A.J. CONTI: TRANSCENDING PERFECTION
The Ultimate Goal Was Always Clear
Armando “A.J.” Conti, founder of Basis Audio, was a man driven by a profound sense of obligation: to his family, friends, and colleagues; to his many loyal customers who, over the course of intimate conversations and transcendent listening sessions, often became friends; to the artists who created the music he so intensely loved and admired; to the music itself, which would always remain mysterious, alluring, and wonderful; and, of course, to himself, to his own quest for perfection, and his simple inability to compromise.
A.J. was very clear about that last bit: When it came to high-performance audio, he could not settle for less than absolute excellence, or at the very least, as close to absolute excellence as the current technologies and manufacturing techniques could take him. This was not a matter of choice, but an essential and undeniable aspect of his character. “My personality,” he explained, “just won’t let me design compromised products.”
But make no mistake, A.J. was not merely interested in technology for technology’s sake. He was not a victim of trends or fashionable thinking. Instead he chose to dig deeper, to discover the intrinsic quality of a device under test, matching fanaticism of design with an extreme devotion to precise execution. In fact, he was captivated by that unavoidable intersection, the endless push and pull, between those aspects of his work—design and execution—understanding that one meant little without the other. “You can design a great bearing system,” he would say, “but, if you can’t execute it, what’s the point?”
Indeed, A.J. was interested in reality as much as theory; he was inspired by art as well as science. After all, his products should not only provide state-of-the-art performance, but should also stand the test of time, easily accommodating evolutionary refinements while always being a pleasure to use.
The ultimate goal was always clear.
Why Go to Such Extremes? Because It Matters!
How do we understand the technology better, so we can make the sound better? That question kept A.J. up at night, regardless of how close his products came to apparent perfection. He knew that incremental but meaningful improvements were always just around the bend—a matter of time, persistence, and focus. And if he could only get there, his efforts would be rewarded with beautiful music.
Certainly, when it comes to high-performance audio, it has often been said that everything matters. Few, however, have taken that credo as seriously and to such great extents as A.J. Conti. Take drive belts for instance. Keenly aware that even the smallest variations in the thickness of a belt could undermine performance, consequently harming the sound of an audio system, A.J. sought tighter tolerances, greater consistency, and improved reliability. And when his belt supplier could not meet his exceedingly high standards, A.J. refused to compromise. How would he sleep at night knowing that his drive belts could be improved? Instead, he took the necessary steps to make the belts in his own factory.
This was always his way: When something wasn’t made to his requirements or expectations, A.J. didn’t settle for a compromised component. Instead, he made a better version. In this case, the result was the Basis Revolution Belt—a remarkably thin, seamless belt, flat along its circumference to within one ten-thousandths of an inch (0.0001"). Each Revolution Belt is carefully measured along its entire length before being packed with a turntable.
A.J. Conti’s quest for meaningful improvements was something Robert Harley observed in a review in which he stated, "I’ve met quite a few fanatical design engineers in my 18 years of full-time audio reviewing, but Basis Audio founder A.J. Conti is among the most obsessed with engineering detail. For the past 23 years, he has attacked every subsystem in LP playback with a missionary zeal, pursuing tighter bearing tolerances, greater mechanical precision, ever-thinner and more precise drive belts, lower speed instability, and less noise and vibration reaching the platter and arm." [Robert Harley, The Absolute Sound, Issue 172]
Why go to such extremes? “Because it matters,” A.J. would answer.
How Do We Make It Better?
Those few who heard rumors A.J. Conti was working on another top-of-the-line turntable were interested and anxiously awaited what would result. But why? What would be different? How would the performance compare? How high would the performance soar? Would A.J. find a way to transcend perfection? Per the why question, as was his way, even in the face of uncompromised success, A.J. simply couldn’t escape that nagging question: “How do we make it better?”
The intended application for the turntable under development, initially, was as a one-off product for internal use within a new state-of-the-art test, support, and development system A.J. was in the process of creating. As such, this turntable would assist with unique support and development requirements (as described later in this article).
Creating that state-of-the-art test system took multiple steps, much time, and excessive attention to details, with which A.J. attacked with the same obsessiveness as his drive to make any of Basis Audio's stellar products. And so he got to work again. Initially to create the new test system. And later to create this new turntable which benefited enormously from results obtained from the new test system. Those projects consumed the last 6 years of A.J.’s life.
