Listening #194: Sorane ZA-12 tonearm Page 2

Early on, I encountered a low hurdle that Phillip Holmes had predicted, and that I've encountered and written about before: As with so many other tonearms, it's difficult to make the height-adjustable ZA-12 sit low enough to fully accommodate the TD 124's platter, which is unusually low-slung relative to the armboard. Special emphasis on fully: the pairing proved ergonomically fine and sonically superb, but none of my cartridges was tall enough to allow lower-than-neutral vertical tracking angle (VTA)—ie, where the armtube is not parallel with the record, but slopes down from cartridge to arm bearing. That said, I got on well enough—and Holmes says that he and IT are working on a solution.

I began with my EMT TSD 15 N SPH cartridge—essentially a TSD 15 pickup head, spherical stylus and all, minus the headshell and made with standard (0.5") bolt-hole spacing. With the EMT, the rear of the armtube was only minutely elevated relative to the front. It was easy to achieve perfect Löfgren A alignment, which required a slight reduction in offset angle relative to that implied by the above-described mounting slots. Downforce was the EMT-recommended 2.5gm.

In "Opus 57," from The David Grisman Quintet (LP, Kaleidoscope F-5), Grisman's second mandolin solo in particular fairly leaped from the speaker—a sound not only spatially forward, but one that carried with it a generous suggestion of the player's force and sheer attitude. Bill Amatneek's double bass could not have been temporally tighter, clearer of pitch, or, again, more naturally forceful, its level in perfect balance with the other instruments. With the Sorane arm in my system, it was also easy to hear and enjoy the chording of second mandolinist Todd Phillips (who would go on to become a noted bassist), and Tony Rice's guitar solo in the same album's "Blue Midnite" sounded especially tactile—at one point, he pauses in his line of notes and rakes his pick across the strings to produce a subtly stunning effect that through this tonearm sounded all the more so.

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Good overall tonal balance—great tonal balance, really—was also the order of the day when I played my nice original copy of Doc Watson's third album, from 1966: Southbound (LP, Vanguard VSD 79213). Double bass, played here by Russ Savakus, again sounded just right: tonally richer and more plummy than on the Grisman record, but no less tight and quick, with superb pitch definition and in fine balance with everything else. Watson's guitar lines—especially his quick runs in "Call of the Road"—sounded wonderful, as did his gorgeous baritone voice: spatially front and center, and imbued with just the right amount of natural texture. Perfect playback of a perfect record, one that I did not want to end.

I spent a few days with the EMT-Sorane combination, which I thoroughly loved for its superb balance, punchy yet natural-sounding dynamic nuances, overall spatial forwardness, and timbral and textural vividness. Tics and pops were never brought to the fore or exaggerated—though the combination of EMT 997 and Shindo SPU proves even more imperturbable—and a wide variety of music styles was served. Before moving on to the next cartridge, I used Hi-Fi News & Record Review's Test Record (LP, Hi-Fi News HFN 001) to measure the resonant behavior of the EMT-Sorane combo, and found a strong lateral resonance at 11Hz—so strong that the stylus left the groove!—and a less severe but nonetheless pronounced vertical resonance at 10Hz: both frequencies within the 7–12Hz range regarded as optimal.

Combo loco
Next up in the Sorane ZA-12 was my lingering review sample of the Koetsu Onyx Platinum. For whatever crazy reason, I had the highest of high hopes for this combination. But it fell a bit short of those expectations, beginning with setup difficulties: As it turned out, the Koetsu wasn't tall enough, which resulted in the biggest divergence from ideal VTA of the three cartridges I've so far tried in the Sorane. Also, with the Koetsu mounted in the Sorane and the arm's four signal leads attached to the cartridge's output pins, it proved difficult to dress those leads—they seem longer than necessary—so that they didn't foul against the rotating record. I kept those leads up and out of the way by securing them to the arm with a bit of dental floss. (Note to Phillip Homes: If, when the Sorane has made it back to your place, you detect a hint of minty freshness, that's probably why.)

Whether owing to those setup difficulties or to some other reason, the Koetsu-Sorane combo was okay but far from perfect. It sounded fussy with worn records, calling attention to tics and pops in my recently acquired copy of Sandy Denny's The North Star Grassman and the Ravens (LP, Island ILPS 9165). (This could well have been a consequence of suboptimal VTA resulting from a tipped-up arm.) Even so, the strings in the haunting "Next Time Around" sounded lovely and rich, if not quite as rich as expected, and Denny's voice was its stark and plaintive self.

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Bass was ungenerous with this combination: Throughout the Denny LP, Pat Donaldson's electric bass was thin and lacking in oomph, and the same was true of the double bass on various Doc Watson albums. (The EMT-Sorane combination had sounded so wonderful on Southbound that it triggered a Watson mini-binge.) The orchestral bass drum in Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, in the recording with Peter Pears et al, and Benjamin Britten conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (2 LPs, London OSA 1293), also lacked weight and power—as did Roy Wood's electric bass in "It Wasn't My Idea to Dance," from the Move's Message from the Country (LP, Harvest SHSP 4013).

