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REVIEW: Walker Audio Proscenium Gold Signature Turntable Turntables

64.12.102.169


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Model: Proscenium Gold Signature Turntable
Category: Turntables
Suggested Retail Price: $20,000 +
Description: Reference Air bearing turntable w/linear tracking air-bearing arm
Manufacturer URL: Walker Audio
Model Picture: View

Review by vinyl_mike on December 16, 2001 at 07:53:19
IP Address: 64.12.102.169
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for the Proscenium Gold Signature Turntable


So, you’ve spent your entire life tweaking for countless hours. Nothing could sound better. Right? Wrong! Nothing that I have heard during the past 25 years could begin to prepare for the arrival of Lloyd Walker and his Proscenium turntable.

Let me say up front that I have absolutely no relationship with Walker, except as a new customer. Actually it was quite by accident that I found the Walker Table. While surfing the net I came across a reference to the Walker. I pulled an archived copy of The Absolute Sound and realized that Walker Audio was but a mere 15 minutes from my house. I called Walker, an animated and affable man, who invited me to his home to hear the turntable in his system - a system that is reminiscent of something one would see in a 50’s sci-fi movie. Omega cables with their shielding were strung everywhere, carefully positioned so that one never touches the other – all attached to wood boxed active shielding devices. Amps were tubed beasts tweaked by Walker with their covers off. Speakers were Merlin. Resonance controlled discs and Valid Points were everywhere. The centerpiece of the system was of course the Proscenium turntable sitting in the center looking more like an industrial sculpture. A Clearaudio Accurate cartridge was installed, which by coincidence, had similar sonics to my Discovery. The system was positioned in a virtually empty somewhat square room, devoid of almost any acoustical room treatments – not the best traditional recipe for great sound. Having brought several records, I sat in a solitary chair in the center of the room. Lloyd lowered the needle, and for over an hour I was mesmerized. I heard detail and information that I swear I never heard before. I know it’s a cliché, but it was as if I was hearing my cherished records for the first time. Yes, I know that some might attribute the sound to the other pieces in his system – which is vastly different than mine. How do you separate the turntable from the system components? Good question. That is why I focused on the information retrieval and detail, not the total qualities one normally attributes to speakers or amps. With this said, this still was some of the finest sound I have ever heard – I was drawn in. Lloyd began to explain and show how the many design elements of turntable design contribute to its sound – and not just VTA and VTF. Walker is fanatical about vibration control, resonance dampening, power quality, cables, and polarity just to name a few. I was hooked. I had to have it. So what if my children don’t go to college, so what if I tapped my retirement fund. We’re talking something special here. Four weeks later Lloyd, and his partner Fred Law, delivered the unit.

There are a lot of technical vinylholics out there, with far more knowledge than I. You might think that you truly understand the intricacies of vinyl reproduction. With all due respect - you don’t. I learned more from Lloyd in a few hours, than in most of my 45 years of reading and hands on vinyl experience. The man is an amazing combination of audiophile, engineer and endless tweaker.

I apologize for the length of this “review” but I thought that it might be interesting to describe not only the sound, but also the entire process of purchase and installation along with some of my interactions with Lloyd Walker.


Description

The turntable operates using two separate systems. First, an air supply system is contained in a 5 cubic foot black wood case, looking somewhat like a large subwoofer and containing a compressor/pump and several dampening chambers and filters. This part of the system produces two separate air streams: one 7psi and one at 45psi. The air is filtered, damped, cooled and connected to the turntable system using dual runs of 100’ plastic tubing. Impurities are removed to .01 microns significantly lower than the Rockport. The Air supply is extremely quiet and in my opinion could reside in your listening room if necessary, but ideally it should be placed in another room. Since my listening room is located in a finished room in the basement, placing the air supply in an unfinished room was simple. An on/off toggle switch is located on the pump case. The pump is not designed to be left on continuously.


The turntable itself is best described as “industrial elegant.” The base is black and brass cast from crushed marble and lead, and is gorgeous. There is no doubt that with this in your room, you indeed have something special. As with many of Lloyd’s components, lead plays a major factor in his fanatical desire to damp spurious vibrations and resonance. My system contained the automatic air suspension. The base rests on three “legs”, each containing an industrial air bladder inflated from the high press feed from the 45-psi air supply line. Small air chambers are located between the suspensions. Walker claims his automatic air suspension is superior to the Vibraplane. I cannot verify this. However, my previous reference was the VPI TNT IV. As a former owner of both VPI suspension systems – springs and air, I find the air system preferable with deeper bass, and better definition

Platter
The platter is 70 lbs. of lead. There's that resonance control obsession again. It is slightly smaller than a record with the label area machined out. This allows records to be forced flat with the heavy solid brass record clamp. I asked about vacuum hold down and Walker cringed. Essentially he said that vacuum pumps are noisy creatures, placing unwanted high frequency vibrations from vacuum seal leaks at the worst possible location – the record / stylus interface. His system works. I have yet to find a record that did not lay absolutely flat against the platter.

