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the funk firm
the Funk turntable and a few words on the Denon DL-103 cartridge
as reviewed by Steve Lefkowicz
This hi-fi hobby is full of ways of dividing its participants into opposing groups. Of course digital versus analog and tube versus solid-state seem to be the two most common, but there are several others, too. Push-pull versus SET, planer versus box, and high-efficiency versus high power are all areas that some audiophiles will take sides and argue about given the chance. Then there is the whole subjective versus objective thing, but I'll leave that to the various Internet discussion groups to battle about.
For the most part, I'm not too interested in choosing sides on anything to do with audio. I have both solid-state and tube amplifiers; I listen to both vinyl and digital, and have owned and enjoyed both planer and box speakers. I am far more interested in the end result of how something sounds than the technology used to achieve that sound.
But then, even within a given area, there are still many ways to divide and conquer. I'm sure at least some of you reading this remember the turntable wars of the early and mid 1980s, brought to you by those arbiters of official High-End Audio over at the Absolute Sound. Although it seemed like they were pitting the Linn LP-12 and the Sota Sapphire up against each other, what it really boiled down to was pitting two design principles against each other, mainly low mass versus high mass.
The general consensus amongst the TAS faithful was that high mass and lots of damping (the Sota and its ilk) was preferred over lower mass and less damped designs like the Linn.
Then as now, I put my faith in my ears rather than someone else's theoretical ramblings. I have since heard turntables of both high and low mass and both more or less damped designs that sound good and that sound less good. In other words, I thought back then, and still think now, that a good turntable design takes more than just a few basic design principles. Maybe it's all in the execution of the design?
Back in the 1980s, there were many turntable manufacturers experimenting with various design principles. Some looked to further refine or enhance the basic design of the Linn (itself a serious refinement of design principles from the early AR turntable), while others went more in the high-mass Sota inspired direction. One of the companies that went the low mass route was the UK built Pink Triangle.
The Pink Triangle was a fairly low mass design, and was apparently the first table to use an acrylic platter. They also used small low-torque DC motors, when common practice in high-end tables was to use AC motors. Though the original Pink Triangle was a generally good design, it had a reputation of being somewhat unreliable and rather quirky. The company continued into the late 1990s with its later tables having truly excellent reputations, but then closed up shop. One of its last products was a serious upgrade kit for Linn turntables (the Pink Link) that garnered very positive reviews.
The Funk Firm, as a company, is the resurrection of the principal designer and guiding force behind Pink Triangle, Arthur Khoubesserian. Though the Funk looks nothing like any of the PT turntables, a closer look shows it is based on most of the same ideas, but in a simpler, more efficient package. Imagine the sub-chassis of a PT table set on its own, without the spring suspension or encasing plinth. That is the basic formula for the Funk.
The chassis, a somewhat fluid looking lightweight Y-shape turned about ninety degrees, supports a tonearm on one end and the on-off-speed selector (33 and 45 rpm) on another. The motor, a very small DC motor (as PT always used), rests in line with the tone arm and main bearing (and between them). The main bearing is an inverted sapphire type. The three feet are isolated with Sorbothane and offer a degree of isolation for the table. All things considered, it appears to be a very simple design. The platter is quite special and is sold as a separate item for other tables as the Achroplat. This platter uses a material designed to "match vinyl records" and give 100% impedance matching. The material is made with (thousands? Millions?) of little bubbles formed inside, which allows it the ability to absorb and dissipate energy. The platter is also extremely lightweight. In fact, the entire turntable assembly including the platter seems to weigh less than the platter of the Linn LP-12 on its own. And high-mass fans think the Linn platter is too light already.
In use, the Funk was very basic and easy to use: put the record on the platter, turn the selector to the appropriate speed, cue up the arm, (the test unit came with a Moth MK1 version of the venerable Rega RB250) and enjoy. There are two potentiometers right by the speed selector to individually fine-adjust the speed to either 33 or 45. My test unit did come from the distributor running quite a bit fast, and I found that I needed to adjust it about once a month (using a VPI strobe disk). The procedure itself was quite quick and easy. After a few months the speed stabilized and needed no further adjustment, though I checked it weekly just to be sure.
