Review: Walker Audio Proscenium Gold Signature Turntable
I’ve had the great pleasure of living for about 6-months now with Lloyd Walker’s superb Proscenium Gold Signature Turntable. It’s time to offer some comments. Bear with me, and I’ll tell you my tale.
Great music reproduced well in the home has been a passion of mine for thirty-five years -- a long-term compulsion, if you will. And, I’ve been fortunate to live for most of that time with a spouse who shared my love of music, was indulgent of the equipment and the record collecting and loved the results we were able to enjoy in our living room. Together, we enjoyed the occasional foray into listening to new equipment, but the focus for both of us has always been more about the music than about the equipment. We can safely say that I have fun with the process of building an audio system and a music library, and she enjoys the outcome.
As is so often the case, as much time as I may spend reading about and listening to equipment, my spouse is the more astute listener. In under 60 seconds, she can listen to a system and can tell virtually everything she needs to know about what that system does and whether it meets her priorities. Forty-five minutes later, I am only beginning to come to grips with what she determined in that first minute. She did this to me when we bought a pair of Avalon Eidolon speakers. After an hour of listening first to this LP, then that LP, I turned to her (being pretty pleased with what I was hearing) to get her opinion. She told me she’d decided 45 minutes ago that this was the pair of speakers we needed to buy -- she just wanted to hear them with a tube amplifier to confirm that.
When I first encountered Lloyd and his turntable, I was only casually exploring the possibility of making a “final for the rest of my life” turntable purchase. I was serious about sometime making a new turntable purchase, but was still at least a couple of years away from making the sort of financial commitment I contemplated. After all, we’d just moved to a new city and a new house, our daughter was still in college with the financial obligation that presented, and my wife and I were still trying to manage our finances and be sure our move and new house had not gotten us to a point from which we needed to retreat.
I’d known that Walker Audio was located somewhere within an hour of our new home outside Philadelphia. And, listening to new equipment can be an entertaining activity. So, purely for fun and as a diverting way to spend an afternoon off from work, my wife and I decided I should telephone Walker Audio to see if there was any way we could listen to their turntable. The answer was “Sure. The turntable happens to be up and running this afternoon, why don’t you come over?” Turns out that the turntable we were to listen to is Lloyd’s personal turntable on which he does all of his development work and listening tests. Sometimes he’s in the middle of a project and either the turntable or the rest of his system is not available for outside listening while he’s experimenting with some new development. This day, everything was ready for listening.
Lloyd’s gracious wife and business partner, Felicia, met us at the door and we all spent the next hour visiting, sharing stories and getting to know one another. Then, Lloyd introduced us to his turntable and gave us a tour of the ‘table and the rest of his system. Then, we sat down to listen to some music.
And we were transported.
Never had we heard a system that hit all of our hot buttons the way this system struck us.
Immediately, the sound from our familiar records surrounded us with a “rightness” and musically natural impact we’d never experienced before. Not in the homes of our friends with good sound systems, not in our home, not in any dealer’s show room.
It was clear that Lloyd Walker “had ears” and that his priorities in a sound system matched ours -- to a proverbial “T.”
But what was the turntable, and what was the rest of the system? That is always the challenge listening to an unfamiliar system -- what is contributing what to what you hear? Lloyd’s comment was “Are you hearing the inner detail? Are you hearing the harmonic overtones? Are you hearing the different musical lines and the different instruments carrying each line? You can’t hear what the turntable is not extracting. If you are hearing it, that means the turntable (tonearm/cartridge) is getting the information out of the grooves.” [paraphrasing] And indeed we were hearing all of this, and more.
What began differentiating the table for us was hearing the remarkable differences in sound from one LP to another. Every LP we played was distinctly different in sound (for good or bad or neutral) and the differences were very readily apparent. This ability to resolve differences between records has always been the hallmark for me of a truly highly resolving turntable/tonearm/cartridge combination. And the Walker Proscenium turntable was revealing differences with ease and regularity -- and this was not a “try to count the number of angels on the head of a pin” type of critical listening exercise that we’ve all experienced from time to time. This was an immediately apparent “knock you on the head with a board” type of listening experience -- the turntable made no bones about what was being played back. If it was on the record, the turntable was delivering it to the rest of the system.
And the turntable was doing this with a musical naturalness and grace that was amazing to hear. This was not an exercise in “knock your socks off, wow ‘em with power” audiophile extravaganza. This experience was about delicacy, grace and nuance, the capturing of subtle harmonic overtones, the capturing of the flow of the music, and, where appropriate, the demonstration of all of the power contained in a symphonic orchestra playing for all it is worth. The soundstage was solid, layered and dimensional. Instruments were focused, tangible, with body, weight and texture. I’ve had an occasional opportunity over the years to listen to second-generation tapes on a good playback system. Listening to the Walker Proscenium turntable was more like listening to those tapes than like any other LP playback I’d ever heard.