To begin to comprehend the fanatical nature of his approach understand that his existing test system, with likely some slight variations, A.J. had achieved magnificent results including development of the Inspiration turntable and other Basis Audio products. But, to enhance and refine their support and development needs, required obsessive measures.
Why a State-of-the-Art Test System?
In A.J.'s new test system the specific device under test (DUT) is of paramount importance, though such a device is but one component in this system. Thus, to accurately test and analyze the LP playback system, to determine its essence, its intrinsic character or lack of character, it was imperative that all other components and cables within the test system were extremely neutral low-distortion devices that didn’t infuse sonic colorations into the test system. Any such colorations, distortions or other discrepancies from the truth, no matter how realistic sounding they may seem to be, would color the essence of the DUT distorting the accuracy of test results.
A.J.’s initial challenge to building the test system was flushing out neutral low-distortion components and cables for use downstream of the phono stage that met his stringent requirements. Accomplishing those tasks was the first phase of that project. But accomplishing those tasks would not create a state-of-the-art test system. Lots of data points are measurable, and Basis likely tests for more factors than others, but measurements don't test the accuracy and musical truthfulness of the test system’s LP playback system's final sound. Instead they test resonances, distortions, damping factors, noise, etc., and can verify some theories. Therefore, to verify the accuracy and truthfulness of the LP playback system, listening tests were as essential as taking measurements.
To that task A.J. quite smartly understood that although there would be no questions about the honesty of the new test system after the phono stage, the accuracy and musical truthfulness of the LP playback system or any of its subcomponents (turntable, tonearm, cartridge, phono stage) would remain a leap of faith—as using LPs that sound realistic to a designer as references to accuracy, as is typically done, can result in design decisions that impact a record player’s performance negatively.
That design method can place undue influence on a designer's perception of what is accuracy and musical truth: that the sax, violins, drums, electric bass, chorus, vocalist, etc., on his reference LPs accurately portray those instruments without any discrepancies from the truth.
But what results if the music on a designer’s reference LPs differ in meaningful ways from the master recordings used to make those LPs? What results if other components infuse colorations or other inaccuracies into the test/evaluation system while analyzing the performance of his turntable? And what results if the designer's perception of the accuracy of his reference LPs is inaccurate? Should any of these instances occur then many LPs played on the finished turntable will have colorations resulting from the designer chasing the "false sound" of his reference LPs.
In order to verify the accuracy and truthfulness of the LP playback components in the test system, A.J. demanded proof to that achievement. And thus, after completing the first phase’s goals, A.J.’s last tasks were acquiring specialized tools and components used to analyze and verify those characteristics.
Building a State-of-the-Art Test System
The process to identify suitably neutral low-distortion components commenced with the acquisition of a digital recorder with an extremely high sampling rate and neutral microphones with low-distortion characteristics. Live recordings made at Basis Audio followed. Among those were speaking and singing voices along with musicians performing on drums, guitars, saxophone, etc.
Recordings were immediately played back in the same location as the recordings were made via some of the best high-end components in the world. This to verify the accuracy of those recordings. Later, those recordings were listened to through the evolving test system. Applying that process using numerous preamps, amplifiers, loudspeakers, and cables, those components that reproduced accurate facsimiles of the recordings were flushed out. Those procedures guided the way toward neutral low-distortion loudspeakers, amplifiers, preamps, and cables used in the new test system.
Armed with a mechanical engineering degree and work experience that included high-energy laser, missile, and helicopter R&D responsibilities, A.J. was entrenched educationally and professionally that scientific experiments require use of a control as an established standard to judge differences from that standard in a device under test. Such scientific analysis was also ingrained with the physicist on staff at Basis Audio whose work background included experience in metallurgy, finite element analysis, high-tech, as well as audio.
With that background, it was not surprising that A.J. focused on the smooth, transparent, lifelike sound of analog master tapes as his control to analyze the accuracy and truthfulness of the test system’s LP playback system. He lusted after a master tape's utter lack of mechanical sound when played—that “artificial construct” inherent to turntables and tonearms. And turntables and tonearms always had a sound. Analog master tapes, the very sources used to make LPs, represent musical truth.
For master tapes, A.J. used incredibly scarce first generation dubs of the original master tapes made by the very engineers who mastered or produced the records created from those tapes. Such tapes are made by mixing multi-channel tapes derived from recording sessions into two channel tapes, which may undergo adjustments performed by the mastering engineer. The result is the original master tape used to cut lacquers on a mastering lathe. From those lacquers, after multiple production processes, the LPs we purchase from our favorite stores are pressed.
