Complete with table, arm, cartridge and dust cover
The Music Hall mmf-9.1 is their flagship model in a line of six tables, ranging from the 2.2 through the 5, 7 and 9 series. The 9.1 is an upgrade from the previous 9.0 and is a 2-speed, belt-driven table designed using a very unique triple-plinth construction. Four Sorbothane hemispherical inserts to help isolate the table from external vibrations and serve as a quasi-suspension separate each of the three levels of the plinth. Even the very glossy piano-black lacquered finish is claimed to have vibration absorbing qualities. Vibration, either internal or external, is, of course the bane of any turntable since a stylus vibrating in accordance to the grooves in the LP, so any spurious tremors have a deleterious effect on the music produces the sound. It is obvious that much attention has been paid toward minimizing interference.
That attention extends to the motor which sits in a cutout on the front, left quadrant of the turntable, isolating it from the rest of the structure. It is said that positioning the motor diagonally opposite the arm reduces any vibrations from entering the system. There are two speeds available, 33/1/3 and 45 rpm that are governed by non-standard 50Hz rather than the ordinary 60Hz because they believe a 50Hz motor runs quieter.
Where the table meets the shelf are three spiked feet which are adjustable for precise leveling. Music Hall even provides a built-in, circular level for that purpose. In addition, a set of small disks are included to go under the spikes to prevent scratching or indentations in your shelf.
The 9.1’s platter is a one-inch acrylic type that rotates on a good size, but not massive inverted ceramic bearing. The belt is a large rubber band type. A felt mat is also included.
The new carbon fiber arm, one of the major upgrades from the 9.0, is a one piece (for rigidity) nine-inch shaft/headshell made by Project. Four hardened Swiss ABEC 7 spec ballraces are used in an inverted bearing design. The counterweight's center of gravity is level with the stylus tip, decouple from the arm which acts as a resonance-damping device. The arm also has adjustable VTA, but it is not adjustable “on the fly”. A damped arm lift and top-grade internal wiring drawn from high purity copper are employed.
The package does not stop there as it also includes a Goldring Eroica LX cartridge that is pre-mounted and aligned for you, another on a long list of conveniences. The Eroica is a low-output, moving coil design that requires that a MC phono preamp be used. In this case, I used my Roksan Reference DXP SE as well as the new WhestTwo that they sent along with the table. The Whest will be the subject of a separate review.
In a very unique move, the 9.1 package also includes as standard a very nice Plexiglas dust cover which hinges in the rear and will stay in the up position so you don’t have to fuss with it while you place a disk on the platter. A dust cover alone can run as much as $250 or more and is a surprising accessory in this already low-priced ensemble. Since the table uses RCA jacks to connect its output, a pair of decent quality IC’s are even included.
While some assembly is required, all the tools you need are provided – even a plastic template with which to align the external motor. Overall, the assembly process is not what I would call a snap, but fortunately the manual is exceptionally well written and anyone who can handle a few simple tools can easily complete the task in about an hour, tops. No soldering needed.
THE HALL OF RECORDS
The moniker MusicHall is derived from proprietor Roy Hall’s surname. Roy has been around for a long time and has seen and done about everything there is to do in audio. He also knows everybody. He’s a bit of an iconoclast in the industry and is rather outspoken in his very strong opinions. He’s also brilliant and wise with a great sense of humor. He also likes to philosophize a bit and his philosophies make a great deal of sense. Playing back the recording of our interview, I found myself laughing with him, but never at him.
A phone interview with Roy that was scheduled for about 15 minutes to get his comments on the table’s design goals and execution, turned into a one-hour discourse ranging from international politics, industry foibles and even his opinion of certain people and products. He is stunningly honest and I found myself reminding him that the conversation, which I digitally recorded for accuracy, was “on the record”. I also found myself agreeing with his sentiments a lot. At one point I told him he was “preaching to the choir”. What is interesting is that since that conversation, much of what he expressed has come to pass in various experiences. Some of his comments were so incendiary that I checked with VP Leland Leard to make sure before I published them. He said, “He's free with his comments and stands behind them. Print whatever you like”.
His speech is as colorful as his opinions though, so I’ve had to do a few acceptable (and hopefully humourous) substitutions since Stereomojo doesn’t publish profanity, but you will get his points. I learned a lot and I hope by sharing what he said, you will, too.
