The Finial Laser Turntable Reviewed

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An important feature of the Finial is a bypassable 'Noise Blanker' which minimizes the sound of pops and ticks. This dynamic system differentiates between music and noise by recognizing that musical signals have reverberations, while pops and clicks do not. In use, its effect is seemed quite subtle but many will prefer to leave it off except for discs with exceptional amounts of surface noise.

The calibration disc readies the player for quicker reading of each new LP; initiating playback without having calibrated the player is a slow process. When the drawer is closed the laser
carriage travels from the spindle to the outer edge of the LP, 'reading' the disc and calculating the playing time and topology of the disc. It is not foolproof, as I found when it read a 12in single with deeply cut, widely spaced grooves as having six tracks when it only had one, but the accuracy for the sides which I timed was plus-minus 20 sec, which I found remarkable.

If the calibration disc has been used, the player will issue sounds within about one minute of the drawer closing. It rejected a number of discs on first try but invariable played every disc
by the second try. Which leads us to the first set of restrictions. The Finial will only play the aforementioned two speeds and only with 12in, black vinyl discs. It cannot read clear or coloured vinyl or picture discs, which I don't find too surprising, but the failure to play 7in or 10in discs was a disappointment. Finial argues, quite accurately, that most singles were pressed from recycled vinyl which is too noisy. On the other hand, I have over 100 10in LPs and even some 7in 'audiophile' singles which I'd love to have tried.

The saddest irony of all is that the Finial cannot yet cater for 78s, the records with the greatest need for no-contact playback. The difficulty, though, in programming the player to accept discs for which neither the speed nor the groove width/spacing were truly standardized means that at this stage it's just not possible. I have been told, though, that they're working on it. I also hope that if a Mk II appears, it won't be restrictive about record diameter.

But back to the calibration for a moment. If you don't use the calibration LP -- likely if you're in a hurry one day and you find out that someone switched of the Finial at the back or at the manis -- the player will still work. It will simply require a couple of 'tries' before going into playback mode. But whether or not the Finial is in a good mood, it will never initiate play as
quickly as a CD player or a manually cued, mechanically played LP. But I don't find this a problem, because it suggests that you're listening to music in some kind of a hurry, a contradiction if music is there to entertain, charm, amuse and/or relax its audience.


THE SOUND OF LIGHT

Before you can play anything, you have to take at face value the warning that your discs must be clean. We are not talking Decca brush clean, nor even the sweep of Finial's own rotary cleaner as supplied with each machine. No, we're talking VPI or Keith Monks or Nitty Gritty clean, which I don't suppose is a problem for anyone who can afford a record playing device which sells for sixty times that of a VPI cleaner.

The reason for the hygiene is straightforward, and it's something about which Finial can do nothing unless they change the laws of physics. In essence, the lasers read microdust which a mechanical stylus would either push out of the way or which lurk above or below the stylus contact point. The benefits of reading a full groove wall, especially making well-worn (not scratched) records much more listenable, are slightly diminished by this, the Finial's Achilles' Heel.

Let me be blunt: only one out of five LPs sounded as quiet as on a conventional player as regards surface noise. I tried unplayed records, records which had been played once with a stylus (to 'de-burr' them), unplayed-plus-VPI-cleaned and other combinations, but rarely could I find a disc without some slight crackle, especially at the beginning of each side. It was driving me nuts and affecting my judgement until it had been put into perspective by Xavier of Roksan, who happened to drop by during while the Finial was in my custody. 'Does it really matter?' he said, pointing out that it was only intrusive during silences (between tracks), and that it was a small sacrifice if it meant hearing unplayable records. Because that's where the Finial really shines: it will track discs which no mechanical stylus can manage.

I buy a lot of second-hand LPs which have suffered what looks like a fun session with a litter of kittens. I buy them because they're LPs of which I might never find another copy. Occasionally, they have scratches too deep to traverse. With the Finial, all you hear is a click, but the music carries on playing. In the rare event (only once in the 90 or so LPs I tried) did a disc challenge another spec of the Finial, which says that a skip (or, as the company prefers, 'a stuck') will not cause the player to go into frantic repeat of a locked groove. The Finial will sense and correct automatically any 'stuck' within 20msec. And the disc which did trigger this wasn't scratched; it had a lump of paper pressed into the vinyl.

Other worries which may have kept you from enjoying your LPs, mint or otherwise, and rendered insignificant by the Finial including virtual immunity to warps (if the warp is over 10mm, it probably won't even fit in the player anyway), eccentric discs, rumble, wow, static, acoustic feedback, stylus tracing whoosh and other ills. And this causes a problem which, clicks aside, means that you have to approach the sound of the Finial not as if you were hearing another record player but as if it were a new format.

That's because it will be the first time in your life when you've heard an analogue LP without insignificant traces of rumble, wow, et al. The first track I played sounded light, as if the bass had rolled off, until I realised that what I was hearing was an absence of low end grunge with mechanical origins. I played a disc notorious for visible excitement of the woofer ribbons in
the Apogees because of warps, rumble and other subsonic nasties; played through the Finial and the Stages were as visibly immobile as if it had been a CD.

