Product: Audiomods Modified Rega Arm
Manufacturer: Audiomods - UK
Cost, approx: £520/600Euro (YMMV)
Reviewer: Geoff Husband - TNT France
Reviewed: January 2011
I'm in a bit of a quandary here. This review is of a modded Rega tonearm. There are lots of such mods around, mostly they address the counterweight and mount. But to call the Audiomods arm an 'upgrade' or 'mod' is wholly misleading – even a quick glance at the pictures will have all but the sharpest eyed wondering what this arm has to do with the Rega, and just look at the finish! So I am treating this as a full-on tonearm review, not a mod, and though I hate to give the game away at the beginning I'd quite like the vinylphiles amongst you to read on because here we have one of the finest arms you can buy regardless of price – a big statement, but I hope the following will explain why.
The history of Rega's RB-300 and 250 has been well documented, not least on this site. But to summarise, the Rega was the first arm that had headshell, armtube and bearing housing all cast from one piece (in Aluminium/Magnesium alloy). The integrity, resonance control and stiffness that this produced was revolutionary. To top it all off, the arm was sold at the very lowest end of the tonearm market. It was the single most important and influential arm ever made – by a country mile. In the space of a couple of years the large number of budget arms (most OEM manufactured in Japan) were simply wiped off the market. Very expensive arms like Linn's ITTOK found themselves threatened by an arm which cost a small fraction of their price. In one move Rega had destroyed the competition and forced the high-end to work very, very hard to justify its existence, indirectly resulting in the wave of 'superarms' that followed – most notably the SME V (with its own cast armtube), Linn EKOS, Roksan Artemiz, Zeta and Mission Mechanic.
It was that cast armtube that made the Rega special. The rest of the arm was conventional and reflected the price segment the arm was aimed at. The bearings were good enough and well adjusted (ironically they were better placed in the cheaper 250) but inevitably compromises had to be made here. Much of the mount was plastic – cheap and non-resonant – and because the arm was used pretty much as it came out of the mould the finish was a little basic – earlier arms showing mould lines for example – and then simple black paint applied.
So it was no surprise that a whole raft of companies began offering 'upgrades' for the Rega – First off the stocks were those offering to upgrade the cheap wiring used – replacing it with the latest wonder wire. The most common offerings were however those addressing the counterweight and its attachment to the bearing stub. Unlike the later SME V the counterweight stub was not part of the armtube casting. On the 250 it was a plastic stub, on the 300 a more sophisticated alloy stub carrying a tungsten counterweight. As the bearing placement of the 250 was fundamentally better (the 300 being compromised by the VTF structure) making a more substantial counterweight design put the 250's performance ahead of its more expensive sibling. Another claimed advantage was that these counterweights tended to be heavier than standard and so decreased the Effective Mass (EM) of the arm, something that had a marginal advantage as the standard arm tended towards the high side of 'Medium Mass'. Similarly this extra weight added load to the bearings (reducing 'chatter' – possibly) and if the weight was low slung the Centre of Gravity and so the behaviour over warps would alter.
You'll detect a hint of scepticism in the above. All such modifications (cabling excepted) altered the basic mechanical characteristics of the arm, and so made it more compatible with certain cartridges and systems, but to say any were universal and fundamental improvements would be rather over egging the pudding. For example, the heavier weights could add to bearing friction and thus make the arm less compatible with high compliance cartridges. One of the companies offering such modifications was 'Origin Live', but they realised that the best way to improve the Rega was to address the fundamental weaknesses/economies of the arm and produce a different bearing carrier, better adjusted, better quality and more widely based bearings. This then resulted in the 'Silver' reviewed on TNT many years ago by Steve Davey. I know Steve well and the Silver certainly sounded wonderful in his system, but the irony was that as far as I could see Origin had rather thrown the baby-out-with-the-bathwater. You see the Silver was really a totally new arm, sharing the base/armlift and basic geometry of the Rega but dispensing completely with the one ground-breaking feature – that wonderful one-piece arm being replaced by a fabricated alloy headshell and separate armtube.
This seemed very odd to me, and so when I started to hear about the Audiomods arm (not least from Scott Faller) I was intrigued, because the Audiomods arm did exactly what I would expect a 'cost no object' Rega to do – everything but that armtube (and I mean EVERYTHING save the armlift)was ditched and a completely new arm built around it.
