Double Turntable Review, by Steve Graham
- Pro-Ject Audio Systems “The Classic” SB Super Pack
- The Funk Firm Flamenca
Mars and Venus, Cats and Dogs, Tubes and Transistors, Blondes and Brunettes……
In my short career as an audio reviewer, I thought there were two types of reviews that would be hard to write. The review where I disliked a component but didn’t want to crap all over it, and the review where I really, really liked a piece of gear but didn’t want to sound like a shill for the manufacturer.
Now I find there are other types of reviews too: Gear I like, sometimes in spite of myself, and gear I like but can’t quite find a way of slotting it in to the larger audiophile picture. But let’s start with the facts.
Both of these turntables have enjoyed a convoluted path to the door of my listening room. First received was The Funk Firm Flamenca. It appeared with a Grado cartridge and the sound would be best described as “phasey”. The location of voices and instruments was indistinct and “echoey”. It sounded like the time I connected a transformer out of phase on one channel. I checked the connection of the cartridge wiring to the tonearm and even performed a continuity test of the tone arm wiring to the RCA plugs, but all was connected properly. So back it went to the dealer and as it transpired, the cartridge was either defective or damaged. Oh well.
The Flamenca reappeared a month or so later with an Ortofon 2M Bronze moving magnet cartridge. The 2M Bronze is second from the top of the 2M line, and has a Nude Fine Line stylus that should dig more detail out of LP grooves than spherical or elliptical styli. The Flamenca I auditioned was supplied with the optional Funk Firm Achromat platter mat. It’s not a flexible mat, but a rigid disk that is attached to the platter with small disks of thin double-sided tape. The Achromat is slightly smaller in diameter than an LP, so better contact will result from the LP not sitting up on its outer rim. The Flamenca was positively reviewed in TAS, and was one of their products of the year in 2016, but that doesn’t cut any cheese with me. I wanted to experience it for myself.
The Pro-Ject “The Classic” SB Super Pack also enjoyed a circuitous route. The Canadian distributor had not planned on importing the SB Super Pack edition of “The Classic”, but with a bit of whining, cajoling and a hissy fit or two, they agreed to bring one in. But the US-spec version (with a Sumiko Blue Point No.2 high-output moving coil cartridge) didn’t suit moi. I wanted the European-spec version with the Ortofon Quintet Red low-output MC cart. Two days before Christmas 2017, it arrived. Included in the package was a leather platter mat (it’s more like suede), a record clamp that locks on the spindle, a microfiber cloth that I assume is for dusting the dust cover, a decent looking pair of interconnects, and a separate grounding wire. Both the standard and the SB Super Pack version have won awards too numerous to mention, but again, I wanted to listen for myself.
I won’t make you wade through every technical detail, as both of these ‘tables are already well reviewed.
The Flamenca has a glass platter. Maybe it’s an English thing; Regas use the same sort of platter too. Both the Flamenca and The Classic are belt drive ‘tables and both have hinged dust covers. The Flamenca has its belt exposed, the Pro-Ject’s is under the platter. The most curious thing about the Flamenca is its arm “suspension”. It’s not typical gimbal-type pivots. The arm is suspended by two threads that look to be about the size of some fishing line. I’m not saying they are fishing line, but that’s what comes to most people’s minds when they see them.
The Funk Firm Flamenca is not factory-supplied with a cartridge. The one I auditioned ($1,895), with dealer installed Ortofon 2M Bronze (~$500) and 3mm thick Achromat platter mat (~$130) comes to a total/package price of around 2,500 dollars Canadian.
“The Classic” at first glance looks like a classic Linn turntable, but even at a quick second glance most ‘philes will see a major difference or two. The tonearm appears to be carbon fiber, but is actually a composite of carbon fiber and aluminum, purported to have the best properties of both. The plater is aluminum, and has a channel on its underside filled with damping material to inhibit resonance. Aluminum is a very “ringy” material. Most of my working career was spent in and around optical labs, think the laser lab on Big Bang Theory. Many lab components were made from various steels to avoid the resonant properties of aluminum. The SB Super Pack edition has electronic speed change which saves having to manually shift “gears” on the belt pulley, which is necessary with the standard “The Classic”, when changing from 33-1/3 to 45 RPM.
The Pro-Ject “The Classic” SB Super Pack comes pre-packaged with the Ortofon Quintet Red (in Europe) and lists for around 2,000 Canadian Dollars. This is about $500 less than the Flamenca, but an MC Step-Up transformer or MC capable phono stage necessary for the Quintet Red should be factored in to any cost calculation.
What I didn’t like about both ‘tables
Let’s get this out of the way before we go on to the listening.
- The motor is a little noisy. (TAS mentioned this in their review as well.)
- The drive belt is not a belt as you would imagine it. It’s not flat in cross section, but round. In fact, it’s made from O-ring cord that’s cut to length with the ends glued together. Not that there’s anything wrong with this per se, but in my sample the ends were not perfectly aligned when glued and there was a definite bump at the join.
- The plinth looks pretty in gloss black lacquer, but shows every finger print.
- The threads used for arm pivots are not rock solid like a traditional gimbal pivot, and therefore flex a bit. The arm moves along its length and side to side as well. This is not a judgement on how it might sound, but cueing is a pain as the cartridge tends to oscillate from side to side as one is trying to position the stylus in the desired place before lowering it.
