All that was left to do was to plug the supplied RCA’s into my nearest headphone amplifier, select ‘line level’ out, plug in the 12V wall-wart, and I was ready to rock. I treated myself to Beck’s latest record ‘Hyperspace’ to test out the new Carbon VTA, and so I fired-up the Hagerman Tuba with my Sennheiser HD650’s, and away I went. The instructions supplied with the Carbon VTA worked a charm, because voila – it sounded bloody magical from the get-go.
Headphone listening is different on vinyl, and I tend to choose different pairings to what I might go for when listening to digital. The HD650’s famously smooth, dark voicing is a perfect match for vinyl playback – it tends to smooth out some of the subtle (and occasionally un-subtle) crackles that can be caused by dust or surface-noise from the record itself. Another headphone I often reach for when dropping the needle is the Aeon Flow Open from Dan Clark Audio (or, as they were known at the time, MrSpeakers). The Aeons have an intimate, warm mid-bass and midrange which is super-relaxing and decadent sounding – they also happen to be just about the most comfortable pair of headphones I’ve ever tried, making them perfect for relaxing with a nice album and a drink of something interesting.
One other feature might seem like a bit of a non-story, but the fact that the Carbon VTA’s speed can be switched between 33 and 45 at the twist of a dial is a bit of a novelty to me. If I want to change speeds on my Rega, I need to take the platter right off and hook the belt onto a different rung on the pulley – it’s a bit of a hassle, and it means that my 45’s of Queens of the Stone Age’s ‘Like Clockwork’ and Atoms for Peace’s ‘AMOK’ don’t tend to get the love they deserve. Not so with the Carbon VTA.
It’s kinda hard to assess the sonic characteristics of a turntable because there are so many elements included between the record and your ears – the cartridge, the tonearm, the pre-amp, and of course your amplifier and the transducers themselves. This being the case, trying to empirically understand which component is making which part of your music sound the way it does can be frustrating. But, being a vinyl review, it’s more important to understand two things: 1. will it get you reliably up and playing quickly, and consistently? And 2. are you having a Good Time?
One thing I am happy to report about the Carbon VTA is that it’s a fairly solid platform and offer a stable playing surface. While it’s not the heaviest plinth, didn’t have any problems with instability nor skipping – the four adjustable rubber feet seem to plant it pretty well.
I found that the Carbon VTA felt a little bass-shy when playing Hiatus Kaiyote’s ‘Choose Your Weapon’, an absolutely superb-sounding album on vinyl. After some minor tinkering on the tonearm’s tracking force, I found it to sound as organic and finessed as ever, with great vocal and instrumental tone.
I used Radiohead’s ‘OKNOTOK’ 20th-anniversary re-issue of ‘OK COMPUTER’ to test-out the on-board phono stage versus the one on my NAD. It’s not an easy A/B test given that you need to switch and replace RCA cables, but the NAD’s phono stage felt a bit more enveloping and dynamic compared to the NAD’s playing over my KEF LS50 speakers. I’m nit-picking here, but I have to remember that the Carbon VTA is aimed at first-time vinyl users. Also, the fact that it’s even available (and able to be defeated and used with on off-board phono stage) is to be commended, and the convenience will honestly trump the minor performance edge for most listeners.
Being a turntable review, there was no way I was going to miss the chance to spin my favourite album of all time (depending on which day you ask me, that is): Smashing Pumpkin’s ‘Siamese Dream’. Side-note: I’m on the hunt to find a mint-edition first press of this record, the version I have is the 2011 re-master which features the red-tinted cover artwork. I sat back in my listening armchair, put on my Grado GH1s (my go-to ‘rock’ cans) and dropped the AT-VM95E onto the opening track ‘Cherub Rock’ after I gave it a good clean. That familiar wall of guitar around the 25-second mark sounded rich, weighty and generally pretty awesome. I had a Good Time.
So how did Drop mange to go with their first-ever turntable? Honestly, I’m pretty bloody impressed. I feel that for the price, Drop has managed to hit a sweet spot for usability, upgradability, and liveability. At the end of the day, vinyl is about making you want to make time to dedicate to listening in a conscious sort of way, and this is the sort of turntable that makes it easy to get enjoyable, great-sounding vinyl into your life. But, the Drop + Audio Technica Carbon VTA feels more than a ‘budget’ turntable, it’s a genuinely great end-to-end experience and I’d be proud to have it in my hifi/head-fi rig.
As for our readers – if you’ve been on the fence about getting into vinyl, then the Carbon VTA is a bullet-proof recommendation for your first (and possibly last) turntable. Vinyl is an altogether different kind of way to experience the music you love, and if you’re keen to make the commitment, then this gets our ‘nod’ as a gateway to get you on your way.