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Reviewer: Edward Barker
Turntables: Scheu Premier II, Garrard 301, Garrard 401, Systemdek Transcription, Thorens TD320, Thorens TD160
Arms: Shroeder DPS, Cartridge Man Conductor, Hadcock 242 SE, Ortofon 212, Mission 774, ET2
Cartridges: Allaerts MC2 Finish, Cartridge Man Music Maker 2 & 3, Koetsu Urushi, Madrigal MC1, Empire MC1000, Shure V15
Phono amplification: Tom Evans Groove Plus, Tron Seven (in for review), DIY Lite Audio, Garrard Missing Link II, Gram Era Gold V
Preamp: Canary 903
Power amps: Canary 339 monoblocks with WE 300Bs. BBC AM8/4A monoblocks, Alter Philips Monoblocks, Beard 100, various Rotel and Yamaha solid state integrateds
Speakers: Living Voice OBXR2, DIY project open baffle Isophon, DIY project horn with TAD 4001, Martin Seddon Le Cleach horns, Coral mids and high frequency units (suggestion for bass units welcome!)
Ancillaries: Clearlight Audio NFT cabling; Silver Arrow cabling and mains leads; Audiomagic Mini Stealth conditioner for digital; Incognito wiring on Conductor and Hadcock 242, Living Voice Mystic Matt, Boston Audio Graphite Matt, Cartridge Man Isolators and setuo tools, Dr. Feickert protracto.
Review component retails: £1500.00 with standard wiring
All right, I admit it. I've got a thing about tone arms. For a long time, I've had this sneaking suspicion that all things being equal, the tone arm is the most critical part of the analogue setup. Which is nonsense of course because all things aren't equal and the issue of what's most critical doesn't really crop up in those terms. But that's how we think. Audiophiles. Classic dealer speak had the buyer ranking the setup as turntable - tone arm - cartridge. To some extent, that's still true. Why? Because you can't make up for serious flaws in a main bearing. Or for a heavy mass platter that's inaccurately machined; or a floppy suspension system; or a noisy motor that's inadequate for its load. Or rather, that's mostly true. The Mystic Matt might actually be manna from heaven to remedy some of this deadness that can plague massive platters. But the general point remains valid.
However, if you have found a good turntable (and there are many of them, from the stratospherically priced right down to the Scheu, Kuzma or the venerable Garrard 301/401) then sonically it is the arm -- and its relationship to the turntable and the cartridge -- which will have the biggest influence over the overall sound of the turntable. It is often the arm and its inherent limitations that will be the dam that's blocking the full richness and openness of a good analog system from gushing forth freely. Just as there are quite a number of good turntables at any given price level, so there is quite the choice of excellent cartridges. There isn't, however and in my experience, an equal abundance of high-performance tone arms.
Now that we have seen the resurgence of non-suspended tables, it has been possible to take a fresh look at the virtues of the unipivot. Conventional unipivots like the Morch UP4 provided a radical approach to the problem. But if we take a closer look at the key issues of analog setup as Van Den Hul taught us to do (just imagine the turntable being of such a size that you can stand comfortably in a groove whose walls will reach way above your head), then some of the flaws of the unipivots emerge more clearly. Given those are simply balancing on a needle and that the groove is shaking the cantilever up and down and from side to side with great energy, it's not surprising that the arm will tremble in response. Further, on this scale of magnification, every record will be hugely warped. In response, the arm will wobble eccentrically on two planes. With the Morch, you can actually watch this happening if you look at the reflection in the counterweight. It's amazing these arms produce fairly non-distorted sound at all, let alone the lovely analog bloom they are capable of.
But there have been crucial refinements on the basic unipivot, including Hadcock's ingenious addition of 4 tiny ball bearings in the pivot point to have the needle sit in a considerably more secure environment. This solution has a lot going for it without having to go down the liquid damping route which, while great in theory, often can be disappointing sonically. The Hadcock's performance is a testament to the merit of its implementation. There have been other attempted solution, from Audiomeca's outriggers to Graham's magnets. Yet it took Schroeder's magnet-and-string bearing to really let the conventional unipivot arm loose to compete with the true kings of the analog jungle, the great air bearings: the Airtangent, Forsell, Kuzma, Rockport and Walker, to name the more famous. These names read like the Gotha of HiF and the prices of these arms reflect this reality. They are all complex works of the engineering art and anyone who has owned one will know how difficult they can be to set up and maintain; how fantastic they can sound when it's all going right; and how frustrating they can be when the wind takes against you.
