A Statement Product For The Rest of Us – The Absolute Sound
Listening to the superbly recorded track “Gone” from Melody Gardot’s first album Worrisome Heart [UJC] on Werner Roeschlau’s new Analog Manufaktur Germany (AMG) Viella 12 (or V12) record player, I had one of those goosebump-raising moments that occasionally make this tired old hobby of ours seem brand-new again. In this case it wasn’t just because Gardot sounded “real,” although she did (and for a good deal more than a moment); it was also because she was sounding real via a turntable/tonearm that (cartridge aside) was virtually the least expensive item in my system. Thanks to the Raidho C 1.1s I’ve gotten used to this sort of thing—well, more used to it—at least when I play highly select LPs back via the $90k Walker Black Diamond Mk III, the $100k+ AAS Gabriel/ Da Vinci ’table newly equipped with Da Vinci’s superb Master’s reference Virtu ’arm, and (the “bargain” of the bunch) the $38k Acoustic Signature Ascona ’table with Kuzma 4Point ’arm that I reviewed in our last issue. But via a $16.5k record player? That has seldom happened before (and over the years I’ve reviewed several such products). Yet… this time it did.
Oh, the bass wasn’t as rich, full-toned, and bloomy as it is through the Walker or Da Vinci (although, frankly, the Ortofon cartridge is probably part of the reason for this, as bass-range fullness and warmth are not its foremost virtues), and maybe the stage wasn’t quite as wall-to-wall wide or deep as it is through those über ’tables (although there’s a bit of ditto in this, as well), and maybe tonal balance was a little on the leaner, “top-down” side overall (triple ditto), but when it comes to that elusive combination of image focus and extremely low-level timbral, textural, dynamic, and performance-related details—coupled, of course, with the absence of hi-fi artifacts like grain, color casts, and resonances—that makes a well-recorded singer like Gardot sound “really there” as opposed to “hi-fi there,” the AMG V12 simply has the magic touch.
As I said in my review of the (much more expensive) Walker Black Diamond Mk III in this issue, audio is a game of inches, and the difference between a presentation that doesn’t quite “fool ya” (even though it may sound great in many hi-fi ways) and one that does (at least on the right cuts) is a step function. Some systems just can’t negotiate that itty-bitty distance between the lip of the next step and its landing. All other things being equal, it takes a great source component (and a truly great source) to give a stereo that final boost up. Judging by what I’ve heard, the Viella 12 has to be considered a great source component.
How this came to pass is anything but a lucky accident. From the age of 14 AMG’s chief cook-and-bottlewasher Werner Roeschlau was trained as a machinist. He subsequently studied mechanical and aeronautical engineering and went to work for the huge German electronics firm Siemens before becoming an airline pilot for Lufthansa—a life experience that comes into play, oddly enough, in the design of his tonearm (see below). Werner indulged his lifelong passion for machining, engineering, and audio by opening his own machine shop north of Munich (for which, see my sidebar), where he uses almost 1 million- euros worth of CNC lathes, mills, and saws he’s purchased to manufacture turntable parts and sub-assemblies (and other precision items) for well-regarded European hi-fi firms. Since retiring from commercial aviation in 2005, it is only relatively recently that he has turned his talents (and his CNC machines) to the production of his own line of ’tables and ’arms, the AMG V12 being his first effort. (There will be others.)
Like the Acoustic Signature Ascona, the V12 uses a beautifully crafted (though not as massive) plinth, CNC-milled from a billet of water-cut aircraft-grade aluminum and fitted with three retractable aluminum feet tipped with steel-copper spikes. Three hex-head bolts and a bubble-level built into the top of the plinth make the precise leveling of these feet a snap. (The plinth can also be had with optional hardwood trim.)
The Viella 12’s 12.5″-wide, twenty-four-pound platter is also CNC machined in-house from aircraft aluminum, with a weighted rim for an enhanced flywheel effect. To provide locomotion for this platter, a precision-made rubber belt runs from the pulley/flywheel of the V12’s two-pulse, brushless 24V DC motor (housed on the plinth but acoustically decoupled via five constrained-layer metal/rubber mounts) to an aluminum subplatter fitted with a hardened 16mm axle-bearing—CNC- machined and lapped in-house. The axle is itself constrained in the bearing well by two sealed, dynamically-lubricated radial bearings and statically-lubricated axial bearings.
