Listening #67 Follow-Up, September 2008

Art Dudley wrote about the EMT 997 in September 2008 (Vol.31 No.9):

A misunderstanding: During my first two weeks with the EMT 997 tonearm that I wrote about in my July 2008 "Listening" column, whenever it seemed that the azimuth of the pickup head in use was a little bit off, I would loosen the teensy-weensy grub screw at the bottom of the end of the armtube, carefully rotate the pickup head a fraction of a degree, retighten the grub screw, then look back on my busy day with pride. That regimen continued until curiosity got the better of me and I took a really close look at that teensy-weensy screw. Turns out it had nothing whatsoever to do with azimuth, and served only to hold in place the small, internal plug where the signal wires join the connector pins.

I discovered, in fact, that I could leave the screw as tight as a nut and still rotate the pickup head a fraction of a degree. As British Leyland mechanics used to say about MG motors that leak oil: They all do that. It's normal.

As it turns out, the pickup head's ability to rotate has only to do with the size of the locating pin on the pickup head's bayonet, relative to the size of the vertical slot at the end of the tonearm tube that's intended to accommodate it. And here's the thing: EMT pickup heads have a chunky, squared-off pin, and can be only slightly adjusted for azimuth. Ortofon pickup heads have a slimmer, rounded pin that permits a wider range of movement. That's pretty much all there is to it.

Days passed . . . Cartridges came and went. The need for azimuth adjustment beyond the range permitted by the EMT 997 became apparent.

I took a closer look at my record player, to determine why the azimuth was faulty in the first place. After ensuring that the platter bearing of my Thorens TD 124 turntable was well aligned with respect to the rest of the player, I found the sources of the problem: an irregularity in the removable wooden tonearm board, compounded by an irregularity in the SME-style sliding tonearm mount that I'd fastened to it. I could do little about the former—or so I thought at the time. The latter was another matter.

The EMT 997 tonearm is supplied with a mounting base of its own: a simple but nicely made brass-alloy fixture that requires a single 20mm hole for the tonearm pillar, plus three smaller holes for the machine screws that fasten the collar in place from under the armboard. But that standard EMT base doesn't allow the tonearm's effective length to be adjusted at all, and that puts the user under two constraints. First, he must decide between setting the arm's spindle-to-pivot distance at 297mm or 315mm, for use with A- or G-style pickup heads, respectively. Second, because traditional pickup heads don't allow the user to adjust stylus overhang, he must measure and drill the tonearm board with near-perfect accuracy.

I ordered a new blank tonearm board from Schopper AG in Switzerland, the pre-eminent specialists in Thorens maintenance and restoration: a no-brainer. But because there were no extralong armboards available at that time, and because I was anxious to get on with my life, I hit upon a stopgap measure: I removed the arm from the board, removed the board from the turntable, and made a custom softwood plug for the existing mounting hole, so I could redrill the thing.

That wasn't nearly as difficult as it sounds, given that I own a good scroll saw and belt sander. After some judicious touch-up work—a dab o' putty here, a nick o' paint there—I daresay the board was indistinguishable from new.

For the simple reason that I'd already fallen in love with the EMT OFD 25 and Ortofon SPU Synergy A cartridges, both of which have the 32mm stylus-to-collar dimension common to all A-style pickup heads, I decided to forgo G-style heads and their greater effective length—for now. So I got out my old metric ruler, which already had a spindle hole drilled at one end, and cemented a wooden pointer precisely at the 297mm point. I used that to mark the center of my new mounting hole, then drilled it with a sharp new wood bore.

I reinstalled the 997 and resoldered its signal wires to the output jacks. Then I evaluated overhang and tracking angle using the protractor that's become my favorite in recent months: the DB Systems model DBP-10, still available for just $49. The DBP-10 is easy to use—as long as you resist the urge to ruin the thing by making indentations for the stylus, as advised by at least one well-intended reviewer—and it was instrumental in helping me envision and understand the relationship between overall length and tracking error in an arm such as the 997, where an increase in the distance between record spindle and tonearm mounting hole must go hand-in-hand with a concomitant increase in the distance between stylus and pickup-head collar. (And, of course, the scenario I've just described would produce a reduction in overhang—something that struck me as counterintuitive, and that I had difficulty understanding at first—as well as a reduction in tracking-angle error.) In that sense, the DBP-10 is as much a learning tool as a listening tool, and, as a surprise bonus, it will last forever.

Anyway, the DB Systems protractor told me that my EMT 997's now-fixed overhang and tracking-angle alignment were almost correct. That made for another touchstone in my education: When I receive my new, undrilled replacement tonearm board, I'll make it perfect.

Miscellaneous advice: It may well be that, by skipping the chance to use the EMT 997 in its 325mm form, I'm preventing myself from enjoying even greater freedom from distortion. Yet the fact remains, having used the 997 as a 307mm tonearm for a few months, that I'm already won over by its freedom from inner-groove distortion, not to mention the overall lack of fussiness in its sound. And I can't help being convinced, however unscientifically, that its positive qualities are due at least in part to the fact that, even with an effective length of 307mm, the EMT 997 is 25% longer than the average domestic tonearm.

Some miscellaneous advice to prospective EMT 997 owners:

1) As I mentioned in my July 2008 column, EMT's accessory headshell for the 997 tonearm (Part 7937060, $400) is a poor option: It's too short, with way too little clearance for both its own signal wires and the connecting pins of the cartridge being used. A clever hobbyist might be able to render it usable by milling away some of the (apparently unnecessary) bulk that separates the cartridge from the bayonet and locking collar. If you're not squeamish about modifying and quite possibly ruining a $400 part, be my guest; as for me...

2) During its first weeks in my home, I was put off by the 997's lack of a cueing mechanism. As so often happens, I've now gotten used to it, and I enjoy cueing the arm by hand (but not with the aid of the magnifying loupe built into EMT's own pickup heads, which my aging and bad-to-begin-with eyes don't find at all helpful). But I do wish they'd offer some sort of an armrest, perhaps along the lines of the one engineered for the Naim Aro. For now, I've swiped the yellowing plastic clip that came with my old Thorens TP-14 tonearm, presently retired.

3) I've already changed pickup heads a number of times, of course, and in one instance my efforts were confounded by an overlarge connecting bayonet that proved to be a (cartridge) manufacturer's defect. Even so, the 997's bearings have proven remarkably sturdy: I check them regularly, and my EMT arm is as friction-free now as it was when it first arrived.

4) Leaving the grub screw loose on the main counterweight makes it easy to quickly rebalance the arm when swapping between pickup heads of significantly different masses. Yet the arm sounds better—really!—when that screw is snug. Your choice.

5) In installing my own EMT 997, I soldered an O-lug to the end of its internal ground wire, and fastened that lug to the metal housing for the output jacks: That ground is electrically separate from the left- and right-channel signal return leads. From there, I've found that running a single wire from the output-jack housing to the ground lug on my preamplifier (a Shindo Masseto, which includes a full phono section) offers perfect freedom from hum: No alternative wiring schemes have improved on it.

An understatement: Given the limited number of old-style pickup heads still being made, the limited number of turntables that can accommodate its length, the challenges in putting together all of those elements, and its not-inconsiderable price of $4995, the EMT 997 tonearm is not for everyone. That said, it may well be the only choice for those of you who demand a certain kind of musical involvement, and who crave—or at least tolerate—a certain degree of involvement with your gear.—Art Dudley