There are few audio designers more imposing than Touraj Moghaddam, a towering Iranian expatriate of impressive eloquence and wit. His piercingly intense eyes betray a lively sense of humor. When Touraj speaks, his powerful voice and quick intellect enable him to project his ideas about audio design with great passion. In short, when Touraj talks about high-end audio, you’d better be on your A-game because he’s a master of the subject, and keen to engage, debate, argue, and inform. I warmed to him immediately.
History and development
Touraj Moghaddam was born in Iran in 1958 but decided to move to England without his parents in 1973 at the tender age of 15 to continue his education at the famous Kimbolton School, where he boarded. During his childhood, he had fallen in love with music and was fascinated by the way record players reproduced music from a vinyl disc seemingly like magic. After school, he studied mechanical engineering at Imperial College London. While at university, he joined the Audio Engineering Society and met many like-minded souls, all of them obsessed with audio reproduction. After graduation, he stayed on at Imperial until 1985, designing wind turbines and cutting his teeth on various complex engineering challenges.
Touraj Moghaddam with a brace of Vertere turntables
Touraj was living with a friend in Holland Park in West London and still doing research at Imperial when he saw a TV documentary about Thelonious Monk that included a sequence from the Complete Riverside Recordings. He noticed that the song from the documentary soundtrack sounded better played on their VHS video recorder than the LP did on his Linn Sondek LP12 turntable. He spent around a year talking to turntable manufacturers and attending hi-fi shows, seeking to understand the design principles for the leading turntables of the time. Touraj wasn’t thinking of building his own turntable. He just wanted to learn which aspects of turntable engineering were most important so he could enhance the performance of his own record spinner.
By early 1985, Touraj had designed his first record player—like SME founder Alastair Robertson-Aikman, he wasn’t satisfied with commercially available products. His local hi-fi dealer was so impressed with the performance of the prototype that he asked if Touraj could produce it commercially, and the enigmatically named Roksan Xerxes was born. The Xerxes was one of the few elite turntables that was seen by the British hi-fi press as a match for the Linn Sondek LP12. Significant sales success followed and the firm, led by its dashing young entrepreneur, was on its way. Roksan expanded quickly and eventually its range included tonearms (Tabriz and Artemiz), amplifiers, and CD players, culminating in the legendary Roksan ROK DP1 top-loading CD player that I lusted after in my youth.
Back in the day, Roksan was legendary for its astonishing room designs at hi-fi shows. I recall one year at the Heathrow Penta show when they turned their room into a magnificent Egyptian temple, complete with stone walls, turntables mounted on stone pillars, hieroglyphics, and other ancient ephemera. There were even rumors of a new super tonearm to be called Cambyses, named after the king of the Archaemenid empire. Sadly, the Cambyses proved too expensive to manufacture and so never reached production. Roksan continued to prosper until Touraj and his partner disagreed on its future direction. In 2006, Touraj left to plough his own furrow with Vertere.
Vertere’s factory is in a modest modern industrial unit in the northwest part of London, not far from the legendary Abbey Road Studios. The ground floor is dedicated to production and assembly while the upper floor houses the company offices and a vast listening area equipped with a stunning audio system and one of the biggest record collections I have ever seen!
The listening room
Over 10,000 vinyl records and priceless acetates fill the wall-mounted shelves. At the far end of the room, three Vertere turntables stand looking suitably regal on Vertere’s very own Stand-1 equipment supports. They comprise the RG-1 Reference Groove (from $39,995, all prices USD), SG-1 Super Groove (from $26,995), and MG-1 Magic Groove (from $15,995). Vertere’s signature color is orange so the Stand-1’s verticals are finished in the same orange metallic as the premium HB cables and Sabre moving-magmnet cartridge. With their acrylic hardware, these opulent support tables make an impressive sight in the dim mood lighting.
Vertere’s SG-1, MG-1, and RG-1 turntables on Vertere Stand-1 supports
On the right-hand flank there is an array of electronics, including some vintage pieces of Roksan hardware, Vertere’s entry-level DG-1S Dynamic Groove turntable (from $4985), and even a Linn LP12. Lining the walls are signed limited-edition prints of famous rock musicians such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Phil Collins, and Paul McCartney. The loudspeakers are PMC’s sublime MB2 studio monitors. Amplification is from Swiss brand FM Acoustics—so no expense has been spared on the electronics!
PMC’s awesome MB2 studio monitors with their jet-intake-style woofer cooling
Between the huge listening area and the offices is an array of fascinating memorabilia, including rare Pink Floyd box sets personally signed by Nick Mason, vintage samurai-style swords, and selected frames of the original Kill Bill: Volume 1 35mm film stock. When Touraj needs to thrash away the stresses of corporate life, there’s a large acoustic drum kit beside his desk with cymbals signed by Mason. This whole area is a temple to music built by a man who has devoted his life to reproducing it accurately.
