Opera Audio LP 5.0
Of all the turntables so far tested in this series, this could well be the most significant. Why? Because as far as I know this is the first high-end turntable manufactured in China, and the one sitting on my shelf at the moment is the first to be reviewed on the planet.
So why are the origins so important. Well think for a moment. If like me you are into cycling you'll know that the Chinese cycling industry was the producer of vast numbers of cheap 'clunker' bikes, mostly refugees from the '30's or destined for some supermarket to be sold for the price of a weekend's groceries. Now as you ride cross-country on that fine concoction of cutting-edge alloy and carbon fibre, the chances are that it was made in China. My own iHP-120 hard drive player sports 'made in China'. The hulking speakers I have here on test with their Scandinavian name and fine finish are labelled as 'Made in Denmark' but are in fact made in China using Chinese made drivers. Got a new wide screen TV? - Probably made in China.
And for us audiophiles, the gentle trickle of Chinese valve amps has rapidly increased into a flood. Once big name European and US manufacturers outsourced such production to China and hid behind their brand, but now an increasingly large number of companies are selling under their own banner, and such a company is Opera Audio, who have had a couple of their amplifiers already reviewed on TNT.
In case you're a bit confused as to why all this is relevant, the point is that time after time, in specialist areas, Chinese products have started out as just cheap and then gone on to become 'good value' but with a performance to match items made in the west. I have to say that I don't envy any Western valve amp manufacturer at the moment, as valve amp after valve amp comes out of China, each time getting better both in performance and build. And of course these amplifiers are built using a cost base impossible to match in the West. I have a feeling that in 10 years the western valve-amp industry may be reduced to a very small number of super expensive specialists.
Now Opera are trying to do the same in the area of turntables. They already have two turntables on their books which have high-end pretensions, the LP 1.0 and 2.0, but both of these are rather skeletal affairs. Which brings us neatly to the turntable in question, the LP 5.0.
When Opera Audio sent me the first pictures of the prototype of this turntable I have to say that I was completely stunned. Chinese design often means something rather 'flashy' and American, or a bit odd, or sometimes 'industrial'. The LP 5.0 is 'eye candy' (as Scott would say) of the very first order. It doesn't look like any other turntable on earth. That fabulous sensually curved plinth out of some rich coloured hardwood, a slab of black alloy above and all topped off by a great lump of acrylic platter. It just looked so classy... I won't go on because these things aren't supposed to matter, but just look at the picture and imagine it in your living room - I know I did...
And then there's the fact that the LP 5.0 is not simply a turntable, rather it is a 'system' consisting of turntable and stand, and what a stand! The pictures don't really do it justice for it is constructed from two slabs of polished pale marble separated by massive, triangular section, anodized-alloy columns - all tensioned by threaded rods running through the structure. The shape of the marble echo's the curves of the turntable, with the columns directly beneath the cones on the base of the turntable. This means that the stand is no equipment rack, in fact apart from some smaller equipment like phono stages there isn't space between the legs to place any standard sized equipment. It also would be useless for any turntable unless it happened to have the same foot spacing as the LP 5.0. This little lot weighs in at over 80kgs... I have no idea what the stand costs to manufacture, or what it would sell for on its own, but I'd not be surprised if it doubles the cost of the turntable section on its own and of course will have a fundamental effect on the sound of the turntable, especially as each was designed to specifically match the other. The stand comes in two massive boxes and you have to put it all together but it's all part of the fun...
So back to the bit that goes round-and-round. Here I'd like to thanks Opera. It would be so easy for them to provide me with the usual philosphy course on how the shape is "carefully calculated to break up any standing waves", that the wood has been selected from "400 year old bog oak and coated in magic resin previously only known to Stradavarious", or the alloy plate is of some special "military grade alloy"(why always "military?"). No, the turntable was just sent as it was leaving me to make up my own mind about the relevance of its features.