But so can pivoted arms. Goodness. Suppose you use a cartridge that is highly sensitive to small variations in antiskating like a Koetsu Urushi. Try then to set your pivoted arm up for different tracks on the record. There is no arm I know of that successfully deals with the fact that there are different vectors of centrifugal pressure at different points. It's no good to gradually increase or decrease pressure. The most elegant and sonically convincing solution I've come across is again the Schroeder, where the degree of antiskating one can apply is satisfyingly and remarkably precise for the point one chooses to use.
The Cartridge Man has been producing the Music Maker Cartridge for years. Over time and iterations, its reputation has grown considerably. Properly set up and with a sympathetic arm and turntable, it can turn in a performance which can rival some of the really fine moving coils available today. Or more accurately, it will give a different presentation, which many find as attractive. As a tracker, I suspect it hasn't got any real competition. Leonard Gregory has spent the last fifteen years designing this cartridge on a Forsell and he decided to follow up his famous cartridge with an air bearing arm that will provide the best conditions for his cartridge to perform in. To do so, he took the air bearing principle and simplified it as far as he could. There are no complicated towers on this arm. No VTA on the fly. It's been stripped right down to what is essential. I can't help but think that this has been the correct choice. From a sonic point of view, this is a very special arm indeed. The other important thing to remember about this arm is that it's a low pressure rather than the high pressure type that was pioneered by the ET2 and is used by most of the other air bearings today. This simplifies many of the engineering hurdles and will, I suspect, help with the long-term performance and maintenance of the arm.
The circular aluminium head shell is glued to a thin hollow carbon arm wand, through which the wiring travels. The arm wand is screwed down to the air bearing traveller with two screws, allowing for some play in the distance in which the arm chassis is mounted. A small brass counterweight attaches via a grub screw. The complete arm wand is attached to the outer bearing traveller tube via a circular aluminium plate held in place by two screws. This of course affords azimuth adjustment. The highly polished stainless steel outer bearing tube rides over the equally finely machined air bearing tube itself which has about a dozen fine nozzles machined into the tube's apex. The tube is bolted to a rugged steel chassis, to which a support stud is fitted with four adjustable grommets. These allow for fine adjustments of setup in both dimensions. Unusually for an air bearing, the air is pumped into the bearing tube from both ends and the inner chamber is divided into two sections. This ingeniously solves the problems inherent in the single chamber approach where air pressure tends to be higher at one end than the other.
In the basic version, the wiring comes directly out of the arm tube in two butterfly wings before rejoining the chassis and being led into two female RCAs. The RCAs chosen are pretty simple and occasionally need to be turned to restore the signal. The Incognito version has a full run of wiring to the phonostage and this is the option I have no hesitation in recommending. The hydraulic lift works beautifully, something of a feat with air bearings.
Of course with all air bearings, there's a difference between the effective horizontal and vertical mass the cartridge sees. In some cases, this can be a whopping difference (ET2), but while there might be an issue as far as cartridge wear is concerned, an arm like the Dynavector 507 is in fact specifically designed with this goal in mind. In other words, it's not necessarily a disadvantage. In the end the judgement, as with all things audio, must be made with our ears.
With the SME V, a standard for tone arm construction was set that was probably only reached by a few other arms, including the Schroeder Reference and Air Tangent. These are no-holds-barred statement arms and a tactile joy. I was playing a Schroeder Reference the other day. I felt that even if it didn't provide any sonic improvement over the dps, I still would like to get one because of the tactile pleasure it gives.
My pre-production prototype of the Conductor isn't in this Rolls Royce league. What we get instead are construction costs based entirely on sonic performance. Where it counts is where the money goes. So the bearing tube with its accompanying arm shaft gleams with a deep shine. Materials are chosen for sonic reasons. The pump is a common fish tank pump while the pressure chamber is a simple see-through plastic tank. But you know what? They work perfectly well. The pump's pressure affects sonics. While I'm still learning to adjust it, a ball park figure is around the 1/3rd power position. While you'll get a specially manufactured pump with complex filtration for the Airtangent, it remains to be seen whether that actually provides significant sonic benefits.
