High End 2017 • TABlog

by Roy Gregory | May 23, 2017

or years, the tonearm stories emanating from the High End show have always been about ever-longer effective lengths and, all too often, ever-higher prices. But this year proved the exception to the rule. We saw 'arms that were shorter, 'arms that were fatter, even 'arms that were on the distinctly affordable side. But what they all had in common was more performance made more attainable by one means or another.

Kuzma’s 4Point tonearms represent that most unusual of audio animals: products that are held in almost universally high regard. With their phenomenal rigidity, mechanical stability and easy, repeatable adjustability, they are models of analog engineering, at a price that, while high, is actually something of a bargain when compared to the competition. But they are also, whether in the "standard" 11" or longer 14" versions, both heavy and demanding when it comes to deck-top real estate. Despite the offset mountings, pairing them with some decks can end up being a physically and aesthetically awkward, as well as a costly process.

Lose 5" of armtube and the VTA tower and what do you get? The simpler, much lighter and far more affordable 4Point 9. Sharing the same bearing-housing and tapered armtube, replaceable headshell and ability to adjust the cartridge in all three planes, the new 9" 'arm reverts to a conventional post-and-collar arrangement for setting 'arm height, as well as dispensing with the independent vertical and lateral damping troughs and complex, composite counterweight arrangement of the longer 'arms. The result is an 'arm with a pivot-to-spindle mounting distance of 212mm, an effective mass of 13 grams, an all-up weight of 920 grams (around 45% of the 11" version’s weight) and, most important of all, a price that has slimmed down to around $3500. Considering that many users don’t actually employ the damping options or on-the-fly VTA facility built in to the bigger 'arms, those are losses that many a customer will be only to happy to endure.

Recently, as a result of my booplinth experiences, I’ve been playing with rebuilding an LP12. Without wishing to spoil the story, as well as the which-upgrades-in-what-order question, the other decision that needed making was, which tonearm? If you want something better than an Ittok on your vintage Linn, other than springing for an Ekos, where do you go? Well, the answer I came up with was The Wand, a beefy, subtle, rather clever and remarkably affordable unipivot from New Zealand, described by one informed individual as "The 'arm the Naim Aro should have been!" He wasn’t wrong, and given the price attracted by secondhand Naim 'arms, the standard Wand, at around $1300 in its 9" version, delivers a phenomenal sonic bang for your bucks -- and it looks pretty cool too.

My only complaint was its lack of on-the-fly VTA adjustment and the absence of damping (always useful in a unipivot, especially one mounted on a nervous platform). Well, now my (minor) objections have been quashed. The new Wand Master Series tonearm is built around the same massive carbon-fiber armtube as the original, along with the same contained bearing and composite counterweight assembly, keeping mass as close to the pivot point as possible and structural resonance to a minimum. Instead of the standard hardened-steel bearing tip, the Master Series 'arm employs Zirconium, as well as adding variable damping, a knurled VTA adjuster and Nordost internal wiring. The price rises to $2250 ($2600 for a 10" and $2900 for the 12") but that’s an awful lot of extra performance potential for your money. The unit on show in Munich had a silver armtube, but the standard 'arm is classic glossy black. If that silver weave is just a little too blingy for you, Simon Brown will always build you a Master Series 'arm with a black tube. Now all I need to do is start thinking about effective length. Decisions, decisions.

Another 'arm waiting in line to take its turn on the LP12 is AMG’s 9W2, a tonearm that can be as frustrating to set up as it is elegant in appearance and use. I've paired it with the AMG Giro, and I’ve been constantly surprised by the compact combination’s musical confidence and communicative powers -- and repeatedly challenged by the difficulty of making small, incremental or repeatable adjustments to setup and alignment. The end results are wonderful, but I’d love to get there more quickly and without giving my vocabulary quite such an exhaustive workout.

Well, now I can. Last year saw the arrival of the 12JT, a revised version of the 12J2 12" 'arm that replaced the tiny, sunken adjustment screws and sliders with beautifully executed thumb-wheels, making setup a simple, tool-free exercise. Now that same mechanical sophistication has been applied to the 9W2, along with a sliding cartridge mount and elegantly profiled, variable-mass counterweight, making setup a cinch. Such aesthetic and mechanical elegance don’t come cheap, and the 9WT (at $6500) commands a $3000 premium over the standard 9W2 -- but then what price sanity and all that extra time to listen? Besides which, with its carefully sculpted parts and slim profile, it looks a million dollars!

Finally, the irrepressible Mat Weisfeld of VPI was seen brandishing the latest incarnation of the 12" JMW’s removable armtop, the Titan, aka "The Fat Boy." The new armwand pairs a massive 3D-printed tube and headshell with an alloy bearing housing and stainless-steel counterweight and stub.

The counterweight is now threaded, locking with a soft-nosed grub screw, while azimuth can be set with the eccentric mass ring or the outrigger bearing, with a point riding on a polished steel thrust plate. This is another tonearm sporting Nordost internal wiring, although alternatives can be installed to order. Best of all, the new armtop is compatible with all current JMW bearing/VTA assemblies.

Availability looks like Q3, and even with an asking price that’s expected to be in the region of $5000, there should be no shortage of takers for this muscular and magnificently finished specimen.

Rather more affordable was a simple machined sleeve compatible with all plastic-bodied Grado cartridges, aimed at making them more mechanically stable and easier to fit, by dint of threaded mounting holes. Claimed to cure the notorious "Grado shimmy," as well as improve musical performance, the sleeve will cost around $50.

Just as intriguing is the news that it represents a spin-off from a joint VPI/Grado project aimed at producing a serious moving-iron alternative to high-output moving-coils for vinyl lovers who value value as well as ease of use. With a target price in the region of $1000, this has more than a hint of the Grado Signatures, not to mention that other MC giant-killer, the Cartridge Man’s Music Maker III -- and that makes it potentially very interesting indeed.

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