My spouse and I have never been convinced by any sound system we’ve ever heard when it comes to trying to reproduce a full orchestra play at full tilt. Every LP playback system we’ve ever heard has tended to compress and congeal the sound at some point. At some point, the ability to differentiate the instruments, to differentiate the various musical lines, gets lost as the sound becomes congested. As much as we love full orchestral music, we’d given up ever hoping to experience any facsimile of that through a playback system in our home.
Well, today was the day a new paradigm was set for us.
Playing two large orchestral LPs on the Walker Proscenium was an enlightening and paradigm-shifting experience for us. The two LPs were Stravinsky’s “Firebird” on the Mercury recording reissued by Classic Records and Malcolm Arnold’s “English Dances” on an EMI recording. At the point where each record would begin to become congested on other turntables, the Walker Proscenium just continued to open up the sound and let it sail forth. Never did the sound become congested; never did the musical lines become confused. The sound soared in a way we’ve never before experienced from a playback system. At the end of the Stravinsky, we just sat there, stunned. What had just happened? Simple, we’d just listened to an LP playback system unlike any other in our experience. A superb, and, in many ways, simply sublime experience.
To a lesser, but still very revealing, degree, another differentiator for us in that day’s listening experience with Lloyd was to hear the dramatic differences the turntable resolved with very minor adjustments to VTA or to damping. Lloyd’s air bearing linear tracking tonearm has a simple to operate VTA adjustment that allows for an infinitely variable adjustment in VTA in very small increments. In listening to several different LPs, dramatic changes in image focus and reproduction of harmonic overtones were achieved with minor VTA adjustments. Additionally, the tonearm allows for variable damping, from none to a bunch, via a trough that runs beneath the back of the tonearm. (Raising the level of the damping fluid in the trough allows the fluid to come into contact with a point on the bottom rear of the tonearm, thereby damping the tonearm.) We primarily listened to high quality classical recordings, and on those we used no damping. But, on one particularly abrasive sounding rock recording Lloyd added just a bit of damping, and the record became much more listenable. My take-away from this experience was that this table was clearly extracting every bit of sonic nuance and detail that was available in the records.
And so, at the end of the afternoon we parted from the Walkers and headed home, thinking that this was definitely the turntable that finally met our expectations for superb playback -- truly a “final in our lifetime” turntable purchase should we get to the point of making that financial commitment.
Or so I thought. Because as we drove home, my spouse commented “We have never heard anything like we heard this afternoon. I never thought I’d hear in a home playback system an orchestral recording that didn’t become congested. We’re not getting any younger, we need to be enjoying our system now, and we’re crazy if we don’t go ahead and buy this turntable.” And she was right, of course. And by the next day, we committed to purchasing the turntable that Lloyd and his partner, Fred Law, would deliver and set up for us six weeks later.
This turntable has been doing remarkable things for our listening pleasure over these past six months. As I write this, I’m listening to Benjamin Britten’s performance of Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos” on a London LP, and just marveling at the sound quality of the recording and what the Walker turntable is extracting from that record. This has always been for me a lovely performance. As I listen to it today, it continues to be lovely, but now is revealed with added depth, delicacy of tone, separation of musical line, inner detail and dynamic nuance than I’ve ever heard in this recording before. For six months now, I’ve reveled in that same experience with record after record that I’ve pulled from my collection to hear for the first time on this system. A cliché? Yes. But no less true for it.
A small listening group flourishes here in the Philadelphia area. When I had the group over for the first time after having the Walker Proscenium turntable in our system we listened together to that same recording of the Stravinsky “Firebird” that had so overwhelmed me at Lloyd’s. We’d been listening to jazz up to that point; had delighted in Louis Armstrong playing “St. James Infirmary” (Classic Records 45 rpm reissue) and other records. With the Firebird, I told my friends I wanted to share with them the experience that caused us to buy the Walker turntable -- that ability to extract and play large-scale complex orchestral music without congestion. We played through the second side.
..... And at the end there was silence.
..... Sixteen people and total, stunned silence.
After a bit, I commented that I’d not heard such quiet from this group, and one responded, “I’m just deciding whether to stand and applaud.” That, my friends, is impact. That, for me, sums up the Walker turntable.
Others have written about the Walker Proscenium Gold Signature Turntable with great eloquence and with detailed description of its construction and its sound. I’ve added some links at the end for you to explore if you chose. For me, the point in sharing my story is to give you some sense of the impact this incredible creation by Lloyd Walker has had on our enjoyment of music in our home. This remarkable turntable and tonearm reveals every delicate detail on an LP, occasionally with brutal honesty, but it does so with a musical truthfulness and naturalness that is unmatched. In over thirty years, I have never experienced an audio component that so “re-calibrated” my enjoyment of and expectations for listening to music in the home.
