The Tri-Planar Tonearm Michael Fremer on the Tri-Planar Mk.VI Ultimate, July 2001

Michael Fremer on the Tri-Planar Mk.VI Ultimate, July 2001 (Vol.24 No.7):

Back in late 1997, when I auditioned the Tri-Planar Mk.V Ultimate tonearm for my review in the February 1998 issue, designer Herb Papier asked if I knew anyone interested in taking over the company. Herb is getting on in years (he's an octogenarian), and while his mind was and still is sharp, his dexterity was slipping. I couldn't help him, but Dung Tri Mei, a young, enthusiastic analog fan (see "Analog Corner," March 2001), hooked up with Herb and bought the company.

The Tri-Planar Mk.VI Ultimate ($3250 with 1m cable/RCA plug termination or 10" wire to RCA-jack junction box) builds on earlier versions with a larger-diameter headshell tube, a larger damping trough, and redesigned bearings featuring handmade hardened and polished needle cones. The clamping yoke that couples the headshell and bearing tubes has been redesigned, and a new lead damping insert is said to enhance imaging and extend soundstage depth. The main armtube also features improved damping via nine layers of internal material and annealing (ie, heat-hardening) of the armtube itself.

While I was curious to hear what sonic effects, if any, these subtle design changes might have on the arm's already superb performance, I was equally interested to see if Mei would continue building the Tri-Planar with Papier's care and attention to detail. Most of the arm's many parts are still being made by Papier's machinist in Maryland and sent to Minneapolis, where Mei resides.

Right out of the box, it was obvious that the Tri-Planar's build quality is still topnotch. In fact, the parts finish appeared superior to the sample I reviewed in 1998. Drilling an armboard was easy—the Tri-Planar is affixed with three screws, and there is no large-diameter central shaft. If you have an electric drill and some rudimentary mechanical skills, you can mount the Tri-Planar yourself with just a bit of care.

The instructions, however, need thorough rewriting, and the website contains incorrect price and product information. Dung Mei assured me that these errors will be corrected, but "I'm not superman," he kept telling me over the phone.

"I'm not asking you to leap tall buildings in a single bound, dude—just get the price right on your website!"

The Tri-Planar's cartridge-alignment hardware has been upgraded, and my sample came with an optional WallyTracktor laser-cut alignment gauge made specifically for the Tri-Planar, which is not surprising—Wally Malewicz, too, lives in Minneapolis. I'd wished for that in my 1997 writeup, and sure enough, it made cartridge alignment easy.

I still have a beef with the Tri-Planar's headshell design: the screw slots are way too wide. When you loosen the screws to adjust overhang and zenith, the cartridge can slide laterally, which is not good. The narrower slots on most other headshells prevent such unwanted movement.

The Tri-Planar was one of the first—if not the first—captured-bearing tonearm to offer easily adjustable VTA and azimuth adjustment. It's a two-piece design: a short section attached to the bearing assembly, and a longer one sitting above that holds the headshell. The two are connected via a substantial, machined aluminum yoke assembly fitted with dual locking screws.

The armtube system means that there is, in effect, a mechanical connector separating the arm from the bearing, but the yoke design is so massive and mechanically secure that I have no reservations about it whatsoever. In fact, the dual tube system has an advantage: the lower tube attached to the bearing assembly means that the bearing height will remain close to the plane of play, thus minimizing warp wow caused by forward/back deflection as the arm describes a vertical arc when tracking a warp. The only other tonearm I know of that maintains the bearing at the plane of play regardless of VTA setting is the Immedia RPM-2.

Azimuth is easily adjustable via a worm-gear drive that rotates the longer armtube around its vertical axis. However, due to the headshell's offset angle, the actual rotation pitches the stylus forward and back as well as from side to side. Only a rotation at the headshell can provide ideal azimuth motion, but it involves a more serious compromise: reduced arm rigidity.

VTA adjustment is via a substantial tower assembly topped by a dial attached to an internally mounted, locking worm-gear drive. The tower mechanism is one of the design's weak points—it also supports the entire arm mechanism, which hangs off of one side. When you unlock the tower to change VTA, the weight of the arm assembly causes the arm assembly to list to the right. Lock the tower and the arm rights itself, but this design is not the last word in stability in a system in which infinitesimal changes in geometry can have profound sonic effects.

The silicone damping trough, fitted forward of the bearing housing, features an adjustable screw that allows you to easily control the amount of damping actually applied to the system. Damping applied at the pivot point, as found on the Graham and VPI arms, is not nearly as effective.

The Tri-Planar is claimed to feature a decoupled counterweight, which would have the effect of creating a pair of much smaller resonant peaks on either side of the single peak you'd find with a hard-coupled counterweight. But there's no way the relatively hard elastomer rings inserted in the arm's various counterweights could possibly act to decouple them from the tonearm/cartridge system's resonant frequency, which should be around 12Hz.

A resonant frequency of 12Hz is considered ideal because it puts the resonance above warp/wow (most warps create oscillations below 10Hz), but below the lowest musical frequency (around 20Hz). The last thing you want to do is excite and accentuate the resonant frequency, whether with music or with warps. The resonant frequency of a truly decoupled counterweight must be equal to or below the system's resonant frequency, hopefully around 12Hz. A stiffly suspended counterweight such as the Tri-Planar's will have a much higher resonant frequency—probably in the audio bandwidth, which is not a good thing at all. If I bought the Mk.VI Ultimate, I'd try removing the inserts and replacing them with hard metal sleeves.

Fundamental Sound: I auditioned the medium-mass (11gm effective mass) Tri-Planar Mk.VI Ultimate with the low-compliance Clearaudio Insider and the medium-compliance Lyra Helikon and Transfiguration Temper Supreme cartridges. With all three, the resonant frequency fell within the desired range.

The sound of the Tri-Planar had not changed appreciably since I last auditioned it: It offered unerring, rock-solid image and soundstage stability. The bass was extended and lithe, and high-frequency transients were cleanly presented. The picture was airy and big, but not quite as three-dimensional as with the Graham and Immedia arms. Image solidity was not quite as good either of those, but the sonic differences between the arms was minor compared to the differences between the cartridges, which is hardly surprising.

When I first reviewed the Tri-Planar, I found it somewhat bright-sounding compared to the Graham 1.5t, and somewhat bass-shy. But in 1998, after Herb Papier had changed to Discovery arm wire and added a damping trough, I found the overall balance far more neutral and the bass response deep and extremely well-controlled. That was the case this time as well, but I think the Tri-Planar was either slightly brighter or more extended on top than either the Graham 2.0 (with Hovland MG2 cable), or Immedia (with XLO Signature 3.1) tonearms. Whether you find the Tri-Planar "brighter" or "more extended" will depend on whether your water glass looks half empty or half full. I wonder about the effect of those "decoupled" counterweights on the sound.

In any case, The Tri-Planar's ability to resolve low-level detail was superb, and its tonal balance and frequency extension were exemplary. In every way, it remains one of the world's premier arms; we should all be thankful that it's still available to analog lovers everywhere.—Michael Fremer