With Touraj at Vertere Acoustics

Our Senior Contributing Reviewer Ron Resnick visits the Touraj Moghaddam of Vertere Acoustics and explore company philosophy and their state of the art approach to the vinyl playback.  Touraj Moghaddam is one of the most iconic contemporary turntable designers. 

Yesterday my wife and I spent an entire afternoon with Touraj Moghaddam, Founder and CEO of Vertere Acoustics, learning about Touraj and Vertere, understanding the philosophies behind Touraj’s designs and listening to LPs. (It was the first time my wife ever listened to a high-end audio system with vinyl as the source.) After the Vertere tour and listening session we took Touraj out for dinner.

Vertere is located in an office in a contemporary building about 20 minutes West of Central London. The Vertere office is clean and well organized and busy-looking. There are several different rooms, including a dedicated listening room, in Touraj's facility. Touraj mentioned they are looking for new, larger premises. Touraj has five full-time colleagues, at least two of whom used to work with Touraj at Roksan.

Touraj’s philosophy with respect to his Reference tonearm was to design the product with no compromises to cost; designing whatever parts he wants, and then figuring out to whom he can subcontract the production of each of the parts. The assembly of the parts into the finished product is accomplished in Vertere’s office.

Touraj said that for certain parts there literally are only one or two vendors who are able to produce the parts at the required level of precision. Touraj said that because of the cost (to him) of the components of the reference tonearm that his profit margin on the reference tonearm is actually lower than his profit margin on his lesser tonearms.

When explaining to my wife at dinner the somewhat obscene expense of some high-end audio components I said that it is not a good thing that the stuff is so expensive. I said the cost is primarily a function of very low production volumes, and that if Sony were producing the components we buy using exactly the same parts and designs they would nonetheless be a lot less expensive because Sony is producing hundreds of them. Touraj interrupted me and said that actually I was wrong in that he found that the cost reductions to scale fall off at a surprising low volume. For example, he said it is very expensive to produce three or four of something but that it is not much cheaper per unit to produce 100 of something than it is to produce 20 of something. Touraj said that with many of the extremely high precision parts for the Reference tonearm once he has ordered 15 or 20 or 25 copies of a part from a supplier there is very little per copy discount to ordering more. 
Personally, Touraj, who was born in Tehran, Iran, was very nice, humble, down-to-earth, thoughtful, patient and gracious. He is a professional engineer by education, by training and by employment, but he is extremely patient and he is able to explain to the layman his designs and technical points in a simple and understandable way. Touraj does not at all mind so explaining. He never got frustrated or slipped into condescension. Touraj was a completely delightful host!

The dedicated listening room at Vertere is far from ideal acoustically. One side wall is concrete block, the other side wall is stucco, and the ceiling is some sort of structure of metal slats which rises in the middle of the room and then angles downward behind the listening position. The only acoustic treatment is a large, rug-looking thing hanging on the front wall between the speakers. There is wall-to-wall carpeting on the floor.
I brought with me several LPs with which I am extremely familiar. Of the LPs I brought we listened to the Classic Records/Jazz Planet reissue of Bill Henderson’s Send in the Clowns (to the puzzlement of my wife, Touraj played this three times: first at at 33 RPM and then at 45 RPM and then again at 33 RPM); Amanda McBroom’s The Rose on Growing Up in Hollywood Town (Sheffield Lab 13); and Landslide by Stevie Nicks on Fleetwood Mac by MFSL. Touraj played numerous other LPs including a re-issue of Phil Collins' Face Value (by far the best example of this recording I have ever heard), a 45 rpm of Patricia Barber from a MFSL box set, Jeff Beck, London Grammar, Pink Floyd and -- the biggest treat of all-- an acetate test disc from Abbey Road Studios of the upcoming Bohemian Rhapsody reissue.

As the author of the recent post Introspection and hyperbole control I will do my best to issue a sober and carefully considered report on the components, the system and the sound. Touraj’s system consists of his reference RG-1 turntable, the Reference tonearm, a Miyajima cartridge, a Soundsmith Hyperion cartridge, and all FM Acoustics electronics (FM122 Mk. II phono preamp, FM 245 preamp, FM108 monaural power amplifiers) and PMC MB2S dynamic driver studio monitor speakers with a transmission line woofer. The cabling was Touraj's Vertere cables. Touraj said he was not familiar with Air Tight or My Sonic Lab cartridges.

