It’s a bold manufacturer who underestimates the appetite amongst audiophiles for pain and aggravation. The belief that optimum sound is truly worth suffering for – in fact, can’t be achieved withoutsuffering – is all too common. And like any religious supplicant anxious to display the scars of their self-flagellation, the audiophile zealot will have numerous anecdotes about the physical and financial lengths they’ve gone to in order to transcend to audio Nirvana.
With the Alva TT, Cambridge Audio wants to encourage the fanatics to cast aside the crown of thorns. To take their feet off the hot coals and slip them into something a little more comfortable. With the Alva TT, Cambridge Audio wants to make achieving that optimum sound easy and convenient. This, at first glance, looks like heresy.
The Alva TT isn’t the first turntable equipped to deliver a wireless Bluetooth signal, but nothing that’s gone before could remotely be described as ‘audiophile’. Quite the opposite, in fact – for the majority of Bluetooth record players convenience is the be-all and end-all. They’re a way for dabblers to put some vinyl on without having to faff about while doing it. It might be argued that a cheap Bluetooth turntable could be considered a ‘gateway drug’ – and no doubt some owners might well be seduced on to the harder stuff in due course. But for audiophile listeners who’ve had the vinyl habit for years, a Bluetooth turntable isn’t to be countenanced. It doesn’t sound good and it’s in no way fiddly or demanding. Where’s the religious ecstasy in that?
By building a turntable priced to compete with some established, well regarded models from brands with fearsome pedigree, Cambridge Audio surely knows it has its work cut out. But by making the Alva TT the world’s first with aptX HD Bluetooth capability (so it’s able to wirelessly stream at a giddy 24bit/48kHz resolution), it’s given itself a unique selling point and offered reassurance to the vinyl agnostic. It’s actually able to make good on the promise of the pictures in every turntable’s promotional literature, the one that shows a huge loft apartment with virtually nothing in it but a pristine turntable and not a cable in sight.
At first glance the Alva TT looks absolutely as you’d expect. The turntable design template was set some time ago, after all, so – unless you want a bit of wilful weirdness a la Kronos or Kuzma – nothing here is going to set your pulse racing or startle the horses. This is a chunky (11kg), smoothly finished slab of clean industrial design, built upwards from an aluminium plinth to an aluminium top plate. The brand logo is tidily punched into the surface of the top plate, below the tonearm, and there are power and speed selection buttons on the opposite side. The dust cover is pleasantly weighty too. There’s probably a little more overall tactility to the Alva TT than to a comparably priced Rega, and just as much visual satisfaction as Clearaudio can provide for the money.
The tonearm itself is a single-piece aluminium casting, and looks awfully similar to one of Rega’s RB designs – it’s an eminently sensible choice if it is in fact a Rega item. Neither Cambridge Audio nor Rega seem all that keen on confirming or denying, from which we are all invited to draw our own conclusions. At the business end is the Alva MC; a Cambridge-branded, high-output, moving-coil cartridge with elliptical stylus, a replacement for which will set you back £450 according to the Cambridge Audio website.
The platter completes the picture, and it’s as smooth and substantial as the deck it sits on. It’s a high-mass polyoxymethylene item, and it proves to be just a tiny bit broader in diameter than a 12in vinyl disc – which makes getting a record off just slightly weirder than it really should be. It’s turned by a direct drive motor system – unusual but not unheard-of in purposeful audiophile-grade decks – as Cambridge Audio asserts its medium-torque motor/high mass-platter arrangement gives optimum pitch stability. Coupling the motor to the hefty plinth ought to sink vibrational energy rather than let it excite the rest of the chassis – and, in fact, Cambridge Audio is claiming measurable wow and flutter of just 0.06%.
The fact that this direct-drive arrangement requires less effort from the new owner when setting up, and then when changing speed or when it comes to maintenance, can’t have passed Cambridge Audio by either.
So far, nothing about the Alva TT is going to alarm even a wary audiophile. It looks and feels the money’s-worth, and the moving parts are all prodigiously engineered. But from here, the Cambridge Audio starts to put meaningful distance between itself and the specification of its nominal competitors.
The back of the Alva TT features a Bluetooth on/off switch and pairing button alongside the stereo RCA outputs, so – as long as the pre-amp or active speaker(s) you’re streaming to can deal with aptX HD – a wireless signal at a standard Cambridge Audio suggests is indistinguishable from a wired connection. A tell-tale light indicates when the Bluetooth connection is made.
There’s no switch or button to control the integrated phono stage, though. It’s always on, which seems an eccentric decision. Of course, it’s appropriate Cambridge Audio should incorporate pre-amplification in the Alva TT, because it wants to make the whole experience as painless as possible. And the company does have some very capable stand-alone phono stages in its line-up – the Alva Duo, in particular, is a bit of a bargain at £250.
But simply assuming that no potential buyer might have an existing phono stage – against which they’d like to compare the Alva TT’s alternative – doesn’t send quite the right message. Perhaps it’s fiendishly difficult and/or expensive to make the integrated phono stage defeatable but, given the lengths Cambridge Audio has gone to pretty much everywhere else with the Alva TT, it jars a little nevertheless.
