Listening #185: Audio-Technica & Arché Page 2

If, under the Audio-Technica's stylus, the Brahms sounded like a different recording, it was surely not a different performance: with its clearer portrayal of playing techniques, of sheer humanness, the A-T assured me that playing encrypted in the groove had evinced no less insight, taste, judgment, and pure physical talent than before. Based on my earlier experience with the Tzar DST, I expected a better sense of touch from the strings, and that I certainly heard. What I hadn't expected was how much better a sense of clarinetist Alfred Boskovsky's breathing and tonguing techniques the A-T now provided. Legato phrases were more so—something as easy to enjoy as to hear.

Speaking of expectations, I might have guessed I'd hear more surface noise with the Audio-Technica and its line-contact stylus than with the SPU and its spherical stylus. The reality wasn't quite that simple. The A-T was no more or less immune to the occasional clicks and pops on this used but not abused 50-year-old LP, while the faint steady-state noise beneath the music signal was lighter in tonal character through the AT-ART1000 than the SPU.

Which brings me back to the Audio-Technica's timbral balance: Yes, it was lighter than I'm used to hearing in my system, and there were moments when that distinction left me unsatisfied—especially in this work's final two chords, which lacked gravitas under the A-T's stylus. But as I learned when I left the needle in the groove for the last piece on that LP—Wagner's early and distinctly Mozartean Adagio for Clarinet and String Quintet (footnote 3)—while the A-T lacked some richness, it did not lack for sheer bass weight: For this work, the ensemble that recorded the Brahms was supplemented by a double-bass player, and plucked notes from his instrument had every bit as much weight and force as through the SPU.

When I used the AT-ART1000 to play the 12", 45rpm single of Elvis Costello's "I Want You" (IMP 008T), I heard a starkness that was thrilling (and slightly off-putting). The sound of Costello's voice as he begins the song accompanied only by acoustic guitar was present and tactile and just plain real in a way one seldom hears from recorded music: It was as if he were sitting across from me.

Well, not exactly across from me: The Audio-Technica cartridge reminded me of how this recording, which I hadn't listened to in ages, used to tear me apart emotionally, but it also reminded me of what a poor recording and/or mastering this is in other respects: Yes, the voice was enjoyably stark, but only in the stretches between plosives and sibilants—which grated. Kudos to the Audio-Technica, I suppose, for revealing that—and for revealing, at the same time, how the more competently recorded electric guitar, electric bass, and organ were almost as present, almost as tangible as that voice during its best moments. The drums, despite being a bit distant and overcompressed, sounded good.

I had more thoroughly enjoyable results when I turned to the Electric Recording Company's limited-edition reissue of Leonid Kogan's 1959 stereo recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with Constantin Silvestri and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra (EMI/Electric Recording Co. SAX 2323). Bear in mind that, depending in particular on the cartridge used, this recording does not always sound agreeable: There's a lot going on in that groove—a lot of texture, a lot of dynamic peaks, and possibly one or two passages where the original was recorded a little too hot. When I try it with the otherwise-beloved stock Denon DL-103, that LP's and that cartridge's hot spots bump against one another and make for some unpleasant moments. But with the AT-ART1000 the listening experience was pure gold, with a silky solo violin and generous but not excessive textures in the orchestral strings. Most import was the way the Audio-Technica's obvious soundstaging prowess enhanced my experience. The subdued opening measures had the orchestra sounding appropriately distant—but for once, the louder bits that followed didn't sound spatially incongruous with that: It was clearly the same recording space, but now the orchestra within it was playing louder. (Again, sometimes a little too loud for the tape, I think. I'd be interested to hear from readers with a greater knowledge of this recording than mine.)

Best of all was the performance I heard when I used the Audio-Technica to play Jacques Loussier's Play Bach No.1 (Decca/Speakers Corner SSL 40.500). No other cartridge of my experience offers a better idea of the pitches and rhythms of Pierre Michelot's double-bass lines in the Prelude 1. The A-T's brilliantly drawn dynamic contrasts made all of the instruments in the trio sound dramatic and lifelike, and none more so than Christian Garros's drums, which enter so faintly that, with other cartridges, they at first sound like surface noise. But with the AT-ART1000, every sound Garros made was musical—and impactful, and vital.

Compared to my memory of the Tzar DST, the Audio-Technica AT-ART1000 didn't sound quite as forceful. The Siberian cartridge could sound more dangerous when it had to, and a bit more rawboned overall. But the A-T was in the same league, sounding considerably more exciting and impactful than average. With LP after LP, it delivered the sort of excitement I crave from music playback—a nearly physical sensation, almost like feeling the cold against my chest when I wade into deep water. (It will be trout season by the time you read this.) At half the price of the Tzar, the Audio-Technica delivers considerably more than half the thrills, and is one of that small handful of pickups I'd care to live with.

Acoustical Systems Arché headshell
There are those who suggest that a tonearm with a removable headshell can never perform as well as an otherwise-identical arm with an integral headshell, for two reasons: a removable headshell disrupts signal flow with an electrical disconnect, and it compromises rigidity—the latter presumed a requirement in the war against information loss—with a mechanical disconnect. (I would note a third reason—removable headshells are not in keeping with the notion that fidelity comes only with arduous setup regimens—but that would be uncharitable of me.) On the other side of this debate are those who believe either that such disconnects are unlikely to have audible consequences, or that those consequences are trivial, outweighed by the benefits of a removable headshell.