I had never heard any FM acoustics electronics and I had never heard of the PMC speakers. About the speakers Touraj noted: ”I think these speakers, for £17,000, are the best speakers under $100,000." Touraj said that he uses the lower-end of the FM Acoustics products so that no one could say that his system sounds so good because he is using the ultra-expensive FM acoustics preamps and the high-power FM Acoustics monoblocks.

Each of us cannot know about all brands and components, let alone listen to everything, but I was a little disappointed in myself that I was previously unaware of speakers as good as the PMCs appear to be. PMC also makes a version of Touraj’s MB2S speakers with an additional woofer system underneath for greater low frequency extension and sound pressure. If more people on WBF were familiar with the PCM MB2S I think it would be compared often to the speakers we are accustomed to writing about.

The fit and finish on the Vertere turntable and reference tonearm are equal to the best I've ever seen. There is nothing visual to suggest that these products are being made by a five-man company or that anything other than the very most demanding specifications and machining quality are being prescribed by Touraj, and achieved by his parts suppliers.

Being unfamiliar with literally every single component of Touraj's system takes me off the hook of any specific component comparisons or evaluations. I can give you only certain impressions which I am very comfortable standing by. I offer these impressions solely for the purpose of suggesting that further inquiry and evaluation is warranted on the components comprising Touraj’s system.

I have a reflexive bias against solid-state electronics. This bias developed over the years from numerous instances in which solid-state electronics sounded, to me, to be one or more of dry, bright, hyper-detailed, edgy, "analytical," or just not pleasurable and emotionally engaging. I fully expected to observe the same undesirable characteristics from the solid state FM Acoustics electronics. 

Let me take a step back and set the stage: remember I described above the listening room itself as being suboptimal, to put it mildly, and a room which anyone would consider to be susceptible of brightness. I was listening to unfamiliar dynamic driver speakers which are often used as studio monitors, and thus are very likely to be flat in frequency response and perceived by my ears as bright. On top of this we add all solid-state electronics which are naturally anathema to me.

And what did I get? I heard an inexplicably musical and pleasurable sound from recordings with which I am extremely familiar. The Bill Henderson Send in the Clowns was recorded live at a jazz club with numerous glass clinking and fork dropping sounds sprinkled throughout the performance. I am aware that my tube electronics and Martin Logan panels soften and de-emphasize some of the glass clink sounds.

On Touraj's system I estimate that I heard some of the glass clinking approximately 50% louder and more prominently against the rest of the recording than I am used to hearing in my system. But, bafflingly, that flatter frequency response and heightened detail did not result in me condemning the sound as bright! Every time I can remember when I heard flat frequency response speakers and solid-state electronics I never failed to find the sound displeasingly bright and fatiguing. But that is not what I heard yesterday. 

For the avoidance of doubt, the FM Acoustics electronics did not sound like tubes. The FM Acoustics electronics sounded very detailed and dynamic; they did not sound soft or relaxed. But they did not manifest the unpleasant characteristics I associate with solid-state electronics. They sounded smooth and detailed, without being bright. I kept looking at the small gold boxes arrayed on Touraj’s inexpensive bookshelves to remind myself that I was listening to all solid-state electronics. 

What is going on? While researching FM Acoustics equipment on WBF for this post I found an old post by Gary Koh:

Gary Koh:

If you have the chance to pick up a FM 2011, jump on it. The FM2011 are extremely limited, and probably one of the best amplifiers on the planet. FM Acoustics was what got me off the tube bandwagon - they have all the benefits of tube and all the benefits of SS. Unfortunately, hugely expensive and far beyond the price/performance curve.

I read all the back and forth posts about FM Acoustics. Very few of us have ever heard the equipment. Most of the posts complained about high pricing and not obviously great case construction and parts quality of the FM Acoustics equipment.

All I can report is that the FM Acoustics electronics are the first solid state components this tube snob has ever enjoyed. (And please remember that this report is in the context of a room which likely is on the bright side and with flat frequency response studio monitor-type speakers which I would have thought I would find bright.) I believe there is, indeed, something to the FM Acoustics electronics. (Gary Koh appears to be correct again!) 

I read that FM Acoustics does not loan out equipment for reviews but we (i.e., WBF members collectively) have to figure out the answer to this FM Acoustics puzzle. We have to compare FM Acoustics to Gryphon, DarTZeel, ARC, VTL, etc.

