The Lever and the vinyl

by Enzo Carlucci

On the left: turntable with Funk Firm Vector V base, ADC ALT-1 tonearm and Benz Micro MC Gold cartridge; in the middle: 180g. vinyl by Antonio Forcione Quartet; on the right: La Pavoni Professional

On the left: turntable with Funk Firm Vector V base, ADC ALT-1 tonearm and Benz Micro MC Gold cartridge; in the middle: 180g. vinyl by Antonio Forcione Quartet; on the right: La Pavoni Professional

In the first issue of The Lever I was pleasantly surprised by the interview with Maurizio Valli. Passion, dedication, exuberance, in part even healthy extremism in his approach to coffee. But most of all, the part about the potential of lever machines, in his case a wonderful professional Marzocco, kept buzzing in my head: "...There are an infinite number of things that can be done and therefore it is a machine that already has incredible potential". I immediately thought of a parallel with an object of my other passion, audio: the turntable!

Turntable or, for the more refined, "analogue record player", a definition that makes more evident the complexity of the system and of the parallel of which I ask the readers a sort of "poetic license". But think about it, both have a very precise function, that is to extract "something pleasant" (a drink, a song) from a black disc (coffee puck, polyvinyl) and this is just the beginning of the analogies.

The fine tuning of an analogue playback system, as well as the fine tuning of a lever extraction system, is quite a complex matter and, for this reason, challenging and exciting. Both systems allow for high levels of customisation, settings, optimisations that are the result of experience and intended use (different extraction techniques for different coffees and different turntable settings for the type of music we listen to). But let's go in order.

I chose, for this parallel, a turntable at least as beautiful and stylish as the design of a La Pavoni Professional, the one in my possession. The turntable consists of a plinth, arm and cartridge, so the final design (and sound) is, in this case, a combination of the Funk Firm Vector V (UK) plinth with Linear Audio super-power supply, the ADC ALT-1 tonearm (USA) and the Benz Micro MC Gold cartridge (CH). The use of parts from different sources is quite usual in audio, given the specialisation required. At this point, let our parallel begin: follow me, and you will (I hope) remain amazed.

For our lever machine it is the water, for our turntable it is the actual transformer with regulated power supply, the one that turns the platter motor. The characteristics of the water are one of the central points in the quality of the extract: PH, hardness, calcium, magnesium, sweetness play fundamental roles. In the turntable, a precise and silent power supply guarantees absence of disturbances and regularity in the rotation of the turntable itself, influencing its neutrality and limiting the "dirt" in the sound. In the particular case of our turntable, the precision power supply brought an incredible benefit to the fluidity of the sound compared to the stock unit (mobile phone charger) and totally eliminated dispersions that unfortunately were part of the pick-up.

The machine body
For our lever machine, this is the boiler, for the turntable this is the Funk Firm Vector V base: white, sleek, beautiful. Both machine bodies are undoubtedly beautiful and functional. In the case of the lever machine, the function is to allow the water, heated by the heating element, to generate a correct level of pressure, functional both for the extraction and the operation of the steam. There is an optimum temperature level below which or beyond which there may be repercussions on the quality of the extract. In addition, it is possible to operate on the pressure switch to optimise the pressure level. In the turntable, it is similarly possible to adjust the level of rotation speed and isolation.

Now, one of the fundamental critical points in a lever machine is the level of thermal insulation between the machine body and the grouphead (an example of this are the insulation devices as presented in the second issue of The Lever). In the case of the turntable, the isolation is that between the base and the cartridge, both from the vibrations picked up from outside and also the vibrations of the motor that ensures the rotation of the platter. In the second case we have already talked about fine tuning of the power supply stage. Instead for external vibrations, there are the materials of the base (mdf), of the platter (achromat) and of the feet (polyurethane decoupling) themselves to guarantee the insensitivity. At this point some people might think of elastically decoupling the turntable at several points: in reality this would not be the solution since the sound would become slow, soft, not very dynamic. As a comparison, it would be like drinking that famous beverage from a well-known Swiss multinational they call coffee. Elastic decoupling, in the turntable, means to disperse most of the dynamic energy of the record detected by the cartridge. In other words, to correct a characteristic you end up introducing much more serious distortions. To preserve this dynamic energy, the Funk Firm engineers invented a special platter (the support on which the disc is placed) in a material called Achromat.

