Product: Dr Feickert Analogue Woodpecker Turntable
Manufacturer: Dr Feickhert Analogue - Germany
Cost, approx: approx 3500 Euro/ 5000 USD (YMMV)
Reviewer: Geoff Husband - TNT France
Reviewed: June, 2010
As I begin to write yet another review of a new turntable, I'm struck by the crushing irony that the title I'd thought up 'A Turntable for CD Lovers' is increasingly irrelevant. With new turntables coming out on a regular basis, the final victory of LP over the silver disc seems to be coming ever closer. But the reason for the suggested title, was that here we have a turntable with high-end aspirations that is as simple to use as possible and lacks many of the tweeky complications that so many vinyl addicts love.
Anyway I'm rambling so better get down to the nitty gritty.
Well, as intimated above, the Woodpecker appears an extremely simple and neat design. It ignores the current fashion for big slabs of CNC'd alloy/acrylic with pods for motor and arm, and reverts to the classic rectangular plinth. Of course that's not to say it looks old-fashioned, in fact quite the opposite.
The plinth itself is constructed of specially heat-treated MDF sandwiched between two brushed aluminum plates. This description doesn't really do justice to the end result the black section of MDF being immaculately finished, looking like some grainless ebony, and the edge finish of the plates perfect. This plinth is supported on three adjustable alloy feet which make leveling a 5 minute procedure at worse.
The platter itself is is made of polyacetal (better known as Delrin and widely used in woodwind instruments like Clarinets) and it's satin-black finish matches the lacquer of the plinth.
So what we have so far is a conventional solid plinth design (nothing wrong in that), well made and presented.
But as always the devil is in the detail, because that plinth hides some very original thinking...
The first and most strikingly unconventional part of the turntable is the arm mount. Instead bolting the arm directly to the plinth, or simply having a cutout where various arm-boards can be bolted, the Woodpecker has a large elongated slot, into which a substantial armboard made of the same plastic as the platter can be slotted. There is a protruding part under the armboard that engages exactly (and I mean exactly) with this slot. The armboard can then be slid back and forth to the required position and then rigidly bolted in place using two Allen bolts. A scale at the side of this slot matches a mark on the armboard (see pic). So if your arm specifies an pivot->spindle length of say 290mm you just slide it up the slot to match up the markings and it is exactly in the right place. This measurement is spot-on as you'd expect from the maker of the ProTractor...
So straight away one of the difficulties of arm set-up is removed. It also means that overhang can quickly, and repeatably be altered by small amounts without all that faffing about with slotted headshells. It gives the owners of less flexible arms the ease of adjustment of a top SME. More to the point in means you can have two different arms, each on their own armboard, set up with their own cartridge etc, and swap them over in about 5 minutes. For those (like me) who habitually swap arms it makes life soooo much easier... More to the point, this ease of adjustment means that even a relative novice can play with overhang and get it just right and as the ultimate performance of a turntable is governed by the quality of set-up that's an attribute not to be underestimated.
Of course the other thing is that that slot is long:-) In the pic you'll see the SME V12 fitted. In the past year I've come to the conclusion that playing the sort of worn, and often sub-optimal vinyl that I do, the advantage in lower angular offset error does make a significant contribution. Now I've had a good look round and can find very few conventional plinth designs that will take a 12 beyond those made for 'historic' motor units like Garrards and Thorens.
But why the conventional plinth? There are lots of CNC'd monsters out there (not least those made by Dr Feickert) that can take a 12 arm? There's the neat look of the thing, not everyone wants something that looks as 'industrial' as most plinthless designs, and of course it lends itself to a dustcover (an option), something we all seem to have forgotten, and yet which in my 300 year-old house with it's wood fires and ancient dusty furniture is a godsend. It could be argued that the larger plinth offers a bigger volume to damp resonances, but it also leaves a lot of space to put things:-) With such a plinth the motor can be tucked away, you don't need a box containing a power supply it can all be in a little machined hidey-hole in the plinth... So the whole turntable becomes a piece, you can pick it up and move it around, it only takes up one shelf on a normal sized rack, it looks neat and elegant, not some refugee from Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis'...
So enough of what you can see what actually is hidden in that elegant plinth.
