Manufacturer: The Funk Firm
Price:£50 or 80€ approximately
Reviewer: Mark Wheeler - TNT UK
Reviewed: January - March 2007
Geoff Husband's got a blue one and mine is black. We can't believe the Funk Firm aren't making all the Achromats in vivid pink.
Anyone who could produce the turntable to challenge the 80s dominant Linn Sondek hegemony, and name their rival to the Naim Armageddon psu the Armagiggle, just has to have a light enough touch to leaven the densest audio textures, so it was a sad day in September 2003 that the Pink Triangle company was finally laid to rest. A company named after one of the Nazi symbols, compulsorily worn by those people decreed to be persecuted, and ultimately murdered, was clearly a company with humanist motivation and worthy of success. The Pink Triangle, and its successors, used an acrylic platter, aerolam (aircraft-floor aluminium composite structure), subchassis and a DC motor. The latter was much criticised by the luddite journalists of the day, who were hooked on the idea that only the cheap ac synchronous motor from a cheap VHS recorder could ever be torquey enough for pitch stability. Those scribes are now happy to listen to their DC motored Mitchells, Origin Lives, Oracles and all points in between, now that the herd is no longer tethered to that ac motor waterhole.
Arthur Khoubesserian was that founder of the Pink Triangle enterprise and he continues to bring forth challenging ideas from darkest Catford, a London borough South of the river Thames, where no minicab fears to tread after dark. His new enterprise is named The Funk Firm. Funk also makes the Funk V turntable (£765) and Funk Firm Funk turntable (£450), so is with great pleasure that I unpack the Achromat.
"Achromat" is a name reminiscent of my oldest large-format camera lenses, achromatic meaning without colour. Chromatic aberration in lenses is that colour fringing, so common in the frame corners of digital backs used with old analogue lenses, due the lower tolerance than film of digital sensor arrays to extreme-angle light incidence. As this analogy evolves in my nocturnal brain, I wonder if Arthur's latest gizmo will permit me to extrapolate further with those rambling visual technology analogies so beloved of audio correspondents when they're not plumbing the depths of tenuous motoring analogies.
The instructions caution against improper Achromat use as a Frisbee. I wish I'd thought of that
audio test regime, so sometimes I am tempted to be really cruel in my test regime:
You already know what Geoff Husband heard with the Achromat, and this second opinion will broaden the TNT-audio readers' collective knowledge of WHAT-FITS-WHAT and WHAT-WORKS-WITH-WHAT. Thus, I too have also been trying the Funk Firm Achromat to maximise the diversity of turntable interfaces that we can describe for you dear reader, so you can decide with more confidence whether it'll work on your own platter.
So I decide to challenge the Achromat's transparency by placing it on the Orbe platter, which is designed to match vinyl's characteristics. Theoretically, this platter should already be an ideal LP termination, and the insertion of any material, no matter how perfect, between it and the vinyl LP will merely serve to add further stuff-air-stuff interfaces. The arm is the Hadcock GH242SE (an arm NOT prone to the distribution of delinquent energy into the record surface) and the first cartridge is the MusicMaker 2, probably one of the least excitable cartridges in the spurious energy stakes. I expect to hear bugger-all difference or a slight deterioration in resolution.
I wrote that before adding the Achromat and adjusting the arm hight to suit. I'm not anal about VTA (vertical tracking angle) or SRA (stylus rake angle), generally finding a slight tail-down attitude to the arm tube is as good as it gets. I'd rather just spin some discs and enjoy some tunes. So I pick a blast from-the-past, Tapper Zukie's MPLA, that was dominating the reggae charts one summer of my youth. It's a flimsy flap of vinyl that means if set-up arm parallel, other lps will be safely tail-down.
Problem the first: The Orbe and Orbe SE have a knurled nut that holds the platter to the spindle, below the lp label centre, and is thick enough to serve to raise the centre of the LP so that the label sized clamp brings the disc down in tension across the playing surface. This nut is too high for the Achromat, so it has to be removed. My Orbe platter was screwed down hard enough and long enough for this to make no difference to the interference fit on the spindle, but it is a second variable in this test.