Upon initial listening, the main characteristic seemed to be the sound of the still new Denon 103 cartridge that was supplied with it, (more on that later) rather than any major indication of the table itself. The highs were a little tizzy and the bass was powerful, though uncontrolled. I gave the table and cartridge time to work this out, and after a few weeks the sound had improved noticeably. Once the sound stabilized, I started listening more intently to formulate my opinions.
I found the overall character of the Funk/Denon combination to be a delightful mix of excitement and energy. This seems to be one of the characteristics that people who prefer low mass tables attribute to the design. Low mass expresses itself with a more overall energetic presentation, whereas high mass tables supposedly sound more damped or reserved. I'm not sure I buy that as anything more than a gross generalization, as I've heard some high mass tables sound explosively energetic, and have heard some low mass designs sound dull and uninvolving. I think it all boils down to the individual design and execution.
I listened to a wide variety of musical styles ranging from early 70 progressive rock, classical, jazz, movie soundtracks, and many of my favorite vocalists. There was clearly an overall quality to the sound of the table that made listening enjoyable, regardless of the musical style.
For example, a few of my favorite early progressive rock albums, such as Genesis Selling England by the Pound and Nursery Cryme (both Classic Records reissues), sounded brilliant on the Funk. The intricate work of Phil Collins on drums and Mike Rutherford's powerful bass were especially well done. Gabriel's voice was fully fleshed out and had the appropriate bite and wit about it.
On something a little more difficult (both to play back and to listen too) like Gentle Giant's The Power and the Glory, the constant variation in tempo or the fact that the two vocal parts (in "Cogs in Cogs") are in different time signatures, didn't faze the system a bit.
Large-scale orchestral work was very well presented. I played a variety of older DG and Philips records—works by Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, and Schoenberg—and found all to be thoroughly agreeable. No part of the music was unnaturally highlighted, or none was subdued. Von Karajan's early 1960s Beethoven symphonies still sounded better than his late 1970s releases. Kubelik's BPO recording of Dvorak' New World still had the most exciting third movement I've heard on record. The scale was there, the definition of the various orchestral sections was appropriately delineated, and the house sound of both the DG and Philips recordings was clearly evident. In smaller scale chamber music the intimacy of the music (if it is there on the record) was preserved.
On some good old rock LPs, starting with The Who's Who's Next, it was all good. Again, there was the power, the energy, and the detail. The ability to go from Roger Daltry's attempts at subtlety (as in "Behind Blue Eyes") to his more overbearing form in "Baba O'Riley", was genuine and successful. On Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds From Her to Eternity, the intensity of Cave's piano and voice was thrilling, especially in the song "St. Huck".
Looking at it more generically, I viewed the Funk Firm table (with the Denon 103 cartridge) as a complete success. For the last 20 years or more, whenever the discussion tended towards "affordable turntables" the quick and easy answer has always been something with the word Rega in it. Still, all these years later, the Regas stand as affordable, high quality, reliable systems that work, and work better than most anything else in the respective price point. The Funk, which sells for $1159 with the Moth MK1 arm, costs more than the Rega P3-24 and less than the Rega P5. Quite honestly, I feel that the Funk, more than any other table I've heard in this price range, stands as a serious challenger to the claim of besting the Rega at its own game.
One of the biggest challenges the Funk might find in the marketplace has to do with many audiophiles' perception of what a high quality turntable should look and feel like. Those still thinking High Mass will certainly look elsewhere, though it would be to their detriment not to give the Funk (or other low mass tables) a serious look and listen. For others, there is the fact that there are many turntables in the general price range that have more of a high-tech look; being all acrylic and clear, and spacey looking. Products from Clearaudio or Transrotor come to mind. The Funk, at least according to some of the friends that saw it while it was at my house, thought it looked somewhat "toy-like". I think they miss the point. The Funk looks the way it does because that is what the designer felt worked best, and I'm sure it looked good to him. I think it is a very cool looking product.
