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DEAL OF THE DAY
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2014 Midwest Audiofest Tent Sale & Vintage Audio Swap
Roksan Xerxes 20 Plus/PUG/Shiraz/VSC2 Review
The Roksan Xerxes is thirty years old this year which means that a review of it notionally makes as much sense as subjecting an Austin Montego to a punishing road test. There is however a method in the madness. The Xerxes is conceptually thirty. The idea of the Xerxes- a turntable that is suspended not on springs but rubber ‘blobs’ (the term used by Roksan from the outset so the one I will use) is unchanged but like Trigger’s broom, the component parts of the Xerxes have changed considerably over the years. When the Xerxes 20 was launched a decade ago, the aesthetics of the deck and some aspects of construction were changed and this was further refined to the later 20 Plus model.
What you see here is a 20 Plus but one that benefits from two additional revisions (and if you do aesthetics, one refinement, more of which in a bit). The model numbering is unchanged but in many ways, these are the most substantial changes since the Xerxes 20 was launched. The good news being that older Xerxes models can benefit from them too.
First though, the deck. The 20 Plus is still governed by the same principle as before. Rubber blobs are still present and the deck is still decoupled but the blobs themselves are now frequency tuned and additional spacers are present for improved isolation. The other areas of revision have been the bearing and platter areas that took technology and engineering from the high end TMS3 turntable- a product now officially discontinued after some time occupying a curious limbo between being an active line and a defunct one. The 20 Plus is more inert, quieter and better behaved than before. You can purchase one for £3,000 or bring an older model up to effectively the same spec via upgrades from Roksan.
The deck on its own is not especially useful to you though as it lacks, arm, cart and most tellingly a power supply. The Xerxes is reliant on external power supplies to function and until recently, your choices were the XPS7 supply- yours for £460 and direct descendent of the original XPS1 PSU or the £1,450 RPM ‘Reference’ supply. This latter unit is a relatively recent addition in its own right and is built in the substantial Caspian metalwork and features such niceties as digital speed control and +/- 6% speed adjustment for areas where the mains supply isn’t everything you could hope for.
The RPM was launched at the same time as the RPP Phonostage designed specifically to work with Roksan cartridges (although capable of working with many others) and these two products together represent the top of the tree in terms of Roksan vinyl playback. With the deck and two full width boxes to accommodate though it also represents a fairly bulky solution to vinyl playback. The answer therefore has been to combine them into a single chassis. The VSC (Vinyl System Control) has an RPM and RPP in a single Caspian chassis with the option to specify it with a single power supply for both bits or as you see here, with two power supplies as a VSC2. As the supplies share a mains input, you can update a VSC to a VSC2 at a later date and it also means that a Xerxes becomes a two box turntable with a single mains input.
Connectivity on the VSC2 is entirely straightforward. A fixed umbilical cable with a locking four pin connector attaches to the Xerxes while a quartet of RCA connections handles inputs and outputs. As the Xerxes has only ever had a single arm, the VSC2 is only setup for a single cartridge. Loading is adjusted via dip switches on the underside and these are explained fairly clearly in the manual. Around the front, two buttons select different speeds while a rocker switch on the underside turns it on or off. The Caspian electronics can look a little sudden depending on your tastes but the VSC has little in the way of controls and as such is a fairly subtle bit of kit. At £3,300 a VSC2 makes a £150 (and a shelf unit) saving over separate RPM and RPPs.
Compared to the other new arrival, the VSC can pass unnoticed. For many years, the arm options for the Xerxes have been the Nima, Tabriz and Artemiz. The PUG is the first new Roksan arm in over ten years and is suitably unusual. A unipivot design, it uses a 22cm diameter carbon fibre armtube with black anodised metal fittings. This includes the headshell and the counterweight. The latter is distinctive in that it includes a large fixed section that gives the arm neutral balance with no cartridge attached. A smaller threaded counterweight then provides the adjustment needed to balance the PUG with a cartridge. Anti skate is via a hanging weight system. Fitted with the old type Rega mount, the PUG is available for £1,375.
Completing this particular Xerxes is a Shiraz moving coil cartridge. The flagship cart in the range, the design principle combines a Gyger II stylus profile with a generator mounted via spikes and with capacitor smoothing. Output is a low but not unmanagable As the periodically proud father of a two year old, a £2,950 cartridge with no body or stylus guard is a slightly nerve wracking thing to have in situ and given there was an exciting interlude between the turntable being supplied and the lid joining it, I’ve had more relaxed reviewing experiences.
In as much that any device related to the replay of a sixty year old format can look modern, the PUG is a pretty contemporary looking device. The effect its has on the relatively traditional looking Xerxes is fairly pleasing but this might be helped by the finish. New for 2015 in addition to the Rose and Piano black is the white finish you see here. I make no bones of my general dislike for white as a finish. I find it a bugger to dust and a little obvious… but… the combination of PUG with its carbon fibre and dark chrome sections and the white Xerxes is to this set of eyes at least, a very handsome one. Were it my money, I’d probably still go for the Rose but this would at least cause me to think twice.