Problem the second: the extra 5mm thickness of the Achromat prevents the Orbe clamp from engaging its screw thread. So instead of acting as a really tough screw-clamp, it merely acts as a 97g mass, which is hardly enough to bond like two fornicating dogs, which the standard Orbe washer & clamp achieves between vinyl & mat with ease. And the Achromat is a loose fit over the spindle, which may be a good or a bad thing; I have no idea which thing it is.
So, I have low expectations of the effect on Orbe sound, which if met will be no criticism of the product, merely of my deliberately obtuse and obstructive application. However, I enjoy this rendition of MPLA so much that I pick up my bass to try to work out and play along with the title track. There's an easy quality to this sound that makes me forget reviewing and enjoy the tunes.
I can't easily identify any actual differences that would enable me to launch into that pretentious garbling of language pioneered by wine writers and embraced (and enhanced) by hifi reviewers. A glass of wine or three might imbue my tongue with the florid purple prose abilities of wine writers, but it would entail leaving the listening room and I'm enjoying the tunes too much.
Nightmares on wax Inna Space Outta Sound follows naturally enough, the big paper cones of my latest speaker project mimicking those on the lp sleeve. Good tunes follow and I've already forgotten how this sound compares to the naked Orbe.
I am intrigued by the improvements that I hear. It makes absolutely no sense to me that an optimised £2000 turntable whose central feature is a platter designed to match the density and characteristics of a vinyl record, clamped firmly to that record, may be surpassed by a £50 accessory that interrupts this disc to platter interface. Experiments with the clamp demonstrate that it all sounds better with the clamp resting on the label, but still I'm mystified.
The Orbe's well known 'bloom' seems reduced. The Hadcock-Orbe SE combo is better than most Orbe-arm combos already, in this respect, but the Achromat takes it a little further. Vocals seem slightly more neutral, timbrally, but not neutered of any emotion. The Hadcock makes the Orbe already much lighter on its feet than bombastic gimbal arms like the SME V, and the Funk Firm Achromat takes this just a little further too; it starts and stops better, seems more agile...
Arthur emails me to find out how I am getting on. I share my experience and ask for an explanation.
"Bubbles," quoth he, enigmatically, adding that their first trials were on an Orbe, and they had noticed similar effects.
TNT- Do you have a hypothesis to explain how the Achromat works even on a
Mitchell Orbe, which already has a vinyl platter and even when the clamp won't work
because the extra 5mm puts it's thread-start above the spindle thread?
OK, I can understand how the reduced density of the interface might help, but we've still gone from platter-air-disc to platter-air-Achromat-air-disc interfaces, because there will always be air and imperfect fits between flat hard materials. Furthermore, the Orbe raised-washer and clamp system introduces a brutal mechanical bond between lp and platter, that is unequalled on anything short of a vacuum platter (remember the Lux?) and intuitively one might expect this to be superior to any kind of mat. So why is it that the introduction of a mat that does not use any kind of compliance could be an improvement?
A few discs later on I decide to return to the original naked Orbe to establish whether I had really heard anything. While swapping over I conduct a primitive version of the impulse test that was popularised by IAR's Peter Moncrieff, and quoted extensively in Oracle's early advertising to prove that the mk I Oracle was over 200 times better than the Linn Sondek; oh how we all loved the hype back then. This test involves striking the disc edge at 45° in line with the spindle to cartridge axes, on either end of the axis (theoretically to excite right channel or left channel groove wall, depending which side of the disc is struck). There is a distinct difference to the resultant sound through the speakers.
The leading edge of the strike is more subdued with the Achromat, and the thump decays much more quickly with the Achromat. There is a distinct midrange ring to the naked Orbe's pulse, even when the lp is on the bigger washer, and the clamp screwed right down. This ring is similar to the ring of the subchassis when similarly struck, even though the Orbe subchassis benefits from densoglop stuff absent from the Gyrodec.
