Our first turntable of three this issue (Sound+Image Feb-March 2017, digital issue available here) is a masterpiece of understatement — it’s low, it’s black, there’s no massive logo on the mat, a marked lack of bling, an exercise in restraint. But what about this high-res audio logo on the right side of the plinth? This is vinyl — analogue, not digital; how is it high-res exactly?
Sony’s turntable is, itself, analogue, of course. And it can be used like any other turntable, with its moving-magnet cartridge playing at phono-level into a phono stage or the phono input of an amplifier. But it also has an electronics section within. This includes its own phono stage, so at the rear you can flick a switch to deliver a line-level output instead, making the Sony suitable for any amplifier, whether it has a phono input or not.
But there’s more — there is also a USB-B socket, with a cable provided to link to your computer, so you can record easily from the Sony.
Recording direct to computer from a turntable is nothing new — there have been USB turntables available for years now, and before that various companies offered (and still do) ‘vinyl recording’ boxes which provide an interface from phono output to USB input. The software bundled with these is most commonly some version of Audacity, the free multitrack recording software.
But Sony has gone one level above such a freebie inclusion, offering its own software for PC or Mac, and doing the conversion at high-res levels rather than ‘CD quality’. And why not? Ever since the arrival of CD, vinyl fans have been claiming the black discs as superior to the silver ones, and if skyrocketing the sampling rate can capture some of that goodness, well, why not?
As for the PCM versus DSD debate among high-res audio fans, Sony neatly sidesteps that by having software that can record either — indeed anything from 16-bit/44.1kHz to 24-bit/192kHz in PCM, and 2.8 or 5.6kHz DSD (Sony, of course, co-invented DSD with Philips for the SACD disc format). Both are capable of results far in excess of CD quality.
The straight tonearm is around 22cm long, with an integrated lightweight shell, which certainly keeps things solid; you can make the usual cartridge alignment adjustments using the top screws, not that any was required. Sony doesn’t specify a stylus replacement, but the common recommendation seems the same as for the Audio-Technica turntable here, a $30 ATN3600L stylus.
Set-up also had similarities to the Audio-Technica — the same aluminium platter but here anodised black, an identical system for getting the belt on the pulley using a red ribbon, same 45rpm adapter in the box. But here the plinth is more solid, the speed control a stylish dial, the mat a substantial one of thick rubber. The arm is far longer at 221mm (better for lower tracking distortion), with a calibrated counter-weight and anti-skating dial. Set-up was still simple, though — follow the manual and it’s all very easy.
The most fiddly part may be the actual socketry, deeply indented under the back of the turntable, so that unless you can easily turn your table around at the end, you’re best making all the connections at the very start of set-up rather than, as the manual would suggest, the end.
We began listening to the phono-level output through a high-quality phono stage, and fished out a pristine copy of Genesis’s ‘Foxtrot’ (2009 180g and yes, digitally remastered). Horizons was a delight, the acoustic guitar tones on this pristine and silent piece of vinyl delivered with almost master-tape clarity over a silent background. The ups and downs of Supper’s Ready were well handled and scaled to high volumes impressively, without any of the muddle in the lower frequencies often characteristic of a sub-$1000 turntable. If the highs lacked something, with little in the way of expansive airiness, this was nothing like the Bluetooth softening we’d experienced with the Audio-Technica (review in the same issue); here things were clean and uncurtailed, but without the presence on vocals, the fizziness on synths that a higher level of player can achieve (and, perhaps, that we have become used to through digital delivery). Acoustics around individual elements were audible if not as analytical as we’ve heard at, say, $1500, on a Thorens TD 203, which we had set up alongside.
A Sony strength, though, was resolving power; the 9/8 sequence of Supper’s Ready demonstrated this impressively, separating each instrument cleanly, with neither confusion nor compression. Moving through the 1970s, the HX500 keenly revealed minor mix splices in Band on the Run (180g), the guitar jumping from mid-left to hard left in the post-horns chorus section, while the slide on the closing sequence panned to the far right showed just how wide a stereo image well-cut and well-delivered vinyl can achieve.
Into the Keith Jarrett LP collection, and transported within minutes by the entries of Gary Peacock and Jack de Johnette on Flying Pt 1 (ECM original pressing). Again that wide and now deep stereo image, JdJ’s ride cymbal out in front, china boy tapping far to the right — this could pass without query as the performance of a far more expensive turntable. The pre-drum-solo climax section (played moderately loud, if not quite reference) was achieved with only a slight ring to the piano’s upper bass and lower mids, while the shimmering cymbal work beyond the solo was sheer delight.
You download Sony’s recording program; Australian users are directed to search Sony Asia’s site for “Hi-Res Audio Recorder”, but no software was thus revealed, so we found the turntable page and sought the software under ‘Support/Downloads & software’. It’s available there for Windows 7, 8 and 10, and for Mac from OS X 10.9 and up. We signed up for the Windows 10 version (the usual alarming License Agreement, giving Sony the right to gather information about your device, its content, connected peripherals, location, etc), and it installed easily, though apparently twice.
Turntable attached by the provided USB cable, the software gave us recording quality options with two levels of DSD, and PCM at 16/24-bit and from 44.1kHz right up to 192kHz. Pressing the red button didn’t start it recording — instead you get a pop-up message to click when you’re really ready! We gave it a whole side of the recent Jeff Lynne’s ELO album, listening at the same time through the phono output to our system. (Note that sound also comes out of your computer with a slight delay, so if you’re not listening on the computer, mute it!)
Sony warns the software is “not capable of playback”, so we wondered how you could reliably top and tail recordings, or split sides into tracks if desired. In fact it does play the recording, and you can insert markers between tracks (there’s one level of zoom) then add metadata for each before saving them to your folder of choice. There’s limited accuracy for those markers, given the inability to zoom more, but our results were good.
While Sony may share a parts supplier with Audio-Technica, the spec of those parts can differ, as in the anodised platter here and then the upgrading of everything else — plinth, arm, controls, everything! The result is a higher level both of experience and performance, along with the advantage of USB recording at resolutions which should ensure that nothing is missed.
So how high-res is vinyl? The answer depends on the turntable, but for this Sony, the high-res recording is plenty high enough, we reckon.
+ Solid sound with excellent soundstaging
+ USB recording to a variety of formats
+ Easy to set-up
− Manual operation
Type: belt drive USB turntable, manual
Platter: anodised aluminium
Speeds: 33⅓, 45rpm
Outputs: line-level, phono level (mm), USB
Dimensions (whd): 430 x 104 x 366mm