The Art Audio Composer-1, An Exclusive Review
I have had a visitor staying for a while in my HiFi system, one that turned out to be very welcome. The visitor is the new Composer - 1 turntable from Art Audio. Art Audio make some of the finest valve amplification systems on the market but this is their first venture into a front end and, as would be expected from a company of this calibre and a designer like Tom Willis, it is up there with the very, very best.
The history of this deck is interesting in itself. It’s made by Claro engineering who are primarily a company that specialises in aerospace medical and other precision engineering. Claro already make decks for other manufacturers, and they are award winning engineers, so so it was a logical place for Willis to go to to source his new deck. The turntable will be available in 3 levels of trim. Here I had the "basic", if you can call it that, Composer 1. From the moment I opened the box and saw the Composer nestled in its perfectly cut sorbothane packaging, I knew it was something special. The platter is machined from a solid piece of acetal, which is a low resonance plastic and the chassis is machined from a thick, solid sheet of aerospace grade aluminium (its worth remembering here that Claro Engineering are normally making parts for aircraft, satellites and the like) and the whole thing is delightfully simple to set up. One simply places the 3 huge, spiked feet on your HiFi rack, shelf or table and carefully place the approximately 10kg chassis onto that. One then removes the stopper that is protecting the bearing and places the small sub platter and bearing pillar into the hole. One thing about this deck is it has got plenty of torque. That is because it has twin motors, so one carefully places the belts onto the pulley and round the sub platter and having checked that they run free and in position, you take the 8.9 1kg acetal platter and gently place it on the sub platter. At this point, I lifted the area of the chassis above each of the feet and inserted the semi elastic suspension pieces that have been developed by Art Audio and checked that everything was level.
From a technical point of view, the Composer is a really interesting beast. As well as the already discussed aluminium chassis and the acetal platter, there is a white version with a clear, acrylic platter. The bearing itself is pretty special with a shaft made of 420 stainless steel that is hardened to 50 Rockwell. This is then coated with tin nitride, which brings the hardening to 400 Rockwell. The bearing is self lubricating, as it uses Oilite phosphor bronze bushes. One of the things that makes the deck image so well is that mechanical noise from the motors, which is already low, is reduced by 3 neoprene decoupling pods on the top of the sub platter, which has the effect of allowing the platter to float on the mechanism. Even the Art Audio record puck is decoupled from the top of the disk with these neoprene pods and the whole thing sits on 3 massive feet, which come to upward facing points which locate under the deck chassis giving it more decoupling from its environment. Further versions of the Composer will come with external power supplies, the “Phase Two” will allow selection of 33 or 45 without changing the belts on the pulleys and the “Phase Three” will allow users to get 78 RPM by putting the belts on the 45 groove in the spindles. As befits an amplifier manufacturer like Art Audio, it’s planned that these will be pure class A designs. The measured speed specs on the Composer-1 were an impressive:-
UNWEiGHTED WOW 0.151%
IEC WEIGHTED WOW 0.053%
ABSOLUTE SPEED WAS -0.2%
Checking with a strobe disk and Garrard precision strobe, showed rock solid speeds. Of course any mechanical device can drift in time and should this happen, the speed controllers will allow for the correction of this.
The turntable comes with an arm mounting that needs to be specified at the time of ordering, although they can always be changed at a later date. This one had a 3 point Rega Mount, so I put on a Rega P1000, though I could have asked for an SME Mount to fit the Series IV that I am currently using on my Michel Orbe SE. Fitting the RB1000 took just a few minutes as everything on the Composer was machined perfectly and it was just a question of passing the cable through the centre pillar and screwing the arm base into place. Next, I fitted a Goldring Eroica LX, which, at around £320 is one of the best "budget" moving coils on the market and I\'d like to thank Armour Electronics for the loan of 2 of these to enable me to do comparative reviews more easily. Alignment took no more than a couple of minutes with a protractor and everything was ready to go. The whole set up had taken slightly less than an hour. I also put an LX into the SME IV on the Orbe SE, although not ideal as I did not have a second RB 1000 it had to do.
The first album I put on was Pat Metheny from the 1984 "Works" album on ECM. Now I was prepared for this turntable to sound different to the Orbe SE, even though both turntables use relatively massive polymer platters but I was quite unprepared for both the extended dynamics and the sheer size of the Composers simply enormous sound stage. It was staggering. Each note had its own attack and decay and the sound stage stretched well beyond the speakers, in fact, beyond the boundaries of the room. So stable a platform is the Composer, that it allows every nuance that the arm/cartridge combination is capable of reproducing to be retrieved from the vinyl.