The differences are confirmed as I spin discs back on the naked Orbe. The Orbe is then removed from its laminated-glass shelf (chosen in preference to mdf, torlyte, toughened-glass or a 15 year-old something Solid prototype) to rest on the top shelf of a Something Solid 4shelf rack (forthcoming review) standing on Missing-Link feet. A repeat of the comparison (over several days, not A-B testing) tends to confirm the experiences on the modified Origin Live wall frame, but there are subtle changes in the nature of difference between naked Orbe and Funked-up Orbe, when mounted on these two different supports.
How can the support shelf and the platter material interact so much when
they are separated by three degrees of deliberate isolation?
Your humble scribe reaches for the Green & Blacks organic ginger Chocolate that's been his tobacco substitute in recent years.
Sonar Kollectiv's RAS on the Orbe sans Achromat, choccy in mouth and we're back on the familiar track, and recalibrating the ears to normal service. Time to try more variables. The Origin Live wall frame, but with an ERaudio SpaceHarmoniser platform in place of the laminated-glass. The naked Orbe now sounds more like the funked-up Orbe did on the glass shelf. The naked Orbe on SpaceHarmoniser is now slightly preferable to the combination of Achromat and SpaceHarmoniser, and it sounds remarkably similar to the Achromat and laminated-glass combination. Aargh, a new variable in synergy becomes that between platter-mat and turntable support.
One might expect rather different effects with vintage turntables. Old turntables were designed for mechanical integrity, longevity and conventional engineering production. Snake oil and metaphysics never entered their equations, and most components would be manufactured to whatever current "established custom & practice" standard applied when the engineers graduated. Overengineered, but often poorly toleranced by current audiophile criteria, even though they are wonderful pieces of engineering, hence the plethora of companies who will modify these gloriously devices to meet modern demands.
Most turntables, since before the lp was invented, have metal platters of some kind. Actually most seem to have mazak platters, and even boast that their platters are machined from 'non-magnetic mazak alloy'. Mazak is the cast white metal used to make Dinky and Corgi toy cars in the 1960s, and toy-farm animals and implements, after they ceased to be cast from lead. So, we may assume that it is cheap to manufacture and easy to cast or machine to fairly high degrees of accuracy, and you will find it under lps on many popular turntables like Thorens & Linn. I don't recall any mention on Dinky toy boxes that their metal was ideal platter material.
First up is my old Thorens TD160BC mkII, modified and sold on in the 80s but returning to my stable like a homing pigeon a couple of years ago. Geoff Husband tried the Achromat on his Thorens TD160 riding with Rega arm; mine carries a modded SME 3009/II improved, so our respective arm/cartridge dynamics are very different.
Thorens TD160BC mkII
Substituting the Achromat for the original rubber mat (which seems to have an Ortofon model code on the underside) brings about immediate improvements. That probably understates the differences. Given that this subchassis turntable, without arm, can be bought for the same cost as the Achromat, this excercise may seem foolish. The folly would be to dismiss this notion though. It works beyond its combined price, as Geoff has already discovered.
With the TD160BC stripped of some of its clunkier appendages (minimum = base & feet & spring foam) the Funk Firm Achromat lifts the sound to a much more contemporary feel. It is reminiscent of placing speakers on good welded open-frame stands instead of cheap bolt-together types. A layer of comfortable familiar colouration disappears. At first it could seem like something is missing, but a return to the original sound just seems muddy and time-smeared. Every note and drum-beat stops & starts more clearly, leading to an apparent improvement in timing. Instrumental timbre (the quality of an instrument that musicians pay extra for, but the rest of us just identify as good violin tone, or enables us to enjoy a pre-CBS Fender as different from an old Gibson, even if we don't know those identities) is more obvious. The North drums used by Billy Cobham in the late 70s are rendered obviously different from their contemporary Ludwigs or Sonors, even to this non-percussionist listener. On a good quality old subchassis turntable like the Thorens, the Achromat deserves an unequivocal recommendation.
