Listening #135 The Abis SA-1.2

The Abis SA-1.2 tonearm, from November 2015 (Vol.38 No.11):

Few recent tonearms have more impressed me than the Abis SA-1, which I wrote about in our March 2014 issue. A relatively high-mass design with an effective length of 9" and a static downforce mechanism positioned well in front of its fulcrum, the Japanese-made SA-1 sounded fine with my Thorens TD 124 turntable and Denon DL-103 cartridge, and appeared to generate lots of e-interest among lovers of low-compliance moving-coil cartridges in general.

But before long, Phillip Holmes of Mockingbird Distribution, which imports Abis tonearms for the US market, did something remarkable: He sent a note to Stereophile's editorial office informing us that the SA-1 was in the process of being revised—and asked that it be removed from our "Recommended Components" list until we'd all had a chance to try its replacement.

The first samples of the new Abis SA-1.2 ($1775, footnote 1) were shipped in early summer 2015, offering refinements in three areas: improved bearings, greater effective length (9.4" vs 9"), and slightly greater offset angle (22.25° vs 22°). The latter two changes combine to endow the SA-1.2 with geometry that differs from that of the SA-1, and although a detailed discussion of same would be too long and too soporific for this space, it appears that, when installed and set up per Abis's instruction manual, the SA-1.2's geometry is close to Stevenson alignment. Moreover, according to Holmes, minute alterations in overhang can easily produce other geometries, with greater or lesser emphases on inner-groove distortion, average distortion, and so forth.

As mentioned above, the SA-1.2 uses improved versions of the same radial ball bearings found in the SA-1. The bearing that permits horizontal movement of the arm is especially interesting: While most radial bearings are intended for vertical alignment, as in wheel axles, the SA-1.2's horizontal bearing is designed specifically for an upright column. When loaded by gravity, the angled contact surface of the upper bearing race exerts angular force against the bearing balls, down into and against a similarly angled but larger-diameter lower race. This angular-contact thrust bearing thus self-aligns when in use, to produce less friction, noise, and wear than more conventional bearing types.

Retained from the SA-1 is its distinctive armtube of rectangular cross section, in which four distinct, precision-milled aluminum structures are fastened together in a manner claimed to control resonances without resorting to the use of silicone goo or other such energy-storing kludges. Also remaining is the SA-1's static downforce system, with a sliding weight calibrated up to 3gm, and a removable ancillary weight that adds another 1.5gm when needed. (The hobbyist who has a good-quality stylus-force gauge can get a greater range of downforce simply by adjusting the counterweight's position—an approach aided by the inclusion with the SA-1.2 of a counterweight-stem extension.)

My review sample was expertly packaged and beautifully finished, and supplied with both an Abis-specific AccuTrak alignment protractor (Mockingbird includes one of these free of charge with every Abis arm sold in the US) and a three-piece installation template that enables the user to precisely locate the tonearm-mounting hole before drilling. (What a concept!) The template proved easy to use, and within an hour the SA-1.2 was mounted securely on my Thorens TD 124 turntable.

The instruction manual suggests that cartridges should be installed in the stock Abis headshell with a space of precisely 50mm between the stylus tip and the edge of the mounting collet. With my Denon DL-103, that was achieved when the front surface of the cartridge body was set back from the front edge of the headshell by just under 2mm (about 5/64", or 0.08"). That done, I set the arm for the Denon's recommended downforce of 2.5gm and used the AccuTrak protractor (a laminated card) to check the cartridge alignment: It was very darn close, requiring only that I twist the cartridge a bit in the headshell to increase the offset angle by perhaps a fraction of a degree. Within a minute, I had it dead on. I guess Abis wasn't kidding about the 50mm thing.

The first LP I tried with the new Abis was the recording by Antal Doráti and the London Symphony Orchestra of The Moldau, from Smetana's Má Vlast (LP, Mercury Living Presence SR90214): a record that just happened to be out on the floor as I sifted through my collection to cull those LPs I'm not passionate about keeping. (See this month's "Listening.") The performance is decent, but not of the caliber of Rafael Kubelik with the Vienna Philharmonic on Decca, nor do I hold the Mercury Living Presence sound in the same esteem as I do that of the far more accomplished Decca. But one doesn't have to wait very long in The Moldau to hear someone pluck rather than bow a string—and there are more plucks where that came from. The second they started up, I realized that the Abis SA-1.2 was even more impressive than the SA-1.