Audiomods is, like so much that is very special in hi-fi, the work of a single, dedicated man who believes in what he does. Jeff Spall takes the basic Rega armtube and polishes it to within inch of its life, then the headshell is machined and most important of all the arm then receives a series of concentric and different sized holes all along its length. This has several effects. Firstly it reduces the effective mass of the arm – not by a massive amount, but it enables Jeff to offer a custom EM matching service (along with the two counterweights supplied and headshell shims made of brass to up the EM if needed). It also inevitably reduces rigidity, but by careful placement the 'meat' of the arm is left where it's needed. These holes will also effect the resonant characteristics of the arm, for example eliminating pipe-resonance and breaking up standing waves. It also adds a load of barriers in the armtube effecting how vibrations propagate down the arm – obviously this could be both a good or a bad thing, but the fact is that the polishing, machining and drilling of the armtube will alter its characteristics whilst retaining the original integrity of the arm. Two discs are inserted into the armtube to further stiffen it. One essential by-product is that the armtube is unrecognisable from its humble origins, as the rest of the arm is totally different then the only visual clue is the overall dimensions and 'stance' of the arm. No-one will spot it:-)
At the end of the armtube is mounted a new alloy counterweight stub and to that is added a very different counterweight. There's a choice of two, but both follow the same construction being bolted together sandwiching a slice of that magic material – Lead – in a constrained layer construction. There's a small parasitic counterweight that's threaded for fine VTF adjustment, but the overall effect is not to hugely lower the C of G of the counterweight, keeping it near stylus and bearing height – generally a 'good thing'...
Below all this is a wider and far more substantial bearing carrier holding the very highest quality ceramic/hybrid bearings, which are smaller, and have less inertia than the originals, these adjusted with great care. Below the vertical bearings are again upgraded and better spaced.
The Rega's magnetic anti-skate is ditched in favour of a thread and weight system, which coupled with a curved quadrant allows for very accurate anti-skate that can be varied across the disc.
Arm height and thus Stylus Rake angle (SRA) is, unlike the Rega, very easy to adjust. And here we come to the biggest 'option' – the Audiomod arm can have a micrometer fitted to allow precise and repeatable SRA adjustment. This addition is very neatly done (the manufacturers pictures here show this option) and is essentially a measuring instrument – it doesn't form part of the arm height locking mechanism and so unlike most micrometer systems e.g. like the Triplanar, Opera ST600, VPI etc, it doesn't compromise rigidity or effect the path that vibrations take down to the turntable.
Now I didn't ask for this (see the pic I took). I'm a luddite when it comes to SRA and I am not going to adjust the arm height for every record I play. Once I've found the best compromise arm height I just lock it up and get on with listening to records. On the standard arm a neat knurled bar in easy reach is undone a half turn – the arm slid up or down and then tightened again. It's the easiest adjustment this side of a micrometer type and as I will only do it rarely it saves a fair part of the price. As any complex structure (and micrometers are complex) added to an arm will inevitably have it's own resonance effects the simple option should theoretically sound better. I could go on but the design of the arm is explained on Audiomods excellent and informative website.
What all this waffle doesn't tell you is that the fit and finish of the arm is right up with high end arms. It doesn't have the 'mass produced' (as in Mercedes) quality of an SME arm, but when compared with other hand-made arms like the Triplanar, Morsiani, Hadcock etc it is at the top of the pile – if you like 'shiny' it will visually match the very best turntables and in my case I first fitted it to my Acoustic Solid Machine where it looked like it was hewn from the same slab of alloy and as a far better match than an SME. For heavens sake it even comes wired with Silver Litz...
Which of course brings us to the crunch – what does it sound like? And here one important point – the Audiomods does everything better than the Rega – it simply belongs in another category of arm and so that's what I am comparing it with. So given its price I though I'd try it first with my favourite 'sanely' priced moving coil – the Dynavector D17 Karat. This is an oddball with its tiny diamond cantilever, but which is widely compatible.
What I heard was very interesting. To say a component has 'character' is a bit of an insult, especially when it comes to vinyl, but the truth is that in a world of arms all sounding subtly different, each inevitably has a 'voice'. Some arms tend to sit in the middle of the bunch – I guess the stock Rega is a bit grey and bland, the sonic equivalent of your mum's shepherd's pie – nice enough and never offensive but not something to blow your mind... An SME is like SUPER shepherd's pie, doing everything brilliantly and something even the kids will eat, but not strong medicine!
The Audiomods on the other hand jumped out and reminded me instantly of one of my favourite arms of all time – the Roksan Artimiz (Vindaloo). Like that hugely underrated arm the Audiomod arm just has so much PACE. With no hint of overhang or resonance, with lightening speed in transients, huge detail, lots of space and silky sharp sibilants (if you know what I mean).
