Written in 1993:



REPORT ON ROKSAN  ---  by Neil McBride (nm1@ukc.ac.uk)


When it comes to British hifi, there are a few names that are well known
beyond the shores of the UK. Linn, Quad and Naim spring to mind. But when
we're talking turntables in particular, Roksan is a name that gets more
than a little attention. A few months ago I went to visit the Roksan
factory to hear the most recent products on offer, and to see how this
small firm keeps up with the Best of British. 

Roksan was started almost ten years ago by Touraj Moghaddam who had
trained as a mechanical engineer at Imperial College, London. At that time
Touraj owned a tri-amped Linn/Naim system, and although he liked the LP12
(at the time!) he quite simply thought he could do better. While doing
five years post-graduate work (still at Imperial College) he conceived and
built what became the Xerxes turntable. In 1986 the Xerxes was launched
onto a market where the LP12 still ruled, but managed to gain widespread
praise. When I first heard the deck, I couldn't resist the openess and
detail of the sound.  I bought one, and it remained in my system for
almost five years. The Xerxes was a stylish deck, with a high level of
finish. The mirror-finish platter was particularly eye-catching. I
remember being blown away with the aesthetics of a floodlit rosewood
Xerxes fitted with a glinting SME V arm.  On the other hand, the more
common black ash deck with opaque black lid could look rather like a squat
Darth-Vader. Not to everyone's taste perhaps, but I must admit to being
fond of the stark looks. And anyway, black boxes sound better! Note I am
writing about the Xerxes in the past tense, as production has recently
ceased. Demand for the most recent Roksan deck, the TMS, has meant that
the Xerxes can be put out to pasture. Sad. But then again, who cares when
there's a Xerxes-beater to replace it? 

On arriving at the factory, which is in earshot of Heathrow airport, I was
shown to the listening room where Touraj gave me a tour of the current
products. There were a couple of (then current) Xerxes, one of which was
finished in a garish white marble effect. But pride of place belonged to
the TMS turntable. This was the main reason for my visit. I was dying to
give this deck a spin. My own trusty Xerxes had been bought in preference
to the LP12, however in the last couple of years Linn have really pulled
their socks up, to the extent that I was lured away from the Xerxes.
However, Roksan have come back with a `super-Xerxes' and so I wanted to
hear just how good this thing was. 

The TMS (which stands for Touraj Moghaddam Signature) is a striking deck,
aesthetically and aurally. The rather unconventional engineering that
characterised the Xerxes has been extended to the TMS. The deck is
constructed on three layers of MDF. The bearing and the tonearm are
mounted on the top plinth, which is supported by three adjustable pillars
which have composite rubber/metal grommets sitting on top to mate with the
top plinth.  These pillars are mounted on the base layer along with the
control electronics. The motor gets its very own plinth sandwiched in the
middle.  It's the motor arrangement which is perhaps the most unusual
aspect of the TMS (and the Xerxes before it). It is not just bolted on
like your average super-deck. It is mounted on its own little bearing so
that it is free to turn, with a spring ensuring that the motor doesn't
rotate more than about 90 degrees each way. The idea is that small changes
in torque due to nasties such as imperfect motors and belt slippage, are
`ironed out' by the motor body turning slightly, rather than transferring
the movement to the platter.  The platter itself is cast such that most of
the weight is distributed near the edge, so ensuring a high inertia in
use, but a relatively light platter (which I was assured was desirable).
The deck usually comes finished in piano black, and very handsome it looks
too. 

I appear to be working front to the back, so next in line is the Artimez
tonearm. As with the Xerxes, I was very familiar with this item. When it
was released, most Xerxes across the land tended to have either a Rega
RB300 or a SME V arm fitted to them. I was in the former group, there
being no way I could afford the SME, and so I was dead chuffed when the
Artimez appeared at about a quarter of the price of the SME. At the time I
heard rumours that Roksan reckoned it wasn't quite as good as the SME V.
On my visit however, Touraj assured me the Artimez was the better arm
(aren't you glad of a little unbiased opinion!). 

The Artimez is unusual in that the bearings are not ball-race type.
Touraj's classic comment is that ball-race bearings, as in the Linn arms
for example, belong to bicycle wheels rather than hifi. The Artimez
`bearings' are an arrangement of four little cones, each one sitting
between three rigidly held ball bearings. There is significant free play
but it is argued that in use, when the record is trying to `drag' the arm
forward, all play is taken up. Fair enough. I certainly always liked the
sound the Artimez could give, ball-race or no ball-race. The arm also has
a rather odd counterweight arrangement where the mass is allowed to dangle
below the arm tube. 

