Callas Platine Mod Kit Review - Callas

Callas Audio Platine Verdier Modification Kit
I. Introduction
Allow me an anecdote. It is May 27, 1784 in Vienna. Walking through its
labyrinthine backstreets is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He is ambling back home, when
he stops in front of a pet store, startled. A bird – a starling – sings a tune that is eerily like
the first version of the theme of the third movement from his Piano Concerto No. 17 in G.
Mozart brings the starling home, obviously smitten, and calls the bird Herr Stahr. He
teaches the bird how to sing this theme from the piano concerto, which the bird replicates
beautifully, but with two small but significant errors: the starling inserts a fermata on the
last note of the first bar, and sings G-sharp instead of G natural in the subsequent bar. So
what does Mozart do? Does he go ballistic and scold Herr Stahr, train the damn bird into
submission to sing correctly? No. Quite the opposite. He inscribes the bird’s “errata” as
they stand in his diary entry, and beneath the “corrected” notes, he writes: Das war
schön! (That was fine!) This is a true story. Mozart’s starling died three years later in
1787, and the composer buried the bird in his backyard. He was grieved enough to write a
commemorative poem on the occasion of the bird’s death.
What does this have to do with audio at all? At least for me, it points toward the
laughable Puritanism of our hobby by way of irony. There is such an innocent openness
and beauty in the way that Mozart received the starling’s errant song with a joyous heart.
He did not have an auteur’s tantrum, did not treat the original melody of his invention as
holy writ. He not only embraced the starling’s alteration, but by doing so, made the bird’s
song his. Made it beautiful.
Now, compare this with how many audio hobbyists and experts guffaw and puff
about what sounds best, how their gear or audio philosophy serves the music the best, and
no other. What arrogance is this! SET devotees, solid state mega-watt amp aficionados…
we all feel that our way is the high way. But this kind of arrogance seems most
dogmatically endemic in the realms of turntables and vintage gear. God forbid if you
don’t use Baltic birchply or slate when constructing your plinth for the Garrard 301. You
are using modern capacitors in that vintage Fairchild preamp?!? Please go hang yourself
if you are not using a twelve-inch tonearm on your Commonwealth idler turntable. The
clichéd adage – you better leave good enough alone – becomes a militantly Puritanical
philosophy in audio. For certain purists, the concept of modification carries with it a
stigma more damning than the mark of the devil. What would these people do if Mozart’s
starling flew in and wanted to alter what they heard, let alone composed? They would kill
it, shred it up, chew it five hundred times, then vehemently spit it out the window.
II. La Platine Verdier
Mr. J.C. Verdier created La Platine Verdier more than thirty years ago. This is
difficult to believe, as La Platine Verdier is still aesthetically stunning and does not date
itself. Just as it is with the Garrard 301 or the Thorens 124, the visual appeal of La Platine
Verdier is timeless. Even more revolutionary is the fact that the magnetic suspension
espoused by Verdier is still the preferred technology utilized by some of the world’s besttouted turntables, the statement instruments made by Clearaudio, Da Vinci Audio and
Continuum, among many others (more on the Continuum Caliburn later). To me, La
Platine Verdier is as lasting an icon as a Garrard, a Thorens, an EMT or a Linn.
As I have stated, there are the obvious aesthetic and technological innovations
pioneered by La Platine Verdier which must be considered. Not only that, it played a
significant part in audio history. La Platine Verdier cannot be separated from the efforts
made in Europe by L’Audiophile and Jean Hiraga, Keith Aschenbrenner, and the like,
back in the late 70s and early 80s, to counter the solid state hegemony and bring the
Eastern sensibilities to the fore in the audio world – pure, low, single-ended tube watts,
minimalistic simplification (which actually were the Western sensibilities originally, once
upon a time). Keith Aschenbrenner of Auditorium 23, who is now one of audio’s elder
statesmen, still distributes J.C. Verdier turntables in Germany, and the Auditorium 23’s
version of La Nouvelle Platine has been much praised, and is in fact one of the turntables
I covet to listen to for myself one day, as it is only sold in Germany.
