purview to be considered successful: rotate an LP at a predetermined speed without inconsistency. Despite this specificity of function, manufacturers continue to develop ever more beguiling methods to achieve this end.
Other aspects being equal – such as tonearm and cartridge – differing methods of rotation impart unique traits to the perceived sonic qualities of a turntable. Some are measurable, such as wow, flutter and rumble – some are not, such as bass slam, sound-stage size, "air" around instruments/vocals or rhythmic drive. These less-quantifiable interpretations of playback are of no small concern to the makers and users of turntables. On the contrary, it is these very subjective emotional responses to different turntable designs that drive sales and align individuals to brands.
Photo below: The Horizon turntable incorporates several design cues from other manufacturers into its construction.
The research, development and investment involved with just one of the advanced mechanical designs employed by companies dedicated to turntable technology advancement is not modest. Farther afield than comparisons between belt drive, idler drive, or low-mass vs. high-mass (although the options in those four categories alone are formidable), there are non-coupled magnetic, air bearing, or counter-rotational dual platter drive technologies (to name a few). A new turntable manufacturer entering the scene would do well to look at what has already been produced and try and glean the best bits to fit within their targeted price point. This is where John Stratton started; he examined the designs which resonated with him, and then looked at how to combine them into one turntable. A turntable that, in his estimation, would not only deliver on the promises of those individual parts, but was truly the summation of them.
Photo above: The Pure Fidelity MAESTRO external speed controller with linear power supply.
John Stratton Q&A
Resistor Mag: You started Pure Fidelity with no previous audio engineering experience, but had a clear goal in mind, what was it?
John Stratton: “My goal was simple. I wanted to develop a line of turntables that I would buy myself. I do not like the sound of high-mass decks as I find them to be a little sleepy. The sound is very stable, but I just feel they can lack dynamics and tend to emphasize bass. Before I got into this I had suspended decks and although you can achieve superb sound, I would get frustrated with the constant tweaking needed to keep them sounding their best. Sort of like the European sports car that is always in the shop.”
RM: In a previous interview with me you described your turntable designs as “the ultimate hybrid.” What do you mean by that?
JS: “Ultimate Hybrid. That statement is really referring to the weight of our tables The strengths of a low-mass design are speed and dynamics, but they can be bright and they certainly lack the bottom end. I have already discussed my feelings towards high mass. I feel our plinths are the ideal weight providing a very fast and detailed sound with a very tight and articulate bottom end. I think our Harmony and Horizon models have achieved something quite special. The extra weight of these designs is in the isolation platform. The plinths retain the same weight, but they sit inside the platform with their own custom feet. Then they are further isolated with GAIA feet on the bottom of the platform. These provide the benefits of high mass without their drawbacks. The GAIA IV's are a joint effort with ISO Acoustics and have been specifically developed for turntables. I don't believe they have taken them to market yet.”
RM: Your turntables are referred to in company nomenclature as “concepts perfected,” could you go into further detail?
JS: “The truth of that statement is we make no claims that we have reinvented the wheel or come up with something that is uniquely different. We have analyzed these different methods of playback and simply made design choices based on performance and not marketing.”
My goal was simple. I wanted to develop a line of turntables that I would buy myself."
Photo above: The review model was fitted with an Ortofon Cadenza Bronze moving-coil cartridge.
RM: In descending order of importance, what are key tenets of an effective turntable design?
JS: “The analog puzzle consists of four major contributors; 1)The ‘table. 2)The tonearm. 3)The cartridge. 4)The phono stage. The key tenets of good turntable design are as follows: It needs to provide adjustability in order to insure a level playing surface. It must provide a solid base in order to support the tonearm. It must rotate at the optimal speeds and remain stable at those speeds. It must provide isolation from both internal and external vibration. So, you have to ask yourself… If an $8,000 turntable can achieve these tenets, what does a $20,000 turntable give you? In my opinion, one of the very best attributes of our ‘tables is the fact they will allow the buyers to upgrade in any or all of the other areas without the ‘table holding those upgrades back.”
RM: Playing records is anything but abstract and in everyday use the Horizon experience is imbued with tactility. How important was the quality of physically engaging with the ’table when you were designing it?
JS: “The physical engagement in playing records is definitely a big part of what we all love about vinyl. We are very proud of the looks and the feel of our designs. They are elegant and they function flawlessly. As one of our dealers said to me the other day, "People like to listen with their eyes and your designs never disappoint.””
RM: Your current designs reflect further refinements of an established aesthetic and ethos. Any interest to explore designs of other engineering principles? A fully suspended, off-chassis motor design (Michell), or a high-torque/effective mass, three-motor ‘table (Voyd)?
JS: “At this point I am not looking at other designs… but never say never.”
Photo above: The Horizon came equipped with an Acoustic Signature TA-1000 tonearm.
For the review, the Horizon was sited on a heavy, spiked, maple isolation stand, and the supplied Cardas Clear Cygnus phono cable run into an Audio Note AN-S4 silver wired step-up transformer with Audio Note AN-V silver interconnects between the SUT and an Audio Note Oto Phono SE Signature integrated valve amplifier (ECC83 & 6DJ8 moving-magnet phono stage) feeding Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE two-way loudspeakers. AC and speaker cables were also Audio Note (Isis and Lexus). Incoming AC was routed through a non-limiting SuperWiremold power brick. During the time the Horizon was in for review, an Audio Note M3 Phono all-valve preamplifier (GE 5670 x 3 moving-magnet phono stage) and Conqueror Silver 300B stereo power amplifier arrived. These were used for the final stretch of listening sessions with the ’table.