Setup, mounting issues and learning curve
Every air bearing arm has its own idiosyncrasies and issues. Ordinarily I prefer to spend a lot of time with a component before reviewing it but in this case, the sound is exciting enough to come out earlier than I'd ideally like. But I'll be returning to it later as I learn more about the arm.
The standard mounting base is a cylindrical aluminium tube using the familiar grub screw method. I wanted to mount the arm on my Garrard 301 so I made a decoupled birch ply support which is very solid and stable. Like most air bearings, the motor is not silent and needs to be put somewhere where it will get ventilation. I've put it inside a cupboard for the moment, waiting for a better long-term solution.
The lead-out RCAs are attached to the arm chassis via a small metal plate and an Allen bolt. This needs to be secured tightly or the cables will pull the wires out which one does want to avoid. That is important. Dressing the wires around the wand stub and counterweight is more important than dressing to go to the opera. Otherwise you might find the record sticking. It's advisable not to use heavy leads from the rather basic lead-out terminals as this can cause tugging on the arm cable. Obviously this potential problem is overcome using the Incognito wiring, which is really almost a must in order to truly get the performance this arm is capable of.
Once installed, levelling becomes the key issue. It is important that the arm be level in relation to the platter so make sure that the platter is level first. Then roughly level the arm and finally use a record without a groove. Just as you'd do setting an ordinary arm's initial antiskating, watch which way the arm tends to travel and then compensate using the grub screws on the arm support. Once you have it sitting level, see how it plays. You may find that once every few hundred records, one sticks in the groove around the middle of the record. If this is the case, try to take the arm a hair's breadth out of level either way and that should solve the problem. This technique is valid for all linear trackers and air bearings. Yes, the VTA will change infinitesimally from the beginning of the record to the end but I wouldn't get too worked up about that. It's changing with every warp on the record anyway, which is a nominal standard deviation of 1mm. In fact, all non-audiophile records are manufactured in a kind of bowl shape to save vinyl. The lowest point of the bowl is usually (but never predictably) somewhere near the middle of the grooved section. Then there are usually high lips at either side, which were made to protect records on stacking turntables. So even a perfectly unwarped record will usually have quite significant deviations of height (producing changes in VTA) built into the vinyl itself. I haven't found the Conductor arm sticking much at all so I use it perfectly level. There are rare times when it won't track the last few grooves of a record due to the lift in the footprint of the vinyl. That's happened about 3 times while spinning select samples from over 1000 records so it's not a real issue for me.
Obviously it's crucial to have the arm set at a perfect tangent but the arm comes with a protractor which allows you to check that the stylus sits on the line at the beginning and end of records. It's also crucial to ensure that the cartridge body is at 90 degrees to the line (or the whole benefit of a tangential arm disappears up the spout). So you still have to use an alignment protractor but this time just to check the cantilever is at 90 degrees anywhere along the line. It's at times like this that I wonder how most cartridge makers actually attach their fine line styluses to the cantilever. There is simply no way of telling by eye or anything but a 200x microscope if the stylus is parallel to the front side of the cartridge, so we have to take it on trust.
Once set up, you should feel absolutely no tug on the arm at all. It's important to ensure that the lead-out wires don't get caught on the counterweight. That will often be the first place to look if you have mistracking problems. One bizarre thing is that I find at times that there is some pressure pushing the arm toward the centre of the record from the outer edge, or towards the centre from the inner edge. I'm still investigating why this might be happening and wouldn't be surprised if it's my setup at fault.
Not all air bearings track warped records with ease. Far from it. Right now, I'm listening to the Clearaudio strobe disk silent grooves. My Clearaudio disk is both warped and eccentric. Because it's easiest to hear warps and eccentricity with a silent groove, I find this the best way to test how an arm and cartridge do. Well, the Conductor/MM3 combination passes with flying colors. There is a background signature off the eccentricity but nothing more than with any other arm I've come across. Brilliant, I'd say. And absolute silence on the warps. Which is going to stretch credulity among the air bearing tone arm-owning community, I know. But that's what I find. A lot of it is of course down to the relationship between tone arm and cartridge and not least how stiff the cartridge suspension itself is (not to mention its condition). Stiff suspension is usually going to telegraph groove problems, so suspension type and compliance should be high on your list when looking for compatible cartridges.
