I’ve met quite a few fanatical design engineers in my 18 years of full-time audio reviewing, but Basis Audio founder A.J. Conti is among the most obsessed with engineering detail. For the past 23 years, he has attacked every subsystem in LP playback with a missionary zeal, pursuing tighter bearing tolerances, greater mechanical precision, ever-thinner and more precise drive belts, lower speed instability, and less noise and vibration reaching the platter and arm. Conti believes that turntable performance is very much an exact science, and that better measurable mechanical performance directly correlates with better sound. The culmination of his decades-long obsessive quest for engineering perfection in turntable design is the Basis 2800 system reviewed here.
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Although the 2800 has been in the Basis line for some time, many of the turntable’s subsystems are either new or significantly upgraded from previous versions. Moreover, this is the first U.S. Review of the Basis Vector tonearm, a device that employs an innovative yet elegantly simple bearing that solves a fundamental problem in LP playback. Overview and Pricing The 2800 Signature is part of the “High-Mass” Series of turntables that includes the 2500 and Debut. The 2800 is identical to the model 2500, but with the addition of a vacuum holddown system.
The base price of the 2800 is $12,900. Options include the Calibrator Base ($1800), a 1'-thick piece of machined acrylic that increases the turntable’s isolation from vibration; the Synchro-Wave Power Supply ($3600), an outboard box that drives the motor; and the VTA Micrometer ($800), a VTA measurement and calibration system. My review sample was fully loaded and mounted with the Vector Model 4 tonearm ($3450). I actually had two Vectors along with an external tonearm mount that holds the unused tonearm, thus allowing very fast switching of tonearms and cartridges. The accompanying sidebar and interview with A.J.
Conti provide more details of the engineering behind the 2800 and Vector. Most of my listening was through a Transfiguration Orpheus cartridge supplied by Basis. After auditioning several cartridges, the Orpheus turned out to be the best musical match for my system. Although it didn’t quite have the dynamics of the other contenders, it was the most musically involving and had the greatest sense of ease. I don’t have anywhere near the experience with mega-buck LP front ends as, for example, Jonathan Valin (who, incidentally, owns a Basis Debut). But I have a fair amount of experience listening to microphone feeds and analog mastertapes made from those mike feeds, as well as to LPs cut from those tapes.
Listening to records on the 2800/Vector was revelatory; the sonic shortcomings of the LP format (which are readily apparent when LPs are compared with analog tape) seemed to disappear. The 2800/Vector had an astonishing transparency to the source and lack of coloration, tonally and dynamically. It was like hearing music—for the first time—without the turntable and arm in the playback chain.
Even compared with the Basis 2500 (which I reviewed about 10 years ago), the 2800/Vector took LP playback to new heights. The descriptions that kept coming up in my listening notes share a commonality: “clean,” “transparent,” “crystalline clarity,” and “pristine.” All describe the Basis’ lack of a signature sound—no false midbass warmth, no thickness through the midrange, and no patina overlaying the music.
As a result of this startling clarity, instrumental timbres were reproduced with stunning realism. But the naturalness of instrumental timbre was not just the result of the Basis’ transparency; it was also related to its retrieval of inner detail. This front end digs way down and resolves the finest musical nuances. I’ve heard Peter McGrath’s wonderful recording of Water Musick Harmonia Mundi on many different systems over the years, but when I played this record on the Basis, I sat slack-jawed at the richness of texture and vivid palpability of the period instruments.
There was simply another level of microdetail in the timbres that transformed their sounds from good hi-fi to pure music. One would think that realism of instrumental timbre is important on period baroque instruments and less so on distorted electric guitar. But the Basis reproduction of timbre was no less stunning when resolving the beautifully textured distortion of Steve Morse’s guitar on the Dixie Dregs’ Dregs of the Earth. His expressive and moving solo on “Hereafter” had a palpability that fostered the impression of sitting directly in the presence of a guitar amplifier. Because of the Basis’ resolution of lowlevel decay I could even hear the studio’s rather dry acoustic surrounding the amplifier’s sound. The distortion now had a beautiful complexity that made perfect musical sense.
