Tech Trends 2013: Audio Page 6

Tremendous Turntables
Groove with the latest in vinyl playback

You might think that by now, they'd have thought of every possible twist on the turntable. But every year new models emerge - and as improbable as it may seem, some of them actually sound better than the older models they replaced.

One new 'table that's sure to sound better is the newly upgraded Pro-Ject Essential, the company's leastexpensive model at just $299. The debut last year of the terrific Debut Carbon left the Essential looking too downscale, so Pro-Ject took the higher-quality tonearm off the step-up Debut III model and put it on the Essential. The Essential uses an MDF platter instead of the Debut's aluminum platter, but still, it's probably the best deal going in an under-three-bills turntable. We heartily recommend the red version over the black or white models.

If the upgraded Essential still isn't upscale enough for your tastes, step up to the Music Hall Ikura, the result of the company's efforts to rise above the staid industrial design of its other turntables. The Ikura's plinth and platter are made from MDF. The tiny dots accenting the plinth evoke caviar, which is what Ikura means in Japanese. A Music Hall carbon-fiber tonearm is included, tipped with the company's Magic 3 cartridge. Instead of marring the Ikura's look with the usual ugly dust-cover hinges, Music Hall used a simpler, sleeker, and more stable grommet system. The basic Ikura will run $900 to $1,000 in white, black, or "black on black" (with a black gloss finish and matte black "caviar" pattern). An SE version with an acrylic platter and upgraded cartridge and plinth feet will run $300 to $400 more.

While Pro-Ject and Music Hall were busy upgrading, McIntosh was downgrading by introducing the MT5, a less expensive version of its $9,500 MT10. The MT5 carries over the MT10's coolest feature: its green-lit acrylic platter. But it does away with the MT10's second-coolest feature: its green-lit platter-speed meter. The MT5's chassis is also a little less robust - a small sacrifice indeed when you consider the MT5 will sell for $2,500 to $3,000 less.

If $9,500 sounds like an incredible price to pay for a turntable, you'd better sit down before I tell you about the TechDAS Air Force One, a new $125,000 Japanese turntable that attempts to define a new state of the art in vinyl playback. The entire turntable weighs about 160 pounds. The stainless steel platter, which weighs about 60 pounds, floats on an air bearing for ultra-smooth operation. A vacuum system sucks the record down onto the platter so that it's held firmly flat and can't slip. Before you go checking your PayPal account to see if you've got the scratch for the Air Force One, realize that the tonearm is not included. The Phantom II Supreme tonearm, from TechDAS's U.S. importer, Graham Engineering, might seem a suitable match, but at $5,500, it actually seems a little déclassé for the Air Force One.