Yet, it was the skittering, interleaving melodic lines of the movement’s opening, reflecting the bubbling, joyful abandon of the head-waters that proved particularly revealing. This is a familiar and much released recording, including SHM SACD and MQA-UHQCDs from Japan. These latter discs have demonstrated just how crucial temporal security is to maintaining the sense of pace, pattern and forward progress through the intricate, almost random phrases that bind into the single musical whole. It’s one of the things that sets the Kubelik reading apart from so many others – his ability to maintain the musical direction and momentum through the piece as a whole – but the opening bars to Vltava are that quality in microcosm. On first listen, I was disappointed at the way The Groove lost its grasp of the music’s pattern and forward progress. The TL-5.5’s phono-stage may have lack detail and delicacy, smudging the edges, but it kept the overall sense of direction well and truly on track. However, a subtle tweak to the VTA (three graduations on the JMW 12’s rotary scale) brought everything back into focus. Suddenly The Groove’s grasp of the individual layers and overlapping instrumentation was restored, the complex opening gaining clarity, intelligibility but above all, a sparkling beauty.
It’s a salutary lesson in the risk/reward ratio of truly high-resolution audio electronics. The Groove rewards precise set up in a way that only the very best phono-stages reflect. If you don’t think that VTA matters (or precise adjustment of tracking force, azimuth or overhang) The Groove will make you think again. It’s not that it makes poorly aligned cartridges sounds bad – well, unless they’re way out of whack – but it offers you the opportunity to dig deeper into a record’s grooves than you probably thought possible, at least at this price level. Like all true giant killers, it needs to be treated with respect: In this case, considerable respect. If the Groove sounds like a phono-stage that costs many times its price, it expects to be treated like one too! It also helps crystalize the difference between the TEAD product and the VTL’s own phono-stage, the latter offering a genuinely versatile and musically forgiving alternative to the hair-shirt, go-for-broke demands of The Groove. If you want to play an existing collection without sinking too much coin into the project or compromising your musical enjoyment, especially if you want to do it with a decent moving-magnet cartridge (an option that is inexplicably ignored these days) then the TL-5.5’s internal stage is the perfect choice. But if you want to wring every last ounce of performance out of your system and vinyl discs, the Groove will get you there – at a price: a price that isn’t solely monetary…
In the same way that it elevates the TL-5.5/S-200 to new musical heights, The Groove begs the question, just how far can it lift a more basic system’s performance? Its position right at the front of the amplification chain means that its benefits will be on offer to each subsequent component – just so long as those components don’t screw them up. That’s the beauty of the TEAD/VTL combination – the resolution of the phono-stage perfectly overlaid onto the musical substance and overall coherence of the pre and power amps. Could The Groove repeat that trick with a quality integrated, the very epitome of budget esoterica?
The timely arrival of the Neodio TMA – a product that shares The Groove’s ascetic attitude to unnecessary frippery – provided the perfect opportunity to investigate the phono-stage’s leadership qualities. With four line inputs, a volume control and precious little else to show for itself, the TMA is reminiscent of old-skool, pared back products from yesteryear. The Rotel 820-BX2 springs to mind – except that the Neodio is chunkier and prettier. It also weighs in at €4,600, rather more than the little Rotel. But then, the TMA has the audio chops to more than justify its price-tag. In fact, this simple looking device is more than capable of shocking many a listener and many, far pricier products. Paired with The Groove, the results from a quality turntable are astonishingly lucid and musically engaging. Yes, there are limitations in terms of the choice and ultimately the bandwidth of the speakers, but if you are working with a €10K budget for electronics, just how much are you likely to throw at the speakers anyway. I ran the Groove/TMA combination with the Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Concert Grand (big enough, awkward enough and with the bass weight and quality to prove a test), The Living Voice Auditorium R25 (a speaker with the life and musical coherence to brook no communicative failings in the driving electronics) and the Raidho DT-1.2 (a classic ‘mini-monitor’ that needs a firm hand to deliver convincing scale) all with conspicuous success. It’s an exercise that demonstrated just how capable the TMA is – although a final verdict awaits the full review. But it also served to demonstrate just how dependent any system is on the quality of the incoming signal. It’s exactly where most ‘budget esoteric’ systems fall over – and exactly where The Groove comes into its own.