On top of the plinth are three little rubber buttons marked 33, 45 and 'S' the 'S' stands for 'Special' and does nothing in this application and the other two are self explanatory. Next to the 33 and 45 are small holes that contain a button head to adjust speed. I did this once for both speeds, and come rain or shine, winter, summer, running 24 hours a day or switched on after we'd been away for a fortnight, I've never had to touch either. Owners of AC powered turnables may think there's nothing new in this, because the old 50 Hz mains will haul anything up to speed, but DC turntables, like the Woodpecker are very different beasts and few run with this sort of accuracy day in, day out... That the special controller built into the Woodpecker plinth can do this is very gratifying the raw juice being supplied by a small switch-mode 'wall wart'.
However this description ignores the fact that the Woodpecker's drive and bearing system behave very strangely. When you press that '33' button the platter zaps up to speed and settles in under 2 seconds. We're talking big Japanese direct-drive acceleration here. Even more unusually, switch it off and the platter screeches (not literally) to a halt in about a second. Hey this baby would make a pair of Disco turntables forget the Gold-Plated Technics SL's how cool would a pair of Woodpeckers be on a mixing console!
Apart from being a neat party trick, it's also part of the convenience of the design. It means you don't have to drop your precious vinyl onto a spinning slab of alloy or plastic in order to keep the now stabilized platter up to speed or whip it away without dropping it at the end. Just switch off and swap records.
But, as I've said, this is very unusual, perhaps even unique behavior for a belt-drive turntable. This got me thinking and I needed to find out why, and how. Starting quickly is easily explained the special DC Papst motor and drive system are robust enough to haul the platter up to speed very quickly. But to stop so quickly? Removing the belt and spinning the platter up to speed by hand (measured with a strobe disc) and then releasing the platter had it stopping in under 10 seconds. Add the drag of the switched-off motor and belt and you get the reason for that rapid stop. This flies in the face of what most people expect the bearing should be as low friction as possible, with the motor only having to very gently top-up the platter with the tiniest input. That way the motor has little work to do, is going to be producing little noise, and of course can be a much more feeble item that will have less effect on the platter. The greatest champion of this approach is typified by the designs of Pierre Lurne and his Belladonna turntable's platter took a full 3 minutes to come to rest after being spun up to speed. I've a lot of respect for Pierre's work and here we have a turntable that almost deliberately goes out of its way to ignore everything he told me.
Asking Chris Feickert about got a typically mysterious answer:-
the design is similar to what we do with small children or young people. They get bored in case they don't have anything (useful) to do. And that is what happens with powerful motors too. Give them something to do and it will focus on that job;)
Which of course got me thinking and I've come up with some ideas of what's going on, but basically we're in the area of 'more than one way to skin a cat' :-)
The primary reason the Woodpecker stops so fast is that the platter bearing shows a very high level of drag not friction in that it has a poor bearing, but a deliberate damping of rotation. The bearing is an inverted type using a classic bearing rather than a ball as many now do (Dr Feickert says these dent the mirror finish of the bearing surface and cause wear). In order to spin this bearing the motor is working pretty hard all the time - in fact about 15% of full power (to put that in perspective 15% power is about what the normal family car needs to cruise at 100 kmh). Lets imagine that the bearing is like that on the Audiomeca. The powerful motor will zap it up to speed even faster at this point the speed will overshoot, the DC motor doesn't mind this and so will speed up, then both motor and platter system will slowly reduce to the correct speed. At the same time the belt will act as a spring between the two masses causing them to 'bounce' back and forth. So after initial switch on you'll get an overspeed and then a slowly diminishing speed variation, and as you've used quite a stiff belt (the spring remember) the frequency of that bouncing will be quite fast and clearly audible. Cue a record and the small increase in friction will cause another series of small 'bounces' and so on. Now with a bearing with high drag the motor will haul it up to speed and the instant the speed control senses the speed is correct the motor eases off, but will still have to pull hard to keep the platter up to speed. The result is that the motor will not overspeed and start to play bounces with the platter. Of course the belt will still bounce, but those oscillations will be severely damped by the drag of the bearing.
So the Audiomeca is wrong? No because it's whole drive system is totally different. The biggest difference being that the motor is AC and so is just as unhappy spinning too fast as too slow, and here, it is the motor, not the platter bearing that has the damping effect by resisting any change.
So two skinned cats. I'd guess that the DC solution gives that lovely fast start up/stop and stability the generally quieter DC motor making up at least to some extent for the fact that it has to work harder all the time. The AC solution means that the motor can do as little and be as quiet as possible.
With so many variables, I'm hardly in a position to judge the relative merits of the two approaches beyond the fact that both seem to produce a stable and quiet drive system. At first I did have some worry over the Woodpecker, as its motor did produce a 'whispering' sound which was audible at very high volumes, but one of the advantages of taking ages over a review (sorry Chris) is that after 3 months it quietened noticeably...
