A fully automatic turntable that’s a flashback to the gaudy ‘80s? Indeedy. But it’s not ‘alf bad, claims Mr Kramer
When it comes to audio equipment and cars, there’s still a certain cachet to having “Made in Germany” attached to a product. Unlike many German cars, which can come from factories all over the world, this Dual turntable is actually built in Deutschland by a company with a long history in the audio game. While the CS455-1 seems to be a fairly standard belt drive turntable aimed at slightly above the entry level, it’s got a bit of an oddball streak running through it. It’s an automatic turntable, and you definitely don’t see too many of those being sold today. In fact, it’s been ages since I’ve seen one running.
Why on earth would a manufacturer build an automatic turntable? Why would anyone want to own one? Well, there are some attractions for buyers; some are entirely new to vinyl, others are coming back to it after a long absence, and both may well be wary of damaging the stylus. Others might like the idea of a deck that cues itself up at the touch of a switch, then resets the tone arm and turns itself off after each side. This makes it easy for family and friends to use and means that you don’t have to leap up at the end of every side to lift the tone arm. You can also cue up a record and play it as background music without having to react if you’re busy when the side ends.
Most of the vinyl fans I know would find the aforementioned traits to be borderline crazy; after all playing vinyl is a tactile, immersive and demanding process, and that’s surely one of the reasons we love it so much. There’s also the theory that the money that went into providing the automatic mechanism could be better spent on higher quality parts, better cables or a higher end cartridge. This has to be true to a degree, as there’s a fixed amount of money available for components and designing any budget deck is a balancing act; spending more in any one area inevitably demands compromise somewhere else.
Reliability is another factor to consider. There’s virtually nothing to go awry on a manual deck’s armlift and cueing system, while the gears, levers and widgets under an automatic deck’s platter add a layer of complexity that can come back to haunt owners.
Features and Construction
First impressions count (although they can be deceiving in the audio game). The Dual doesn’t look like much when you first get it out of the box, and it doesn’t make you think Mercedes Benz. The plinth is nicely finished but the deck is quite lightweight and between the thin tubular tonearm with its fragile looking plastic fittings and the chunk of grey plastic around the arm and controls, it looks a lot like an ‘80s budget deck; so much so that the Dual engineers may have dusted off some 30-year-old blueprints and sent them to the production line. Even the look and feel of the switches remind me of a deck I owned a long time back. With its glossy finishes and much cleaner appearance, units from Pro-Ject and Rega at this price point look far more elegant.
Power comes from a small wall wart supply; audio cables are basic RCAs plus an earth lead, both hardwired to the deck. There’s a floating sub-chassis inside the wooden plinth and the arm, while lightweight, is made by Thorens and has a removable carbon fibre headshell. A hinged clear perspex lid is supplied. The dimensions of the deck are 440 x 119 x 360 mm (WxHxD), so it will be happy on the top of most audio racks – you’ll have to provide your own leveling though, as the Dual’s four feet have no facility for height adjustment. The motor can run at 33, 45 and 78 rpm at the flick of a switch, so the user doesn’t have to change the belt to a different pulley.
The CS455-1 is supplied with a fitted and aligned Ortofon OM10 moving magnet cartridge, which is one of the market’s entry level standards. It’s not what you’d call a stellar performer but it does the job at a decent price, which is why it’s specified on so many decks. The stylus is easily replaced in the event of an accident or when it wears out or even if the owner is looking for a bit of an upgrade, when an OM20, OM30 or OM40 stylus can be substituted.
Unpacking the CS455-1 is easy and getting it up and running is a doddle. There’s not a lot to do and even though the user manual isn’t all that clear, anyone with a vague understanding of what goes where on a turntable will have minimal hassles. Total novices are advised to spend some time looking at the parts diagram and interpreting the text before they start fiddling around, or to ask their dealer for assistance. Operation is as simple as you’d expect: pop a record on the platter and flick the switch to start. By the time you get to your listening seat, the auto mechanism will have clicked its way from the tonearm to the vinyl surface and hey presto, there’s the music.
As hard as I try to go into every review with an open mind and as much as I mutter about never assuming, once again my expectations led me astray here. From the moment the slender OM10’s stylus hit ZZ Top’s Afterburner album, the CS455-1 sounded better than I’d anticipated. This was helped no doubt by the presence of a Graham Slee Gram Amp 2 Communicator MM phono stage ($399) supplied by the Dual importer.
No, it wasn’t one of those giant killer moments where a basic $1000 deck prompts the quick sale of a high performance (and much higher priced) deck, but I did think something along the lines of “Hey, that ain’t half bad, Mum”. For example, the plucked bass guitar on ‘Velcro Fly’ had loads of presence and impact, with a very decent amount of definition. The OM10 will never give world-class levels of insight into a recording but what it does, it does well considering its humble status.
