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A very different way to play LPs

The Townshend Audio Rock 7 turntable employs unique technology to make LPs sound better than ever.

The Townshend Rock 7 turntable Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The CD player's days may be numbered, but we're seeing more and more turntables. They all share the common design features of a base, platter, and tonearm, but the Townshend Audio Rock 7 turntable is decidedly less common.

In addition to those three components I just mentioned, the Rock 7 employs proprietary features, mounted on the front of the tonearm, ahead of the phono cartridge. The cartridge and its needle are designed to convert the record groove's tiniest wiggles into electrical signals, but on other turntables the tonearm is unsupported and free to vibrate at the cartridge end, so some musical details are lost. That's where the Rock 7's curved trough comes into play (see picture below). The small paddle mounted on the front of the tonearm sits in a viscous fluid bath in the trough as the LP is being played, and the fluid absorbs deleterious energy from the cartridge.

I admit the concept might at first sound totally bizarre, but it really works. The technology has been featured on Townshend's Rock turntables for more than 30 years to hush LP surface noise, clicks, and pops. Indeed, LPs seem quieter played on a Rock 7.

Townshend turntables have always been very expensive, and the $3,200 Rock 7 (the tonearm and cartridge are not included in the price) certainly qualifies as costly, but it's the least expensive turntable ever offered by the company. I went to the Wes Bender Studio NYC to play a few LPs on the Rock 7, and came away shaken and stirred by the experience. Bender's hi-fi system also featured the extraordinary Hansen Prince E speakers, Zesto Audio preamplifiers, and a Viola Labs Symphony stereo power amplifier. I love my job.

The Rock 7's trough in position as a record is played Townshend Audio

The Rock 7 is a brilliant example of form-follows-function design, and after I played a few LPs I was used to swinging the trough arm in and out of place when changing records. The Rock 7 really does minimize record surface noise, so as I played new and old LPs, including a 40-year-old pressing of Janis Joplin's "I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!" LP, the sound was closer to what I'd expect to hear from an open-reel tape than an old record.

Of course, what makes the Rock 7's sound memorable wasn't just the noise reduction, it was the music. Joplin's blues ran deeper than I've heard before, and a CD of the same music, even on a first-class CD player, merely hints at Joplin's vocal talents. There will never be another.

Shelby Lynne's 2008 album, "Just a Little Lovin'," is a much better recording; it's one of the best-sounding new albums I've heard in a long time. When played on the Rock 7 the subtleties of Lynne's vocal phrasing were newly revealed; the music has a more organic and human feel when played on a great turntable. You really start to hear the difference between good and great singers on a turntable like the Rock 7.

Ah, but could the Rock 7 rock out? I played the Dirty Three's recent "Toward the Low Sun" LP, and frankly, it's not a great-sounding album, which is why I played it on the Rock 7. I like the music, but the sound is too thin and it's aggressively hard. The Rock 7 couldn't do anything to change the sound, but I enjoyed the music more than I have before. The tunes, which are more like jams, had more kinetic energy and drive, which is something you get with live music, but it doesn't always come through on recordings. The Rock 7 unleashes more get-up-and-go from the grooves.

Looking for a more affordable and conventional turntable? I recommend Rega, Music Hall, and Pro-Ject 'tables.