The outboard power-supply for the turntable motor attaches to the motor housing via a supplied umbilical. Speed is selected via three lighted capacitive buttons built into the plinth—one for 33.3 rpm, one for 45, and one for 78. (The selected button changes color and intensity to indicate that it is the one that is “on.”) The Viella 12 has perhaps the most elegant speed- adjustment procedure of any turntable I’ve used. You simply hold down whichever speed-button you want to adjust for five or six seconds, which puts that speed into “memory mode.” You then press one or the other of the remaining two buttons to gradually increase (topmost of the two) or decrease (bottommost) rotational speed as your strobe or software indicates. It is a simple and fool-proof system of extremely high accuracy of .1%. Every turntable should be this easy to work with.
As elegant and beautifully made as his turntable is, it is Roeschlau’s dual-pivot tonearm that is the star attraction. Even though it doesn’t look like much at first glance—a twelve-inch- long, perfectly straight, pencil-thin, black-anodized, aircraft- aluminum arm-tube with a shiny, two-piece, decoupled stainless- steel counterweight at its bearing end and a black headshell at the cartridge one—this nondescript item involves a truly ingenious bit of engineering that, as far as I know, has never been implemented before in a tonearm.
As I said earlier, Roeschlau is an aeronautical engineer who spent several decades piloting international flights for Lufthansa. He not only flew jet airplanes for a living; he also flew gliders and helicopters. And it is the latter that gave him the idea for his unique toneram bearing. Apparently, ’copters use thick “spring-steel wires” to keep their rotors precisely aligned in the rotorheads. Thinking that a bearing that was good enough to keep high-precision, high-torque mechanisms like helicopter rotors precisely aligned and constrained was good enough to keep a high-precision, low-torque tonearm in place, Roeschlau adapted the idea to fit his V12. Using two 0.5mm-thick spring- steel wires he created a helicopter-like vertical tonearm bearing. It may sound a bit wild (and it is certainly unconventional), but judging by the sonic results his spring-steel bearing works exceptionally well, not only constraining vertical movement but also allowing fine azimuth adjustment while simultaneously eliminating bearing-chatter (as there are no bearings to “chatter”). The V12’s horizontal bearing comprises hardened tool-steel axles “precision-ground to a backlash-free fit with needle roller- bearings.” Once again, judging by the incredibly high resolution and extraordinarily precise, lifelike imaging that this ’arm is capable of (which, in my experience, bespeaks superb tracking and tracing), it too works like a charm.
Not only is Roeschlau’s ’arm a veritable sonic vacuum cleaner when it comes to the recovery of low-level detail, it is also highly and easily adjustable. An acoustically-decoupled precision locking system built into the bearing housing allows you to change VTA during play, while acoustically-decoupled magnets also built into the bearing housing provide adjustable (and defeatable) magnetic anti-skating.
Even though I’d heard the AMG V12 sound great at several different trade shows, in rooms that were either nominated for or won my Best of Show awards, I didn’t honestly expect it to compete with my far-more-expensive references. And, to be fair, in certain hi-fi respects it doesn’t, though the degree to which it falls short of the these much pricier ’tables and ’arms depends a bit on the cartridge being used. I’ve mentioned the V12’s tauter, somewhat leaner and less bloomy deep bass, its slightly (and I mean oh-so-slightly ) less expansive soundstaging, and its cooler, “top-down” tonal balance, though the Ortofon A90, as noted, is certainly playing a highly significant role in all three of these areas, as well as in the V12’s strengths. (With the fuller, richer, less “analytical” Goldfinger Statement, for example, the AMG is considerably fuller and richer in bass and balance, bespeaking the V12’s exceptional transparency to sources, though it is still not, let it be noted, quite as full and rich in bass or balance as the Walker, Da Vinci, or Acoustic Signature with the same cartridges.) Nonetheless, the little that the Viella 12 may be lacking here and there is overwhelmingly made up for by its core strength. Let’s face it: When it comes to high fidelity, realism (on those records that are capable of sounding realistic) is the whole she-bang. Everything else doesn’t matter—or doesn’t matter nearly as much. And, as noted, this contraption sounds real.
