In last month’s column, I expressed the disappointment I felt when I first unpacked Paradigm’s Premier 100B loudspeakers. For speakers costing $798 USD/pair, I thought the 100B looked a bit too much like its little brother, Paradigm’s Monitor SE Atom, which costs only $298/pair. Thankfully, the 100B’s sound didn’t disappoint.
But there was no initial disappointment when I unboxed Fluance’s RT83 turntable ($349.99). Right away, its parts quality throughout looked extremely high -- Fluance sells the Ortofon 2M Red cartridge it’s bundled with for $87.99 on its own, and I’ve seen the 2M Red online for as much as $99. I also thought that the finish of the RT83’s wooden plinth looked downright spectacular for the price. In fact, the entire turntable looked as if it could easily cost $700, not $350. Granted, Fluance sells only direct to consumers, avoiding distributor and dealer markups, but still -- my first glimpse of the RT83 was a complete surprise.
For this review, my System One setup comprised a U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus turntable ($289), an NAD D 3045 integrated amplifier-DAC with phono stage ($699), the Paradigm Premier 100B speakers, and AudioQuest Q2 speaker cables ($179/10’ pair). But assembling the RT83 didn’t go nearly as quickly as setting up the Orbit Plus, which is almost plug’n’play in comparison.
With the Orbit Plus, you remove all its parts from the box, place the plinth on a shelf, install the platter, wrap the drive belt around the platter and the motor pulley, attach the dustcover, remove the stylus guard, hook up the phono cable and power adapter, and plug it into the wall. This all can be done in less than ten minutes. I estimate that setting up the Fluance RT83 would normally take about 20 minutes, but it took me almost an hour -- during the process I made ten short videos about it that I then uploaded to our Instagram account, @soundstagenetwork (start here).
You have to do all the same things with the RT83 as you do with the Orbit Plus, as well as assemble and adjust the tonearm (the Orbit Plus’s arm comes pre-installed). This includes carefully attaching the headshell, in which the cartridge is then installed, to one end of the arm and the counterweight to the other end, and setting the vertical tracking force (VTF) and antiskating force. These two steps were pretty easy, though the counterweight took me a few extra minutes: at first I couldn’t figure out how hard to push it to make it click into place. I always try to err on the side of using less force than more -- once a part is broken, it can’t be unbroken. Finally, I got it to click. Setting antiskating was easy -- you just turn a dial -- but setting the VTF took as much time as setting up the rest of the turntable, because I was out of practice and didn’t want to break the stylus.
Setting the VTF is tricky: It must be done with the stylus guard removed and the tonearm positioned over the platter, which makes it all too easy to accidentally slam the cartridge down on the platter and damage or destroy the stylus. Too heavy a VTF and the stylus will scrape the groove like a lathe, damaging itself and the record while producing subpar sound. Too light a VTF and the sound thins out and the stylus is more prone to skip, as I discovered (see below). It’s a literal balancing act: You begin by moving the counterweight to balance the tonearm so that it floats level above the record surface.
For the Ortofon 2M Red, Fluance recommends a VTF of 1.8gm. At first, I set VTF conservatively, at just over 1.6gm, in hopes of minimizing wear and tear on my records. But when I played an original 1980 pressing of Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s Against the Wind (LP, Capitol SOO-12041), it sounded light in the bass and steely, particularly Seger’s guitar, and his voice lacked body. When I increased the VTF to the recommended 1.8gm, the steeliness disappeared, the bass deepened, and his voice had a more appropriate amount of presence. And that’s where I left it, figuring the Fluance guys must know what they’re talking about. Setting proper VTF is all in a day’s play for veteran phonophiles, but the budding audiophiles I hope to reach with this column should take this process nice and slow.
The Fluance RT83 also has a few nice features that the U-Turn Orbit Plus, at $60.99 less, doesn’t. While both turntables come with an Ortofon cartridge, the Orbit Plus’s OM 5E costs less than the Fluance’s 2M Red. (Music Direct sells the OM 5E for $69.99, the 2M Red for $99.) The RT83 comes standard with a cueing lever, which is a $40 option for all U-Turn ’tables. The lever slowly lowers and raises the arm and cartridge to and from the record surface -- otherwise, you have to do this by hand, which tends to be a bit rougher on stylus and records alike: most people can’t control the movements of their hands as well as can a well-designed lever such as this one.
On the U-Turn, you change the platter’s speed of rotation between 331⁄3 and 45rpm by moving the drive belt from one motor pulley to another; with the RT83, you simply select the speed by turning a dial -- marked 33, 45, and Off -- at the front-left corner of the plinth’s top deck. With the U-Turn, you press a rocker switch on the deck to start or stop the platter spinning; with the RT83’s speed dial set to 33 or 45, the platter automatically begins to spin when the tonearm is lifted off its rest and moved over the record surface, and stops spinning when the arm is returned to its rest. I left the dial set to 33 at all times, seeing no reason to turn the turntable off completely unless I felt I should, such as when I went away for a couple of days.