None of this history or iconography would matter, of course, if the darn thing
doesn’t sound good. But it does. I have heard some of the best turntables in the world, set
up by the true analog aficionados and professionals. Shindo Garrard 301. Continuum
Caliburn. Impeccably set-up Technics SP-10s and Thorens and Lencos in slate plinths.
Flagship turntables from Redpoint Audio, Clearaudio, et al. And still, my sentimental
favorite is the Platine Verdier. Sure, there are turntables which trump the Platine in
certain areas, even to my biased ears. For example, I still believe the most addictive
midrange I heard from an LP came from the Shindo Garrard 301. The Technics SP-10
Mk II I heard at Oswalds Mill, housed in a beautifully substantial and substantive slate
plinth, fairly trounces the Platine when it comes to the bass accuracy and impact,
rhythmic pacing, and the overall stability of “the beat.” The Continuum Caliburn was the
only contemporary statement turntable with a lunatic price that inspired a torrent of
emotion out of me rather than a told-you-so cynicism. Yet, the Platine Verdier, to my
ears, still has the best top-end purity and fluidity among all of these world class
turntables. For a lieder addict like me, the Platine is a weapon sent down from the heaven
by Schubert himself. Not only that, it follows the musical line with a kind of a graceful
craze, the ineffable quality I seldom heard only in rare instances – in the Shindo 301 and
the Caliburn again, and also in the Oswalds Mill Audio Lenco I heard briefly in their
SoHo showroom.
This is not to say the Platine Verdier does not have flaws. Like all audio
equipments, it does. The chief flaw that I saw in the Platine as a dedicated user was in the
reproduction of the bass region. Don’t get me wrong – the Platine is surprisingly stout in
bass performance and can do ballast with the best of them. I say “surprisingly” because
this is one of the known weaknesses in turntables with magnetic suspensions. Mr. Verdier
had pioneered magnetic suspensions more than 30 years ago, but to this day, many of the
finest statement turntables use magnetic suspensions. The logic behind this strategy is
obvious. By levitating the platter via such means, the platter does not come to contact
with the surface, and hence any noise caused by the friction with the bearing – however
subtle it may be – will be canceled out. An analog lover’s heaven, right?!? Not so fast.
This lack of contact with bearing might be ideal for getting rid of the noise caused by
bearing friction, but one disadvantage that comes with the complete magnetic suspension
(or suspension via air pressure, etc.) comes in the instability in the bass region.
If one levitates a turntable’s platter via magnetic suspension, the amount of bass
can even increase (this is the case with the Platine Verdier), but in most cases, the
structural integrity of the bass becomes diffuse and unfocused. This is because when a
cartridge reproduces bass notes from an LP, it absorbs a strong impact; so even if the
platter is sufficiently heavy, as it is in the case with the Platine, it fluctuates or “bounces”
up and down, however imperceptible it may seem to the eye, as the platter is not
supported strongly by a bearing system.
This is the one gripe I had with my Platine, however much I loved it to death. The
low end wasn’t solid, and tended toward a kind of loosening. This problem manifests
itself not in some bass-heavy music, like the most fearsome passages from Arvo Pärt’s
music or some drum-and-bass monstrosity, but in piano music. I gradually found out that
I was not the only person among other Platine owners who kept inadvertently avoiding
piano LPs, even though piano music comprises about fifty percent of my considerable
classical music collection (I played piano and studied it for a time at the Peabody
Conservatory of Music). With my Platine, with most of the piano LPs, there was an
unsatisfactory delineation in the reproduction of the bass notes in the piano sound – the
border between the actual core of the note being played and the sound of its trailing wake
became blurred. And as many of you lovers of piano music know, that kind of instability
affects the rest of the reproduced sound.
Mind you, I still loved my Platine despite this issue, because it excelled in the
99% of the parameters. But perhaps the definition of an audiophile can be sought in the
obsession with that missing 1%. Which is why I began to seek ways to remedy this. I will
have you know that I am born with ten thumbs and I couldn’t solder if my life and my
family name depended on it. And the aftermarket Platine solutions are not exactly a
burgeoning industry.
Then one day, I stumbled onto an audio forum thread about Platine Verdier in
which the forumites were discussing this problem I just mentioned with their Platines.
And that is where I first saw the mention of a product called Callas Audio Platine Verdier
Modification Kit.