In fact looking at it carefully one can see that generally what Opera have done is kept the design relatively simple and followed well established 'best practice' - it is a conservative design. In essence it is a solid plinth design carrying a massive, tool-steel, inverted-bearing sleeve/shaft with a ceramic ball as the actual load bearing structure. Atop this sits a thick acrylic platter, you'll see such a platter on many turntables, but never one more perfectly produced... The drive is taken via a fishing-line, nylon thread which should isolate the motor without allowing as much bounce as a normal rubber item. It also allows for very cheap replacements:-) The Belgian DC motor lives in a separate housing which then sits on a cork base within the wooden section of the plinth. Also hidden in a routed section on the underside of the wood plinth is the DC power supply. This means the turntable sits on the three cones it is equipped with, and no other part is separate, no off-board motor, no power supply.
When I said the design followed accepted 'best practice' I mean that looking closely nothing comes up that surprises or worries me. The main bearing and mounting board of the arm is rigidly linked, no compliance at all. Both are bolted to a 1 cm thick alloy plate which sits via three alloy cylinders onto the wooden part of the plinth. The use of the acylic platter is well established, DC motors popular, inverted bearings 'a la mode' etc.
It's a simple design and of all the turntables I've had here only the Audiomeca and Opus turntables were more straightforward to set up. Just get the wooden/alloy base out of the box and put it up on the stand. The bearing shaft is already in place so you just need to put the ball and bearing sleeve in place and lube with a drop of the supplied oil. The drop the platter gently into place. Pick out the motor housing and place it in the hole in the plinth. Level the turntable using the adjustable alloy cones and the bubble gauge on the record puck. Then you mount the arm... Simple!
All that is left is to loop the drive thread over the platter and pulley and switch on. Using the strobe disc supplied speed is regulated by two tiny (and fiddly) screws on the top of the motor housing.
All this is made all the easier by a simple instruction manual illustrated by clear photographs. You honestly can't go wrong and in this case a dealer set-up would be superfluous.
BUT this assumes that you've spent an hour bolting that magnificent stand together - it'll take at least two of you to do the balancing act. It's simple and well explained, but it isn't possible without a fair bit of muscle...
Once running the turntable is a pleasure to use, no suspension makes cueing a doddle and the on-off switch on the front very easy to get at. The only snag is that the speed can drift slightly as the bearing warms up, especially as the bearing runs in, but after about 10 minutes speed stability is excellent, better even than the Orbe. Personally I always switched on the turntable and let it run before use, or indeed let it run all the time. You don't need to stop it for record changes as the puck just drops on and you soon learn to give the record a gentle flick as you put it on the platter so it doesn't slither on the hard surface as it gets up speed. If you do stop the platter it takes about 30 seconds to get up to a steady speed as there is quite a lot of (deliberate) slip in the belt. Operation is effectively silent both externally and when playing a unmodulated groove.
The motor housing has a 33.3rpm/off/45 rpm switch, but the switch on the front is the only one you use in most situations.
One design problem did rear its ugly head. The clearance under the armboard is only 30mm after which you hit the aluminium plate that forms the upper part of the plinth. When I fitted the SME4 there was only just enough room with the armtube level with the DRT-1s cartridge. The Dynavector 507 simply wouldn't fit. The Hadcock had acres of room. Opera can supply spacers to increase this clearance by raising the armboard, but if the arm's lowest point is the arm pillar then it will have to be lowered to level the armtube and so you'll be no better off. If the lowest part of the arm is just some part of the mounting then it's a fine solution. Failing this Opera can also supply spacers to raise the mainbearing and thus the platter - increasing clearance, but this does rather spoil the visual balance of the design. Other than this the turntable will take any arm regardless of weight or length (unlike the Orbe).
Once again here we have an armless turntable and once again thanks to Hadcock for supplying a 242 silver. This unit has been reviewed on TNT and is pretty unfussy and of very high quality.