It’s odd to describe distortion as beautiful, but when reproduced with such resolution, there’s no better description. Listening to this record, I heard for the first time the subtle (and not so subtle) differences in the guitar’s sound from track to track, recognizing how each sound perfectly fit the composition. It gave me a new appreciation for this record, which I’ve been listening to on a regular basis for the past 25 years. (Incidentally, Neil Young’s main complaint against CD-quality digital audio was that it destroyed the distortion of his guitar.) This experience of discovering greater expression in familiar music is the overriding reason for owning this LP playback system. The level of musical involvement fostered by the 2800/Vector was unparalleled in my experience as a reviewer. It’s been said that great hi-fi allows you to immediately become involved in the music, at a greater depth of immersion and for a longer period of time.
That definition fits the Basis; as soon as I started playing music, my attention was immediately rapt. As for the depth of involvement, I can say that I had many listening moments that transcended the threshold from musical enjoyment to euphoria. Getting back to specific sonic description, the 2800/Vector also excelled at dynamics, transient fidelity, and bottom-end impact.
I thought I had reached the edges of the Wilson MAXX 2’s performance envelope in these areas, but the 2800/Vector revealed that this remarkable loudspeaker is capable of even greater dynamic coherence, bottom-end resolution, and sheer visceral slam. I just had to pull out the direct-to-disc Sheffield 23, James Newton Howard and Friends, for its explosive drum dynamics and bottom-end punch. This record has one of the best drum sounds ever captured, but I didn’t realize how great the drum sound was until I heard it on the 2800/Vector. The steepness of the snare’s leading-edge transient and equally sudden decay was mind blowing.
The system resolved the initial “pop” of the drumstick hitting the head as well as the weight behind the initial transient created by the drum’s resonance. In fact, playing this record on this system rendered the most realistic and startling reproduction of dynamics I’ve ever heard in reproduced music. In addition to this macro-scale “jump factor,” the presentation had a resolution and clarity in a micro-sense that let me hear fine shadings of pitch and small-scale dynamic contrasts. As a result, the music also had a flow and rhythmic bounce; the previously mentioned Water Musick was reproduced with a playful dance-like rhythmic interplay between the instruments on the Minuet of the Suite in F Major. I was struck by the sonic similarity between the 2800/Vector and the results of the 2002 acoustic upgrade of my listening room (which I had built from the ground up). Acoustic Room Systems installed a computer-modeled acoustics package that, among other attributes, dramatically tightened up the music’s bottom end. After the ARS installation, low frequencies had much better pitch definition, steeper transient reproduction, quicker decay, less bloat, greater dynamic agility, more upper-bass and lowermidrange clarity, and the feeling that the music wasn’t being dragged down by a weight.
These impressions are all fostered by a reduction in room resonance. Room resonances are nothing more than vibrations of the air within the room that are not parts of the signal produced by the loudspeakers. Room resonances cause transient information to be spread out over time, prevent sudden decay of transient energy, add tonal coloration, reduce pitch articulation, and overlay the music with a bass thickness that masks midrange clarity and transparency. I think a parallel phenomenon is happening with the 2800/Vector; the dramatic reduction in spurious vibration at the stylus/groove interface confers a reduction in the same distortions that cause listening rooms to color the sound.
The resonances in LP playback are mechanical and occur at the micro level; the resonances in listening rooms are acoustical and occur at the macro level. (The effects of micro-level resonances in LP playback, however, become macro-level distortions when amplified.) The 2800/Vector system’s portrayal of space, depth, and air around instrumental outlines, and particularly the interplay between instruments, was simply peerless. The impression of individual instruments separated by air and surrounded by an acoustic space greatly added to the sense of musical realism. Finally, the 2800/Vector combination had another quality that is unique in my experience—a sense of ease, particularly on loud and complex passages. A shortcoming of the LP format is the tendency for the sound to congeal and harden at high signal levels.
