When the first Oracle deck arrived in the UK at the beginning of the '80s its looks certainly turned heads. Thirty years on, this latest Delphi Mk VI is as stunning as ever
Few would argue that the Oracle Delphi looks drop dead gorgeous. With its sleek, futuristic lines and gleaming precision-turned parts there’s something about its design that makes even disinterested passers-by pause to take a second look. Did I say futuristic? What’s remarkable about the design is that the first incarnation of the Oracle, looking not dissimilar to this latest Delphi Mk VI model, first went on sale in 1979 – the year that Thatcher arrived at Downing Street, The Village People topped the singles chart with ‘YMCA’ and the Christmas No 1 was Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick In The Wall’.Hailing from Quebec in Canada, designer Marcel Riendeau’s Oracle Audio Technologies created shock waves among the audio fraternity on the other side of the Atlantic with his ultramodern record player. Way back then audio commentators were calling it a work of art… and a work of art it remains to this day.
TIME FOR AN UPGRADE
While there have been several incarnations of the Oracle Delphi during the intervening years, the outgoing Mk V has been on the market for nearly 14 years. For a product to remain unchanged for such a long time is rare indeed. But to be fair, Oracle has been busy building its brand. These days Oracle is not simply a quirky manufacturer of an ‘out-there’ turntable but is an electronics company too, with a portfolio of equally luxuriously priced CD players, CD transports and DACs and more besides. Moreover, in recent years it has also been preoccupied in negotiations regarding changes of company ownership. So, being rather long in the tooth, the Delphi Mk V was certainly overdue for a reappraisal and a performance upgrade to keep it ‘up there’, as well as out there.
Those familiar with Delphis will notice immediately when studying our photographs what look like additional stubby pillars of aluminium beside each suspension turret. These are in fact hollow ‘pots’ of silicone fluid, Oracle having designed a damping system it calls its Micro Vibration Stabiliser System (MVSS) [see ‘Damping the Vibes’ boxout]. Turning the adjustment wheels to raise the Delrin plungers out of the silicone fluid and back again – immersing them in the damping fluid to precisely the same depth – is an easy process. Straight A/B demonstrations take but a minute, and the sharpening of image focus and improvement in bass resolution is clear for any audiophile to hear within a few bars of music.
Less obvious to observe from our photographs are the different supports beneath the acrylic base on which the deck sits. All audio components are sensitive to their environment, none more so than a turntable, as you will have experienced if you’ve ever experimented with putting your record player on varying types of support platforms and equipment racks. The Delphi has been a suspended subchassis design since its inception, with incremental improvements through its various guises addressing issues concerning ease of set up (the earliest decks needed constant readjusting and were sensitive to external shock such as footfall on suspended floors) and improvements and modifications to the rigidity of the subchassis, arm mounting, bearing design and so on. Different to the Mk V, the convex feet on the new Mk VI are now formed of Delrin rather than aluminium. Oracle says it found Delrin feet minimised the difference in sound observed when placing the turntable variously on shelves made of wood, glass and concrete, believing that the new feet act as a mechanical filter that reduces high frequency energy entering the suspension system.
Look carefully and you’ll observe that while the Delphi remains low-slung and sleek-looking, it does however appear a touch more ‘butch’. This is because the aluminium subchassis is now thicker, especially in the front left portion where a further piece of aluminium secured on its underside acts as a more effective counter balance to the weight of the tonearm fitted on the opposite corner, obviating the need of the counterweight that was fitted on the underside of the platter of the Mk V.
Remove the platter of this Mk VI and you’ll see that the centre portion of the subchassis is now considerably larger too, which in turn makes the three ‘legs’ of the subchassis that extend to the three towers containing the suspension springs shorter and commensurately stiffer. And the tonearm mounting ring support has been widened by approximately 35%, increasing the strength and rigidity of the entire arm mounting section.
The design of the main bearing has been tweaked too. When Oracle introduced the Delphi Mk V in 1996 it went over to using a ‘dual-tripod’ design, using six points instead of bushes for holding the centre spindle. At that time it used nylon screws and a tungsten carbide thrust plate inside the bearing. The stainless steel spindle had a tungsten carbide tip at the end to provide a rigid tungsten-to-tungsten interface.