In real world conditions, the arm sails by on even some of my most warped records like my Earl Hines Tour de Force, which is straight-up piano with a nasty sharp lump in it and eccentricity. Not a peep of tracking problem. No sidewall noise at all. Absolutely nothing to distract from the music - apart from Earl's occasional vocalizations.
Obviously with any air bearing, it's important to keep the tubes clean. If you let a couple of weeks' worth of dust get on the slider, you will get stickiness and mistracking. It's best to use a dustcover or chamois to cover the bearing when not in use, and to clean it periodically with isopropyl alcohol. I think this issue is probably the foremost reason why people go back to pivoted arms from air bearings. So you have been warned.
Sound (with isolator and Mystic Matt)
As I write this, I've just had to stop to reflect on the bass on Larry Carlton's Discovery. The bass slap is astonishingly present. It's a sound that is so convincing that I have to register that I've rarely heard that kind of quality in any system. And this is with wiring that hasn't run in yet. Remember that air bearings have a reputation for being bass light. Not this one is all I can say. And on the next track, the echo on the cowbell I haven't heard as clearly before even if the guitar doesn't sit out as three-dimensionally as it does with the Schroeder/Allaerts. In fact it seems that the soundstage seems more balanced in favor of each instrument and allows for each to be followed more clearly - at the expense then of the party trick of having the main guitar literally hang in front of you. Yet the bass is absolutely cavernous and the rhythmic lightness and dexterity simply superb. There's a crispness to the cymbals and such tonal richness dripping from the sax that one is simply shaking one's head in amazement. Incredible. Really great sound can actually conjure up the instruments in the space ahead so if you close your eyes, it just seems natural that a sax will be there, its brass glinting against the lights. You don't question. You believe. This arm is more than capable of delivering that kind of sound.
The sheer combination of detail, air, precision of the vast and deep soundstage with the whole plethora of harmonics spreading naturally and with the whole vibrant gamut of tonalities and colors on Knut Jorgessens leaves me stunned. I rarely find making direct comparisons useful and I've got more experience with the Schroeder but at a guess, I'd say the German arm displays a more natural and organic presentation, being a little smoother, more fluid and sinuous in articulation. I wouldn't be surprised though if the air bearing was slightly better at defining instrumental edges to make the soundstage a little more distinct without in anyway sounding etched. I also suspect it's a touch more vibrant (but that could be the Garrard speaking here). So, for years now the Schroeders have been kings of my analog heart. Now an arm comes along that doesn't just aspire to that lofty company but challenges it directly. They are different and I wouldn't be surprised if with some cartridge/turntable combinations, I'd prefer one over the other only to find the result reversed in a different situation.
Sometimes, I feel that the Garrard/Conductor combination may well produce the densest and most palpable transients and fundamentals I've heard in analog so far. And some of the most enjoyable and involving. Bass is stygian without ever being bloated or heavy. Instruments pulsate with incredibly believable three-dimensional energy. CD can often be flat and produce the sort of performance one listens to with passive detachment. The Air Bearing and MM3 produce the opposite effect: a vibrant, involving pulsating sound and timbres that draw one into the essence of the performance and music. It's like being inside the musicians' heads and hearts. I can think of no higher compliment for a piece of equipment.
The density and tonal richness, the sheer amount of detail the arm digs out of the initial transient and the body of the note, its fundamentals and its harmonics both above and below the note itself are something to behold. Anyone who has a reasonably developed system will know how hard it is to get an audibly and quantifiably better sound from their system. So often we start thinking "well yes, there's more detail" only to realize it's actually a midband dip artificially boosting the transients or instruments like cymbals. Not with this arm. It seems to be actually delivering the real thing.
Overall, I have a strong suspicion this could well be sonically one of the top air bearings around. In terms of its particular strengths (a combination of separating each instrument within a distinct background; detail without edges; density and vividness; and perhaps the most convincing soundstage I've heard), I wouldn't be unduly surprised if this one turns out to contend for top of the class. The key could be in the overall lightness of the arm wand and the way its carbon structure is sandwiched between metals. This is just speculation, but I can tell you I'm no longer hankering after a Kuzma Airline, which used to be top of my air-bearing wish list.