Pink Floyd box set signed by drummer Nick Mason
Given Touraj’s history with Roksan, it’s surprising that Vertere’s first products weren’t turntables, but interconnects. Touraj felt that cables were the weakest link in most audio systems in those days, so he could see little point engineering a better CD player or turntable until he had developed better cables to connect them with. The cable side still represents around half of Vertere’s business.
Like everything Vertere makes, cables are assembled in-house from components designed by Touraj and supplied by a range of specialized British and German firms, all of them experts in their respective fields. In this respect, Vertere is more like Michell Engineering and Linn Products than SME, who do metal cutting and anodizing in-house.
For the same reason, Touraj designed the Reference tonearm before he developed the RG-1 turntable—the idea was always to start designing something better than the weakest link in the chain. “Without a better tonearm, you can’t hear the deficiencies in the turntable you’re trying to develop,” Touraj explained.
Not many CEOs have a drum kit beside their desk!
An army fights on its stomach and Touraj knows how to entertain! After some brief introductions, he whisked his PR representative, Stephen Harris, and me to a magnificent lunch in a Lebanese restaurant just around the corner from the factory. The conversation flowed as freely as the cold beer, so I left my audio recorder running through lunch as Touraj described the firm’s history and espoused his theories on audio design while we savoured a vast array of meats, flatbreads, humous, and tabbouleh. He talks fast, switching subjects rapidly while explaining complex engineering principles with copious and often humorous examples. At times Steve and I were struggling to keep up with the torrent of engineering theory coming our way. It was invigorating though, like standing under a waterfall of audio information and trying not to drown!
After lunch, Touraj took us on a tour of the ground-floor assembly area. The whole factory has the surgical air of an operating theater. Raw components are meticulously boxed and indexed by location in towering component racks on the walls. Every product going through assembly has a detailed build sheet that denotes the serial number, where the order came from, where the product is going, and the required specification. There’s no rubbish and no clutter—this is precision engineering done the Vertere way.
One of the cleanest assembly areas anywhere
Assembly procedures are meticulously documented in a huge array of ring-bound manuals that describe in intricate detail how each product is to be made. I’ve visited many factories and I don’t think I have ever seen such a comprehensive set of production manuals anywhere. Vertere is determined to ensure that every turntable or set of cables sounds identical to the next one on the line. The firm understands that it’s vital that the turntable a customer hears at a dealer sounds identical to the one they later hear at home. The standards of fit and finish I observed in the assembly area are exemplary. The cables, especially the flagship HB cables, are a feast for the eyes—and the ears too, one suspects. The manuals don’t just assure consistent quality, they also serve as training resources for new hires.
Extract from a Vertere assembly manual
Take the Pulse-HB cables ($9250) as an example: This cable uses various bespoke internal conductor designs to provide the ultimate in quality. The conductors are all constructed from scratch using high-purity copper with strands of different diameters. Each strand gets silver- or tin-plated as required. The resulting bare conductors are then individually insulated, and then twisted, shield-wrapped, shield-braided, and coated with a unique outer covering. The RCA, DIN, and XLR terminations on Vertere’s interconnects are unique to the company. With their gold anodizing, they are among the most visually impressive cable terminations I have ever seen.
Vertere cable terminations are impressive
Turntable assembly is undertaken in a special build area using custom jigs. During my visit, a number of DG-1S turntables were being assembled. The production scheduling is flexible, so that the factory can adapt to whatever products are required. Staff are trained to build different products so that production schedules can be met despite staff absences or leave.
Vertere turntable-assembly jig
Printed circuit boards for Vertere’s range of electronics, which include turntable power supplies and phono stages, come in from suppliers ready-assembled. The firm uses a mixture of surface-mount and through-hole components depending on the product requirements and the availability of parts.
Electronics boards come pre-populated
The cartridge build area is a dedicated room off the main assembly area. Extensive testing is performed on each element before build commences. At the time of my visit, Vertere offered three cartridges: the basic Magneto moving magnet, which looks like an Audio-Technica derivative ($399), the step-up Sabre moving coil ($1299), and the Mystic moving coil ($3599), until recently Vertere’s flagship cartridge. A couple of weeks after my visit, Vertere announced a new flagship moving-coil cartridge, the XtaX ($6499), and a new moving-magnet model, the Dark Sabre ($1599). For the four higher-end models, cantilevers and generators are built by Namiki of Japan, but they are assembled in the Vertere factory using their own personnel. Digital microscopes are used to check the alignment of the styli on the cantilevers. All cartridges are assembled, aligned, measured, and tested by hand.
