My super long-winded DROP+Audio Technica Carbon VTA review...
Let me start by saying I am almost exclusively a user of vintage gear. This is not necessarily because I think it’s always better. It’s because around the time I got into two-channel, both two-channel and analog audio were at their most recessed point. Turntables for home use were but a distant memory, and speakers were meant to be used with your TV. New two-channel equipment was nearly impossible to find outside the “megabuck” realm. Yet, vintage gear was cheap and plentiful. I could build a very respectable system for very little money, using now-legendary components. It’s a habit I’ve just kind of stuck with. But things have started to change. As we all know, both two channel and analog audio have made a huge comeback. Now, affordable vintage gear gets snapped up quickly and prices are ever-increasing. Reliability is becoming more of a concern as old gear continues to age. As a result, I find I’m becoming increasingly interested in new gear. It’s a great time for such an interest, as dozens of new turntables, cartridges, preamps, integrated amps and speakers are surging onto the scene. I often wonder how some of this new stuff compares to my old stuff. Needless to say, when I was given the unique opportunity to try a brand new piece of gear for the purpose of reviewing it here, I jumped at it! By the way, let me say I am not an employee of DROP or Audio Technica, and this is not a paid review. I’m just an Audiophool that likes to play with toys!
So, what is it? It is the DROP+Audio Technica Carbon VTA fully manual turntable. It is a budget belt-drive hi-fi turntable with a carbon fiber tonearm, built in phono preamp, electronic speed control, and a pre-mounted Audio Technica VM95E moving magnet cartridge. It looks quite similar to Audio Technica’s AT-LPW40WN turntable. The dark finish and DROP logo are the most readily apparent differences between the two. The “VTA” in Carbon VTA refers to the adjustable height tonearm- a feature that it’s Audio Technica counterpart does not share. Not having seen specs for the DROP version yet, I’m uncertain if there are other differences under the hood.
The packing job was excellent. Each part was separately wrapped, and everything fit like puzzle pieces. In the box, I found a quick start guide, platter with belt, platter mat, plinth with tonearm pre-mounted, acrylic lid, power supply, and interconnect cable.
Hidden at the ends of the styrofoam padding were the headshell, counterweight, 45 adaptor, and lid hinges. A tiny Allen wrench was added, presumably for adjusting tonearm height. Also included was a carbon fiber record brush, which is a nice touch.
Things that were not included, which I felt would have been a good addition, were a printed manual and stylus brush. During my quick glance through the quick start guide, I noticed an instructional diagram for using a stylus brush, yet no brush was present.
The plinth is thin and minimalist in style, supported by rubber isolating feet. It feels solid, but not terribly heavy. The dark colored, flat-finished wood veneer has a warm, earthy aesthetic. Operation is controlled by a simple three-position knob labeled 33-STOP-45. The rear panel features a master power switch, DC power input jack, “phono/line” switch, RCA output jacks and a ground lug. The straight tonearm features a metal arm-lift and variable spring anti-skate. The non-magnetic metal platter and rubber mat are fairly thin and light, though perhaps not inappropriately so for a budget price point. The belt was already wrapped on the interior ring of the platter. The Audio Technica VM95E cartridge came pre-mounted and aligned to it’s angled alloy headshell.
Assembly was fairly easy and straightforward. As I followed the quick-start guide, I couldn’t help but think that the section on balancing the tonearm and setting tracking force might be a bit confusing for a newb. There are no written instructions, just a fairly ambiguous diagram. The good news is, helpful instructions and videos are very easy to find online. As recommended, I set the tonearm weight to 2g and anti-skate dial to 2. The acrylic lid hinges pressed right into place, and it was ready to go in minutes, no tools required.
Post-assembly, the Carbon VTA has a handsome, modern appearance. The understated dark wood finish almost adds a classic sort of vibe, though I feel that the silk screened lettering on the front face is a bit gaudy. It’s level of quality has an intermediate feel, with it’s mix of plastic and metal components.
I used the provided Interconnect cables, which also have a ground conductor for using an external preamp. The turntable is factory set to it’s internal preamp, which is how I tested it initially.
