Once Analog Record Player Mk II Review
The Once Analog Record Player Mk.II does everything right. It’s neutral, tonally balanced and aesthetically pleasing. It is certainly a cut above the entry level crowd, but is it ready to play with the big boys?
Speaking with the master-craftsmen responsible for this boutique turntable Vince Hamilton, heralding from the south coast of NSW, Australia, it’s clear that Hamilton had just one clear objective from the very beginning.
“I wanted to build a turntable of exceptional quality and workmanship that is within the reach of the average punter. A high-end turntable, with a realistic price tag, but one that takes it to the products costing upwards of tens-of-thousands of dollars.”
I was in two minds when I was sounded out about conducting a review for StereoNET of the Once Analog Record Player Mk II.
On the one hand I’ve wanted to hear this particular turntable for some time. How often do you get to hear locally made product that is renowned in some respectable audio circles as a world beater?
On the other hand, although in my opinion vinyl records are the best available format in terms of sound quality for high fidelity in home sound reproduction, the machines that spin them require careful and expert setup. I was concerned about ensuring the turntable would show its full potential. Hamilton kindly offered to travel to Sydney to deliver and set up his turntable, and I simply couldn’t resist (Once Analog customers are likely to enjoy similar service).
Reviewing turntables is complex. Unlike switching cables on a DAC, the listener needs to account for the tonearm, tonearm cable, cartridge and phono-stage. Essentially, back-to-back comparisons are nigh on impossible without a dedicated set up that includes matched tonearms, cables, cartridges and expert set up.
Hamilton arrived and installed his opus major equipped with a 9 inch “The Wand” tonearm, a carbon fiber number from New Zealand, along with a Lyra Kleos doing the contact work. The turntable was set up on a Taoc ASR2-ii rack; no need for larger than average racks for this standard sized turntable.
The advertised prices are AUD $6,995.95 for the turntable, NZ $675 for the tonearm (price according to tonearm manufacturers website, Hamilton suggests the RRP is AUD $1200) and AUD $3,300 for the Lyra Kleos. Accordingly, you’re looking at a retail investment of some AUD $11,000, as configured. And that’s before you buy a phono stage.
Although I’ve taken months to form my impressions of the Once Analog, as always I place great importance of my initial thoughts. They were good. The Once Analog with The Wand and the Kleos, provides neutral and tonally balanced playback of the vinyl medium. It is also very quiet.
For my listening, this combination was plugged in to the inbuilt phono stage of a Dartzeel NHB-18NS pre-amplifier, feeding a Dartzeel NHB-108 Model One Power amplifier, in turn driving Avantgarde Trios. The pre and power amps are connected by Evolution Acoustics 50 ohm BNC Links. The speaker cables are Jorma Statement. If you want to know what the power cables, filtration and supply are please seek medical treatment.
The Once Analog turntable is a good looking piece of kit. It has the presence of a traditional turntable, but the bottom of the plinth angles downwards, a touch which adds elegance and gives a slight impression of art deco styling. This handsome turntable would look good with a wide range of décor, whether antique or contemporary.
The platter is proportionate and business like in chrome, conveying a sense of engineering excellence (given Hamilton’s background is engineering, this is hardly surprising). The overall impression is one of elegance, purposefulness and charm.
The simple and elegant form is a most welcome change from some of the gigantic and hideously ugly robotic contraptions that masquerade as high end turntables. In reality they’re often just overly complicated and include otiose mechanical parts that have nothing to do with spinning a record quietly, and free from vibrational interference. Bravo Once Analog on its compact, attractive and functional form.
Speed control on the Once Analog is simple enough, on a separate control unit with settings for 33, 45 and off, all accessed from a single analogue dial. The turntable was running fast following installation, but a strobe disc and turning a small grub screw sorted that out in no time. It did not require further adjustment over a couple of months. Nor does it require re-adjustment if power is lost, a bonus over some “higher end” approaches with more complex power supplies.
The record clamp is a heavy bugger; one of those items where it doesn’t look big enough to be that heavy. You get used to it quickly and it imperiously clamps the record to the platter. However, it is definitely heavy enough to destroy vinyl, your tonearm, furniture or your foot if handled errantly. Exercise caution!