The Cambridge Audio pairs to a Moon 390 streamer/preamp quickly and solidly, even when it’s 15 feet away. There’s something to be said for knowing your record player is ready to go even though it’s sitting prettily on a convenient shelf and wired only to the mains. The 390 is aptX HD equipped, so this is as good an opportunity as any for the Alva TT to make its case. Can a wirelessly transmitted rendering of a heavyweight reissue of Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love [Fish People] deliver the goods?
Well, yes and no. In ultimate terms (and ‘ultimate’ probably means a Rega Planar 6 with Ania cartridge, which costs almost the same as the Alva TT), the Cambridge Audio doesn’t have quite the transparency to give completely full expression to a track like Cloudbusting. In every other significant respect, though, it makes its case as a turntable to be reckoned with.
Timing, of course, the organisation of information concerning the interaction between musicians and instruments, has long been held up as proof of the vinyl format’s superiority, and here the Alva TT is sure-footed and believable. The relationship between Bush’s piano and Eberhard Weber’s electric upright bass on Mother Stands for Comfortsounds instinctive, while the synthesised whistles and smashes, along with the desert-dry drums, further illustrate the Alva TT’s confident way with integration and focus.
The impression of control and authority is furthered by a listen to Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s tilt at Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite [Deutsche Grammophon]. The Alva TT turns in a rousing and passionate performance without getting carried away or in any way ill-disciplined – it may be lacking the last scintilla of insight but it’s not short of animation.
These characteristics remain constant regardless of whether The Walker Brothers’ Nite Flights [Columbia] or Four Tet’s Everything Ecstatic [Domino] is spinning. The Alva TT has uncommonly well-controlled bass presence – it delves deep and can hit hard. But it controls overhang well, so even Four Tet’s low-end playfulness doesn’t overstay its welcome. It communicates the feeling loaded in Scott Walker’s foreboding baritone during the bonkers The Electrician just as well as it delivers the fine details of his technique. There’s absolutely as much bite to treble sounds as is allowable – some of the high-end excesses of Four Tet’s Smile Around theFace can get quite threatening, but the Cambridges manages to keep a firm-ish grip on the reins.
And, let’s not forget, this ‘ultimate terms’ comparison to the Rega doesn’t really apply here: everything the Cambridge Audio has been doing until now, it has been doing wirelessly. From a distance. With no extraneous noise from the arm or other potentially microphonic components, and no dropouts.
No, for a true like-for-like comparison, the Alva TT needs to be parked very close to the Moon 390 and a whole lot of fiddling about with cables in the confined area behind the main system needs to be indulged in. Cambridge Audio provides some chunky RCA leads in the Alva TT’s box, so they’re deployed to form the union with the Moon. Not to the 390’s extremely capable phono input, mind you, let alone to the Leema Elements phono stage that is also standing uselessly by.
With the Alva TT hard-wired to a pre-amplifier, you lose a ton of the Cambridge Audio’s visual drama – but there are mild-yet-undeniable gains in performance. There are no night-and-day differences in the way the Alva TT goes about making music – which illustrates just how effective a wireless source it is – but there’s a little more calmness at the top end and there’s a touch more fluency in the way a tune like Peter Tosh’s Downpressor Man [Columbia] glides along.
The fact the Alva TT sounds a little bit more enjoyable, slightly more lushly analogue, when hard-wired into a system might be a dog-whistle to sceptics. It could be said to prove that analogue will always trump digital when discussing this most analogue of sources. But it really shouldn’t.
It’s possible to spend £1,500 on a turntable that comes with more hair-shirt suffering than the Alva TT. But for listeners who want a satisfying vinyl experience without jumping through hoops, who don’t want to be dictated to by their own electronics, or who are just turned on by some worthwhile modernity crashing into some venerable technology, the Cambridge Audio Alva TT is the obvious choice.
- Alva TT Turntable
- Type: Full size
- Rotational Speeds (RPM): 33.3, 45
- Drive Mechanism: Direct
- Platter Type: POM
- Dimensions (H×W×D) (mm):
139 ×435 ×368
- Weight (kg): 11
- Price: £1,500
- Type: One-piece aluminium casting
- Tonearm Length (mm): 238
- Effective Tonearm Mass (g): 11
- Phono stage
- Type: High-output moving coil
- Input impedance: 47k/ohm
- Input capacitance: 320pF
- Output level: 250Vrms (nominal)
- RIAA linearity:
- Distortion: 0.0025% THD+N 1kHz
- Signal to Noise Ratio: >90dB
- Alva MC Phono Cartridge
- Type: High-output moving coil
- Tracking Force (g): 2
- Load: 47k/ohm
- Output (at 1 kHz @ 3.45cm/s): 2mV
- Price: £450 (included with Alva TT)
Manufacturer: Cambridge Audio
Exclusive UK Retailer: Richer Sounds
Tel (UK only): +44(0)333 900 0094