Postscript -- construction, setup, maintenance and reliability…
I’m convinced that Lloyd Walker is a genius when it comes to audio. And he is a perfectionist second to none. Nothing Loyd makes is done is by chance. It is all based on listening. Every component, every design element, is chosen based on listening. And, every part is of the highest quality available. The Proscenium turntable epitomizes Lloyd’s fanatical approach to build quality. It is beautifully made. The lover of design and well-executed engineering in me loves that.
I’ve used the turntable for six months now. It has been absolutely, rock solid stable. I have had zero problems. Can you just pull it out the box (in this case multiple well constructed wooden crates) and plop it on your rack and have it play? No. Its various components do need to be assembled. And, you do have to dial it in and adjust it for optimal performance.
Unlike some competitive turntables, the Walker Proscenium IS adjustable – almost every aspect of the table can be fine tuned in one way or another. And I say HURRAY for that.
I’ve had retailers tout to me the virtues of competitive turntables that work straight out of the box and don’t have any adjustment to fiddle with. I’ve read comments about the virtues of the “simplicity” of set up for some of these other tables. That this could be thought a “virtue” seems strange to me. A table that works straight out of the box and with minimal adjustments will always at least play, but how can its performance ever be optimal? Beats me. I know from experience that small changes, sometimes from LP to LP, sometimes from season to season (fall to winter to spring to summer), can make material differences in the sound. That ability to be adjusted is, for me, a great strength of the Walker turntable. You have to be prepared to LISTEN, though. And you have to be prepared to make adjustments from time to time to reach the maximum potential this turntable has to offer. If you don’t do this, will the Walker continue to play? Absolutely. And it will give great performance. You just will not have maximized its potential. You will be settling for the high average quality of its competitors, not the highest quality of which this table is capable.
Some regular maintenance is required, but it is remarkably minimal. Once a month, check the air supply system’s moisture recovery bottle (which holds water collected from filtering the air) and empty it as needed. Also check the oil level in the air compressor and top off as needed. Every six months, clean and re-oil the centering pin under the platter. This is all reasonably simple maintenance, but it is required. Not dialing in the table by fine tuning the available adjustments is one thing, but failing to do the minor routine maintenance is simply not an acceptable plan. Don’t buy this turntable if the maintenance routine is not for you.
I am personally convinced of this turntable’s long term reliability. It’s built like a battleship and, as I’ve said before, the parts quality is superb. More to the point is that, complex as the full turntable and associated air supply system may appear, there is very little that can go wrong with this turntable. Given some modicum of care in handling (and in disassembling and packing if you ever have to move it), there is nothing that is delicate enough to break. Carbon fiber, brass, lead, and molded epoxy resin are all very tough materials from which to construct the specially manufactured, specially machined components of this table. Most of the other parts are readily available commercial grade components, including the air compressor. Just be prepared to buy the best. (smile)
Stability of adjustments over time is outstanding. I waited for six months to offer some comments because I wanted to be able to discuss this from experience. Well, my experience has been that that adjustments, once made, stay rock solidly in place until I change them again. Nothing on this turntable drifts over time. (The one minor exception is the silk belt that turns the platter. The silk is somewhat subject to temperature and humidity changes, as is any natural material. A simple turn of the adjustment screw adjusts the belt tension when needed.)
Postscript -- listening biases and priorities...
For those who would like a bit more background with which to consider my comments… I’ve been listening to high-end audio for 35 years. I listen primarily to classical music (both live and recorded, of every period and genre), and have a strong bias for acoustic music. I’m committed to vinyl and tube electronics because they make the magic happen for me. My goal for home listening has always been first to get the mid-range right, then to capture the timbre, harmonic overtones and subtle shadings that allow you to easily differentiate one instrument from another, and then to reproduce the soundstaging and ambiance clues (left to right, front to rear). I want to create a window on the original performance, or bring the performers into my listening space (to the extent permitted by the recording). If I can get these items, I’m then interested in reproducing the micro-dynamics because at low listening levels, these are critical to trying to create those moments where one can suspend disbelief for a time and totally immerse in the music. Only after these requirements are met do I get concerned about macro-dynamics, frequency extension into the deep bass and extreme high frequencies, transparency, detail and speed. My record collection reflects these priorities, with a preponderance of extremely well recorded performances because I’ve always traded-off in favor of sound quality when performance factors are fairly equal. Lots of representation from the Argo, Decca, EMI, Harmonia Mundi, Hyperion, and Astree labels, to name a few.
At this point, my audio system consists of components that well compliment the Walker turntable in overall performance quality. I think you could say fairly that we are well along down our list of sonic “like to haves” in our system. I’m not inclined to list equipment in a single space on the Internet, but I’ve posted regularly on Audiogon with references to specific components here and there, and I’m happy to discuss further in private email correspondence.
Walker Audio web site
Some extended comments by others…
(A very detailed description of the turntable, setup, operation and sound – to which I add “I concur, I concur”)
And some background on Lloyd Walker…
Complimentary to the quality of the Walker Proscenium turntable
Clearaudio Master Reference