Moving on to the John Lee Hooker classic, "Live at Sugar Hill", which I believe was originally recorded in 1963, though the release I have is on Ace CH 287 and is dated on the sleeve as 1968. Timbre of Hooker\'s voice is so dynamic and powerful with the electric guitar being reproduced with amazing lucidity. The sparseness of "This World (No Man\'s Land)" being overwhelmingly emotional, intrigued by the way solo vocal was handled by the Composer, I wanted to have a more textured background. Although shunned by many purists, "Lady in Satin", one of Billie Holliday\'s last recordings with Ray Ellis and his Orchestra, CBS S52540. The version I have is from 1969 with a green CBS label, pressed in Holland and is a really good example of the record, which I have compared to my original 1958 issue and there is hardly a difference. As the track opens with strings, you realise this turntable\'s ability to reveal lushness in sound is second to none and the texture of Holliday\'s laconic voice comes in, followed moments later by drums and bass. The presentation is uncanny. One feels that Holliday is standing directly in front of you at an almost intimate distance, with the orchestra spread out behind her, going off into the distance. Listening to this recording, with its rich textures of strings, brass and bass, lifting the voice forward. One can understand why it was Holliday\'s favourite of all her albums.
Passing on from Billie Holliday and the zinging harps and lush strings of Ray Ellis, Solo piano has always been the achilles heel of many a fine turntable. Generally speaking, massive platter versions like the Orbe and this Composer have fared well in these stakes. The better direct drives, such as those by Denon, JVC and Technics have also done justice to piano and I can honestly claim to have heard good piano recordings played on simply hundreds of different turntables. Using a very good recording, Bernard Roberts Direct to Disk recording for Nimbus Records Beethoven Piano Sonatas Box Set (Nimbus) D/C902, was a revelation with the Sonata No 14 in C Sharp Minor (Moonlight) being at least the equal of any piano reproduction I have ever heard. With the dynamics of the Presto being almost other worldly.
The thing about the Composer is that it makes you flit from style to style, always wanting to hear open a window onto the music. I have played everything on this thing now, from early 70s Hippie Psychedelia in the form of Tonto\'s Expanding Head Band and their album "Zero Time" released in 1972 on Atlantic (K40251). This album has always been a challenge to reproduction systems with what can only be described as sheer base presence and amazing textural detail, all created on a Moog-3. The heartbeat on Track 2 Side 1 "Jet Sex" being possibly the best reproduction I have ever heard and I have been listening to this album since 1972.
I have been through large amounts of my record collection now, enjoying each disk more than the one before. The lucidity and coherence that the Composer brings to reproduction is staggering. I have also tried a number of different cartridges on it to make sure that it isn\'t just a particular synergy between the XL, the Riga and the Turntable that is so good. I have now tried cartridges such as the AR 77, Shure V15 Mk 3, Koetsu Rosewood Signature and they are all equally impressive, being allowed to work right up to their limits by the Composer. I look forward to getting an SME base to try my SME IV on the turntable and am looking forward to Art Audio\'s further developments, which are an improved suspension/isolation system and a facility to fit a second or even third arm on the deck.
Playing the same pieces on the Orbe was very good it had great width to the soundstage, but in some ways lacked the depth of the Composer. Likewise the dynamics while excellent were more “rounded off” in their presentation, the Composer having all the dynamicsIn conclusion, at £2,999, this deck, which comes complete with an Art Audio record clamp/puck, is incredibly good value for money. It also buys you in to the base unit, which can be improved with the addition of Art Audio\'s forthcoming power supply, which will allow 45 rpm to be accessed without lifting off the platter to change the belts and, of course, Art Audio being primarily an amplifier manufacturer, you won\'t be surprised that the power supply is very special and features a class A output stage. Various supports, lids etc will also be available for the deck, which will bring it up to the full Composer 3 specification. Truly, this is one of the most impressive pieces of kit I have heard for a very long time.
In addition to the records mentioned in text, during the evaluation of the Composer, I have also used Pink Floyd\'s "Wish You Were Here", JC33453, The Columbia Issue, an early pressing of Santana\'s "Abraxis" 64087, Miles Davies\' original first pressing on CBS 68236, "Bitches Brew", the Columbia Jazz Masterpieces remastered version of Miles\' "Sketches of Spain", Columbia CJ50578 and the HMV Golden Angel release of Bizet\'s "Carmen" with Maria Callas, SAN 140-1-2.
The Reference System
I used my normal reference system to test the Composer 1 The relevant parts of the chain the two cartridges used mainly a Goldring Eroica LX and also, a Koetsu Rosewood Signature in a Rega RB1000. A Moon LP3 Phono Stage which is powered by a custom built power supply from Dave Brooks at Mains Cables R Us. This fed into a Shushan Audio Passive Pre. This went to an Art
First front end from valve amp specialists Art Audio, the new Composer-1 turntable.
The impressively elephantine foot of the Composer-1
The double motor system and de-coupled sub-platter
The heavy de-coupled record puck
A Koetsu Rosewood Signature on a Rega RB 1000