What do you do after you have set up a vinyl mastering studio using vintage hardware and established its credentials with some truly great sounding records. If you’re Darrel Sheinman founder of Gearbox you decide to make a turntable using the brand that’s been so carefully nurtured. And not just any turntable, the Gearbox Automatic combines technology ancient and modern by having a valve in the onboard phono preamplifier and a Bluetooth transmitter alongside it. It also has an ace up its sleeve in the form of track recognition software that lets you to add whatever is being played to a Spotify playlist.
The Automatic is not quite what it might seem in the pictures, scale-wise this is a compact turntable with a seven inch platter and a matching seven inch arm. The platter is glass with a felt mat like a Rega but the arm is made by Pro-Ject, in fact the whole turntable is assembled by that company. It incorporates a phono stage with a 12AX7 valve on its output stage and comes ready fitted with an Ortofon OM10 cartridge, or at least my sample did, the website still specifies the cheaper OM5e. It has been designed for out of the box ease of use, so the counterweight is already fitted for the correct downforce and the anti-skate pre-set, it can’t be adjusted as far as I can see.
As well as offering a Bluetooth connection with appropriate speakers or headphones the Automatic has conventional RCA connectors and comes with a rather shiny interconnect cable with which to hook it up to an amplifier or active speakers. The case design is said to be inspired by the work of Dieter Rams, the design guru behind Braun’s products of the fifities and sixties (and a great influence on Jony Ive’s work at Apple). Switchable 33.3 and 45rpm speeds from the front panel are handy and the fact that the whole thing will fit on almost any shelf is likewise a bonus, mind you it gets a bit bigger when you put a 12inch record on the little platter.
In use it hooked up to the Bluetooth input on a Naim Uniti Nova without being asked to, I can see the appeal of this technology in that respect but have yet to discover its sonic charm. Here it sounds louder and coarser than the alternative, so I turned off BT on the Naim and connected the wired output, but this doesn’t stop the transmitter light flashing in the turntable which can be a little distracting. The sound the Automatic produces is relaxed and smooth, it could be more detailed and dynamic but there’s no denying that it brings out many of the characteristics of vinyl that have kept the format alive for so long. Voices are natural and clear, the valve must have something to do with this because it’s an area they are renowned for excelling in, and the tune is always front and centre. The valve definitely makes it easier to hear the emotion in the music and when all is said and done that’s what it’s all about. Unless of course you are after banging tunes with less of the hard edged grain than most digital sources produce, here the impact is again slightly softer and warmer than average but the tempo is clearly defined and gives you plenty to move your feet to, regardless of whether you get off the sofa or not.
The treble is not as extended as some systems but it sounds very natural and relaxed which makes for long term listening pleasure without fatigue and that’s got to be a good thing. Put on something with some energy like Binker & Moses’ Journey to the Mountain of Forever(on the Gearbox label) and it’s easy to appreciate the drive of the drum kit as you are swept away by the intensity of two saxophones, one circular breathing in the background and the other letting loose up front. I got quite involved with this album which is the whole point of any audio source; to draw you into the music and let the mechanics of its reproduction fade into the background.
I love the sound of Joni Mitchell’s voice and on Court and Sparkthe Automatic lets you hear a lot of its heart despite the polished nature of the recording. Lyrics are clear and there’s good contrast between the loud and soft parts of the music. The bass could have more impact, it’s there but lacks the edge definition that you get with more conventional turntables. This doesn’t mean that kick drums and their electronic counterparts don’t kick however, they just sound a little bit rounder and warmer, which if you want to turn up the volume can help to make the sound less aggressive.
Given that the Gearbox Automatic was not made for hi-fi nuts but for regular folk who have discovered the joy of vinyl it’s a nicely put together piece of kit that will be easy to accommodate in today’s cramped living spaces. More importantly it will let you hear just why vinyl is such a special medium, and if you have a Bluetooth speaker and a Spotify account it’ll do things that few other turntables can match.