Products: CM-1 Unipivot Tonearm
Manufacturer: Morsiani - Italy
Cost, approx: 800 Euro/$
Reviewer: Geoff Husband - TNT France
Reviewed: August, 2002
A while back I speculated that given a certain level of competence in a turntable it was the tonearm that played the major role in the ultimate quality of sound produced. Because of this I've been playing with various arms to see just how true this might be, the conclusion? Yes the tonearm is at least as important as the turntable. Some of these tonearms have been/will be given reviews, and they include my own SMEIV, Roksan's Artemiz, Hadcock 242, Audiomeca Romance and Kuzma's StabiS. I've also had fairly recent experience with the Rega B250 and 900, and the Alphason HR100s (sadly now out of production). It's a formidable list, but one arm that has come into my hands recently is the Morsiani unipivot and it takes the prize as the one that makes the best music (my ears, my system...), a tricky concept but read on.
This is another of those little 'one-man' companies that dares to do things differently, and like so many such outfits it concentrates on vinyl, where the big boys don't care/can't compete. The arm itself is so unusual, so 'off the wall' that I just had to review it...
The Morsiani has certain 'conventional' characteristics. It uses a fashionable, fat, carbon-fibre armtube, though it's internally damped with wool. The removable headshell (a graphite headshell is an option) is machined from a high-grade aluminium alloy as is much of the base. The arm can be supplied with an SME mount or Rega, both allowing VTA adjustment by the usual grub screw and 'wiggle' technique. Lead-out wires run unbroken from the cartridge tags to the phonos which is a good idea, but means that unlike most unipivots, armtops cannot be swapped.
Then the unconventional bits... The arm has two counterweights, one bolted to the other. The first is aluminium alloy, the second - the same size - of lead. Why lead? It's much denser than any other 'safe' metal (depleted uranium anyone?) so allows the counterweight to be closer to the pivot. It's also relatively 'dead', you don't find lead bells for example - this is a big advantage. Why don't others use lead then? Because it's ugly, simple as that. You can scratch it with your fingernail and it's dull grey doesn't exactly fit with 'superarm' status. BUT it's the best material, which is why Morsiani use it. The aluminium counterweight shields much of the lead from view and I have to say it didn't look out of place, it can also be fitted in two positions, high or low, so as to effect the centre of gravity relative to the pivot (a tweak...).
Then there's the pivot. It's a gramophone needle. No you read correctly, it's one of those 78 needles you see on those old horn record players. This sounds mad, or at least odd, but think on. The pivot is precision made, and gives a very small 'point' on the end of a fine shaft. Carlo Morsiani also recommends the 'soft' iron needles designed for one play of a 78, not the hardened one's which he says sound worse. The downside is that the pivot is fragile, the tip can be damaged during mounting, cartridge changes, or adjustment, though you'd have to be careless (like me) . However the arm comes supplied with six needles, they are easily obtained and very cheap. To change the pivot requires some dismantling, allow 1/2 hour, and the height of the pivot can be adjusted (another tweak). Now think for a moment... 10 years from now is your tonearm manufacturer going to be around? Who knows? Will you be able to get the bearings changed/adjusted, and if not is it going to have any more than scrap value? With the Morsiani you're always going to be able to buy gramophone needles! For me it makes recommendation of what is a low-volume product much easier.
As if that wasn't enough the Morsiani uses a unique anti-skate (bias) system. This is a controversial topic in vinyl circles, and there is a school of thought that the resonance's induced by springs or wires and pulleys is actually worse than the effect of no bias at all. VPI arms have no anti skate other than the twist of a wire, but the result of ignoring the tendency of an arm/cartridge to be drawn to the centre of a record is uneven wear of stylus and record and compromised channel balance. The other snag is that the force pulling the stylus towards the record centre diminishes as the arm gets closer to the centre, so the anti skate force should likewise diminish. However this is the opposite of what a spring bias force produces, and though a thread and weight system could produce the effect by using eccentric pulleys or levers it's not going to be correct for all cartridges and downforces.
So Carlo Morsiani designed and patented a unique system using magnets. The use of magnets isn't unique (companies like Rega and Decca use them) as they are non-resonant, but the Morsiani system allows the reduction in bias across the record to be precisely controlled. It uses four alnico magnets, each of which can be adjusted - it's tweakers heaven:-) Morsiani even supply an uncut LP for setting bias.
