History is a funny thing. It can be positive – or it can be negative. Generally speaking, saying that you “have history” with someone, isn’t good. Nor is it a fixed or finite truth, famously being written by the victors – victors who more often than not, airbrush the content as well as deciding on their own starting point. Considering just how central the three-point suspended sub-chassis turntable has been to the development of the UK audio experience, its genesis and evolution is at best murky and at worst obscured by the sort of “nothing to see here” smokescreen that any government would be proud of. Ask a Linn-acolyte and Year Zero is marked by the birth of the LP12 – the AR-XA and Thorens TD150 simply ignored, while the Ariston RD11 has been expunged from the record with all the extreme prejudice normally reserved for a Stalinist apparatchik who got a little too good at their job. Likewise, the expression ‘big three’ means different things to different people: for some it consists of the Linn, Pink Triangle, and Roksan, while those with longer memories or more fundamentalist views might include the Logic DM101 in place of the barely suspended Xerxes. But if you really want to go back to the dawn of time – at least UK ‘triple-time’ – then the third player would really be the Dunlop Systemdek, a turntable whose star had arguably already started to wane when the Logic first appeared. Which is, as is so often the case, slightly ironic, as of all the basic models mentioned above, the Systemdek, with its low-slung, low-frequency suspension was arguably the most mechanically stable and forward looking of all…
I’m not sure when ‘history’ becomes ‘heritage’, but somewhere between the demise of the original Systemdek III and the emergence of the current Systemdek 3D models (the Precision reviewed here and the bigger and pricier Reference), that’s what’s happened. Show the 3D Precision to audiophiles of a certain age and they come over all misty eyed, fondly reminiscing about those older Systemdeks (record players they were probably all too quick to dismiss with the impetuosity of youth). Of course, there’s much more to the Systemdek story than just the original Systemdek III, with the more affordable II, and cylindrical IIX enjoying considerable success – the former living on in evolved form in the shape of the various Audio Note turntables. Likewise, the company has passed from father Peter Dunlop to sons Derek and Ramsay with unbroken continuity, and the current designs are clearly the result of all that accumulated knowledge and experience, from the use of a laminated sub-chassis in the Reference to the highly evolved suspension system across the range. Look beneath the solid exterior of the 3D turntables and you quickly discover the strengths inherent in that original DNA, firmly supporting the thoroughly modern feature list.
The heart of any turntable is the main bearing and drive system. Systemdek has embraced current thinking as far as the bearing goes, a massive 20mm shaft supported by opposed magnets, running in a hybrid Teflon sleeve/oil bath arrangement that ensures not just low, but consistent levels of friction and vanishingly low rumble figures. The bearing supports a 50mm thick Delrin platter that is driven peripherally from a separate, free-standing motor pod. But showing that they are not simply following fashion, the large diameter pulley sits atop an AC synchronous motor, driven from a sophisticated external and user adjustable power supply. The bearing is of course supported on a floating sub-chassis, machined from solid aluminium and hanging from three spring assemblies that allow levelling from above – a distinct improvement on previous Systemdek set ups. The substantial depth of the platter mandates a Delrin up-stand beneath the armboard, a mixed material construction that helps inhibit ringing in the sub-chassis. The armboard itself is ovoid in shape, a stylistic feature inherited from earlier Systemdek designs, although in this case, rather than providing real-estate for the arm-rest, it is aligned with the spindle axis, allowing the 3D to accept arms between 9” and 12” in length. The substantial suspended mass combined with the spring extension is responsible for the stable, low-frequency motion of the suspension system, also inherited from and so reminiscent of the original. The Systemdek suspension has a calm, unflustered feel that gives the whole record player a subtle sense of luxury, a quality reinforced by the massive aluminium chassis, stainless steel uprights, and hardware.
