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tonearm mk VII
Producer: Tri-Planar - USA
Approx.cost: approx 4000 €/$
Reviewer: Geoff Husband - TNT France
Reviewed: April, 2004
In the world of Hi-Fi there are few components that are the subject of so many different and often conflicting theories than those that surround the design of tonearms. Rigid or flexible, damped or undamped, parallel trackers or traditional, low mass or high mass, Unipivot, gimballed, suspended on string, floating in gloop, armtubes in one piece or a mass of meccano, made of wood, carbon fibre, bamboo, aluminium, steel, titanium, magnesium, ceramic - the list is practically endless. My point is that every arm manufacturer will put forward a wholly credible defence of their design, explain why everyone else has got it wrong and all the time with the implication that those who can't hear the difference are deaf. It makes a reviewers job a nightmare. I have a fair understanding of mechanical systems and a lot of experience, and yet when it comes to all these theories I can't sort the wheat from the chaff.
The Tri-planar is a classic case. It breaks some 'rules' (note the inverted comma's!) and has it's own agenda so what am I to do? Well I'll discuss the construction, but rest assured that in the final analysis only one thing counts - does it work?
The Tri-planar is something of a legend in the tonearm world with a fiercely loyal following. It was this arm that really led the field nearly 30 years ago in offering micrometric adjustment of VTA using a VTA 'tower', now much copied particularly in the US, to the point that any arm with high-end pretensions needs such adjustment in order to succeed in that market. The name 'Tri-planar' refers to this, in that the arm offered adjustment, and correct geometry in three planes. Over the years it's been updated and improved to this, the latest design, the Mk VII.
I've said before in my article on tonearm design that some arms are 'garage arms', that is that they could be made in a small, well equipped, often one-person machine shop. By this measure the SME V is a mass-produced arm, the Tri-planar is 'garage'. Before anyone gets upset this isn't meant to be a criticism. It's like comparing a Mazda MX5 with a Caterham '7'. But looking at the arm it's obvious that here is a mass of tiny, machined components and sub assemblies. I didn't do a parts count but I doubt their are many gimballed arms with more. And the quality is as near perfect as makes no difference. In my Morsiani review I said it wore it's 'hand-made' appearance with pride, here the finish is clearly better (as it should be given the price), but you're left in no doubt that here is an object that someone has lavished many hours in making. Just look at the complexity and elegance of the arm lift, where many would just bolt on an OEM job. Yes the arm is expensive but in a world of overpriced tat, here I really couldn't argue.
The main structure of the arm is machined aluminium alloy, with a fat carbon fibre armtube. I could go into the claims of self-damping and stiffness made for the material but I'll refer you to my opening paragraph... Most of the structure is bolted together with tiny grub screws, the armtube glued to the large headshell, which is slotted for cartridge adjustment, and is happy with just about any cartridge. Three different counterweights will cope with any weight of cartridge as well, though downforce is adjusted by sliding these back and forth - you need a balance. The needle/cone bearings are adjustable and showed no play - the fact that the arm coped perfectly with the Music Maker cartridge, a highish compliance device which is notoriously demanding on bearing quality, backs up claims for their quality. Anti-skate is by a thread and lever arrangement, again almost gratuitously complicated, but making the force correct across the disc. Azimuth is adjusted by loosening the armtube and gently twisting it, it's simple and the large surface to hold makes small adjustments very easy. There's also a small trough that offers some damping if filled with the supplied silicone fluid - some cartridges will like this, some not.
Then on to that VTA tower. It's the big lump to the left of the armtube with a dial on top. A small lock nut is turned and then the whole arm structure can be racked up and down in tiny increments - the dial allowing you to return to a previous setting though you need to count the whole turns. The action is silky smooth and it's perfectly possible to adjust whilst a disc is playing, then just nip up the lock nut - very slick.
The Arm was used on the SOTA Millenium and my own Michell Orbe - two very different turntables but both of a quality consummate with the Tri-planar's price. The reference arm was my own SME IV (with damper and VTA adjuster as found on the SME V).
First adjustment. As I mentioned before the Tri-planar led the pack in using a micrometric VTA tower, making VTA adjustment so simple you don't even think about it. If you are a VTA obsessive, and like to change VTA with each record then this alone makes the Tri-planar tough to beat - there are now other arms with such a facility like the Graham and VPI though these two are unipivots which is another can of worms entirely.
Here the SME lags behind, VTA being adjusted by screwing a threaded bar down through the arm to the arm board. Using this the armbase is slackened off and then the arm racked slowly up, it can be done with a record playing - it's not easy, requires you to remove the bar after each adjustment and makes small, accurate, repeated changes impossible. It's a lot better that the "undo the Allen bolt and wiggle" method used by arms such as the EKOS, but compared to the Tri-planar it's crude. And speaking of crude, the other adjustments go firmly in favour of the SME. The Tri-planar uses a traditional slotted headshell for overhang and alignment - a real fiddle, the SME has a sled type mount at its base which means the whole arm is racked back and forth using a lever (even when playing a disc). The headshell therefore only needs holes rather than slots so changing alignment doesn't screw up overhang - it's neat and no other arm betters it (though it assumes a standard 9.5mm cartridge bolt to stylus geometry).