Tweak, tweak, tweak - you get the picture? This arm is not a fit-and-forget item like a Rega. As well as the usual adjustments of cartridge alignment, VTA, azimuth, and downforce you have centre of gravity, pivot height (and material) and the ultimate bias control. There's also the problem that with so many variables the set-up time is almost infinite. For many of us (me...) 'fiddling' to get the very best from an arm/cartridge is part of the fun, if that sounds like you then the Morsiani is just perfect. If you just want to 'fit-and-play' then go elsewhere.
Lastly 'appearance'. The Morsiani is hand-made and wears its 'machined' look with pride. Everything (barring the tube) is made 'in-house' including the arm lift (most use OEM lifts) and the standard of machining can't be faulted. It doesn't have the camera chrome of an SME, the high-tech look of a Graham, the gloss of an Audiomeca, but it looks contemporary and striking - I've no complaints...
Tricky... Every so often something comes along that makes you question the way you listen to music. The biggest such example for me was the Polaris horns which overnight turned me from a big-bass, muscle amp fan to someone happy with a decent watt and speakers that filled the room like no other. The Morsiani wasn't quite as dramatic but its presentation was so different to the other arms I'd had here that it sounded so 'wrong', then after a week made everything else sound 'wrong' as I became used to it.
The first item on the menu is soundstage. When I first fired up the Orbe with the Morsiani attached I though I'd connected something wrong - the stereo image I was used to seemed to have vanished. It sounded like very good mono, and there are those out there who will tell you that mono is where it's at... The central image was big and bold and natural - my Nina Simone 'My Baby Just Cares For Me' is mono and sounds like she's in the room - the Morsiani made Rikki Lee-Jones have that same solidity. Listening further, the left/right was all there, the soundstage nearly as wide as with the SME4 but whereas the SME produced a 'wall of sound' spreading the performers across the soundstage equally, the Morsiani gave the soundstage more of a lens shape, deeper and bolder in the centre and tapering towards the edges of the speakers. Now the SME sounds very hi-fi and probably more impressive, but the Morsiani way with soundstaging was much more like what you experience with a live performance. The other interesting aspect was that the depth of soundstage was up to SME standard and the height superior, the held cymbal, gently tapped in the intro to Rikki Lee-Jones 'Danny's All Star Joint' was way up in the soundstage, something that had never come across before.
This was a clue to what was going on. A poor arm might give the sort of poor stereo signal that compresses the soundstage into a lump, but this wasn't what was happening. Putting the SME back on the soundstage seemed 'sprayed' all over the back wall, very dramatic but certainly less natural. Back to the Morsiani and listening further into the song the dancing Jazz keyboard was clearer than I'd heard before, but was eminently 'right'. Sometimes a component will lift one frequency band and thus a particular instrument, but here the result just sounded as it should, clear and well defined but underpinning the main parts of the song not dominating them. Fan's of Rikki Lee-Jones will know that she has a thing about bass players and here the big, fat funky bass bounced the song along with alacrity. The kick drum was well forward and her vocals as silky and sexy as you could ask for. And the record just stayed on the platter till the end - I didn't want to take it off, and the end of side performance was as good, if not better than any of the aformentioned arms (this with the XX-2). There was one other aspect of the arms performance which was a pleasant surprise and that was the lack of surface noise - 'clicks' becoming soft 'pops', if your LP collection is as manky as mine then its a very welcome attribute. Downside? There was a little loss of 'air' and 'openness' at times, but you could argue just as well that the SME was adding a 'shine' to everything. The point is was the Morsiani, in the space of an LP side had shown itself to be different to the norm, but equally valid.
Putting on The Commitments 'Try a Little Tenderness' brought forth more of the same. A natural, rhythmic and smooth performance, again the 'real-world' soundstage and excellent handling of vocals. Perhaps there was a little less 'blood and glory' than the SME but if that's the price to pay for such ease then so-be-it.
I then dusted of my most precious record, the Sheffield Labs direct cut of 'King James' the record above all others that makes 'being there' a reality. And it was gorgeous - huge, big and dynamic but never giving a hint of letting go even when James points the bell of the cornet right at you - the drumkit high and separate though not quite as far back as with the SME.
