More often than not, the deciding factor on what makes an AV product "good" or "bad" comes down to performance. But is this really what modern AV equipment is really all about: being either good or bad? What if performance were a given? What then? What would cause a product to go from being good to great, or bad to worse?
I've been asking myself this very question a lot lately, since in 2020 (as bad as this year has been) everything I've tested in terms specialty AV has been pretty great from the perspective of performance. Let's face it: when we criticize a component at any level, we're really just nitpicking and playing to our base, because 90 percent of the general public either wouldn't be bothered by our gripe or wouldn't notice it. So, what makes a product special? I argue what separates a product from the herd in 2020 isn't performance, value, or any other AV buzz word. It really comes down to whether or not you actually use the thing, and in using said thing does it bring you joy?
I say all of this as a preface my review of Andover Audio's Model-One because it is, let's be honest, a niche product at best. And it isn't without its flaws. But despite that, it may be one of the best products I've reviewed in a good long while. Why? Because it compelled me to use it.
The Model-One is an all-in-one turntable music system that retails for $1,999 direct from Andover's website. The Model-One, when I took delivery of it at the beginning of the year, had a retail price of $2,499, but Andover has since decided to lower it to just under two grand, and I think it was absolutely the right move. The Model-One was always going to be a difficult sell -- especially to audiophiles -- but at just under two thousand dollars it becomes a little more justifiable.
The Model-One isn't a Crosley for rich dentists or lawyers, so get that visual out of your head right now. It's a really well-crafted piece of kit, one that trades on a bit of mid-century style thanks to its walnut hardwood construction. The Model-One is based around a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Esprit SB turntable, which on its own isn't the most impressive turntable Pro-Ject makes, but it represents a great base from which to build. The included cartridge is the Ortofon 2M Silver, which by itself carries a retail price of just under $100. I was actually a little surprised by the 2M Silver's presence here, as a stock Debut Carbon Esprit SB comes equipped with an Ortofon 2M Red cart. I'm not the biggest fan of the 2M Red if I'm being honest, so the Silver was a pleasant surprise. Still, like I said, building a system off of the Debut Carbon Esprit makes a lot of sense, and all of the functionality one would get from that table on its own is present in the Model-One.
A lot of vinyl enthusiasts and audiophiles are likely going to take umbrage with the fact that the Model-One is built into a chassis that also houses a set of powered loudspeakers. It's true, the Model-One is essentially a soundbar with a turntable built-in, which shouldn't work. And yet it does. The speakers inside the Model-One consist of four three-and-a-half-inch aluminum woofers mated to a pair of AMT (air motion transformer) tweeters. The whole lot is bi-amplified by an internal 150-Watt Class D amplifier. Andover doesn't specify the Model-One's purported frequency response. Suffice to say, its low frequency extension is good, not great, but can be made better through the use of a subwoofer, which Andover sells separately.
The reason Andover can place a turntable atop a set of speakers and not have to worry about vibration comes down to their Isogroove technology, which (according to Andover) eliminates the occurrence of feedback between turntable and speaker. The technology clearly works, since in all my time living with the Model-One, never did I ever experience anything but pitch perfect playback and tracking from the stylus.
Aside from Andover's Isogroove technology, I do think that vibrations and feedback are a concern when considering any vinyl playback system or setup, but like a lot of things in the audiophile or enthusiast realm, it may be a bit of a trumped-up boogieman. I've tortured many a turntable with jumping up and down, loud bass notes, even a massage therapy gun placed next to the platter itself. Rarely (if ever) have I experienced less than acceptable playback from most (not all) turntables on the market today in these tests. So maybe Andover's Isogroove technology is more marketing hype than anything else. I don't know. I do know for sure, though, that you can't claim it doesn't work.
But wait, there's more! The Model-One is more than just a turntable with a set of built-in speakers, it's also a music streaming device courtesy of its Bluetooth (aptX) connectivity. It can also serve as a potential two-channel preamp, since it has both analog (RCA) and digital inputs (optical and USB) as well. There's even a pair of analog outputs alongside its subwoofer output. Rounding out its list of features is a front-mounted quarter-inch headphone jack that is easy to overlook, as it somewhat lies in the shadow of the Model-One's volume/source/mode select knob.
While I do not know of many turntables on the market that have a display and user interface, the Model-One does. It even has a basic remote, which is handy and enables faster access to the product's higher menu functions such as its DSP and sound processing modes, which are very important in wringing the most out of this otherwise compact, lifestyle-oriented tabletop console stereo.
Shortly after I took delivery of the Model-One towards the beginning of the year, Andover informed me of a few optional accessories that may make my time and experience with it the Model-One more enjoyable. Nearly a month later, I received the matching Model-One Subwoofer ($799) and Upper Stand ($299), but once they arrived, I totally understood why these add-ons were worth the wait. (The company also offers a Lower Stand ($199) designed to rest under the Upper Stand, but I didn't receive this less essential component as part of this review)
Up and to the point of the sub and stand's arrival, I had simply placed the Model-One atop my BDI Octave media cabinet the same way I would any turntable I review. Admittedly the Model-One is not just any turntable, as it is rather thick in comparison to my Fluance RT85 or U-Turn Audio Orbit Special thanks to its built-in speakers. But rest atop my BDI it did, and, well, it worked.