III. Huh? Partial Magnetic Suspension?
In a gist, the installation of the Callas Platine Mod Kit allows every Platine users
to precisely control exactly how much of the heavy platter’s weight is carried by the
Platine’s spindle. In its stock form, this is impossible to gauge on the Platine Verdier with
any precision. One can fine-tune the set-up of the Platine in the beginning, to how much
of the platter rests on the spindle and the metallic ball which rests on the oil-infused cusp
of the spindle. But there is no way to precisely know how much of the platter’s weight
should rest on the spindle, even, nor a means by which to keep this setting from deviating
from the ideal position. This state of flux is the very cause of the less-than-ideal
reproduction of bass notes by a Platine, especially with piano music. The Callas Platine
Mod Kit allows the Platine user to constantly gauge this weight of the platter on the
spindle via a micrometer. And with the adjustment arm installed, this weight can be
finely adjusted – precisely to the desired setting.
Even before I heard any effects of the Callas Platine Mod Kit, I recognized the
simple, ingenious solution which could potentially solve the Platine’s problem. I knew
this because I have heard a turntable that is much more expensive than the Platine, which
in effect solves the problems caused by magnetic suspension via the same means afforded
by the Callas Platine Mod Kit – the Continuum Caliburn.
As entertaining and fun it was to read various audio reviews of the uber-expensive
Continuum Caliburn when it came out, no reviewer (including Michael Fremer if my
memory serves correctly) really mentioned that the Caliburn in essence used magnetic
suspension. I had a chance to listen to the Caliburn, and play with it, and I was surprised
to learn that it was a magnetically floated turntable. But not completely like the Platine
Verdier. When I first saw how Caliburn was set up, I’d mistakenly thought that it was a
completely floated turntable because of the gap between the platter and the main body of
the turntable. But if you lightly press on the platter, it doesn’t bounce up and down like
Platine’s completely magnetically floated platter. A partial weight of the platter definitely
rests on the Caliburn’s spindle. At first glance, you wouldn’t understand why one
wouldn’t float the platter completely, given such a huge, strong magnet. But as I
mentioned, there are inherent problems that come with complete levitation of the platter.
Heavy platters usually provide more stable rotation, but the inevitable contact with the
spindle causes noise from the friction. Magnetic suspension gets rid of this problem, but
loses the solidity in the bass region. The designer of Continuum Caliburn, Mark
Doehmann, ingeniously solves this issue by floating most of the platter’s weight, but
resting the bare minimum of its weight on the spindle, as to not sacrifice the bass
specificity and solidity. I later read in an Image HiFi review that of the 38 kg of the
platter’s weight, only 2 kg rests on the spindle. Doehmann’s solution takes advantage of
both the heavy platter and the magnetic suspension, without inheriting the latent
problems in both. And one could hear it in the Caliburn – this, ladies and gents, is not
snake oil, despite the exorbitant price.
Why this discursive rhapsody on the Caliburn’s partial-magnetic suspension
system? Because this in effect is what the Callas Audio Platine Verdier Mod Kit achieves
with the Platine, but at tens of thousands of dollars less.
IV. Callas Audio Platine Verdier Modification Kit
Callas Audio is an audio dealer and enterprise located in Holland. Its proprietor is
an indefatigable analog aficionado and enthusiast of uncommonly good taste. And an
incorrigible Platine Verdier fanatic with a background in aviation mechanics and
engineering. He has owned the Platine for the past 20 years, and the years worrying and
thinking about certain problems concerning the Platine’s magnetic suspension system led
to the solutions provided for in the Callas Audio Platine Verdier Mod Kit, which are
identical to that discovered by Continuum Audio’s Mark Doehmann. I approached him
because his Mod Kit seemed to address the very concern I had about Platine’s
performance in the bass, and the minute but unpredictable fluctuations in the tonal
density in the sound, resulting from the issues I mentioned.
Each Callas Audio Platine Mod Kit is handmade by himself, and this is a blessing.
He painstakingly turns out each Platine Mod Kit from his EMCO 8 lathe by hand.