The pedigree of A.J.’s tapes were absolutely golden and unquestioned and have the purest, uncolored, highly dynamic, distortion-free sonics master tapes are renowned for. That sound is unlike some commercially available tapes marketed as direct dubs of master tapes that can have questionable sources and sonics.
To conduct meaningful listening tests of the LP playback system under test required records that did not introduce unknowns that could distort the accuracy of test results. That fact eliminated using so-call reference LPs as in properly conducted scientific tests there can only be one variable, one unknown, which would be the DUT and not the LP played on the DUT in addition to the DUT. A.J. solved this issue with a unique solution. He used lacquers cut by the original master tapes he had first generation dubs of as the music sources played on the LP playback system under test. Those lacquers, also called acetates, were the only sources in existence that enabled the DUT to play music ultra close to his master tapes.
To playback master tapes, A.J. obtained two (!) Ampex ATR 102 studio mastering tape decks. ATR 102's were the workhorse tape decks used by studios when tape was king and are known to be world-class analog-source components. And talk about provenance: either one or both of Basis Audio’s ATR 102 tape decks are legendary in themselves as they came from a group of similar decks used at Columbia Records to master many famous albums produced in the 1950’s-1960’s.
One ATR 102 was hot-rodded by the legendary Bernie Grundman Mastering studio to be identical to what they use. The other is a stock machine except for an A.J. modification to take the signal before it goes through the meter panel. The influence of those ATR 102’s upon A.J.’s development of his new turntable, SuperArm tonearms, and Super Platter cannot be overstated. And the benefits resulting from their use are quite audible.
A.J.’s state-of-the-art test system was and remains unique. In our experience, no other turntable manufacturer uses master tapes, with similar unquestionable pedigrees, and their respective lacquers along with suitably neutral low-distortion test system components. Nor do they use the best component to playback master tapes, which is a world-class studio mastering tape deck in similar condition to Basis Audio's decks. In summation of his test system strategy A.J. exclaimed, “What better way to hear where you need to go or if you achieved equivalency than if you have the lacquer, a copy of the master tape that cut the lacquer, and the most neutral most sonically truthful means to play those tapes, a studio mastering tape deck?”
Creating a Masterpiece
In addition to creating a stratospherically high-performance thoroughbred turntable, some of the other goals included a multitude of enhancements installable by users with the simplicity and versatility of using a Swiss-Army knife. As such, the turntable includes a significant amount of flexibility: the ability to use multiple tonearms and tonearms of unusual length and of any weight coupled with such simplicity that users can install different sized turntable footprints, tonearms, and any updates Basis Audio might offer in the future, such as different platters and motors.
Over and above the turntable's exceptional sonic performance and Basis Audio's extraordinary levels of build precision, such simplicity and versatility adds long-term value to customers. As a user's requirements change this turntable adapts with chameleon-like prowess—without the expense of replacing the entire turntable system. This flexibility is accomplished easily by users whether to change tonearms, add several tonearms of different lengths, or to reduce the tonearm count —all achieved without the necessity of machining. This adaptable nature also enables increasing or decreasing the dimensions of the turntable's footprint, which can be beneficial when adding or reducing the number of tonearms, and to enhance performance by adding future upgrades. A.J. called this turntable a "forever platform” able to retain reference-level performance for the foreseeable future and thereafter.
A.J. attacked his design criteria with the same theoretical modeling, applying the laws of physics and mechanical engineering principles, that were the "basis" of his very first turntable, the Debut, and with every subsequent turntable. For example, the design of the new turntable’s isolation system followed the same theoretical model that governed the suspension designs on all other Basis turntables. While the materials and mechanism used on the new turntable’s isolation system are different, the approach to its design was the same as with past turntables.
With knowledge gained from scientific analysis, A.J. fine-tuned his ideas and created a working prototype turntable. Measurements were made. Likely those measurements resulted in some tweaks to the turntable. Awaiting the master tapes used as controls and the lacquers, listening sessions followed applying processes A.J. used with his past designs, with each successive session slightly more encouraging and illuminating than the last, guiding the way through countless hours of tinkering, tweaking, and refining.
Slowly over time first generation dubs of the original master tapes, lacquers, test pressings, and high-quality LPs drifted in. Those high-quality LPs were selected from the earliest records pressed from their respective first stampers. Those references came from several of the most respected mastering engineers and album producers in the business. Some sent both master tape dubs and lacquers, some just lacquers, and some also included test pressings and the mentioned pressed LPs.