HALL OF JUSTICE
The first question to Roy, as always here at the Mojo, was to state his design goals for the table, to which he replied, “The design goal is to make the best table for the price. We’ve looked and there’s nothing at that price point that offers the value for the money. We’re putting on an arm that retails for seven or eight hundred dollars and a cartridge the retails for three or four hundred on a $2,000 turntable. That’s a good bargain. The savings are in the simplicity of design, which I admit freely admit I completely stole from Revolver. I used to be the distributor for Revolver and we just took it a stage further. In fact, all the design features on the table are stolen from other turntables”.
I told you Roy was honest. The conversation quickly turned to the state of turntables and vinyl in the world and how everyone was getting in on the vinyl revival, including Revolver who just came out with a all new model which, ironically, I have in house for review now. “Everyone said ‘look at MusicHall selling all those turntables’ so they’re all coming out with turntables thinking it’s a massive market. What they don’t understand is that America is not a massive market. In Europe there’s a growing market because kids have been buying turntables. In America, very few kids are buying turntables. The people who are buying turntables in America are the guys 40 plus who are buying their last table”.
I told Roy that I had talked to guys who own used record shops and they say that kids are buying lots of records. “Yeah”, he responded, “they are, but they’re not putting them on MusicaHall turntables, they’re all putting them on pieces of crap they picked up in a junk store”. I said, “From my experience the reason for that is that they don’t know MusicHall and the others exist”.
“We’re all too small to let them know. We can’t compete in mainstream America. I’ve had my turntables in Forbes and Rolling Stone. Do you know how many times I’ve had my tables in Rolling Stone? Do you think we’ve gotten one call? We’ve had it in Blender magazine and I think Maxim. Not one call!
He went on to tell me that his daughter is in college and has a turntable there. “Everyone comes in and says, ‘That’s cool and sounds great’, so I told her to give them my name and I’d talk to them about it. She’s been there a year and a half and not one call”.
I asked him what the differences were between the old 9.0 and this new 9.1. He explained that there are two; the old arm was a carbon fiber with a metal head shell where the new Project arm (Project and MusicHall tables are made in the same factory in the Czech Republic) is a one piece, all carbon fiber arm. Second, they upgraded the cartridge to a moving coil because it just sounded sweeter. “I was the first person to market a high-end turntable that included a cartridge. I’m not talking about the cheap stuff you see in Best Buy. Look at the Rega’s and even the Project’s. They only put cartridges on their cheapest models. Everything else was a table with no arm or with and arm and no cartridge. We figured people didn’t want to (copulate) with that. They just want to open it up, do the setup and have a turntable. And we’ve been very successful with that. Project put an Ortophon cartridge on their table. It’s such a nasty piece of (human waste).
(Laughing) “Can I quote you on that Roy?”
“You can quote me. Absolutely. If you want to quote me about the Sumiko Blue Point cartridge…what a piece of (fecal matter)! That cartridge got such good press and I could never understand…(effing) hell. Some of their other cartridges are ok. I have nothing against Sumiko. I like John Grado’s cartridges, I think Linn makes great cartridges…some Audio Technica’s are ok, some not so great…but the Blue Point... (doin' the nasty) hell…”
I wondered what he thought might be the maximum dollar cartridge he might put on the $2,000 table. “I’m going to promote the Goldring’s that I sell. The Elite ($750) I think is wonderful, but some top of the line Grado's or Benz’s would work really well”. After a bit more probing, he finally said he’d have no problem putting a $2,000 cart on the 9.1.
The conversation turned to the positioning of the motor in relation to the arm. He said that most table makers put their motor in back, opposite the arm. He pointed out that a stylus reads the grooves vibrating left to right and that if there were any micro vibrations transferred to the cartridge with the motor parallel in back, they would also be left to write – interfering with the stylus and causing distortion. With the motor positioned diagonally at the left front, any vibrations would be transmitted front to back and thus not read by the stylus. He did not say that the motor being on a the bias like that also puts it further away from the arm and cart, forcing any vibration to travel farther. He concluded his point by saying that was an idea he stole from Pink Triangle! I told him if he kept it up, he’d have to start paying these other companies royalties. “No”, he bellowed. I’m givin’ them credit! They should be happy that a person of my status in the industry credits them with something. I’m doing them a favor! Look, I’m not a turntable designer, but I’ve been around long enough to know what is important and what’s not. Great turntables makers know that, too, like that guy in Australia who makes the Continuum for $100,000. It’s an amazing turntable. I could never make a turntable anywhere close to that. But is it 50 times better than mine at $2,000? I don’t know, but that’s probably the most significant analog product I’ve seen in years”.
