Graham Robin tonearm

The best tonearm I ever heard was a second-generation Mission Mechanic, ca 1986. It was mounted on a Roksan Xerxes turntable, and I spent several happy hours listening to records on that combination (with a low-compliance EMT cartridge) in two very different systems: one with solid-state amplification from DNM and Roksan's own dynamic Darius loudspeakers, and the other—my home system of the time—using tube amplification from Conrad-Johnson and a borrowed pair of Stax electrostatic speakers.

Skeptics of subjective reviewing will have found grist for their mills already: To them, the above will seem about 50% nostalgia, 50% baseless conjecture, and 0% useful information.

I plead guilty to the nostalgia rap, but in all other respects that opening paragraph, which I suppose is no different from the sorts of observations we hi-fi enthusiasts make every day in conversation and over the Internet, is simply meant to convey the limitations faced when describing individual links in the record-playing chain. The Mission arm really was the best I've heard—on that 'table, with that cartridge, in those systems. All other bets are off.

Those are the same perils Bob Graham faces when he introduces a new tonearm, and are likewise the ones you face if you want an idea of what it sounds like before you reach for your credit card. That's germane here, because Bob, who makes only tonearms, hopes—quite understandably—that you'll consider this new one for use with any of a number of different turntables.

To justify its retail price of $795 (footnote 1), the Graham Robin has got to be better—whatever that means to you—than the $425 Rega RB-300 tonearm, which has dominated the affordable end of the tonearm market for as long as the Bush twins have been alive.

In some respects, the new Graham and the old Rega are similar things. Both are fixed-pivot arms with captured ball-bearings. The vertical bearings of both arms are offset, to minimize changes in headshell azimuth with respect to vertical tracking angle. Both have roughly the same estimated effective mass: 11gm for the Graham, 10gm for the Rega. And in spite of a small difference between the two in terms of effective length—235mm for the Robin, 240mm for the RB-300—Bob Graham makes it easy to mount the Robin on a Rega turntable by providing not only a special mounting base and (detachable) cable, but a special headshell and alignment jig, too, the latter an extra-cost option. Again, there's little doubt as to what product Bob has in his sights.

The Robin's removable headshell is the most obvious difference between the two. In designing his own tonearm, Rega's Roy Gandy went out of his way to avoid a mechanical or electrical joint there, observing that a loss of musical information would otherwise result. For his part, Bob Graham suggests that the joint in question may act to impede resonances, and in any event the increase in convenience is obvious, along with the peace of mind that comes from keeping your fragile cartridge safe on a shelf while you go about setting up your tonearm.

Other, smaller distinctions abound. The Rega uses a spring to dial in tracking force, while the Graham makes do with a calibrated counterweight. The Rega's antiskating pull comes from a magnet, the Graham's from a spring. The Rega's armtube contains no damping material, while the Graham's is stuffed full. And unlike the fixed-height Rega, the Graham can be moved up or down with ease. For some folks, that's a pretty big deal right there.

Cosmetic differences reflect the two arms' origins. The English RB-300 has a clean, simple, purposeful look. It's not a whit bigger than it needs to be, and it's decently finished, albeit with some rough edges here and there (burrs on the casting seam that aren't sanded away prior to finishing, etc.), and a plastic gantry that looks...well, plasticky. The Robin, which was designed in the US but is made in Japan, is nicely finished if a bit busy-looking in a 1970s sort of way.

More Robin basics: The headshell is an aluminum-zinc casting, the tube is aluminum with a chrome finish, the bearing housing is anodized brass (Bob feels that a structurally strong and inherently well-damped moving system is the way to go), and the mounting pillar and gantry are also aluminum-alloy castings. Internal wires and detachable cable alike are all six-nines long-crystal copper, and the pre-loaded bearings spec out at ABEC-5, which is quite good (see Sidebar, "Friction and How to See It").

Footnote 1: The price was lowered to $645 in April 2003.—Ed.