Antiskate is dialed in on the SME, the Tri-planar uses a sliding weight + thread. As I mentioned before to adjust downforce the Tri-planar uses the old method of just sliding the counterweight back and forth, using this in conjunction with a stylus balance is a fiddly and inaccurate process. The SME IV has it's counterweight moved by a micrometer like threaded adjuster - you need to count turns but this is pretty simple and the calibrations allow simple and repeatable adjustments accurate to 0.125 grms (in practice I found adjustments to 0.05grm simple - verified by an electronic gauge accurate to 0.02 grms). The SME V obviously has a dial-in downforce which is even simpler.
The point is that because downforce has a fundamental effect on VTA, it could be argued that the SME's easy and accurate downforce adjustment negates at least some of the advantages the Tri-planar's VTA tower gives it, without the inevitable increase in complexity and compromised rigidity that such a structure brings. This whole subject requires an article in itself and so next month I'll at least try to unravel some of the mysteries of VTA.
Beautiful. From the minute the stylus of the Dynavector XX-2 hit the black stuff I realised that here we had a class act. I know it's a cliche, but with both the SOTA and the Orbe, the Tri-planar managed to draw you into music in such a way as to make you forget about hi-fi and just listen to the music. It was also quite different sounding to the SME IV which is all to the good, for if all arms gave the same presentation what would happen to system matching?
Immediately the Tri-planar sounded more relaxed - it was less forceful than the SME. It depended a little on which disc was playing, sometimes the SME could make the Tri-planar sound a little too polite, at other times the SME could sound strident. My chosen favourite period of music is 60' and 70's pop and rock, hardly the high point in music recording, but the Tri-planar made many of these compressed and harsh recordings sound much more natural than the SME.
Don't go away with the idea that the Tri-planar rounded off extremes and glossed over details, it's more of a question of priorities in the music. Take massed violins for example. The SME brought out the sound of resin, the bite and grain of the instrument, the Tri-planar had all these things, but what you remembered was the mass of harmonics, the tone and decay, the wooden body - not better, just different. Likewise the SME made the Grand piano more of a percussion instrument than the Tri-planar, the latter again majoring on the tone.
Moving on to female vocal the pattern remains the same, the SME giving the sound of lips and breath more than the vocal chords and buccal cavity. Remember here we're talking nuance and emphasis, don't go away with the idea that these are differences that you can hear from the next room...
As for the effect of the turntables, I've already mentioned in other articles that I consider the SME gives the Orbe chassis more excitement than it's happy with, leaving a 'bloom' in the upper bass, (solved using the Pedersen armboard mod) and here the Tri-planar won by a head. The already meaty and dynamic Orbe working better with the slightly more restrained Tri-planar. On the SOTA the positions were reversed, the very low resonance chassis of the SOTA damping things down and so in combination with the Tri-planar I sometimes became frustrated by a loss of pace and energy - very much personal taste but there you are.
Bass quality was pretty close between the arms, both with the XX-2 and DRT-1s but with the Music Maker the Tri-planar clearly pulled ahead, the combination really singing whereas on the SME there was a certain 'dirty' quality. At the top end the Tri-planar was noteably sweet and extended, handling sibilants very cleanly, an area where unipivots often seem to pull ahead.
Soundstaging was different. The SME displayed it's big, bold soundstage with great depth and width, the Tri-planar was less 'wall of sound', those images being smaller but just as widely spaced - if the SME is a front row arm the Tri-planar seats you well back in the auditorium with the orchestra spread before you. The former can be more exciting, the latter more natural.
During all these tests I had an increasing sense of 'deja vous', I'd heard a very similar open, natural and detailed performance before, and that was the Morsiani unipivot. The only thing the two arms have in common is the construction of the armtube - fat carbon-fibre with an alloy, glued-on headshell, how big an influence is this, or is it just coincidence? But whatever, the similarity was striking. In fact unless my memory is playing tricks I'd say that if you are looking for this kind of easy, natural, open presentation then the Tri-planar is excellent, but the Morsiani goes even further down this path, and would be my personal choice. The downside of this is of course that the Tri-planar is better finished, better looking, much easier to set up and adjust, especially for VTA and has more overt 'energy' - this then quite possibly swinging it the other way.
How lucky are we now? 20 years after the 'death of vinyl' we have a greater choice of quality analogue gear than at any other time. The Tri-planar is one of the great arms, beautiful sounding, beautifully made and offering the best possible VTA adjustment. It seems to be able to cope with any cartridge and its construction is obviously a labour of love. Is it the best tonearm in the world as some proponents would have us believe? No. There's no such thing, merely a select band of contenders each giving their version of the 'truth'. The Tri-planar belongs in this select band and if you are in the market for a top tonearm then you need to hear it.
© Copyright 2004 Geoff Husband - www.tnt-audio.com
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