Empire 698 + AT440mla = vinyl bliss for $500
I bought an Empire 698 from an ad on craigslist for $400. I believe that the ad was up for a few days and I must have been the first and only caller based on the eagerness of the seller when I called. I already have an Empire 398 and 3 Thorens (TD124mkI, TD124mkII, TD125mkII) so I needed another vintage turntable like my wife needs another pair of shoes. But the craigslist ad said that the table was mint, and the seller agreed to drive it to my home (~1hr drive) to see it if I was willing to pay $20. I thought it was worth a shot since I had never seen a 698 in the “flesh”.
The guy arrived and, much to my surprise, he knew enough to take the table apart for shipping. We reassembled it and it looked great. The only problems were some nicks and notches in the wood plinth and cover. Everything else looked mint as advertised.
Let me start by saying that this is truly a MAGNIFICENT looking piece of machinery. Aesthetically, it’s a combination of modern, classical, and sci-fi. It would look right at home a movie like “Dune” or “The Fifth Element” – if you’ve seen either you probably know what I mean. Given the broad combination of materials used, the result could have been horrendous. Consider that it has a gold-tone metal chassis, platter, and tonearm, a clear plexiglass tonearm rest (illuminated from below with a red LED), clear plastic touch sensitive switches (also illuminated from below with a red LED) for cueing, a black plastic on/off switch, a wood plinth, and a wood and smoked-glass cover.
Unlike my TD124s which required quite a bit of care, restoration (e.g. they both leaked oil and needed a new gasket), and more modern tonearm (SME 3009II), all this Empire required was a little bit of dusting.
Set-up was a breeze. The seller gave me the original instructions, which came in poster form, and were very well written – the best I’ve read for a turntable set-up. I like to use a weight stabilizer so I adjusted the suspension wing-nuts to have the platter float approximately 1/8” off the base with the weight on. Took me five minutes to get it where I wanted it to be. I installed my favorite budget cartridge (AT440mla) on the removable head-shell and used the HiFi News Test LP (HFN TLP) to set overhang, and make sure all the wiring was correct and to find the best VTA, VTF, and anti-skating settings. There is a strobe disk in the center of the platter and, with a portable fluorescent light, setting the correct speed was a piece of cake. All and all, I must have spent 30-40 minutes to get the set-up right – and had fun doing it because everything responded so well and was very intuitive. The only thing that did not work well was the lowering of the tonearm using the cueing button – it looks like it needs some lubrication – but I could not wait to listen so I postponed that task.
As usual, the AT440mla did splendidly in the HFN TLP, passed the tracking torture tests with flying colors (what an amazing cartridge for $89). Both the vertical and horizontal resonance tests on the test LP came in at 9Hz, a bit low, but acceptable.
Enough testing, time to play some real music…
I planned to use this table on my vintage system which consists of a Fisher 600 receiver (from 1960) and a pair of Tannoy Prestige Mini speakers (with dual-concentric drivers). This system gives me at least as much pleasure as my fancy-pants McIntosh/Quad set-up in the living room.
I know that the 440mla has to break in for 40-50 hours (I have two of them already in use), but it sounded darn good from the start – amazing in-fact. It’s probably because my expectations for the 698 were lower than those for the Thorens/SME combos, but I was floored by what I heard – great sound stage, deep bass, crystalline highs, spot-on and rock solid speed. No way this is a $400 table with an $89 cart! I may not have golden ears, but those of you who are familiar with my other postings knows that I am quite picky and not that easy to please (e.g. my recent issues with the 398 speed and modulation problems). This table/cartridge sang to me like no other table I’ve owned (modern or vintage). It sounds the way it looks – warm, rich, golden – the kind of sound I am a sucker for. I played rock, jazz (vocal and instrumental), and classical; all came through vivid and three-dimensional. “Ella at Duke’s Place” sounded better than I’ve ever heard it. Joe Pass’s nylon strings guitar on Joe Pass’s “I Remember Charlie Parker” sounded just like it should – all picking noises, incidental sounds, coming through with great realism. I could go on, but the bottom-line is that whatever I threw at this table/cart sounded great and dragged me in the music. It was very hard to turn it off when I had to go to bed.
Many vintage fans think that Empires are underrated tables – and I fully agree with that. But the common wisdom is also that the earlier non-suspended Empires like the 208 and 398 are better tables than the later suspended models like the 598 and the 698 – and I am not sure I agree with that. It might be possible that with a lot of tweaking (e.g. a massive plinth, new tonearm, etc.) a 208 or 398 might sound better than a 698 but based on my experience with both tables, out of the box, the 698 by far the better performer with rock-solid speed, very low noise floor, and a very good tonearm. I found that with the right cartridge it holds its own against more venerated suspended tables like the Thorens and ARs – and looks tons better than both IMO.
In summary, the Empire 698 surprised the heck out of me. I was prepared to like it and keep it for its looks, but not to love the looks AND the sound as much as I did. It may not be the table for you if you like the cold looks and analytic sound of most modern (plexiglass, plastic, and shiny steel) turntables, but if you dig vintage gear and warm analog/tube sound the Empire is definitely worth considering.
For those people who are looking for a starter table/cart for under $500 to get into vinyl, I can’t imagine a better deal than a 698 with AT440mla – especially since it’s so easy to set-up and requires no restoration (other than a new belt).
I hope you enjoyed this review. It took me a while to write, but I felt an obligation to be thorough and share my finding with other vinyl/vintage enthusiasts since so much has been written about vintage Thorens/Garrards/Lencos and so little about Empires. I believe these tables deserve much more visibility and respects than they’ve been given. The combination of build-quality, features, looks, and sound makes them an AMAZING deal for the prices they are demanding these days.