Sonic attributes of the Horizon within the context of the review system highlighted a neutral presentation imbued with forward momentum, midrange impact, extended bass, and sub-bass control, a wide-open sound stage and excellent vocal/instrument imaging when such attributes were present in the mastering. Pitch stability was noteworthy, as was the speed of attack and the slow decay of notes. As with many capable turntables, it is not possessed of black magic in turning poor recordings/pressings into gold, but the textured, present and insightful manner that it translated information pulled from the groove left no doubt of its abilities to move the listener, especially on LPs which were of a more exceptional provenance in their recording/mastering/pressing.
I used the supplied SS-10 record weight after going back-and-forth with/without it on several LPs. It gave the overall impression of “locking-in” or “focusing” whatever sound attributes were already present in a recording more with it in place, than without it. Initial listening was done without the provided machined aluminum platform, after a couple weeks, the Horizon was then placed within the aluminum platform. This change brought about a drop in the perceived noise floor of the ‘table, and added a not unsubstantial solidity/control to bass/sub-bass.
Equipped to then-current specification, the 2020 Horizon received for this review weighed in at approximately 43-pounds w/machined aluminum isolation platform.
Sonor Music Editions is an Italian label based out of Rome which is focused on ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s archival music for film, television and radio. I stumbled across them on a dive into the work of Italian composer, conductor, pianist and organist Piero Piccioni, who is credited with having written and arranged more than 300 film soundtracks. The Sonor catalogue is a trove of obscure and rare jazz, pop, lounge, funk, cosmic and psych-prog – most of it sourced and mastered from the original tapes. Known as ‘library music’ because it had originally been used extensively by radio, TV and film production houses as stock audio, you can practically picture the scenes much of it would have been used to score (spy chase on waterskis, torrid love affair between pilot and stewardess, roller skating around the Piazza Campo dei Fiori). A brilliant example of the genre is Al Cinema Con Piero Piccioni, a 2018 curated reissue culled from the the original 2xLP released on RCA SP series in 1968. Limited to 300 copies and cut from the RCA masters, this an huge-sounding album presenting as though bursting at the seams with explosive micro and macro dynamics, sweet, extended treble and shuddering sub-bass. Saturated with timbral and tonal colour, and cut like it’s a half-dB shy of overload, the album’s scale is enormous and was one of the few times I felt the listening room could be bigger. An LP that could play back as too hot, too dynamic, too bass-heavy and too tonally saturated on some set-ups, instead presented as huge, ballsy, and incredibly detailed through the Horizon. Cello and violin Arco string textures rippled over the room like shockwave tremors as vibes and a Hammond B3 traded prismatic, taffy-coated riffs over thunderous trashcan-lid high hat smashes and rail-car sized kick drums. Washes of flute and triangles, blasts of horns – all coalesce into a beguiling impressionistic sonic landscape that never came off as muddied, bright or distorted – the Horizon simply spoke to what was inscribed.
Richard Dorfmeister and Rupert Huber make up the Austrian electronic-music duo Tosca, a project that forms a triangle of sorts with Dorfmeister being the stable point between Huber and Peter Kruder who you may know as another musical collaborator of Dorfmeister’s. Tosca got its start in 1994 with a 12-inch release of Chocolate Elvis on K&D’s G-Stone label. This was followed by a series of downtempo albums which garnered them critical praise for their heavy beat and bass-line driven melancholy atmospherics. Their 1996 effort, the full-length LP Opera, was my first exposure to the pair, and it reeled me in immediately. Cerebral and emotional in the musical structures upon which they layer melody and chorus, their work is predominantly emotronic in phrasing, albeit upbeat. Suzuki came out in 2000, loaded with stripped-down, sparse electronic textures, vocal samples and heady synthesizer programming. The original G-Stone German pressing with its mixture of shimmering, elongated vowels and whispers, heavily-effected percussive electronic drums and bass creates a future-proof recipe for timeless head nodding trip hop. From the sassy, breathy female lilting of “Honey” to the low-frequency driver excursion of “Orozoco” and “The Key,” the Horizon kept a steady lock on the sustained pitch of keyboard notes, as well extracting that less quantifiable aspect of pace, rhythmic-drive and timing which imparts much of the emotional cadence of Suzuki. Bass and sub-bass on the LP can easily dip into driver excursion territory, but thanks to the combination of low-frequency grip and speed imparted by the Horizon there was never any perceived looseness or flab to the bottom end. It remained tight, articulated and key to any turntable – musical in its presentation.
Photo below: The Horizon's CNC-machined Ultra MDF-core plinth helps entertain high-mass traits like bass control, without the weight.
An aesthetically-pleasing, sonically adroit hybrid-turntable design, the Horizon never drew attention to what the separate aspects of its heritage contributed individually to analogue playback. The sum of these characteristics produced a cohesive, cerebral and emotionally eloquent listening experience reminding one that to be fluent in a language as complex as music, you must be able to translate without hesitation or inflection. Much like an Englishman speaking Russian or Japanese, the lack of an accent is what sets the best orators apart. So, too does it set apart the best turntables or sources. The Pure Fidelity Horizon never seemed to impart a sonic signature of its own to recordings. It extracted information from the groove in a musical, accurate and resolution-oriented manner in line with the purview mentioned at the beginning fo this review; spinning an LP at a sustained speed. But, much like sense, while these achievements may come off as simple, there is nothing common about the accomplishments of the Horizon.