Lest you think the V12 is a one-trick pony, its fool-you- realistic presentation isn’t restricted to female vocalists. Yeah, it’s thrillingly “alive” sounding on Gisela May’s contralto on Eterna/ DG’s marvelous recording of Brecht and Weill’s mordantly amusing
Seven Deadly Sins. But it is just as alive with the four male singers who make up May’s “family” (the bass sings her mother!) or with the clarinet, dobro, and cymbals on the aforementioned Gardot disc, or with Ran Blake’s silvery piano and David Fabris’ dark, slashing guitars on NoBusiness’ piquant Third Stream LP Vilnius Noir, or with the beautiful LSO strings, winds, and brasses on RCA’s famous recording Venice (though no stereo system I’ve heard can reproduce the scale and scope of a symphony orchestra). From the bass right through the ceiling, this record player/cartridge is capable of extraordinary low-level resolution, natural timbre, lightning transients, and (as noted) the kind of 3-D imaging that makes instrument and voices—wherever they are located on the stage—“pop” into lifelike presence, replete with the realism-enhancing performance-and-engineering details that tell you, for example, exactly how a singer in shepherding his (or her) breath, what parts of his chest, throat, mouth, and nose he is using to invest the words of a lyric with expressive color and narrative power, and where he is standing vis-à-vis the microphones and other singers/instruments on stage as he performs.
As was and is the case with the Raidho C 1.1, the secret to the Viella 12’s success is not just the more it is supplying in the way of information, but also the less it is adding while doing so. Like the great Raidho, through most of the audio range the V12 has the kind of grainless transparency that allows you not just to see into but to almost see through the images of instruments and vocalists—to the back of the stage and the other instruments and vocalists behind and around them. There is no opacity—no transparency-obscuring color cast or scrim- like texture—blocking your view of the music-makers. So many audio components subtly insert themselves between you and the soundfield, adding just enough of their own electro-mechanical emphases to let you know they’re there and thereby reduce the transparency of the presentation (when the recording being presented is transparent). The V12, for the most part, does not. It has, through almost its entire range, the peerless, unobstructed, see-through purity of the best sources, analog and digital. In my previous experience, only the finest turntables and tonearms have been consistently able to do what the AMG V12 does (at least with the Ortofon MC A90 or Goldfinger Statement in its ingenious tonearm)—and, let’s face it, you have to be filthy-rich to afford a Walker or Da Vinci, and still pretty damn well-heeled to opt for an Ascona. Obviously, this feat of engineering smarts and manufacturing prowess earns my warmest recommendation (and sincere applause). Like the $17k Raidho C 1.1 (or the, alas, discontinued $4k Ortofon MC A90), the Analog Manufaktur Germany Viella 12 is a relative rarity—a truly first-rate (and truly original) audio component that, while by no means cheap, is still within the financial reach of folks who aren’t made out of money. The V12 may not give you everything that a Walker, Da Vinci, or Acoustic Signature gives you, but what it does supply on select recordings—the extended sense that you are in the actual presence of real performers in a real space—is more than enough to justify its price and this rave.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Unsuspended, belt-driven turntable with integral tonearm, outboard motor controller, and screw-down clamp
Dimensions: 20 5/8″ x 8″ x 12 7/16″
Weight: 56.4 lbs.
Price: $16,500 including 12″ tonearm and wood skirt; $17,000 for black lacquered skirt $15,000 with no skirt; AMG 1.5m DIN to RCA tonearm cables: Basic for $300, Special for $600, or Deluxe for $1500
MUSICAL SURROUNDINGS (NORTH AMERICAN DISTRIBUTOR)
5662 Shattuck Ave.
Oakland, CA 94609