The Rock 7 may look basic, but its ability to pull detail out of a vinyl groove is anything but. If you want to hear the record, not the record player, beat a path to Townshend's door and get hold of one of the most resolute turntables at any price
Solid build and sound quality
Massive resolution for the money
Not the best looking turntable
Set up is a bit of a kerfuffle
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The Townshend Rock 7 is the latest in a long line of affordable variants on the Rock theme – turntables that feature a damping trough full of silicone fluid that sits over the record.
This range started with the original design at the Cranfield Institute of Technology, which became the first Townshend Rock in the early 1980s.
The trough remains the same but the rest of the turntable has been through at least six iterations including the mighty Rock V that we reviewed and rated back in 2008.
In an attempt to build a turntable that is affordable and also incorporates the key technologies that underpin the Rock V, Townshend has decided to offer the Rock 7 in trough-less guise.
The cost is £999, but it doesn't really live up to its billing until you spend another £499 and add a trough, so we decided to review the system as a whole.
The Rock 7 is based around a solid steel plinth which is supported on three pneumatically damped, sprung feet. These are the same feet that are found on the Rock V albeit hidden within the heavily damped chassis.
They consist of a large coil spring within a rubber bellows that has small holes at the top and bottom, these holes slow down the rate at which the springs can move and thus damps the system so that it doesn't bounce up and down like more conventional suspended-sub-chassis turntables.
The feet are designed to keep vibrations in the surface that supports the turntable away from the platter, tonearm and ultimately the bit that reads the vinyl; the stylus.
As the fluctuations in the groove on a piece of vinyl are minute, any vibration that gets to the platter or cartridge via the tonearm will add to the signal being traced by the stylus. So it's essential that the stylus/vinyl interface remains as free from external resonance as it can be. The trough is there for the same reason.
One unusual feature of the Rock 7 is the counter balance on the left hand side of the plinth. This is an adjustable arm where you can add mass to in order to balance the weight of the tonearm and cartridge. It seems a little strange, but that's because there is no adjustment available with the suspension feet.
All other suspended turntables offset this inherent imbalance by offering adjustment of the springs that attach a sub-chassis to the main plinth. Here everything sits on the suspension and while it is possible to adjust the feet to a degree, it's not enough to compensate for the weight of the arm and arm base, which is where the counter balance comes in.
We used an old-style Rega RB300 tonearm on the Rock 7 which required quite a bit of ballast to balance out. Fortunately, the suspension works more effectively with more weight on it. The Rock V for instance, weighs significantly more than this turntable, yet sits on very similar springs.
The Rock 7 has the same platter material as the V, not acrylic, but high-density polyethylene in a distinctive white finish (it was going to be black, but that proved to be too revealing of finger marks). The platter is 39mm thick and differs from the Rock V in lacking a glass layer underneath it.
It sits on a sub-platter in the same material and this rests on a precision, ground-steel bearing in a brass journal. Townshend supplies 'state-of-the-art synthetic oil' to keep it running smoothly.
The motor is suspended on Nytrol bands within a free-standing case with adjustable feet, driving the sub-platter via an o-section belt and pulleys for the usual speeds. The on/off switch is on the same box.
Townshend makes arm bases for Rega, Linn and its own Excalibur II arm as standard, but can supply bases for other arms if required. With all but Townshend arms, you need to clamp the headshell with an outrigger that sits in the silicone goo.
As this is an intrinsic part of the system, it needs to be fixed precisely and solidly. But it also has to be positioned so that the cartridge is aligned, fortunately the outrigger's straight edge makes the alignment process somewhat easier than is usually the case.
Setting up the Rock 7 from scratch proved a little tricky for us, but we have given plenty of feedback to Townshend on how to clarify the instructions. To be fair, we had the earliest example that we could prise out of the company, so didn't expect the smoothest ride. It's essentially quite straightforward: fit the bearing through the sub-platter, clean and oil the journal and let it bed down.
Then fit the tonearm to the base and the outrigger to the headshell along with the cartridge (Townshend supplies an extra counterweight for Rega arms). It pays to follow instructions at this point because the outrigger's 'paddle' needs to sit properly in the trough as it transcribes the record.
The trough can be adjusted so that it fits the arc of the arm via the chunky stainless bolts that hold it to the plinth. You then need to balance the arm with the right amount of weights on the counterbalancing outrigger, then get a spirit level and adjust the position of the outrigger until the turntable is level.
Finally, once everything is appropriately set up, you can fill the trough with silicone fluid. This is the aspect of the design that most people find disconcerting, fearing that the stuff will get on their vinyl. In practise it's not an issue, just remember to wipe off the excess if you take the outrigger out of the trough for any reason. In normal use this is not necessary.
The sonic result is impressive in its sheer resolution – this turntable has much of the neutrality that we found with the Rock V. It gets out of the way and lets you hear what's in the groove be it Keith Jarrett's clanky piano at The Köln concert or Frank Zappa's grungy guitar on Chunga's Revenge. You hear the character of the instruments, voices, venue and recording plain as day.
This Rock has very little in the way of character and the trough has a calming effect on whatever cartridge you use and is, therefore, well suited to designs that otherwise might be a little too edge-of-the-seat, but what you hear is pretty much what the needle is capable of extracting from the disc.
It also does what Rocks have always done well: it produces taut and powerful bass, there is none of the overhang or blowsiness in the lower registers that you often get with vinyl. The bass here is juicy, dynamic and textured when the source allows.
It's closer to digital bass than any other turntable in its price range and has more body than most CD players can muster. Timing is also good, maybe a bit behind the best in class but tight and clean, it's certainly not difficult to appreciate the quality of musicianship on a beautifully timed piece like Rickie Lee Jones' Flying Cowboys, the drumming on this is just sublime.
It also does a superb job with Keith Jarrett's fluidity on the album Changes, his fingers producing a rippling water sound on the piano that is quite extraordinary.
Jeff Beck's rendition of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat delivers all of the atmospheric buzz of the guitar amp alongside the power and dynamics that do this track off the Wired album proud. The calm platform that the turntable offers confers a sense of effortlessness to replay that makes for very convincing instruments and voices and when you've got a great recording you know all about it.
This is partly because the turntable is so good at digging out fine detail; at low and high level you get the full picture of events. It could be more refined and powerful as we've heard with the Rock V, but the fundamental information comes through.
The Rock 7 is a good turntable without the trough, add it and you have a giant-slayer. It's not the prettiest of its ilk, but it represents the most revealing turntable at its price and that is what high fidelity is all about.