Vertere cartridge build station
Vertere works to higher tolerances than many of their suppliers, so parameters like channel balance may meet the supplier’s specification yet fall short of Vertere’s requirements. Only the very best components make it into a finished cartridge bound for retail. The remainder are discarded or used as “B-spec” items by staff.
Vertere Sabre moving-magnet cartridge rejects
Vertere has electronic measurement rigs mounted on mobile trollies that can be taken to wherever they are needed in the factory to fault test and ensure optimum production quality. Others are located in fixed positions where frequent testing is performed, e.g., the cartridge assembly area.
Mobile test rig can be deployed wherever needed
It’s clear that Vertere is utterly meticulous and scientific in everything they do. The breadth of products being manufactured for export all over the world in what is a pretty small factory took me by surprise.
Precision turntable main bearing assembly
Design and engineering approach
After touring the manufacturing area, I was keen to explore the Vertere design philosophy in more detail, so we retired with a coffee to the upstairs listening area, where I asked Touraj to explain more about his unusual designs.
Component racks line the walls
From the very beginning, Touraj approached the task of designing a turntable as a mechanical instrument whose purpose is to measure the vinyl groove with respect to time as accurately as possible. As Touraj explained, if the profile of a diamond stylus is 0.3 microns, by definition, the stylus cannot measure anything smaller. He has a fundamental understanding of the parameters that affect turntable performance. For example, Vertere eschews the use of conventional drive belts, which Touraj refers to as “O-rings.” He argues that they cannot be manufactured accurately enough. This leads to speed instability. Instead, Vertere uses extruded belts made in England, which Touraj says offer far greater consistency of manufacture. Vertere’s drive systems use AC motors instead of the more commonly used DC motors. As Touraj points out, DC motors require continuous servo control and so are constantly chasing the correct speed. He made the same argument against direct drive designs, emphatically stating that their reliance on servos means they suffer from the same problem.
Vertere’s flagship RG-1 turntable arrived in 2013
Vertere’s first turntable, the flagship RG-1, launched in 2013. Since then, the firm has simplified this original design and gradually introduced more affordable models. All of the Vertere turntables use acrylic plinths of differing suspension complexity. Vertere favors acrylic because it can be accurately machined and is relatively inert. None of their turntables have a conventionally suspended subchassis, but they do have their own unique suspension design that relies on tuned rubber isolation mounts to isolate the different levels of the turntable from each other. These rubber mounts are designed to be laterally very stiff while offering some vertical compliance. The turntable’s feet are connected to the top plate and the rest of the assembly hangs from that.
Touraj agrees that conventional suspended subchassis designs, as pioneered by Edward Vilchur with the original AR turntable of the 1960s and refined by firms such as Ariston, Linn, and Thorens, are quite effective at eliminating external vibrations such as feedback. Where they fall down is in suppressing internally induced movements such as oscillations caused by the motor torque on the platter. The Vertere suspension system works as a single system in unison with the arm, cartridge, and record interface. Touraj fervently believes that unwanted movement of the cartridge in the groove is the main culprit in degrading the performance of any record playing system, and he feels that conventional suspension systems often contribute to these losses by shifting unpredictably. Suspension systems that rock too much in reaction to external or internal vibrations or torque effects mean that there is no fixed point of reference for the tonearm, platter, and cartridge to measure the groove.
Vertere uses an unusual suspension design
Vertere designs incorporate several unique approaches to achieve this goal of eliminating unwanted stylus movement. One such feature is the Acetal motor platform, which is free to rotate, thus enabling the drive belt tension to remain constant. The motor is aligned using three spike-pointed screws to couple it to the motor platform. Precision bearings are used to articulate the aluminium motor housing, enabling it to move. This makes the motor continuously synchronous and equalizes belt tension. A spring provides a centering force on the motor platform to bring it back to center. By contrast, when a conventional belt-drive turntable runs, the motor will cog, causing the belt tension to constantly change. Vertere’s compliant motor mount aims to even out the effects of cogging mechanically.
In addition, Vertere manufactures its own turntable power supply units. These generate a pure sine wave in the digital domain which is then converted to analog via an onboard DAC. Two waveforms are derived, a cosine and a sine, which are then amplified using two bridged amplifiers to drive the motor. These supplies aim to reduce the level of motor vibration further, lowering the amount of unwanted stylus movement in the groove.