Touraj says that turntable designers know to focus on insulating the cartridge and the platter from external vibrations. Touraj believes that one of his insights it to focus on insulating the platter and the cartridge from noise and vibration produced by the turntable itself. By this I assume he means insulting the motor from the rest of the turntable. Touraj employs a small AC synchronous motor which is attached to a platform which is, of course, separate from the island on which the platter and the tonearm floats.

Interestingly, Touraj sits in the middle between the “acrylic is bad for turntables” view of Clearaudio and TechDAS and Michael Fremer, and the “acrylic is good for turntables” view of A.J. Conti, by splitting the baby and advocating acrylic for plinths and suspensions but disliking acrylic for platters.

I am of the view that there are no right or wrong answers about the various aspects of turntable design. I, personally, am not dogmatic about belt-drive versus direct drive, servo or no servo, acrylic versus metal, etc. In my view a designer makes his compromises, sets his design and executes an implementation to achieve particle sonic characteristics. Touraj’s view that the vinyl should not be aggressively coupled to the platter is the most controversial and interesting topic about which we went into detail.

Touraj does not believe in clamping a record down to the platter or in using a vacuum to suck the vinyl onto the platter. He believes that flattening the record in any way stresses the vinyl, dampens harmonics and changes the sound with the result that all records, on a particular record player which uses a clamp or vacuum hold-down, have a slightly homogenized sound and an identifiable sonic “signature.”

I asked Touraj what about “machining a platter to be as close to perfectly flat as possible”? Touraj replied that even if a platter were machined perfectly flat, at the microscopic level there are hills and valleys between the vinyl and the platter which result in an actual contact area between the vinyl and the platter of only 6% to 7% of the surface area of the record. We went around and around on this for a while, and I still do not understand why the surface contact area between the vinyl and the platter would be only 6% to 7%. But that is Touraj’s firm view as an engineering matter.

As a result of this view, Touraj’s design philosophy is to create a tonearm which is extremely adept at adjusting to undulations on the record. This is why the counterweight on his Reference tonearm is designed to swing back and forth as the headshell goes up and down.

I asked Touraj why he disagrees with most other major turntable designers who believe in using either a record clamp (including Clearaudio and VPI) or vacuum hold-down (including Andy Payor, A.J. Conti and Lloyd Walker). He said he does not know why these other designers believe in making the vinyl “one” with the platter. Touraj reiterated that "clamping the record to the platter allows motor noise and other internal vibrations to be transmitted to the vinyl surface which is being read by the stylus." He said the tonearm’s job is to ride whatever the vinyl presents naturally. He does not believe in flattening the LP to make easier the job of the tonearm.

I have two main impressions from listening to Touraj’s record-playing system. (Again, I fully appreciate and I readily concede that I really cannot tell anything about anything since I was not familiar with a single piece of Touraj’s system, let alone familiar with every piece, including the cartridge, other than his turntable and tonearm). My main impressions from recordings with which I am very familiar are that the system has wonderful detail retrieval and low frequency energy and power. The detail retrieval I am less sure about because I was probably also hearing from the FM Acoustics electronics more detail than I am used to hearing from my Aesthetix Io and VTL MB-750s. But I am sure about the bass energy. Considering that the PMCs have a single woofer driver (albeit with a transmission line design), and not a phalanx of drivers in a woofer or subwoofer tower, I do not know how or why I heard and felt considerably more bass power and energy than I have ever experienced before with the records I brought. And the bass was not bloated sounding. There was at least as much bass detail and resolution as I am used to but it was more forcefully rendered.

Trying to recalibrate my hearing to account for flat frequency response from the excellent PMC studio monitor speakers’ tweeters as well as solid-state electronics I nonetheless came away with the firm belief that there is something very special about the Vertere record player and tonearm system. I am confident that Touraj’s turntable and tonearm together constitute one of the very best record-playing systems in the world. Of course I would like to compare it side-by-side with the Basis Inspiration or Work of Art and with the TechDAS Air Force One, but we know that probably is never going to happen (unless DDK buys another turntable!).

I do not know what to think about Touraj’s philosophy about not making the vinyl “one” with the platter by using either a clamp or vacuum hold-down. One the one hand I do believe that very different design philosophies can be successful and sound great with proper implementation. But on the other hand how can such a fundamental issue (do we make the vinyl as “one” with the platter as possible or not?) be the subject of such divergent views?

Ron Resnick - Mono and Stereo - Senior Contributing Reviewer



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