VPI's 3D-Printed Tonearm Upgrade

by Roy Gregory | July 11, 2014

hile reviewing the Classic Direct turntable from VPI, I also got to play with the equally impressive 3D version of the JMW tonearm with which it’s fitted. Because the armbase, VTA tower and bearing are identical for both the 12.7 (aluminum-tubed) version of the 'arm and the new 3D model, it’s possible to compare the performance of the old armtop and the new directly, especially if you have a pair of (nominally) identical cartridges. It’s also possible to upgrade existing JMW 10.5"/Classic and 12" tonearms with the new 3D armtop, and that’s the option I’m going to consider here. I already spent some time comparing the original and the 3D armtops in that Classic Direct review, but that was in the context of the flagship motor unit. As impressive as the results were, do they hold up on the lesser ‘tables and does the upgrade option really make sense?

Rather than simply repeating the 12" armtop comparison on my Classic 4, I decided that we should look much further down the range than that. Wheel in the Classic 2, fitted with the JMW 10.5 tonearm, complete with the all-important VTA tower, essential to allow proper comparisons. Okay, so at a pinch you can use the bearing cup in the top of the bell housing to adjust ride height, but to really hear both armtops at their best, across a range of different records, the VTA tower is definitely the way to go. I also swapped out the Lyra moving-coils, opting instead for a pair of Cartridgeman Music Maker 3s, Grado-based-moving-iron designs, bringing the contest well and truly into the context of high-value/high-performance audio, the most demanding sector of the market. That’s a world in which the $2500 price tag for a 10.5" armtop ($3000 for the 12" version) represents a serious investment that needs to be backed up by some equally serious performance benefits. So, what do you get for the money?

The 3D armtube takes its name from the additive manufacturing (or "3D printing") process used to produce it. I’ve described that in some detail in the Classic CD/3D review, so I won’t cover the same ground here. The really important aspect of this is that the manufacturing method allows the creation of a single-piece structure, from cartridge platform to counterweight stub, that can be optimally shaped and formed to provide a totally even mechanical response. It’s not just a case of being able to produce shapes that can’t be machined; the wall thickness, the internal structure and even crossbracing can be infinitely varied, so that in conjunction with Finite Element Analysis (FEA) modeling, the resonant character of the piece can be almost infinitely refined. The fact that each will be precisely identical is another bonus not to be sniffed at.

The end result is a shiny black resin armwand that evolves from a triangular to a large-diameter circular profile that has a thicker counterweight stub and also eliminates the separate azimuth ring around the base of the bell housing. The thicker section and low-slung outrider weights are still present, to keep the center of gravity low, but they no longer twist, so azimuth needs to be set with the underslung counterweight or, better yet, the Soundsmith Counter Intuitive device. The thicker stub means that existing JMW counterweights don’t fit the 3D 'arm, so each ‘top comes with a dedicated new counterweight which is friction-locked to the 'arm. This counterweight has a thumbscrew on the top to lock it in place (don’t over tighten it!) and also a pair of small auxiliary weights on a threaded shaft, screwed into the lower rear face. These are an option that allows minute adjustment of VTF without disturbing azimuth, but for purists or those using the Counter Intuitive, they can be removed. The good news is that the 3D 'arm, despite appearances, is so much lighter than the previous version that this one counterweight should do service for almost all cartridges. That greater girth makes it stiffer but also calls for the revised cradle that comes with the upgrade kit and just drops into the cueing platform in place of the existing rest.

All JMW arms have had broader-than-usual slots, allowing for greater latitude in cartridge alignment, but also calling for washers beneath the cartridge bolts. The 3D 'arms are no different in this respect: just take care not to overdo it with the allen wrench or you’ll pit the surface of the headshell, which doesn’t look great, but more importantly, impairs the tiny adjustments necessary for precise alignment. One difference is that the slots now extend further back in the headshell, which makes the 'arm more versatile when it comes to cartridge matching and the use of the excellent new IsoDIN curve as featured on the SMARTractor. (I’ll be commenting on this soon, but for now, let’s just note that I find significant musical benefits accrue when using this revised geometry.) I also far prefer the new stubby fingerlift, which is a vast improvement on the old one.