Quite apart from its contribution to the dynamic character of the deck, that high suspended mass also makes the 3D precision far more tolerant of arm-mass and off-set, an important consideration if it really is going to match the widest range of tonearms. Partly with that in mind I chose to partner the 3D Precision with the Kuzma 4POINT, an 11” arm that is longer and, at a shade over 2kg in weight, considerably heavier than most arms the Systemdek is likely to be paired with. What it also offers is precise, repeatable adjustment of all cartridge set up parameters, on the fly VTA (itself a test for any suspended deck), and in these days of stratospherically priced tonearms, top-flight performance at a price that borders on the sensible. What’s more, the Kuzma’s sheer drive, musical energy, uninhibited dynamics, clarity and separation are the perfect foil for the Systemdek’s big, stable sound. The pre-cut armboard supplied (I opted for the optional carbon-fibre upgrade) made mounting the arm a doddle, and the combination of adjustable feet on the deck and the easy levelling of the sub-chassis meant that set up was incredibly straightforward – once I’d got my head back into suspended ‘table land and remembered to put a record, the Stillpoints clamp, and the arm in playing position… all before final levelling! Good thing it really was that straightforward! That aside, the Systemdek proved to be refreshingly free of set up foibles. I used it on both Hutter and HRS racks and it seemed effectively impervious to the supporting surface – just so long as that surface was capable of supporting its 45kg weight. Yes – unlike those older three-point suspended designs, the Systemdek 3D has bulked up in line with other high-end audio designs. Its slightly broader footprint might not look that much bigger, but the increase in price has allowed access to a wider range of materials and the result is a deck that remains man portable – but only just. One thing it is worth playing with: belt tension. I found that even quite small changes in the distance between the motor pod and platter had a significant impact on the deck’s sense of focus and transparency. Fortunately it’s an easy (and easily heard) tweak, so getting it right presents no problem.
With so many massive, high-mass designs dominating the market these days, the Systemdek needs to appeal to more than just the Flat Earth hold-outs: they buy Linns anyway! High-mass AND suspended? Is the Systemdek 3D Precision really trying to offer the best of both worlds? With the deck set up and ready to go it proved impossible to ignore the pull of nostalgia any longer and the first record to hit the platter had to be Dire Straits – although in this case it was Making Movies [Warner] rather than the eponymous first album or Love Over Gold. Right from the opening bars, the music was imbued with that familiar sense of pace and toe-tapping involvement, easy rhythmic flow, and direct engagement. For anybody who grew up with the early LP12 and finds current decks – the latest Linns or the alternatives – lacking a sense of involvement and musical engagement, then this Systemdek should loom large on your radar. But at £15,000 plus a tonearm, it’s an expensive way to relive your audio past, if that’s all it does. Fortunately, the 3D Precision really does seem to have succeeded in grafting the weight, presence, transparency, and power of the best heavy-weight ‘tables to the easy musical fluidity of the best suspended designs.
Where does the Systemdek lose out to the rigidly coupled competition? Reach for a piano recording and you’ll quickly find that the Precision lacks the temporal, ahhh… precision of a deck like the Kuzma Stabi M. Play ‘Slow Song’ [from Joe Jackson’s Night and Day, A&M] and the piano lacks attack or the sense of definite structure that you get from the big Kuzma. Likewise, the Systemdek lacks the dimensionality and separation you get from its own bigger brother, the Reference, a deck that throws soundstages to die for. But ultimately I suspect that these are sacrifices that many listeners will willingly make, foregoing those precise note-to-note steps in favour of the enticing flow and momentum that comes with the Systemdek’s presentation. Speed stability will always be the Achilles heel of any suspended design, but by throwing technology, careful execution, and sheer mass at the problem, Systemdek has minimised the impact, with simple comparison using the Feickert platter speed app showing a range of speed variation that approaches many rigid decks, even if it fails to challenge the best close-coupled designs or direct drives. This is after all, an area in which the Stabi M excels. Either way, the proof of the pudding is in the listening and here the 3D Precision covers its tracks with something approaching panache rather than simple aplomb. The lively, get up and go energy and momentum that the deck brings to albums certainly puts the emphasis on the big picture, the broad-brush strokes, and where the music’s leading.
