The Tri-Planar Tonearm Steven Stone on the Tri-Planar IV Ultimate, February 1995

Steven Stone on the Tri-Planar IV Ultimate, February 1995 (Vol.18 No.2):

The superbly made, finely finished pivoted Wheaton Tri-Planar IV Ultimate tonearm reminds me of the engine compartment of a Bugatti type 57—full of beguilingly beautiful shiny metal surfaces. The arm, designed and manufactured by Herbert Papier in Silver Spring, Maryland, demonstrates the careful attention to detail that renders a high-end analog product a work of art.

The Wheaton arm was introduced at the 1981 Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show and has since been continually refined, bringing it to its present incarnation, the model IV (footnote 1). The Wheaton arm is called the Tri-Planar because its azimuth, vertical tracking angle (VTA), and vertical bearing height can be independently adjusted. Unlike the unipivot Graham arm, the Wheaton uses two pivot points—one each for lateral and vertical motion. Each pivot consists of a pair of handmade hardened and polished needle cones fabricated from tempered high-carbon steel. The armtube is made of wire surrounded by damping material encased in a highly damped, annealed aluminum tube covered with a black rubberlike material.

The IV's features include an ergonomically elegant VTA adjustment, a clamping yoke that allows for azimuth adjustment without compromising rigidity, Cardas internal wiring, a counterweight system which uses fully decoupled weights, a trough of silicone fluid for tonearm damping, and a lead insert in the headshell to reduce the amplitude of headshell resonances.

In addition to its permanently mounted, decoupled counterweight, the Wheaton arm comes with three different-sized rear weights. Both the Dynavector XX-IL and the Benz-Micro LO4 cartridges made especially synergistic couplings, the Wheaton handling the XX-IL's mass with aplomb, the medium-mass Benz requiring only a lighter rear weight. Another of my heavy cartridges, a Fidelity Research FR1 modified by A.J. van den Hul, also worked very nicely with the Wheaton.

The Tri-Planar IV is available in either termination-box or hardwire-to-preamp versions. The termination box is at the end of 10" of Cardas wire inside a proprietary shielded cable, and is available with either single-ended RCA or balanced XLR terminations. The hardwire-to-preamp version has a 1m length of Cardas wire in a proprietary shielded cable available with single-ended RCA, balanced RCA (four RCA connectors), balanced XLR, or single-ended Camac terminations. The unit I auditioned was fitted with a termination box set up for single-ended RCA connections.

Of the three tonearms I've used recently on the VPI TNT Jr. turntable reviewed last month, the Wheaton was the only one with which I'd had no prior experience. It was more difficult and time-consuming to set up than the Graham Model 1.5t and Clearaudio/Souther arms, with both of which I've had years of experience. Perhaps the Wheaton will perform even better than it did in my system; but, like any component, it will only work as well as its installer permits.

Installation of the arm on the pre-drilled VPI armboard was simple: place arm in cutout and bolt on. Cartridge installation was also straightforward: loosen two set screws and rotate the armtube 180° so that the cartridge faces upward during installation. Once the cartridge is attached to the headshell, you can rotate the arm back into its normal operating position.

The Wheaton comes with two mounting plates—one for cartridges with pre-drilled holes, one with built-in threaded nuts for cartridges without pre-drilled holes—and a metal plate that fits over the turntable's spindle to facilitate proper overhang setting.

After overhang is adjusted with a high-quality geometric setup system, the only thing left is to fine-tune the lateral azimuth, which is best accomplished with a rig consisting of a stereo-to-mono adapter that sums the left and right channels. This adapter is modified with one channel's wires inverted so the signal from one channel is out-of-phase with the other. Just play a mono record and adjust the azimuth to yield the lowest output level for the proper setting. The Wheaton's instruction sheet gives complete instructions for this process. [A second method is to use a test LP with a crosstalk track and adjust the azimuth to give equal midrange crosstalk levels in both channels.—Ed.]

You must make final tracking-force and VTA adjustments by ear through extensive listening—it's the only quick way. I've found that, for most cartridges, two good starting points are 2gm of downforce, and setting the cartridge so that its base or top plate (depending on the shape of the cartridge body) is parallel with the surface of the record. With most cartridges, the final adjustments generally show no greater than a 10% variance from these initial settings.

VTA adjustments on the Wheaton can be made while the record is playing, so you can adjust for every record if you want. Given the differences in thicknesses between a mid-'70s RCA dynafloppy and the latest 200gm reissues from Classic Records and MFSL, the Wheaton's VTA adjustment capability must be considered more than a mere convenience—it's a virtual necessity for ultimate LP performance.