The key characteristics of the arm are speed and heft. Often you get good stop/start ability -- the nip-'round-on-a-dime talent -- but it comes at the cost of sounding either merely detailed, or light and tonally washed out. The Conductor has serious heft and amazing tonal density. On Earl Klugh's Soda Fountain Shuffle for instance, there's a song with a regular beat of the drumstick on a clapper. Now I'm hearing the harmonics of this sharp beat emanate throughout the soundstage and echo. One gets loads, wallops of detail but it's never clustered, oversaturated or overwhelming.
Larry Coryell and Phillip Cathrine's 1978 album Splendid completely lives up to its title. It's a lusciously complex work of astonishing sophistication and subtlety. The improvisations at times rest almost completely on differences of timbre between the acoustic 6 and 12-string guitars. Frankly, an insensitive system is going to make a dull blancmange of the whole thing. With the Conductor, the silvery shimmer of Coryell's riffs counterpointing Cathrine's ebullient dexterity on "Transvested Express" is infectious and addictive.
But is it all sweetness and light? In my experience, almost all music is better on vinyl than on CD but I often buy second-hand solo piano pieces like Haydn's piano sonatas or Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur L'enfant Jesus with some trepidation. Vinyl reproduction has improved considerably in the last two decades (helped by the high standards that CD introduced in areas such as pitch stability and background noise). I tend to have a lot of luck with LPs of most types of music. Sometimes though, Rock or Classical may have been ruined by a bad needle. It's never more obvious than on solo piano, where on meditative sections we might be hearing just the noise of the hall; the hiss of the recording tape and the noise of LP's surface; the hiss of tiny dust particles embedded perhaps in the recording process or which I've been unable to wash out. And on the subject of washing records, I don't know much about ultrasound cleaning but apparently the Italian turntable and tone arm manufacturer Carlo Morsiani has been experimenting with it.
Anyway, it's in the silent grooves that you can hear the limitations of vinyl. Sometimes it will be crackling and the odd scratch even on a new record. Sometimes it will be rumble. Actually, on the subject of rumble, I'd completely forgotten it existed (even though the Garrard 301s are meant to be prone to it if there's something wrong with the bearing or the plinth is badly constructed.) Then I heard it the other day on my Scheu and thought "what the heck is this stuff?" Deep brrrohroughghbroghgh sounds. What? Rumble? Has my bearing collapsed or something? It's got to be the bearing, right? I call up Leonard Gregory. He asks me what cartridge I'm using. I had an Urushi on the Schroeder because my Allaerts has gone off to being transformed into an MC2 Finish. "Ahh," said Leonard, or words to that effect. "It'll be the cartridge. Those Urushis have stiff suspension so you'll have to lift the tracking force from 1.9 to 2.5 to get rid of it." And so it proved. Leonard of the instant solutions that seem totally improbable and turn out to be spot on. Go figure.
Back to the main issues with vinyl, the surface noise you sometimes hear in silent or lead-out grooves. While with a good arm like the Schroeder I've never heard warps while music is playing, I have heard that characteristic rise and fall hiss on silent grooves. Side 3 of my Vingt Regards has a low-level heart beat going on for part of it. It suffers from the occasional distortion. Wear and tear? I never know with second-hand records if it's in the recording or was hurt in use. What is so frustrating here is the complete unpredictability of results. In any case, I'm sure now that the sounds from the groove noise are no greater on the Conductor than they are on the best pivoted arms so it passes this hurdle with flying colors, too.
I've found over the last few months that due to its particular sound, this is not an arm I could live without. I have no hesitation in describing it as a world-class performer and a genuinely exciting and valuable new entry into the analog world. Yes, an air bearing is a learning curve for those of us who are new to them. But in this case, it's absolutely worth the effort. (However, please don't misunderstand that these comments apply only to non-suspended turntables on wall shelves. With anything else, I have no idea what results one might get). I'll be reporting later on The Conductor with the Incognito Wiring option, as well as exploring the world of air bearing arms generally. It is true that with this type of arm, there can be frustrating maintenance issues that crop up over the long term and make owners long for the simplicity and predictability of an SME. I will keep a watch out to see if any issues arise, but meanwhile, this arm gets my highest recommendation.