One of the great woes of this period in the audio industry is that we seem to be coming to the end of the Age of the Personality. The audio world used to be littered with big, bold, and sometimes completely loopy characters that made products that were touched by genius. OK, sometimes the ‘loopy’ overarched the ‘genius’, but these big characters helped shape the high-end. They are all but gone now, pushed out by legislation – no bad thing: I was once nearly killed by an amp design guru who accidentally wired the case to the live AC – and replaced by interchangable corporate types and marketing jargon.
The one last safe haven for the Audio Personality is the turntable. Vinyl has long attracted more than its fare share of characters and eccentrics, in part because it’s more of an engineering solution than an electronics project. And, it must be said, many of those personalities have created some outstanding contributions to the turntable art. Any list of such personalities should include Geoffrey Owen of Helius Designs. Back in 1983, when the impending impact of the Compact Disc had turntable makers concerned for their future, Helius Designs launched its first tonearms, the Cyalene and Orion. These innovative designs were extremely well received in some circles. However, by the mid-1990s, sales of all things LP hit a nadir, people started talking about their ‘final vinyl’ system, and Helius just fell off the map for a few years, and Owen and his company turned its attention back to the other side of the company; astronomical (and later medical) imaging. Mechanical compliance gave way to laser optics, but the passion for music and the sound it makes never quite went away, and a few years ago Helius quietly returned to making tonearms.
The market has changed during Helius’ hiatus. In the 1980s and early 1990s, it was possible to have demonstrations of different turntable, arm, and cartridge options, and buying a turntable platform and ‘swapping out’ a few arms before happening on the right one was still a thing. That doesn’t happen anymore, and most people buy their turntable and arm from the same manufacturer, at least until you get to the super-high-end level where choice is bought at great expense. So, Helius Designs had three options; become a micro-manufacturer, turning out one tonearm every few years as and when someone happens on the brand, going back to Laser Life full time, or designing a turntable. Geoffrey Owen chose the latter option, and the Alexia was born.
Of course, it would be so easy for a tonearm designer to make a mediocre turntable that was simply a platform to showcase the tonearm, but that would ultimately be self-defeating. The Alexia is not simply there to reflect the underside of the tonearm, but is a distillation of Owen’s years of building telescopes and an understanding of how that kind of precision is relevant and applicable to making a record spin ‘right’. In Owen’s book, this means nailing platter rotation speed while reducing acoustic interference to a minimum.
Platter rotation speed is easy to get right, so long as you don’t mind a lot of acoustic interference. Simply make the platter as heavy as possible, give it a good motor, and any minor inconsistencies due to stylus friction are simply swept away. However, such designs are prone to pick up acoustic noise from the environment. It’s also easy to minimise acoustic interference by making the platter so free that any such interference is lost in the suspension system, but in the process the lightness of the design means stylus drag can influence speed stability. High torque motors help here, but power corrupts (and costs). In most cases, the answer is a compromise, and some of the more successful turntables of the last fortysomething years have been the designer’s expression of that compromise.
Helius decided not to join that continuum, but instead rethink the project through from scratch. It sounds fairly obvious to the point of being circular logic, but the way to control the platter speed is to regulate the speed of the platter: by using an optically controlled drive system that monitors the speed of the platter hundreds of times a second and applies corrective measures accordingly. Curiously, most feedback systems of this kind tend to monitor the speed of the motor, not the platter, and by shifting the locus of control to the platter itself, speed stability suddenly gets a lot more precise without having to call on over-engineered mass or motive force.
The Alexia’s suspension system also avoids the usual ‘springs and pillars’ arrangement with only platter and arm on the subchassis, because Owen feels this adds to problems rather than helps. The logic goes as follows: one spring starts vibrating, the rest join in. With these springs happily dancing around, the belt starts oscillating due to the varying tension created by its fixed position relative to the platter, and this causes pitch errors. To combat this, the Alexia has motor, platter, and arm all on the same subchassis, which is suspended on a double wishbone tuned to 1.5Hz. This can only move through the vertical plane, and any kind of horizontal movement is impossible. The bearing is a low-friction ruby design.
The overall look of the deck is timeless, in an almost Bauhaus form-follows-function way. The chassis sits on three points, and level adjustment is performed at this stage, the subchassis rests on the chassis, adjusting the ‘cruising altitude’ of the subchassis comes down to some extremely basic one-handed adjustment, and lots of the subchassis is made of Perspex specifically to prevent any high-frequency feedback from one sub-system to the others. There’s no need for a record clamp.
The Alexia’s natural partner is the Omega arm, as its clever use of non-coincident tungsten bearings and differential mass damping sing similar songs to those of the Alexia. We’ll concentrate slightly less on the Omega, because those with long memories will associate Helius with tonearms like this. It retains the clamshell like bearing housing of the Cyalene, but is more rounded. The non-coincident bearings mean greater integration of vertical and lateral components of a musical signal. In addition, the counterweight is an integral part of that housing, with a smaller downforce-only counterweight sitting on an outrigger shaft (there are two downforce counterweight options, enough to accommodate practically all cartridges).