Vertere Stand-1 stand, Stage-1 isolation platform, and flagship power supplies
Tonearm design is another area where Vertere departs from the mainstream. The firm manufactures four different tonearms. With its five-layer sandwich construction, the entry-level Groove Runner S looks like nothing else on the market. This arm comes preinstalled on the DG-1S turntable but is no longer available separately. Next up are the Super Groove Precision (from $2995) with Vertere’s standard internal wiring and Super Groove Precision XB (from $4995) with premium XB internal wiring. The Reference Gen III flagship ($64,995) incorporates Vertere’s unique Tri-Pivot Articulated (TPA) bearing, which is said to offer all the benefits of a unipivot design (low friction, lower bearing loads, lower bearing surface area) without the disadvantages (bearing chatter). A true unipivot will skate about at its bearing point as the tonearm moves side to side and up and down (chatter). The TPA is self-centering, thus eliminating bearing skating and resulting in more precise location of the stylus in the groove.
A batch of Vertere Groove Runner-S tonearms ready for mounting
All of these tonearms benefit from Vertere’s unique cable expertise, which aims to provide the most linear sonic response possible at their given price point. As you would expect, the highest echelons of the turntable range benefit from their most exotic cabling options.
The MG-1 and SG-1 have single-piece aluminium platters derived from the more complex two-piece platter in the RG-1. The platter is fitted with a 3mm acrylic mat that has cutouts in the area of the record label to maintain optimum coupling between the record and the platter. Touraj doesn’t like vacuum-assist platters or clamps. In fact, he designs his turntables with a detachable centre spindle to reduce the amount of vibration transferred to the record surface by the bearing. He maintains that vacuum-assist platters and clamps couple the record surface too closely to the main bearing, transmitting vibrations that a good turntable should seek to minimize. As the owner of a GyroDec and a lover of SME turntables and the Townshend Rock, all of which use a clamp to couple the record to the platter and eliminate warps, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. Perhaps that’s the most interesting thing about turntables—every engineer seems to have a different philosophy on what constitutes the ideal.
Vertere’s flagship RG-1 in action and showing a glimpse of the unique suspension
It’s clear that Touraj has a unique vision of how to design a class-leading turntable. We spent a great deal of time in his listening room kicking back and enjoying some great records. He’s an amiable companion and takes great delight in sharing his enormous record collection with anyone who happens to be visiting. On my first day, we were still playing records at 8:30 p.m. and narrowly avoided being too late to catch dinner at a local restaurant! That’s the thing about truly great systems, time runs away and nobody ever wants the session to end. It was a real treat to hear a very rare Beatles acetate, which was a gift from Miles Showell, lead cutting engineer at Abbey Road Studios. Suffice to say the quality was stunning.
Vertere Mystic moving-coil cartridge
Vertere has developed very close ties with the Abbey Road Studios, to the extent that Miles Showell now uses a Vertere turntable to check his lacquer cuts. In addition, Giles Martin, son of the legendary George Martin, uses a Vertere turntable at home and in demonstrations he gives of new Beatles remasters. That’s a strong endorsement from two leading industry figures who can hear the original Beatles master tapes played back in one of the finest studio control rooms in the world.
Touraj would argue that this is the whole point of what he is trying to accomplish. He repeatedly stated that the only true reference is the original master. All of his designs are an attempt to get as close to the sound of that master as possible at a given cost. He has very specific design aims, and I found myself agreeing with many of them. Hi-fi shouldn’t be about achieving sound that’s made pleasant through euphonic coloration. It should be about replicating the sound of the original recording as closely as possible. In his turntables, cables, and phono stages, Touraj seeks to do just that by minimizing these components’ footprint on the sound. As the man says, “Vertere’s mission is to bring the performance of audio systems at home as close as possible to the original master, in other words, what the musicians, mastering, and cutting engineers intended for us to hear.” This objective strongly correlates with my own preferences and it’s one of the reasons why I run ATC loudspeakers and tend to gravitate towards studio monitor brands like ATC, PMC, and Dynaudio. I feel they get closer to the sound of the studio master and the dynamics of live music than most hi-fi brands.
Not content just to manufacture replay equipment, Vertere is now home to a record label with a growing roster of artists. This has enabled Touraj to directly compare the performance of his vinyl spinners with the original master recordings he has heard during sessions. This exposure to the studio process has proved invaluable in further refining Vertere’s products.
Vertere MG-1 inbound for review
As my two days at Vertere drew to a close, we discussed future review opportunities. I have a Mystic MC cartridge waiting for installation in the SME Series IV tonearm mounted on my GyroDec. A review of the MG-1 turntable is scheduled for early 2024. My gut feel says that the MG-1 is probably the sweet spot in the range, it’s expensive enough to incorporate a lot of the technologies from the flagship RG-1 while being affordable enough to be a realistic proposition for many audiophiles with a passion for vinyl. If what I heard in the demo room is anything to go by, I have some epic listening sessions to look forward to. Watch SoundStage! Ultra for more about Vertere Acoustics soon.
Senior Contributor, SoundStage!