As I looked at Music Hall Audio’s Classic turntable, there came to mind an old auto-racing adage: “If it looks right, it is right.” To this grizzled audio vet, the Classic looks right. But would it work right?
Music Hall Audio has a long-established reputation for the distribution and, more recently, manufacture of fine audio equipment. The company was founded in 1985 when Scots ex-pat Roy Hall ceased the Stateside manufacture, under license, of Linn speakers. At a time when the Compact Disc was all the rage, Hall had picked up distribution rights for the UK’s Revolver turntable, one of the premier budget decks of the 1980s. He then acquired distribution rights for Creek Electronics, and Music Hall grew from there. Now, 35 years later, President for Life Hall still runs the show and has, from what I read in the audio press, a well-deserved reputation as a character whose mission is to offer great audio gear.
Most Music Hall turntables are made in the Czech Republic, by Pro-Ject Audio Systems, to Music Hall’s specs, but the new Classic ($599 USD) is manufactured in China. Roy Hall explained: “We have been doing business with this company for many years (Our USB-1 [turntable] is made there). They started to come out with designs that were different from the ones offered by Pro-Ject. They also hit price points that were hard to beat. Our long-term relationship with them meant that we were first in line to help develop and bring these ’tables to market.”
The Classic seems to be very well constructed and well named -- in appearance, it reminds me of the Swiss-made Thorens and Lenco turntables of the 1960s and ’70s.
The Classic’s plinth is finished in glossy walnut, while the top of the deck and much of the arm is done in satin aluminum. The dustcover is hinged, as it was for most turntables in the days of yore. And the cast-aluminum platter’s felt mat is very Golden Age of Stereo.
From the top, the layout is simplicity itself. In the front-left corner of the deck are the speed buttons: one each for 33⅓ and 45rpm. On the rear panel, from left to right, are: a Phono/Line switch for selecting between the built-in phono stage and line-level output; the Right and Left Audio Out jacks (RCA); a ground post; an On/Off switch for the Auto Stop feature; a Power On/Off switch; and an input jack for DC power from the wall-wart transformer.
I found Auto Stop useful. When it’s activated, the Classic’s platter doesn’t start spinning until the tonearm is lifted off the armrest. At the end of the record side, the arm and stylus is then lifted away from the playing surface and the platter stops. I’m a great fan of auto-stop turntables -- it’s a great way to prevent undue wear of the record’s lead-out groove.
With a few of my LPs, Auto Stop took a few extra seconds to kick in. In automatic and semiautomatic turntables of the late 1970s through the ’80s, such as my Dual CS5000, auto-stop/auto-return was triggered by a cam -- this usually worked well. However, the Music Hall Classic’s Auto Stop is triggered electronically. “The auto lift works by sensing ‘quiet’ in the groove, thus sensing the end of the record,” Roy Hall told me. “Some lead-out grooves are ‘noisier’ than others, which makes for a longer lift time.”
The unipivot tonearm has a specified effective length of 221.5mm (8.72”) and offers all the standard features of a modern turntable: a gauge ring for setting the vertical tracking force (VTF), an effective tonearm lift, an antiskating control that corresponds to the tracking force set, and a removable headshell to ease the installation and swapping out of cartridges. The cueing lever is one of the better I’ve worked with: it lifts and lowers the arm slowly and, wonder of wonders, is more accurate than the cueing systems found on many other ’tables.
Other specifications: ±0.3% speed tolerance (measured with a 3kHz test tone), typical wow and flutter of less than 0.12% (at 3kHz), and a signal/noise ratio of, typically, more than 65dB. These are all competitive with other turntables in this price category.
The included Music Hall Spirit moving-magnet cartridge is built by Audio-Technica to Music Hall’s specs -- it’s a variant of A-T’s AT95 series, possibly the most popular cartridges around these days. The low mass of the Spirit’s cantilever certainly helps transient performance, allowing it to respond more quickly to sharp, high-level sounds. The cross-section of the replaceable elliptical stylus measures 0.4 x 0.7 mil -- a good all-around configuration. The Spirit generates a medium-level output of 3.5mV, ±2dB (1kHz at 5cm/sec), which should be enough for most phono preamps, integrated amplifiers, and receivers. The recommended VTF is 2.0gm, ±0.5gm.