Before we go on here comes another apology... In my review of the SOTA Millenium I was forced to abandon the strict criteria of my turntable reviews because the damn thing was so big it just wouldn't sit on my turntable shelf. The result was a poorer review. In this case things are worse - much worse. A solid plinth design is very sensitive to what it is placed on as in effect the isolation, or otherwise, of the stand does much of the job of the suspension on a suspended turntable. In this case the turntable under test came with a dedicated stand - which inevitably would be a major influence on the turntable system as a whole. But here I have three children and a wife who allows my turntable tests to disrupt the living room, but who would not allow a turntable/stand to be set up in the middle of it. So here I am really only testing half the turntable, about as valid as taking a suspended table, removing the suspension and letting the chassis sit direct on the turntable support. I am acutely aware that this is neither fair on the LP 5.0, or to you readers who expect at least some definitive comments in these reviews. As it was the tests followed the standard procedure as outlined in the accompanying methodology, with the motor unit alone tested on the Clearlight turntable support. This lightweight, wobbly board could not be more different from the Opera's own table. Thus all conclusions from this review are severely flawed and should be seen as only the vaguest of initial impressions. I plan to do something about this soon but that is for later.
So both Orbe/SME4 and the LP 5.0/Hadcock had Music Maker (MM) cartridges bolted on and both then went via identical Audionote interconnects to the Lehmann Black Cube SE Twin. Both turntables on Clearlight turntable supports.
And? Well here there are of course two variables, the turntable and the arm. I've already said in previous reviews that the Hadcock is a better match for the MM than the SME which can sound a little dirty with it. The LP 5.0 didn't alter this, in the area of refinement and clarity pulling well ahead of the Orbe. In fact the match was extremely good, no overt 'character' from the turntable, allowing the clean, controlled and detailed presentation of the MM to come forward.
Bass performance was noticeably clean but did lack some of the 'air' of the recording. I know that "bass" and "air" are odd things to mention together, but the production of the acoustic of a venue is dependent on that bottom octave. Here the Orbe pulled ahead.
Now things get more serious. The SME4 was designed to be used with top MC cartridges and is much happier with them, the two Dynavectors were bolted up, the sensitivity/loading of the Black Cube Twin altered and battle recommenced.
And now things hinted at in the previous section became much more apparent. On the Orbe the SME and Hadcock do sound different, but the differences are amazingly small considering the gulf between their philosophies. With the SME on the Orbe and the Hadcock on the LP 5.0 the differences were pretty large.
The LP 5.0 gave a very tight, controlled performance, detail retrieval being on a par with the Orbe. Listening to Madonna singing "He's not in love with me anymore" the "he's" are often swallowed in the mix - the LP5.0 got almost all of them. This is a tough test of both detail retrieval and dynamics, the former is self explanatory, but fine dynamics mean that low-level spoken voice isn't lost in the mass of other things going on. Imaging too was precise and three-dimensional.
Here we have another flaw in the tests. In several tests the Orbe's rather 'blooming/bloated' and soft bass performance has been showed up by a number of the other turntables. However the cure (for me) is so cheap and easy that it seems impossible not to use the 'blue-tac' modded version at least some of the time when doing comparisons. Sure enough the LP5.0 did show up the faults in the Orbe's bass, its performance being tighter, faster and less coloured. Against the modded Orbe things weren't so easy. The Orbe now really dug deep and cleanly into the lower registers producing that big acoustic. In contrast the LP 5.0 sounded tighter but the bass didn't breath is the same natural way, the texture shape and decay of the bottom octave sounding rather 'sat-on'. In some ways it reminded me of a very superior Rega Planar3 or even the Roksan Xerxes.
This superior acoustic of the Orbe gave it a more open and natural soundstage, the LP 5.0 again sounding tight, precise but a bit soulless.
This lead the Orbe had needs two major qualifications. First without 1 penny's worth of Blu-tac the Orbe came second to the LP 5.0, and more significantly the Orbe was sitting on a support it liked and I know is ideal for it - the LP 5.0 was like a diver without fins - cruelly separated from its stand. I have very little doubt that the LP 5.0 + stand would be superior to this set-up, the pity is that I cannot confirm this - yet.