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Those benefits are the ability to easily and quickly swap among different phono cartridges, each in its own headshell and preadjusted for lateral tracking angle and stylus overhang, and to enjoy the pleasures of vintage-style pickup heads such as the Ortofon SPU and the EMT OFD, in which cartridge and headshell are more or less inseparable.

Among those who think ill of removable headshells are a good many successful tonearm designers, some of them trained in engineering, as well as many of my colleagues in the press. On the other side of the debate are no fewer designers and engineers, and an indeterminate number of critics. This is the side on which I've made my home, ever since going clear from the Church of the Flat Earth, where an acceptance of removable headshells is considered only one of many sins.

I have long had an eye out for a high-quality accessory headshell: something with more adjustability and perhaps even a bit more mass than the undistinguished and evidently cheap giveaways packaged with virtually all tonearms in need of such things. Thus I was pleased to learn about the Arché headshell ($695), made by the German firm Acoustical Systems and distributed in the US by Rutherford Audio. Not only does the Arché offer a way to adjust vertical tracking angle (VTA) without having to alter tonearm height, and easy adjustment of azimuth—both unavailable on the vast majority of other headshells—but its means of adjusting overhang offers a range slightly greater than average. When I used the Arché with the Zu/DL-103 Mk.II and Audio-Technica AT-ART1000 cartridges, I found I could adjust overhang through a range of 10mm, and achieve a stylus-to-collet distance of as little as 45mm. (On the exemplary plain-Jane headshell included with the Audio-Creative GrooveMaster II tonearm, adjustability is limited to a range of 47–55mm.)

Among the keys to the Arché's versatility is that its mounting plate—the part to which the cartridge is fastened, with bolts passing through slots of the usual sort—is itself not integral to the rest of the headshell. After three fixing screws have been loosened, that plate can be tilted fore to aft relative to the rest of the structure (this is where the VTA adjustment comes in) or removed altogether. I don't condescend when I suggest that that in itself may be a deal-breaker for those who are on the fence about the whole removable-headshell thing: I found it impossible to make the fixing bolts tight enough that the mounting plate could not, with effort, be moved. (Extra mounting plates are available for $99 each; the hobbyist who owns only one Arché can still swap out cartridges while retaining some adjustments.)

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Still, the Arché's adjustability, not to mention the sheer pleasure of using something so well conceived and nicely machined, has endeared it to me. As for performance, with the Audio-Technica cartridge in particular, the Arché offered a very slight distinction, albeit one apparently related not to a matter of quality per se but to a difference in mass: the aluminum-and-steel Arché is heavier than average (footnote 4). When tested using the tonearm-cartridge resonance tracks on Hi-Fi News & Record Review's Test Record (LP, Hi-Fi News HFN 001), the AT-ART1000, mounted in the plain-Jane headshell, exhibited resonant frequencies of 7Hz lateral and 8Hz vertical, both very mild. When I switched to the Arché headshell, the resonant behavior was somewhat different: I went from a barely noticeable wiggle at 7Hz to a more pronounced one at both 7 and 5Hz, while the vertical-plane resonance remained at 8Hz—possibly with a slight disturbance at 6Hz. It was hard to tell.

Also hard to tell were the audible consequences, if any, of those distinctions. Try though I did, I could hear no difference between the plain-Jane and Arché headshells.

To my way of thinking, and notwithstanding the Arché's high price, that's high praise. To achieve such adjustability and versatility with no sonic penalty is a noteworthy accomplishment, and I enthusiastically recommend the Arché to phonophiles on my side of the great divide.



Footnote 3: That this work is Wagner's is considered doubtful if not spurious. Richard Lehnert

Footnote 4: The digital scale I use for things in this weight range is on the fritz, so I can't put a number to the difference. This observation is based on the fact that, with both the EMT and Audio-Creative tonearms, I had to move their counterweights farther from their pivots to compensate for the Arché's extra mass.

COMMENTS
TC's picture

Mr. Dudley, thank you for your outstanding review. Based on the Stereophile Recommended Conponents list and the fine work by you and your colleagues at Stereophile, I purchased an ART1000 cartridge and a VPI Classic 4 turntable recently, and am delighted with the result. I have found the information in these pages to be invaluable from a technical standpoint, but also entertaining.
I’m curious which SUT you chose for use with this cartridge, and if you found any substantial differences between the Audio-Creative and EMT tonearms.

eskisi's picture

You will protest but I am at a loss why one would ever want to use idler wheels. The beauty of a turntable is that a heavy platter keeps speed more or less constant, with just a small, gradual loss due to friction, air resistance, etc. A belt makes up for that loss beautifully, without interfering with anything else. An idler wheel, by contrast, provides a near rigid connection to the motor, certainly adding some noise. Furthermore unless the idler rubber is made to surgical accuracy, there will always be some wow introduced. Even then, a few days of non-use and the rubber will develop a flat spot, just like a rarely driven car’s wheels do. (Direct drive has similar issues but at least not the flat spot problems.)

I know this first hand as I restore old reel-to-reels and many 1950s US models have idler wheel driven capstans. Getting them to sound “just OK” is a major chore. In some the flat spot has turned into a half moon from years of pressing against the motor shaft.

Few weeks ago, at an audio meet, the maker of an — unnamed but major — turntable brand said to me, idler wheels provide “better dynamics,” especially for classical music but that belt drive maybe better for jazz and rock. I barely suppressed a chuckle — how does the turning method affect whatever dynamics the record has or the cartridge can generate? But unlike Galileo I know when to remain silent.

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