The platter is supported on a zero friction air bearing. Walker claims a theoretical advantage to even the Rockport design. I can’t comment on that, but just for fun, I disconnected the drive belt and spun the platter by hand. Thirty minutes later the platter was still turning. That’s low friction. Also, the inertia of 70 pounds of spinning lead certainly overcomes the drag induced by the stylus on the record.

The tone arm assembly is essentially two reinforced carbon fiber tubes joined at right angles. One slides through a solid brass manifold block containing eight high-pressure jets (45psi) that float the air in a rigid air bearing. Again, the air bearing is so friction free that while fully counter balanced, I gently blew on the side of the tone arm and the arm floated across the entire top of the record. The other tube is the tone arm, wired with medial grade silver wire – the stuff used by surgeons to connect the ear to the brain. A full range of adjustments are possible, including VTA and VTF, azimuth and the ability to change the center of gravity for the tone arm assembly depending on the cartridge weight. A dampening trough is behind and under the tone arm. A thin pin attached to the arm extends into the trough, which is filled with silicon (I think) fluid. A small paddle can be raised or lowered into the fluid – thereby displacing more or less fluid and raising or lowering the fluid level. The higher the level the more the tone arm “pin” drags in the fluid and the more dampening there is. The dampening is much simpler and more elegant that I described.


Motor
The Drive motor, in a matching crushed marble enclosure, sits on Valid Points on a separate base. The motor, wired with silver wire and premium capacitors, is a low torque instrument grade AC motor. Sometimes the motor does not have enough power to start the platter spinning by itself. Periodically, it will just kind of vibrate when first turned on. A gentle helping push on the platter and everything spins up to speed in a few seconds. Given a design choice, sound quality wins out over convenience. A screw assembly adjusts the tension on the ¼” silk belt.

Motor Controller
The Walker Motor controller provides the motor with clean and accurate AC power. As a result of Lloyd’s gentle persuasion, I opted for the reference controller with a Teflon board and Walker’s proprietary nude metal resistors. I saw the output of this device vs. line AC input, displayed on a scope. We are talking a perfect sine wave compared to the garbage coming in. The unit is similar in purpose to the VPI SDS unit. Having both at my disposal, prior to installation of the turntable, I did a mini shootout between the Walker and VPI on my old VPI system. The Walker unit produced musical images with slightly more solidity. Once set, the speed does not vary regardless of incoming power. My KAB strobe showed absolute rock stability with the Walker, but I had to re-strobe my VPI at each start-up. Not major adjustments, but adjustments nonetheless. Speed changes are toggled on the front panel on both units. The Walker has a nonfunctional on/off switch. It is now designed to be left on continuously. Why? Again because it supposedly sounds better with the switch disconnected. Speed is adjusted by turning small screws with a jeweler’s screwdriver. The VPI has more elegant flat membrane speed adjustments with digital readouts. The Walker has an esoteric adjustment on the side, which reverses the internal phase. Supposedly, absolute phase affects the drive motor and one setting will be better. I have not critically experimented, so I can’t say. The Omega Micro cord is recommended, but in my short audition, I did not hear an improvement, so I passed. Although I prefer the Walker unit, the difference between the units is not nearly as great as difference between using one of these and not. I would recommend anyone with an AC turntable motor to audition one of the two.


Installation

This is not a one-person installation. It involves multiple crates weighing about 300 pounds and this does not include the stand, which has to support this weight. Fortunately, due to our close proximity, Lloyd and Fred installed the unit. Although it appears complex, a reasonably competent person (with a helper) can install it without factory assistance in about a day. I understand that about one-half of the tables are self-installed.


I will not detail the entire installation process, which took the manufacture about 4-5 hours. However the major steps are:
1. Determining the location for the air pump requiring an electric outlet
2. Run the plastic air tubing from the pump to turntable
3. Assemble the table, air suspension, and air bearings
4. Level the system
5. Install and align the arm

Once the above is done, the cartridge is installed. An alignment record is supplied with alignment marks. The arm is slid in or out until it tracks the alignment marks from beginning to end. Azimuth is visually adjusted. And the arm is locked in place with setscrews.

VTF is adjusted via a threaded counter weight system attached to the end of the tone arm assembly. Adjusting the counter weight angle adjusts the center of gravity of the tonearm. VTA is changed by another threaded nut at the base of the tone arm. Neither is adjustable during play.

