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Thales TTT-Compact II Turntable and Simplicity II Tonearm review by The Audio Beat

"... its compact musical presentation could well form the basis of a long-lasting audio association, a compact indeed."

Humanity exists in a world where we are daily becoming more dependent on computers -- both hardware and software -- and despite its head-in-the-sand, traditionalist stance, the audio industry can’t escape that reality. Increasingly we rely on hardware that is built for the computer industry and that we are forced to repurpose, on common design software packages that lead to a technological convergence and an inevitable narrowing in the range and character of the available solutions. Combine that creative chokehold with the increasing concentration of production in Far East factories and some days it seems like the only choice open to the brand owner is the shape and profile of the front panel. Listen to a whole range of functionally similar products -- be they streamers, DACs, class-D amps or loudspeakers -- and it’s increasingly hard to escape the conclusion that, as different as they may look, they’re becoming ever more similar under the skin. Is it a reaction or just coincidence that the rest of the industry seems intent on producing ever more extravagant, costly, oversized (and arguably over-priced) products? Meanwhile we all stand by, customers and commentators alike, apparently applauding the sacrifice of practicality (or at least justifying it) on the altar of ultimate performance.

Let’s take linear-tracking tonearms as an example. I’ve owned or used more than a few such devices -- from an early Rabco all the way up to a Kuzma Airline. I know what a really good, passive linear-tracking tonearm brings to record replay -- and I like it. But I’m not using a linear tracker at the moment (even though there are several in my collection) because they’re just too darned painful to live with. If it’s not ill-considered operational ergonomics or mechanical behavior, condensation problems or noisy compressors, it will be schizophrenic behavioral characteristics or a malevolent attitude to cartridges. I have a complex relationship with these most characterful of all audio devices, perhaps best summed up as a love/hate thing: I love to use them and I love the music they produce, but I also hate the rigmarole they all too often impose.

But the one thing that my ongoing fascination with linear trackers suggests is that minimizing tracing error is audibly and musically significant. Throw in recent experience with Acoustical System’s impressive SMARTractor alignment device with its proprietary UNI-DIN geometry and you can extend that proposition still further. It’s not just the quantity of tracing error that matters, but its nature too. How, then, am I to deal with this conundrum: a problem and a solution that are all too apparent, but don’t quite dovetail? In fact, in many ways, it’s a metaphor for the audio industry as a whole and especially the rocky road on which the high end has recently embarked, a path that risks being littered with unfulfilled promise.

You don’t need 20/20 vision to discern that the Thales products are different. The logical disconnect between their diminutive dimensions and far from diminutive price tags should tell you that. But look a little closer -- or better still, spend some time with them -- and you quickly come to appreciate that they don’t just look different. First, you realize that they’re different for a reason; then it slowly dawns on you just how different they are.

Almost more than any components I’ve tested, the Thales products are the visible extension of the attitude and philosophy behind them. I covered the thinking and the history, the experience and the culture, of Thales and its owner/animator, Micha Huber, in last year's company visit. Read it and you’ll see that the record player being reviewed here is the company’s top offering, with a combined price of nearly $24,000. That’s an attention-grabbing number, and if it’s not exactly top whack for a turntable these days, it‘s certainly a tall enough order to get it taken seriously -- despite its unfashionably slight stature. But then that small footprint is itself an essential result of the Thales philosophy.

Look closely at the Simplicity II tonearm and it soon becomes apparent that this isn’t one 'arm but two, offset by and articulated via a pivoting headshell. The basic concept isn’t new, dating back to the Garrard Zerotrack and beyond. That 'arm used a pushrod to pivot the headshell, thus compensating for the angular error introduced by the pivoted 'arm and its offset tracing arc. It’s a system -- albeit in highly evolved form -- that features in Thales’ more affordable Easy tonearm ($5800). By introducing a complete second armtube, with both 'arms pivoted at the headshell and enjoying their own differential lateral pivots, and carefully calculating the differing distances between the headshell and bearing pivots, Thales is able to reduce overall tracing error to 0.006 degrees. Careful is Huber’s middle name. See his working environment and developmental process and his obsession with repeatable, achievable precision becomes obvious. As with its spiritual forebear, the Breuer tonearm, nothing looks like a Thales tonearm and nothing feels like it either. Some 'arms have one bearing, and some have two; the Simplicity II has five, yet, despite that complexity, handle the 'arm and its silky smoothness, low-friction and absolute absence of play are remarkable, definitely putting it in a class of its own.