Of particular note is the Classic’s built-in phono stage. Roy Hall: “We worked long and hard on the built-in phono section to make sure the gain and clarity was correct for the Spirit cartridge as well as other MM cartridges. We are really pleased with the results.”
I heard only very subtle and, ultimately, insignificant differences between the sound of the Classic through my Simaudio Moon 110LP v2 phono stage ($399) and through the Classic’s own. The Simaudio was marginally smoother through the highs, but that was it. And the Classic’s phono stage beat that of my Linn Majik-1P preamp, though not by much. In short, the Classic’s phono stage held up against some strong competition.
The Music Hall Classic comes very well packaged, and kudos to Music Hall for providing excellent, clearly written setup instructions. Between the text and the diagrams, anyone with a modicum of patience should be able to set up this turntable in half an hour or less. In fact, of the turntables I’ve set up for review, the Classic is among the easiest. The instructions cover setup in more detail than I give here, but the following should give you a good idea.
Following unpacking, the first step is to lower the platter over the center spindle. The drive belt is already mounted on the platter -- all you need do is position one of the large windows on the platter directly over the pulley, and place the belt over the pulley.
To install the headshell/cartridge on the tonearm, turn the lock nut to screw on and firmly affix headshell to arm. If you’re using the supplied Music Hall Spirit cartridge, all you need to do is move the front of the counterweight up to the crosshatch and the arm is set up. Couldn’t be much simpler.
If you've installed your own cartridge, the process is not much more difficult. The tonearm’s counterweight has an adjustable ring calibrated in grams, with which you set the VTF. Remove the stylus protector from the headshell, and adjust the counterweight until the arm is balanced, and floats horizontal to the top of the platter. Then, while holding the VTF ring and counterweight together, turn both to “2,” to set the VTF to 2gm. Set the antiskating control to “2.” Connect the dustcover’s hinges to the plinth, plug the power wart into the wall and the phono cable into your preamp, and you’re ready to play records.
There’s a story about how “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” from Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years, came to sound the way it does (LP, Columbia PC 33540). In 1975, when Simon and producer-engineer Phil Ramone were recording the album in New York’s A&R Studios, they’d tried a number of approaches to the song but hadn’t found one they liked. They broke for lunch, and when they returned, still unsure how to proceed, drummer Steve Gadd was warming up with some drum exercises. Simon and Ramone heard one of these patterns, looked at each other, and said, “That’s it!” They told Gadd to keep doing what he was doing, Simon picked up his guitar, and started singing “50 Ways.” When the rest of the crew came back from lunch, they cut the song to Gadd’s distinctive rhythm. Overall, the recording is a tour de force, with Simon’s wispy voice not greatly out front of the stellar backing band and singers.
Playing “50 Ways” on the Music Hall, I noticed the solidity of the bass line. It wasn’t overpowering or boomy, but it had a heft I haven’t heard with many other turntables. There was some sibilance on some of Simon’s words, but perhaps the cartridge wasn’t quite broken in when I started listening. The delicate hand cymbals came through crisply, and the drum line, of course, makes the song. The Classic did a fine job of reproducing the audioband, from the bass through the highs, and inspired me to play other cuts on this album, all with similar results.
I’ve often mentioned how much I enjoy “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” from Billy Joel’s Piano Man (LP, Columbia PC 32544). On the Music Hall Classic, the rather manic drum part sounded as intense and percussive as called for, with no slop and lots of body. The Classic and Spirit didn’t seem to dig as deep in the bass as do some turntable-cartridge combos, but solidity of the bass was there when needed. The string arrangement sounded as it must have been as intended to sound by all involved: of a piece, not individual instruments. Joel’s acoustic piano wasn’t quite as prominent as I’ve heard from some other cartridge-turntable combos, but that meant it didn’t overpower Joel’s voice, as sometimes happens. Joel’s saloon-piano figure in the final verse came across exactly as it should, and the intro still sounds like something Aaron Copland might have composed. All in all, mighty satisfying.