The interchangeable design of the JMW’s armtops means that rapid comparisons of two ‘tops with matching cartridges are perfectly practical. As a precursor, you need to optimize VTA for each 'arm on the given record in use, but with that value duly noted (and both cartridges warmed up) you should be ready to go -- just remember to mute the preamp before swapping armtops.

I’d suggest you start by listening to the standard 'arm. Listen to the same track a couple of times so that you are really familiar with it: I’d choose something with vocals and a reasonably complex/congested arrangement. Then just listen to the first twenty or so bars and swap the armtops, trim the VTA and sit down to listen -- preferably with a large cushion in your lap. That’s to stop your jaw hitting the floor, because there’s probably no way you can afford major cosmetic dentistry and a 3D armtop. I’ve done this comparison a fair number of times now, both for experienced listeners and music lovers who wouldn’t know one end of a tonearm from the other. The result is always the same: amazement, followed by suspicion and finally incredulity. Because, in truth, it’s hard to credit the scale of the musical differences they’re hearing. This isn’t a little bit better -- or clearer, deeper, or warmer. This is like a whole different (and way better) recording of the same piece after the band has gone away and practiced for a month. It also sounds like they gained a few members in the intervening weeks. This isn’t about hi-fi niceties; this is about music, the quality and sense of performance and your system’s ability to project that in a convincing and engaging fashion. Sorry, let’s make that utterly convincing and engaging fashion. Let’s also be clear that once you’ve heard what the 3D 'arm can do, it’s going to be awfully hard to live with the standard armtop.

Here’s an example: "Hallelujah" from the Leonard Cohen live album, Songs From the Road [Columbia/Legacy MOVLP193]. Like a lot of live recordings this is long on atmosphere and a little short on finesse. It tends to sound a bit muddled and compressed, the lead and backing vocals overlapping and the sound hardening in the climaxes and as the crowd gets animated. At least that’s how I thought it sounded -- until I played it using the 3D armtop. Suddenly the tonality and presentation changed completely, with a real sense of space around the band, but also between its members. And that space was black, black and grain free, adding depth and volume to the acoustic. The 3D banished a layer of grain that had brought with it congestion and collapsed the tonal palette. Where the music with the original armtop had sounded slightly gray and hashy, now it was richly hued, smooth and powerful. Cohen’s vocal was solid and separate and beautifully articulate, the lyrics far more intelligible and the singing more engaging. The backing vocals were separated one from another and positioned away to Cohen’s right -- and they stayed there, irrespective of level or what the crowd threw into the mix, with even their contribution being noticeably clearer and more natural. Dynamic peaks were scaled without distress or glare and the song settled into its natural pace and momentum, its power and scale growing organically with the performance. Suddenly, there seemed to be no limits -- no limits on scale or density, detail, space or clarity. Suddenly the performance took on a purpose and a perspective that seemed utterly natural and consistent. It ceased to be a construct. It just was.

Now, you’ll notice that none of this is to do with extra detail or definition -- that’s not what this (or the Music Maker 3) is about. This is all about the tonearm getting way, way out of the way of the signal, allowing that performance to escape the grooves and arrive at the amps, intact and in all its glory. The 3D 'arm is remarkable not for what it does but for what it doesn’t do: It doesn’t impose dynamic limitations or mechanical colorations that mute and mask the recording; it doesn’t foreshorten space or mess with time; it doesn’t jumble rhythm or bend the phrasing out of shape -- things that every other tonearm I’ve ever used does to a far greater extent than this one. In fact, nothing I’ve used at home comes close.