The first thing you are going to notice is the sheer wallop this deck packs in its bottom end. Whether it’s the characteristically crunchy texture of the bass notes that underpin the opening bars of ‘Skateaway’, the insistent drum patterns of early Cure, or the massive opening crescendo of the Kertesz New World, there’s a presence, solidity and substance to the sound that always seemed to escape those earlier suspended decks. Throw in a smoothness and subtle, velvety darkening of the sound – possibly an artefact of the Delrin platter and certainly something I’ve heard from the Michell Orbe in the past – and there’s a sinuous sense of power and propulsion, musical progress, and intent that underpins musical performances. Running a Lyra Etna up front, with its combination of overall musical coherence, natural tonality, and exceptional resolution made for a potent set up, and while I used the Kuzma’s detachable headshell arrangement to ring the changes with other cartridges, ultimately it was the Etna that I returned to. Fleet of foot without sounding exaggerated or spot-lit, it made the most of the record-player’s sudden dynamics and its impactful shifts in density, bringing a touch of drama to proceedings, an explosive quality to drum patterns or power guitar, but also that necessary deft grace and delicacy when required. This is a player that’s at once lithe and muscular.
If you want a single disc that both demonstrates just what this deck is about and how it achieves those musical goals, look no further than the Barbirolli/RPO recording of the Sibelius Second Symphony [Chesky Records CR3 – and quite possibly the best thing Chesky have ever done]. This is classic early Sibelius, a succession of slowly building crescendos, each painstakingly assembled across the entire orchestra, building and building, one notch at a time to achieve a climax of shattering intensity. Barbirolli’s mastery of level and tempo and his deft transitions bind the fragmented instrumental voices into a single, irresistible whole: The Systemdek maintains that sense of inevitability and musical momentum, the kaleidoscope of instrumental shadings and sheer power: The result is a towering, majestic, and brilliantly compelling performance. But to understand just how this record player unlocks that sense of drive and substance, you need to listen not to those impressive crescendos, but to the quieter passages – the close of the First Movement and the opening of the Second. Listen to those softly cushioned timpani beats that underpin the closing phrases as they die away and then the extended pizzicato section that opens a new vista. Not only does the 3D Precision nail the exact texture and tone of the timps, it effortlessly tracks not just the pitch but the undulating, subtly surging changes in level of the ensuing plucked bass notes, their seamless transition from basses to celli. Instrumental groupings are stable in space and height, which plays no small part in identifying actors as well as binding the whole together, but this spatial precision is perhaps best summed up by the moment when, as the Second Movement builds, the rising swell is underpinned by a timp roll: with the Systemdek you hear quite clearly, that roll progress from left to right across the skins, each drum separated in pitch and place. This low-level resolution, the ability to preserve the scale, level, and texture of individual instruments, as well as their place in the musical fabric is what allows the 3D Precision to preserve the pace and density of each elongated musical passage, adding a gentle turn and ramping up the proceedings, whether it’s the result of an increase in level or density, the addition of more effort or more instruments. It’s a musical tour de force, excelling in exactly the area that so many systems, especially digital systems, fail – the ability to invest life, energy, and presence into recordings. Of course, both the 4POINT and the Etna are playing their part, but it’s the Systemdek that’s delivering the foundation.
What you get from the 3D Precision isn’t exactly the best of both worlds. Instead, it’s more a case of a carefully considered update on an old, established recipe, the musically engaging qualities of a suspended deck but with (considerable) added bandwidth and linearity, better speed stability, and a planted sense of substance that’s as much physical as it is musical. While many three-point suspended designs have withered and died, literally or musically, the Systemdek has re-emerged in rude health, a boisterous and highly enjoyable performer, the Benjamin Button of the turntable world.
Type: Three-point suspended sub-chassis turntable
Speeds Available: 33 and 45 RPM (user adjustable)
Bearing Type: 20mm standing bearing, magnetically opposed
Platter: 50mm Delrin
Suspended Mass: 14kg
Power Supply: Computer controlled AC supply in milled-from-solid housing. Two speed with fine adjustment
Tonearm Compatibility: 9” to 12” arms accepted, weighing up to 2.25kg
Lid: None supplied.
Dimensions (W×H×D): 495 × 200 × 425mm
Manufacturer: Systemdek Turntables, Troon, Scotland
Tel: +44(0) 1292 319416
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