On the rear of the RT83 is an Auto Stop switch. Turn this on to stop the platter from rotating when the stylus reaches a record’s lead-out groove, to reduce wear and tear on the stylus, motor, and record if you’re no longer in the room -- or awake -- at the end of the side. The Orbit Plus lacks this option. The RT83’s three screw-in feet can be adjusted to level the turntable (a small, cheap bubble level is provided). The U-Turn’s feet are fixed (luckily, the shelf I placed it on is level). Finally, the RT83’s supplied phono cable, which I used to connect it to the NAD D 3045, seemed to be of better quality than the U-Turn’s.
My only misgiving concerns the RT83’s platter, which is made of aluminum, but not of a solid disc of the metal. Flip it upside down, as I do in one of the videos, and you can see that its top surface and outer edge are fairly thin, and that otherwise it’s mostly hollow, with a ringed portion in the center, and ribbing to stiffen the structure. When I tapped it, it rang like a bell -- not good for sound quality. However, the RT83 also comes with a rubber damping mat, to help tame such resonances. The Orbit Plus’s platter is of solid acrylic -- it produces a dull thuck when tapped -- and comes with a felt mat. Only with Fluance’s next highest model of turntable, the RT84 ($449.99), do you get an acrylic platter.
I had zero complaints about the Fluance RT83’s operation -- it worked flawlessly the entire time I had it. Its ringing platter aside, $349.99 buys you a lot of turntable in the RT83 -- its combination of features and build quality isn’t just hard to fault for the price, it’s almost impossible to fault.
The Fluance RT83’s sound -- lively, exciting, detailed -- also proved nearly impossible to criticize for the price. But that detail came at a cost. Most of the LPs I play are old and worn, and produce a good bit of surface noise. When I played Seger’s Against the Wind on the RT83, that noise was so irritating that I pulled the record off the platter mid-song to clean it, just to get the sheer number of crackles and pops down. It was the same with the Rolling Stones’ Undercover (LP, WEA Music Canada 79 01201), which I bought new in 1983 and, in the first two years I owned it, played way too often and cleaned far too seldom. Cleaning those records reduced the noise, but I could still hear it -- and more than when I played those albums on the U-Turn Orbit Plus. And the noise was more obvious through the Paradigm 100Bs than it would have been with speakers that have tamer tweeters; because the 100B has a boosted treble, which highlighted those noises. Just keep in mind that proper care and cleaning will be paramount with any records you play on the Fluance RT83. (If you need to learn more about how to take care of your records, we recently posted, in a single playlist on the SoundStage! Network YouTube channel, a series of seven videos on the subject.)
Our analog guru, Jason Thorpe, likes to say that not only LPs but turntables require “care, feeding, and attention,” as they might need adjustment or stylus replacement from time to time. If you’re prepared to live with the intricacies of vinyl playback, the RT83 will plunge you into the thick of it. The surface noise still audible on Against the Wind even after I’d cleaned it didn’t deter my enjoyment of hearing this album played on the RT83. Hearing Seger’s textured voice in “You’ll Accompn’y Me,” “Against the Wind,” and “Fire Lake” at least 20 times through this system reminded me how big an impact that album had when it was first released, in 1980, three years before the first Compact Discs appeared in North America. As for Undercover, the track that has always captured me is “She Was Hot” -- and it still does, as proven by repeated plays on the RT83.
However, when I played my 1977 pressing of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (LP, Warner Bros. BSK 3010), which is in much better shape than the other two records, the RT83 was better able to show off its ability to reveal details. The surface noise, though still there, wasn’t as objectionable; instead, musical nuances came through a bit more clearly than with the Orbit Plus. I never tire of hearing two of this album’s most popular songs, “Songbird” and “Dreams.” Christine McVie’s voice in the former and Stevie Nicks’s voice in the latter were exquisitely reproduced through the 100Bs -- exceptionally clear, highly nuanced, and, with the ample power provided by the D 3045 (60Wpc into 8 or 4 ohms), effortless, yet still clean when I cranked up the volume.
Vinyl has audible limitations in both low- and high-frequency extension: low bass must be mixed to mono, and the high-frequency response gradually falls off because the linear velocity of the stylus in the groove slows as it nears the lead-out groove. Yet I never found myself itching for more highs with the RT83 -- the treble sounded as prominent as in the digital streams I’d just been listening to. Nor was the bass lacking -- at least through the 100Bs, which are small speakers. Mick Fleetwood’s muscular drumming sounded tight and powerful, and went as deep as the 100Bs could go. All in all, I found the RT83’s sound as impressive as its build quality and features.
A new home -- but not mine
One of the highest compliments you can pay a product is to buy it, or wholeheartedly recommend it to someone you know, confident that neither you nor your friend will be disappointed. When James Hales, who reviews recordings for our SoundStage! Xperience site, asked me to recommend a turntable for him, I told him I knew of nothing close to the RT83’s price that offered a comparable combination of sound and build quality and features. Its only real downside is its complex setup. James bought my review sample. He’s been thrilled with it ever since.
. . . Doug Schneider