Now the fun began. We spent few hours of “dialing-in” the VTA and VTF – each somewhat affecting the other. Small adjustments made big differences, at least with my Discovery cartridge. After the VTA and VTF were optimized by ear, a small amount of dampening was applied. The sound smoothed out, and soundstage increased -especially depth.

I played non-critical recordings and used the Cardas record to break in the wires for about a week.


My system, History and Biases

Before I describe the sound, a little about my system and my listening biases. Although I appreciate the technical achievement of equipment; the music is what really counts. The “goosebump” factor matters most. I have always been drawn to the musical experience of vinyl. To me it is more emotional, exciting and holographic. I have never been able to duplicate these experiences with digital. I have stayed away from the intense debate of CD vs. vinyl. I know that some argue that with vinyl you are hearing distortion - pleasing euphonic distortion - but distortion. To me it does not matter, I just find vinyl far more exciting than digital. I have listened to high-end digital and have found the Levinson separates and the Accuphase to be superb, but in direct comparison using the same recording, vinyl always wins out IMHO. I have the Sony SACD. Rich, Sweet (as opposed to the sometimes-harsh digital sound) and open - however I still come back to vinyl. I love the "goosebump" factor when music sweeps you away and you temporarily lose track of reality. Neither my wife nor I have found a CD that matches or exceeds its vinyl counterpart. Well, that is my vinyl bias. The real issue is that one derives pleasure from his/her system. If a person enjoys digital sound…. Great! That is what our hobby is all about. I never try to "convert" someone to vinyl - I respect their choices.

As for my vinyl quest. My first great table was the Linn LP12. Wonderful sound, but in retrospect, my system at that time was not up to the level of the Linn. I moved to VPI and finally ended with the TNT (III to IV), Graham and Audioquest 77fe. This combination was my vinyl standard for over 7 years. It gave me my education about sound staging, depth, imaging and all the other buzzwords which define our audio vocabulary. As you know the Levinson equipment can be ruthlessly revealing. As I moved up the Levinson line of electronics, the VPI was always up to the challenge - it was never the limiting factor in my system. My electronics are Levinson reference with Wilson X-1 speakers. Predecessor speakers included Von Schweikert VR8’s, Thiel 3.6, Wilson CUBS and others. Today, the system resolves like no other I have ever heard. I have traded long hours at work for large and small improvements in my system. My goal is the 3D holographic presentation of music. That, for even a small amount of time, I can suspend reality and believe that that the performers exist in real space before me, - certainly an elusive goal. I favor speed, detail and transparency, over warmth and romantic lushness.


Sound
My comments here are all in comparison to my VPI-IV/Graham 2.0 combination, which I have lived with, in various upgrade stages for almost 7 years.


As to the sound …. We are talking an order of magnitude better than the VPI. The solidity of the sound images is amazing. In a darkened room the sound just emerges from blackness. With proper tuning and tweaking, you get an enormous 3D picture with front to back depth better than I have ever heard. A larger, stable, transparent sound stage, with faster dynamics and better harmonics, without grain or glare. Pitch stability matches that of CD’s. Wow and flutter just don’t exist.

Individual instruments became more defined. The soundstage floats in the room seemingly removed from the physical speakers, which at times appear to disappear. The only area where digital exceeded vinyl performance was bass detail and extension. The Walker makes me question that assumption. I am hearing low frequency information that I never knew existed. Try listening to Duets with Rob Wassermann. The clarity of the strings being plucked is amazing. What used to be somewhat blurred notes are now distinct.


Possibly because of my room acoustics, soundstage depth has always been slightly shallow. It is now doubled. There is almost an uncanny ability to hear the original recording reverberations and decay when play non-multimiked recordings. It might be a cliché but it is appropriate: the Walker system removes multiple veils between you and the music. Instruments appear from a deep blackness as never before.

Obviously I had never done a direct comparison of the Clearaudio Master Reference. I doubt that few people outside of The Absolute Sound have. However, a Clearaudio dealer has heard the turntable and was very impressed stating that it was among the best he has ever heard. I did have concerns about the reliability of the Clearaudio reference and the amount of work required to really get it to “sing”. As to the Rockport, I cannot imagine that the sound is three times better based on price, but this is only a guess. Maybe Stereophile will test the Walker someday.

Do not infer that the VPI/Graham is not an excellent system. If I never heard the Walker I could have lived happily with the VPI forever. It is just that Walker, to my humble ears, is significantly better.

Maintenance
Aside from a few routine chores, the system requires relatively routine maintenance. Condensate water from the pump/filter system must be emptied monthly – about 10 seconds. Compressor oil needs bi-annual checking. Does seem a little odd though buying Mobile 1 motor oil for your turntable. The air-bearing arm is self-cleaning. There is really not much work for such a complex beast.