But upon taking delivery of the Model-One Subwoofer and Upper Stand, the whole lot went from being functional to indispensable. Fully assembled and kitted out with the sub and cabinet, the entire Model-One system as reviewed came it at $3,097 direct, which isn't couch cushion money, but it's far from outside the realm of reasonable.
More importantly, atop its Upper Stand, the Model-One system went from being mildly awkward to retro-cool in minutes. Fully assembled and tricked out, the Model-One system trades upon the nostalgia of console stereos from a bygone era. It becomes a statement piece, one that took up residence in the open area between my dining and living room. My home is already pretty mid-century in its design, so the entire Model-One system looked absolutely at home.
Setup was pretty straightforward, as both the Model-One Subwoofer and Upper Stand ship fully assembled and ready to rock straight out of the box. All I had to do was adjoin the three pieces to each other, which was easy enough to do with the supplied hardware and tools. All-in-all I'd say the whole process took roughly 20 minutes, which was also about what I spent on fine tuning the turntable atop the Model-One itself.
It should be noted that the Upper Stand is crazy functional and likely a better option than a regular stand due to its pull-out drawer for your turntable accessories. The Upper Stand, like the Lower Stand, can also hold up to 100 LPs.
If you want to know only about the Model-One's performance I can sum it up for you very simply: it's good. Good enough, actually, for the majority of folks who may see one out in the wild, decide they want it, and ultimately buy it.
What do I mean by good enough? Well, the DSP inside the Model-One itself does a good job of approximating the sound field of a stereo set of speakers with some distance between them. So when I put on Moby's Play (v2) on vinyl, and lowered the stylus on a favorite track of mine, "Everloving," the resulting presentation was spacious and pleasing -- even accurate -- but not what I'd call traditional. The opening guitar solo through a traditional two-channel setup is panned very hard left. Through the Model-One the opening guitar was more left of center, rather than far left of the unit itself. The Model-One isn't going to trick you or your ears into thinking you have a pair of $2,000 monitor speakers on stands sitting six feet apart from each other, but it will fill a rather large room with very pleasing omni-directional sound.
In my testing and in my open concept living space, I found the Model-One's PanoM (Panorama Medium) DSP sound setting to be the most natural overall and best suited for the widest range of listening tastes, which included my wife's. PanoL was a bit too ethereal, whereas PanoS, like straight Stereo and Mono, proved far too directional for my tastes, which is why they rarely, if ever, were used.
PanoM worked well for both studio recorded albums as well as live performances. For example, Alanis Morissette's MTV Unplugged performance possessed all the requisite spatial cues and ambiance you'd expect from a live recording, but the soundstage itself was, more or less, orb-like rather than semi-circular. Switching to Placebo's Meds, which is a studio recording, the sense of space between the performers was good; it was just a little vaguer and more ethereal compared to a dedicated two-channel rig. Still, whether listening to live albums or studio ones, the focus the Model-One possesses throughout the midrange -- especially with vocals -- is very, very good.
The presence of the Model-One subwoofer was a welcomed one, as the Model-One's internal speakers on their own have decent, but not great, bass, with a reported frequency response of 55Hz to 30kHz (+/-3dB). The sub definitely grounded the presentation, as well as allowed it to blossom and take on a new layer of dimension, which is why I don't consider it to be optional if you're thinking of buying the Model-One.
Without the subwoofer the Model-One's overall sonic presentation is a bit lean. The high frequencies are equally nuanced, but without the grounding brought by the presence of the sub, the Model-One's sonic signature can seem too forward. I welcomed the presence of tone controls, since I find I need to sometimes tame AMT tweeters just a bit as my hearing in the upper registers is incredibly sensitive and AMT tweeters can and do sometimes hurt. Taking the treble down a single notch via the remote did wonders for me and the Model-One. Also, the tone controls did allow me to trick the Model-One into feeling like it had more mid-bass or bass presence (when not using the sub), though it came a little bit at the expense of overall midrange clarity. If I got too aggressive with bass tone control, I could induce some chestiness to the mids, which isn't ideal. Again, I do not consider the subwoofer (or any subwoofer) optional in medium to large rooms and for those looking for more full-range playback.
I started this review by suggesting that the value or strength of the Model-One isn't based solely on its performance, or shouldn't be. The Model-One is good, make no mistake, but if I'm being honest, the reason I love it has little if anything to do with its sound. It has to do with how it changed my listening habits. Prior to the Model-One's arrival, I would wake up, turn on the TV, usually the news, make coffee, and start my day. Once the Model-One arrived, I found myself waking up and inexplicably putting a record on, the making coffee and starting my day. Since the Model-One's arrival I have not started my day by turning on the TV or ingesting any other initial stimuli other than my favorite music on vinyl and coffee. As a result, I'm actually happier. I did not actively set out to change my routine, nor did Andover Audio suggest I do this. I just woke up the day after assembling the Model-One, saw it, and walked over to it rather than to my TV and put a record on and that was that. Like I said, for the past two or three months, every single day has begun this way, and as a result, I've noticed an entirely positive difference in my mood.