In the Mk VI the screws are now formed of a Delrin/Teflon mixture, while the thrust plate is now made of a polyamide-imide (PAI) material called Torlon [see www.solvayadvancedpolymers.com]. In using this high-strength plastic Oracle believes it has created a filter that prevents rotational noise from moving up the spindle and entering the platter, claiming ‘much quieter background and allowing better access to fine inner details’. What hasn’t changed in the transition from Mk V to Mk VI is the motor, despite it being a design dating back to the mid-’90s.
CHANGE AT THE TOP
I mentioned earlier Oracle’s change of ownership. Founder Marcel Riendeau left the audio industry several years ago and emigrated to Germany. The President of the company today is Stephane Nadeau, whose association with Oracle started over a decade ago. It was his precision machine shop and skilful expertise that supplied all of Oracle’s exquisitely crafted metalwork, resplendent in its polished lacquer finish. Marcel’s brother Jacques worked at Oracle for 25 years, and it is he and Stephane who own the company today.
HFN had the opportunity to meet them both recently, to discuss the design details of their new labour of love, as they were visiting Oracle’s UK distributor, Coherent Systems in Gloucestershire [see ‘Welcome back Jacques’ boxout on p24].
‘Each generation of turntable was always linked to the availability of the motor,’ Jacques told us candidly. ‘Remember, we were a startup company in 1979, so the first deck is one that we refer to today as the Delphi AC as it used an AC synchronous motor. Then we switched to a DC Hall-effect motor. When I think back to those early Mk I, II and III models, in each instance we were forced to introduce a new design because the manufacturer of the motor we were using could no longer supply it. We were into the era of CD and the major corporations had ceased record player production. We had to change motor with the Mk IV in 1990 too, that being the model where we returned to using an AC synchronous motor.
‘At least we can be thankful that we haven’t had to change the motor this time. We’re using the same low-voltage AC synchronous motor we’ve been using since the introduction of the Mk V in 1996. It’s proved wonderfully reliable and we have our own circuitry that we feed with a DC signal that generates the sine wave to give us the flexibility to fine-adjust the speed.’
Two grades of external power supply are available. Our review sample came with the more costly Turbo supply, a £750 option. With its standard power supply the price of the Delphi Mk VI is £8595.
A flat profile rubber belt goes around a rim on the underside of the platter, and because the motor/drive pulley at the rear is concealed underneath the platter, fitting the belt is certainly something of an
acquired skill. But this is soon learned after a little practice.
Using an accompanying SME Series IV tonearm in matching silver finish, listening was mostly with a £1000 Ortofon Cadenza Blue MC into an RCM Audio phono stage. I also had the opportunity to audition the Oracle/SME comination fitted with Clearaudio’s new Stradivari V2 moving-coil, of which more later.
There is pleasure to be had simply from pressing one of the ‘play’ levers protruding at the front, whose 33 and 45 legends illuminate after the tactile ‘click’ of the switch activated by the gentle press. After a pregnant pause of around half a second, the aluminium platter spins into action and comes up to speed pretty rapidly.
When the turntable is in its sweet-spot and you’re playing a recording that does it justice the result is a vivid stereo image extending way behind the plane of the loudspeakers. Thanks to its ‘legendary’ sense of air and space it worked wonders with ‘Nil Sen La’ from Clannad In Concert [reissue, Shanachie 79030]. With no tubbiness or overhang, the clean and tuneful double-bass was nicely focused, the acoustic percussion sounding pristine and hanging in space as if suspended on wires.
I soon discovered it can dig deeply into claustrophobic, muddy-sounding recordings too. Vintage classics such as Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book LP [Tamla Motown STMA 8007] may lack the HF sparkle of audiophile cuts but there’s treasure in the groove, the Delphi Mk VI bringing out immense detail as the ‘biscuit tin’ drums and fulsome bass lines were kept under strict control.
