The Finial Laser Turntable Reviewed
Not vinyl ‘whoosh’, not rumble. That low-level noise in the background is my sigh of relief. Aside from waiting for my insurance policies to mature and my mortgage payments to cease, the pursuit of the Finial Laser Turntable has been one of the longest projects in which I’ve been involved. Half a decade
chasing a review sample…but it’s been worth it.
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One of the vinyl record collector’s dreams has come true. The Finial addresses almost every past and current concern, even allowing the venerable LP to emulate all but one of the practical, non-sonic virtues of the very format which looks set to kill it. And it is, to the best of my knowledge, the first and only successful product to read software in a manner which bears no resemblance to the original technique. An analogy would be a tape deck without heads, but the justification would be the same: on the most basic level it would eliminate wear as a worry. Anything else — as with the Finial — would be a bonus.
Initial reaction to the announcement of an optical turntable was somewhat muted because in early 1985 CD was well on its way toward establishing itself as the next major format. For the
technofreaks and cynics who couldn’t wait for the LP to die, it seemed like nothing more than a possible stay of the inevitable execution. And the early, cloak-and-dagger madness which
surrounded the Finial did nothing to inspire confidence in the company or the machine.
Neither was the Finial the first attempt at creating a no-contact method for reading information designed for mechanical replay. A player which used light beams or jets of air instead of a stylus was mooted over a century ago by Alexander Graham Bell. The Japanese made more than one attempt and Finial’s own paper prepared for the AES (4 November 1988) cites one Japanese and seven US patents dating from as far back as 1929. That none of these worked well enough to be produced commercially explains the scepticism which greeted the Finial, and why so many people thought I must be the most gullible hack in all of hi-fi for
chasing it from show to show.
In January 1989, at the Las Vegas CES, it was announced to the press that the Finial was dead. The excuses were legion, primarily the escalating costs which would have priced the Finial in the stratospheric regions occupied by high-end products like the Wilson WAMM, the Infinity IRS V or the Goldmund Reference turntable. I felt cheated, disappointed and disgusted. I was astonished at the ignorance of a company which had such a brilliant product yet no realization that there were enough filthy-rich audiophiles out there with irreplaceable record collections who would buy enough to make it viable. Their purchases, of course, would be in addition to any sales made to the professional sector, eg radio stations, archives and the like.
The tragedy was that the player actually worked well enough to reside in any respectable hi-fi system. Sound quality seemed merely adequate, but that would scarcely matter in instances
where it meant, say, the playing of records with scratches which would send a stylus into orbit.
To everyone’s surprise, the Finial was relaunched at the Tokyo Audio Fair in October 1989. The involvement of Japanese backers and their eagerness to get it working meant revised computer software within the player, the promise of an actual production schedule and a sense that, at last, it might actually happen. And to Finial’s surprise, over 300 firm orders were placed at the show…
IT DOES EXIST, HONEST!
Handled as if it were a Ming vase, the Finial was delivered to me in person by the distributor, the long-suffering Denis Wratten. With only two samples in the UK and with a demonstration queue a mile long, I had exactly one week in which to discover all I could about the player, sonically or otherwise.
Looking very much like a CD-V player, the Finial has styling which already appears dated, ‘mid-Eighties’ so to speak. Measuring 475x479x159mm (WDH), it’s biggish, but it only seems to dwarf conventional players in the fore-and-aft. But it is sleek, and there’s no lid to create a need for shelf height, although you mustn’t stack anything on it because it generates a lot of
heat. Aesthetically, then, the Finial is understated and doesn’t really imply that within lurks the most complex LP spinner ever devised. Neither does it look like #21,000 plus VAT, if there is a way of looking like a price tag.
Whoever designed the control panel could have done with a course in lateral thinking. Smart though the sloped perspex fascia may be, it also happens to surround the undersized — too undersized — controls and it collects fingerprints with the rapidity of the FBI. All that really had to be done to avoid this was to bisect the panel longitudinally, finishing it in the same grey Nextel as used on the body. That would have left a full width perspex strip for the upper half of the fascia, which contains the visual displays, and a stay-clean matte finish for the control strip. Better still would be a hand-held remote control…
Left to right, the tiny press buttons offer power-on (from stand-by), drawer open/close, pause and play. A second cluster, with logos familiar to CD users, provide track skip in either
direction, audible cueing in either direction, and a control which differs from the silent pause (next to the play button) because it locks the laser to a single ‘groove’. Yeah, I know, an LP only has one groove, but you know that I mean ‘one portion of the groove as traversed in a single revolution’.