The full acceptance of this absence of vinyl nasties took a while to occur. The sound was just different enough to make comparisons invalid, compounded by the fact that the Finial had another distinct advantage over normal turntables: it didn't have to drive what is usually the weakest part of any pre-amp -- the phono section. Admittedly, it had its own RIAA circuitry on board, so it's not like the Finial produced a shorter path between groove and loudspeaker; if anything, its complex circuitry makes the signal's route far more circuitous. But -- inescapable clicks aside -- with many LPs it sounded leaner, cleaner and quieter than any conventional LP system I can recall.

But the mechanical brigade fought back with the more effective, sweep-it-away handling of those microdust-induced clicks and greater warmth -- which I hear someone at the back branding a 'euphonic coloration'. True, true. But I don't listen to music to be irritated, so a little humanizing warmth is most welcome. Then the Finial parried with superb transparency -- approaching the Audioquest 7000, Ortofon MC3000 Mk II and Koetsu Irushi cartridges -- and detail up in Deccaland. The Berliner brigade replied with hotter transients than the Finial's, a more extended top end and far better stage depth. The Finial replied with stage width reminiscent of the classic Denon moving-coils and tracking ability to shame even a Shure. And the Finial earned a bonus point at the end of the side with no end-of-side tracking error.
But then I wasn't using a lateral tracking tonearm...

If I were scoring the Finial vs the world, I'd have to call it a draw because the two are simply not comparable. The Finial is too much like hard work even compared with a mechanical system because of the operational lags, the fanatical cleaning, the slow play initiation and the disc restrictions. But it does what no other players can do, by eliminating wear if it's a concern (and we all have irreplaceable LPs which we're almost afraid to take out of their sleeves). Even if you've never worried about wear rates, there's still the issue of LPs which can't be played because of damage or pressing faults; the Finial will render most of them listenable at the very least, as I learned from my latest batch of Pre-Owned Non-Audiophile Scratch-Insistent acquisitions.

Whether you own a Dual 505 or a Goldmund Reference, the Finial does not make obsolete the conventional turntable. Cost? A Goldmund sells for the same money if it's true high end kharma which you require. Sound? Considering the price-to-performance ratio, I'd have to say it's only on a par with a good #1000 front end. Universality? Only if all of your records are black vinyl 12-inchers. But if you are a collector -- and you'll still have to hang on to your normal player for certain discs -- the Finial is the only truly safe player on the market. That it works at all is near-miraculous. That it works so well is simply remarkable. If only that surface noise problem could be solved, because it really is a distraction when listening to anything other than loud rock music.

How many Finials will actually find homes outside of the pro sector I just don't know. What I do accept is that it's very easy to assemble a collection of LPs worth far more than the cost of the Finial if it's justification you want. (I can name three Beatles LPs with a total worth of over five grand.) But just dealing with the hands-off aspects of laser playback isn't enough to balance out the good-but-not-phenomenal sound quality. It's far more appropriate to look at the Finial as an intellectual exercise which worked. If the company ever decides to make an
affordable version which addresses the limitations of this first model, then I'll be writing a review of a viable Finial product rather than what can only amount to a thought piece. That's
because simply talking or writing about the Finial is still academic at this point, however truly fascinating it may be and whatever freedom it does offer from wear and tear. Unless you have a spare #21,000 plus VAT. In which case, can I marry you?

Contact Denis Wratten, Finial Technology, 1 Orston Lodge, Old Farm Road, Hampton, Middlesex TW12 3RQ, Great Britain. Tel 01-941 6737.

Competition and Comparison
If you are interested in comparing the Finial Laser turntable against other turntables, be sure to read our reviews for the Quasar LE turntable and the Linn LP12 turntable. You can also find more information in our Source Components section.

Part II?

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. MC's accompanying text is brief by necessity because the full details actually fill the 14-page AES
booklet called 'The Optical Turntable, Finally A Reality', published by Finial. It also means that Barry Fox and I will no longer have to scratch our heads every time Finial is mentioned.
The UK distributor will supply copies to anyone interested, provided that they send an A4-size, self-addressed envelope bearing a 30p stamp. The address can be found at the end of this article.

In the most simple of terms, the Finial reads an LP by using an arrangement of separate lasers for tracking (position) and data retrieval (playback), for each channel. The tracking laser, or the control for the steering of the playback laser, operates by reading the land/groove interface. Velocity as well as groove location is measured to account for the time lag in the servo systems which control the dolly (which carries the lasers radially across the LP on two rails) and all of the components which must be continually refocussed. The dolly -- or 'lateral
carriage' -- is also driven by a 400-pole stepper motor. The data beam, which is time multiplexed with the tracking laser, reads only the modulations in the groove wall. The beams from both the tracking and data lasers reflect back to a silicon optical sensor called a Position Sensitive Detector (PSD), a photocell with a resistive back plane leading to two electrical output terminals.

The PSD converts the light beam signal which it collects into the necessary electrical signal through a process of sum-and-difference comparisons of the light beam shape, focus and intensity. The derived signal is EQ'd and is also fed through a bypassable 'Noise Blanker' which minimizes the sound of pops and ticks. This dynamic system differentiates between music and noise by recognizing that musical signals have reverberations, while pops and clicks do not. In use, its effect is quite subtle and many will prefer to leave it off except for discs with exceptional amounts of surface noise.

Additional Resources

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HTR Product Rating for The Finial Laser Turntable

Criteria Rating

Performance

4

Value

4

Overall

4

Disagree with our product rating? Email us and tell us why you think this product should receive a higher rating.


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