But there’s more. As well as a modest overall length and pivot-to-spindle value, factors that make the 'arm compatible with the widest possible range of ‘tables, the Simplicity II also offers an interchangeable headshell of an elegance that is both remarkable and somehow utterly expected. Indeed, setup and alignment of the cartridge revolve around that detachable headshell. How does it work? For starters, put down that screwdriver! Anybody swapping a cartridge in the Simplicity II who starts by undoing the mounting bolts on the top of the headshell is in for a nasty surprise as the two armwands suddenly start flying in different directions. Nor will sheepishly bolting them back together solve your problem, as those bolts you just so thoughtlessly removed set the tension of the tiny headshell pivot bearings -- so leave well alone. Thales does attach a warning label to that effect and you need to respect it.

Instead, when it comes time to mount or change a cartridge, look at the nose of the headshell, where you’ll find a tiny horizontal Allen screw. Loosen it and you release the sledge that actually carries the cartridge and that slides sideways onto grooved shoulders cut in the headshell proper. The lozenge-shaped sledge (a sort of elongated octagon) is solid and deep -- around 5mm -- enough to hide the bolt heads that sit in its traditional mounting slots. Along with the 'arm, you receive a comprehensive set of tools, mounting hardware, counterweights, a spare cartridge sledge -- and a cartridge setup jig. This is an H-shaped block of alloy, the bridge machined so that you can locate the cartridge sledge from above and adjust cartridge position from below. An acrylic sight, complete with crosshairs and reference points etched into the cartridge plane (to eliminate parallax errors), allows you to position the cantilever and stylus precisely -- in exactly the right position so that when you flip it over and slide it into the headshell, the overhang and offset (or lack of it) will be spot on. It makes the alignment and mounting of cartridges simplicity itself -- and yes, the pun is intentional.

The whole process is described in detail (and pictorially) in the manual, so it’s not like you have to feel your way. Just don’t let the Simplicity II’s almost conventional looks lull you into a false sense of security. As Micha Huber says, "Nobody in their right mind would try to set up a Souther 'arm without reading the manual; just because the Simplicity looks like a normal 'arm, it doesn’t mean you know how it works." In other words, break the habit of a hi-fi lifetime and RTFB.

Of course, two 'arms means two counterweights and yet another example of the Simplicity II’s elegance. Not only do you get a range of weights to accommodate different cartridges, the main weight, attached to the inner armwand, has an arc machined from its rear surface, rotating it and allowing you to alter the weight distribution about the horizontal axis and ensure constant VTF across the disc. Meanwhile, the smaller counterweight on the second 'arm moves independently, moving towards the vertical pivot point, compensating for the shift in the relative attitude of the cartridge and carrier sledge.

Often, 'arms as complex as this seek simplicity through eliminating unnecessary (for which read difficult) adjustments. The Thales design offers a full suite of adjustments, including VTA/SRA via the mounting collar and set screw, but with a vertical adjuster to make tiny adjustments possible, with azimuth affected by differential height adjustment of the lateral bearings. Won’t that cause a misalignment in the bearings and stiction to occur? The bearings are equipped with barrel-shaped inner sleeves that allow the axis to shift without binding the bearing surfaces. It’s all clever stuff, and the result is a product that is both easy and a pleasure to use.

But as clever and precise as the simplicity II is, the one thing it lacks is incremental adjustment of VTA on the fly. A steady hand will allow you to adjust VTA while a record plays, but it’s not the sort of repeatable adjustment with manual lock and release featured by 'arms like VPI’s JMW or the various Kuzmas. Given the remarkable precision engineering of the rest of the 'arm, this is both one mechanism that I would have thought is well within the company’s compass to execute and one I’d love to see them turn their attention to.

One thing to bear in mind: as we’ve already learned, appearances can be deceptive, and the Simplicity II’s delicate lines, short effective length and silky feel can easily suggest that this is a lightweight 'arm. It’s not. Thales suggests an effective mass of 19 grams, a number that’s definitely on the high side, making the Simplicity II happiest with low-compliance cartridges, often of the bigger and heavier variety. Indeed, my first proper listening experience with this 'arm involved its use with an onyx-bodied Koetsu cartridge -- and they don’t come much bigger, heavier or lower compliance than that.

