Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

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When I was a mere cub, I yearned for a mono “hi-fi” (on my budget, stereo was out of the question). I saved up my allowance and paper-route bucks, bought a 15W mono integrated amplifier and a basic FM tuner from RadioShack, and was given a 12” full-range speaker from a neighbor, a hi-fi fan. My final purchase was a Voice of Music (aka V-M) record changer. It came with a dopey ceramic cartridge that I, in all my teen wisdom, was determined to replace with a grown-up magnetic cartridge. At a local hi-fi emporium I found a used Empire 880P, which actually fit the arm’s headshell (though the vertical tracking angle must have been horrendous).

The Empire’s suggested vertical tracking force (VTF) was 3gm or less, and I knew that the ceramic cartridge supplied with the V-M ’table must have had a VTF of 5-6gm. I fiddled with the spring that set the tonearm’s balance, but goodness only knows what the resulting VTF was -- probably somewhere between 1 and 19gm. Anyway, the result played what I wanted. I was happy. Such was the life of the know-nothing neophyte music addict in 1964.

Things have changed a lot in the 55 years since. The $30 I paid for the V-M and the $15 for the Empire are the equivalent of $367 in today’s dollars, per the Consumer Price Index’s Inflation Calculator. If only today’s offerings for that price had been available back then!

For instance, today we have Fluance. Based in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Fluance began in 1999 by making loudspeakers, and later added turntables to their very affordable offerings. I’ve reviewed their XL7F tower speakers (now discontinued) and their RT81 turntable (SoundStage! Access, July 15, 2017).

Recently, Fluance has expanded their turntable line with the four models of the new Reference range: the RT82 ($299.99), RT83 ($349.99), RT84 ($449.99), and RT85 ($499.99). The subject of this review is their top model, the RT85 (all prices USD).

Fluance

All Reference models appear to share the same basic drive system, tonearm, and suspension. The low-RPM, DC-powered motor is connected to a servo that monitors the motor 500 times per second, then adjusts its speed to keep the platter rotating at precisely 33⅓ or 45rpm. The static-balanced tonearm has an S-shaped armtube and a standard (H-4), bayonet-mount headshell. The RT85’s adjustable antiskating is much easier to set than the weight-and-thread system on many basic turntables.

The Reference models are different from Fluance’s other turntables in their supplied, pre-mounted cartridges and in the material used for their platters. The RT82 has an aluminum platter and an Ortofon OM10 moving-magnet with elliptical stylus, a cartridge that has been around for a couple of decades, and has a fine reputation. The RT83 has an aluminum platter, but ups the ante with Ortofon’s 2M Red MM cartridge with elliptical stylus ($100). The RT83 has also gotten very good reviews -- including a rave from publisher Doug Schneider in his “System One” column in our sister publication SoundStage! Hi-Fi. (Ortofon came up with the 2M series to improve on their longtime price champs, the OM models.) The RT84 includes a metal platter and the next MM up in Ortofon’s line of 2M cartridges, the 2M Blue (about $235); the diamond tip of its “nude” elliptical stylus is mounted directly to the cantilever, an assembly that has a lower total mass than the diamond stylus of the 2M Red, which is mounted to a steel shank affixed to the cantilever. According to Ortofon, this allows the 2M Blue to retrieve more information from the groove. The icing on the cake of the top model, the RT85, which also includes the 2M Blue, is an acrylic platter, whose greater density and mass reduce noise and deviations from the desired speed.

I chose to review the RT85 because I felt it offered the greatest overall value, and because its price puts it in direct competition with a number of other popularly priced turntables. I’d marveled at the RT81 when I reviewed it, and wondered if the RT85 would represent a big step up from it in sound quality.