I dropped my test record, Toto’s ‘Fahrenheit,’ on the platter, and set the speed knob to 33. Handling the tonearm for the first time, it felt like there was a little more play in the bearings than I’m used to. (Maybe that is intended as part of the design, I’m not sure.) The arm was easy to position at the lead-in, and the nicely damped lift lowered the arm gently. After a few soft clicks and ticks, there it was. Music! My initial reaction was that of pleasant surprise. I didn’t hear rumble. It’s didn’t strike me in any way as hollow, muddy, tinny, or bloated. It actually sounded fairly balanced. Separation and channel balance were quite good. I found it somewhat thinner in the bass that I’m used to, likewise soft in the highs. Maybe a little reserved in dynamics, overall. But keep in mind, this was with zero time for break-in. It could only get better. As it was, not bad.
I did, however, notice an issue. The pitch sounded ever so slightly low compared to what I am used to. Was it running slow? I put the record on my daily driver Technics SL-1800, and made sure the strobe dots were perfectly stationary. On it, the pitch was back to normal. Back to the Carbon VTA, and the pitch was low again. My RPM Speed and Wow smartphone app confirmed that it was running about .25% slow compared to my Technics. Not much, but enough of a difference to be slightly audible. Looking over both the turntable and the quick-start guide, I couldn’t quickly find an obvious way to fine-adjust speed. However, since the instruction manual download is not yet available from DROP at the time I’m writing this, I will refrain from further judgement until I know for sure that an easy adjustment can’t be made. And truthfully, I’m probably more sensitive to pitch than most.
It would be unfair to judge a turntable with no break-in time, so I played it in the background while cooking and doing household chores over a few days. All the while, I could hear the bass warming and the top end becoming more relaxed. After about 8 hours of background playback, I figured it was time for some serious listening.
I started out with Hozier, ‘Wasteland, Baby!’ As expected, sound quality had improved with break-in. Bass had newfound depth and texture. It propelled the music with pulse and drive that had previously lacked. The thick vocals were presented fully. Reverb decayed smoothly, and the swell of the Hammond organ’s growl filled in subtly behind sparse passages. Background vocals were perhaps a bit homogenized at times, but no frequencies seem to “stick out” and none were really missing. The background during low passages was fairly black. I couldn’t hear any bearing rumble, even with my subwoofer up. I could, however, hear a bit of handling noise when touching the plinth, and a thump when closing the lid. Decent isolation, but not quite as good as heavier built or suspended turntables. Placement on a solid surface is important for getting the best performance. I tested this in my “turntable spot,” which is on a heavy marble stone. It had no issues with feedback or woofer pumping, even at very high volumes. Many users won’t have quite as solid of a platform as this, so mileage may vary...
Next up, The Civil Wars, ‘Barton Hollow.’ Acoustic instruments sounded harmonically rich and natural. I could easily hear separation in the harmonies of Joy Williams and John Paul White. Poorer quality turntables or cartridges might tend to muddy them, or blur them together. With the Carbon VTA, they were discrete, yet balanced. The plucks of mandolin and strumming of guitars were percussive. Bass notes were thick, without bloat. When it comes to speed stability, the Carbon VTA doesn’t quite seem to have the confidence I’m used to from my Technics. On the track ‘The Violet Hour,’ I could hear a slight waver in pitch on sustained notes. Though the Carbon VTA isn’t quite rock-steady in pitch, it is still quite acceptable.
Next on deck, Donald Fagen, ‘Nightfly.’ This is a record that can be bright and fatiguing in the wrong setup. With the DROP+Audio Technica it is mellow. The widely arrayed synths were quite alluring. But, this is where I could really notice that the soundstage wasn’t quite as wide or deep as I’m used to. Texture fell a little flat to me. Though highs had improved after some break-in, they didn’t quite soar. It sounded very good, don’t get me wrong. But I guess it wasn’t quite what I was used to. The story doesn’t have to end here, though.
The built-in preamp offers true bypass, so I can use my own phono preamp. After switching to “Phono” on the turntable, I swapped audio cables to the phono input on my vintage Soundcraftsman Pro-Control Three preamp. Better! Some of that soundstage I had been missing was back. Imaging was suddenly wider, and deeper from front to back. Not to mention, I was hearing punchier dynamics and more texture overall. So while the internal preamp is good, you can get far better performance with a high-quality external preamp.
The interconnect cable that comes with the turntable is fairly thin and inexpensive looking. So what if I were to change that out? I dug up an old set of Wireworld Solstice cables and swapped them in. An improvement, yet again! This time a more subtle difference, but it made for a noticeably warmer, more relaxed bottom end.