But to really appreciate just how much better the 3D armtop is, let the cartridge run into the next track, the upbeat hustle of "Closing Time." The dance step inherent in the rhythm is so much more apparent, infectiously insistent; the rapid lyrics are suddenly clearly articulated, the sense of the song, the shape of the phrases, the way the whole thing binds together and heads pell mell for the horizon -- suddenly it all makes sense. Why? It’s only a guess, but for me, that has to be down to the even mechanical behavior of the armtop, devoid of the resonant spikes that rob the signal of energy, slow its impetus and add stutters to its progress. Nothing -- and I do mean nothing -- that I have ever heard comes close to the effortless rhythmic articulation, the easy grace and sinuous power that the 3D tonearm reveals in recordings. The whole system simply moves through the performance so much more easily; or perhaps that should be the other way round -- the performance moves through the system.

A few decades ago, the UK enjoyed several years of dominance in middle-distance running, with the likes of Ovett, Coe and Cram dominating both competition and the record books. But as great as Cram and Ovett undoubtedly where, neither had the effortlessly graceful, almost balletic style of Seb Coe. Watching him accelerate through the final curve of an 800 or 1500m race was a thing of genuine beauty. That’s what listening to the 3D tonearm reminds me of: It’s like watching Seb Coe in his pomp, kicking up his heels and cruising away from the competition, without visibly even trying. In comparison, listening with the standard 10.5 tonearm (which is in conventional terms a very fine performer) is like watching him run across a ploughed field. That’s how great a difference the 3D armtop delivers, in terms of musical grace, pace, ebb and flow, the system’s ability to scale dynamic demands and yet stay calm and collected, clear and composed. The result is a performance that is dramatically more natural, more involving, more convincing and more expressive. It really is hard to appreciate just how big this difference is until you actually hear it -- something that owners of JMW tonearms should do at the earliest possible opportunity.

Interestingly, after I’d completed the listening sessions for this piece, I heard back from Kevin Walker, in whose system the Classic 2 resides. He was just as floored by the 3D tonearm as I was. Kevin has a weakness for Decca cartridges, transducers with an almost schizophrenic mechanical personality, caused by the right-angled construction of their cantilever with its two magnets, one for horizontal tracing, the other vertical. The challenge with Deccas was always finding an 'arm in which they’d track (and didn’t hum), one that wasn’t upset by the Cousin It mechanical characteristics. He just couldn’t resist trying a Decca Gold in the 3D. The result? He still hasn’t stopped gibbering -- "It tracks like a bloodhound. . . . It doesn’t hum. . . . You’ve never heard dynamics like it. . . . It’s even got bass!" You get the picture. If ever there were an example of the 3D armtop’s mechanical equanimity, this is it.

By now you’ll have figured out that the 3D armtop is a compelling performer. It’s not inexpensive but frankly I don’t know how else you are going to achieve an upgrade in musical performance that is so big and so fundamentally important, spending that money anywhere else on the equipment in your system. Would I rather use a Classic 2 with a 3D 'arm or a Classic 4 with a JMW 12.7? No contest. An extra $3000 on the cartridge, or the 3D armwand? That’s an even easier call! Don’t even think about an electronics, DAC or speaker upgrade that can deliver this sort of musical access for this sort of money -- there isn’t one. What the 3D 'arm has achieved is to totally alter the critical balance in budget priority between turntable and tonearm. All of a sudden, the question becomes, What’s the cheapest deck I can get that will accept the 3D 'arm?

Of course, if you already have a JMW 10.5 or 12.7 on your deck, now you should be laughing. That, and wondering where you are going to find the requisite cash for your new 3D armtop, because once you hear what this thing does there really is no going back. The good news is that you can still keep the old armtop for a second cartridge or as a spare -- although I’m not sure how much use it will get. It’s not often that an audio upgrade can claim the status of essential purchase, but if you own a JMW tonearm already, that’s exactly what the 3D is. This isn’t just a step change in tonearm performance -- it’s a revolution. But what’s really exciting is that far from being the last word in tonearm performance, the VPI 3D tonearm is just the first word in a whole new chapter of technological development. Now that we are finally beginning to recognize just how critical mechanical factors are in system performance, the advent of FEA used in combination with 3D printing opens up whole new vistas for product development and musical improvement. The future’s bright -- and for once, even for record players and in this instance at least, the future is digital.

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