Not vinyl 'whoosh', not rumble. That low-level noise in the background is my sigh of relief. Aside from waiting for my insurance policies to mature and my mortgage payments to cease, the pursuit of the Finial Laser Turntable has been one of the longest projects in which I've been involved. Half a decade
chasing a review sample...but it's been worth it.
One of the vinyl record collector's dreams has come true. The Finial addresses almost every past and current concern, even allowing the venerable LP to emulate all but one of the practical, non-sonic virtues of the very format which looks set to kill it. And it is, to the best of my knowledge, the first and only successful product to read software in a manner which bears no resemblance to the original technique. An analogy would be a tape deck without heads, but the justification would be the same: on the most basic level it would eliminate wear as a worry. Anything else -- as with the Finial -- would be a bonus.
Initial reaction to the announcement of an optical turntable was somewhat muted because in early 1985 CD was well on its way toward establishing itself as the next major format. For the
technofreaks and cynics who couldn't wait for the LP to die, it seemed like nothing more than a possible stay of the inevitable execution. And the early, cloak-and-dagger madness which
surrounded the Finial did nothing to inspire confidence in the company or the machine.
Neither was the Finial the first attempt at creating a no-contact method for reading information designed for mechanical replay. A player which used light beams or jets of air instead of a stylus was mooted over a century ago by Alexander Graham Bell. The Japanese made more than one attempt and Finial's own paper prepared for the AES (4 November 1988) cites one Japanese and seven US patents dating from as far back as 1929. That none of these worked well enough to be produced commercially explains the scepticism which greeted the Finial, and why so many people thought I must be the most gullible hack in all of hi-fi for
chasing it from show to show.
In January 1989, at the Las Vegas CES, it was announced to the press that the Finial was dead. The excuses were legion, primarily the escalating costs which would have priced the Finial in the stratospheric regions occupied by high-end products like the Wilson WAMM, the Infinity IRS V or the Goldmund Reference turntable. I felt cheated, disappointed and disgusted. I was astonished at the ignorance of a company which had such a brilliant product yet no realization that there were enough filthy-rich audiophiles out there with irreplaceable record collections who would buy enough to make it viable. Their purchases, of course, would be in addition to any sales made to the professional sector, eg radio stations, archives and the like.
The tragedy was that the player actually worked well enough to reside in any respectable hi-fi system. Sound quality seemed merely adequate, but that would scarcely matter in instances
where it meant, say, the playing of records with scratches which would send a stylus into orbit.
To everyone's surprise, the Finial was relaunched at the Tokyo Audio Fair in October 1989. The involvement of Japanese backers and their eagerness to get it working meant revised computer software within the player, the promise of an actual production schedule and a sense that, at last, it might actually happen. And to Finial's surprise, over 300 firm orders were placed at the show...
IT DOES EXIST, HONEST!
Handled as if it were a Ming vase, the Finial was delivered to me in person by the distributor, the long-suffering Denis Wratten. With only two samples in the UK and with a demonstration queue a mile long, I had exactly one week in which to discover all I could about the player, sonically or otherwise.
Looking very much like a CD-V player, the Finial has styling which already appears dated, 'mid-Eighties' so to speak. Measuring 475x479x159mm (WDH), it's biggish, but it only seems to dwarf conventional players in the fore-and-aft. But it is sleek, and there's no lid to create a need for shelf height, although you mustn't stack anything on it because it generates a lot of
heat. Aesthetically, then, the Finial is understated and doesn't really imply that within lurks the most complex LP spinner ever devised. Neither does it look like #21,000 plus VAT, if there is a way of looking like a price tag.
Whoever designed the control panel could have done with a course in lateral thinking. Smart though the sloped perspex fascia may be, it also happens to surround the undersized -- too undersized -- controls and it collects fingerprints with the rapidity of the FBI. All that really had to be done to avoid this was to bisect the panel longitudinally, finishing it in the same grey Nextel as used on the body. That would have left a full width perspex strip for the upper half of the fascia, which contains the visual displays, and a stay-clean matte finish for the control strip. Better still would be a hand-held remote control...
Left to right, the tiny press buttons offer power-on (from stand-by), drawer open/close, pause and play. A second cluster, with logos familiar to CD users, provide track skip in either
direction, audible cueing in either direction, and a control which differs from the silent pause (next to the play button) because it locks the laser to a single 'groove'. Yeah, I know, an LP only has one groove, but you know that I mean 'one portion of the groove as traversed in a single revolution'.