Note: Mastering and recording studios use “first generation” to describe an original master tape and “2nd generation” to describe a direct dub from the original master tape. In contrast, the audiophile community frequently label direct dubs of original master tapes as “first generation.”
From amongst all of the references received are these examples: Ying Tan, record producer, Groove Note Records and Original Recordings Group, sent a first generation master tape dub, promo lacquer, and test pressing for Vanessa Fernandez’s When the Levee Breaks along with a Roy Gaines I Got The T-Bone Walker Blues first generation master tape dub and its lacquer along with promo lacquers and test pressings including albums by Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Andrea Bocelli and others on his ORG label. Joe Harley, record producer, AudioQuest, sent 6 to 7 of his Blue Note lacquers. Some of the first generation master tape dubs and lacquers received were mastered and cut by Bernie Grundman, mastering engineer, Bernie Grundman Mastering. In addition, some of the other references A.J. received and used were titles with classical music, rock music, funky African music, a cappella music, and other well-known jazz artists including those from a pianist and several female jazz singers.
As those references dribbled in, listening sessions heated up. The test process used comparisons of lacquers (played on the LP playback system under test) cut from the original master tapes to their respective first generation master tape dubs (played on an Ampex ATR 102 mastering tape deck). When lacquers were unavailable, comparisons used a test pressing or a high-quality pressed LP. When master tape dubs were unavailable, lacquers were frequently used as references. Lacquers, like first generation master tape dubs, are each one generation removed from the original master tape and will sound ultra close to each other. As such, they too are ideal references. With those unimpeachable references, repeatable listening conditions using the test system’s carefully curated neutral low-distortion components were possible.
The day finally came when the first master tape dubs arrived (two different titles) with high-quality LPs of the same titles. Their lacquers would arrive later. With A.J. anxiously unable to wait he performed comparison showdowns that very day. Those compared the sound of the high-quality LPs to their controls, the two master tapes dubs. One LP was a 45rpm version of a well-known and loved jazz album and the other was a 33.3rpm LP. Unlike lacquers, even high-quality LPs such as A.J. used, would likely have some information loss resulting in sonic differences relative to a first generation master tape dub.
During those comparisons, peak volume levels were matched between the tapes and LPs. The LPs were compared to the master tapes 4 times per session, one title only, with 4 sessions performed for each title. The LP playback system under test, due to shortages at that time, did not utilize Basis Audio’s Synchro-Wave Power Supply and Revolution Microthin belt. These, as owners of those components will attest, improve fidelity. Thus the LP playback system under test, lacking those components, did not perform at an optimum level. Among the multiple parameters observed during comparisons were tonality and dynamics. Major tonal differences indicate colorations. Lack of dynamics indicate compression.
A.J., even at his most optimistic moments, did not expect the record player’s fidelity to compare as closely to the first generation master tapes dub as it did. On the 45rpm title, the only discernible difference between the high-quality LP and first generation master tape dub were but “some very low level detail, faint instrumental decay and resonance, and a small amount of effortlessness." A.J. also indicated, “the overall tonality, image placement left to right and back to front, bass depth, and dynamics were nearly identical, and the scaling, is so accurate, so natural.”
Per A.J., “To give some perspective to those results, the specific area where there was the largest difference would equate to achieving about 7/8 of the fidelity [88%] of the master tape control. One would have to concentrate in a listening session with a very low level of background noise to hear the difference. If I left for 30 minutes, returned, and someone played the test recordings while I was blindfolded I certainly would not have known which source was playing.”
Some sonic differences were expected, even with use of the high-quality 45rpm release which is different from, though typically closer, to a lacquer’s sonics than a comparable 33.3rpm. But, such small differences were stunningly unexpected. And it would be difficult to impossible to determine whether and to what degree the LPs contributed to the observed differences until their respective lacquers arrived. Those results, particularly with the 45rpm title, also showed the superb quality of production processes performed after those lacquers were made.
Those first comparisons shocked A.J. so much he repeated them during multiple sessions over the weekend following their arrival. Stunned again by the results, he repeated the comparisons using Sennheiser Orpheus headphones instead of the test system's loudspeakers. And the results were close to the same. Note that Orpheus headphones, priced at around $30,000 used, are known as the finest headphones ever produced.
With interest in the contributions of the phono stage used in the test system, A.J. conducted further tests. He substituted each of eight other phono stages that nearly met his requirements. With each one in the test system, the fidelity differed from the master tape copy by easily heard margins.