After the tonearm, the turntable’s clean lines and small footprint suggest a lack of complexity. Don’t kid yourself -- it’s just that you can’t see the intricacies buried beneath the platter and within the plinth. Beneath the platter lies a incredibly compact DC belt-drive system, complete with a pair of integrated flywheels and a leaf-spring suspension system, all built into a block about the size of two match boxes placed end to end. Again, take a look at the factory-visit article and you’ll get to see just how astonishingly intricate and elegant this motor block is. Of course, using a DC motor also opens up the option of battery power, and the TTT-Compact II incorporates a battery supply within the plinth, a simple off/charge/run rocker switch allowing you to set the mode. In fact, this switch caused my biggest acclimatization challenge, as I remembered to turn the supply off but forgot to switch it to charge -- not once, but several times. You soon adapt -- having to resort to CD being a harsh price to pay for your own stupidity.

The rest of the deck is an exercise in the careful application of specifically chosen materials. The main chassis and platter are machined from solid aluminum, and the latter along with the record weight feature a specially selected high-density inlay, Thales being close-lipped about its identity. The plinth arrives with the subplatter and drive system installed and locked down by a pair of beautifully machine clamps that are reversed to free the drive system. Then the outer platter is gently put in place. The rear corner takes the form of an inset armboard that can be machined to accept different tonearms, while the upright face of that rear corner, immediately below the armboard, can take the form of a cable clamp or termination block -- RCA or XLR connections being available. Three adjustable feet, each tipped with a small ball bearing, allow for leveling. Thales states that one at least should be left tight, while the others, running on fine threads in snuggly fitting wells, require no locking nuts. Controls are limited to soft-touch buttons for 33 and 45, illumination indicating stable speed and low battery conditions. Two pinholes in the front of the plinth below the business end of the tonearm allow for fine adjustment of each speed. The end result is 16 kilos of incredibly solid and compact engineering that is, once again, a joy to use -- once you remember to charge the supply.

By now, you should be getting the idea. Thales has created a tonearm that offers vanishingly low tracing distortion (just like all those linear trackers), is totally passive in operation (no air pumps or external drive/control systems) and will fit on pretty much any deck (which definitely isn’t the case with most linear trackers). It’s easy to set up, and once set up it’s easy to use. Likewise, the TTT-Compact II is incredibly easy to accommodate, set up and operate. Compared to almost all other serious turntables (bar the Grand Prix Audio Monaco), the TTT-Compact II's demands for real estate are so modest that there are those who will be tempted to conclude that it can’t possibly be a serious contender. Yet it most definitely is. What these products demonstrate is that Micha Huber might be serious about the elegance and precision of his engineering, but he’s every bit as serious about its practicality.

Look at the design concerns and decisions that underpin these products and it’s tempting to predict where their musical strengths will lie -- tempting but dangerous. Okay, so the low tracing distortion, if it mimics the performance of parallel-tracking 'arms, will deliver a sense of unimpeded flow, solid dimensionality and natural rhythmic expression. The battery power supply will underpin that with a low noise floor and a lack of grain. But set against those positives come the inevitable negatives, the swings to those deeply musical roundabouts. Small deck, small sound -- at least that’s how the thinking goes, even if it isn’t articulated quite as bluntly as that. Just take a look at the plethora of high-end, heavyweight contenders; most of them make WWF fighters look positively undernourished and lacking in character, while their numbers make the fight franchise look understaffed. Then there’s the battery power supply (and its associated DC motor): great for low noise, not so great for dynamics, at least that’s the conventional wisdom. Besides which, in a world where less is generally held to be more, anything as intrinsically complex, as downright intellectual or that involves as many small parts as the Thales products is almost bound to be treated with suspicion. Take a quick look at the TTT-Compact II and Simplicity II and too small to look like the money, not big enough to impress would be an easy conclusion to reach. This is where things get dangerous -- dangerous for Thales, which needs customers to overcome those assumptions and clear that visual hurdle, dangerous for customers who might just dismiss a deck that’s as special as it is different.

