Music Hall MMF-5.1SE Turntable, Mojo Cartridge and Cruise Control Review

September 10, 2012

I have previously reviewed the VPI Scout with Dynvector 20X2 cartridge here. That combination runs around $2850, which, for someone interested in taking their first steps into vinyl, may sound extravagant. Actually, it is. I wanted to explore what was available at a significantly lower price point. Leland Leard of Music Hall suggested that I take a look at the Music Hall MMF-5.1SE, which at $1095 sits at the sweet spot in their turntable offerings. The price includes not only the turntable itself, but also a pre-installed Mojo moving-magnet (MM) cartridge ($500 separately) made especially for Music Hall by Ortofon (also paired with the more expensive Music Hall MMF-7.1SE turntable), eliminating the need to figure out (obsess over) which among the hundreds of cartridges available might be a good match, and also the need to get into the intricacies of mounting and aligning a cartridge, which for the novice can be daunting. There will always be time to explore different cartridges down the line, but the first time out, it is reassuring to have something that you know is compatible with your tonearm and setup properly right out of the box so you can immediately go about playing records.

The MMF-5.1 has a lot of features that elevate it from a bare bones entry-level table. Perhaps most important is its isolated two-plinth design. The tonearm, a Pro-ject 9, is mounted on the upper plinth, which by the way has a beautiful rosewood veneer finish. The asynchronous motor and platter assembly is mounted on the lower plinth. The two plinths are isolated from one another with four sorbothane pucks so none of the vibration from the motor is transmitted to the tonearm. It also comes with a built-in dust cover, which is an extra cost option for most turntables. You are going to need to use it to keep dust of the platter’s felt pad.

The MMF-5.1SE comes double-boxed and firmly ensconced in styrofoam inserts. Setup is straight-forward. The first step is to remove the turntable from the box, screw on the three adjustable damped feet (located in a special slot in one of the foam inserts) and level the turntable using the built-in spirit level. Then insert the sub-platter and spindle assembly into the Teflon sheathed stainless steel bearing. Attach the rubber belt around the stepped pulley, using the small diameter step for 33 1/3 RPM and the large diameter step for 45 RPM or when using the Cruise Control. There is a small plastic tool to assist you with the belt so you don’t get oil from your fingers on the belt. Next, lower the dynamically balanced alloy platter onto the sub-platter and install the felt pad. Screw the record clamp onto the spindle so you don’t misplace it.

Now you are ready to set up the pre-mounted Pro-ject 9 alloy tonearm. Screw the resonance damping counterweight (also located in a special slot in one of the foam inserts) onto the tonearm to about the midpoint. Undo the twisty-tie holding the tonearm to its rest and remove the stylus guard. Lower the cueing lever, and turn the counterweight back and forth until the tonearm floats parallel to the platter. You must be careful not to damage the stylus. Should the worst happen, the stylus is user replaceable. Adjusting the counterweight requires some patience. Return the tonearm to its rest. Next, hold the counterweight in place and set the number ring on the counterweight to zero. Now, since the Mojo cartridge requires a vertical tracking force (VTF) of 1.75 grams, turn the counterweight to the appropriate mark between 15 and 20. This will get you in the ballpark.

I strongly urge you to get a stylus tracking force gauge. The reasons are twofold. First, when installing the counterweight, it is difficult to know when the tonearm is parallel to the platter just by eye-balling it. If the tonearm is not exactly parallel, your VTF will be off. Second, the tracking force scale on the MMF-5.1SE is approximate. I got close to 1.75 grams without the use of a tracking force scale, but not exactly 1.75 grams. Moving the counterweight just a little changes the VTF by several tenths of a gram. I use an inexpensive Shure SFG-2, but digital ones are also available.

Finally, you need to install the anti-skate mechanism. It consists of a small weight attached to a filament. Installation involves placing the looped end of the filament over the second notch of the anti-skating rod and feeding the line attached to the weight through the looped end of the anti-skating hanger. It sounds more difficult than it is.

Connect the supplied phono cable to the gold-plated RCA jacks and the ground screw underneath the turntable and then to your MM phono stage, or the MM phono input of your preamplifier or integrated amplifier. Finally, connect the wall-wart power power supply. You are now ready to spin vinyl! My initial setup consisted of a Musical Phonomena II phono stage, which handles both MC and MM cartridges, a Meridian G02 preamplifier and 557 amplifier, and Magnepan 1.7 planar-magnetic loudspeakers.

The first thing I did was to check speed with my KAB Speed Strobe disc and strobe. After some feeling around I located the the power switch hidden under the left-front corner of the turntable. The turntable itself is completely silent. Both the 33 1/3 and 45 RPM speeds were a little fast as the speed marking drifted every so slightly to the left. Must have been an issue with the frequency of my power line, presumably supplying AC at a bit above 60Hz.