Description

All Fluance turntables are attractive, with plinths and top decks of MDF finished in high-gloss black or walnut veneer, and heavy-duty dustcovers mounted on sturdy hinges. The matte-black, S-curved aluminum tonearm has an effective length of 8.82” (224mm) and a standard, removable headshell, to make swapping cartridges easy. A distinctive aspect of the RT85 is that it has only three adjustable feet, each of an unusual design that Fluance calls “acorn-shaped.” The RT85 measures 16.5”W x 5.5”H x 13.75”D and weighs 16.76 pounds.

Ortofon’s 2M Blue MM cartridge has high output (5.5mV) and a wide frequency range (20Hz-25kHz, -3dB). The RT85 has no internal phono preamplifier. If your preamp or integrated amp has no phono stage of its own, you’ll need an outboard phono stage.

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Unlike in many belt-drive turntables, the RT85’s platter doesn’t sit on a subplatter that’s actually driven by the belt -- its 12”-diameter, 0.62”-thick, three-pound platter of clear acrylic is directly driven by a flat rubber belt that’s 6mm wide (just shy of 1/4”).

To the right of the tonearm pivot are the antiskating adjustment knob and the cueing lever. The only other control on the RT85’s deck is a knob in the deck’s left-front corner that has three positions, labeled thusly in this order: 33, Off, and 45. When the RT85 is powered on by turning this knob to one of the two speed settings, a small, bright white LED at the base of the knob lights up. On the rear of the plinth, on a small metal panel, are (from left to right): two gold-plated output jacks (RCA), a ground post, an Auto Stop switch (more about this below), and the input jack for the outboard wall-wart power supply.

The RT85 comes with a 45rpm record adapter, a good set of 1m-long phono cables and a ground wire, and a spirit level for adjusting the three acorns -- I mean, feet. They aren’t listed in the owner’s manual, but my review sample was accompanied by a pair of white cotton gloves. “They come with all of our Reference models,” a Fluance representative told me. “With the gloss finish, we have had positive feedback on the gloves to eliminate fingerprints, and have decided to keep them around. Their use, of course, is optional.” The RT85 is accompanied by a thorough owner’s manual, and is covered by a two-year limited warranty and “lifetime” customer support.

Most of today’s turntables are entirely manual in operation, or include auto return: At the end of a record side, the tonearm is automatically raised and returned to its armrest. Auto stop is halfway between those functions: At the end of the side, the platter stops but the stylus remains in the groove. The Fluance RT85 is one of the first auto-stop turntables I’ve seen since the 1970s, and in my review sample it didn’t always work.

Setup

The Fluance RT85 Reference’s carton is compact but sturdy, and well enough designed that, despite the box’s having received a couple of dings in shipping, the turntable itself was unscathed. Setup was more complex than with some turntables, simpler than with others.

Having unpacked the RT85, you begin setting it up by lowering the platter down onto the bearing spindle. The motor is mounted in the left-rear corner of the plinth; to protect it from dust, you place the included cap atop its pulley. Then you loop the drive belt around the pulley and the platter -- the belt’s flatness makes this easy.

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Slide the counterweight into the tonearm’s stub until it clicks into place, then insert the headshell and premounted cartridge in the arm’s business end. The manual recommends that you then mount the dustcover hinges and the dustcover itself, followed by leveling the turntable by adjusting its feet, which is required for optimal performance.

Probably the most fiddly part of installing the RT85 is also the most crucial, in terms of accurately tracking a record groove: setting up and adjusting the tonearm. Remove the cartridge’s stylus protector, position the arm over the platter, and use the cueing lever to lower the arm, but without letting the stylus touch the platter. To balance the arm, rotate the counterweight until the arm floats horizontally, parallel to the platter. Next, line up the “0” on the counterweight’s indicator ring, which can rotate separately from the counterweight, with the line inscribed on the arm shaft.

That done, turn counterweight and ring together until the latter indicates a VTF of 1.8gm, as Fluance and Ortofon recommend for the 2M Blue. If you have a VTF gauge, it won’t hurt to use it to double-check the accuracy of the RT85’s counterweight calibrations.

