Associated Equipment:
Digital Front End
Amplification
Loudspeakers
Cabling
The ELP Laser Turntable

Perfect Analog Sound Forever At a Price

Ralph Glasgal
www.ambiophonics.org

3 March 2000

Specifications

ELP LT-1XA Laser Turntable, $20,500.00, 30-50 rpm and 60-90 rpm, inc. switched equalizer, line-level output, air shipment, and HW-17S record cleaning machine. ELP LT-1LA laser turntable, 30-rpm, inc. air shipment and VPI HW-17S cleaning machine, $13,500.00.

Manufacturer:
ELP Corporation
3-10-1 Minami Urawa,
Urawa-shi, Saitama 336, Japan;
phone 048/883-8502,
fax 0-48/883-8503;
e-mail: elpchiba@interlink.or.jp;
website at www.elpj.com.

North American Distributor:
Andy Obst,
5 Timber Ridge, Los Alamos,
NM 87544; phone 505/662-1415,
fax 505/661-9068,
e-mail: andyobst@aol.com.

"The almost complete lack of serious playback harmonic distortion and the really flat and wide frequency response, free of resonance’s, from the ELP is a revelation..."

This is not an April Fools joke! Yes, Virginia, there really is a turntable that plays LPs (and even 78s) optically, that performs this function to the highest audiophile standards and that is now readily available at a rather high, but now more reasonable price than when first announced under the Finial aegis in the late 1980s

Anyone, with hundreds if not thousands of LPs, 45s or treasured 78s or anyone convinced that analog recordings musically outperform digital ones should begin saving up for the ELP Laser Turntable LT-1LA which sells for $13,500 including the very effective VPI HW-17s cleaning machine. While this seems like an outrageous price to pay for a turntable to play recordings, stored in what most people would consider to be an obsolete form, the recently announced Domus turntable and arm designed by Ben Ghibaldani goes for a cool $12,750 and that price doesn't include the cartridge, yearly needle replacement, a cleaning machine, and your records will still wear down, so obviously the analog beat goes on.

Since I have thousands of LPs and some hundred 78s (mostly vocal, acoustical, pre 1927) that I treasure, I decided the time had come to see what a laser turntable could do and review it, since this technology, coming so late in analog recording history and just after the advent of the CD, has never received the attention in the audiophile press it might otherwise have deserved. The secretiveness and ineptitude of Finial's public relations during the early days of the development of this device did not endear the company to editors and reviewers who largely treated the company as an improbable joke.

ELP Comes of AGE

It started for me when I found, quite by accident, a website describing an updated version of the Finial now made in Japan by ELP. The ELP Corporation's turntable seemed to be a truly reliable, Japanese made version of the ill-fated American Finial design. Indeed the Japanese company has now sold something over 200 of these machines each one hand made to order and to make a long story only slightly shorter, this optical thing works better than any record player I have ever used or tested. It is worth every penny they are asking for it if you value the complete absence of:

  1. horizontal tracking angle error

  2. leveling adjustment worries

  3. inner groove distortion

  4. channel balance error

  5. stereo crosstalk

  6. anti-skating compensation need

  7. acoustic feedback problems

  8. locked groove problems

  9. problems tracking warped, cracked, or eccentric records

  10. cartridge hum pickup

The payoff for eliminating all these cartridge playback defects is the startling clarity and musicality of the sound stage that is thereby delivered.

The almost complete lack of serious playback harmonic distortion and the really flat and wide frequency response, free of resonance’s, from the ELP is a revelation, particularly with early stereo LPs that are minimally mic'ed and therefore capable of producing exceptionally vivid stage images especially when listened to with the acoustical stereo crosstalk cancelled. Early reviews of the Finial criticized it for not being able to track the higher frequencies, but ELP now claims response to 25 kHz and using one of my old test records I was able to confirm essentially flat response up to 15 kHz using an oscilloscope. At least to these ears, that have admittedly lost their upper octave, the frequency response of the ELP is clearly better than that of any cartridge I have ever owned.

Having a laser turntable makes it possible to play LPs as one would a CD.

That is, one can select a particular track to play, repeat it or the entire disc virtually any number of times, program a group of tracks to play in any order, pause, etc. It also has a draw like a video laser disk player that opens and closes at the touch of a button and, mirabile dictu, it stops automatically at the end of a record and even turns off its ac power after a few minutes. It displays track or disk time elapsed, time remaining, and other CD like things. It performs some functions a CD player does not do including changing playback speed in increments of .1 rpm.

Some Not Audible Downers

Its major defect is the lack of a remote control to take advantage of all these CD like features, though I am told that the hooks for such a remote control, are on the board. Since, despite its CD like design, it is still a 100% analog device as far as the signal path is concerned. But since the reflected light signal from the groove wall is not digitized, there is no SPDIF digital output. The LT-1XA even has only a cartridge level output of 12 MV and so must go to the low-level input of a preamp. The more expensive LT-1LA, which is the unit I tested, has an RIAA equalized line level output but it is inexplicably anemic at only a few tenths of a volt and so one needs plenty of gain in the balance of the system to achieve a normal listening level. Another factor to consider is that laser diodes do not last forever. ELP rates theirs at 10,000 hours which is a reasonably long time. The replacement cost is a tidy $1500. But there is a real risk that they will not be around to supply the part or to help you install it when the time comes. I would therefore suggest that you stockpile a spare laser replacement assembly with instructions if you expect to use the turntable a great deal.