So, the Once Analog is a good looking, well-engineered and tonally neutral turntable, the operation of which is simple. However, it is pitching at a price range where some analogue heavyweights, including VPI, Brinkman, SME and TW Acustic to name only some, are direct competitors.
Remembering Hamilton’s philosophy of delivering a high-end turntable in a realistic price bracket, Hamilton admits the constant development and evolution of his product, along with rising material costs have driven the price up higher than he would ideally like. Hamilton maintains the price is truly reflective of the quality and great value in comparison to competitors’ products.
One of the great aspects of turntable enjoyment, is the ability to mix-and-match tonearms, cartridges and other accessories, assuming you have a good foundation, and the Once Analog turntable is certainly that.
I do feel that the tonearm choice, as supplied, held back the Once Analog turntable in my system, and not in a minor way. Ultimately, despite being tonally neutral, the Once Analog was also somewhat veiled. It didn’t resolve all of the detail in the vinyl, was somewhat compressed in terms of treble reproduction and presented as a tad over-damped.
I don’t say that lightly, given that Hamilton has chosen The Wand to best display his turntable’s credentials in this review.
The difference between a tonearm that is simple and direct in operation and one that is not, changes the experience of using the turntable in a fundamental way. The Wand’s carbon fiber is impressively modern; but it is also bulky and it visually covers the stylus. This makes queuing tracks more difficult than with conventional arms.
Being a critical part of both the acoustic and the ergonomic interface, in my mind the tonearm supplied for review does not allow the Once Analog to realise its full potential.
None of this is to say that The Wand is a bad tonearm, because it isn’t. To put this in perspective, the cost ratio between turntable, tonearm and cartridge is not scientific, but I do feel that with the supplied review combination having a NZ $675 tonearm sitting between a $7,000 turntable and a $3,300 cartridge is far from ideal.
I recently had the opportunity to obtain another Once Analog turntable owned by StereoNET member ‘zipstartcanoe’. With the benefit of two Once Analog turntables in captivity I was also able to admire yet again Hamilton’s craftsmanship. The fit and finish of the turntables is outstanding and side by side there were no discernible differences between the two, which is testament to Once Analog’s manufacturing standards and quality control. While he may be a small volume bespoke turntable manufacturer, Once Analog sacrifices nothing in terms of finish and manufacturing quality compared to the larger volume manufacturers.
Listening to an alternative Once Analog combination (9” Golden Age Univector tonearm, Ortofon Cadenza Black cartridge), confirmed my suspicion that even better results could be had from other tonearm combinations. While still quiet and tonally neutral, detail retrieval, dynamic range and the sense of liveliness were all improved; despite me knowing that I prefer the Lyra to the Ortofon cartridge.
The Once Analog Record Player Mk II in my listening tests was pitch stable, although I’m not as sensitive to pitch instability as some. Once set up, it worked perfectly over extensive listening sessions and required no fiddling. Just as you would expect for this price bracket.
To make an unfair comparison given the price discrepancy, my reference system includes a Basis Audio 2800 Signature turntable, Graham Phantom II Supreme tonearm and Lyra Atlas cartridge. The differences between the Once Analog and my reference set up demonstrates at least two things. Vinyl as a source remains a very, very expensive proposition, and appropriate tonearm and cartridge selection are critical and should be front and center in the initial purchasing process.
Neither of the Once Analog turntables set up in my system went close to retrieving the detail of my reference set up, which is not surprising as the Graham is a AUD $6,000 tonearm and the Lyra Atlas retails for AUD $10,600. I can comfortably state my opinion that an extensive contributor to the difference, is the tonearm and cartridge.
The Once Analogue Record Player Mk II is worth considering for anyone looking to spend around $10K on a vinyl front end, but be prepared to spend a sensible amount on an appropriate tonearm and cartridge.
Once Analog sits in a milieu where the competition is stiff and most competitors include matching tonearms with their market offering. Hamilton has revealed to us that he is evaluating the Golden Age Audio Univector currently. I believe his turntable deserves a tonearm at least that good.
If Once Analog nails a decent tonearm match at a reasonable price point, the market will have to sit up and take notice, because everything else about the Once Analog is spot on.
For more information, visit Once Analog.