I had one nagging worry prior to purchase. Walker Audio is a small company and the turntable is a large investment. What if the table broke, Walker Audio closed and Lloyd disappeared back to his nuclear instrumentation roots? I discussed this openly with him. The short answer is that not much can ever go wrong with the table in normal use. There are only two mechanical parts which could break – the motor and compressor, and apparently these are commercially sourced and available in the open market. This is without a doubt a lifetime purchase

Operation
Really pretty simple – turn on the compressor, wait a minute or two, and turn on the motor. Place the record on the platter and manually press it flat, tighten the record clamp and you’re ready. Dampening can be adjusted during play – all other adjustments cannot.


Quibbles /Weaknesses
Except for the discussion of price, the overall the quibbles are minor.

Price
On an absolute basis one might say I am crazy. But compare to what you get in the system and the quantum improvement in sound it actually might be a decent value for the money.

VTA
Admittedly, the Graham’s ability to adjust VTA during play has spoiled me. Not that the Walker is difficult, but the Graham is so easy.

Cueing
Again the Graham has really spoiled me. Its silky smooth damped cueing was a delight. I would lower the cueing lever, the needle would slowly drift down and I could be comfortably seated when the music began. The Walker lets the needle descend at the speed of your movement of the cueing lever. Boy, that has taken some getting used to. Also, a screw on the cuing mechanism came loose and the arm came down unexpectedly, bouncing the needle across the record. Ugh! A simple tightening solved the problem, but from a usability standpoint I’ll take the Graham cueing any day.

Platter rotation
Sometimes you have to start the platter spinning with your finger. Not a quibble but definitely an idiosyncrasy.

Pump on/off
I forgot to turn off the air pump on several occasions. Late nights, a few glasses of wine and I am off to bed. Only to awaken, trudging to the basement to switch off the pump, since it not designed to be left on continuously. Such are the trial and tribulations of an audiophile’s life…


Cartridge Alignment
Again there is nothing like the Graham’s see-through plastic alignment jig.

Tweakability
The knock against the Walker, courtesy of Harry Pearson, is that it can be tweaked to almost any sound and therefore does not have a sound of its own - therefore how do you review it? I guess that he is correct. Pressure settings, VTA, VTF, Azimuth, Center of Gravity, Damping and resonance control all have an audible effect on the sound. It is an interesting philosophical debate, but I don't care. Every turntable and arm has adjustments; the fact that the Walker has more adjustments is meaningless to me. It is easy to use and I am finding new and amazing enjoyment from re-listening to all my old and new records.


Reference records
These were used primarily for the above discussions – all highly recommended.

Dynamics
Big band Jazz (Umbrella D to D)

Large Orchestrations & Soundstage
H-Fi A La Espanola (mercury)
Stravinsky: The Firebird (mercury)

3D Recreation of Instruments
The Warm Sound, Johnny Coles Quartet
Jazz at the Pawnshop

Transient Response
Dafos
Time Out, Dave Brubeck

Female Voice
Janice Ian, Breaking Silence; Lori Lieberman, House of Whispers; Ella Fitzgerald, Clap hands

Male Voice
Nat King Cole (DCC); Roy Obison (DCC)

Wrap Around Sounds
Bridge over Troubled Waters, Baby Driver tack (Classics); Santana Abrarxas

Vocals
Weavers Reunion at Carnegie Hall

Bass
Eagles, Hell Freezes over; Rob Wassermann, Duets

Rock
Led Zepplin reissues; Aja; Rough Trade Live; Styx;



Product Weakness: Price? Wish it had damped cueing. VTA not adjustable during play. Have to remember to turn off pump. No major weaknesses
Product Strengths: Amazing ability to extract information from the record. Removes the veils between you and the music. Incredible bass. Should last forever.


Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: Levinson 33h's
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): Levinson ref 32 w/phono
Sources (CDP/Turntable): Proscenium Gold Signature Turntable, Sony SACD
Speakers: Wilson Grand Slamm X1 series 3
Cables/Interconnects: Transparent reference Speaker and interconnect; Nordost quatrofil phono cable
Music Used (Genre/Selections): See review
Room Size (LxWxH): 23 x 17 x 8
Room Comments/Treatments: Echo busters and diffusor wall panels; Argent room lens; ACS bass traps
Time Period/Length of Audition: 90 days
Other (Power Conditioner etc.): Furman balanced power; MIT ISO for digital
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner




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Topic - REVIEW: Walker Audio Proscenium Gold Signature Turntable Turntables - vinyl_mike 07:53:19 12/16/01 ( 12)