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Vinyl record-player design sometimes progresses, often just precesses, and always revolves. You could say that any ‘new’ idea comes round again every 33.3 years, although in the case of the 12in arm revival, it’s more like 45 years. Be that as it may, the ever-increasing band of enthusiasts who must have extra inches now have yet another intriguing new option. Cheerfully mixing imperial and metric measurements, Kuzma offers us the Stabi S-12 turntable and matching Stogi Reference 313 arm.
   When it first appeared in 1998, the Stabi S was Franc Kuzma’s first new turntable design in nine years, a complete contrast to the big Stabi Reference that preceded it, and it also reflected the tougher times for turntables that had come with the early-1990s CD boom. It was intended as a lower-cost solution, but still keeping the crucial ingredients for good performance.

STRIPPED DOWN
So non-essentials such as a plinth, top plate and hinged lid, were all dispensed with. The primary function, of providing a rigid connection between the main platter-spindle bearing and the tonearm base, was entrusted to a 50mm-diameter brass rod, on which both were mounted.
   You can’t get much more rigid than that. Adding a slightly less chunky brass rod across the end of the main one made this into a T-shaped base, which could then perform the other essential function of stopping the assembly toppling over.
   With stunning lateral thinking, Kuzma provided rubber ‘feet’ by adding three O-rings near near the ends of the ‘T’. The main bearing is Kuzma’s usual design, with a precision-ground shaft that has a critically radiused contact point and runs in a sleeve of Tufnol-type material. To get things moving, you place the separate AC motor unit somewhere near the turntable, and fit the flat-section rubber drive belt around the motor pulley and the small subplatter. You then conceal the motor unit, and also, unfortunately, its push-button on/off switch, by adding the non-ferrous metal main platter, which has a textured playing surface.
   And that’s it, apart from the neat little record weight. This is another 50mm-diameter piece of brass, complete with another O-ring which makes it nicer to handle, as well as a visual match for the chassis. To change speed to 45, you have to lift the platter off, fit a larger-diameter crown piece to the motor pulley, then refit both the belt and platter.
   By now you will have realised that that the Stabi S-12 is just a Stabi-S with a longer main base member, taking the tonearm mount point further away from the turntable centre. Likewise, the Stogi Reference 313 is really just a Stogi Reference with a longer arm tube. When you first get the bits out the box, the Stabi S-12 looks like something from the plumbing department at B&Q. Well, that’s unfair, because all the brass parts are very well-finished, polished and lacquered. And it is indeed very easy to assemble and set up. The arm mount collar has the standard Rega-size mounting hole (though I wouldn’t bet on Rega producing a 12in arm any time soon) and is secured by a single 3mm hex bolt.
   Once you have inserted the arm pillar into the collar and gauged the correct height, another 3mm bolt locks it in place. So it wasn’t long before I’d got the trusty Ortofon Kontrapunkt A installed, and settled down to listen.