No worries; I connected the Music Hall Cruise Control ($299) speed controller, which Leland had thoughtfully included, between the wall-wart and the power input of the MMF-5.1SE. To use the Cruise Control, you must set the belt on the 45 RPM step of the pulley. Once connected, I was able to dial in exactly 33 1/3 and 45 RPM by adjusting both speeds by 1/10th of an RPM. The drift was so slight I doubt it would have been audible to someone without perfect pitch, but it is reassuring to know that the speeds are dead on. The other benefit of the Cruise Control is that you can change speeds between 33/13 and 45 RPM at the touch of a button rather than having to remove the platter and move the belt. So if you have a decent size collection of 45 RPM records, you may want to purchase the Cruise Control for convenience alone. By the way, the Cruise Control also worked on my VPI Scout. It is a much less expensive solution than VPI’s SDS system, although the SDS controls line voltage as well as frequency, and supports 78 RPM. I assume the Cruise Control will also work on other turntables using asynchronous motors.

I sat down to do my listening tests and immediately noticed a problem with the left channel. The music pulsated for a few seconds and then died. Two phono stages and two sets of cables later, I tracked down the problem to either a bad cartridge or a bad set of tonearm connections. Leland quickly dispatched a new cartridge to me. As I was swapping out the cartridge, I discovered that the left channel ground wire was not soldered to its crimp so it was only making intermittent contact with the cartridge. I am proficient at soldering, but not at removing and reinstalling the tonearm which would have been necessary to do the job, so I returned the table for factory repair. Upon its return, I experienced no further problems of any kind. These things happen.

I first put on the latest remastered version of Cat Steven’s Tea for the Tillerman. With the first cut – Why Do the Children Play – I immediately noticed that the presentation was very clear and detailed. The pick on the guitar strings had a fast, clean sound. Vocals were on the slightly forward side of neutral. Compared to my VPI Scout/Dynavector 20X2 combination, it was a little light in the lower midrange and low frequencies, though the bass was well articulated. I moved from my solid-state Meridian G02/557 to a tube PrimaLuna Prologue Premium integrated and was more satisfied overall.

Moving from pop to classical music, I cued up Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 featuring Yo-Yo Ma and the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Eugene Ormandy. Curiously, the cello is panned to the left and is somewhat recessed instead of being out there in the front and center in this recording. The cello was portrayed realistically, with a strong tone, rather than being mushy or overripe, and was free from any edginess in the high notes. Massed strings were well delineated and, like the cello, were free from any harshness or glare. The double basses growled in the background. Overall, the sound was very engaging, though the soundstage was not as wide or deep as I am used to.

Next up was Murray Perahia performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 with the English Chamber Orchestra. The lower notes of the piano were fully fleshed out with a reverberant quality, and the middle range of notes were soft rather than individually set off in sharp relief. No clanginess was evident from the right hand. The piano was quite coherently presented with a laid back mien. I think Murray Perahia’s playing technique was largely responsible for this coherency, being smooth rather than dynamic for this recording. The string sections appeared as a single sound source; pinpoint imaging was not a characteristic of this performance, the recording engineer apparently preferring a wash of sound from the orchestra juxtaposed against the piano. Sustained piano tones were steady, so wow and flutter were not issues. All in all, a convincing representation.

Conclusion

It is not surprising that my three times as expensive VPI Scout/Dynavector 20X2 outperformed the Music Hall MMF-5.1SE/Mojo. Nevertheless, the MMF-5.1SE is a beautiful turntable that is easy to setup, a snap to use, and a competent performer in all respects. It’s double-plinth construction sets it apart from comparably priced entry-level turntables. I would recommend an owner look to one of the inexpensive tube phono stages to warm up the presentation. The turntable itself cost $875, so you are getting the excellent $500 Mojo cartridge for $220. Treat that as a $280 credit toward the purchase of more LPs. More music, more fun.

- Frank Berryman

Contact Information
Music Hall
108 Station Road
Great neck, New York 11023
Telephone: (516) 487-3663
www.musichall.com
info@musichallaudio.com

Associated Equipment

Analog Source: VPI Scout; Dynavector 20X2; Musical Surroundings Phonomena II
Digital Source: Meridian G08; Mac Mini; Wadia 121; Halide Design Bridge and DAC HD; Amarra and Pure Music
Preamplifier: Meridian G02; Meridian G68ADV
Power Amplifier: Meridian 557; PrimaLuna Prologue Premium integrated amplifier
Loudspeakers: Magnepan 1.7; Meridian DSP5500; Silverline Minuet Supreme Plus
Analog Cables: Kimber Select KS1016 and KS1116
Digital Cables: Kimber D60; Meridian Digital Link; Wireworld Starlight USB
Speaker Cables: Kimber Select KS6063 and KS9033
Power Cables: Kimber PK10G and PK14G
Headphones: Etymotic ER-4S
Accessories: GIK acoustic treatments; dedicated 20 amp circuit; Audience aR2p power conditioner