I also think it is a very cool sounding table, and should definitely be a must listen for anyone thinking of a turntable in this, or even a higher, price range. Well done Mr. Khoubesserian! Steve Lefkowicz
Acoustic Sounds, Inc.
The Denon DL-103 Cartridge - A brief opinion
As with many things in this and other hobbies, new is usually hot and last year's products usually get forgotten. Some manufacturers keep basic products on the market for longer periods by upgrading and changing them—like with Mk2, Mk3, or Signature editions. But usually within a few years, most products are either replaced with newer designs, changed greatly, or are simply taken off the market. The Funk Firm table was, as mentioned in the table review, delivered with a classic Denon 103 cartridge. This cartridge has been on the market for decades, as it was introduced in 1963 with apparently little or no changes.
Of course, people looking for new cartridges are looking for just that, new cartridges. What is the new hot ticket for better sound? What made the Class A list or the received five stars or has all the internet buzz? That's what people are looking for, I suppose. But what about those of us who want or need a new cartridge, want really good sound, but don't want to spend in the four-figure range to get it? What is out there at affordable (or maybe I should say reasonable) prices that can really get the job done? Looking over the various catalogs and Internet shopping sites, there are actually quite a few cartridges that purport to be serious products (as opposed to those for the DJ market) and sell for under $1000. I personally have never used a cartridge that sold for more than about $700, and have very happily used a Dynavector 19A for several years now (a limited edition cartridge that was pretty much the 17D body with the 20X stylus assembly). It is beautiful to listen to, and I've never felt a need to spend more money on a cartridge. However, I do know a lot of people still want to spend less.
I first heard a Denon 103 way back in the mid 1970s when I was in college. A friend had one on a Lenco table, with modified Dyna tube electronics and stacked Advent speakers. That was one of the nicest systems I ever heard, though I'm sure my memory of it is better than the reality! However, I still remember how the owner of the system carried on about how big of an improvement his system achieved when he installed the Denon cartridge—he had only had it a few weeks prior to the first time I had listened to his system. All these years later, I finally was able to try a Denon 103 myself, and I think I can see why the enthusiasm had started way back when.
For only $229, you get a cartridge that actually gets just about everything that is important to music right. No doubt the spherical stylus doesn't dig out all the details that the more exotic stylus shapes do, but I think this may be the point where the Law of Diminishing Returns has its first major inflection point. Once broken in, this cartridge offers up substantial levels of power, excitement, dynamics, and boldness. There is nothing timid or laid-back about the sound of the DL-103. Some may actually find it a bit much, but music is dynamic and bold and needs to be reproduced as such.
The DL-103 can do more than just "big and bold". Is has nearly perfect timing, and never gets ruffled or confused with complex music. Think of some rock albums where you have four or five instrumentalists all doing their own thing in a jam, and still being able to pick out every line so one can clearly hear what each band member's performance. The DL-103 can do that. Listen to a soaring vocal, such as Crystal Gayle singing "Old Boyfriends" from the Tom Waits soundtrack to One From the Heart and hear how there is no sense of strain, but a great sense of emotion and involvement. Listen to the later part of "Lament", from Red Queen to Gryphon Three (by Gryphon) as the various acoustic and electric instruments (including bassoon and Krumhorn) play against other and see just how good a "cheap" cartridge can sound.
Compared to my more expensive Dynavenctor, I can hear that there are some limitations in the DL-103, though they are indeed small. The Dyna does extract more subtlety; especially in the higher frequencies, as well as a little more air and transparency. The Denon does sound a little more powerful in the bass range than the Dyna, though the Dyna wins out for detail and clarity. The Dyna also offers up a more integrated sound stage even if the Denon's is somewhat larger.
However, I still have to look at the fact that the Denon sells for only $229. Based purely on its ability to make music on records sound great, and to mate up extremely well with the Rega arms, I have to think the DL-103 is one of the few true bargains in the hi-fi world. I'd say the new hot ticket has held that position for about forty-five years! Steve Lefkowicz