Graham Model 1.5 tonearm Page 5
Reinstall the arm wand in the base assembly and move the counterweight to achieve a static balance. The VTF is not calibrated, so you'll have to provide your own gauge for this. Next come the VTA and azimuth adjustments to complete the installation.
It was understood from the start that the Graham arm would live or die on the basis of its performance relative to the SME V. Bob Graham understood this very well during the design stage of the arm. After all, the SME is the arm to beat. It has established a strong reputation worldwide and has even been considered by some as the best pivoted arm money can buy. The SME had been my own reference for the past couple of years. I had grown to appreciate its strong suits, and it has happily partnered a variety of cartridges. If the Graham could exceed the SME's sonic virtues, it would be a miracle indeed and something really worth writing home about.
It didn't take me long to find out that the SME was in serious trouble. During his visit to Santa Fe, Bob brought along a Koetsu Pro IV, an utterly amazing cartridge that I had a chance to briefly audition on both the SME and Graham arms. The SME just wasn't as quick or as detailed as the Graham, and the Graham's bass registers were tighter and better-defined. Nor were these subtle differences. Differentiating between the two was child's play.
Over subsequent months the 1.5 partnered both the Rowland Complement and the Benz MC-3 cartridges. The Rowland is pretty fussy, demanding a rigid and well-damped arm for optimum performance. I never heard the Rowland perform this well in other arms. Its tracking ability, which I had complained about, improved to the point where I was placated. Detail retrieval, transient speed, and spatial resolution hit new highs. Much of the same differences were apparent with the Benz MC-3, which I shuttled between the SME and Graham arms.
Before I elucidate the major differences between these arms in greater detail, let me point out that a revised Australian Aura 'table was used for these listening tests. A new, plaster-filled platter, much more inert than the older one, and a new arm pillar further improved the bass-detailing capability of the 'table. The Threshold FET Ten/e preamplifier and Lindsay-Geyer and Kimber KCAG interconnects completed the front end. Loudspeakers were Apogee Stages driven by bridged Classé DR-8 amplifiers.
The Graham arm consistently displayed a remarkable ability to retrieve inner detail. This was a result of several factors. Its noise floor was extremely low, which indicates a rigid and well-damped arm. Surface noise was not emphasized, and soundstage transparency was increased over the SME, the latter sounding slightly more veiled and fuzzy. Transient decay was exceptionally clean. It was easier to resolve the decay of reverberant information down to the noise floor of the recording venue. Instrumental focus was tighter and spatially more precise. The sort of detail that normally gets buried in mud was resolved this time around. In a large chorus, such as that featured in Belshazzar's Feast (EMI SAN 324), with that many voices in full stride, it is quite easy for the sound to homogenize to the point of being unable to pinpoint individual voices. With the 1.5, the individuality of the chorus was never lost.
A favorite of mine, the "Goodnight, Irene" cut on the Weavers at Carnegie Hall album (Vanguard VSD-2150), features audience participation at a level that makes it not only hard to resolve in the first place, but difficult to locate in the proper section of the hall. The SME was good at this; the 1.5 was simply better.
This level of detail resolution was not due to some sort of psychoacoustic trickery. The treble was not etched to the point of artificially highlighting detail. Far from it—treble transients were cleaner, well-behaved, and distinctly faster. The rise-time differential between the arms was significant. As a result, transients were more energetic and convincing in their impact. Less smearing or time dispersion took place. The extreme treble had more air and the lower treble sounded less affected by overlying grain and grundge. Upper registers of soprano voice were sweeter and more delicate in texture. Taj Mahal's steel-bodied guitar (Recycling the Blues & Other Related Stuff, Columbia 31605) had a more explosive impact because the transients seemed to erupt from a background of silence and decayed away into silence rather than into a sea of fuzz.
In the midrange, the sound of the SME was warmer and fuller through the lower registers. Whatever it contributed to the sound was clearly euphonic. It was easy to listen to, just the sort of romantic flush most audiophiles crave. The 1.5 lacked the SME-V's gutsy balance. The Graham's virtue here was neutrality. Lower mids were portrayed just as the master tape intended them to be, with no enhancement through the orchestra's power range. If you desire a slight lushing-out of the sound down here, use tube gear with the Graham.
The SME's bass octaves were plentiful. In fact, there was a bit too much with the British arm; in terms of quality, the character of the bass was significantly looser, lacking the Graham's convincing pitch definition. Of course, to hear these differences, don't use a wimpy minimonitor. With the Apogee Stage, the deterioration in bass definition upon switching to the SME was quite startling. You've got to listen to double bass with the Graham arm in the chain: natural, tight, unadulterated bass. The 1.5 was also capable of reproducing timpani strokes with plenty of impact. More control was apparent at the end of the transient than with the SME. What the 1.5 did not provide, however, was the cheap thrill of a highish-Q arm resonance.
The Graham Model 1.5 tonearm is the sort of component that comes along once in a generation. It has coaxed more information from my favorite cartridges than any other arm I've auditioned. It is remarkably resonance-free. Transients are exquisitely preserved without smearing or etching. The soundstage is transparent and focused with great precision. Musical textures are cleaner and purer than ever before. The 1.5 resembles a high-powered telescope in its ability to penetrate deep into the soundstage and follow ambient information clear down to the noise floor of the hall. Reproduction of the bass octaves is remarkably free of the artifacts that afflict most tonearms. The 1.5's bass is tight, precisely controlled, and frighteningly natural. As I recall, only the Versa Dynamics player in J. Gordon Holt's reference systewm did as well in this respect.
The 1.5's tonal neutrality is the perfect setting from which to fashion one's favorite tonal balance. Leave it alone, or add a bit of spice. Either way, you can be assured that you're retrieving everything off the record your cartridge is capable of.
The 1.5 is the perfect arm with which to enjoy my growing vinyl collection till the end of time. If you haven't heard the Graham, you haven't heard the future of analog.