The Well-Tempered Arm Bill Sommerwerck, August 1986
An ad from a famous-name-brand pickup manufacturer in the November 1985 Audio suggests that their "phono cartridge on the end of your tonearm is the best investment you can make to improve the sound of your stereo system." In my case, it was just the opposite; a new arm and 'table, "hanging" on my pickup, produced some amazing improvements.
A few years back, when I finally became convinced that turntables really do sound different, I decided to upgrade from my Luxman PD-121/Signet XK50 turntable and tonearm. But I wanted to wait as long as (reasonably) possible, until arm and 'table design had stabilized sufficiently that I could buy something without worrying that it would be sonically obsolete six months later.
When first the VPI HW19 Mk.2 and then the Well-Tempered Arm appeared, it looked like a good time to take the plunge. I was prepared for a noticeable improvement but startled by the totally unexpected jump in sound quality.
Where to begin? The improvement in dynamics was one of the first things I noticed. There was a great gain in transparency, and more importantly, an even greater reduction in that "mechanical" quality so often heard from disc reproduction (about which, more later). Imaging was sharper and more stable. Surface noise seemed somewhat accentuated with this arm and 'table combination, but that may merely be due to its increased resolution. What was significant is that the extraneous pops and ticks seemed less "connected" to the music. That is, they existed in a dimension of their own, and were thus less disturbing.
One of the big surprises was the apparent major improvement in trackability. Most passages that previously broke up, or seemed overcut or badly pressed, my Dynavector 17D now sails through with ease.
As wonderful (and welcome) as all these changes are, it is the reduction of coloration that is most significant. Even the worst recordings have moments which at least suggest that there might have been a high-quality master tape involved, somewhere along the line.
The oddest thing is that, the worse the recording, the greater the improvement! Take, for example, London recordings of the early 1960s. Both JGH and I feel that these discs are somewhat veiled, and have a rich, overly-liquid quality that, though pleasing, is not a good representation of live sound. On the VPI/WTA combo, no way, José! The "pleasing" colorations disappeared, and the sound took on a degree of liveness, immediacy, and realism it never had before. Need I add that it became easier to follow musical details, and just plain get involved with the performance?
Another pleasant surprise was the classic Rene Liebowitz traversal of Beethoven's Nine Symphonies on Readers' Digest Records. Most of these discs had an unpleasantly brittle, hashy sound. No more: the VPI/WTA worked its magic here, too. And one of my all-time favorites—Schumann's Konzertstuck for Four Horns and Orchestra (Nonesuch 71044), otherwise intolerably hard and thin—gained an amazing sense of warmth, with a more natural tonal balance.
The biggest surprise came with some foul-sounding Columbias. I feel that the SQ Boulez version of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra is one of the nastiest-sounding, most colored recordings ever released. Yet, the VPI/WTA scraped off five layers of coloration and about 80% of the grundge. What was awful now comes off as merely mediocre.
In short, getting the VPI and WTA is like getting an altogether new record collection. The revitalization—or should I say vitalization—of my Columbias alone was almost worth the price of admission. There may be other arm/'table combinations in the same (rather pricey) range that deliver even better sound, but I don't think anyone who can afford this $1500 mating will be disappointed. I think I'll stop buying CDs (at least for a while), and rediscover my SADs (stereo analog discs).—Bill Sommerwerck