Review: Symbol Audio Modern Record Console
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A bigger problem is that even when restored to assembly line spec, these vintage consoles fall short in the critical listening department. To address these sonic shortcomings, several companies have in recent years started peddling updated consoles with fancy amps, top-shelf turntables, and premium speakers. Some examples: the Wren HIFI M1 Console Stereo, with bachelor pad aesthetics and exotic woods, and the Zu Modern Console No. 1, which features maglev construction to isolate the turntable from the shock waves generated by a 1,000-watt subwoofer. None of this comes cheap. Bespoke hi-fi products never do. The M1 goes for $16,500. Yikes is right. That explains why the web is rife with DIY stereo console projects This guy refinished and retrofitted a Sears Silvertone with high-end stereo components, including a power conditioner, subwoofer, and a wireless transmitter that syncs to a pair of outdoor speakers. Likewise, this video shows a 1960s German stereo console modded to stream music via Bluetooth.
If you can afford it, though, the undisputed winner in this niche—and not by a small margin—is Symbol Audio’s Modern Record Console. Weighing 300 pounds and measuring 66 inches long, the Console is what’s known among interior designers as a “statement piece,” something so breathtakingly conspicuous that everything else in the room basks in its aura, like planets revolving around the sun. With its bench-made black walnut cabinet, steel pedestal base (painted to suggest a tasteful oxidized patina), and minimalist lines, this console perfectly melds Old World craftsmanship, machine age design, and Scandanavian cool. At $19,995, it’s also the best coffin lid console money can buy.Symbol
This handsome stereo-in-a-box doesn’t cater to the fastidious audiophile crowd. Instead, it caters to the fastidious Dwell magazine crowd, discerning and well-heeled consumers who appreciate good sound but can’t bear the sight of bloated cables, cumbersome speakers, and stacked amps bejeweled with vulgar LEDs. None of this is to suggest the hardware is second-rate. The analog goodness exceeds the minimum requirement for audio porn by a significant margin. The crown jewel is a custom-made 2×15-watt push-pull amp that features glowing, EL84 vacuum tubes and large, hand-wound, block transformers that project a heavy McIntosh 275 vibe. Fifteen watts per channel may strike some as anemic, but it’s more than enough to drive efficient speakers like the 6.5-inch, single-driver Omega cubes that flank the cabinet like Wall-E’s eyes. A 250-watt amp powers an 8-inch Omega sub. Rounding out the analog mix is the Pro-Ject RPM 5.1 SE belt drive manual turntable, fitted with an ultra-rigid carbon fiber tonearm and a Sumiko Blue Point No. 2, a spiffy moving coil cartridge. Turntable isolation is managed by three fat discs of Sorbothane, a synthetic viscoelastic urethane polymer prized by NASA engineers for its excellent vibration damping properties. There’s also an integrated preamp designed by ENG Vista. In a complicated world, there’s something to be said for having only three preamp selections etched on the faceplate: Phono, Auxiliary, and Wi-Fi.We’re not audiophiles or fantastic engineers. We’re furniture design guys. The truth is we built the MRC because it didn’t exist. Symbol Audio co-founder Blake Tovin Symbol Audio offers an Apple AirPort Express or a Sonos Connect to stream media content—no extra charge. For those who prefer to upgrade, there’s ample space in the Modern Record Console’s secret compartment (the front panel slides off) to accommodate custom configurations. For instance, a Mac Mini server, feeding whatever the $500 DAC du jour happens to be, would provide a significant bump in digital fidelity and still permit the convenience of operating the Console in couch potato mode via tablet or smartphone.
Unlike its competitors, Symbol Audio doesn’t do veneer. Every cabinet is painstakingly crafted from American walnut. It’s a killer piece of furniture. Symbol Audio co-founder Blake Tovin estimates it takes more than 100 man-hours to make each one, and much of that time is devoted to woodwork. Is that then the reason for the crazy-exorbitant cost?
According to Tovin, the Modern Record Console originally sold for $26,000. But even the wealthy are price-sensitive; though many inquiries were made, no orders were taken. Whittling the asking a shade below $20K seems to have done the trick. That may still sound dear, but Symbol Audio is only charging the standard retail markup. “We can only produce one or two MRCs a month,” Tovin says. “Except for the turntable, everything is custom: the amps, the water-jet-cut plate that fits over the components, the ¼-inch, hand-painted, plate steel pedestal. Even the shipping crates are built by hand.” That’s right, giant shipping crates—the massive console is shipped in one piece, and the only assembly required is dropping the turntable in the cabinet and connecting it to the internal phono stage.
Mr. Tovin’s mood brightens once the nasty business of price points is dispensed with, and he becomes animated when asked what the inspiration was for the original Modern Record Console prototype built in his Hudson Valley workshop: “Early Dieter Rams, late ’50s Danish furniture, ’60s Clairtone stereo consoles, and those ’70s all-in-one Bang & Olufsen units.” As if to advertise his minimalist design roots, there’s a Beocenter 7700 console and a pair of S-45 Beovox speakers on display in Tovin’s Symbol Audio office.
