Clearaudio Concept Active Review
Good to look at, great to listen to and painless to use
Good to look at, great to listen to and painless to use – most audiophile turntables struggle to tick more than one of those boxes. But the Clearaudio Concept Active isn’t most audiophile turntables.
- Potent, revealing and spotless sound
- Helpful specification
- As close to ‘plug and play’ as these things ever get
- Not all that adept rhythmically
- Headphone amp is nothing special
- SpeedsSupports 33.3, 45, 78rpm speeds
- Output6.3mm headphone output
- Phono stageIntegrated, defeatable phono stage
- Phono stageSwitchable between moving magnet and moving coil
In a little over 40 years, Clearaudio has expanded from a manufacturer of esoteric turntable cartridges to a company that designs and builds every element required to construct a high-end record player – and then goes ahead and constructs them.
One dislikes national stereotypes, of course, but there’s something about the thoroughness, the expertise and the straight-ahead excellence of the products Clearaudio turns out that makes the knowledge they’re all designed and made in Germany not entirely surprising.
With the Concept Active, Clearaudio is trying to bring a bit of convenience and (whisper it) modernity to its very well-regarded Concept turntable. So, while Clearaudio must be hoping this is the sort of product its customers hanker after, we’re left to hope the extended functionality hasn’t compromised the basic, well, concept of the Concept.
- UKRRP: £2000
- USARRP: $2600
- EuropeRRP: €2195
- AustraliaRRP: AU$4000
The Clearaudio Concept Active is on sale now. It’s available at a spread of prices, depending on the finish you fancy (those wood finishes are more expensive than the black or silver alternatives) and the cartridge you choose (a moving coil cartridge is pricier than the moving magnet alternative).
Our review sample is silver and fitted with a moving coil cartridge, which means in the UK you should expect to pay in the region of £2400, which is roughly in the middle of the £2000-£2700 overall price range.
The same range of models sell in the US for approximately $2600-$3700, while customers in Australia should budget for AU$4000-AU$5300.
- Understated, sophisticated looks (to us, at least)
- Robust build quality
- Very nearly ‘plug and play’ simplicity
Obviously, one doesn’t ‘design’ a record player – all that work was done years ago. And Clearaudio isn’t the sort of company to try to reinvent the wheel, either. So the Concept Active is recognisably a record player, albeit a very nicely built and finished one.
Choose between black, the black-and-silver of our review sample, or a couple of different shades of wood. No matter the finish you go for, you can be certain your Concept Active will look good on your shelf, in a purposeful sort of way. And you can be equally sure of its tactility, the quality of its construction, and the uncompromised nature of the materials involved.
- Defeatable phono stage
- 33.3, 45 and 78rpm speeds
- Headphone output
In some ways, it’s Clearaudio business as usual here – where the crucial aspects of a turntable are concerned, the company doesn’t trifle.
The plinth is optimised to reject resonance, thanks to its medium-density wood fibre core and highly compressed wood chassis. The main bearing consists of a polished, tempered steel shaft in a bronze bushing, which runs on – and this is absolutely true – a mirror of Teflon. Drive is provided by a decoupled, resonance-damped motor, and it turns a 30mm platter with a CNC precision-milled surface that has no need of a mat.
So far, so impressive – but also not all that different from the original Concept turntable. What makes this an ‘Active’ deck, though, is all the additional stuff.
On the rear of the chassis, alongside the grounding post and stereo RCA outputs (Clearaudio thoughtfully provides very high-quality cables in the package for these connections) are a row of small, sturdy rocker switches.
There’s a ‘subsonic filter on/off’ switch (to minimise low-frequency background noise), a ‘gain low/med/high’ switch, a ‘moving magnet/moving coil’ switch (which we set to ‘moving coil’), and an ‘RCA output passive/variable/active’ switch. ‘Passive’ bypasses the Active’s integrated phono stage altogether, while ‘variable’ allows you to use the on-board phono stage but control volume using the system amplifier.
