Personally, I’ve always liked automatic turntables. Automatic refers to the way they work with records. On most manual turntables, you have to pick up the arm and manually place it in the lead-in groove, hence the name. A semi-automatic will either stop rotating at the end of a side, or in some cases, stop rotating and lift the arm from the disc, but starting the record is still a manual operation.
An automatic, on the other hand, will, on command, lift the arm from its rest, position it over the lead-in groove, and lower the arm/stylus onto the record. At the end of a side, the arm will rise from the disc and return to its resting position. It’s all very nice and easy, and personally, I like easy.
Purists have long complained that the mechanism operating the arm can create mechanical drag that causes the sound to smear or creates vibration in its moving parts. They may be right—and with the old “record changers,” they were. But in the 1960s, firms such as Germany’s Dual and Elac Miracord and Britain’s Garrard came up with new designs that handled records much more gently and ably—they dubbed these machines automatic turntables. And for around 20 years thereafter, automatics were found in the vast majority of home stereos, and manufacturers kept improving their products.
But as the number of people actively investing in stereo systems declined, and the CD became the medium of choice, many of the true believers who were still spinning vinyl had doubts about automatic and tended to prefer manual turntables. As such, the Andover Audio SpinDeck Max ($599.99, all prices in USD), the subject of this review, is a fairly rare bird.
If you’re an audio veteran, you’ll probably take one look at the Max and say to yourself, “That looks a lot like an old Dual turntable.” And you’d be correct, as the Max is constructed in Germany’s Black Forest by Alfred Fehrenbacher GmbH. At one time, the company built and marketed turntables under the name Dual, and up until fairly recently, they even built automatics for Thorens. (A competing company, also named Dual, won the rights to the name following a long legal battle. New turntables released by Fehrenbacher for sale under its own banner carry the brand name Rekkord.)
The SpinDeck Max comes with either a matte white or a matte black plinth; the one I received was black, and it looked modern yet businesslike. The Max rests on four feet. The lowest level of the plinth is vinyl-clad particle board, and the mechanism is mounted within an MDF structure. With its dust cover installed and lowered, the turntable is 16.5″W × 4.5″H × 14.2″D. The top deck is relatively simple, having only three controls—the speed selector for 33 or 45 rpm, the Start/Stop selector, and the cueing or arm lift lever. In addition to fully automatic operation, lifting the arm and moving it towards the record will start the platter spinning.
Andover has taken solid steps to isolate the platter and arm from outside vibrations. The top platform rides on elastomeric cones, while the low-speed motor is isolated by rubber from the platform, and the belt that drives the MDF subplatter further isolates the platter. However, I must say, the turntable is not particularly forgiving in terms of bumps and jiggles. A sharp rap on my console resulted in audible sound through the speakers, so a good, solid base is a must.
An Ortofon OM 10 cartridge is included, installed, and adjusted. The OM 10 is a cartridge that’s been used in an incredible number of turntables over the past 35 years. It features a 0.3mil × 0.7mil elliptical stylus—a feature not every turntable in this price range can claim because manufacturers more typically include the 0.4mil × 0.7mil size. Stylus force is adjusted at the factory to 1.5 grams (15mN) and cannot be changed by the user. I measured the force at approximately 1.6 grams (16mN). Unlike many turntables in this price range, the SpinDeck Max does not include a phono stage, so it must be used with an amplifier that has one.
Accessories include a 45-rpm adapter and a wall-wart power supply. If you buy the unit directly from Andover Audio, it comes with a 30-day return policy (as the buyer, you pay the return shipping, and you may be charged for any damaged, missing, or abused components). The warranty against manufacturing defects and workmanship is two years for the initial purchaser.
A modest change in my system took place just before I sat down to listen critically. Due to some equipment realignments, I needed a longer set of interconnects between my Apt Holman preamplifier and my NAD C 275BEE power amp. This came in the form of a new Wireworld Cable Luna 8, as my former Straight Wire Chorus simply wasn’t long enough. I’m not a big “cables make a big change in the sound” guy, but for transparency, I thought I should mention it.