The notion that small decks sound small is easy to counter: four words -- Grand Prix Audio Monaco, a deck that actually has a smaller footprint than the TTT-Compact II but delivers dynamic range and dimensionality, weight and sheer musical impact to challenge or beat the very best. The AMG Giro is another example of a small deck that sounds anything but small. So small isn't a problem, at least not if it’s done cleverly, and the TTT-Compact II is nothing if not clever.

Of course, size is about the only thing the TTT-Compact II and the Monaco have in common -- other than their ability to surprise. One listen to the Thales record player should reveal both its musical integrity and just how different it sounds to most other decks. In describing its sound, the way it presents recordings and reveals performances, I find myself struggling within the limitations of the conventional lexicon of analog replay. The normal tendency is to break turntables down into a range of qualities -- dynamics, bass weight and drive, rhythmic integrity, soundstaging, air and extension, speed stability and noise. Amongst those familiar phrases, we’d find a standout, a particular strength, that underpins both the player's performance and the performance of the player. Well, not this time.

So let’s start with what this record player isn’t. This isn’t a deck that will blow you away with explosive, powerhouse dynamics, the sort of drive and musical propulsion that make the performance feel like it’s one step ahead of a herd of stampeding rhinos. Nor is it big, blowsy and overblown, with a massive, floaty soundfield and more air and space than Woodstock. It’s neither etched nor spotlit, tonally hollow, lightweight, earthbound nor sumptuously warm and rounded. It exhibits none of the classic sound associated with various materials, record players or generic types of record players. The Thales record player is very much its own beast, with its own identity -- and identity, as we know, starts with "I."

Ironically, after musing long and hard on the question, I came to the belated conclusion that, when it comes to summing up the sound of this player, perhaps not surprisingly, Micha Huber has already done a pretty good job. When he dubbed this deck the TTT-Compact and the 'arm the Simplicity, he might have been describing their physical attributes, but knowingly or not, he was also describing their sound. This combination is a model of condensed musical integrity and clarity. You don’t just get every instrument and vocal contribution beautifully separated and laid out for you; the space and the relationship between instruments and vocalists is just as explicit. The internal structure and the linkages within the music are so strongly rendered that, if you try to pull it apart, you find yourself struggling, unable to get a grip on or separate out a single performance trait. Is the Thales record player dynamic? Put on a favorite test track and you’ll still be wondering, simply because it’s almost impossible to separate the dynamic range from the tempo, the scale or the sense of pace and musical expression.

The album One Fair Summer Evening [MCA MCF 3435] captures Nanci Griffith in an intimate live performance at the Anderson Fair Retail Restaurant in Houston, Texas. Griffith is a performer who inevitably seems to sound younger than her years, so this is a set that’s full of life, vigor, humor and sass -- but not without pathos too. Play "Love At The Five And Dime" on the Thales player and ask yourself that question again: is it dynamic? Not exactly -- but it sure is live. The attack of the picked guitar, the added weight and rising level that underpin the chorus, the effortless increase in density with the harmony vocals -- the whole is so effortless and so natural that the performance just seems to flow from the speakers, the performers just seem solid and present between them. Is the Thales TTT-Compact II an obviously dynamic performer? No, but that doesn’t mean it’s not dynamic, just that it isn’t obvious, and that’s the key to its performance. Let it run on into the rollicking reel of "Spin On A Red Brick Floor" and just hear the way it shifts gear and tempo without effort or hesitation, the way the phrasing shapes the song, the way the guitar leads the beat and the keys fill in the tail. It’s a master class in temporal security, pace and timing, musical accent and expression.

Perhaps the acid test of all audio equipment is spoken voice, the most familiar of all our instruments. More even than that, humor; jokes depend on timing and the expressive emphasis that come from microdynamic shifts. Just listen to Griffith’s long, meandering intro to "Love At The Five And Dime," the playful interludes between tracks; listen to their intimacy, the relationship between performer and audience, the explosive laughter and spontaneous claps that she provokes. Listen, too, to the somber speech that precedes "Trouble In The Fields" and you begin to appreciate not just the expressive range of this record player but the core integrity that is behind it. The recording captured the performance, but it’s the record player that has to re-create that atmosphere and hold that audience if you are going to be carried to the venue. What impresses most of all with the Thales spinning the disc is the holistic oneness of the experience. There is a band and a stage, there is an audience of which you become a part, and above all there is a performance. Forget the system -- this is all about the event.