“Beautiful, integrated audio pieces don’t exist anymore,” Tovin says with genuine regret. “We started this business out of sheer love and ignorance. We’re not audiophiles or fantastic engineers. We’re furniture design guys. The truth is we built the MRC because it didn’t exist.”
Symbol Audio can’t afford a showroom. The next best thing is paying a visit to the John Varvatos clothing emporium on Madison Avenue in New York. Just past the entrance, beneath a snazzy pair of matching mid-century mirrors, is a Modern Record Console, in situ, so to speak. Varvatos, a clothing designer who collects vintage audio gear the way other designers collect air kisses, encourages his staff to spin vinyl and stream tunes to boost morale and set the appropriate retail mood.
Mr. Varvatos has been known to troll Craigslist late at night for vintage McIntosh equipment. That’s how much he’s smitten with classic audio design. It’s also why he’s such a fan of the Modern Record Console, and goes a long way toward explaining why he’s Symbol Audio’s unofficial worldwide distributor. His console blends in with the racks of $2,000 skinny-fit motorcycle jackets and $1,400 made-in-Milan sport coats like a Hollywood prop. Even the most jaded New Yorkers can’t help themselves. They pause and glance beneath the lid, like children sneaking a peek at a present on Christmas Eve. Everyone wants to know: “How much?” When the price is quoted, nobody flinches because the thing looks like it belongs in the MoMA permanent collection. You can almost see the wheels turning upstairs: “Should I move to a larger place? Will it fit through the door?”Symbol
And what does this sophisticated and discriminating clientele have to say about the Console’s sound quality? Salesman Dexter Cicero seems perplexed by the question. “The console sounds incredible, but customers never make comments about how the music sounds. They fall in love with the modern look.” He hesitates, perhaps wondering if he should mention how seamlessly the console’s WiFi rig streams songs from the Sonos app on his iPhone. Instead, he shares some shop gossip, which is far more interesting: “All I can say is that these things are really expensive, and we’ve already sold six of them.”
The Symbol Audio headquarters, situated in the quaint Hudson valley village of Nyack, New York, isn’t the ideal space to audition an expensive piece of audio equipment: concrete floors; large, exposed windows; hard surfaces aplenty; and not a single carpet or acoustic panel to soften the sonic blow. For a stereo demo, though, it still beats a trendy designer store in Manhattan during a Summer 1/2 OFF SALE. Besides, when it comes to custom audio products, reviewers can’t be choosy. Low production numbers and sporadic orders means taking your Modern Record Console where you find it.
This place may be off the urban path, but it’s a trip worth taking. Nothing compares to seeing this handmade walnut box in person. It’s the most stunning piece of modern furniture to come down the pike since the Great Dane invasion of the 1950s. Gaze upon the matching wood grain and the glowing EL84 tubes. This is what a $20,000 console looks like.
When the needle drops on a Billy Holiday disc, the MRC comes to life, filling the large, industrial space with enough dBs to float a raucous Molly fest. The Omega drivers project a credible and surprisingly open soundstage. The music is rich, full, and sounds distinctively high-end, with enough detail throughout the dynamic range—from the highs to the kick drums—to satisfy critical listeners. In fact, when the MRC hit the audio show circuit, the armchair critics were pleasantly impressed. “I was prepared for the hardcore audiophiles to tear us apart,” says Tovin. “But they were really quite supportive. They tend to talk about the stereo console that their parents owned.”
Switching to wireless mode, the AirPort Express kicks in, and the SQ takes a nosedive. Digital files sound muddy, flat, and undefined. It turns out that the Modern Record Console’s Wi-Fi streaming is as bad as its record playing is good. Tovin says most of his customers accept the lo-fi tradeoff for the convenience of playing music wirelessly. This may be true, but if you’re going to invest $20,000 in a sound system, there’s no reason to live with a crappy AirPort DAC chip from Shenzhen. The good news is that this is a relatively cheap fix. Routing the signal through a $150 Meridian DAC, plugged into Tovin’s MacBook, bumped up the resolution appreciably. Of course, Symbol Audio will gladly customize a Wi-Fi setup for any client who wants to enhance the digital front end. Tovin says his sound engineer has achieved excellent results with a $350 Schiit Bifrost DAC.
Serious question: Should you buy the Modern Record Console? If you are stupid-rich, have a thing for modern design, and your interior designer insists that a stereo would clash with the Pollock, absofreakinglutely. Pull out that black AmEx and give Mr. Tovin a call. For everyone else: Are you crazy? Selling Apple stock, raiding college funds, and taking out a home equity loan to finance your degenerate audiophile fantasy is something you will regret. When Fitzgerald said, “The rich are different from you and me,” he wasn’t kidding. They have nicer stereos.Go Back to Top. Skip To: Start of Article.