The last step is to set the antiskating dial to 1.8gm. This will help keep the arm, which naturally wants to pivot toward the center of the record, centered over the groove by exerting a counterforce in the opposite direction.

On the rear panel, plug the phono cable into its RCA jacks, connect the ground wire to the ground post, insert the plug of the power supply, and plug the wart into the wall.

The last step is to select whether or not you want to use Auto Stop. When this rear-panel switch is set to Off, the platter begins spinning as soon as the knob on the front of the deck is switched to 33 or 45, and continues to spin even after the stylus reaches the lead-out groove at the end of the LP side. With Auto Stop switched to On and a speed selected, the platter won’t spin until the arm is raised from its rest position, and will stop spinning when it reaches the lead-out groove. Both Fluance and I recommend using Auto Stop.

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Doug Schneider found the RT83 a bit hairy to set up, and I can see why someone unaccustomed to setting up turntables might have trouble. But the RT85 is about as plug-and-play as turntables come. Turntables can be a slight hassle to set up, but usually you need do it only once. And, as Fluance mentions in the manual, if you have any trouble with setup, videos and guides can be found in the Support area of their website.

Listening

One of the first things I learned about the RT85 Reference’s operation is that while its cuing is damped when lowering the stylus, it isn’t on the return trip. Exercise care when using the cuing level to raise the tonearm, to prevent it from bouncing around and possibly harming your LP and/or the cartridge. Fluance’s brand-marketing specialist, Madison Clysdale, emphasized this: “We always recommend the customer to use both the finger lift on the headshell as well as the cuing system to prevent unwanted damage to the stylus,” she told me. “The cuing lever should remain up until you are ready to drop the stylus. With the cueing lever up there should be no worry about the stylus making unnecessary contact with the record surface.”

Although the RT85 Reference was not as sensitive to shocks as some turntables I’ve reviewed, it was pretty sensitive -- the stylus could bounce if I subjected the RT85 to undue movement. I don’t think the exclusion of a fourth foot is the cause. Fluance’s Madison Clysdale told me that “The rubber acorn-shaped feet we developed to improve isolation from the resting surface. Additionally we reduced from 4 feet to 3 feet to further aid isolation from the contact surface to reduce micro-vibrations that could negatively impact performance.” That all makes good sense.

After some ten hours of silently playing LPs on the RT85 to break in the stylus’s suspension, I sat down to do some critical listening, beginning with “Money for Nothing,” from Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms (12”, 45rpm LPs, Warner Bros./Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 2-441). Immediately, I heard outstanding punch from the kick drum, rock steady and accurate speed, and a forward, vibrant sound overall. Mark Knopfler’s voice was right up front, with the backing vocals just a tad behind, as they should be. The drum kit, as usual, sounded about 75’ wide, and the guitars were crisp. No doubt about it -- this turntable could rock.

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I continued with one of my favorite cuts, “Finally Found a Reason,” from Art Garfunkel’s Fate for Breakfast (LP, Columbia CK 35780). The entire sound was bright, crisp, and clear. The depth of the soundstage wasn’t exceptional, but still reasonable. The blend of Garfunkel’s voice with those of his backing singers was quite fine, with just the right balance between lead and support.

It wouldn’t be one of my reviews if it didn’t include a listen to “You Can Call Me Al,” from Paul Simon’s Graceland (LP, Warner Bros. 25447-1). First impression: “Boy, does this cartridge have bass slam!” The drums and such were meaty and right there. Simon’s voice was well out in front of the band and the backing singers, and the pennywhistle in the break sounded wonderful -- great tone, with no screech. This turntable-cartridge combo helped me realize that the tom-tom beats are backward as they ramp up in volume, only to end in a very sharp transient.