Those early comparison results also astounded A.J. as the prototype turntable under test, to date, was tweaked and refined using processes A.J. applied to past turntable designs. Thus, without lacquer to master tape dub comparisons that would provide clues to why deviations exist, the prototype turntable had yet to benefit from refinements that would result—confirming the validity of A.J.’s past processes. Those preliminary results also indicated the validity of the other test system components within the LP playback system. That demonstrates A.J.’s most unusual and exceptional ability to identify the true sound of music from listening and making the proper measurements. Of course, the test system’s carefully curated neutral low-distortion components downstream from the phono stage receive “an assist.” Based on those preliminary pre-lacquer comparison results, A.J. “hit the jackpot!”
After lacquers arrived, the long-awaited lacquer-to-master-tape-dub comparisons commenced. Details about those tests are limited though illuminating. Early comparisons resulted in A.J. making a few subtle refinements to the prototype. Later comparisons demonstrated astonishing results: The differences in fidelity between play back of lacquers and the master tape dubs were minute and equal to any minute differences between lacquers and first generation master tape dubs. As the specific differences varied with the album titles used, those subtle differences were not the result of anything lacking in the turntable under test. Such differences were akin to listening to two copies of the same cartridge produced with tight manufacturing tolerances as they would also have minute differences in fidelity. With the overall result being if listeners were unable to observe whether the source was a master tape dub or a lacquer, they would have been unable to identify which was playing at a given time.
Those comparison results indicated success. This prompted A.J. to write, "It is really unbelievable with the turntable using a SuperArm. With dynamics; bass power; bass tone; bass dynamics; bass depth; midrange tonality; top end extension; effortlessness; and imaging without any loss of depth, width, or specificity; all identical to the master tape. I could fool anyone if they could not see what source was playing."
In another observation, A.J. wrote, “All in all, I end up in a bit of a new world, where making further big strides has now proven to be impossible. The new turntable with the SuperArm can't get a lot better, after all, it can't get better than the [master] tape, and we are really there! It is a very strange place to be. And very, very satisfying.”
Much of the development of Basis Audio's SuperArm 9" and 12.5" tonearms and Super Platter overlapped the development and use of the new turntable. Each of those products benefited from refinements realized through use of the new state-of-the-art test system. The later comparisons, where the results demonstrated the fidelity of the turntable was equivalent to the fidelity of first generation master tapes, were conducted with the SuperArm and Super Platter installed on the turntable.
A.J. was in the process of organizing a listening panel to experience and comment on formal comparisons of lacquers to first generation master tape dubs utilizing his new turntable with a SuperArm tonearm and the new Super Platter. The playback system would be Basis Audio’s state-of-the-art test system. Participants would include musicians, experienced audio listeners, and various industry people, and experts from recording studios and record labels who would be intimately familiar with master tapes. Specifics were yet to be completed when A.J. Conti passed away.
A Turntable with the Fidelity of Master Tapes
The fidelity of master tapes is astoundingly realistic. Such tapes have become the music media of choice by a growing movement of experienced listeners who have the space and can afford high-end tape decks and the relatively few pricey third-party produced master tape dubs available. Quite familiar with master tapes, A.J. coveted their ability to produce the most accurate facsimile of a musician’s real message short of having concerts in a home. He lusted after a master tape's utter lack of mechanical sound when played—that “artificial construct” inherent to turntables and tonearms. One of A.J.’s dreams, which turned into a goal, was to provide similar fidelity through far more modern and convenient means, without the hassle and expense of delicate master tapes and pricey tape decks.
"The sound I want and have wanted all these years is that of a master tape—a natural, effortless, organic, real music sound. Actually, it's not a sound at all; it's a lack of sound. As soon as a product has a sound,” A.J. would say, “it stands in the way of the musician’s real message and my job is to supply products that represent life-long conveyances of great music, conduits of the emotion of great artists. Only by being transparent in the audio chain can a record player most effectively make that goal.”
Driven by his dream, A.J. Conti, spent 6 years pursuing that goal. With the result, just before he passed, he had a sense of peace he never had since starting Basis Audio. If being true to master tapes is the goal, as it was always with A.J., he met that goal. All of the science, measurements, and listening sessions paid off. During those last moments of his life, there is no doubt that A.J. had a most satisfying feeling. He had accomplished his goals for the new turntable, which for years even in his wildest dreams never thought possible. That A.J.’s last great accomplishments—his new turntable used together with the new SuperArm and Super Platter—so closely reproduce the sound of master tapes demonstrate the benefits of applying fundamental principles of physics and engineering, exceptional listening skills, and flawless execution.