Similarly, while the title track on Johnny Guitar Watson’s A Real Mother LP from 1977 [DJM Records DJF 20505] can so often sound bloated, soft and ill-defined, the Delphi Mk VI did what Delphis have done through the ages: without smear or bloom it bounced through the infectious riff, Watson’s sublime guitar technique hovering high in the image while surrounded in studio reverb.
GLOWING FOR GOLD
Like Oracle decks through the ages, this latest Delphi VI model is relaxing and pleasurable to live with, due to its sweet and unfatiguing upper midrange and high frequency character that rarely hardens other than when presented with the most strident of brash recordings. Miles Davis’ searing trumpet and the challenging electronic ‘treaments’ on his 1986 Tutu album [Warner 925 490-1] were portrayed with a pleasing golden glow rather than sounding clinical and steely. Curiously the Oracle sounds ‘snappy’ and light on its feet while appearing simultaneously smooth, refined and gentle on the ear. I never heard it sounded etched or sterile.
Regardless of recording quality the Oracle handles everything with equanimity. Lovers of solid uber-decks with massive platters might most likely be unimpressed as the Delphi does not deliver massive bass slam. Bill Bruford’s metronomic percussion on ‘Heartbeat’ from King Crimson’s Beat [EG Records, EGLP 51] was razor sharp, Robert Fripp’s swirling guitar and ‘Frippertronics’ creating illusions of fairground hysteria behind the lead vocal. But Tony Levin’s pumping bass seemed to pump at a lower pressure, the low notes lacking the gravitas that many rock fans desire. If it’s sonic fireworks you’re after you’ll be better pleasured elsewhere.
Having spent several days enjoying the Mk VI’s serene music making, it was time for a little experimentation. Changing to the new Clearaudio Stradivari V2 moving-coil [see p50] brought about an even more polished sound, with delicate highs but at the expense of some warmth and bass weight.
As the cartridge began running in (it was brand new) it started to gain a little bass power, however the global character of the Delphi’s presentation was still evident – it’s relaxed demeanour and control – notwithstanding the change in tonal colour. For delicacy and poise it’s arguably in a class of its own. No wonder Oracle owners adore the deck, while many are those who can’t afford one and spend a lifetime dreaming of owning one.
EXTRAS AND UPGRADES
Oh yes, while the sophistication of the design and the fit and finish have improved considerably from model to model – and the setting up of the deck’s suspension to level the subchassis is now child’s play – so too has the price crept up over the years. An Oracle Delphi was always a big ticket item, almost twice the price of a Linn Sondek in the early 1980s I recall. Moreover, the prices quoted in this review do not include the Delphi’s acrylic lid. Along with the spring-loaded aluminium hinges, which are, naturally, beautifully made as well, that’ll be an additional £570 to you sir. Ouch!
And even though I wouldn’t dream of owning this finely-tuned masterpiece without having the cover to protect it from dust, the design of the lid is arguably the least satisfying element of the design. Tension in the hinges at the rear holds the lid hovering in space once you’ve lowered it to a position parallel with the platter. Meanwhile, the front and sides of the lid don’t meet with the acrylic base to close fully like a clamshell.
Oracle has always understood that one of its turntables is a major investment for any vinyl lover. Consequently it has always served its customers well by maintaining a policy of upgradeability from one version of the Delphi to the next. Even though the changes to the subchassis and the addition of the Micro Vibration Stabiliser System are pretty major in terms of re-working decks, owners of Mk Vs need not feel disenfranchised whatsoever. Upgrade packages are already being planned and priced for those who want their decks brought up to 2010 specifications.
Even owners of earlier Delphis that featured an aluminium/composite sandwich subchassis will be accommodated eventually, although Jacques confessed it may take a little while longer to work out how to handle the upgrade process through its distributors worldwide.
Beautiful to behold, the Delphi Mk VI is also deliciously tactile in use. Pride of ownership is a given while it’s reassuring to learn that Oracle is maintaining its upgrade policy. ‘Bass heads’ who thrive on moving lots of air might prefer a high mass, solid plinth turntable design but if you value image specificity, refinement and a relaxed balance with air and space, this deck should be at the top of your lust list.
Sound Quality: 84%
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