I have no reasoning or rationale for why the Model-One got me to reprogram my muscle memory in such a way. It's not like I didn't have a turntable already setup in my dedicated two-channel rig some 20 feet away; and yet, I listened to the Model-One. What value do I, or should a potential customer, put on that? I know you can do better than the Model-One sound-wise for less -- hell, a lot less -- but I've never listened to records more, or more regularly, than I did when the Model-One was in my home. If the whole purpose of being an audiophile is to enjoy and listen to music, wouldn't my last admission make the Model-One priceless?
It is a question that I have wrestled with at some length and is one of the reasons this review has been so difficult for me to complete. On the one hand, we have a good but imperfect product sound-wise in the Model-One; and on the other I'm completely and utterly in love with it. I don't care that its soundstage isn't as wide as that of my dedicated two-channel rig, nor that its imaging isn't as precise. I don't care that it may be a little more expensive for what it offers. I care that it got me to listen and engage with my record collection in ways few products have managed before it.
The biggest issue I see with the Model-One is that it's such a polarizing product. You're either going to love it (as I did) or you're not going to get it at all. There is likely no middle ground here.
Apart from that, I only have a few minor nits to pick with the Model-One. First, I do think the included Ortofon 2M Silver cartridge is a bit of letdown. Sure, it sounds fine, and is a good cartridge, it's just not as good as what you'll find elsewhere in Ortofon's line or find on less expensive stand-alone turntables. For example, Fluance's RT85 table ships as standard with the 2M Blue cartridge, which is an improvement sonically and insane value given the RT85 retails for under $500.
The Model-One screen can be a little difficult to read in some lighting conditions, though Andover has told me that they are adjusting the contrast and light output of it on the new production run in response to this note, so maybe your experience will be better than mine.
I loved the progressive thinking Andover employed when designing the Model-One, especially the additional input/output options found on the back. The Bluetooth streaming functionality is also a nice touch. I actually have no issues with I/O and additional features; what I have an issue with is wire/cable management. If you get the Upper Stand, there is a space on the back for the Model-One's wall-wart to be tucked inside and hid from view. But, if you also get the sub, there's no real place to tuck its cables out of view, nor can the sub and Model-One share a single power supply when used together -- so you end up with a few more cables that need routing. This isn't a gripe exclusive to Andover or the Model-One, as I find a lot of lifestyle oriented products overlook cable management, but it was something I did have to wrestle with as I looked for creative ways to keep two sets of power cords and a subwoofer cable neat and tidy.
Lastly, in respect to the sub, I wish the Model-One knew that a subwoofer was connected and that the sub's crossover and level function could therefore be controlled via remote the way you can in AV receiver and many all-in-one speaker systems. As it stands, the crossover and level controls are on the back of the sub itself (as standard) and aren't the most accessible when the entire Model-One system is assembled.
Comparison and Competition
Let's face it: there aren't a lot of modern-day console stereos kicking about in 2020. That's not to say that there aren't any, though. The company that came immediately to mind was Wrensilva, which makes console stereo systems for the modern age. Their Loft model is likely the most like the Model-One in terms of the customer base, though it should be noted the Loft does utilize separate stereo speakers. When bundled with its matching speakers, the Loft retails for $4,999 -- or at least it did before it sold out.
The other Wrensilva model most like the Model-One is the larger and far more expensive Standard One, which starts at $7,499 and is a true console stereo rig with much the same functionality as the Model-One.
Also, there is Andover Audio's own Spinbase, which at $299 retail is essentially a soundbar for your turntable. The Spinbase possesses 80 percent of the Model-One's functionality and maybe even 85 or 90 percent of its sound quality, but it is a more piecemeal solution compared to the Model-One.
Obviously, if you're looking to just get into vinyl records cheaply while also enjoying some modern conveniences, you can always get a turntable with a built-in phono stage and some powered monitors and be on your way. I often recommend Kanto's YU6 monitors and U-Turn Audio's Orbit Special for this very purpose. This simple setup will rival the sound quality of the Model-One and will allow you to enjoy your favorite records as well as streaming music and maybe even movies, depending on how you choose to hook it up. It just isn't as elegant or streamlined a solution as the Model-One or the Spinbase for that matter.
Let's not mince words here: the Andover Audio Model-One music system is a niche product aimed at a very, very specific customer. At around $3,500 direct for the whole system or $1,999 for just the Model-One itself, it's not likely going to garner mass appeal. And yet, it routinely sells out. So, while traditional audiophiles may not understand or even want it, it would seem music and vinyl enthusiasts do. I know I love it, and I love it not only for its design and ease-of-use, but also for what it did for me and my daily life and wellbeing. So, while on the surface the Model-One may not make the most sense on a lot of levels, where it counts, it may be one of the best products I've ever reviewed.