Fellow idler-wheel fanatics will understand when I say that the addition of the SA-1.2 made my very good Thorens TD 124 sound more like a Garrard 301. The Abis pulled from that record tremendous amounts of touch and force and impact, and locked on to every melodic line and followed it like a metronomic bloodhound: It was machine-like, but in the best way. And all the while, tone and texture and color sounded as organic and real as I could want.

I'm sure as hell not going to sell that record now.

I moved on to an old favorite by the (scarcely) post–Richard Thompson Fairport Convention: Babbacombe Lee, which one can rightly call the first Brit-folk-rock operetta (LP, Island ILPS 9176). Note attacks from Simon Nicol's electric guitar and Dave Swarbrick's electric mandolin fairly leapt from the groove, and with appreciably more impact and touch than with my Thomas Schick tonearm and headshell; Dave Pegg's masterfully played electric bass was colorful and likewise forceful, again with solid senses of momentum and rhythm. More important, the music throughout was as intellectually and physically involving as I've ever heard it.

After years of looking, I finally found an original copy of Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band's Lick My Decals Off, Baby (LP, Straight/Reprise 6420), and was surprised at what a good-quality recording it is—a quality that doesn't come across in the CD reissue I've made do with for years. In particular, "Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop" sounded brilliant, the sounds of marimba and, especially, Rockette Morton's bass leaping from the groove at every unpredictable turn. Surprisingly, the combination of TD 124, Abis SA-1.2, and Denon 103 sounded a little darker than my usual combo of Garrard 301, EMT 997, and EMT TSD 15; the latter maintained an edge in impact and drive, but the Abis brought the Thorens closer to that reference than I've ever heard. It was satisfying in the extreme.

One evening, while Janet and Julia were both away—Janet visiting her dad in Oregon, Julia attending a month-long study program in Ireland—I finished work early in the day so I could prepare a quick dinner and get right to messing around with the hi-fi: The time had come to try one of my many EMT A-style pickup heads in the Abis, alignment be damned (at least for now—an easy thing to say for a man whose every pickup head is fitted with a spherical rather than an elliptical or hyper-elliptical stylus). After setting downforce with the aid of the SA-1.2's ancillary weight, I cued up my 1960 copy of Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster (LP, Verve MCV-8343) and settled in for "Chelsea Bridge." I was astonished by timbral colors that were much more vivid than with the SA-1, and similarly shocking levels of touch, presence, and blessed drive.

And it struck me: I was listening to this record on a system that, to be sure, costs considerably more than that owned by the average consumer—and yet, at the same time, arguably considerably less than the high-end audio average: a Thorens TD 124 (market price ca $900) with homemade plinth; the Abis SA-1.2 arm ($1775); an EMT OFD 25 cartridge ($2250 when last available); a Shindo Laboratory Masseto preamplifier ($12,500) and Haut-Brion amplifier ($9950); and Altec Valencia speakers (market price $1800/pair) on homemade stands. And this record had Never. Sounded. Better. The playback quality was everything I want, and not an ion less.

The Abis SA-1.2's arm pillar, before (left) and after (right) being lowered within the cueing gantry. There was apparently a dust storm in the minute between the taking of these two photographs. Photo: Art Dudley

A note to Thorens TD 124 owners: That turntable's very low-slung platter, relative to the armboard, often forces one to contend with suboptimal vertical tracking angle (VTA), especially with cartridges whose bodies are shallower than average: Some tonearms can't be lowered sufficiently to make the armtube parallel to the record's surface. So it was when I first installed the Abis SA-1.2 on my own TD 124—until I noticed the two setscrews that secure the arm's cueing gantry. It required only a 1.5mm Allen wrench and a few minutes' work to move the gantry to the uppermost edge of the arm pillar, which allowed the Abis to sit as low as possible, thus solving the problem. But—lowering the Abis also required using the same Allen wrench to remove and set aside the arm's cueing mechanism. That doesn't bother me—I have as much use for cueing levers as I do for remote handsets. Not every record lover will feel the same.

That consideration aside, the Abis SA-1.2 tonearm deserves my strongest recommendation. For LP enthusiasts who prize tone, touch, and timing above all else, I'd put the combination of Abis SA-1.2 and Denon DL-103 up against all but their priciest competitors; and for delivering the most of those performance characteristics for the least amount of money, it has few competitors.—Art Dudley

Footnote 1: Mine is actually the SA-1.2B, the black finish of which is, I'm told, sufficiently difficult to create that it carries a slightly higher price: $2000.

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!