Now the Orbe is packed away and I played with arms, cartridges and phono stages, finally settling on using the fabulous ESE Nibiru stage with the Dynavector XX2 on the Hadcock and XV-1s on the SME.
Swapping the SME from the Orbe onto the LP5.0 confirmed my conclusions from Stage Two. The depth and resolution of the Orbe's bass replaced by a tighter less natural presentation. Further up the scale the differences became less and less important, to the point where by the time we get to the very highest registers I'd give the LP 5.0 a slight lead in terms of ultimate extension. One aspect of the LP 5.0's performance that impressed more than this was it's tight control of rhythm. Whether unravelling Los Lobos' 'Be Still' or Art Blakeys 'Caravan' the LP 5.0 managed to keep everything hanging together without feeling overly pacey like the Xerxes - indeed in this respect it bettered the Orbe by a nose and the SOTA by a head.
During this period I played a lot of vinyl of course, and so did Kate - and the result was that she developed a distinct preference for the LP 5.0. She loved it's looks, it's ease of operation and found the sound just fine. Before anyone mutters about the sound being last on the list Kate is the musician in the family, and the fussiest when it comes to sound. Unlike me she wouldn't be able to take apart the musical performance of a component but she spots anything 'wrong' in seconds.
Well I did warn you, a poor review all-round. In fact what you have just read is little better than a basic technical description and some rather derisory listening notes. But let's summarise what I have learnt.
We've come to associate China with cheap. The LP 5.0 is not cheap. At 4500 Euro it is slightly more expensive than the Orbe which sports a more sophisticated power supply/motor assembly, and who's suspension is certainly more complex to manufacture. To counter that the LP 5.0 cannot be seen as just a turntable, but as a turntable and stand combined, the fact that the two items can be separated shouldn't blind us to the fact. The lead the Orbe has is small enough, and in the area of bass performance where a stand is most important. I would not be at all surprised to find that the full 5.0 system would be superior, but I cannot say for sure! To add a stand of similar quality to the Orbe would bring the total price well beyond that of the LP 5.0. I'll also add that in value terms the Orbe is a tough nut to crack, Michell really passing on the savings of long production runs with a long established component, another manufacturer might double the price.
Chinese manufacturing has also sometimes been associated with poor quality and here I have to say that no turntable here, at any price, has bettered the LP 5.0 - it is simply not an issue. If I were to have guessed the origin of the turntable then I'd have probably put it down as an Italian manufacturer, the combination of style, build quality and fine woodwork being typical of several Italian manufacturers.
But with such a flawed review procedure I cannot give definitive recommendations. But to ignore the LP 5.0 or its significance would be foolhardy. If you are in the market for a turntable of this price, and especially if you can accommodate the full system of stand and turntable, then you need to hear it before buying something else. The fact that Opera sell via well established distributors makes quite a difference to the increasingly common 'direct from China' sales of amps and the like - a risky prospect at best...
Several recent reviews have left me embarrassed by my lack of facilities for equipment reviews. My own system of SE valves and horns is unsuitable for testing the vast majority of amps and speakers. Domestic concerns have coloured turntable reviews and to be honest I'm just worn out from ripping my living room system apart all the time. The answer is of course to build a custom listening/review room where I can test equipment with fewer compromises and this is the project for the beginning of 2005. The room will double as a library/music room so I've managed to persuade the 'powers that be'.
So now I'm putting together a system for that room and the main source will be the LP 5.0. No it isn't some freebee from a grateful manufacturer, I've bought it outright (albeit at a good price). I hope to partner it with the Dynavector 507 which will be perfect once I get a special cable to give under armboard clearance. Why the LP 5.0? First guilt:-) The new room will be able to accommodate the full tt/stand and so I will be able to write an addendum to this review, but also the deck is capable of taking any arm. I've had a 507 here for three months now without being able to test it because it's weight makes it impossible to fit on the Orbe - very frustrating. It's not the best turntable I've ever heard, but it's very good and I believe there's more to come when twinned with its stand. Lastly it's the most beautiful turntable I've ever seen and I'm a sucker for a pretty face.