- Setup instructions were cursory. Something as different as this type of arm should have a very detailed setup procedure documented.
- The dust cover hinges were installed too high, and therefore the gap when closed was larger at the back of the plinth than at the front. The Pro-Ject ‘table was the same, but to a lesser extent.
- Adjustable feet would have been nice, to make levelling the ’table easier.
- One of the supplied interconnect cables had a fault that caused a hum in one channel. A poor solder joint was the culprit.
- The setup instructions were reasonably complete save for a likely cut and paste parts list error that applies only to the standard model “The Classic”.
- The blue LEDs indicating the platter speed are just too 2005 in my opinion. Enough with blue LEDs already.
My usual PS Audio AC regenerator, ARC Reference 110 power amp, ARC Reference 3 Line Stage, Aikido phono preamp, RJM Audio VSPS400 phono preamp, K&K Audio Premium SUT (used with the Quintet Red), PSB Platinum T8 speakers, all connected with basic Cardas and Kimber cabling.
I did a lot of casual listening to both turntables, but one day bit the bullet and over the course of an afternoon and evening listened to both back to back, using the following LP’s:
So, is this a review of Funk Firm versus Pro-Ject, or Ortofon versus Ortofon? A bit of both, but where that line is drawn is impossible for me to say. Taking the recordings one by one:
The Lark Ascending: In general, the Flamenca/2M Bronze was airier in the treble, but not at the expense of harshness or screechy violin tone. This is to be partially expected, as the 2M has a Fine Line stylus, where the Q Red’s is elliptical. It just seemed the Flamenca/2M was digging more high frequency detail out of the grooves than the Pro-Ject/Q-Red. Through the midrange it was more or less even. The Pro-Ject/Q-Red might have been a bit richer in the mids, or the slightly reticent highs compared to the Flamenca/2M might have just made it seem so. At the bass end of the spectrum, the Flamenca/2M was more articulate, but the Pro-Ject/Q-Red went deeper, at the expense of a bit of clarity and control. One telling difference, not related to the music exactly, but obvious nonetheless, relates to the recording venue. The recording, made in Kingsway Hall London is over a tube line (subway). Twice at the beginning of Lark Ascending, and once at the end, a subway train can be heard rumbling beneath the hall. It’s clearer with the Pro-Ject/Q Red combo, and in at least one instance the direction the train is traveling can be heard.
TajMo: The deeper bass of the Pro-Ject/Q-Red was more satisfying with this sort of music. Through the midrange, male voices had slightly more body to them with the Pro-Ject/Q-Red. Even though the treble of this recording is a bit too “hot” at times, though noticeably less hot than the CD, the slightly greater detail of the Flamenca/2M Bronze was beneficial to voices, percussion and stringed instruments.
Kind of Blue: Again, the high frequency detail of the Flamenca/2M Bronze was pleasing. But what really made the Pro-Ject/Q-Red stand out noticeably was its speed. By this I mean that when required, the notes of the saxes and piano seemed to start and stop more suddenly, more like they way they do in live, unamplified music. If notes had more sustain and a more gradual decay it was not truncated. In fact, these qualities that seemed to make notes linger a bit longer were slightly better reproduced by the Pro-Ject/Q-Red than they were with the Flamenca/2M Bronze.
Do these two analog rigs represent good value around the $2,000 CDN mark? Darned if I know. I’m just starting this turntable/cartridge journey for the second time in my life after many years away, but I suspect they both offer decent value. I think vinylphiles at all price levels are spoiled for choice. On both of these rigs most, if not all, of my old records never sounded so good. The sound of high quality new pressings was sublime.
With regards to appearance and mechanical feel, the Pro-Ject ‘table is clearly a product from a larger manufacturer. It has the fit, finish and consistency expected from mass production. I suspect it could perform to an even higher level with a cartridge upgrade, see below.
The Funk is more idiosyncratic, and though I can’t fault its sound, some of its physical aspects just seem a bit, well, kit-built. I think it would be a false economy to install a less accomplished cartridge than the Ortofon 2M Bronze, or one its equal from another manufacturer.
This is my first experience with low output MC cartridges, and I’m hooked. Even though the Quintet Red is Ortofon’s least expensive, low output MC there’s just something “there” that I’ve never experienced with moving magnet carts. Even ones more accomplished than the humble but willing Quintet Red MC.
So, back to the beginning. If the Funk Firm Flamenca/2M Bronze is a bright, bubbly, though slightly high-maintenance blonde with a quirky sense of humour, toothy smile and easy laugh, the Pro-Ject “The Classic” SB Super Pack/Quintet Red is a quiet, composed, smouldering brunette with waves of chestnut-coloured hair and a crooked grin. The blonde might be the first one to catch your eye, but if you pause to notice the brunette she might be the one you ask for a slow dance.
I went for the smouldering brunette, but I’m buying her a small wardrobe makeover in the form of an Ortofon Quintet Bronze MC with a Fine Line stylus. I’ll get back to you on how that plays out.
Both turntables were a kind loan from Being There Audio in Orangeville Ontario. Thanks Peter, you’re the best.