The next pair of buttons allows the user to select time-read-out for either the whole side of the LP or the track being played. At any point, you can call up total time, elapsed time or remaining time, which means that home tapers can now have the same control over the LP as they already do when squeezing CDs onto C90s. The next three buttons allow the user to choose between 33 1/3rd and 45rpm (the machine defaults to 33 1/3rd), or to vary the speed
from 30 to 50 rpm. The last trio of buttons accepts a variety of commands, including track programming, A-B block repeat, noise reduction cancellation and other custom features. And it means that an LP can now be manipulated in the manner of a CD, with every practical virtue bar the 5in diameter and maximum playing time.
The upper half of the panel has indicators above each of the first four buttons on the left, along with two displays to show disc status. On the right is the most informative window, which indicates speed, a variety of error codes, noise reduction status and so on, accessed when the user initiates a command. Most of the time it reads the speed unless you prefer to leave it in one of the time read-out modes. The window on the left is the graphic display to show the relative position of the laser. It looks like a bar-type level meter from a modern cassette deck, but you'll see that the line also features a series of 'bumps'; these correspond to the between-track spaces on an LP. Equal to a radial cross section of an LP (or 12in single), the bar lights up full length at the beginning, extinguishing itself in small blocks as the record is played. A cursor above the line shows the laser poisition within a block. The display also gives visual confirmation of track selection if the user has programmed the Finial to skip certain tracks.
Ergonomically, the controls are about as straightforward as they can be given the multiple-function nature of most of the buttons. I'd recommend a full reading of the comprehensive owner's manual, though, before doing anything. As for their sometimes erratic behaviour, I'll leave that until we get to the hands-on portion of this review.
At the back are the phono sockets and the primary mains switch. The Finial has onboard RIAA equalization and 1V output, so you connect it not to the phono section but to a line level input. Here, at last, is a turntable which can be A/B'd with a CD player without the need for constant level readjustment. The main on/off switch at the back can cut all power to the player, whereas the front panel button only operates as a stand-by. This is important to remember for a number of reasons, not the least being that the Finial sounds a lot better after it's been on for an hour. But because that might put someone like Peter Baxandall into a spin,
let me point out the practical reason: as you'll find out in a moment, the Finial comes with a calibration LP which takes about 20 minutes to play. As it only has to be used when the Finial is switched on from cold, you'll find it much more convenient to leave the player on (at the back) unless you're going on holiday. And as the player switches to stand-by mode if left on its own, you don't even have to press the front panel control except for power-on operation.
Installation is virtually identical to that of a CD player, right down to the removal of a transit screw which locks the delicate innards in place. The Finial must be placed on a solid, level
surface, but it's far less critical of the 'tuning' of its supporting furniture than a conventional record player. The 18.4kg player rests on springy feet, but even these aren't really necessary if you're worried about heavy-footed friends. The kind of physical shock which is required to make this skip would involve a fist, not a finger tap.
Press the 'open' button and out slides a tray like that on a CD-V player with 12in disc capability. Here's where the only assembly occurs. You place the lightweight aluminium platter into the 12in opening, a circular groove on the underside locating it over four rubber pegs. The platter is fitted with a mat said to be conductive, protective and vibration-absorptive. This is the first indication that you're dealing with a player which breaks the rules, because it shows how the turntable portion of the Finial only has to do one thing: rotate at the correct speed. Mechanical earthing, silent bearings and the like do not enter into the equation, as these mechanical conditions should not affect a no-contact system. Still, Finial hasn't cut corners on the turntable; it just didn't have to get involved with 30kg platters or exotic bearings and suspensions. When the drawer closes, the platter drops over a smaller platter just visible when the drawer is open. It's driven via belt from a high quality 400-pole stepper motor.
The complexity is in the laser portion, or what is equivalent to the arm and cartridge. The full details on how the lasers actually read the groove information actually fill the 14-page AES booklet called 'The Optical Turntable, Finally A Reality', published by Finial. The UK distributor will supply copies to anyone interested, provided that they send an A4-size,
self-addressed envelope and an International Reply Coupon. The address can be found at the end of this article.
Read more about the Finial Laser Turntable on Page 2.