The build quality of both is good, although fit and finish are best considered to be… OK. The problem any turntable designer has in 2017 is there are some extremely high standards of finish as you move further and further up the price scale. The contrast between the lacquered arm and acrylic deck in particular is noticeable, and the lacquering – though good – is not the kind of thing that might make Japanese marquetry experts nod in approval. The Helius deck and arm are not – in fairness – priced in the SME territory, but they will be compared to this ne plus ultra chunk of up-market production engineering mastery. The fact that SME has a team of finishers to bring the product up to its high standard and Helius has, basically, Owen notwithstanding, the finish is more Nottingham Analogue than it is SME, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. What’s perhaps more important here is there are few screws that might strip like you are throwing twenties at them.
Similarly, the level of instruction supplied with the turntable is… also OK. In fact, the manual supplied with the turntable is pretty good, combining a step-by-step list of instructions coupled with a few engineering drawings. Whether this fits well with the YouTube generation who might panic at the sight of two pages of type and three line drawings, remains to be seen. There were no instructions supplied for the arm, but muscle memory (and a good alignment protractor and downforce stylus gauge) helped here.
The benefits of both deck and arm seem congruent, in that the ideas behind both seem to fall to limiting the compromises placed on that item by other parts in the chain. The arm is designed to work well with the largest number of cartridges with no complaint, while the deck is made to eliminate the ingress of the outside world on the slab of vinyl.
You can hear this working out almost immediately in a number of fairly obvious ways. There is a lot of detail on offer here, with a huge amount of layering to any image, and yet at the same time a really profound sense of stability of image. This is not a ‘phat’ or lush sounding design; it stays the right side of lean and has a very dry, but fundamentally right sounding, tonal balance. If anything, this puts the tonal onus on the cartridge: too bright, or too woody, and the deck will let you know. It’s not so revealing of cartridge that it’s a deck in constant search of the right partners, but neither is the Helius the sort of turntable you can use in a corner-cutting exercise and plant down any cheap stylus. It wants more than that, and you’ll want to feed it something in the £1,000 or so region. In terms of cartridge choices, tonally the Helius sounds more comfy with Lyras and Benz’ than it does with AudioTechnica or Ortofon. Although, if you want hyper-analytical, a good Ortofon and the Helius will let you know everything that is on the record, good or bad.
As many of us have spent years listening to LP and digital in equal measure, so we have become acutely aware of pitch stability. Digital’s admittedly surface rendition of pitch is so much more accurate than analogue as we know it that we quickly notice the wavering treble of vinyl. It’s almost imperceptible (and certainly not as thick-set as the watery mids and top of low-grade MP3) but when comparing like with like, you can sometimes pick out a very slight trilling of the top end of a soprano’s voice on vinyl that isn’t there on digital. We don’t worry too much about this because the rest of the vinyl performance is more enthralling, but it’s there all the same. Here, though, that pitch precision shone through, in a manner very, very few decks can muster. Given the next deck in price terms that I’ve heard that has this kind of pitch stability without losing a lot in the process is a Spiral Groove, and you might be able to buy an Alexia for every room in the house for the price of a Spiral Groove, this is a major feather in the Alexia’s cap. A great – albeit soprano-free – example of this is the D’Oyly Carte performance of the overture to Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, which I have both on Decca SXL from the 1950s on vinyl and on the Australian Decca Eloquence label on CD. Toward the crescendo of the overture there is a perfectly clear triangle hit repeatedly. It sits in its own physical space in the recording and is remarkably high-pitched and pure-toned. It’s usually the one place where the CD outperforms the vinyl, but not through the Helius.
This is also an exceptionally dynamic combination; switching over to Rachmaninov’s ‘Symphonic Dances’ [Athena], the Helius combination coped with the full onslaught of the orchestra without problem, where so many end up flattening out the highs and lows and burbling along nonchalantly. The obvious parallel is with the classic Voyd turntable (because so many were supplied with Helius arms) and the dynamic range of this deck seems to match that masterpiece, albeit from memory. In fact, dry detail aside, perhaps the only big sonic issue with the Helius is you end up gasping for air after really powerful pieces of music.
OK, so from a traditional turntable perspective, glancing at the side of deck and seeing something that looks like the underside of a car might seem a little odd at first, but the design pays dividends in terms of performance. In a world where there is actually precious little development in turntables – and a lot of hype about recycling the same thing with a different finish – the Helius Alexia and Orion represent a genuinely different and novel approach to getting the job done. That’s well worth checking out.
Type: belt-driven suspended turntable
Motor: AC asynchronous
Speed control: electronic, push button
Effective length: 9”
Bearing: tungsten, non-coincident
Manufactured by: Helius Designs
Tel: +44(0)1386 830083