The conversation again turned, this time to reviewing and reviewers. “Everyone is out to get a story and there’s two ways to get a story. You either go out and get a story or have someone spoon-feed it to you. Most journalists are lazy. You see it at the shows when they walk in and just get a press kit. They don’t talk to the designers I’m not just talking about audio, but things like the New York Times. And you just have to remember that a review is just an opinion. If your opinion is different than mine, then we have a problem. That’s why I’m always writing nasty letters to Sam Tellig. He pisses me off and someone has to stand up and say it rather than take it. Well, (Have intercourse with) YOU! It’s a great product. If you don’t get it you’re an (exit where human waste is expelled from the body). NEXT!”
What he said next is something very important and something I have heard from many different manufacturers and designers, and that is that they don’t necessary want a rave review, they just want a fair one. “If you don’t like aspects of it and you don’t think it’s good, well fair enough, as long as it’s a reasoned and thought out and supported view.”
As I said earlier, I found myself agreeing with his sentiments a lot. He's just right.
We continued to talk about reviewing and reviewers, and the next question was also rather insightful and revealing. Not of Roy, but of me. I make no assertions that I, or anyone else here, are perfect and in possession of all knowledge. Life is a progression of learning. When you stop learning, you start dying. That is why I seek knowledge and wisdom at every opportunity, and conversing with Roy Hall is a golden one. So I ventured, “Roy, I have a problem and I want to ask you about it to see if you can help”.
“How does one compare a $2,000 turntable to a reference table of say, $15,000, or amplifier or anything else for that matter, and describe the differences without making it sound like you are denigrating the $2,000 product or giving the impression that it sucks?”
“Well, I usually just demonstrate it”.
“But I can’t demonstrate it. I have to write about it.”
There was a long silence before he offered a line that was at once succinct and right on the mark, but delivered in such a humorous way that Leno or Letterman would envy.
“You have an impossible job”, he intoned. “It’s like you’re a radio announcer trying to describe an art show.”
There was another long pause as I tried to recover from gales of laughter.
He continued, ”How the (fornicate) do you describe sound? Reviewers love to make up words that mean something to them, but may not mean the same to anyone else, or even confuse them more. So you have an impossible task, you know, so I would just give up and get a real job…” More laughter
“Well, if I thought of Stereomojo as a job, you’d be right…”
“It’s like Ken Kessler who has fairly good ears”, Roy continued, “but he writes amusingly. Tom Gillette (Sam Tellig’s real name) is the same way. The problem with Tom is that he’s been writing for so long he thinks he knows about good sound, but he has no real idea. Instead, he uses characters who say witty things and he just brings them to life, and that’s why he’s a good writer”.
He makes and excellent point, which comes as no surprise. There is a difference between a writer and/or a “columnist” and…a reviewer. Perhaps that’s why you never see any gear written about by “Sam” or a few others that gets measured or held to the same standard as a true reviewer. Columnists have the freedom to write about anything they want – their recent trip to France or Russia or a new wine they discovered, and then mix in a few opinions of some speaker one of their long-time friends just put out. Even if it’s the same one or two brands they’ve “reviewed” the last three times. Reviewers, on the other hand, at least the ones here, have gear assigned to them that fit their systems, rooms and areas of expertise. Or they can read about or see something new and different that is not a household name and ask if they can review that. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with columnists writing about anything they choose in an audio publication. It’s just that often the lines and distinctions are blurred and a comment by a columnist can be given the same weight as that of a dedicated reviewer.
Roy and I went back and forth a bit before he suggested this; “If I were writing on a non-commercial level (meaning not writing about something he sells), I’d write about it on an emotional level”.
He went on to compare reviewing something like Consumer Reports does with a grill. “Maybe you can write about a grill by the numbers, but with music you have something nebulous and emotional. Does the thing move you and make you tap your toe or not? Does it play an enormous amount of music for the money or not? Why not approach it like that”?
Yes. Why not.
