The first thing that becomes immediately obvious is that despite the 66dB maximum gain setting on the 5.5’s phono-stage it really struggles with the low output of the Etna SL. Noise levels were intrusive and marred the sense of musical timing, pace and momentum, as well as muting dynamic swings. Swapping out to the altogether more appropriate Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement (with its 0.5mV output) or the Standard Etna Lambda (0.6mV) puts the tube-based phono-stage in a far more comfortable position. Fed with the higher output level of either cartridge, the TL-5.5 delivered its characteristic sense of musical presence, shape and progress. However, switching to The Groove resulted in more gain and a serious reduction in background noise, a dramatic (I use the term advisedly) increase in dynamic range, intimacy, immediacy and micro-dynamic discrimination. Far from dismantling the musical qualities that make the TL-5.5/S-200 combination so engaging, it built on them, grafting clarity, transparency, separation, vocal and instrumental detail onto the solid structure, presence and musical purpose that are the tube duo’s core values.
Playing Leonard Cohen’s live performance of ‘Hallelujah’ (from Songs From The Road – Columbia Legacy/Music On Vinyl MOVLP 193) the 5.5’s phono-stage offers a nice sense of physical presence and a coherent acoustic space around the stage and audience. But once you move to The Groove the perspective and experience changes. It places you in the audience, separating out the voices and instruments on the stage, adding shape and articulation to the vocal, texture, body and focus to the guitars and bass. The inbuilt phono-stage got the bottom end weight, spacing and pace just right, but The Groove adds edges to the notes ad spaces between them. Recorded in 2009, Cohen had arguably never been in finer (albeit typically gravelly) voice and The Groove makes clear and solid the way he worked the lyric, emphasising the key words and accenting them in his half spoken delivery. The backing vocals (and audience contribution) are beautifully layered and spaced, while the ability of The Groove to graduate micro-dynamic shifts, changes in density and its overall dynamic range paint a vivid picture of this seminal live performance. The individual aspects of the sonic presentation matter, but the thing that seals the deal is the ability of The Groove to capture and recreate, to immerse you in the sense and experience of this live performance.
Once appreciated, the combined qualities of the TL-5.5/Groove combination are perhaps even more important on larger scale and more complex works, where the stability and clarity/separation really come into their own. Playing Vltava from the recent DGG Originals release of Kubelik’s seminal recording of Má Vlast (with the BSO, DGG 486 4499) the pairing matches the power and dynamic demands of the sweeping score, its towering crescendos and explosive dynamics. It holds the whole together, despite the intentional chaotic aspects of the score, carrying the performance to its triumphant conclusion. In cutting the disc, engineer Sidney C. Meyer has run the grooves to within quarter of an inch of the label, using every last bit of available real estate to maximise the groove width and resulting dynamic swings – something that The Groove’s dynamic range seizes on and renders with full drama and impact. If you think that CD has eclipsed the dynamic performance of vinyl, think again and listen to The Groove. It’s capable of presenting recordings with a shocking immediacy and dynamic impact – just like real music, in fact!