A lifestyle turntable positioned at a budget turntable price, this ‘semi-automatic’ is reviewed by Paul Rigby
Fluance has been around since 1999 selling surround sound equipment but you’d be forgiven for thinking that this Canadian company had just arrived because its turntables – and the are six models on offer in total – suddenly seem to be all over the place, at least with the aid of social media. And a lot of people have asked me to take a closer look at the company’s turntables. I will be examining the higher-priced RT83 soon but let’s begin with the budget-priced RT81 for now.
The twin-speed, belt-driven RT81 arrives with a dustcover and offers a “solid wood” plinth that sits on four feet. Well, solid MDF which is not quite the same thing but still, the plinth does lend this budget design 7.1kg in weight. Compare that to the Lenco L-3808 at 5.4kg and the Dual MTR-75 at 4kg. I list these comparative weights because a dense plinth will always help in encouraging a good bass performance. We wait and see what the actual quality is like but I expect to hear some sort of bass presence during tests.
That plinth carries a power switch and speed selector on the left. Centre is the platter. Made from aluminium, it rings like a bell but has a rubber mat for damping. Upgrade this mat to something like a felt or cork example when you can. The rubber mat included here is barely adequate.
There is also an S-shaped arm on the right of the plinth. This tonearm features a SME-type, detachable headshell. On the end of the tonearm is an Audio-Technica AT-95E cartridge. For a turntable of this ilk, that inclusion is surprising and very welcome. It’s not unique but it is rare to see such a cartridge at this price point and on this style of turntable. I would have expected a design with a cheaper, spherical stylus tip but the RT-81’s stylus tip is elliptical which will be a boon in extracting detail from the vinyl groove.
The RT-81 is not and should not be viewed as a true budget, audiophile turntable. So don’t look at this turntable as a threat to the Rega Planar 1. The RT81 should be seen strictly as a lifestyle design only. Thats how I will be testing and rating it. The reasons are two-fold and visible around the back.
Firstly, this turntable features a built-in phono amplifier (although you can add an external model later as an upgrade). It’s mere presence negates an audiophile sound because the built-in unit will lend veiling electronic noise to the turntable and cartridge. The upside is that, if you purchase an RT81, you don’t then have to purchase an external phono amplifier or hook it up with cables.
The other lifestyle addition is a switch to engage or switch off the semi-automatic function. I say semi-automatic but this feature is more like quarter automatic. A true semi-automatic turntable will lift the tonearm from the very end of the the disc’s play and then return it to its arm cradle. Not the RT81. The RT81 allows the stylus to reach the end of the record and then it switches off, dead. Nothing else. The stylus just sits there, resting on the record, motionless.
This is fine if you fall asleep during play, are too drunk to leave your chair to find where on earth the turntable has got to or you leave the room to argue with the pizza delivery man as to why there’s anchovies on your thin-base. That said, don’t knock the arm or that might send it bouncing and scratching across the record’s surface.
To review the RT-81, I decided to run it, head-to-head, with the best sub-budget and low cost lifestyle turntable on the market to date, the Lenco L-3808. The Lenco L-3808 is head and shoulders over much of the competition that I have reviewed (there’s other sub-budget designs out there that I have yet to tackle, I must admit). For now, though, the Lenco is numero ono and thus it seems fitting to do a straight A-B between it and the Fluance.
There are three tests here that I can see, two of them critical. Firstly, because the default Fluance features a superior AT-95 cartridge with an elliptical stylus tip, there is no point comparing the Fluance to my reference turntable because it uses a lesser specification 3600-style design with a spherical tip. Hence, performing a direct A-B test will be biased to the superior cartridge. I began by removing the Fluance’s AT-95 and swopped that for a basic 3600-style design instead. In this way I felt that the playing field would be levelled and I could review the turntable itself.
I also used an external phono amplifier. Again, to isolate the turntable and to report on that only for now.