Now the Garrard 401, fitted with 12" series 1 SME, gets the treatment. The Garrard has a punchier, more up-front sound than the Thorens. The Garrard 401 also has a ridge along the platter rim (much like an LP12) that has the same outside diameter as the Achromat. Does your humble scribe get out the angle grinder and rip the rim of his 401 platter to accommodate this mat?
Of course not. It is a simple task to remove the necessary material, gently, from the edge of the Achromat, by centering it in a chuck and applying abrasive to the spinning rim. This done in small steps until only just enough material has been removed from the outer lower edge. It now fits with just enough tolerance to allow for differential expansion and contraction.
The magnificent MoFi Original Master Recording of Bob Marley's Exodus on the 401 sounds, with added Achromat like a different mix. Ambience retrieval, soundstage depth and width, the distinct pitch of individual bass notes, immediately grab this listener's attention as vastly improved. Vocals sound more like real human voices than processed vocals. It becomes easier to follow individual instrument lines, which seem better separated from rest of the mix.
After spinning a few discs, I try the 401 with a couple of other aftermarket mats I have and realise that surface noise is not only reduced by the Achromat, it is qualitatively changed too, the clicks seem like shorter pulses and the background noise-floor lowered too. The gooey Spectra Le Mat (I've lost the box, but I think it was called that), similar to that on a mkI Oracle, has the same effect on noise, but without the engaging liveliness of the Achromat. The sticky mat tends to neuter the music.
Trying different cartridges, I observe the general trend seems to be that lower compliance (eg Decca London or AT110E) have more cumulative effect with Achromat than higher compliance (eg MusicMaker2 or Ortofon VMS30E) cartridges. There are absolutely no drawbacks to the Achromat on the Garrard 401, and I would expect similar results from other high-mass non-subchassis turntables.
I did say I love audio tests that push the envelope a little beyond the sad hifi show norms. Should a turntable mat only perform with superior quality vinyl lps, pressed from 180g virgin vinyl, from the original first-generation master-tape and sleeved in anti-static papyrus envelopes?
A filthy copy of the Rolling Stones' Tumbling Dice, that served on our schoolboy mobile-disco decks (stripped-down idler-driven BSR autochangers from Dansette style portable record-players, with all the auto-parts removed and stubby spindles & cheap Shure M75-6S magnetic cartridges fitted), beer-soaked, bounced and abused, drops on the platters of all three turntables. On the Garrard and the Thorens the surface noise is much reduced and the recording much more intelligible. The Garrard seems to get more pace and dynamic range from this disc, and this difference is further enhanced with the Achromat in place on each deck.
The 7" singles flow for an evening, after I stumble upon the discard box untouched for 25 years, though sadly the soul and pre-release reggae collections didn't survive beyond 1980. Each 45rpm single emphasises the differences noted with 33rpm vinyl lps; most notable is the lowered surface noise, and the way the music is no longer merged with the noise, but stands clear of it. It is particularly sad to realise that that there seems to be far more dynamic range on these old singles than many modern cds, even though I assume the 7" singles were probably mixed & eq'd for AM radio play.
There does seem to be a complex relationship between the turntable mat and the turntable support. Combinations of 3 turntables, 3 arms, 4 cartridges, 3 different racks and 3 types of support shelf were tried in this test. All but one permutation and combination was better with the Achromat. The only exception was in combination with the enigmatic ERaudio SpaceHarmoniser, which is unusually sensitive to system synergy, being a tuning device.
Geoff Husband & I both find similar changes of character and presentation with the Achromat:
Fifty quid for a 30cm disc that can't be used as a frisbee may seem expensive, but it certainly makes more sense than a fifty quid set of phono-plugs in terms of sound-per-pound. The Funk Firm 30day money back arrangement makes your 80€ speculation no gamble at all. I'm keeping mine permanently on the Garrard 401.
Music enjoyed during this review
© Copyright 2007 Mark Wheeler - www.tnt-audio.com
Incidentally, the Garrard 401 performs best as a potter's wheel due to its higher torque, greater range of rotational speeds and variable speed facility.