The recent death of singer-songwriter Bill Withers inspired me to pull out one of his best performances: “Just the Two of Us,” from Grover Washington Jr.’s Winelight (LP, Elektra 6E-305). From the get-go, there was no lack of bass punch. The aural images of the instruments in the break -- acoustic guitar, synthesizer, electric bass, steel and synth drums, and, of course, Washington’s evocative sax (there’s a lot going on) -- sounded nigh on perfect. And so, especially, did the pacing: every note from every instrument combined to create a beautifully coherent ensemble performance. And I heard almost no groove noise from this or any other cut I played, even on less-than-perfect LPs.
“Four Brothers,” from a half-speed mastering of the Manhattan Transfer’s Live (LP, Atlantic/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 1-022), offers a good sense of the size of the venues the vocal quartet played on the 1978 UK tour from which this album was excerpted, including London’s Hammersmith Odeon, which seats 3487. The Man Tran Band is tight, with an exceptional trumpet player with a sharp, almost percussive sound. One thing I hadn’t noticed before but did with the Classic was that the backing vocals had a real sense of physical separation from the band and superb blend among themselves. The bass was initially deceptive -- midbass notes were well controlled but not quite overdamped. On other cuts from this album I’d got the impression that the bass dissipated before going all that deep, but on “Four Brothers” it just kept digging deeper and deeper. In all, the Classic offered truly nuanced reproduction of low frequencies.
My main comparison recording was “Nunca Mais,” from guitarist Emily Remler’s Transitions (LP, Concord Jazz CJ-236). Remler was joined on this 1983 album by trumpeter John D’earth, double bassist Eddie Gomez, and drummer Bob Moses. “Nunca Mais” features driving rhythms, Remler’s exquisite guitaristry, and hot playing by D’earth. I first played the track several times on the Classic and concluded that it couldn’t sound much better. The trumpet licks came through with force and clarity. The bass solo, with incredibly quick fingerings, came across as very precise. A very satisfying performance by the Classic.
My combo of Sumiko Oyster Moonstone cartridge and Dual CS5000 turntable had a slightly brighter sound overall, especially the trumpet, as well as a bit more bass heft and possibly a hint more punch overall -- not worse, not better, merely different. Both turntable combos performed superbly; I could enjoy either over the long term.
I listened to a lot more LPs on the Classic than I’ve mentioned above, but the ones named told its story: This turntable has a well-balanced sound. I thoroughly enjoyed having the Classic in my system -- the end of the listening period for this review came all too soon.
Roy Hall pretty well summed up the Classic’s appeal when he told me, “Due to a shortage of high-end turntables in our line-up at Christmas time, I sold my personal [Music Hall] 11.1 and used a demo Classic to fill the hole. That’s over three months ago and I still enjoy listening to it every day.”
You, too, might enjoy it. At $599 and as plug’n’play as a ’table can be, the Classic is a must-audition. It’s a delight to use, and its included Music Hall Spirit cartridge extracts maximum information from the groove. And if your suite of electronics lacks a phono stage, no worries -- the Classic’s will do the trick. All in all, the Classic has the makings of . . . a classic.
. . . Thom Moon
- Phono stage -- Simaudio Moon 110 LP v2
- Turntable -- Dual CS5000 with Sumiko Oyster Moonstone cartridge
- Preamplifier -- Linn Majik-1P
- Power amplifier -- NAD C 275BEE
- Speakers -- Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer
- Interconnects -- Dual phono cable (captive), Music Hall, Straight Wire
- Speaker cables -- Acoustic Research (14-gauge) with Dayton Audio banana plugs
Music Hall Audio Classic Turntable and Spirit Cartridge
Price: $599 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.
Music Hall Audio
108 Station Road
Great Neck, NY 11023
Phone: (516) 487-3663