The ‘convenience is king’ mantra is as prevalent in consumer electronics as anywhere else. It’s why the audio market is increasingly populated by all-in-one-streaming systems, stereo amps with Bluetooth, and voice-controlled wireless speakers. It also explains why a high-end, plug-and-play turntable with a phono preamp, such as the Clearaudio Concept Active MM, exists.
The Concept Active MM is a pretty unusual concept: turntables with these features aren’t two-a-penny in the affordable market and are even rarer at the pricier end. After all, if you’re willing to spend big bucks on a record player set-up, you’re likely to value sound quality highly – and does an all-in-one offering really deliver the best performance for the money?
That said, if any high-end turntable can do that convincingly, it is likely to be one derived from a five-star, former What Hi-Fi? Award-winning model.
The Clearaudio Concept Active MM is essentially the company’s Concept turntable with built-in phono and pre-amplifier stages and a headphone output. Back in 2016, we concluded that the Concept was “a thoroughly sorted, easy-to-own package with tremendous sound”. So convinced were we by its completeness that we asked: “What more do you want, jam on it?”
We didn’t feel that, as a straight-up turntable, it needed any more mod-cons (or jam, for that matter), but the extra integrated features that justify the existence of the Concept Active may well appeal to those who are after a more straightforward, all-in-one record-playing solution.
Speeds 33⅓, 45 and 78rpm
Cartridge Concept MM (MC optional)
Dimensions (hwd) 12.5 x 42 x 35cm
Weight 7.6 kg (black/silver), 8kg (wood)
Those additions mean that the Concept Active can be directly connected to a power amplifier or pair of active speakers without the need for an external phono stage or pre-amplifier, and can accommodate a pair of wired headphones. That makes it a convenient choice in terms of space and neatness, but the Concept Active is also mostly plug-and-play by design. Indeed, for anyone put off joining the vinyl revival by the seeming complexities of turntable set-up, the Concept Active could be the answer.
Like the standard Concept turntable, it doesn’t ask much of its new owner, who only has to remove the protective packaging, attach the drive belt around the sub-platter and motor pulley, and place the platter on the spindle to get up and running. As the Concept MM V2 cartridge is attached to the magnetic bearing Concept tonearm at the factory, and everything from tracking force to anti-skating bias is set during the manufacturing process, you don’t have to concern yourself with any of the fiddly bits of set-up.
Before you rush to lower your first record onto its spindle, Clearaudio advises you to do a couple of quick checks. Firstly, the supplied level gauge should be placed on the platter to ensure everything is level. Our review sample, sat upon a dedicated support, shows it is slightly off, albeit nothing a few turns of the deck’s two front feet can't remedy. Secondly, providing you have the correct tool, you should also check the cartridge’s tracking force, which is a recommended 2.4g and, on our sample, a passable 2.5g. Clearaudio recommends visiting a dealer if you wish to change the height of the tonearm or change the cartridge or tracking force.
The Concept Active can be alternatively fitted with a Concept MC cartridge and/or an upgraded Clearaudio Satisfy Kardan Aluminium tonearm, though neither of those not-insignificantly priced enhancements are on test here. What we do have at our disposal during our testing is Clearaudio’s optional Smart Power Supply 12v (£700, $1000, AU$1495), a battery-powered unit designed to feed power to the Concept Active (both to its motor and onboard phono stage) that is cleaner than that delivered by an inherently noisy mains supply. Available in black or silver, this rectangular box is a neat extension to the turntable chassis and proves to be a worthwhile upgrade.
The turntable itself has some points of interest. At the rear, next to the set of RCA outputs, are flick-switches to adjust gain (low, medium or high), choose between MM and MC cartridge modes, and apply a Subsonic filter that aims to reduce any unwanted low-frequency noise. The final one determines whether your RCA output is passive (for when bypassing the integrated phono stage and connecting to an outboard one), variable (for using the connected integrated or pre-amplifier’s volume control) or active (for adjusting volume via the Concept Active’s on-unit dial).
Thankfully for those keen to listen to their vinyl through headphones, the 6.3mm headphone output doesn't join the switches at the rear, instead taking up a place on the right-hand side panel. Its location does, however, mean that those who use the smart power supply will have to place it on the left-hand side of the deck, or some centimetres away from it altogether, so as not to physically block the socket.
Those rear-panel discreet switches and the right-edge socket aside, the Concept Active is an advert for modern minimalism, with its business-looking matte black plinth sitting on a choice of silver or black, or the more premium-priced light wood or dark wood chassis, with nicely rounded corners. For the benefit of symmetry, though, we wish the small roller volume wheel on the plinth’s front right-hand side matched the larger rotary speed dial on the opposite side.
The Concept Active MM wastes no time demonstrating its sonic elegance and sophisticated manner. We reach for side four of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and as The Show Must Go On and In The Flesh play, they do so with a gratifying clarity and cleanliness. This is a precise-sounding deck, and it doesn’t take more than a moment to work that out.
This precision isn’t presented in an overly stark way, though. The Clearaudio is tonally neutral, but not without a pleasing sense of solidity and warmth throughout. Its fleshy fullness laps up the backing vocals, which sound rightfully big and dynamic in our room, while its weight duly lends an anthemic sense to the ponderous drumming and electric guitar duet. Nick Mason’s most impactful strikes punch through the mix, and there’s a sting to Roger Waters’ theatrical storytelling. We’re pleased that the Clearaudio Concept’s talents, including its pace, tautness and precision, have carried through into this Active model.
Choosing whether or not to spend considerably more for the Smart Power Supply 12v isn’t an easy decision, but it is worthwhile if you have the budget – and even if you don’t, it offers a clear upgrade path that could be worth pursuing further down the line. Adding the power supply (its integrated cable connects to the Concept Active’s power socket) gets the most from the package, making things much cleaner, fuller and more solid and giving it a subtler hand in everything it does. We revisit the Pink Floyd tracks and the presentation more readily throws itself into the occasion, lapping up the big dynamic swings and subtler shifts of the lively instrumentals.
All that being said, if you are willing to go down the more traditional route and sacrifice the Clearaudio’s ultimate convenience, a notably better performance is attainable for less money. We hook the Clearaudio up to the budget Rega Fono MM MK3 phono stage (£200, $395, AU$479), bypassing the deck’s internal one, and though the presentation doesn’t quite have the same detail or solidity, it is more rhythmically cohesive and consequently entertaining. When it comes to outright musicality at this level, the Concept Active just misses the mark.
But the only real disappointment from a fully-featured package such as this comes from the headphone output, which maintains that warmth, solidity and punch but feels comparatively compressed and lacking in the same excellent clarity and cleanliness delivered through the RCA output. It’s a neat feature on paper, but in practice it is ultimately plagued by a bit of muddiness.
The Clearaudio Concept Active MM may not be the best option for record player purists, then, but if you are tempted by the Concept Active’s convenience and are happy to sacrifice a little absolute performance-per-pound value, there’s little reason not to welcome this package into your home. If you plan on listening to your vinyl collection predominantly through headphones, however, we would advise some caution.
- Sound 4
- Features 5
- Build 5
Read our guide to the best turntables
Read our Clearaudio Concept review