The lively sound of Talking Head’s Stop Making Sense came across well, with the Dual providing plenty of energy and speed on tracks like ‘Psycho Killer’, ‘Swamp’ and ‘Slippery People’. This music doesn’t work if the infectious rhythms aren’t communicated properly, but things were just fine in this regard. The powerful bass lines on ‘Girlfriend Is Better’ carried a great deal of weight and the songs rocked along nicely with enough bottom end grip and pace to make them involving.
Likewise with The Cars’ Heartbeat City I’m used to a more propulsive bottom end, here but what was on offer was entirely acceptable at the price. Don’t expect the floor shaking yet ultra-tight bass that emanates from higher-end turntables though – that only comes when you lay out more loot, and then only sometimes.
In ultimate terms, the Dual’s midrange isn’t an open window into the heart of the music, and it can’t be at this point in the turntable hierarchy. There’s a goodly amount of detail available but it sounds like there’s a layer of haze that could be and should be removed. There’s a sense that the air and openness of a vinyl source is a smidgen restrained – this isn’t unique to the Dual as most decks at this level are the same; a cartridge upgrade would take care of that to some degree. The treble is well extended without trying to sparkle too far into the stratosphere for its own good, and the effect is one of a controlled high end without a bright edge. This combines with a general warm, smooth nature that will match well with most budget electronics.
Having said all that, in the context of the cartridge, I was completely happy with what I heard, especially considering the Dual was running in a system several levels above its natural place in the universe. America’s History Greatest Hits compilation was an enjoyable listen, and I found myself ignoring the review and just relaxing with a bobbing head and tapping feet to the memories raised by an album I hadn’t heard in ages. The mellow tracks were smooth and melodic, and the strummed guitars and layered vocals on ‘Sandman’ were clear, open and articulate. Steely Dan’s Gaucho had much the same effect on me; vocals were clearly defined and it was easy to track the contribution made by the performers.
Reaching into the dark depths of my ‘80s vinyl collection, I happened upon the obscure Time and Tide by Basia, which I bought for a buck a few years ago based on my hazy memories of her music videos back in the day (she’s rather attractive, if I may say so). On the Dual, this thin recording was flattered by the warmth and massaged by the inoffensive treble; the period synth bass lines timed accurately and sounded well timed and tight. The CS455-1 made stepping back nearly 25 five years a lot of fun. Some of this ‘80s stuff is like Rotorua: a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there.
The soundstage had a good degree of width but was quite shallow. The Dual proved to be almost supernaturally immune to footfall and external vibration although of course, it didn’t much like any movement close by or contact on the deck itself. Backgrounds were resolutely quiet and surface noise was very restrained, which will please users who don’t own a stack of pristine records. The deck was also absolutely hum-free, although everything is since my new transformer passive preamp took up residence.
A quick point regarding the setup – to these ears, the Dual definitely prefers to have its tracking weight set closer to two grams rather than anything much lighter, despite the recommended tracking force being one and a half grams.
Dual’s CS455-1 impressed me far more than it has any right to given its prosaic appearance. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not into bling – my own Well Tempered turntable is about as basic as it’s possible for a turntable to be, but the Dual’s retro styled looks and plastic fantastic user interface make it feel like a throwback to a bygone era, and predisposes one to anticipate exactly that kind of old school sound. The more I listened, the more it became apparent that the Dual was standing up for itself and just doing a good job at spinning vinyl.
I’m really not damming with faint praise here. I liked the Dual’s sound a lot – sonically it’s worth four stars but any review must take into account not just the way a component sounds but also how it looks, performs and compares to its competitors.
The Dual puts on a commendable performance but the look and feel of the plastic switchgear doesn’t do it justice. There’s also extremely strong competition from the likes of Pro-Ject’s evergreen Xpression III, which is a simpler manual deck fitted with a cartridge a tad higher up in Ortofon’s range, the 2M Red. Rega’s RP1 is also out there along with its excellent P3-24, which is available for similar money (albeit sans cartridge). The P3-24 is a mean performer that would be all over the Dual sonically even when fitted with a basic cartridge. If you’re not really fussed about the Dual’s automatic operation, you may prefer the naked simplicity and potential higher fidelity of these other options, even if you need to spend a bit more.
On the other hand, if automatic operation makes a lot of sense to you, then rest assured that you’re absolutely not being abandoned in some bleak lo-fi wilderness. It might not be ultra flash or super glossy, but this is a viable option that will work well for many potential vinyl fans. As with all audio purchases, audition it first, along with some other options and then make your choice. ASHLEY KRAMER