Before leaving this section I should point out that over the last 5 years I've had dozens of turntables here and those that run always at perfect speed (after initial adjustment), and with essentially silent drive systems are 'just' the exception rather than the rule, despite those turntables covering every conceivable variation between the extremes of the Audiomeca and the Woodpecker. I'll add that several of those turntables really needed to be on all the time to keep speed and bearing temperature stable not sure that's a great idea long-term.
The turntable does include a screw-on clamp designed to help damp resonances. It's meant to just be spun down to touch the record screwing the thing down hard lifted the record edge off the platter I tended to use it as it was easy to fit given that the platter could be stopped for record changes, but I'm not convinced I could hear a difference...
I've only one gripe. Somehow those rubber buttons just don't feel as classy as the rest of the turntable. When you press them down you also press your finger on the surrounding brushed alloy and over time my grubby fingers began to leave traces and it's not that easy to clean them off:-) Something a little more sexy in this age of touch-screens might be appropriate.
Which just about covers all of the technical side, so off to the important bit.
With a turntable as flexible as the Woodpecker I was spoilt for choice as to which arms to use in the end I settled for the newly arrived SME V12 and the Audiomeca Septem. The former is a 12 arm and much of my impressions on it mounted on the Woodpecker have already been published it that review so I will send you there to save me typing another 500 words:-) The latter is very different in that it is a 9 unipivot. They share two attributes. Firstly both are superb:-) Secondly both are low colouration designs with one-piece armtubes if you are looking for romance or artifice these are not for you, but as tools to judge a turntable they can't be beaten.
As for supports, the Woodpecker didn't seem as sensitive as some solid plinth designs, but it loved my home-brewed support consisting of a slab of granite with four of those large envelope sized bubble-wrap things under it I think I might patent it....
Colouration... I have a real ball-breaker of a record for this:-) Many years ago I was in a music shop in Plymouth, and a nice gentleman was demonstrating a rather fine Arcam/Linn system using Mary-Chapin Carpenter's 'Come On Come On'. Now you may or may not be a fan of said artiste's soft, country-influenced ballads, but even her most rabid fan would have found little to please them listening to that system. She has a voice that just seems to wind up colourations in rooms, turntables, arms, speakers everything making a bloom to the sound that almost defines 'aw'. Here it's massacred many a fine component, and it took a lot of work to get my room 'clean' enough to play it properly. But now I have it set up just right I can isolate source components that fail this test. My own Orbe, the reference in my turntable reviews had it's upper bass colouration starkly outlined (pretty much cured with the Blu-Tac fix) and my current turntable, the Opera LP 5.0 still has a hint of the nasties. The Acoustic Solid manged to clear the bar, but to my surprise so did the Woodpecker. I had wondered if the large plinth might be prone to exactly this sort of problem, but no the sound was really open, and that's a hard trick to do as colouration = mud with this record.
If you do buy this record (and I actually like it a lot as music) the real killer track for this is 'Ryhthm of the Blues' put it on with trepidation. Moving on, the album has other attributes, not least the bouncy timing of 'The Bug' (made famous by Dire Straits) which the Woodpecker handled delightfully. And on the subject of timing, it did as good a job with Los Lobos' 'Be Still' from their 'The Neighborhood' album. A track with such fiendishly complex rhythms that it actually makes me laugh out loud when I try to piece them together. I remember taking this record to a friends house and playing it to him to demonstrate how impossible it was to time. To my chagrin his LP12 made total sense of it in a way that my Orbe didn't... The Woodpecker kept it all tight and kept the signature changes delightful.
Onto the usual audiophile attributes, well you'll see from the SME V12 review that the combination handles the hall on 'King James' and it's startling ambiance in perfect harmony with the music. If the SME V12 could do it on the Woodpecker, then the turntable wasn't the limiting factor and indeed went on to repeat the trick with the Septum, though I have to say the Woodpecker was good enough to show the difference between the delicacy and detail of the Septum and the slightly more mechanical presentation of the SME. Both also handled the intense dynamics of that drumkit, beaten to a pulp and recorded at impossible levels, without any problem at all.
