As one of the longest standing music formats still in production, there must be little left to innovate within the realms of vinyl right? Wrong. As we continue to see a wealth of new hi-end turntables and approaches, taking the format to its ultimate level.
And one of the brands that can claim to have pushed this envelope more than most is The Funk Firm. Let’s not forget this company’s heritage, having risen from the ashes of Pink Triangle which shook up the analogue industry throughout the ’80s and ’90s with what were then considered radical approaches that are now commonplace, including acrylic platters, DC motors and inverted sapphire bearings.
It’s easy to underestimate the difference this deliberately disruptive brand made to the industry back then, and without doubt company founder and lead designer Arthur Khoubesserian should be recognised as one of the most important figures in vinyl replay of the last forty years (if not all time), such has been his influence.
Given the current trend for bringing back heritage hifi with modern twists (and modern price tags), it would be too easy for Funk cash in by trading on Pink’s reputation and reissuing its seminal models. But this is not Funk or Arthur’s way, who has stayed true to a clear mission across both companies – to get closer to the master tape, and to do so by constantly innovating.
One for all
The next chapter in Arthur and Funk’s journey has even broader appeal, by going beyond just offering its own Funk’d turntables (which the company of course makes, alongside tonearms and accessories), with a package that can be applied to any deck, regardless of price.
Step forward the Isolation Bubble, which focusses on the two elements closest to a turntable’s all important cartridge and can therefore can be the most influential on its performance.
The first is the interface your LPs sit upon, typically a mat or ‘naked’ platter (another Pink Triangle first) and for this Funk offers the APM, derived from its long standing Achromat with an added glass layer on its underside to aid rigidity, allowing the top layer to do its work. And that top layer is where the magic – or to be more precise physics – happens. As while it feels like a solid polymer from the outside, internally it’s made up of millions of tiny internal bubbles, whose walls flex, dissipating energy and preventing unwanted resonance being fed back to your stylus.
As opposed to felt or rubber, the Achromatic surface is hard, reducing drag while properly supporting your precious vinyl. The APM comes in a variety of colours with black, white, blue, yellow and green all on offer and costing £187 each (the standard Achromat costs £90 in 3mm variant in the same colour options).
A kind of magic
The second element at work is Houdini, which costs £300 and acts as a cartridge isolator that’s designed to be bolted between a tonearm’s headshell mount and your pick-up of choice, with threaded and bolt through options to aid a wide range of pick-up types.
Described by Arthur as his greatest invention to date, what Houdini does is take Pink Triangle’s original floating suspended chassis design closer to the cartridge itself, to help isolate and decouple it from the tonearm and its influence on the sound. Houdini’s internals feature three miniature springs, aligned to form a virtual anchor, with the whole assembly stabilised with a torsion tether.
In some ways you could consider Houdini and APM more of an isolation sandwich for the cartridge, with the final ingredient being Funk’s own Bo!ng isolation feet. These start at £126.50 per set with options for a range of turntables from lightweight Rega’s through to 25kg+ monsters. Like Houdini, Bo!ng also incorporates internal springs to add isolation, ideal for the popular rigid decks of today, helping shield them from external vibrations entering the replay chain.
Blast from the past
The beauty of this approach means your starter deck doesn’t have to expensive or hyper modern, and what better way to test Funk’s package than dusting off a popular legend of its time. Step forward Pioneer’s PL-12D, which is typical of the late ’70s Japanese breed, resplendent with silver S-shaped tonearm and faux wood plinth. It looks an age away from the stripped back British decks that followed but still offered a degree of suspension and electronic speed change, making it just as practical today, while it’s retro styling is now as cool as a beat up sunburst Fender.
This deck was so popular even my dad had one, and being so mass produced, decent examples and similar used models from Technics and the like can be picked up today for the price of a bundle of cables, meaning getting into vinyl ownership doesn’t have to involve selling a limb.
Thanks to the tonearm’s removable headshell design, making back to back comparisons with the deck in standard and Funk’d up guise is made easy. We opted for Audio-Technica’s VM540ML cartridge as our reference with its dual moving-magnet design and microline stylus. Also hailing from Japan, at £229 it’s great value and typical of the type you’d expect to see fitted to this type of deck.
Dusting down the vintage Pioneer brings back so many memories, including its rich midrange laced with colouration and muddy bottom end, when compared to the decks of today. After a popping on a new belt and a good run in, a speed check with a Rega strobe kit followed by the excellent Rotor app shows how well made this deck is, showing it to be reassuringly stable at 33.3rpm.