I played Ethel Ennis who sang in front of a jazz-tinged orchestra while singing He Loves Me on the original pressing of This is Ethel Ennis (RCA).
The results were quite fascinating. When compared to my Lenco reference and its nippy direct drive motor, the Fluance sounded a little warm and veiled in terms of the upper midrange while treble was a touch rolled off at the dynamic extremes. That’s not to damn the Fluance at all. The Ennis vocal was certainly approachable and relatively smooth while the brass section was easy on the ear but space and air were not exactly plentiful, restricting reverb tails and the attack from a sudden trumpet outburst. The Lenco’s inherent, nippy transient performance meant that the piano tinkling started and stopped on the nose while the Fluance was slightly softer in its presentation. Again, there was nothing inherently bad about how the Fluance handled the upper frequencies. This area was certainly pleasant and easy to listen to over extended periods.
What did shock me, though, was the bass performance. Despite the direct drive foundation from the Lenco, the Fluance offered superior bass. Why? I’m going to point at that weighty plinth. The Lenco is much lighter and unsubstantial in terms of mass and the direct drive can’t really make up for its failings in that department. The Fluance has that big bottom to push it along so the upright bass on this track was hefty and powerful, providing a lower frequency power that was surprising in a belt driven deck such as this. I was reminded of the performance from higher-priced Thorens decks, for example.
I then swopped the 3600-style cartridge for the superior AT-95 and tested both the Lenco and the Fluance with that cartridge design in place.
In this configuration, the comparison between the RT81 and the Lenco was much tighter in terms of raw sound quality. With an AT-95 cartridge in place, the Fluance was transformed.
I want to dwell on this one point for a moment too because it also shows just how much this turntable depends on the cartridge to perform. Without the AT-95, the Fluance was comparatively dull. With it, the Fluance sounded relatively balanced and powerful. The AT-95 was the heart of the Fluance, therefore.
What the AT-95 did was to extend all of the upper frequencies, pushing the dynamic reach upward, adding air and space to cymbal taps, adding welcome reverb tails to percussive strikes, a sense of resonance to trumpet blasts and a fragility to the tinkling piano keys.
The essential difference – with an AT-95 cartridge in place on both turntables – was that the the Lenco was neutral and balanced in overall presentation while the Fluance provided an excellent upper suite of frequencies that didn’t quite reach as high as the Lenco. On the other side of the coin, the Fluance provided a bigger bottom end, more significant and meaty bass. Hence, the Lenco had the delicacy and accuracy of a ballet dancer, the Fluance felt more like an athlete packed with strength and muscle.
I completed the RT81 test by listening to the test records through its built-in phono amplifier to see how that component performed. As expected, the built-in phono amplifier was infested by noise. Placing a sensitive piece of equipment such as a phono amplifier into another sensitive piece of equipment such as a turntable is not healthy for sound quality as electronics interference will veil sonics and transfer noise from one component to the other. Hence, the turntable sounded relatively thin, barking in the upper mids, pinched in the treble and unstable around the bass. That said, to get you off and running, it will do. It’s not a disaster, it’s passable. Upgrade to an external model, as soon as…
The low-end lifestyle market is unique in how it performs because sound quality is important but money is equally so. Hi-fi buyers in this sector are often faced with cruel budget limits. In basic terms, the Fluance RT81 offers an imperfect plinth/platter and tonearm design glued successfully together via the AT-95 cartridge. The AT-95 turns a fair sounding turntable into an impressive one. As such, the performance – for a low-end lifestyle design – is one of the best on the market for its type. The killer though, the point that forces any low-end lifestyle customer to pay serious attention to this turntable is that AT-95 cartridge and the fact that it’s here at all at this price. A real advantage then and one, combined with that heavy plinth, that makes for quite a turntable.
FLUANCE RT81 TURNTABLE Price: £250 Website: www.fluance.com/contact
GOOD: heavy plinth, bass, cartridge design, relatively balanced output
BAD: built-in phono amplifier, performance without the AT-95 cartridge
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