Raven v Walker. Colored v Accurate?

This post has been generated following Jonathan Valin’s recent review of the Raven AC-3/Phantom combination in TAS. What intrigues me is not that JV has been lucky enough to review and buy or have on permanent loan yet another world’s best product. A truly astounding strike rate for any reviewer it must be said. Rather, it is what JV readily describes as the colored sound of the Raven/Phantom combination and the apparent appeal of this sound compared with what JV described as the more accurate sound of the Walker that piques my curiosity. This is not, I hasten to add about the relative merits of either table or their arms. The intention is not to have a slug-fest between Walker and Raven owners.

What really interests me is how it is that a product that in the reviewer’s opinion more accurately conveys what is on the source material is perceived as somehow less emotionally satisfying than one which presumably exaggerates, enhances or even obscures some aspect of the recorded information, if one can accept that this is what colored sound or the product’s character is. It appears counter intuitive and the deliberation of the phenomenon is making me question my own goals in audio reproduction. These have been pretty much on the side of more accurate is better and more emotionally compelling with due consideration to financial constraints in my choice of equipment in achieving this goal.

On face value and if you can accept the hyperbole it appears that the colored is better route is a little like going to a concert and putting on a device that allows you to alter the sound you hear. You twiddle a couple of knobs, sit back with a smile on your face and say “Ah! That’s better, that’s what I want it to sound like” You like it but it’s not necessarily what the musicians intended you to hear.

It seems logical that the closer one can get to accurately reproducing every piece of information recorded onto the medium then the closer you should be able to get to the actual performance, together with all the acoustic cues existing at that performance. I am making an assumption here that the recording medium is actually capable of capturing these things in the first instance.

We have our 12 inch pieces of vinyl on the platters of two systems under evaluation. We are not in the recording booth. The musicians are not on hand to play the piece over and over so that we can compare the live sound to the master tape and even if we did every performance is unique so we can never compare a second or third live performance with the one we just recorded. How then can the accuracy of a turntable/arm/cartridge combination and its ability to convey the emotion of the recorded event truly be evaluated? Ideally we should at least have the master tapes at hand to play on the same system in which we are evaluating the TT’s. The comparison will of necessity still be subjective but the determination would seem to be more believable than if the master tape were not part of the evaluation. If the master tape gave the listener no emotional connection with the musicians then I would contend that there would be something fundamentally flawed in another part of the playback system.

So in evaluating the two combinations would the more accurate combination be the more emotionally appealing? I cannot see how it would be otherwise unless we just don’t like what has been recorded or the way it has been recorded, the musicians have not made an emotional connection with us and the slightly flawed copy is preferred to the original. Is this why God made tone controls?

I have used the words seems, appears and presume quite deliberately, not to have a bet each way but because I am cognizant of the fact that we are, in audio reproduction dealing with the creation of an illusion and creating that illusion with people who have varying levels of perception, different experiences and tastes, different playback media and different physical replay environments so the task at hand for audio designers, humble reviewers and even we poor consumers could not be more complex.
The first question that any reviewer, or at least any TAS reviewer, faces is how closely any piece of equipment under test approximates the sound of the real thing. The second question is how faithfully that piece of equipment reproduces known sources. (Of course, "known" in this context comes closer to "how a record has generally sounded in the past on other gear"). Ideally, on the best sources, a product would come equally close to musical and audiophile truth, so there would be no conflict between “realism” and “neutrality" However, the TW Acustic Raven AC-3 presented me with a genuine dilemma. In many important ways, particularly in its much fuller reproduction of the duration of notes, the Raven sounds considerably (and addictively) more like the real thing than any other ’table I’ve owned or tried.

Take the Cisco reissue of the Heifetz/Smith "Kreutzer" on RCA. I was so puzzled by the "improvement" in string tone over the RCA original that I actually called Robert Pincus at Cisco to find out how the mastertape had sounded and how (or if) it has been doctored via eq. His answer, which you will find in my review, is that he did do some eq'ing in the brilliance range and in the upper bass, but not nearly enough to account for the change that the Raven AC-3 wrought. While that change made Heiftez's "David" sound less like it had generally sounded on the RCA LP, it also made it sound more like Heifetz's David reputedly sounded in life and on select mono LPs. Moreover, details of fingering, bowing, and intonation were so greatly increased that the sense of listening to Heifetz actually playing his "David" was that much more convincing.

So what’s a reviewer to do? I tried as precisely as I could to delineate the virtues and the flaws of the Raven AC-3 vis-à-vis the Walker, but when it comes down to it, if the AC-3 is coloring the music (and I believe it is a bit) it is coloring it astonishingly realistically. I don't think I've ever heard another product that made the old question of "musicality" versus "accuracy" quite so fresh and interesting.

I thought your review was admirable Jon.
I have the Raven AC with both the Continuum Copperhead (Dynavector DV1s) and Davinci Grandezza (ZYX Universe) arms, and I can clearly hear the different 'colouring' of both arms!
So perhaps the 'colouring' you are hearing is the reaction of the Phantom arm with the Raven?
Rather than strings....for me it's the solo piano which defines the realism possible with a great table and arm.
The Raven seems to have and store an enormous 'potential' energy which makes the attack and sustain of musical notes and fundamentals more like the real thing than anything else I have heard.
I personally prefer your choices in ancillary equipment (cartridges, phono stages, preamps and amps) to those of Mikey Fremer who lauds the Caliburn/Cobra combination.
I've heard this combination at length and believe that the Raven/Copperhead/Grandezza gives it serious competition.
With your comparison of the Raven to the Walker Proscenium, I simply have to agree with you......the Raven is a bargain!
Thanks Jonathan for taking the time to offer a little more insight around your review, very much appreciated. As the proud new owner of a Raven AC I have to admit, I was a little anxious about how the review was going to go. Deviations from perfection notwithstanding, I'm absolutely thrilled with the table and feel the review did a great job of characterizing the table.

That being said, did you have an opportunity to try the AC-3 with a different arm or arms, (apologies if it was mentioned in the review and I'm just forgetting)? I believe it was mentioned above that the table can sound quite different with different arms. I'd be curious know if you tried that and agree. Also, I'd be interested to get a sense of how much of the unique attributes you heard were related to the table, arm or cart or combination?

I have a secret agenda here because I have a Phantom on order and am wanting to understand if there is some strong synergy going on with those two components or if it's just the nature of the table. Or put another way, please tell me I don't have to get a Phantom and a Gold Finger V2 or Air Tight to get that sound.... I'm running out of money!!! :-) Thanks.

Dear Jlvalin: Thank you to join us, it is not an easy task for a revewer to " expose " in an audio forum.

+++++ " any TAS reviewer, faces is how closely any piece of equipment under test approximates the sound of the real thing " +++++

many of us ( including reviewers ) have our own perception/definition of the " real thing " and maybe my question could " see " like something obvious but not for me: could you tell/explain us what the " real thing " mean for you?, thank you in advance.

Regards and enjoy the music.
I have to voice an opinion that essentially agrees with Mr. Valin.
I performed as a percussionist in a number of classical orchestras.
The Raven table (with Graham arm and Dynavector Cart) is the FIRST source component in my 30 years as an audiophile that presents music as I experienced it on the stage of classical orchestras. Percussion, strings, winds, sound real.
Is it accurate? euphonic? colored?...... I don't care what it is called.
It sounds more like the real performance than any component I've ever experienced.

No other piece of hifi equipment has ever done this.
I've never heard the Walker.....I'm sure it's exquisite. I just know what I hear.