Obviously, he can produce only a small batch of Platine Mod Kits at a time. As the
Platine Mod Kit is a handmade product, it doesn’t come packaged in glitzy boxes. My
review example arrived in a plastic carrying case lined by heavy foam protecting the
myriad of fanatically machined parts. Did I tell you I have no DIY skills? Reader, I
panicked. My vision of hell is the very interior aisles of any Home Depot.
It turns out I needn’t have panicked, given the thorough and cogently written instructions
that Callas-Audio provided which were simple to follow.
The Callas Audio Mod Kit retails for 1350 EUR, including tax, within Europe;
outside Europe, it is 1,115 EUR. As I mentioned in the previous section, and verified by
my listening experience, the Callas Audio Mod Kit effectively accomplishes with the
stock Platine Verdier what the Continuum Caliburn does with its partial magnetic
suspension system, for a lot less money. But at first glance, most consumers are likely
going to wonder why this coterie of parts – however precisely machined – costs north of
1,000 EUR.
When I first saw the Callas Audio Mod Kit, I also had similar thoughts, as I’m
naturally a cheapskate. I can’t enumerate all the parts, but there is an anodised bearing
assembly. A steel spindle, which is slightly thicker in diameter than the stock spindle. A
ceramic ball which rests on the cusp of the spindle, which replaces the steel Verdier ball.
An adjustment arm with an ebony knob, and the accompanying micrometer. Three pieces
of ebony blocks to place underneath the Verdier plinth and a Van den Hul special bearing
oil to use in place of the stock oil that Verdier provides. And various bolts and discs and
tools to assemble the Mod Kit with.
Now, all this may be porn for DIY enthusiasts. But for this reviewer born with ten
thumbs, it spells disaster or panic attacks. At the sight of all the parts and wrenches to
affix those parts – to a costly object of beauty like the Platine Verdier, no less – I nearly
stabbed my eyes with a pair of countersunk bolts that the kit comes with. But the big
surprise: I needn’t have fretted as much. With the carefully and logically laid out pictorial
step-by-step installation PDF that Callas Audio provided me, the installation was easier
than changing a tire.
The installation may be slightly hairier if you own the customary stock black
MDF plinth that the Platine comes with. If so, you need to enlarge the stock hole in the
plinth with the provided 17 mm drill bit. Although the installation manual tells you that
you don’t have to be too meticulous in the drilling, as the hole will be largely covered,
such a reassurance is bound to fall on deaf ears (forgive the pun) of audiophiles for whom
every dust particle can seem to influence how the music sounds! Fortunately, I didn’t
have to suffer the indignity of my trembling hands hacking up Verdier’s plinth – I have
the original terrazzo plinth, of which stock hole is larger in diameter than the more recent
Verdier plinths. And when I ordered OMA’s gorgeous slate plinth for my Platine Verdier,
I made certain that the stock hole was large enough to accommodate the Callas Audio
Mod Kit.
The rest of the installation process was blissfully intuitive, aided by the Callas
Audio’s pictorial manual. In a gist – you remove the platters of the Platine, then assemble
the new bearing and spindle assembly provided by the Callas Mod Kit. After installing
the assembly, the micrometer and the adjustment arm become installed. That’s it. Callas
Audio includes ebony footers to install underneath the plinth for further sonic
enhancement, but OMA’s slate footers worked better with the slate plinth in my case.
The installation of the kit reflects the philosophy behind its creation: simplicity. It
is so simple that one can’t help but to smack one’s own forehead. As I installed my kit, I
couldn’t believe that no Verdier owner – including myself – had thought of this to control
the weight of the platter that touches the spindle, all the while grumbling about the
consequences. Using the Callas Audio Mod Kit, any Platine Verdier lover can easily
check the micrometer reading, and by using the adjustment arm, fine-tune and customize
how much of the weight the platter rests on the spindle with constant exactitude. You can
control the moment the platter touches the spindle ball within 1/100th of a millimeter. In a
single, elegant swoop, the Mod Kit solved the single reservation I’d had about the Platine
V. The Music
And the results were startling. The Callas Audio Platine Mod Kit wasn’t startling
in a way that most modification solutions propose to “improve” the original – that you
would get more-of-this, more-of-that. No. It was only startling because it allowed Platine
Verdier to be its best, all the time. Previously, because of aforementioned issues
concerning uncontrolled and variable way with which the magnetically suspended platter
rested on the spindle ball, the results were at times erratic when it came to Platine’s music
reproduction. Records that sounded fantastic one night sounded muffled the next. Dinu
Lipatti’s mercurial passagework in Alborada del Gracioso from Ravel’s Miroirs would
sound its quicksilver best one morning, for example, then lose the tonal focus that humid
afternoon with the change in ambient temperature. With the Callas Audio Mod Kit, Dinu
Lipatti’s glissandi in thirds scintillated each and every time via my Platine Verdier, and
for me, that is a very big slice of musical heaven – when Lipatti sounds like Lipatti at his
most incandescent, beautiful best.