And now music lovers can experience their LPs, as never before, with as much closeness to the musical messages on master tapes as the quality of their records allow. There will be no colorations or distortions or other deviations from the truth such as inaccurate imaging or tonality, problems with dynamics, missing details, enhanced, bloated, or other characteristics of improperly reproduced portions of the frequency spectrum, and on and on. What listeners will experience will be sublime toe-tapping musical events resulting from the most accurate reproduction of music possible from their records. Music will be reproduced with the same degree of musical truthfulness, effortless musicality and dynamics, poise, details, transparency, smoothness, proper reproduction of imaging with enormous 3-D soundstaging, etc., that until now has been unique to master tapes and lacquers.
As A.J. Conti’s quote on Basis Audio’s website ably states: “The closest one can come to traveling back in time to hear the pure, uncolored message in music from the past is by listening to a master tape. Our job is to bring you, the listener, this experience of immediacy and musical truth through transparent playback of the sounds encoded in your vinyl, with nothing standing in between your ears and what the artist was trying to say on stage or in the studio.”
The Comparitor Turntable
The background behind the new turntable becoming a commercial product, and its unlimited flexibility, is a fascinating necessity-is-the mother-of-invention story. As mentioned previously, the new turntable initially was a one-off creation for internal use as a key component within a new state-of-the-art test system. A.J. named that turntable the Comparitor. The reason for that name becomes apparent with an understanding, described below, of the turntable's use.
For in-house work, Basis Audio had numerous requirements related to supporting their customers and for development of new products and refinements to existing ones. Those tasks required a turntable that readily and expediently adapted to different configurations. Such expedience was mandatory to optimize A.J.'s workflow which was hindered by the time required to make frequent changes to the shop's turntables. Ample space for as many as 4 tonearms of various lengths and weights allowing each to operate without constraints was mandatory—that included use of heavy tonearms without the necessity to modify suspension tuning to maximize performance. Superb sonic performance was also mandatory.
As existing Basis Audio turntables were not conducive to those support and development requirements, A.J. came up with a "deconstructed" modular design to solve them: Adding or changing tonearms swiftly without machining or assembly or disassembly. Instead of fixed locations for tonearms they were installable anywhere on the turntable plinth provided locations are the correct distance from the platter spindle. Even the platter could be repositioned easily.
Using as many as 4 tonearms mounted simultaneously was a game changer for A.J.'s support and development requirements. This feature enabled comparisons of up to four different tonearms and cartridges to each other to answer critical questions such as: What are the advantages of different tonearm lengths? How did a customer's (possibly problematic) cartridge perform relative to a known properly performing version of the same cartridge? How did various ideas for possible refinements to tonearm signal leads compare to each other and to the current version? How did various ideas for refinements to Basis tonearms compare to other vendor's tonearms? How did non-Basis Audio tonearms that customers used, or considered to use, perform relative to other tonearms? Etc., etc., and etc.
As the prototype Comparitor evolved it became apparent that the modular nature of the turntable's subsystems (such as the motor, platter with its platter bearing, and the isolation system) would streamline refining better performing versions of those subsystems. Additionally, and possibly more important, with the new state-of-the-art test system A.J. could analyze and verify whether or not the turntable's performance soared to a state-of-the-art equivalency to the fidelity of master tapes.
About that time changing needs from Basis Audio customers contributed to A.J.'s decision to alter his planned direction for this turntable. Many customers desired use of two or more tonearms whenever they played records without requiring multiple turntables. Interest too was expanding for use of multiple tonearms of different lengths. As the Comparitor could accomplish those requirements with ease, and potentially fulfill his dream of fidelity truthful to the sound of master tapes, A.J. eventually decided to refine the Comparitor’s performance with the intent of releasing it as Basis Audio’s newest turntable. With that development, another name was required.
The New Turntable Finds a Name
But what would A.J. Conti name his new creation? He desired the turntable’s name to reflect the significance of the product itself, to shed light on the story of its creation, to inspire others as it had inspired him. And now, due to its use as a commercial product, Comparitor no longer was appropriate.
Reflecting on those lacquer-to-master-tape comparisons he considered names that spoke to its close relationship with the reference Ampex ATR 102 mastering tape deck. Masterdeck, Studio Masterdeck, Analog Masterdeck were names in play. A.J., unfortunately, did not have the time to formally name the turntable.