Moving on I pulled out Simply Red's 'Picture Book'. One track often causes problems, 'Look at Me Now' - it has a tom-tom playing in the background. Often this is heard as random strikes in the depth of the mix, with the Morsianui they were all there - definitely an integral part of the rhythm section. Likewise on 'Jericho' there's a plucked guitar back in the mix which often gets lost - the Morsiani treated it with the respect it deserved without pushing it at you - this shows not only good retrieval of information, but good dynamics, as the relative volume of each part remain constant, nothing goes forward and back in the mix as a consequence of something else happening.
Madonna's 'Til Death Do Us Part' can be edgy at times but the Morsiani never got flustered - if anything could be criticised it was a slight loss of 'pace' compared to the SME which searched out leading edges above other aspects of the performance.
But record after record the same basic character came through. An ability to take a slab of plastic and extract from it the most musical performance possible. Bass was deep, tight and tuneful, the midrange open, very detailed but natural, the top end extended, sparkling but never harsh. The unusual soundstaging has already been discussed and the arm never seemed to put a foot wrong - it also seemed to be happy with all genres of music and made the best of poor as well as good recordings. In fact this ability made it the arm of choice when I was reviewing the Loth-x Ji300b - an amp determined to make poor recordings sound poor if ever there was one. There was also a wonderful sense of tonal colour and complexity whether with the human voice, a piano or a distorted electric guitar, and this is one aspect that makes music interesting and one of the areas that vinyl leaves most CD players floundering.
The Morsiani is strange arm. It dares to be different and presents music in its own unique way. It's something I love, because who wants every arm in the world to sound the same? Is this the 'valve-amp' of the arm world? Right now if someone asked me which arm I could live with above all others I'd have to put the Morsiani at the top of my list.
Now go to the top of this review and look at the price. That is just above Rega money. But the performance is not in the Rega's class - no, the Morsiani must be compared to the best arms regardless of cost... Now I am looking forward to one day adding the Morsiani turntable (just look at the pic!) to the turntable test series...
Thank you, I am very pleased with the review. I read all your previous reviews and I agree with you about many things, so I was happy to submit my tonearm, being fully confident about your accuracy. Then the ancillary equipment are well chosen by you and made me even more confident about the result.
The review is even better than I expected.You explained the technical details and sound characteristics like no-one else can do... My tonearm shows its tracking ability regardless the turntable employed, but the Orbe is a "good" turntable, in the sense that it does not have major faults, so it was perfectly suitable and showed the arms capabilites perfectly.
One example of a poor choice of review turntable - a Garrard 301 or 401, and Thorens 124 can have bigger bass slam and rhythm, but these are turntables are not recommended for my tonearm, because its detail retrieval shows the pulley drive rumble without any pity. Any belt drive Thorens , Rega, Alphason, is suitable. But the Orbe, if with the new DC motor, is even better. For a tonearm comparison, this was a perfect choice in the sense that various competitors were tested on a neutral field. Using my turntable, this tonearm contest could be biased to favour my tonearm. The reason is simple - I developed my turntable to partner my tonearm, you can expect bigger difference in favour of my tonearm. But I wanted to emphasise first the tonearm's role, because if the tracking is not good, no turntable can remedy the fault. My tonearm won against its competitors without the help of my turntable, but my turntable can not demonstrate a comparable superiority without my arm. For this reason, I am happy to sell tonearms alone, but I refuse to sell my turntable without my tonearm, such request should sound to me like an insult.
This makes me different from most other turntable manufacturers but a couple of other manufacturers have the same philiosophy - e.g. Audio Teknč and Takeshi Teragaki of Japan.
About the pivot fragility - in the instruction book I advise installing the supplied felt pad before replacing the pivot, and when the arm is transported, but it is advisable to install the felt pad every time the cartridge is replaced. In this way the risk to the pivot is minimised. The pivot can really be damaged only by mishandling, but my tonearm is not for disc-jockeys:-) Hi-fi customers generally have gentler manners. A broken pivot is very rare. The first time you want to replace it, you really need half an hour mainly to read the instructions, but to do the work with the supplied tools only few minutes are really necessary to made the pivot bearing new and to enjoy your favourite vinyl records at their best.
© Copyright 2002 Geoff Husband - http://www.tnt-audio.com