Townshend Rock V/Excalibur II £4500
26th May 2008 | 15:39
Could the Rock V really be the best turntable we’ve ever heard?
The Rock is a truly iconoclastic turntable.
With its trough of silicone fluid and high-mass design, it stands out from the crowd.
Ever since the Cranfield Institute of Technology developed the Rock in the late seventies, Max Townshend has been the only person licensed to use the design, but its radical nature has not always been easy to sell and the Mk V is the first Rock to be made for a couple of years.
The best turntable we've ever seen
The problem is, Max is an engineering perfectionist who finds it difficult to sign-off any project which has the potential for improvement. And this time it has paid off, for the Rock V is the most remarkable turntable Townshend has ever made and quite possibly the best we've ever heard.
This is partly due to the new Excalibur II tonearm, a design that was built from the ground up to work with a damping trough - hence the two-layer magnesium rigging at the headshell. This spaceframe construction encapsulates the ethos of the whole arm, which is to be as stiff as possible.
According to Max, if a pick-up arm can be resonated, then this adds noise to the signal as the resonance finds its way into the coils of the cartridge.
Built by a perfectionist
The Excalibur II is built around the bearing structure of a Rega RB300, because Townshend prefers ball race bearings for their stiffness.
Max considers this part of the Rega design to be completely sound. He is less keen on the magnesium pipe, however, replacing it with a stainless steel tube that's damped and scarf-jointed to the complicated headshell.
The headshell isn't slotted (which is usually the case), but instead, has two pairs of mounting holes that suit the majority of cartridges. Fitting can be rather more fiddly than usual, however, even with the arm tube removed (something that fortunately can be done very easily and quickly with a single bolt).
For the uninitiated, the purpose of the trough of silicone is to damp vibration created by the arm/cartridge resonance, as a result of energy that the stylus picks up as it traces the groove.
A silicone fluid of precisely the correct viscosity anchors the headshell end of the arm as solidly as it is held by the bearings at the pivoting end.
The Rock V differs from its predecessor by virtue of its platter material and the suspension system it uses.
The last Rock, dubbed Anniversary, used the same inflatable system as the old Townshend Seismic Sinks. The new V has a spring suspension system with short, large diameter springs damped by rubber bellows to stop them bouncing.
Although the suspension feels quite stiff, it seems to work extremely well thanks to the clever engineering in each of the bellows, that controls the rate at which air moves through it.
The Rock V's distinctive white platter sits on a glass subplatter with a layer of Deflex sandwiched in between for damping purposes. Max won't divulge what the white material is, but it's softer than acrylic and significantly heavier than the expanded PVC used by Funk.
It's weight is in the same ball park as acrylic and the whole platter comes in at 4.8kg. In the platter's centre is a stainless section that can be raised or lowered to adjust the degree of dish produced by the screw down clamp - meaning it can be lowered for heavyweight pressings or even clamp-free use.
This also has the same diameter as the hole left behind when a 7-inch single is prepared for juke box use. It's hard to imagine anyone buying one for this purpose, but they won't regret it.
Using a high-end van den Hul Condor on the Excalibur II and the Award-winning Townshend DCT interconnect, the Rock V is simply astonishing.
What you immediately notice is just how quiet the thing is - it simply lets so much detail through that you have to re-calibrate your expectations of the format and for us, vinyl is already held in very high regard.
The second thing that hits you is quite remarkable. It's as if something has been taken away that was previously taken for granted as a characteristic of the format - the coloration seems to vanish. In fact it's this coloration that is so much a part of vinyl, that it's hard to come to terms with the fact that it is created by the vast majority of turntable/arm combinations.
But, it's the lowering of the noise floor that is, perhaps, the most extraordinary. The Rock reveals that other players (however fancy or refined) cannot reproduce the quietest parts of each note, the full decay, reverberation or the last ounce of detail.
Outstanding dynamic range
In practice, this makes for huge resolve and tremendous dynamic range.
The latter proving revelatory of the differences between recordings, some of which are distinctly compressed while others are open, relaxed and expansive.
Steely Dan's fabulous Countdown To Ecstasy is an example of the former, a fact that's brought into sharp relief if you put on John Martyn's Solid Air afterwards - a recording of similar vintage but with huge amounts of space, atmosphere and level.
This ability to reveal such wide dynamic range affects playback as well. With better recordings you don't have to turn up the wick to feel the power and energy in the groove, which is a rather special achievement - the energy comes through with ease at even at moderate levels.
Stevie Wonder's I Wish is a good example of a relatively flat recording that has good dynamic range and as a result comes across with incredible power and funk through the Rock V.
This turntable has the most precise timing this reviewer has ever encountered. The term 'solid as a rock' was once used to describe the sound of earlier Rocks because of their prodigious bass extension.
In the digital age, when almost any CD player can do the same (albeit not many turntables), it is an equally appropriate description of its timing, which is bang on the money. In fact, everything about the sound of this turntable is understated in order to let the sound of the records you play shine through.
And that they do, so much so that a slew of sleeves starts building up as you find more and more favourites to hear anew. It's not often that hard-bitten reviewers get carried away in this fashion, but this turntable has that effect in spades.
Keeping the benefits of vinyl
One remarkable thing, is that it achieves all this using the motor and bearings from a £400 turntable, which crucially suggests that these elements are not as critical as many make them out to be. What really counts is as far as we've seen, is killing all resonance except that of the stylus.
One would almost expect a turntable with these characteristics to sound like a CD player but that certainly isn't the case here, the Rock V has better timing and a wider perceived dynamic range than any CD player we've tried.
Put on a digital recording and you know all about it, from the powerful bass to the crisp highs, but there is also a vinyl humanity and depth to the sound.
We've reviewed several incarnations of the Townshend Rock over the years, but never have we been as impressed as we are now. So much so, that in this hack's honest opinion, this is the best turntable we've ever reviewed.
There may be better products out there somewhere, but it's hard to imagine such an achievement without a trough.