Ever since Linn shocked the world by telling people to run the LP12 with a NAD 3020 (or later, the Naim Nait) the extent to which the virtues of a simple amplifier remain hidden by the shortcomings of the sources it gets used with has been an open secret. Yet it’s a lesson that is often ignored. Throw the window wide open and it’s remarkable how much off the signal survives its passage through the amp: especially if the amp is as clean and unintrusive as the TMA: especially if the source possesses the dynamic range, resolution, transparency and ultra-low noise-floor of The Groove.
You hear those qualities – the lack of constraint, the easy sense of musical flow – in the gentle insistence of ‘Sabia’ (from Antonio Carlos Jobim – Stone Flower, CTI 6002) the way the emerging rhythm coaxes, almost caresses you into the melody, the unmistakably human agency at work behind the captivating music. You hear them in the intimate vocals on Janis Ian’s Aftertones (CBS – 69220) and the gloriously organised chaos of Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road (MCA Records MCF 3426). If you want order – or more significantly, if the music demands order – then The Groove provides it, but if a bunch of drug-crazed drunks take to the studio, that’s exactly what you’ll hear, which is exactly as it should be. The Groove blurs no edges and softens no impacts. If the artist wanted to deliver a slap in the face then The Groove is willing and able to oblige. It’s this ability to capture and project emotion and intent, be they benign, seductive or downright offensive, that separates The Groove from so many phono-stages, irrespective of price. It’s indicative of its dynamic range, but takes form in its uncompressed expressive range too. Of the phono-stages I’ve had in house only the P1, P10 and the Connoisseur can better the emotional impact of The Groove: and as high as they set the bar, if you are looking at The Groove then (for one reason or another – price or availability) they’re almost certainly out of reach.
The Orfeo SACD of Kleiber’s Beethoven Seventh (with the Bayerisches Staatsorchester) has long been a favourite of mine, a vividly live concert recording that succeeded in capturing the drama and tension that Kleiber managed to generate with such apparent ease. Following the recent DGG Originals re-issue of their Kleiber Seventh (with the Wiener Philharmoniker, DGG 486 3844) with its excellent all-analogue sound, I was excited when Orfeo re-pressed the Kleiber Fourth, Sixth and Seventh as a, modestly priced, three-record box (Orfeo S100467). Listening to the two Sevenths through The Groove, via the TMA is revealing – of both the records and the phono-stage.
On SACD, the Orfeo is hands-down better than the DGG CD/SACD studio recordings. It has a drama and spatial coherence that make for a compelling performance. Listen to the 180g LP through The Groove and the sense that this is a live performance is immediately present. But what hasn’t made the transfer to LP is the spatial coherence, presence and musical tension that make the SACD so listenable. The soundstage is congested, upper string tones congealed and it has lost the sense of inclusive acoustic space that makes the SACD so musically immediate. It is still Kleiber and it is still a great reading of a great work, but the sonic flaws are – if not intrusive – clearly apparent.