I can't help wondering if the combination's less-than-optimal bass performance is explained by the observations I made, after the fact, using the HFN/RR Test Record: In the vertical plane, I heard a moderately subtle resonant peak at 8Hz, but in the lateral plane there were pronounced if not quite groove-abandoning peaks at 7 and 9Hz, and the cartridge wiggled a good deal in response to every frequency over 17Hz. Make of that what you will—but as much as I love both the Koetsu Onyx Platinum and the Sorane ZA-12, they don't seem to care for each other.

Finally, I fitted the Sorane's plain-Jane mounting plane with my review sample of the MusiKraft Denon DL-103. For those just joining us, this is a Denon DL-103 moving-coil cartridge—like the horseshoe crab and the coelacanth, it is a living fossil, having survived unchanged since the early 1960s—whose plastic body has been shed, also crablike, in favor of a fancy machined-aluminum body. I wound up liking this combination better than the Koetsu-Sorane pairing, but it still wasn't as effective as the EMT-Sorane combo.

As with the aforementioned TSD 15 N SPH, I tracked the MusiKraft Denon at 2.5gm, and adjusted its position for Löfgren A alignment. This cartridge, being taller than the Koetsu but not as tall as the EMT, wasn't too terribly problematic in terms of VTA, and only the nude-bodied (I think we've found the reason for the N in its name) EMT was easier to align: Here as there, the cantilever was easy to see.

The sound of this combination was wonderful, and almost as good as that with the EMT: lots of impact, color, texture, and musical momentum, with a forward sound that at times skated right up to the limit of my tolerance for forwardness without ever crossing it. "Venus," from Television's Marquee Moon (LP, Elektra 7E-1098), was riveting: Tom Verlaine's lead vocal, a bit bright on the recording itself, had enough substance not to sound spitty, and his and Richard Lloyd's electric guitars were thoroughly engaging, while Billy Ficca's electric bass was both deft and forceful. An indispensably important record, reproduced brilliantly. This time around, Message from the Country, also indispensable, sounded so good I had to play the whole thing through.

My copy of the HFN/RR Test Record had one more outing: With the MusiKraft Denon, I noted a strong resonance at 7Hz in the lateral plane, with less severe resonances at 5 and 9Hz; in the vertical plane this combo was even livelier, with pronounced resonances at 8 and 10Hz, and a little activity at 12Hz.

In all, the Sorane ZA-12 is a lot like the Sorane née Abis SA-1.2, only more: more effective length, more mass, and more of the up-front, colorful, substantial, impactful, downright chunky playback qualities that endeared to me this company's earlier products. And the ZA-12 is beautifully built, with bearings that exhibit among the lowest friction I've observed in a tonearm of any price.

Setting aside the Sorane ZA-12's height limitations, it seems to be a tonearm lacking in flaws but abundant in point of view. Its rewards may be most apparent to the hobbyist who prizes, above all other cartridges, those with low-compliance motors. Inasmuch as most such products exist as pickup heads rather than as standard-mount cartridges, and as the ZA-12 is limited to the latter, it may take a bit of time for this high-value tonearm to find its audience. But I feel certain that it will—with the right cartridge, this thing made music like crazy. I hope to keep my review loaner for a while longer, to hear what other standard-mount cartridges might prove suitable (I ran out of time before I could try my Miyajima Laboratory Premium BE Mono II, which, owing to its lowish compliance, seems a likely candidate.) You can count on me to let you know.

COMMENTS
Ortofan's picture

... an Ortofon SPU Classic N, Classic N E, or Royal N (depending upon which stylus shape you prefer) mounted using an SPU N adapter (or two).
https://www.ortofon.com/media/148712/spubrochure_2017.pdf
https://www.ortofon.com/spu-n-adapter-p-453

dial's picture

Everyone seems to issue his own arm (like phono-preamplifiers, rarer are the MC tra. nowadays), at huge prices of course. Many interesting products aren't available separately from their turntables and now most aren't with the famous detachable Ortofon-SME headshell, making cartridge setup so easy. From own experience, it's difficult to tell one is better than the other, you must use a test-record and even so...

rockdc's picture

Art I wonder if placing some kind of similar material spacer in to raise the height with the Koetsu would have improved the results. Glad the 103 worked out; it's my go to in my corian PTP Lenco / Moerch DP-6 .

Jack L's picture

"I'm not sure I've ever found the perfect tonearm for that turntable."
quoted Art Dudley

My question: Why NEED to replace its original tonearm ?

FYI, I am still using my vintage TD-124II with its original tonearm. Its tone arm tracks fine, to the innermost groves, ALL my 1,000+ vinyl LPs, which were picked up from thrift stores, like Goodwill for a buck a piece. Yes, you may label me as a cheapskate !

In fact, its hydraulic lift works like a chime! It descends the tonearm so slow, steady & smooth like a dragon fly touching the water surface. EVERY time without fail !

Honestly, I am yet to find another tonearm with such immaculate hydraulic lift.

This hydraulic lift blows away bigtime that of my SME 3009III carbon fiber tonarm mounted on another direct-drive turntable in term of tonearm descending.

So I don't think I NEED to replace the TD-124II tonearm at all!

Listening is believing

Jack L.
Canada

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