Deluxe Model Plays 78s

The LT-1LA, which costs a whopping $20,500, not only eliminates the need for a preamp but also adds the ability to play 78 rpm records, even antique ones, which is no mean feat. A handy outboard high and low frequency passive adjustable filter and a groove wall selector switch are provided to enhance 78rpm mono or mono LP reproduction. One can read the sum of both groove walls or just the inner or just the outer groove wall. I soon discovered that the inner wall of most of my 78s was much better preserved than the outer wall. Reading just the inner wall of most acoustic 78s of the Caruso/Galli-Curci era produced amazingly quiet and undistorted results apparently because the heavy sound boxes and arms of the old acoustic horn players wore the outer groove wall more than the inner groove wall as the heavy arm was pushed solely by the outer groove wall toward the center of the record. In any case it is gratifying to listen pleasurably to a rare record which otherwise seems unplayable.

Dirt Is Where You Find It

Both ELP models allow the angle at which the laser hits the groove to be slightly varied. This feature sometimes makes it possible to compensate for some types of groove damage or manufacturing idiosyncrasies. The fact that the laser pickup illuminates and sees the entire groove wall from top to bottom means that any dirt mite in the groove will cause a click. This is the major disadvantage of this perhaps all too accurate playback technology. Thus ELP includes a top of the line VPI record cleaning machine with each turntable and you better use it. Playing an uncleaned and unvacuumed stereo LP on the ELP is not anything you will do twice. Uncleanness is unlistenableness. It is dismaying to realize just how much crud lies in the groove of just about any LP including even those virgins never before played. However, after proper cleaning, the velvety almost CD like quiet is a pleasure to experience and, in most cases the reproduction is as tick and pop free as cartridge reproduction. The ELP units do include what they call a noise blanker. It can be switched in or out but I could never hear a difference and, like most analog noise reduction circuits I have tried, this one doesn't seem to do anything.

The knowledgeable Andy Obst, (505-662-1415) ELP's moonlighting U.S. reseller, (in real life Andy is a nuclear physicist) offers the Cedar DC-1 Series 2 De-Clicker for use with ELP players. This professional all digital unit did do a dandy job at eliminating almost all those remaining clicks and pops which are probably not caused by dirt. The DC-1 can also be used as an analog to digital 48 KBPS SPDIF converter making the ELP a stronger contender in a 44.1 KBPS CD world. It can also digitize using 20-bit resolution but I did not use this option. Having a high quality, quiet, digital signal at standard level makes it possible to use the ELP player more easily in the new digital surround sound systems that include 7.1 processing and ambience recovery for two channel music sources and I have had considerable success playing my library of old SQ encoded LPs this way. But at $10,000 for the DC-1, one must have a very strong aversion to vinyl playback ticks and pops.

ELP Demo On The Web And In Your Home

ELP now has an elaborate 28 page website at, www.keyserve.net/elp, that includes specifications, an order form, testimonials, answers to questions, a history of the company (it used to be BSR) etc. While some of it is written in Japanese English, it is well worth a visit. It includes a 20-second sample of music played with a regular unnamed cartridge and then with the laser player. Unfortunately I could not decode this file using Netscape but Internet sound quality is usually so poor as to make this kind of demo futile. I had better luck with the video clip that shows how the five laser system keeps its two groove reading lasers focused and on track. ELP used to sell its turntables through representatives in a variety of countries but now it is putting the emphasis on direct sales. For $500 a gentleman of Japan will come to your house and demonstrate the player. The $500 will be credited if you make a purchase but first must be paid out in real paper bills when the demonstrator crosses your threshold and the money is forfeit if you don't eventually buy an ELP turntable.

The Bottom Line

I am absolutely enthralled. I hadn't listened to any of my LPs in over two years (despite having a Versa Dynamics air-bearing turntable) and now I can't stop playing them (Ambiophonically of course). The best-kept secret in the audiophile world is that the optical laser LP disk player really works. While there is still the occasional tick or pop (without the Cedar DC-1), I can begin, for the first time to appreciate what the analog aficionados are so enthused about. I still believe that digital is a more accurate and reliable storage medium than the analog LP. But the temptation by today's recording engineers and CD producers to use digital video recording gimmicks such as panning, excessive multi-mic'ing, spot mics, ambience enhancement etc. make many classical CDs less musical and less psychoacoustically rational than older analog recordings that of necessity had to be made simply and honestly because hokey post processing tools simply were not available.

If you want audiophile caliber analog sound forever without the cartridge/arm-tweaking hassle, the ELP Laser Turntable is the way to go.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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