A related phenomenon is the “shattering” sound on forte piano passages played in the instrument’s upper register. Both are caused by the imperfect tracking of the groove by the stylus (the stylus momentary loses contact with the groove)—a phenomenon exacerbated at the inner grooves where tangent error is the greatest and the linear velocity as seen by the stylus is the lowest. 1 Several times I found myself “tighten up” to brace for passages I knew would sound hard and distorted, only to discover that the Vector sailed right through them with a sense of ease and composure. I heard no tracking error on any LP. This freedom from distortion on challenging passages fostered a deeper and more sustained immersion in the music.
1 Tangent error is a difference in orientation to the groove between the cutting and playback styli. (Tangent error occurs in pivoted tonearms but not in tangential-tracking arms.) As the stylus moves toward the inner grooves, the linear velocity as seen by the stylus gradually decreases. The recorded wavelengths become shorter and shorter, making it increasingly difficult for the playback stylus to accurately track high frequencies as well as high groove modulation. A CD, by contrast, varies its rotational speed as a function of recording radius to maintain a constant linear velocity of 1.2–1.4 meters per second. This translates to about 500 rpm at the innermost tracks to about 200 rpm at the outermost tracks. It’s an unfortunate coincidence that LP technology performs at its worst on the climaxes most prevalent in Western classical music—the climax of a symphony’s fourth movement occurs nearly invariably on the innermost grooves.
It also coincides with the point in the music where the intrusion of distortion is least welcome.
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A music lover about to upgrade his or her system is faced with some difficult decisions. Would the upgrade budget be best spent on a new amplifier? Better speakers? Adding power conditioning? Higher-end cables?
There are as many right answers as there are systems. But there’s one specific component swap that in my view delivers such a large increase in performance that it will likely dwarf any potential improvement in amplification, cables, and even many speakers. That upgrade is moving up from the Basis Vector IV tonearm to the recently introduced Basis Superarm 9.
After happily living with a Vector for the past seven years, I was surprised by just how much better LPs could sound when played through the Superarm. I would liken the overall sound-quality improvement to switching from a mid-priced integrated amplifier to a reference-quality preamplifier and monoblock power amplifiers priced in the six figures. Describing how much better the Superarm 9 is than the Vector is easy; doing so without denigrating the great accomplishment that the Vector represents is a challenge. In fact, the Vector tonearm is so good that I’ve waited several years to upgrade to the Superarm on the assumption that the Superarm couldn’t be that much better. The Vector is a superlative piece of engineering that introduced a novel type of bearing that eliminates dynamic azimuth error. Indeed, the Vector was Basis Audio founder A.J. Conti’s statement in tonearm design.
But Conti began to wonder, with regard to the ’arm tube, “How stiff is stiff enough?” And about the headshell, “How low in resonance is low enough?” To answer these questions for himself, he started with a group of Vector ’arms as test subjects and experimented with a specific design change on each ’arm. This approach isolated the sonic effects of that change to the ’arm under modification. The experiments took Conti in an unexpected direction; he discovered that increasing stiffness and reducing resonance to levels below those he had thought weren’t significant improved the sound.
Basis Vector Tonearm Owners Manual
Rather than ending up with a modified Vector, the research led him to a significantly revised design. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two ’arms is the Superarm’s much greater mass. You can see this just looking at the two ’arms side-by-side, particularly at the pivot point. Everything about the Superarm is heavy-duty, making it the antithesis of the featherweight approach to tonearm design. But Conti found that the combination of high mass and a new “progressive” damping technique lowered resonances and thus distortion. Basis doesn’t publish an effective mass specification, but suggests that the ’arm will work well with a cartridge of any compliance.
In addition to the greater mass, the ’arm tube, cup, and pivot assembly are made from a different material than that of the Vector, a dense metal called “superalloy.”. The Superarm 9 also benefits from a novel wiring configuration, along with proprietary tonearm and lead-out wires. Comparing the Vector to the Superarm, the new ’arm’s headshell is thicker and less prone to resonance. The bearing is identical in the two ’arms; Conti contends there’s no better bearing.
The build quality and fit ’n’ finish are superb. Every detail, down to the ’arm rest and its securing mechanism, appears thoughtfully considered. The Superarm 9 exudes a sense of precision and craftsmanship—as it should for the $15,750 price.