There is little arguing that £10,625 is a significant chunk of change for a turntable- not least one that first saw the light of day when Dead or Alive and Sister Sledge roamed the charts. This being said, the Xerxes feels worth the asking price. The build is excellent and the aesthetics of the Xerxes begin to win you over after a short while. It really is a beautifully proportioned thing and no more demanding to use (once setup of course- something in this instance kindly undertaken by Roksan) than a Rega RP3. It has a lid and a conventional footprint and that combined power supply and phono stage is a useful space saver.
Is it perfect? No, but few things in life are. The ‘drop’ on the arm after the armlift is pushed down is a little on the glacial side, the lid should at least have the option of hinges and the sprung loaded phono plugs on the arm cable are horrible. All of these things come under annoyances rather than dealbreakers for me and otherwise, the Xerxes is admirably free of quirks.
Testing of the Roksan has happened in two phases. It arrived as part of a complete Roksan system to be tested elsewhere. The rest of the system was then sent back and the Xerxes/VSC2 was connected to my Naim Supernait 2 and Neat Momentum 4i speakers with all equipment connected to an IsoTek Evo 3 Sigmas mains conditioner. I had considered removing the Shiraz and testing a more moderately priced cartridge with the system but the complete lack of body on the Shiraz and time constraints mean that it has only been tested as a complete set.
The Xerxes arrived run in so essentially could be judged from the off. There are some aspects of the performance which immediately grab your attention although not necessarily ones you might expect. The first is that the Xerxes is almost supernaturally quiet. Unless you’ve been storing your records by burying them in the garden, the Xerxes is likely to be a very quiet deck indeed. This exceptionally low noise floor means that the Roksan is able to find detail that my test Avid Ingenium- itself no slouch in this regard- can struggle to unearth.
The way this information reveals itself is idiosyncratic. The Xerxes is able to take everything off the disc, rationalise it and ensure that you take in the whole piece without having you focus on one aspect at the expense of others. It is wonderfully even handed too. Play a poor pressing on the Roksan and it lets you know but does so in a way that is almost apologetic rather than pointing out every last mastering flaw.
The more time you spend with it, the more the Xerxes gets under your skin. I’m sure that after thirty years, Roksan is tired of comparisons to the LP12 but the way this latest high spec Xerxes works in relation to the Linn is illuminating. The LP12SE is a mighty deck and it has the same ability to hoover up information from the grooves of a record but some of this ability for me at least has come at the expense of some of the simple fun that earlier LP12s were all about. The Roksan by contrast hasn’t lost its joy.
This means that with the campy brilliance of Brandon Flowers The Desired Effect, the Roksan above everything else is fun. The Xerxes gets on top of the beat and lets the music happen. The information is all there and the tonality of the Xerxes is genuinely real but it is secondary to ensuring that the energy and life of the album is retained. During the almost reflective moment on the album- the track Between me and you- the Xerxes calms down and lets this rather more gentle piece flow effortlessly.
Breaking down the roles and responsibilities of the deck and which components imbue which sonic traits isn’t easy but it has become fairly clear that the PUG is a seriously well sorted arm. As a unipivot, the flow and effortlessness through the midrange is to be expected but it is more than up to the job at the frequency extremes too. The Xerxes has a wonderfully well proportioned, detailed and well integrated bass response. I imagine there are decks at the same price that can deliver a more seismic low end but the sense of proportion is something that is harder to match. Similarly, the upper registers are equally well judged and even with fairly edgy material, doesn’t tip over into being bright or harsh.
Of course, having a three grand cartridge on the end of it, is never going to hurt performance and while the Shiraz is likely to remain a slightly leftfield choice for anyone not shopping for a Xerxes, it is fairly clear that there is synergy from going all in house that is possibly not going to replicate itself as efficiently once you start choosing other bits. The VSC2 is able to provide the required gain without issue and the fact it has been designed from scratch with the Shiraz in mind does result in it being a very happy partner. Of course, having briefly tried the RPP standalone phono stage with non Roksan carts, there is nothing to suggest that the VSC2 won’t deliver the goods with them too but if you can stretch to it, the Shiraz is clearly the target audience.
Judging the Xerxes impartially is harder than it is with some other products because I will freely admit that many aspects of the design appeal to my own personal tastes. I use Naim equipment not simply because I love the sound but because it is free of unnecessary frills without being hair shirt minimal, built like a tank and relatively compact. So it is with the Xerxes. On a basic level, you get a lid, impeccable build and a product that takes up little more room than an entry level deck. Living with it is completely painless.
Sonically, there will be people that want more sonic fireworks when the needle hits the groove. Unless their organs vibrate and they are pinned to their seat they aren’t enjoying themselves. While the Roksan is no slouch in this sense, it is not really where the Xerxes excels. This is a deck that makes everything sound right. It is detailed yet immensely forgiving dynamic yet refined, informative yet fun. It is a product that makes sense when you buy it and which grows on you every day thereafter. The latest updates to the Xerxes give it immense capability while making it more practical and convenient. The result is one of the finest all round decks you can buy.
Contact Henley Designs; 01235 511166
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