The Callas Audio Platine Mod Kit finally brought the bass specificity back to the
Platine’s musical reproduction, but the effects were surprising. To be sure: with bass-
stupendous music, the results obviously impressed. The explosion of the gran cassa in
Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and its thundering cacophony of the trombones’
glissando, came alive with a visceral force.
Yet, what became even more endearing to me was that the silky, musical filigree
of the Platine’s upper register reproduction – the finest I know in the audio kingdom –
seemed to gain more subletly and filigree with the control gained in the bass region.
Thom Yorke’s falsetto soared above the stumbling chordal accompaniment of the piano
in “Pyramid Song” of Kid A in a way that seemed implausibly divorced from anything
material or mechanical. Jan de Gaetani’s silver-flecked mezzo voice spun out Schumann
and Ives into the night, and the Harmonia Mundi LP of Elly Ameling singing Brahms
lieders sounded newly minted. Joao Gilberto meandered from A minor to E then back
again in the live version of “Sem Compromisso” on Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival
LP, and by the time the line kicked in - Você me diz: Não, eu agora tenho par - the words
vacillating between the keys of C and E before landing on the regretful E minor on the
final word par, I was less listening to the song as much as inhabiting it.
VI. Conclusion
To make a short work of my review, the Callas Audio Platine Mod Kit doesn’t
alter the Platine Verdier’s fundamental sonic traits at all. You know that audio review
cliché, that a piece of equipment just gets out of the way of music? This kit gets the hell
out of the way. It allows the Verdier turntable – by now a classic – to sound its perpetual
best, much in the same way as the Shindo Garrard 301 elevates the performance of the
iconic 301.
In these perilous economic times, it is difficult to advise anyone to spend 1,350
EUR on what is – on the surface – an ancillary modification tool, much less a full-fledged
audio equipment. But I’ve known analog manias to plunge into deals much more Faustian
than this in order to achieve any trifling minor edge, and the advantage gained by Verdier
aficionados from installing the Callas Audio Platine Mod Kit is game-changing. I can
now count on my Platine to sound its songful best, every time, and can play my favorite
piano recordings without what-ifs creeping into my consciousness as I lower the needle
onto the first groove. I’d had no doubt in my mind that the Platine Verdier was one of the
finest turntables in the world, but always with minor but significant caveats. Now, those
caveats are gone. Completely.
The Callas Audio Platine Mod Kit is a niche product for a tiny niche of
consumers in an already marginalized, niche audio industry. Hence, it is not surprising
that the kit wasn’t developed or marketed by a hi-fi capitalist conglomerate, but by a
lifelong devotee of the Platine Verdier in Holland in small meticulously machined
batches. Yet it is surprising that the solutions provided by the Callas Audio Platine Mod
Kit should be so ingenious, albeit simple in design. Given the historical fact that the
Platine Verdier was conceived decades ago by Mr. Verdier as a DIY project, it is not
difficult to conceive that the Callas Audio Mod Kit is a natural and inevitable extension
of the turntable’s spirit and provenance, especially given the musical results. The Callas
Audio Platine Mod Kit further enhances the legacy of the Platine Verdier and pays
flourishing musical dividends – what better reason besides this to personally recommend
it to all Platine owners as a necessary investment at some point in their future? Once
installed, it will seem an indispensable part of the holistic Platine Verdier system, and
that is my honest appraisal of the Callas Audio Platine Mod Kit, and the highest
compliment I can pay to its creator.
By Linden Pork N.Y.
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