Ultimately, the name selected would reflect the enormous impact it had upon its designer. And, really, the turntable’s name had been there all along: following his sudden death in October 2016, Joe Harley of AudioQuest, and proud owner of the new turntable, suggested the name the A.J. Conti Transcendence as a fitting tribute to the designer and a reflection of its superior breathtaking design and performance.
Months later, in June 2017, when A.J. Conti’s final achievement debuted at the Los Angeles Audio Show, all those who had the pleasure of seeing and hearing it immediately knew, without a doubt, that A.J. had achieved his lifelong goal. The A.J. Conti Transcendence turntable would be an instant success, leading many members of the press to say that demonstration system, which also included outstanding products from Audio Research, AudioQuest, Harmonic Resolution Systems, and Vandersteen, produced the very best sound at the show.
A.J. Conti Finally Transcended Perfection
What is it about a Basis Audio turntable that allows it to dig that much deeper into the grooves, to reach the musical truth? It’s certainly not about any single material, technology, design element, or technique. There’s no magic bullet. Richard Whitten, a Basis customer since 1985 who has owned several Basis turntables from the original Debut to his current Transcendence, believes it has everything to do with A.J. himself.
“Each turntable represents an enormous amount of time and dedication, exemplified through A.J.’s careful, scientific approach to turntable design, and his restless quest for perfection,” he said. “He never stopped until he was satisfied that his long-held goal—the goal of designing a turntable that could match a master tape in playback truth—had been met. With the Transcendence, he felt he had achieved his goal.”
Once again, over the course of many conversations and intense listening sessions, through meticulous research and precision engineering, driven by a deep devotion to music, people, and his own quest for perfection and his inability to compromise—all of course, notwithstanding many sleepless nights—A.J. Conti had indeed made it better. After all, he had no choice. He had finally transcended perfection.
A.J. CONTI: TRANSCENDING PERFECTION
A Sampling of Industry Professionals Who Own Basis Audio Product
A.J. Conti’s quest for that true sound has been constant from day one of Basis Audio. Basis Audio products, from the original Debut turntable to all turntables and tonearms that followed, deliver the emotion of the music, they are faithful to the record grooves, and are products that literally last a lifetime. He succeeded with that approach as evidenced by numerous pleased users including esteemed industry professionals who love their Basis Audio record players. A number of those professionals are record producers and mastering engineers, those intimately familiar with the sound of master tapes and lacquers. The following list mentions several of those industry people, including any pertinent quotes they made.
A.J. Conti Transcendence owners:
Joe Harley, record producer, AudioQuest
“The A.J. Conti Transcendence is an invaluable tool for me, in addition to being supremely pleasurable to listen to! To put it simply, it tells me the truth about the vinyl I have on. By that I mean that, as much as possible for a mechanical device, it has no “sound” of its own. You’ll know it the instant you put on a record. It is dead quiet …. no low-level groove noise of any kind! I’ve had many turntables and I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. Then there’s the ridiculous speed stability of this thing. I spend a lot of time in studios and the only thing I can compare it to is a perfectly maintained Studer tape deck. The SuperArm tonearms that I have on my Transcendence are not “tonearms” in that they have no identifiable sound of their own. And, as anyone who owns them knows, they track anything and everything with total finesse. Thank you Basis!!”
"Poise. That’s the word that keeps coming to mind as I keep playing more records. (Now that my travel has been greatly curtailed, I have a living room concert just about every night!) This table/arm system is just SO poised and refined! It’s basically invisible to the mechanical process and that’s the highest compliment I can imagine ever giving to an analog playback device. I love that this new turntable does exactly that …. it tells the truth with no additive distortion. How cool is that???!"
"Now I’ve listened to my own recently produced records and adjusted the low end of my speakers a bit. A.J., this is ri-dong-damned-diculous! Your rig presents a significantly new level of resolution and tape-like clarity without a HINT of harshness! In other words, it sounds like tape! I’m truly amazed and agog!”
"We shot another Joe Zone on Sat night, this time with Anthony Wilson. He presented a wonderful album by the great Brazilian artist Milton Nacimento. After the shoot, we listened to Anthony’s own latest album, the one I presented in the last Zone: Frogtown. Anthony was amazed, saying that what he heard sounded like the direct mic feed from the studio. We were mesmerized by the turntable, that this mechanical device sitting there could possibly be responsible for the direct to the master tape sounds we were hearing.”
