Review by Noam Bronstein
Pre-audio’s unique and significant turntables from Poland have finally landed on our shores here in North America, thanks to distributor/dealer/manufacturer extraordinaire Charisma Audio. Why is this significant? One glance tells the story: we haven’t seen moderately-priced, linear-tracking turntables on the market, in…well, a long, long time!
This review will focus on the BT-1301, which comes in at $1800 US in the lovely wood-veneered MDF shown (yes – including the tonearm!), and $2100 US in the granite base version. I tested the granite model here for a couple of weeks in the springtime, knowing that Charisma needed it back quickly for the AXPONA show. And in that two weeks, I was away for several days at the Montreal show. So my initial time with the ‘table was short, and Bernard kindly agreed to loan the MDF version for several weeks over the summer. Having now spent about five weeks listening to these decks, I feel I can comment on them.
To start with, the Pre-audio turntables have absolutely beautiful fit and finish: both the acrylic and brass pieces on the BT-1301 are very finely machined, as are the bases – in either material choice. It’s actually quite visually stunning, borrowing the underhung platter spheres concept from JA Michell. These are mesmerizing when spinning, and add mass below the platter, for inertial stability and a lower center of gravity. Power switch located at the back means a very clean, uncluttered look. As with many manual turntables, the top platter needs to be removed in order to change pulleys from 33rpm to 45. The supplied cork mat is effective but not especially attractive – for me it detracted a little from the overall beauty of the turntable, at least until an LP is placed on it. Not a big deal, you can always put the mat away when it’s not in use.
This is the granite-base version I borrowed in the early Spring.
Pricing puts the BT-1301 in some interesting company. It’s certainly more than one of the budget ‘tables from Pro-ject, Clearaudio or Rega, but considerably less expensive than something like a Well-Tempered, or even a VPI Classic 1. Come to think of it, the $2000 US slot isn’t overly crowded with well-known competitors. Hmmm, intriguing.
The turntable comes with an assortment of hex keys for making the adjustments, and some instructions that include photos, and are fairly well-done but could use a better translation. Mostly, common sense is the word of the day. Levelling, especially with any linear type setup is absolutely critical, but it was fairly easy to get it right with the included height-adjustable feet and spirit level. As far as cartridge tracking, both samples I tried came to me already set up by Bernard Li of Charisma Audio, with the current version of his terrific Charisma MC-1 cartridge fitted. This was a relief, since my time was limited and frankly, I really haven’t used a high-end parallel tracking ‘table, apart from toying briefly with a Revox that a friend loaned me (and which I found to be complex and difficult to handle). There’s nothing too scary here – I’d just suggest good common sense: if you want to play with set up (I would have liked to), make sure you have a cheap cartridge on hand to sacrifice. Otherwise, let your dealer or local guru do the honours.
Straight Lines: an overhead view of the Pre-audio tangential tonearm
The arm, of course, is the star of this show, and is an especially intriguing design, aimed to deliver parallel-tracking performance without the expense and headaches associated with air compression. That’s right, no a/c on this baby. The next model up in Pre-audio’s line has an air-assisted tonearm, but this model is self-directing. It essentially “rolls” through its carriage tube on two small brass wheels, each containing 8 tiny ball bearings. Simple, and in my view, elegant. There are certainly some potential issues with this kind of tonearm design, but with appropriate care taken during setup, it seems to work quite flawlessly. There are simple adjustments for arm height, azimuth, tracking forces, etc. Once the ‘table is set up, you can more or less forget about them. For clarity though, I’ll say it again: this tonearm is deceptively “simple”, but to operate correctly it requires good setup, i.e. an understanding of all the adjustment parameters, and this is often best left to someone with that specific experience.
The BT-1301 lacks any kind of record clamping or flattening mechanism. So records with serious warps will present a challenge – as they do on most high-end ‘tables. Personally I use the Universal Record Stabilizing Ring (URSR), a “periphery ring” which flattens LP’s at their outside edge. Bernard saw no reason I couldn’t try it with the BT-1301, so I did. My results were very good: records with mild to moderate warps were perfectly playable, and the Ring lends a nice damping effect whenever you use it, giving the stylus a more serene environment to work in.
And how did the music sound..? In a word, excellent. Speed stability, and musical pitch as a result, were both outstanding. Pace, rythym and timing were exceptionally good, so were dynamics both small and large. The 1301 matched the MC-1 in delivering a very fast, balanced, and authoritative presentation. It’s hard to overstate the benefits of tracking the record groove in the same way the groove was originally cut. Distortion from geometrical error goes down to nil. The sound is very natural and unforced – instruments and voices sound like themselves. I heard no etching, bloating or any other weird artifact here. Soundstage width and height are about as good as I’ve heard anywhere. This isn’t a “supertable” with a massive bearing and isolation effort, so the noise floor isn’t quite as low as the very best turntables. But it performs and plays very, very well.
The armwand itself – both short and thin compared to a traditional arc design – is very responsive. I dare say that this is an arm that will likely outperform arc-tracing tonearms costing much more, although trying to make those kind of direct, back-to-back comparisons would be difficult. In any case, I found it a joy to use, to listen to, and to watch running as well. A delight for all the senses. Visitors to your audio den will also be impressed, as this ‘table makes a strong visual impression.
I played quite a number of different records on the BT-1301 – not just in terms of music, but also the type of discs – thin floppies from the ’70’s, newer 180-gram and 200-gram pressings, flat discs, warped discs, off-center pressings. I really wanted to make sure there were no tracking issues, and I’m pleased to report that I encountered none.
Wrapping up my comments: this is a very well thought-out design, and indeed, it performs superbly, with a very convincing musical presentation and low audible distortion, just as one would expect. The aesthetics are lovely, as is the build quality. The pricing is excellent, too. Charisma informs me that availability has been something of an issue for North America. I hope that gets sorted as well – I think this surprisingly refined turntable deserves a spot on many audiophiles’ must-audition list. Very highly recommended.
Pre-audio BT-1301 Turntable, MSRP starting at $1800 USD (cartridge not icluded)