One of the most luscious voices ever recorded is that of the late Karen Carpenter. Her contralto was so rich, her delivery so expressive, that she could have made a hit record by singing the want ads. Playing “Rainy Days and Mondays,” from Carpenters (LP, A&M), I found that the RT85 could do a good job with imperfect vinyl -- my copy has a serious warp, but the Fluance tracked it perfectly. This performance was fantastically recorded and produced. It was interesting to hear the delicacy with which the wood block was played, and how dynamic the harmonica solo sounded.

For decades, a test of a turntable-cartridge combo’s competence has been its ability to trace the groove of the recording of military artillery included in Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (LP, Telarc DG-10041). This is one test the Fluance didn’t pass: When it hit the first cannon blast, the stylus jumped rather badly. But unless you plan to make this recording a part of your daily listening, I wouldn’t turn up my nose at the RT85. With at least 95 out of 100 records, it will cause you no heartbreak.

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The recording of “Four Brothers” on The Best of the Manhattan Transfer (LP, Atlantic SD 19319) is chock-full of transients -- those sharp-sounding bursts you hear in many recordings. This is very much the case in the trumpet passages of this track, but the Fluance and Ortofon traversed that aural minefield without a scratch. The words in this performance fly past almost too quickly to understand, and some turntables are better than others at making them intelligible. The RT85 and 2M Blue fell into the “better than others” category.

The acoustic piano is considered by many to be the most difficult instrument to accurately record and play back, for its combination of transient and sustained sounds, its broad frequency range, and the effects made possible via its pedals. I could hear no fault in the Fluance’s reproduction of “Kathy’s Waltz,” from the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Take Five (LP, Columbia 8192). Brubeck’s piano imaged solidly, with good transient response when needed, and fine reproduction of sustained notes. Paul Desmond’s alto sax, too, sounded glorious.

A recording that includes a wealth of transients is “Getaway,” from The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire (LP, ARC/Columbia 35647) -- its drums, percussion, guitars, and especially its trumpets, can sound almost like a long series of firecrackers going off. No problem for the Fluance RT85 -- it got up and did the requisite boogie, and turned out to be a good player of soul as well as jazz and rock records.

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I compared the Fluance RT85 Reference with my trusty Dual CS5000 turntable with Shure V15 Type V-MR cartridge. New, the Dual-Shure combo would probably cost more than the Fluance by several hundred of today’s dollars. I played Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” through both rigs. The Fluance-Ortofon combo offered a brighter sound, with crisper highs and a more prominent high midrange; the Dual-Shure was superior in the lower mids, including Simon’s voice. The bass was a draw: the Fluance-Ortofon’s somewhat more immediate sound was countered by the Dual-Shure’s less busy, more solid approach.

Conclusion

Fluance has done a fine job with the RT85 Reference. I was impressed. It ran quietly, motor noise never contaminated its exceptionally good sound, and it played most LPs, no questions asked. It has a couple of shortcomings, one minor (the bounce of the tonearm if raised too quickly), one a bit more serious (sensitivity to shock). However, if you take care in positioning the turntable and raising its arm, all should be well.

Ortofon’s 2M Blue cartridge is a fine match for the Fluance RT85, with a bright, fast, sparkling sound. Fluance has come up with another very nifty turntable that combines high qualities of sound and craftsmanship at a more-than-reasonable price.

. . . Thom Moon
thom@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Turntable -- Dual CS5000
  • Cartridge -- Shure V15 Type V-MR
  • Phono stage -- Simaudio Moon 110LP v2
  • Preamplifier -- Linn Majik-1P
  • Power amplifier -- NAD C 275BEE
  • Speakers -- Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer
  • Phono cables -- Fluance (supplied), Dual (captive)
  • Interconnects -- Straight Wire
  • Speaker cables -- Acoustic Research (14-gauge) terminated with Dayton Audio banana plugs

Fluance RT85 Reference Turntable with Ortofon 2M Blue Cartridge
Price: $499.99 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

Fluance
4080 Montrose Road
Niagara Falls, Ontario L2H 1J9
Canada

Website: www.fluance.com