The letter "R" appeared frequently in my listening notes: robust, rollicking, Rabelaisian. The Tri-Planar IV, while neutral compared to arms of yesteryear, still had a definite sonic signature. The bass was big—not overbearing or bloated, but exceedingly dynamic, with no apparent compression or constriction. The IV seemed capable of replicating the effortless sound of bass in natural surroundings. If you're a connoisseur of bass "bloom," you must hear the way the Tri-Planar allows bass to move across the soundstage—I was able to literally track the bass transients from their starting points to the edge of the soundstage. For example, each timpani stroke in the Scherzo of the All-Star Percussion Ensemble's performance of Beethoven's Ninth symphony (Golden String LP GSLP 001) bloomed from its own specific point in space. Every drum stroke's uniquely individual nature was evident, with even subtle differences in bass transients easily discernible.

The rest of the harmonic spectrum with the Wheaton wasn't too shabby, either. If its overall timbral balance was a bit on the dark, full, rich side of neutral, it was only very slightly so. Listen to Michael Ruff's Speaking in Melodies LP (Sheffield Lab LP-35): Once I got past the awesome "Sheffield Sound" drumkit, I noticed the midrange dynamics, which were every bit as good as, if not better than, those on the CD. The voices on "Lover's Mask" were more precisely located, with better front-to-back layering. The LP also had a better sense of real-world decay.

The pace and drive on Adele Bertei's "Green Suit," from her Little Lives LP (Chrysalis FV 41634), easily bettered those on the CD. With the Wheaton, Adele's voice had less edge, and the soundstage was slightly bigger.

Compared to the Clearaudio/Souther arm mounted with a Clearaudio Veritas-S cartridge, the Wheaton with the Benz or Dynavector cartridges sounded richer and more dynamic. The Souther did have more top-end air and more inner detail, however. On large-scale orchestral works and dynamic rock'n'roll, I preferred the Wheaton's emphasis of dynamics and preservation of transient information; on small-scale acoustic music, the Clearaudio's unraveling of musical lines and retention of low-level information was quite beguiling. To say that either rig was "better" than the other would be to assume that you only listen to one type of music; depending on your source, victory in a cartridge shootout will quickly change sides. It takes only a few minutes to change arms on the VPI Jr.; I found myself switching arms the way most people adjust tone controls: depending on the music and my mood.

Comparing the Wheaton to the Graham was another interesting exercise in audiophilia. The Wheaton was more dynamic, with a slightly larger soundstage; the Graham had more precise imaging and a slightly greater sense of depth. Both arms bettered my current CD-playback system, and both were more dynamic than the Clearaudio/Souther arm.

The Clearaudio, however, was still the winner in the inner-detail and top-end–air categories. Both the Graham and the Wheaton sounded more mellow and slightly less zingy than the Clearaudio, which can sound downright thin on poor recordings. On most recordings, the Wheaton had the most mellow and "musical" tonality, followed very closely by the Graham. The Clearaudio was the inner-detail king, followed by the Graham, then the Wheaton.

In most sonic categories, the Wheaton and the Clearaudio were at opposite ends of the spectrum, with the Graham nestling somewhere in between. The Wheaton was definitely the winner for lower-chakra stimulation, the Clearaudio won in left-brain stimulation, and the Graham rested between them, with almost as much inner detail as the Clearaudio, and almost as much dynamic power as the Wheaton. If you want the best of all worlds in one cartridge, you're out of luck—you'll need to buy all three arms.

The Wheaton Tri-Planar IV Ultimate excels at capturing and unleashing the full dynamics and bass energy of LPs, and is flexible enough to cope with any cartridge—including those of high and low mass. Its construction quality and ergonomic execution are world-class.

Is the Wheaton the best pivoted tonearm in the world? If dynamics, drive, natural timbre, and Rabelaisian ecstasy are of utmost importance to you, then the Wheaton will probably be the tonearm for you. To my ears, the Wheaton is tied for best with the Graham Model 1.5t and Clearaudio/Souther arms. Due to all three arms' Olympian levels of performance, it would be a gross oversimplification to say that one is uncategorically "better" than the other.

The Wheaton Tri-Planar IV is a superb piece of engineering that deserves to be heard by anyone who wants to know just how far an analog playback system can go toward re-creating the original musical event. It will remind even the most jaded audiophiles why they got involved in audio in the first place: for the joy of music.—Steven Stone

Footnote 1: I did these tests with a "regular" armtube. A new ceramic Tri-Planar IV armtube was unveiled at the 1995 Las Vegas CES.