‘Active’ means using the on-board phono stage and dictating volume using the roller control just beneath the business-end of the tonearm on top of the deck. And on the frame of the chassis, over on the tonearm side of the deck, there’s a 6.3mm headphone socket – which means there’s no need to fire up the entire system, if you simply want to listen using cans.
So once you’ve moved the switches to their appropriate position, made your connection to your amplifier and plugged the turntable into the mains, you’re very nearly ready to play. Clearaudio has already taken care of attaching the cartridge to the tonearm, the anti-skate and tracking force settings. All you need to do is make sure the deck is level (there’s a gauge in the packaging and adjustable feet on the bottom of the chassis) and then it’s play time.
- Spacious, robust, clean sound
- Effortlessly detailed and revealing
- Not the last word in rhythmic expression
In broad terms, the ‘pros’ of the sound the Concept Active makes outweigh the ‘cons’ to an almost laughable degree. With only one real caveat, the Clearaudio is an informative, expansive and downright entertaining listen.
Perhaps most immediately impressive is how convincingly precise this turntable sounds. ‘Precision’ is often a synonym for ‘lack of passion’, but not here – a heavyweight reissue of Pixies’ Bossanova is unerringly straight-edged and accurate, but at the same time it’s animated and engaging.
There’s ample space on the soundstage created by the Clearaudio, and the gaps between instruments contribute as much to the overall presentation as the instruments themselves. Nevertheless, this turntable has no problem unifying every element of the recording into a single, convincing piece.
Tonality is carefully neutral – but, again, that isn’t to be confused with a lake of drama or animation. The bottom end of the frequency range is straight-edged and propulsive, with any number of relevant observations made about the texture and timbre of individual bass sounds.
The mid-range is similarly poised, with Black Francis’ vocals (which fluctuate between crooning and screaming throughout this record) isolated, controlled, expressive in the extreme and – perhaps most importantly – presented as an integral part of a wider performance. And at the top of the frequency range, there’s substance balanced by delicacy and bite balanced by refinement.
As far as dynamic expression goes, what might initially seem like a slightly reticent attitude to the big shifts in fact turns out to be something more like effortlessness. The switch from the sound of plectrum gently strumming a single guitar string to a four-piece indie band absolutely detonating the final chorus is managed with complete authority and an enormous amount of headroom. And when you’re listening to that single string, the harmonic variation in every strum is made plain.
Really, it’s only where rhythm management is concerned that the Clearaudio is anything less than completely assured. From the four-square, none-more-mechanical beats of Kraftwerk’s Computerwelt to the all-too-human undulations of Parliament’s Up For The Down Stroke, the Concept Active sounds less positive and less certain where rhythms and – to a lesser extent – tempos are concerned. Only a little, it’s true – but in the context of everything the Concept Active does so convincingly, it jars just a touch.
The integrated phono stage proves a capable device, more than worthy of comparison to stand-alone alternatives from the likes of Rega or Leema – although, it must be said, either of those companies’ devices have a little more ‘feel’ about them when it comes to rhythms. That’s in contrast to the headphone amplifier that’s integrated here – it’s quite workmanlike, and not the most engaging listen.
Should you buy it?
You don’t want to trade performance for convenience By the standards of ‘audiophile’ turntables, the Clearaudio Concept Active is both overspecified and much too easy to use. But it hasn’t sacrificed sound quality in order to provide a bit of plug-and-play expediency…
You want absolutely the best vinyl sound this money can buy Spend this much on a deck with no cartridge, no phono stage, no headphone amp and no factory set-up, and you’ll make incremental sonic gains.
Not every listener wants their expensive new turntable to be helpfully specified and utterly straightforward to use, but the sensible ones do. If you can get over the hump of the slightly lumpy rhythmic expression here, the Concept Active is almost as likeable as it is admirable.
How we test
We test every turntable we review thoroughly over an extended period of time. We use industry standard tests to compare features properly. We’ll always tell you what we find. We never, ever, accept money to review a product.
Find out more about how we test in our ethics policy.
Tested with vinyl records
Tested with real world use
Tested for more than a week
You might like…
33 ⅓, 45 and 78 rpm
No, there’s no wireless connectivity onboard the Concept Active