It's a real tour-de-force and makes everything you listen to sound fresh and bubbling with detail but all presented with clinical precision in the time domain. Holding together the bizarre ¾ timing gymnastics of Los Lobos' 'Be Still' is something many front ends simply collapse and die in the attempt – the Audiomod sailed through it. At the same time there was enough weight to make the menace of 'Mars' march toward you in time whilst the details of the bows bouncing on steel wire cut through.
This presentation was right up my street – it didn't have quite the sheer heft of the SME V12 and that arm does pull big transients off the disk better than anything else, but it hit back in its strong points. In Madonna's 'Till Death Do Us Part' the repeated line 'He's not in love with her anymore' stands out clearly with the Audiomod, though the SME covers the multitracking of her voice earlier in the song rather better.
But what comes across isn't one arm being better than another, but rather two top arms trading punches – as you could buy the Acoustic Solid, The Dynavector AND the Audiomod arm for the price of the V12 that's scary stuff.
Of course that inevitably qualified the Audiomod to carry the insanely expensive DRT-1t. This exotic beast worked brilliantly with the Audiomod, gaining a weight and power, a layering of textures and opening up of studio techniques that really showcased what the Audiomod could do in a no-holds-barred system. It displayed no weaknesses and matched perfectly. It's presentation was a little lighter than the same cartridge on the SME V12, and in my horn system the fuller presentation gave the SME a slight edge, a bit more warmth, soul and emotion with female vocal, a little more contrast in the controlled pyrotechnics of Aretha Franklin, but it was a close run thing. On Jazz the Audiomod again excelled giving the cut and projection of Miles Davis' cornet and of course holding the timing together effortlessly.
Having tried the silly-end I went back and bolted up a far more reasonable match in the shape of the Music Maker 'Classic', a relatively low-mass (after the 14 grms of the DRT!) moving iron cartridge which has proved a giant killer here.
Once again I was really struck by how much the arm resembled the Artimiz, again all that speed and detail came out with brilliant yet never sharp top-end. In this respect it now bettered the V12 which I've never really felt was happy with such a compliant cartridge, being inclined to sound a little loose in the base and 'dirty' higher up. Interestingly Len Gregory doesn't recommend the stock Rega for the Music Maker, it's bearings aren't good enough, and it's at the top end as to Effective Mass. No such problem effected the Audiomod, and now that the Hadcock is no longer available I'd put the Audiomod as easily the No1 arm for the Music Maker at remotely its price point. Only two arms have done as well with this plastic oddball – Len Gregory's Communicator, which being an air-bearing parallel-tracker has its own strengths and weaknesses, and the Audiomeca Septum – both multiples of the Audiomod's price.
In each case the Audiomods clearly showed the differences, and yes – character, of the three cartridges. This in itself shows a lack of artifice.
When I look at the Audiomod arm, it's design, the care in finishing, the obvious time taken over every detail I have to come to the conclusion that it fails in one important respect. I just don't see how this is a commercial product. If this was a labour-of-love done by a mate who made just a few special arms for his friends and just about covered his costs I could believe it. For heavens sake, it even comes in a large and nicely made wooden box, with second counterweight, shim for shallow cartridges, tools, very clear instructions – what you'd expect with a £2000+ arm. The Artemiz has always been a huge bargain but the Audiomod matches it in every respect and costs less than a 1/3 the price. Here it's taken three fundamentally different cartridges and treated them with equal care, it's sat on my Acoustic Solid, the Feickert Woodpecker and my Opera LP5.0 and worked just fine with all, though it still looked best on the AS. I'd LOVE to try it on an Orb because unlike many high-end arms it is light enough not to screw their 'bounce'. I know Steve bought the Origin Silver for use on his own Orbe and I've heard how good it is. I also know that that excellent arm cost considerably more than the Audiomod 10 years ago, and that the Audiomod's build quality is in another league. Jeff will even custom-build versions for very high or low compliance cartridges and although there is always the caveat that back-up relies on one man, that one man is doing a cracking job for the moment and I really don't see the arm as being fussy long-term.
So there you go – here is an arm that will outperform anything at remotely it's price level (I'll be happy to be proved wrong but I don't see any contenders), more than that, once bought it's unlikely to be the limiting factor in the system. Yes other arms may sound different, some like the SME V12 will shade it in some areas (and I do like 12” arms) but no arm I've heard will show it up. I would be more than happy to have it as my main arm, on my perfect two-arm turntable I'd happily pair it with an SME V12 or the sublime Audiomeca Septum (no longer available) and have all bases covered.
© Copyright 2011 Geoff Husband - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com