The cartridge department was expertly handled by the Shiraz. A fine device
in my opinion. I've always been impressed with the way it handles the
emotion in a singer's voice. The Shiraz feeds into a phono step-up amp,
the ArtaXerxes, which sits aboard the TMS, and then the signal is hurried
off to the Rok-L1 preamp, and four Rok-M1 monoblock power amps (or for
those less well endowed in the wallet department, a Rok-L2 preamp and a
Rok-S1 stereo power amp). The system was finished off with the Darius
loudspeaker. In fact not everyone realises that Roksan make a loudspeaker.
Touraj admitted that they are a little bit of a pain to manufacture, and
as a company they aren't exactly falling over themselves to sell them. He
also admits they aren't to everyone's taste. He designed them as a tool to
monitor the progress of his Xerxes design, and also very much with his own
tastes in mind. The loudspeakers are quite small, being stand mounted, and
without doubt their distinguishing mark is the tweeter, which is mounted
on springs. The whole tweeter can wobble about quite happily with a
fundamental frequency of around 4 Hz. Touraj reckoned that isolating the
thing from the baffle was very important and this was an effective way of
doing it. Judging by how the treble sounded, it paid off. 

And so, after a much needed cup of coffee, we sat down and played some
vinyl. Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherazade hit the platter. The thing that
struck me first was the delicacy of the sound. The music flowed along with
an immediacy and effortlessness that you don't hear often. I'm not the
world's expert on how tonally accurate a recorded orchestra is sounding,
but it seemed to me that the system got it damned near right. The overall
presentation was very natural, without an overly forward treble. Switching
to some Fleetwood Mac, the system showed its ability to rock. Bass drums
had surprising thump and the snare had a crisp snap to it that I've
associated in the past with the Quad electrostatic. 

When Kate Bush went for a spin, the Shiraz handled her vocals with the
authority I remembered. On `Man with the child in his eye', the Shiraz
seemed to be able to convey all the emotion and tension of the
performance, making me grateful that I was already sitting down as I'm
sure my legs would have been a touch wobbly. As I listened, it occurred to
me that the TMS was recognisably from the same stable as the Xerxes.
However, it was putting in a much more convincing performance. Pitch was
more stable, and the notes had a more `bell-like' purity than the Xerxes
could muster. Bass was clearly deeper and more powerful, and the overall
level of detail was improved. I was impressed with the imaging
capabilities of the system too. It's never something I've been
particularly worried about to be honest. If it images, fine, but it's the
musical performance that matters. Touraj agreed to a point, but added he
would never consider buying a system that didn't image well. He reckoned a
stereo hifi was designed to image as well as play music, so why buy
something that only does half the job? 

Although the Artimez is clearly very good, I've always harboured
suspicions that it can introduce just the slightest touch of coarseness,
compared to the SME V for example. It expresses itself as a very slight
`sheen' to the cymbals. It's only slight though, and it is more than
compensated by the fact it still manages to give cymbals a feeling of
realism. I am a drummer, and I feel I'm pretty familiar with how a real
cymbal sounds when you whack it right in front of your face, and I know
some systems have a tough job in reproducing this with any success. When I
started listening to hifi, I quickly noticed that in systems that I
ultimately concluded were `good', cymbals sounded like cymbals. Distorted
cymbals perhaps, but definitely cymbals. But with many systems that
ultimately failed to get my seal of approval, I noticed that the cymbals
did not sound `right'. They just didn't sound as much like a real cymbal.
Wrong, is perhaps the word I'm looking for. 

Now you may say "So what? He's just saying instruments sound more real on
better systems". But I think there's more to it than that. The things I
want a hifi to do is to show me the subtleties of the musicians' playing.
The detail of pitch, timing and dynamics. I don't just want to hear when a
string is plucked, I want to hear how it decays, how the musician damps
the string, the subtle timbre changes as the note disappears into the
noise floor. With these elements done well, the emotion and understanding
of the piece is clearly apparent. And it seems to me, systems that make
cymbals sound wrong end up independently getting my rubber stamp on them
saying `rubbish'. Conversely, systems that really do the trick when
reproducing recorded music seem to be able to do a damned good impression
of a cymbal. 