Of course, the small scale and easy intimacy of One Fair Summer Evening don’t answer the question of whether the Thales player will do big, even if it shows just why even smaller forces have a remarkably convincing sense of stable presence. At the other end of the spectrum, we find the famous Johanos/Dallas recording of the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances for Turnabout, in this case the Analogue Productions double-45rpm set [APC 34145S]. You don’t get much bigger or bolder than that -- and the TTT-Compact II/Simplicity II rig leaves you in no doubt as to that fact. It allows the music to swell convincingly, the crescendos to detonate appropriately, the sense of power to flow from the stage -- but at the same time it keeps the layers in the orchestration distinct, the low-frequency underpinnings, so often overblown and with a tendency to swamp the mids, deftly under control, adding pace and drive as well as weight. It all comes back to that sense of temporal and dynamic precision, shape and clarity. The same qualities that prove so impressive on small, intimate works form the core structure behind this most bombastic of orchestral outings, while the deck’s effortless fluidity invests it with a sumptuously romantic sweep, ebb and flow. Likewise, other familiar orchestral pieces take on a new sense of inner life and integrity, the deck seemingly fastening on the ensemble strand that binds great performances.

This is an important point when it comes to really appreciating the Thales record player and its contribution. If the music takes on the role of clothing, then the TTT-Compact II/Simplicity II is the model wearing those clothes. But whether that model stalks the catwalk with hip-thrust aggression and a stabbed, positive tread, or glides effortlessly, all grace and poise, will be down to the choice of cartridge. As much as any player I’ve ever used, the Thales turntable is a blank canvas, the perfect cradle to support the strengths and character of whatever cartridge you choose to install. I ran three different cartridges during the review period: the Lyra Etna, EMT JSD P6.0 (supplied by Thales) and Clearaudio Accurate. Having three headshell sleds made swapping the cartridges a breeze. Simply tweak the azimuth, SRA and tracking force and away you go.

It was an exercise that left me with renewed respect for the innate balance of the Etna, which reminded me just what I liked so much when I bought the Accurate, and which made me want to spend a lot more time with the EMT, a cartridge whose explosive dynamics and expansive soundstage came as no surprise, but which possessed a tonal palette and sense of harmonic resolution that were really rather special -- especially (and not surprisingly) in combination with the Thales ‘table. This ability to sort the sound of cartridges and allow each its own voice speaks volumes about the self-effacing nature of the deck and its ability to step away from the signal path and put the music first. Just like its ability with spoken word, it might not seem immediately vital, but is actually fundamental to musical access and long-term listening satisfaction.

This ability to tie musical strands together, for everything to have a place, a size and to stay in that place, even as its size varies, is crucial to properly preserving the structure and pattern that make noise into music. Fail in this regard and any record player will struggle. Far from failing, the TTT-Compact II, with more than a little help from the Simplicity II, absolutely excelled. I’ve already talked about the sense of effortless musical flow generated by this player. Along with that, the ‘table’s dynamic and temporal precision made for a performance that was remarkable for its agility and articulation, its ability to capture phrasing accurately and adapt to the most tortuous rhythmic transitions.

Just listen to the DGG recording of Argerich playing the Ravel G-Major Piano Concerto (Abbado and the Berlin Philharmoniker [Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft SLPM 139349]) and this difficult, fractured, almost schizophrenic score is calmed and integrated, its structure and sporadic, almost spontaneous offshoots gaining a sense of purpose, the piano parts revealing not only Argerich’s fluid phrasing but also a connection to the orchestral parts that creates a meaningful whole and inner coherence from what can be an impenetrable display of surface pyrotechnics. Seldom has this recording of the Ravel sounded as complete or made nearly as much sense; seldom has the grace and poise of Argerich’s playing in the second movement been as plaintively beautiful; seldom has it been so easy to listen into the performance and simply forget the system on which it is being played. Never has the transition into the frantic, almost abstract feu de joie that opens the final movement seemed not just a natural extension of the middle adagio but almost inevitable. If further proof were required of this deck’s speed stability, then you’d find it here, calmly ensuring that notes happen where and when they should, the slower passages just as telling as those explosive, quicksilver ejaculations of tumbling notes and runs.