"Hi A.J., This morning, very early, around 7:30 Jesse Carmichael from Maroon 5 showed up for our golfing day. But before we left, we listened to some Janos Starker solo Bach cello as well as a classic ECM recording of Paul Bley: Open to Love. Jesse, being a keyboard player was sitting there with his eyes closed listening in wonder to the solo piano, on one of the most difficult instruments to properly reproduce (piano!). Even the upper register single notes hit with great velocity were reproduced with perfect clarity and overtone structure. Jesse (who owns a fine audio system) said ‘I’ve never heard piano reproduced like this before, it’s like he’s in the room!’ We listened until I had to pull him away to our t-time."
Les Turoczi, longtime audio reviewer
“First, it looks stunningly beautiful, just from the visual aesthetic perspective alone. Second, the nature of the sound is a clear step ahead of what the Inspiration had been providing me previously. I never thought I would say anything like that, but it is a fact. There is a new clarity to the tonal structure of instruments, as well as improved sound stage dimensionality and a greater uniformity across the frequency spectrum yielding an enhanced sense of reality to the performers, including vocalists. Effortlessness is at a new level and the ability to relax into the music is beyond what I thought possible. Third, the quality of execution of every part of the turntable is impeccably rendered. The Transcendence and 12.5 SuperArm have been an eye opener as well as an ear opener and I am thrilled with it. A.J. created a truly singular masterpiece in this new turntable system.”
“A.J.’s commitment to precision, exactitude, and outstanding manufacturing practices manifest readily in every Basis Audio product. As I moved through updates and upgrades in my analog system, one hallmark that I repeatedly noted was how natural the music was rendered through the changes A.J. made. My love of music, as well as of audio, has grown immensely in the last decade and much of that comes from knowing A.J. Conti and Basis Audio. I sense that I am not alone in that opinion and take joy in being among many proud Basis Audio owners.”
Sampling of several in-the-industry Basis turntable owners (other than the Transcendence):
Roy Halee, producer engineer
“My Basis SuperArm is a wonder. What it does for the human voice is truly astonishing. It has to be heard to be believed.”
“After I acquired an Inspiration and SuperArm I heard things that I had not heard since producing the master tape of [Paul Simon’s] Graceland.”
Tam Henderson, producer, A&R, Reference Recordings
“I've been meaning to drop another line, to re-enforce my early impressions of the Model 2200 system. I'm spending a couple of hours every day with it, in great enjoyment. A friend who gave up on LPs years ago came over recently, and sat in amazement at the absence of all-too-familiar vinyl distortions. Neither of us can understand all the elements you've brought into play to reduce noise, hash and mistracking—but their absence is dramatic. Even inner grooves of records in good condition are clean as can be. And, as mentioned before, the clarity of even run-of-the-mill pressings is perhaps the most valuable aspect of this marvelous machine, because that's mostly what vinyl junkies have……………)"
Chad Kassem, owner of Acoustic Sounds, APO Records, Blue Heaven Studios, Quality Record Pressings, Analogue Productions
"Every time I saw A.J., he would go on and on about my success, not his. I think that says a lot about a person. He never stopped in the pursuit of trying to perfect his product.
“He contacted me a couple of months before he died and said he had an idea. He realized that you can't get better than an analog master tape. So he told me that he wanted to buy the best analog tape machine and he wanted me to get him a one-off copy of the master tape of one of the records that we reissued. He wanted to use the tape and our vinyl reissue played on his turntable to see how close he could get to the master. He was chasing perfection.”
“I've owned the Gold Debut turntable for approximately 20 years. It still looks and sounds as beautiful as when I bought it, and I've never seen a reason to upgrade."
Nelson Pass, owner of Pass Laboratories, Inc.
“I use a Basis Signature Series 2500 with the Vector arm daily in my main system, and it brings me great pleasure.”
Greg Timbers, past chief designer and engineer for JBL
“I initially found out about A.J. when I received a phone call from him while I was working for JBL. Seems he had some questions regarding speaker systems I had designed. Well, that was just the first of many delightful conversations we shared over the years. He was very interested in my thought process regarding the big loudspeaker systems I had done and I was equally interested in his thoughts regarding his arms and turntables.
“It turns out that we have very similar design philosophies, which in general are not mainstream. We are both concerned with the measurements of, actual reasons for and engineering necessities of the transference of energy from one form to another. A.J.’s systems convert from mechanical to electrical and mine do electrical to acoustical. Neither transformation is trivial.”