With the TMS system, there was no beating about the bush. These were
cymbals and a half. Revealed in all their glory, warts and all. Not the
ppssss sound that sometimes passes for a cymbal, but really only does
justice to an aerosol, but the wonderful ringing overtones that make the
whole thing sound believable. Now all this sort of brings me to another
Roksan product. I have to admit, I've never (and I really mean never)
heard a CD player play a cymbal anywhere near as believably as a good
vinyl system. The complex and subtle information that tells me all about
the cymbal just doesn't appear to be there. The same can be said about the
decay of a drum. On vinyl, I can hear the thing decaying into the noise
floor, and all the way down it's telling me about the size, construction,
tensioning, tone, damping etc. On CD, the drum decays a bit, then stops
sounding like a drum. The information seems to become `wrong'. So I was
mightily surprised when Touraj popped a silver disk into his new CD
player, the Attessa, and the thing sounded very good. In fact, it was
getting very near to the TMS. Not as good, sure, but within spitting
distance. 

The Attessa is not Roksan's first foray into the CD market. Their Rok-DP1
transport and Rok-DA1 outboard DAC got good reviews a couple of years ago. 
It was dubbed the vinyl-lover's CD player, in that it always sounded a
little more like a record player than most. The Attessa CD is the start of
a range of medium price products which will ultimately extend to amps and
speakers. Roksan have learnt a lot from their first machine and the
Attessa player certainly impressed me heartily. Ok, I'm still not going to
rush out and buy one, but the fact that it stood up to the TMS and more or
less survived without me suffering my usual digititis, means that it can't
be bad. Interestingly, we were using the player with the cheaper of two
outboard DACs that Roksan do (though the Attessa is also available as a
stand-alone machine). Touraj, then replaced it with the more expensive
one.  The system took a sudden nose-dive, with just about every area
getting worse. Odd. Touraj explained that the cheaper DAC we'd been
listening to had had a couple of days to warm up, whereas the more
expensive one had only been on for an hour or so. He swore blind it was
the better DAC, but that it wouldn't sound better until it had been on for
a couple of days. I had not realised DACs were so fussy about being warm.
Though I guess I shouldn't be too surprised as the warm-up effect is
obvious in my preamp, where a couple of days is mandatory. 

Touraj was clearly proud of the Attessa player. He said that it got him
playing CDs at home. He plans to produce a better player, though he wasn't
certain when it would hit the shops. Could be a while yet. He was
basically happy to wait until they'd refined the design enough to cut the
Attessa dead at ten paces. If it does, I will certainly want to give it a
good listen.  Perhaps I may buy one of these damned CD things yet! The
medium price range has recently been extended to a floor standing speaker,
about half the price of the Darius, and the cheaper Radius turntable is
being continued to satisfy the lower end of the vinyl market. I imagine
that made-to-order TMS decks will continue for a long time to come. Demand
has been quite brisk for this top-flight monster. 

A tour of the factory showed me how the decks were assembled and tested. 
Touraj showed off the TMS bearing. The tolerance is impressive. It's
basically a rod which sits inside a machined barrel. Normally there's oil
in there too, but Touraj demonstrated that the tolerance was so good that
you can insert the bearing into the housing and it will turn quite happily
with nothing but a few microns of air cushioning the metal surfaces. The
products are built and tested there and then. Opposite assembly surfaces,
a bench held a long line of turntable power supplies being `burnt in'
before final voltage setting, and packing. There were plenty of power amps
in various states of dress. Internal construction looked extremely robust
and Touraj explained how having short signal path and good circuit
topology was crucial in the design. He said how any fool can design a
decent circuit but implementation and manufacture was the difficult bit. 

All in all, my day at Roksan had been good fun. I'd enjoyed chatting with
Touraj, and he'd been reasonably sparing with comments about Linn and Naim
(thankfully he'd taken it quite well when I confessed to using the LP12!). 
During the visit, I'd been caressed by the Shiraz, surprised by the
Attessa CD player, and I left feeling that there's no need for any sadness
at the passing of the Xerxes. The TMS does everything the Xerxes did, but
a heck of a lot better. And that can't be bad. I hope they keep it up;
seeing the quality turntable market improve year after year is something
that makes me very happy indeed. 

 
Cheers

Neil McBride