Clearaudio Azimuth Opimiser - MM/MC phonono stage & headphone amp

NZ$ 5,995.00 ea (incl. GST)

"Take the best and make it better, only then is it just good enough." Peter Suchy

Is your Vinyl Playback Optimised? Clearaudio Azimuth Optimizer. 
an article by HiFi Unlimited posted by Big E

The Clearaudio Azimuth Optimizer unit can also function as a phono stage and head amp.

A few days after writing about my Clearaudio Stradivari MC cartridge recently, the left chanel decided to give me the silent treatment! I checked all my connections and by swapping the left and right chanels of signal to and from my Pass X-Ono phono stage confirms my worst fears. The generator coil, made of 24k gold had shorted on the left chanel of the Stradivari. Time to spend more $$$, I guess. Dang!

I searched around and had considered the following cartridges as a suitable replacement candidate for the Stradivari. They include the new Clearaudio Concerto or Stradivari V2, Shelter 901 and lastly, a Benz Micro Ebony L. I eventually out did my self with style as usual and got a Benz Micro LP instead!(that story to come pretty soon)

As anyone can tell you, mounting a cartridge and setting it up correctly is probably the most nerve wrecking thing to do in this hobby of ours! Especially for me because I've got what you'd call clumsy, big, fat fingers. One false move and you've just lost your mega buck super high end cartridge, reduced to scrap trade me in value for you next cartridge purchase! Most of us can count on our dealers to mount and set up the cartridge that we purchase with satisfaction. However, one will never know how to do it if there's no practical experience. I choose DIY.

With the help of a Linn protractor borrowed from JT(my buddy/sifu who helped me to rebuild my Linn LP12), I started to mount and set up my new Benz LP cartridge. The Linn protractor made mounting the cartridge with correct overhang and parallel alignment easy at 3 points. VTA is adjusted by sight to run straight and parallel, using 180 grams audiophile grade LP as reference. Next with an Ortofon DS-1 stylus force scale, I set up the VTF to 2.2 grams(the maximum of 1.8-2.2 grams recommended by Benz Micro).

I started to play the new cartridge and the sound was phenomenal! It's probably the best cartridge I've ever had till date. Over time, as the cartridge run in, the sound would deteriorate a little and the vocal images tend to drift between center and right off center. Even at way past 100 hours the center imaging was still drifting off right. I played some large symphony works and it was than I realised that perhaps, just perhaps, my left chanel was playing a little softer compared to the right.

CMY Audio & Visual, the new dealers for Clearaudio in Malaysia was a life saver when John asked me to write about my experience with the Clearaudio Azimuth Optimizer. I've seen Robert Suchy demo this equipment at the KLIAV show recently and can still remember what it's about and how to use it. A short demo in the CMY showroom again just to make sure I get it right and off I go.
What does the Clearaudio Azimuth Optimizer do? It's an equipment designed to ensure that you've align the cartridge's azimuth angle, so that the L and R chanels track equally and produce an equal L-R signal output. It also checks the L-R chanel cross talk values, for those who wish to confirm what's probably written on the cartridge's manual/spec sheet. This particular Clearaudio Azimuth Optimizer also doubles up as a phono stage and can drive a head phone, or power amp direct, should one wish to displace the pre amp in chain of a vinyl sourced only system.
Using the Azimuth Optimizer is easy enough, as the Clearaudio package also provides a 1kHz mono L-R chanel signal test record to do the job. One would need to disconnect the tonearm outputs from the phono stage and plug in to the clearly marked L-R chanel input of the Clearaudio unit. Then proceed to play both the L chanel first, record the cartridge output in -db as shown on the display, the track plays for a minute only, then switches to the right chanel, again record the output of the said chanel.
Now you've got the figures, look carefully, ideally as an example, the L-R chanel reading should look like this: L -30 - 0db and R -0 -30db. In other words, both chanels should read equal on the output display. Should your R is reading higher than the L chanel, then one can adjust the cartridge by gently rotating it clockwise as viewed from the front. The reverse should apply if your L chanel output is reading higher. Play the same 2 tracks on the LP again , and look at the L-R chanels readings now, repeat the cartridge adjustments again. Repeat the entire procedure as many times as required, but one must remember to make very small rotations either way. Very small adjustments seems to effect the readings big time!
My first output readings confirms my suspicions that my right chanel was playing louder, by as much -5 dbs, compared to the left. I proceeded to gently push the cartridge slightly clockwise. I repeated the whole adjustment process back and fourth, probably more than 50 times at least! At one point, I got pretty close with the L chanel reading -42.78 and the R chanel reading -43.25, but I was too greedy, I wanted both chanels to read exactly the same. I repeated the azimuth optimizing process many more times than I could remembered. After nearly 2 hours of fiddling around, I settled for the following results, L chanel reading -43.28 and R chanel reading -42.81, as I was getting tired.
I then proceeded to un-hook the Azimuth Optimizer unit off my system, re-connect my phono stage and start playing some music. Lo and behold! The stereo imaging focus just snapped tightly together, like a well focused picture. The imaging wandering off right is now a thing of the past, and replaced with a more 3D presented image with solidness, much lacking before. With such accurate set up, I now felt that I could play my LP12 with the anti skate setting disable for even better results! The L and R chanels seemed very balanced now, despite the slightly higher reading on the left. When I play large scale orchestral works on LP, I now get great stage width and depth of field perception. It's like I was previously viewing an orchestra performing thru an averagely focused camera lens, and now that lens seems tightly focused by comparison. Each musician has it's own elbow space around the sound stage portrayed. I also thought the bass performance firmed up a fair bit too, as the woofers on both sides of the speakers seem to work with each other more, rather than slightly muddled and "off" phase sounding. There was also much lower surface noise, as the stylus now tracks at an optimal angle on both stereo chanels of the LP's groove. The Clearaudio Azimuth Optimizer certainly helped me to set up my new cartridge more accurately than if I had done it just by ear. No doubt, many turn table sifus or high hands think they don't actually need this to get it right either, but just to confirm one's ability is a blessing rather than "guesstimating" in the dark.
In theory, most of us can easily hear a 3db volume difference clearly, and many old hand audiophiles can identify with just 1db of volume difference. I'd hazard a guess that most, if not, none of us would not be able to tell a 0.5db volume difference clearly. Add the inconsistent music mix between the stereo L-R balance and the difference would be even harder to tell. With this Clearaudio unit, at least one guess work is taken out of the equation to accurately setting up a turn table. I must caution though that it's best to mount and set up all the other usual parameters of the cartridge and turn table first, let the cartridge to complete break in(if new) and leaving the azimuth optimizer as the final perfecting set up act. Otherwise the results will change once you've move your cartridge in any other way, no matter how small the adjustment.
NOTE - The Azimuth Optimizer Test Record from Clearaudio is a serious tool for getting the best performance out of your tonearm and turntable. To experience music reproduction at highest quality levels from analog records it is required to achieve optimal positioning of the pickup stylus in the record groove. When used in conjunction with the Musical Surroundings Fozgometer Azimuth Range Meter (sold separately), this LP pressed on heavy audiophile grade vinyl lets you make the proper tonearm adjustments.