Listening #67 Page 3

The antiskating force is applied by a surprisingly hefty (2.7gm) falling weight, which works against a thin metal lever fastened to the 997's rotating bearing housing. The lever is notched for three different thread positions, these corresponding with downforces of 2.0, 2.5, and 3.0gm—which would seem to exclude the Grace F9E cartridge at one end of the spectrum and EMT's own OFD 65 at the other. But no matter: During its first two weeks in my home, I tried the EMT 997 with three different pickup heads and one cartridge-headshell combination, and concluded that, in every instance, I preferred the sound without any antiskating at all. With the mechanism disabled, I never, under any circumstances, heard the sort of distortion or channel-specific mistracking that would lead me to think that excessive skating force was a problem; with the mechanism activated, music seemed consistently smaller and fussier, with a notably lesser sense of ease and flow.

Arm height for the EMT 997 is determined in the usual manner: Its main bearing pillar fits loosely inside a stationary alloy mounting collar, and once the appropriate height and cartridge angle have been selected, the pillar can be locked in place with a pair of setscrews. I found that the 997 could be made just low enough for use on a Thorens TD 124 Mk.II—removing a portion of the antiskating mechanism from the arm pillar actually helped in that regard—and just high enough for use with the well-loved Garrard 301. A good dealer and at least some willingness to tinker would seem to be required.

While it might seem hypocritical for an enthusiast of single-ended-triode amplification to say any such thing, I admit to being a little sad that measurement regimens for tonearm reviews are a thing of the past. Consequently, we do what we feel we must. One writer whom I know subjects all high-end tonearms to a withering click of his fingernail, which tells him all he needs to know. Another simply determines whether the thing falls in line with all of his pet theories, or those of his designer champion: The irksome task of listening to records can thus be avoided.

I tried clicking a fingernail against the EMT's alloy armtube, and it sounded rather like the click of a fingernail against a tube of light alloy: pretty much what I expected. I also couldn't help mentally comparing the 997 with virtually every other pivoted arm I've used—and then I couldn't help concluding that the 997 was hopelessly different.

But I gleaned some useful information by subjecting the 997 to my usual bearing "tests," if you want to call them that. First I grasped the armtube in one hand, the pillar and bearing housing in the other, and gently manipulated one against the other in an effort to detect free play in the bearings. I found some—which is precisely what the importer had told me to expect, given that a small amount of bearing play was what the designer had in mind.

Next, with the 997 installed on my turntable, I floated the armtube per the instructions above, then watched closely to see how the tube would respond to being displaced. With only the lightest touch from a piece of lens tissue, applied from either above or below (directly on the stylus tip), the EMT's armtube moved easily—then immediately floated back to the precise position it had assumed at the start. Bearing friction in the vertical plane, at least, would not seem to be a problem.

Finally, I subjected the EMT 997 to a few test tones from the always-enjoyable Hi-Fi News & Record Review Test Record (HFN001): No tracking problems made themselves known. If I was at all worried about the 997's high effective mass (35gm!), that LP put my mind at ease: The combination of EMT 997 and Ortofon A-style SPU Synergy pickup head—the latter a really excellent product that only recently hit the market—I measured a lateral resonant frequency of 9Hz and a vertical resonant frequency of 10Hz. Nearly perfect.

As for music, the most important thing I can tell you is that the EMT 997 was the least wimpy, least wispy tonearm I've ever heard. The flutes on Lorin Maazel's recording of Bruckner's Symphony 5 (London CSA-2238) had more substance and color through the EMT than through any other tonearm I've tried on the already substantive-sounding Thorens—in addition to which, they sounded like full-size instruments played by adult males, as opposed to toy instruments played by small woodland animals. Distant though they were, Max Roach's cymbals on the title cut of Duke Ellington's Money Jungle (United Artists/Classic 15017) sounded as though they were made out of brass, not air and metal dust.

Another large part of the EMT 997's success was that it didn't seem to distort sound in its temporal plane. Flow and momentum—the ability to put across the illusion that reproduced sound is moving inexorably forward, from note to note—were utterly unscathed by the 997. And, believe me, it's a lot easier to understand music when it sounds like music, and not just a succession of "realistic" sounds.

Better still, and at the risk of falling into the whole "this black amp sounds dark" kind of thing, the EMT 997 sounded just plain big. Huge, in fact. Not huge all of the time—but certainly when it needed to. As more and more background voices were added during the middle section of David Crosby's "Where Will I Be," from his first duet album with Graham Nash (Atlantic/Classic SD-7200), the EMT allowed the soundfield itself to become gradually larger—uniquely so among tonearms in-house. Roy Wood's oddly recorded "You Can Dance Your Rock 'n' Roll," from his Wizzard's Brew (United Artists LA042-F), still sounded a mess—but it was a good, big mess. And the EMT tonearm had plenty of scale headroom, for want of a better term: Just when I thought the soundfield couldn't get much bigger, as in the final movement of Mahler's Symphony 8 in the recording by Georg Solti (London OSA 1295-2), it did just that, at the point where the organ re-enters in the movement's last minutes.

If scale was the EMT 997's strongest suit, its weakest was its ability to sound neutral and colorless in the manner that some audiophiles prefer. Well-recorded voices betrayed some mid-to-upper-mid bumps and dips—although the arm seemed to compensate with a heightened sense of vocal nuance, the kind that made it easier than ever to hear just a trace of that old clenched-jaw swagger in Robert Plant's otherwise languorous, understated "Polly Come Home," from his and Alison Kraus's Raising Sand (Rounder 11661-9075-1). Pianos, however, fared less well, as on the abovementioned Ellington record, or pianist Clifford Curzon's very physical Liszt recital (Decca/Speakers Corner SXL 6076). The EMT sounded a little clangy on those discs, where other arms—the Rega RB300 and Naim Aro, to name just two—were more tonally correct.

Timbral neutrality, while obviously—obviously—desirable, isn't the end-all and be-all for me: Most CD players can do timbral neutrality very well and still bore the hell out of me. Nor am I impressed by stereo imaging and "soundstaging": Excellence in that field isn't hard to come by, either, and while I admit to being impressed the first time I heard, say, where trumpeter Adolph Herseth was seated during Fritz Reiner's 1960 recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, it's of no more lasting value than whatever battery-operated gimcrack du jour is available near the Wal-Mart checkout counters: There may in fact be adults whose delight in seeing Flasher the Firedog open and close his raincoat in time with a recording of "Disco Inferno" never falters, but I think that sort of thing is just plain sad. Maybe you do, too.

What does impress me is listening to a nothing-special pressing of Rudolf Kempe's recording of Wagner's Lohengrin and getting goose bumps at the doorstep of every crescendo, just knowing, a fraction of a second before it actually happens, that the tension is about to be ratcheted up. That's what I like in recorded music, and the EMT 997 homed in on that, and a number of other things like it, better than any other tonearm of my experience. Which is why I bought the review sample for myself.

A few words about time, effort, and money: Thinking of the EMT 997 as a $4995 accessory that will improve the quality of your music is like going to a pet store, noting the prices of the various small mammals for sale, and concluding that a bunny is a $10 accessory that will improve the quality of your life. Not only must you be willing to spend additional sums of money, and to confront and correct as they arise difficulties that may be unique to your household, but you must be the sort of person who actively enjoys doing those things. With all that in place, your reward will be as mine is: an almost indescribably great deal of pleasure.