Listening #135

In the wake of my October 2013 "Listening" column and its negative take on the Pete Riggle Woody tonearm (footnote 1), I was surprised and gratified by the offer of another new arm: a gesture of trust not unlike sending one's children to a sleepover at Casey Anthony's house. The supplier was Phillip Holmes, of Texas-based Mockingbird Distribution (footnote 2), and the new tonearm was the Abis SA-1, the design and manufacture of which was commissioned by the Japanese firm Sibatech, itself a distributor of dozens of high-end audio brands, including Zyx, Mactone, Zerodust, and, perhaps most famously, Kondo.

In contrast to the artisanal and altogether wooden Woody, the Abis SA-1 ($2350) is machined from aluminum alloy and assembled in a Tokyo factory that, I'm told, has 40 years of experience making tonearms under a different brand (which Sibatech declines to name). Indeed, my review sample seemed at least as well made as any other arm I've used, and although the SA-1 isn't produced with the sort of luxurious finish one sees on the Ikedas and Zetas of the world, its appearance and feel are solid, serious, and professional—not cobby.

Broad in the beam
According to Abis, the SA-1's effective mass, is "approximately 20 grams" and Sibatech and Mockingbird are up-front in saying that this very substantial tonearm is designed for use with low-compliance phono cartridges. Thus the SA-1, with its pivot-to-stylus distance of just under 9", is a unique alternative for those who want a tonearm of high mass but not of transcription length (12"), the latter phrase describing virtually all contemporary tonearms of greater-than-average effective mass.

The most obvious junk in the SA-1's trunk is its wide armtube of rectangular cross-section, a design distinction that gives it a passing resemblance to Dynavector's classic 507 models. Adding to that impression is the fact that the SA-1's offset angle, specified as 22°, is achieved not with a bend or a curve in the tube but with what appears, at first glance, to be a separate structural element, mounted at an angle to the main "beam." (A closer look reveals that this frontmost portion of the Abis arm is neither adjustable nor separate—the whole of it is apparently cast in one piece before being machine-finished—and so the hyper-adjustable Dynavectors remain unchallenged in that regard.)

The Abis SA-1's armtube is sufficiently wide—presumably to enhance stability during play, although its maker makes no such claim—that it remains a high-mass tonearm even with some of its junk drilled away, to make room for the signal wires and a distinctive downforce mechanism. The left- and right-channel wires occupy separate tunnels on the arm's underside, spaced as far apart as possible to maximize stereo separation; the downforce mechanism is a cylindrical weight that slides along a slender axial shaft, all within a hollow at the center of the armtube. Downforce is calibrated in increments of 0.5gm up to 3gm; a small, round auxiliary weight can be fitted into a hole of its own for another 1.5gm of pressure. The spring-actuated antiskating control, located near the arm pivot, is calibrated only to 3gm—a not-unreasonable limit, given the questionable value of bias force at higher downforces.

Installation was straightforward, eased by Abis's inclusion of a plastic arm-mount template that slips over the record spindle to precisely indicate where, on the armboard or plinth, one must drill the mounting hole (which is coincident with the exact center of the arm's horizontal pivot). That was ostensibly the most critical task—yet, as with all such tonearms and all such mounting collets, the screw holes required to hold the collet in place are equally important: To get them wrong is to squander whatever degree of accuracy was brought to bear on the primary mounting hole.

To solve this dilemma, I applied to the SA-1 an installation trick I've been using for the past few months. I began by choosing a drill bit that measures exactly the same as the arm collet's inside diameter—in this case, 20mm—then drilled the hole in precisely the spot indicated by the template. That done, I used cyanoacrylate to glue the collet to the surface of the armboard, having used an appropriately sized wooden dowel to precisely align the two openings and orient the collet's locking screw in the desired direction. After the adhesive dried, I used the holes for the collet screws to mark the precise points for the drilling that remained. (I have sometimes simply used a glued-down collet's screw holes as guides for my drill bit, with fine results.)

In setting up the SA-1, I encountered only one real obstacle: Its detachable headshell came equipped with signal leads that were too stiff and unyielding to allow any of my phono cartridges to be scooted all the way back to the rearmost position permitted by the headshell's adjustment slots. I compensated by substituting a set of (non–plastic-coated) leads that were much more forgiving—especially with the superb Miyajima BE II mono cartridge, whose staggered output pins help prevent this sort of problem from happening in the first place.

A final word about setup: Prior to setting downforce, I found that it was impossible to completely balance the SA-1's armtube under zero-downforce conditions. I don't know if that was due to the precise location of the arm's vertical bearings, the height of the counterweight relative to that of the fulcrum, or some other factor. The greatest practical consequence was that uncertainties in zero-downforce settings translate into uncertainties in positive-downforce settings, thus forcing the use of an accessory downforce scale during setup and disregarding the SA-1's built-in calibration for all but the coarsest settings. A secondary consequence, of concern only to reviewers and the insecure, is that the lack of ability to float an armtube makes it difficult to assess the quality of a tonearm's bearings. (The distributors of the SA-1 say that the quality of its ball-and-race lateral and vertical bearings is very high indeed.)