The next pair of buttons allows the user to select time-read-out for either the whole side of the LP or the track being played. At any point, you can call up total time, elapsed time or remaining time, which means that home tapers can now have the same control over the LP as they already do when squeezing CDs onto C90s. The next three buttons allow the user to choose between 33 1/3rd and 45rpm (the machine defaults to 33 1/3rd), or to vary the speed
from 30 to 50 rpm. The last trio of buttons accepts a variety of commands, including track programming, A-B block repeat, noise reduction cancellation and other custom features. And it means that an LP can now be manipulated in the manner of a CD, with every practical virtue bar the 5in diameter and maximum playing time.
The upper half of the panel has indicators above each of the first four buttons on the left, along with two displays to show disc status. On the right is the most informative window, which indicates speed, a variety of error codes, noise reduction status and so on, accessed when the user initiates a command. Most of the time it reads the speed unless you prefer to leave it in one of the time read-out modes. The window on the left is the graphic display to show the relative position of the laser. It looks like a bar-type level meter from a modern cassette deck, but you’ll see that the line also features a series of ‘bumps’; these correspond to the between-track spaces on an LP. Equal to a radial cross section of an LP (or 12in single), the bar lights up full length at the beginning, extinguishing itself in small blocks as the record is played. A cursor above the line shows the laser poisition within a block. The display also gives visual confirmation of track selection if the user has programmed the Finial to skip certain tracks.
Ergonomically, the controls are about as straightforward as they can be given the multiple-function nature of most of the buttons. I’d recommend a full reading of the comprehensive owner’s manual, though, before doing anything. As for their sometimes erratic behaviour, I’ll leave that until we get to the hands-on portion of this review.
At the back are the phono sockets and the primary mains switch. The Finial has onboard RIAA equalization and 1V output, so you connect it not to the phono section but to a line level input. Here, at last, is a turntable which can be A/B’d with a CD player without the need for constant level readjustment. The main on/off switch at the back can cut all power to the player, whereas the front panel button only operates as a stand-by. This is important to remember for a number of reasons, not the least being that the Finial sounds a lot better after it’s been on for an hour. But because that might put someone like Peter Baxandall into a spin,
let me point out the practical reason: as you’ll find out in a moment, the Finial comes with a calibration LP which takes about 20 minutes to play. As it only has to be used when the Finial is switched on from cold, you’ll find it much more convenient to leave the player on (at the back) unless you’re going on holiday. And as the player switches to stand-by mode if left on its own, you don’t even have to press the front panel control except for power-on operation.
Installation is virtually identical to that of a CD player, right down to the removal of a transit screw which locks the delicate innards in place. The Finial must be placed on a solid, level
surface, but it’s far less critical of the ‘tuning’ of its supporting furniture than a conventional record player. The 18.4kg player rests on springy feet, but even these aren’t really necessary if you’re worried about heavy-footed friends. The kind of physical shock which is required to make this skip would involve a fist, not a finger tap.
Press the ‘open’ button and out slides a tray like that on a CD-V player with 12in disc capability. Here’s where the only assembly occurs. You place the lightweight aluminium platter into the 12in opening, a circular groove on the underside locating it over four rubber pegs. The platter is fitted with a mat said to be conductive, protective and vibration-absorptive. This is the first indication that you’re dealing with a player which breaks the rules, because it shows how the turntable portion of the Finial only has to do one thing: rotate at the correct speed. Mechanical earthing, silent bearings and the like do not enter into the equation, as these mechanical conditions should not affect a no-contact system. Still, Finial hasn’t cut corners on 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. The full details on how the lasers actually read the groove information actually fill the 14-page AES booklet called ‘The Optical Turntable, Finally A Reality’, published by Finial. The UK distributor will supply copies to anyone interested, provided that they send an A4-size,
self-addressed envelope and an International Reply Coupon. The address can be found at the end of this article.
Read more about the Finial Laser Turntable on Page 2.
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.
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.
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