And of course dynamics are a personal holy grail you don't run full-range horns without that as a priority. With dynamics to burn the system can flatter quite ordinary sources until you hear the real thing. One of the tricks I pull with visitors is to play them the CD of Madonna's 'Confessions on a Dance Floor' which I have on both CD and (pink) vinyl. It's especially fun when the 'victim' has just been lecturing me on the superiority of CD:-) The LP isn't just superior, it makes the CD sound like AM radio the huge open dynamics and space around everything are utterly lacking on the CD, and to be fair to the medium I suspect the mastering used was very different. But listen to 'I Love New York'. It opens with live recorded street sounds and the street is THERE! Then you get all the usual electronic instruments, and pings and buzzes and all the stuff that you get with a modern pop recording, but it sounds so right because there is so much space for it all to operate in. The performance from top to bottom is just dandy the synth bass gets my REL sub pumping and the square wave buzzes are making those lacquered cones do gymnastics right up to the very top end. It's a great song...
It's hard to criticise a turntable with such a general set of positive attributes, but nothing is perfect and other turntables will improve in certain areas the Orbe has a grandure and scale that impresses, the Gyro a glossy sheen in a holograhic soundscape. The Roksan Xerxes manages to drive music with a frenetic pace, and the Acoustic Solid seems to pull even higher high-frequency extension. But none of these worthy turntables betters it overall. In my turntable review series, one turntable set the pace and remained my personal favourite throughout and that was the Clearlight Recovery. It did this because whatever you played it never seemed lacking. Though other turntables might shade it in some areas, none was as even-handed with all music, nor as unobtrusive. The Woodpecker strongly reminded me of this. In the end (and memory plays tricks) I still have a hankering for the Clearlight, but as it cost over twice as much, was less well finished, less flexible (no 12 option) and is no longer made I can't see one living here in the future :-)
So what about the two arms? Well here we have a problem. The SME plays everything well, it's powerful, it's detailed, it bounces along, plays bass lines in tune and so on, it's as near faultless as makes no odds. The Septem does all that but whilst it does sacrifice a little bass power (and that's a characteristic rather than a criticism) it just makes everything flow. Female vocal especially. On Tracey Chapman's 'Behind the Wall' the brilliant production has used a short acoustic to simulate her singing in a small bare room with the Septem you can just see the room more clearly, and feel the hurt. That the Woodpecker can separate these two arms on such a simple and yet difficult track is impressive. The snag is a big one. Go back to Mary-Chapin Carpenter and 'The Bug'. My copy has been played a million times, not least because my wife loves it. The track is simple but mixed real warm and you've guessed it, it's about 2/3 of the way through side one. It's knackered. With the resonance I talked about always trying to break through, and the ravages of a thousand turntable tests with a struggling cartridge, the sibilants get splashy, the sound dulls, but the SME holds it all together where the Septum lets you know that playing such junk is beneath it. Go back to the first track and yup the Septum has it by a nose but too much of my vinyl is in this sort of state (and it isn't going to improve) that the 12 is the one to beat.
You see what's happened? I've stopped talking about the turntable and started to talk about other things, and music, and of all attributes the Woodpecker has it's this ability to forget it's there that is one of it's strongest. 'Forget it' because it's easy to place, easy to use and doesn't ever get in the way of the music.
The arm issue is a case in point - the Woodpecker gives you the choice it'll take a 12 arm where most won't, a swap to another arm takes 5 minutes. But really, to be in heaven I need a deck that will take both of these arms. Which brings us to an interesting topic
When I looked at the Woodpecker, and saw all that MDF waiting to be machined out I thought 'you could fit a phono-stage in there' :-) But Dr Feickert had already thought of it. That 'S' button... What's it for? Apparently it stands for 'Special' or possibly 'Suction' ;-) And of course for the turntable to be really useful to me I'd need a version with a second armboard just make the plinth a bit bigger and there you go of course then you'd have enough space to put in another motor if you wanted oh! I see Dr Feickert has a new turntable the Blackbird - that does exactly that. So what is emerging is a family of essentially similar designs based on the structure of the Woodpecker giving the flexibility of some exotic designs and yet retaining the ease of use and simplicity of the original.
I have three very good turntables here. The other two are both as expensive (the Opera considerably more so) as the Woodpecker, and each in its own right is a fine performer and a worthy rival. But I have kept the Woodpecker running in my own system for preference. I must be getting old, but the fact that the Woodpecker is so easy to use (and I now allow my 17 year old to use it) just means I can slap a record on and listen to music. I don't have to leap up and twiddle a screw because the damn thing is running fast because I've turned the heating up, I don't have to agonise about whether the bounce is right - I can just get on with reading my book in front of the fire
Or leaping about :-)
© Copyright 2010 Geoff Husband - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com