The heart of our much-loved extraction system. Differentiated pressure, excursion, pre-infusion time, extraction time. Parameters we work on, with different combinations, to get the best (for us) from our coffee. The equivalent of the lever, in the analogue playback system, is the tonearm. Through the tonearm of our phonograph system we imprint a certain weight on the cartridge, and this affects the sound. Exactly how we impose a certain pressure on the lever of our machine and how we differentiate it at the moment of extraction, and consequently obtain a different result that is in line with our taste. With the lever of our machine, therefore, we introduce a sort of “equalisation” in the extraction, just as, in parallel, by acting on the pressure of the arm (and the mass of it) we introduce an equalisation on the sound. We customise the coffee, we customise the sound. Slightly under-extracted or over-extracted coffees (within the limits of correctness) can constitute real personalisation characteristics, just as acting, through the tonearm, on the tracking force within the permitted limits allows us to personalise the sound and adapt it to characteristics that are more suited to us.

In our lever machine, the material used, the presence or absence of the thermoplastic sleeve, the showerscreen. In the vinyl, the cartridge is the equivalent of the group. Technology, weight, diamond. In this case I chose a Swiss-made cartridge, a model that is not particularly expensive but very well made. 

The fundamental issue with pickups is that they work with very low intensity signals and any slightest distortion or dirt, or inaccurate detection, is amplified in the inevitable steps of voltage amplification ("sound reinforcement" before reaching the amplifier). For example, to eliminate cartridge body resonances some manufacturers have simply eliminated the pickup body (Van den Hul Grassopher) or used amorphous materials.

A further element of prestige is the cut of the diamond that runs through the disc. Well, that infinitesimal grain that detects sound between the grooves of vinyl, the more adherent it is to the grooves, the more accurately it detects what is printed. The diamond will therefore have increasingly accurate and increasingly expensive cuts: conical, elliptical, hyperelliptical, Van den Hul, Shibata, Gyger. Some cuts are even so accurate and similar to the diamond of the cutting lacquers that they risk (in the event of inaccurate assembly) re-engraving the vinyl. The diamond in the cartridge can be compared to the showerscreen in the lever machine. It may seem apparently insignificant, yet it is clear that it can introduce a qualitative difference in the regularity of water distribution on the coffee panel.

Benz Micro MC Gold cartridge

Benz Micro MC Gold cartridge

Coffee puck
In short, the ground and pressed powder, and there is a world here. I'm not talking about the origin of the coffee, but about the technique to make it enjoyable: how to grind it, with what degree of fineness, how to avoid clumps, how much to press it.

Instead, the disk, in vinyl, responds to the quality of the print, the purity of the polyvinyl material, the state of preservation of a new record print or the degree of cleanliness of a historical print. The same record can be purchased in its original version or in an accurate reissue. Here, in turn, a world of opportunities opens up. Know that there are companies specialised in vinyl reissues where the care of the original master, of the transfer equipment and of the printing matrix is raised to absolutely maniacal levels of accuracy (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab - MFSL, Classic Records, Chesky Records).

And to conclude... acoustic and olfactory alchemies
Just as with any lever espresso machine, where through various combinations of the elements described above you can get the most different extractions, similarly in an analogue playback system you can get various facets of sound interpretations. The setting of an analogue source often responds to one's musical taste, to the rest of the audio chain in which it is inserted, and to the characteristics of the listening room. In my case, the analogue source has been optimised to have a dynamic and fast sound, not particularly deep in the low frequencies but well articulated. A modern sound, detailed, able to give back with decision but also with grace the details of a recording. Favourite genres? Jazz, Fusion and Chamber Orchestra.

At this point I can go a little further, provided you readers help me find an appropriate coffee match. Which record did I hear the most satisfying sound with? The records that satisfied me were several, but if I had to make the fateful choice of just one, then I would have no doubts: Antonio Forcione Quartet, in his live concert at the Trinity Centre in Tunbridge Wells, Kent (UK). Antonio is an Italian guitarist transplanted to the UK, eclectic, passionate and virtuous, here in an acoustic quartet. The album is a Naim Records production, pressed on 180g vinyl and remastered at Abbey Road Studios. A record that seems to have been made especially for this analogue turntable, and to whose matching coffee in terms of taste and smell I entrust you. Or I entrust the baton to Maurizio Valli, why not? To the one who, with his interview, has inspired this article.