If a theme is developing here, it’s that lack of obvious or clearly stated attributes. This is a deck that goes about its business quietly and unobtrusively, which is, after all, perhaps the epitome of what all good decks should aim for. Yet, in some respects that is also the ‘table’s Achilles heel. Reveling in the subtle interplay of baroque music, the layered complexity of larger orchestral works, or the evolutionary perambulations of jazz, it can sometimes come up short with more direct musical demands. This reflects in part the choice of partnering cartridge and system, but there’s no avoiding the appeal of well-recorded acoustic material on this player, whether it’s Janis Ian or J.S. Bach. Running the TTT-Compact II/Simplicity II through the VTL/Wilson Alexx system, especially with the Thor's Hammers doing the bottom end, could create an almost reach-out-and-touch quality, a "they are here" presence on the right recordings, but when it came to great rock and pop of the Elvis Costello/Joe Jackson variety, music with bite, energy and attitude at its very core, then there was no escaping the benefits of the Clearaudio Accurate’s emphatic dynamic delivery. It’s not that the Thales products don’t do rock or pop; it’s just that their strengths -- tonal, temporal and textural -- really come into their own (or are most easily appreciated) on acoustic material. Look at the Thales factory visit mentioned earlier and you’ll see that Micha Huber uses an incredibly simple setup topped off with the "Quad in a box" Pawel speakers -- exactly the kind of articulate, intimate and dynamically expressive rig that will make the most of small-scale acoustic recordings.

Listen to this record player’s breathtaking performance, its ability to conjure a sense of real musical chemistry and performance from recordings of such material, and it would be easy to conclude that the TTT-Compact II/Simplicity II had been honed and refined specifically for that job -- but that’s to sell it short. Ask it to do more and the deck responds without fear or favor. Like any component, it can only be part of a system, and the end result will depend on the rest of that system as much as on the deck itself. What I can say with certainty is that however you lean the balance of the partnering cartridge and system, the deck will always deliver on its promise and essential qualities -- that sense of balance and proportion, the strength of its inner connections and musical structure, its almost physical sense of integrity.

Listen with the Thales player and it’s not until you swap it for something else that you realize just how appealing that core strength really is. It establishes the performance as a solid, stable entity, separate from the room, separate from the speakers. Its own event occurs in its own acoustic space. That rock-solid dimensionality and the unwavering placement that come with low tracing distortion are, I’m sure, key to this, but in turn they are qualities that are key to enjoying the music. Connecting with the performers, experiencing the performance, are things at which the deck is so adept that it almost encourages you to seek out those intimate, communicative recordings just to marvel in their humanity.

Drop this deck into an existing system and you’ll instantly hear that it’s different, and you’ll soon establish just what those differences are. The tendency of so many modern decks to dismantle or dissect the performance is cruelly revealed, their exaggerations and bombast ruthlessly exposed. In a system that is voiced around and depends on those qualities, or for a listener who has come to expect them, like sugar in coffee, the TTT-Compact II/Simplicity II may well sound small and flat, at least to start with. But give your ears time to adjust and you’ll realize just how impressive this record player is, the extent of its musical integrity. What it is is a deck that will finesse, will beguile, will seduce and ultimately, if you let it, will convince. It loves small but will go big, it is never, ever less than solid and stable, and it never, ever intrudes on the music. As such, it is one of an extremely select group -- record players that overcome the all-too-obvious limitations of vinyl to mine the record’s rich musical seam, to conjure up performances without resorting to romance or exhibitionism. Increasingly, those decks are becoming smaller in size, not larger, although few are quite as compact as the TTT-Compact II.

Indeed, compact by name, compact by nature, the sheer integrity of its compact musical presentation could well form the basis of a long-lasting audio association, a compact indeed. Don’t underestimate the contribution of the 'arm, a genuinely elegant solution to the often ignored, almost subliminal but in no way trivial issues of tracing distortion. Don’t underestimate the contribution of the deceptively simple motor unit. But above all, appreciate just how musically powerful they are when used in concert.

Reproduced from The Audio Beat (link).