Setup and tech check
The setup and tech check procedures are short and sweet: open the box, remove the unit from the packing materials, locate the two red transportation locks on the chassis, and pull them straight back to let the drive system float. Then place the platter over the spindle until it snaps into place. Next, take the drive belt, which is wrapped around the inner platter, and hook it over the drive pulley. Top the platter with the accompanying felt mat. Find the two dust-cover hinges and insert them in their proper spots on the rear of the plinth. Unwrap the dust cover and install the hinges—this will take some strength. The arm’s balance and tracking force are set at the factory and are not user adjustable. Connect the captive audio cables to your integrated amplifier or phono preamplifier and the power cord to the jack on the back, and you’re ready to spin vinyl. This is one of the simplest setup routines I’ve encountered.
When I first started listening seriously, I kept having the uncomfortable feeling that something was amiss with the speed stability. The reason became crystal clear when I played Gustav Holst’s The Planets: the turntable had noticeable wow (slow undulation of pitch due to speed variation). I contacted Andover, and the rep sent me a replacement deck.
I checked the rotational speed of the replacement at both 33 and 45 rpm with stroboscope plus software, and I discovered it runs about 1.4% fast (33.81 rpm) at 33.3. This means music will sound a bit brighter and livelier. Also, wow was measured at a relatively high 0.4%, probably due to the turntable’s very light aluminum platter. A heavier platter creates more inertia, which means the platter is more likely to continue turning in the same direction it was going in when it started; this helps a turntable to register a much better 0.10% to 0.15% wow rate. I imagine a light platter is incorporated into the design so there’s no strain on the motor during start-up.
Bob Hazelwood, Andover’s director of engineering and product development, confirmed my hunch and noted that while the wow statistic might seem high, this may have been affected by the presence of my mobile phone on the platter (which is how my software measures speed and wow). This may also have thrown the platter off balance (yes, probably), which would contribute to the high figure. Hazelwood told me that he gets wow figures of 0.3% or lower and that Andover views the wow-and-flutter to be substantially inaudible and more of a numbers game, although the longevity benefits to the belt and motor over time can be significant.
Operation and listening
When I first started listening to the SpinDeck Max, I found the highs muffled. So I decided to play with the adjustable capacitance on the Apt Holman preamplifier and found that when it was set to 100 picofarads, the highs sounded much more in balance with the midrange.
And I have to say that by far the SpinDeck Max has the most fluid up and down cueing of any turntable I’ve reviewed, possibly ever. This isn’t huge in the cosmic scheme of things, but it’s nice to know this component is gentle with your vinyl. It’s also quite accurate, with no drift one way or the other as the stylus descends.
I started my serious listening with “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” by Count Basie and His Orchestra, opting for an arrangement by a young Quincy Jones on This Time by Basie: Hits of the 50s & 60s (Reprise R9-6070). The soundstage, as presented, was fairly wide, and there was good depth. The Ortofon handled the slight warp on the disc (it is, after all, a nearly 60-year-old record). The saxes were front and center, with the trumpets and trombones just behind. The Count’s piano was well out front, and the rhythm section was squarely on the right. The great trumpet solo by Harry “Sweets” Edison was up high on the left, as if he were standing a bit forward from his usual place on the Basie bandstand. In all, I was quite pleased with the imaging offered by the SpinDeck Max.
Next, I wanted to see how the SpinDeck Max and OM 10 would handle multiple staccato instruments. For this, I chose “Shining Star” from The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol.1 (ARC/Columbia PC 35647). Just about every instrument and voice in this tune plays or sings in short bursts, and the Andover handled all of them with great precision. The soundstage was fairly broad but not particularly deep, though this reflects the way the song was mixed. This track doesn’t have really heavy bass, but what’s there was reproduced ably and with suitable punch.