ROCK THE KUZMA
I started with the Wes Montgomery Trio, and the 1959 album originally called A Dynamic New Jazz Sound [Riverside 1156] but later reissued as Round Midnight. The intimate truthfulness and detail in the guitar sound were a delight and the soft, breathy sound of Melvin Rhyne’s organ pedal bass was well presented. You certainly can’t imagine record players of 1959 being able to do this.
   Another keyboard player who had to provide bass lines, in a different context, was Ray Manzarek, although The Doors did use bass players in the studio. It was hard to fault the Kuzma player on LA Woman [Elektra K42090], as it conveyed the urgency and vitality of this amazing swansong album with unfailing rhythmic drive. You could really get into the incredibly tight playing, and you could quail before the doomed monolith that was Jim Morrison.
   Next I subjected the Kuzma to the sometimes rather gloopy Glyn Johns sound of Eric Clapton’s Backless [RSO RSD5001]. It did well at resolving mixes full of innumerable guitars and splashy keyboards, excavating the nearly buried harmonica on ‘Watch Out For Lucy’, where Clapton’s brilliantly lithe guitar solo for once shimmered and snaked as you hoped it would. Carl Radle’s bass is the foundation on which all these edifices are built, and it was solid as rock with the Kuzma.
   Still preoccupied with the bass, I turned inevitably to Rob Wasserman and the best of his Duets [GRP 97 121], Jennifer Warnes and ‘Ballad Of The Runaway Horse’. Here I felt that the Kuzma did pretty well, even if it didn’t quite extract the biggest possible space from this atmospheric recording.
   If, like me, you’d really much prefer to be able to put a record on and play it without having to fiddle around with clamps or weights every time, you will want to know what difference Kuzma’s weight made to the sound. I’m sorry to have to say that the weight does improve the sound, with a general feeling of slightly better focus. At the bottom end, it can make an acoustic or electric bass sound more tangibly present, more concentrated, you could say.
   On the Jennifer Warnes Duets track, it seemed to make you more aware that you were hearing a voice direct as well as reflected, clarifying the perception of recorded ambience around the voice. There is a bit of a trade-off, though, because on some material the sound without the weight can feel a little more free and airy.
   With the weight in place again, I put on a jazz piano favourite, Oscar Peterson’s Action (Vol 1) [MPS 68 07] from 1975, recorded in the home of German enthusiast-producer Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer with a feel that’s quite different from the pianist’s Verve recordings.
   Here the Kuzma gave you enough detail to make you appreciate the incredible precision that’s implicit in Peterson’s breathtaking command of the instrument, as well as the unforced exuberance of these sessions.
   Back to 1970s rock and Dire Straits [Vertigo 0102 021], the Kuzma once again allowed the ear to pull apart the threads woven together by a producer of genius in a complex and devious mix. On ‘The Sultans Of Swing’, where so many layers of percussion sounds have gone into the final soufflé, even those tiny sounds like clicking knitting needles seemed to contribute something. When the system is revealing in this way, and does not add overbearing colorations of its own, tracks like this become easy and enjoyable to listen to.

AND WITH CLASSICAL?
Feeling a sudden craving for classical music, I pulled out my trusted Mozart piano concerto favourite from the late 1960s, Barenboim playing No 21 and No 27 with the English Chamber Orchestra [EMI ASD 2465]. Here the sound initially seemed well-balanced, with a quite forceful bass end underpinning the music well, but the orchestral timbres were rather coarsened, the woodwinds having too much, er, bark. The strings did not sound as abrasive as they can here, but the orchestra as a whole sounded thickened rather than lucid, and when the piano entered, it didn’t have the realism I knew to be possible.
   But don’t take all this as criticism of the Kuzma turntable. It was time to change the cartridge. Good as it is, and a sure winner in its class, the Kontrapunkt A can’t offer the sheer refinement that becomes  possible once you spend four figures. I duly installed the Koetsu Black, and the Kuzma responded. Now, the string sound had shape and the overall picture had transparency and space. The piano sounded bright but natural, and suddenly I woke up to the beautifully balletic quality of Barenboim’s playing.

PLATTER MATTERS
So far I’d been listening to the Kuzma in standard form, but there was an optional extra to try. This is a £400 accessory platter, which adds around 3kg to the rotating weight. You place this second platter under the existing one, and although its rim is 20mm deep, it has a recessed underside, so it only raises the playing surface by 10mm. Of course, you also have to raise the arm pillar height accordingly.
   Because both platters are a commendably close fit on the centre spindle, it takes patience to lift them off. So this wasn’t exactly a quick A/B, but the differences were fairly clear. With the additional platter, the bass became a little firmer, and imaging became noticeably more three-dimensional, with instruments more tangibly placed in the soundstage. Altogether, the sound just became a little more authoritative, tactile and convincing.
   However, the extra weight made starting up a bit of a struggle, with slight complaining noises from the belt. To minimise this, you need to make sure that the belt is running flat on the crown of the motor pulley, which means paying careful attention to the exact placing of the motor. As the motor is freestanding on three feet, its attitude to the subplatter depends on the flatness of the surface it is standing on. I found that the running of the belt could be optimised just by turning the motor housing round slightly.
   Adding the extra platter, then, rather upsets the performance of the drive system, but I think many users will put up with this for the sake of some sonic benefits. The double platter brings another unexpected gain, too. It just looks so much better!

VERDICT
First reactions tend to be ‘Where’s the turntable?’, but this is an effective solution as well as a simple one. Though the Stabi S started life as an economy model, the ‘stretch’ version with its fine 12in arm sounds clear, uncoloured and unflappable enough to do justice to true high-end cartridges. At the cost of poorer start-up, it can sound even ‘weightier’ with the optional second platter.

 

This review was originally published in the October 2009 issue