I’ve read reviews critical of the AT VM95E cartridge and it’s tracking ability. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to try one through my personal system. While I certainly wouldn’t call it perfect, I would say it performs better than I had initially anticipated. It’s sound is balanced and warm, without the forward and fatiguing sound that some legacy AT’s were known for. On tough inner-groove tracks it can soften or become hazy, but I’ve yet to really hear it “break up.” It can tend to lose it’s composure a little during passages of tough sibilants, yet it handles most sibilance distortion with a subtle “shhh” rather than an obnoxious “SSSSS.” I truly have to give it kudos for it’s performance at it’s street price. The true beauty of this cartridge is it’s affordable upgrade path. Replacing the E stylus with an ML would be a massive improvement in both tracking ability and top end detail.
Another consideration for an upgrade might be the platter mat. The included mat is light and thin. Unfortunately, I don’t have another mat of similar thickness to try, and I’d prefer not to change the arm height from stock to try a thicker one. It is good, however, that this turntable offers adjustable arm height, so it can be flexible for use with different platter mats and cartridges of varying height.
I’ve listened to several more albums in my latest configuration, (using my Soundcraftsman preamp and my upgrade cables,) and I’ve quite enjoyed myself. Though perhaps not as precise as with my Technics, the complex horn parts of “Slick” from the Ramsey Lewis album ‘Salongo’ were quick, controlled and musical. The layering of arrangements was not muddied or obscured. With ‘Kind of Blue,’ Miles Davis, the relaxed, soulful grooves I enjoy about the album were conveyed nicely. I can hear rich harmonics and ambience that are often lost in compressed digital formats.
As far as an overall sonic signature is concerned, I would say the Carbon VTA is more mellow than aggressive. It’s more warm in tone than forward. Highs are clear, but fall short of brilliant. Perhaps it’s greatest tonal attribute would be it’s thick, smooth midrange. The soundstage is bit more withdrawn than expansive, yet channel separation is excellent. Instrument placement from left to right is where it should be. (There still might be further improvement in this regard after more break-in time. At the time I’m writing this, I’m just over 12 hours in.) Overall, it’s very easy to listen to. I’m not feeling fatigued, even after a few hours of continuous playback. I’m not getting that irritated feeling like something is bothering me as I listen. That certainly tells me something.
Something that I should mention, is during the course of use, speed accuracy has seemed to be improving a bit. In fact, I let it run overnight to see if a little more strenuous break-in would make a difference. It seemed to help a little bit. I’ve made no other adjustments, but the speed has been testing at around .10% higher than when I initially received it. It’s close in speed now to other turntables in my arsenal.
In conclusion, I’d have to say this is a pretty solid budget turntable. In it’s stock form, it is a good performer. Where it truly shines, is that it has some serious upgrade potential for the audiophile on a budget. A top-shelf stylus, external phono preamp, and high quality audio cables will yield a real boost in performance.
Will this perform with top end vintage gear? No. Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to compare a budget piece like this to turntables that cost far more than it. (Also gotta consider what some of these prices would look like after calculating decades of inflation...) I would go so far as to say, if the DROP+Audio Technica Carbon VTA were to be compared to the bulk of the mid-fi mass-market vintage turntables of the 70’s and 80’s, I believe it would hang right in there with most, and outperform many.
●Good sound quality
●Easy to setup
●Ease to use
●Ability to change out audio cables
●Bypassable built-in phono preamp
●High quality, upgradeable cartridge
●Adjustable anti-skate and arm lift
●Record brush included
●Runs slightly slow out of the box, but is improving
●Minor, but slightly audible wow and flutter
●Could be a bit better isolated from vibration
●No printed instruction manual or stylus brush
●Tonearm bearings seem a hair loose (though I didn’t really notice an audible effect from this)
Initially, I was going to rate this 4 out of 5 stars because of it’s slow-ish speed out of the box. Since the Carbon VTA’s speed has shown improvement with break-in, I will upgrade this rating to 4.5 out of 5. The speed is still ever so slightly slow, but really, the difference is small enough that it is coming down to hair splitting.
How I break my rating down:
Tested with Soundcraftsman Pro-Control Three preamp, Scott 390R receiver, JBL L-71 Verona speakers, EV 15TRXb speakers, M&K MX-80 sub.