Steely Dan’s music has always piqued my interest. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have always conceived unusual and fascinating compositions, and the recordings themselves are usually masterpieces. “Hey Nineteen” from Gaucho (MCA MCA-6102) is a good example. Becker and Fagen play most of the instruments with backing on drums by Rich Marotta (who seems to have played for nearly every rock artist) and additional percussion from two of the very best, Victor Feldman and Steve Gadd. The bass line came through with real punch. Fagen’s unusual voice was placed dead center and sounded as good as it probably can (he’s no Pavarotti!). The soundstage for the rather limited instrumental backing group was relatively wide and was presented with good depth. The SpinDeck Max did a good job with this track.
Judy Collins has always been a favorite—her voice is just so pure and clean, it’s wonderful to listen to. This time I chose “Someday Soon” by Ian Tyson (another personal favorite), from her Who Knows Where the Time Goes album (Elektra EKS-74033). Her backing group on this one is an all-star lineup that includes Buddy Emmons on pedal steel, Steven Stills on bass, and Van Dyke Parks on piano. There are three guitars on this track: Collins’s acoustic, James Burton’s electric, and Emmons’s steel. As near as I can figure, Stills plays two parts on the bass: the regular bass line and a slap bass, where he picks a note and immediately smothers the sound with his pick hand. It comes out as a sound rather like a small hammer hitting a nail—it’s that quick—and the Andover handled it with poise. Collins’s voice is magnificent on this track, and the Ortofon did a fantastic job with it. The stage was wide, but there was little depth. However, I have to say the SpinDeck Max did drag a lot of music out of the groove.
With the replacement deck, the speed variation I had heard on Gustav Holst’s The Planets, performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon 2532 019), was a thing of the past, thank goodness. That aside, the tonal reproduction of the turntable and cartridge was impressive. The Planets is a big work with lots going on. This piece pretty much covers the entire audioband, and the SpinDeck Max handled it. The stage presented by the Andover was wide and deep. Dynamic range was very good, with no distortion that I could discern in the louder moments.
I compared the SpinDeck Max and Ortofon OM 10 to my Dual CS5000 with an Ortofon 2M Red. As usual, the Dual went first since this serves as my reference deck. The song I used was “Four Brothers” by the Manhattan Transfer, from The Best of Manhattan Transfer LP (Atlantic SD 19319).
Right off the bat, the 2M Red showed itself to be a lively sounding reproducer; on this track, some of the bass notes had unusually strong response, and others not so much. To me, this indicated that there’s a resonance present in the cartridge/arm combination that I need to attempt to fix. Otherwise, the CS5000/Red was a great-sounding combo with crisp, clear highs and a marvelous midrange. This was a fine performance if one overlooks the slightly unruly bass.
The SpinDeck Max/OM 10 combination offered none of the over-the-top bass notes, which was good, but at the same time, it seemed to roll off the very high frequencies. What it reproduced was decidedly smoother and sweeter sounding than the CS5000/Red and more accurate overall, but I did rather miss the Red’s sparkly highs. In all, I consider the result of this comparison a tie: both setups have their redeeming qualities.
I had some initial doubts about the SpinDeck Max. I love its automatic function, ease of setup, and wonderful cue system. While its initial performance was a bit unsteady, this was corrected by the replacement. And although its mechanisms worked flawlessly, you do pay a premium for that “Made in Germany” label. Peruse any turntable dealer site, and you’ll find many other fine turntables at the $600 price point; none of these, to my knowledge, are also automatic. While it hasn’t stolen my heart, the SpinDeck Max is a worthy entrant into the field. If ease of setup and use, along with good sound on many kinds of music, are paramount to you, the SpinDeck Max should be on your list of turntables to check out.
. . . Thom Moon
- Turntable: Dual CS5000.
- Cartridge: Ortofon 2M Red.
- Preamplifier: Apt Holman.
- Power amplifier: NAD C 275BEE.
- Speakers: Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 powered subwoofer.
- Phono cables: Dual.
- Interconnects: Wireworld Cable Luna 8.
- Speaker cables: Acoustic Research (14-gauge), terminated with Dayton Audio banana plugs.
Andover Audio SpinDeck Max with Ortofon OM 10 Cartridge
Warranty: Two-year limited warranty on parts and labor to the original owner.
Andover Audio, L.L.C.
15 High Street
North Andover, MA 01845
Phone: (978) 775-3670