So. Taking a cue from some other quotes from Mr. Hall, does the MusicHall 9.1 "move me and make my toe tap"? Does it play "an enormous amount of music for the money"? In his colorful parlance, (vulgar term for copulate) YES! Listening to LP’s such as Led Zep 4, Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House”, “Back in Black” by AC/DC and the like on the 9.1, elicits a very visceral, physical and emotional response.
Some of the most emotionally involving recordings I own are of the Khachaturian Piano Concerto. I know most of you are saying “Huh?” about now, but this is one composition of which I own almost every known recording. Besides the fact that it is a real pyrotechnic finger buster that includes shades of everything from jazz, rock, folk and classical from several periods, it happens to be the first Piano Concerto I performed with a live symphony. You know what they say; you never forget your first, so this is the case here. It so happens that Classic Records did a re-issue of the Peter Katin version with Hugo Rignold conducting the London Symphony. This is an Everest 35mm magnetic film recording and an insert in the jacket says that this reissue was cut from the original using an “all tube” cutting system. I have the original and I can say that the re-issue kills it sonically and the best Khachaturian I own from an audio perspective. Performance wise, the William Kappel is considered by most the benchmark, but the Katin is pretty good, too.
Listening to this recording inspired me to do much more than tap my toe. My arms were flailing about as I conducted some parts and my whole body reacted to every crescendo and syncopated rhythm. Be glad you weren’t there to witness it, but I don’t care. Music can and should have that effect. In the Second Movement “Andante con Anime” (“Anime” does not refer to Japanese animated films), the theme is stated by an oboe, but is reflected later by an early electronic synthesizer called a “Flexitone” or sometimes also a Theremin. The melody is moderately slow and haunting with very expressive giant leaps that tug the heart strings, made even more so by the exotic vibrato of the Flexitone. The 9.1 did it for me completely.
I switched cartridges to the Benz Glider and found a bit more impact and a more defined soundstage. As I told Roy, I think the limiting factor in this package is the cartridge, but as he said, the Goldring Eroica LX was chosen because of its low cost and as a place to start without having to go out and do costly experiments with more expensive models. I think Roy is right when he says the 9.1 will respond well to cartridges costing up to about $2,000. I would not go higher than that with the 9.1 as the law of diminishing returns kicks in and is good as the new Project arm is, it is not really articulate enough to appreciate the performance of anything much costlier. It would be like putting premium gas in a car that was built to run on regular.
Is the 9.1 the equal of my TW Acustic Raven One with the Graham Phantom arm and “The Voice” cartridge? No, nor should it be at one-fifth the price. And the Raven One does not come with a dust cover! But the Raven is faster and portrays rhythms and dynamics significantly better. Yes, even more emotion. And that is what high-end audio is all about. You have unlimited choices and can spend as much as you want to achieve those last few degrees of musical nirvana, but spend you will. The Caliburn at $100,000 that Roy mentioned is not even the most expensive table out there.
The only real quibble I have is the blue LED on the motor – it’s too dang bright. In a dim or dark room, it casts enough light, particularly straight up so that it bounces off the ceiling, to illuminate the whole space. I would question if it’s really necessary since, unlike an amplifier, the motor and platter turning make it fairly obvious that the table is powered on. My solution was a tiny piece of black electrician’s tape over the light. Problem solved.
I know from experience that playing a record with the dust cover down is usually not a good idea, but I tried it anyway. And, in the small 10x12x9 room with the speakers a mere 3 feet away from the table and playing at loud volume, feedback was induced that went away with the lid up. In a larger room, you can probably get away with it, but I would advise against it.
While I have not auditioned every table in the $2,000 price range, I would have to agree with Roy that there are not many complete packages, if any, that offer the level of value for the money as the MusicHall 9.1. If you look at the numbers, you get an $800 tonearm, a $750 moving coil cartridge and a $250 dustcover. Those three pieces alone come to $1,800 retail. The whole table package sells for $2,000. In effect, you are getting the table itself for $200. A table which, in the opinion of Linda and myself, with its gorgeous piano-black lacquered finish, looks more expensive than its $2,000 cost. Weighing 40 lbs, you know you’re not getting a toy. The table is available without the cartridge for $200 less.
One criterion I use in establishing recommendations is, would I recommend it to a friend or family member? In this case, I have. Would I buy it myself? If I were looking for a table at this level and in this price range, absolutely. MusicHall is a long established company with an excellent reputation, so purchasing one of their products would not be an exercise in apprehension or worry.