With hi-fi (and indeed many other categories of product), it’s easy to be captivated by the constant inrush of new and shiny things hitting the market and ignore devices that have been on sale for longer. In areas where technical progression is rapid, this makes perfect sense; when it boils down to it nobody wants a 10 year old mobile phone. In areas where the rate of development is more measured though, this can be more detrimental. It also ignores the phenomenon that a product can undergo considerable change while remaining on sale.
Take the Roksan Xerxes. The flagship of the Roksan turntable range, a product called Xerxes has been on sale since 1985. You’d be hard pressed to find any mechanical similarity between that original design and the ‘20 Plus’ model on sale now though as every part has been reviewed and improved over several iterations. What hasn’t changed is the premise of the design. The Xerxes is constructed in such a way as to have both an upper and lower chassis and a sub chassis contained within them that mounts the bearing and arm board. As isolating these sections via springs would make the Xerxes very large indeed and give it the structural integrity of a bouncy castle, Roksan instead uses pliant rubber ‘blobs’ (no really; that’s their term for them) to isolate the sections. The only springs you’ll find in a Xerxes are on either side of the motor to create a flexible and isolating restraint.
The platter that this motor drives is a two-piece aluminium design, with the belt acting on the inner piece and a hollow ring sitting on top and leaving a substantial indentation around the middle, covered by a record mat. This is completely deliberate; the premise of the Xerxes is that energy from the turntable is kept away from the record itself and this extends to the spindle being designed to pull off once you have centred the record (you’ll find a little hole in the plinth to store it while the record plays). No part of the Roksan is ‘styling’; it’s all there for a reason and it all works.
You can choose between two Roksan tonearms for your Xerxes and the test sample mounts the newer of the two designs. Called the Sara, it is a uni-pivot design that has no traditional bearings at all. Instead, the arm balances on a tiny contact point that serves to reduce the mechanical coupling between sections. This means you can lift the entire armtube off the deck once the connecting cable plug has been disconnected. Roksan makes a selection of cartridges (and indeed, the Xerxes will happily mount a huge choice of aftermarket cartridges) and the test sample has a Shiraz; their flagship moving coil design. The Shiraz has been around for very nearly as long as the Xerxes but remains a formidable pick up.
All this can very comfortably be described as high end but in one area, the Xerxes makes a surprising nod to lifestyle sensibilities. On all current Xerxes models, the power supply for the motor is external and Roksan makes two models at different price points. What they also do is combine the more sophisticated power supply with their reference phono stage (which includes a special setting specifically for the Shiraz) into a single box called the VSC (Vinyl System Control). This means that the Xerxes can use a single mains socket to present a plug and play connection to your amplifier. If you are momentarily worried that this convenience risks denting performance, you’ll be needing the ‘VSC2’ which has separate power feeds for the phono stage and PSU sections.
In the same way that the design of the Xerxes has been evolving continuously since it launched, the same can be said for the sound too. At its core though is the same intention. The Xerxes is not a device that is intended to grab you buy the scruff of your neck and neither does it make any bold claims about ‘timing’, ‘musicality’ or any of the other buzzwords of audio reviewing. If that sounds a little underwhelming, it really shouldn’t because what the Roksan does instead is a quiet form of magic.
Listen for a short while and the impression is very favourable… but not perhaps the sort of euphoria that you might expect when listening to a device that costs a whisker under thirteen grand. All the basics are there though; the Xerxes has an exceptionally low noise floor which ensures that even the tiniest details escape from the record and pitch stability is absolute rather than merely ‘good.’ Every mechanical aspect of the Xerxes is as you would hope for something wearing this price tag. The Shiraz cartridge tracks sublimely, is impressively resistant to surface noise and, so long as your alignment is good, exhibits not a trace of end of side distortion (the effect of audible distortion creeping in as the tighter grooves at the inside of the record come into play, it requires decent setup of a good stylus profile to avoid).
After a few hours though, all of this technical ability simply melts into a wider perception that the Xerxes lets music happen in the most outstandingly natural and unforced manner. It goes to great lengths to never be the story and instead let the character, emotion and energy of your records shine through. When you started listening, unsure if the performance was a little flat, going back to even very talented rivals feels like they’re creating a caricature of the same recordings. From the very beginning, the Roksan has been about creating the link between you and your music and the 20 Plus ensures that this connection is stronger than ever.
Drag yourself out of your happy stupor and you can appreciate how this is done. The Xerxes creates an effortlessly three dimensional soundstage that grows and shrinks with the music being played. It’s tonally superb too, delivering an unembellished realism across a wide spread of different voices and instruments. The bass response isn’t seismic, it is perhaps the one area where the age of the design and the use of a unipivot arm catch up with it slightly, but it is generally deep enough to convince and has outstanding texture and detail. It’s also worth noting that, while the Xerxes doesn’t make a huge play of the idea of ‘timing’, I suspect you would be unlikely to ever call it ‘slow’ either.
In one regard, the Roksan is every bit as user friendly as a starter turntable. It has a sensible footprint that, when combined with the VSC2’s ability to power the turntable and act as a phono stage using a single mains connection, gives you an extremely efficient use of space and one that most similarly high end solutions cannot get near. It’s also extremely well made and finished. Roksan makes the plinth in three different finishes; black, white and a red wood and the VSC is available in black and silver. Not only is the result handsome in an understated way, it’s likely to work nicely with your other equipment too. It also comes with a lid which sounds like a ‘so what?’ thing until you realise how many other turntables at this price don’t.
You also shouldn’t be alarmed by that price tag either. While it would be unwise to describe any Xerxes as ‘cheap’, you can buy the basic turntable with simpler power supply, Nima arm and a Roksan moving magnet cartridge for a lot less and upgrade the components over time to the ultimate specification device you see here. Not only are there Roksan parts but a number of aftermarket components can be used as well giving the Xerxes huge flexibility. In practical terms, you can start with a Xerxes from around £5,500.
Not everything is quite such good news though. It would be harsh to say that the Xerxes is hard to assemble and set up, but it is more involved than some newer rivals. Roksan supplies most of the tools you need but the process is probably not one for the complete novice. The Sara arm is also something that needs a degree of respect. For a true unipivot, it’s impressively benign but setting it up is naturally going to be a bit more involved than something which can’t wobble from side to side.
The Xerxes hasn’t managed to make it to the cusp of its 40th birthday because Roksan couldn’t be bothered to change it. It’s lasted this long because the basic design is so capable. Judicious upgrades to that design have resulted in a turntable that more than holds its own against newer rivals and that delivers a musical performance that is exceptionally satisfying to listen to and live with.
Kings of Leon Youth and Young Manhood.
Everything the Xerxes does so effectively can be experienced in this riot of noise from the Followill brothers. It’s still a riot and it’s still raw and rough but the Roksan prises the album open to reveal the incredible musicianship beneath.
Peter Gabriel So
Barely younger than the Xerxes, the pop highlight of Gabriel’s career is given the star treatment by the Roksan’s effortless realism and low noise floor that ensures that the wonderful fine detail brings the album to life.
The Comet is Coming Channel the Spirits
Listen to this record on a less sublimely talented turntable and it’s a bit of a mess. Let the Xerxes work its magic though and you are treated to a spellbinding piece of modern jazz that is exceptionally enjoyable.
If you’re looking for a high end turntable that doesn’t take up acres of room and that requires you to spend half your life dusting it, the Xerxes is where you should start looking. If you love the sonic balance of your existing system, the almost self-effacing way that it goes about making music will complement it without altering the overall sonic style.