Kicking off with the deck in standard guise complete with original rubber mat and standard headshell, reveals both the Pioneer’s appeal and shortcomings. Plumbed into my Musical Fidelity M6 pre/power amps driving Dynaudio Focus 260 speakers affords decent levels of insight into proceedings. A half-speed master of Carol King’s seminal Tapestry album (1971) sounds refreshingly musical on first listen, but repeated plays of this top class recording expose some room for improvement. The bass notes on It’s Too Late for example sound hard around the edges and a little forced, with the upper strings on So Far Away becoming thin and mushy at the extremes.
Moving into more ambient territory with Goldfrapp’s 2013 album Tales Of Us and their Alvar track has decent amounts of scale, detail and soundstage depth, but I can’t help craving a richer background. Okay, the sonic landscape painted feels encompassing enough, but there’s a lack of depth and texture to the mix that I’m used to hearing from my reference decks.
Boy in the bubble
Moving to the Isolation Bubble package takes minutes, if not seconds. And because Houdini adds around 5mm to the cartridge’s height, for tonearms without VTA adjustment Funk offers Cobra costing £123.20.
Inspired by its reptilian namesake, Cobra sports a raised head to accommodate taller cartridges, and with a variable adjustable version also in the works, fine tuning will be made easy. Revisiting the same tracks in Funk’d mode almost sounds like I’m hearing a different deck, such are the improvements.
Beginning with Carol King, levels of clarity are brought to play that were previously absent, but despite this extra detail there’s also greater levels of neutrality, with the music sounding more detailed, yet smoother. The bass line on It’s Too Late for example has a tonality that’s richer, more impactful and laced with a greater sense of life and energy that takes it from a mere contribution to the track to its driving force.
With the first plunging bass notes of the Goldfrapp track, The Funk additions push the soundstage depth back a good few feet and populate it with much greater articulation and realism. This is partly due to the clearer sense of instrument separation that’s at play, combined with greater dynamics that are simply more attention grabbing compared to the PL-12D before, which sounded flat in comparison. What this also reveals is how good Audio-Technica’s VM540ML pick-up actually is at the price, it just needs the right platform to set it free.
As a vinyl addict, for reference duties I regularly flit between the suspended design of my legacy Pink Triangle Export GTI (with Audio Note Arm One/II) and non-suspended VPI Scout 21, and having the option to add a degree of suspension to the VPI brings intriguing results.
With my reference Benz Micro ACE SH pick-up installed, elements of the fluid neutrality that this package brought to the Pioneer deck are carried over, albeit in lesser measures (as the VPI is already exceptional in these areas). But the difference is there and at the deck’s price point, the relatively low extra outlay of the Houdini makes it a no brainer.
Spinning this year’s exceptional self-titled debut album from Blondshell with Houdini installed has the music sounding effortlessly natural and unforced, especially in her vocal delivery across the slower tracks Sober Together and Tarmac, allowing all the authenticity to shine through. Again there’s a sense that I’m hearing more of the cartridge’s sonic qualities, hence if you’re budgeting for a new pick-up, it’s worth factoring in a Houdini, which may make a cheaper cartridge sound better, so good is its contribution.
Sometimes a few words tells a whole story and during the Pioneer’s Funky time at Audiograde HQ, a fellow hifi fan was over for a listening session. “Is that a PL-12D?” He piped, seeing it adorning my hifi rack, “Had one as a student.” A prompt that was too tempting to resist. “Yeah?” I replied, “But did it sound like this?” After working our way through Jeff Buckley’s Mystery White Boy live album (released in 2000) he turned to me and simply said “Wow. No”.
What the Isolation Bubble package offers is a platform to give you confidence that your cartridge isn’t being held back. Isolating a turntable from external interference has long been known to have proven benefits, based on pure physics and common sense. Isolating the cartridge, ie getting closer to the source of the music builds on this with results that can be clearly heard. When combined with the APM mat, the bundle makes more sense as a way to turbocharge entry level decks into high performance territory while adding extra finesse to those further up the ladder.
What can also be applauded in this approach is how any turntable, especially the overlooked ones of yesteryear, can have new life breathed into them, bringing cost savings to hifi fans starting out or looking to upgrade while saving vintage spinners from retirement, all thanks to genuine innovation.