Tight, also
Notwithstanding the above, it wasn't long before I had the Abis SA-1 up and running on my lovingly maintained, early-'60s Thorens TD 124, with my Denon 103 cartridge installed and aligned in accordance with standard Baerwald geometry. (The Denon would be followed by my Miyabi 47 stereo cartridge and Miyajima BE II Mono cartridge.) After adjusting the cueing platform to compensate for the 124's unusually low-slung platter, the Abis arm was ergonomically good—and the plastic armrest clip that I at first cursed proved its worth in keeping the arm from flinging itself upward during cartridge changes.

With the first record I played—Country Cooking's 14 Bluegrass Instrumentals (Rounder 0006)—I was almost startled by the SA-1's tactile directness and musical rightness: It sounded remarkably good from the get-go. One expects a certain level of sonic immediacy from this album's twin-banjo assault, and the Abis arm did not disappoint. Yet it went further than any other 9" arm of my experience in applying the same tactile qualities to mandolin, violin, double bass, and even Russ Barenberg's beautifully phrased guitar lines, especially in "The Old, Old House" and "Big Ben."

The SA-1's ability to communicate tactile impact—or at least to not diminish it—was marvelous. The percussion in "Autumn," from Joanna Newsom's Have One on Me (Drag City DC390), leapt from the loudspeakers with as much apparent force as when I use my reference tonearm, the EMT 997 (which is mounted on a Garrard 301, with the attendant benefits of greater motor torque and a less lossy drive system). Ditto the notes Newsom plucked from her Lyon & Healy concert harp, which attained a similarly impressive level of force, combined with impressive timbral richness and color, each note blooming with realistic tension and substance. Here, as with other LPs, the SA-1 gave full, clean voice to the treble range, at times skating right up to the border between neutral and bright without ever tipping over—and its abundance of rich midrange color prevented the arm from sounding light, per se.

The Abis also managed, somehow, to turn my Altec Valencia speakers into imaging champs. With no loss whatsoever in the performance areas with which I'm most concerned—impact, timing, drama, flow, timbral color and substance—my Abis-fueled system compellingly informed me of the locations of most instruments in the London Symphony Orchestra in my favorite recording of Schubert's Symphony 9, led by Josef Krips (Decca/Speakers Corner SXL 2045). The Abis extracted equally good spatial performance from other recently enjoyed favorites, including the Grateful Dead's fine-sounding American Beauty (Warner Bros./Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab 1-014) and Bill Frisell's Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch 79536-1).

But never mind all that. The Abis just plain damn played music, dammit. Melodies in that Schubert symphony were more compelling than I remember hearing through my hi-fi in a very long time, and with the SA-1 and the Miyabi 47 on my Thorens, I reconnected with American Beauty more musically and emotionally than sonically, reveling in the strange combination of adventurous, even audacious arrangements and performances of music that is, at its heart, as steeped in tradition as can be.



Footnote 1: This tonearm's cumbersome full name is the String Theory Woody tonearm from Pete Riggle Audio.—Ed.

Footnote 2: Abis/Sibatech Inc., Room 1301, 8-25-22 Higashi-Suna. Koto-ku, Tokyo 136-0074. Japan. Tel: (81) 3-3645-1646. Fax: (81) 3-3645-1948. Web: www.sibatech.co.jp. US distributor: Mockingbird Distribution, LLC, Van Alstyne, TX. Tel: (214) 668-2509. Web: www.mockingbirddistribution.com.

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COMMENTS
Regadude's picture

Art. Restoring all this 19th century gear is pretty cool. But, why don't you use that Rega P9 you have in your closet to listen to vinyl? You know, that P9 someone gave you to review, and then forgot to ask it back (and you cannot find them)?

I'm pretty sure it will be somewhat better than that Flintsone era Thorens... I still give you a thumbs up for restoring it. 

Doctor Fine's picture

I believe Art wound up going with the short very stiff belt drive/idler pulley Thorens specifically to gain more TORQUE and less SLIP when using the heavy tracking but wonderful Denon DL-103. 

I recall Art TRIED several famous belt drive tables before giving up and looking around for more "oomph."  The Thorens motor bites its platter with the grip of a pit bull.  Very good indeed for the low compliance heavy set bunch.

I myself would have suggested to Artie he simply use a well kitted brand new Technic SL-1210M5G but he prefers attempting things of a masochistic bent. 

The Technics was initially designed to be the ultimate audiophile turntable with prodigious amounts of torque.  It has been discontinued for lack of interest by the new generation of "experts" who ignored its charms entirely.  Those that do not know its origins missed a great one, too bad.

Completely overhauling an antique Thorens which uses a rubber wheel drive just seemed the cat's meaow to our boy.  There never was a more rugged handsome masculine piece of gear than the Thorens 124 so I DO understand the appeal and cheered for Artie when he made his into a masterpiece with many upgrades......

It is apparently Art's diabolic plan to ferret away every last piece of HiFi porn worth lusting over and then not SHARE his pile with the rest of us.

This is patently unfair Mr. Dudley so cut it out right NOW!

popluhv's picture

Is the guage at the bottom of the photo for anti-skate or VTA? Does it have adjustable VTA?

nunhgrader's picture

I cannot wait to read the comments about your April column (I am such an audiophile gossipy old fart)! Wish someone would reference the facebook page!

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