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April 2008
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Trans-Fi Terminator Tonearm
Listening in a Parallel Universe - The Long and Short of It
Review By Clive Meakins
Click here to e-mail reviewer

  In this digital era, those of us who are committed to playing vinyl tend to be considered a little strange and behind the times. There have to compromises at some point but vinylistas often have a set of priorities that focus on musicality and long-term listening pleasure. So when it comes to selecting an arm for our record decks why do we settle for an approach that involves replaying our music from variable tracking angles that are inaccurate most of the time? The pivoted arms that most of us use are generally setup to be geometrically accurate at two so-called null points across LPs. Records are of course cut using parallel tracking arms, not pivoted ones. Most pivoted arms are of the 9-inch variety, sometimes less, this means plinth size is kept minimized but other arms exist that are not so geometrically compromised.

 

The Long
Once you have listened to vinyl replay via 12-inch arms it becomes apparent that the geometric inaccuracy of 9-inch arms causes inconsistent sonics as the arm traverses records. I often feel that the first track of a record sounds as if the cartridge setup isn't quite dialed-in. Get to the first null point and now we are cookin'. End-of-side distortion is an issue too; stylus profile is a factor that can exacerbate this problem. My experience is that 12-inch arms tend to sound dialed-in right across the record, that extra length reduces the angular error versus 9-inch arms. Of course, this is about reducing error, not eliminating it. I worry that lengthening arms to 12 inches will make them less rigid but experience suggests this is a good trade-off.  Even so, is it enough? Given that, playing vinyl is a fringe activity; for those of us prepared to go that extra mile why do we accept pivoted arms as the only way?

 

The Short
Accepting no geometric compromise means replaying records in the same manner as they are cut, which requires a parallel tracking arm, aka tangential tracking arms. Possibly the most elegant parallel trackers use the recipe developed by PoulLadegaard. This is where a V-shaped carrier supports the arm, this carrier floats within another V that squirts air out of a series of 0.3mm holes.

If you want to knock one of these up at home check out this link.

If you do not want to develop your own arm then enter Vic Patacchiola of Trans-Fi Audio. Trans-Fi have spent considerable time developing the Ladegaard formula, not just for performance and ease of setup, but also for ease of manufacture with consequential cost benefits. Vic has been making and evolving The Evolution tonearm for around 4 years. Along with arms from the likes of Thomas Schick and Carlo Morsiani we're talking small production quantities and therefore a very specialist arm.

I have run a Trans-Fi Evolution 4 tone arm for a year now, just as I was getting ready to write the long overdue review I discovered that The Evolution 4 had just morphed into The Terminator, quite a frightening thought! Trans-Fi had been working to simplify the manufacturing requirements of the arm as it was taking 24 hours to manufacture each arm. The Terminator dramatically reduces this time. With simplification come other gains. Setting airflow rate is now not so critical and leveling the arm – which is vital – is now very easy. Best all are that the inverted V bearing and very short, low mass carbon fibre wand combine to significantly improve on what was already outstanding performance. The wand uses a knife bearing which sits on aluminum straps that surround the "saddle".

The saddle rides the inverted V on a layer of air. The short and very rigid wand should be very immune to the energy that cartridges transmit into arms. I suspect this is one reason for Terminator's sonic improvements over Evolution. The wand on The Terminator is attached to the knife-edge bearing via an offset knife carrier. The wand is on one side of the carrier, the counter-weight is on the other side. The counter-weight is attached via a threaded spindle, this makes setting Vertical Tracking Force a very easy and repeatable process. You can dial-in small VTF changes without the usual risk of sliding the counter-weight way too far resulting in having to start setting VTF all over again. Maybe it is a small benefit but as I am always tinkering it has proved a useful feature. The low mass wand is also good at dealing with out-of-centre records, high mass could strain cartridge cantilevers with lateral forces. No such worries here, the wand and saddle moves from side to side on badly out-of-centre records but crucially the stylus is not deflected.

 

Are there any drawbacks? You need an extra power feed for the air pump, said pump does create noise so you need to hide it in a foam lined cupboard or as I do, site it in another room. The pump is an aquarium pump; the output pulsates so it feeds a smoothing tank, this is a small plastic petrol tank (unused!). You can substitute some form of work of art or glass jar if you wish, as long as it is airtight.

 

The Competition
To name but a few: Kuzma Air Line, Airtangent, Walker, Clearaudio TQ-1, Cartridgeman Conductor, Forsell, Rockport. These arms range from almost 4 times the price of Trans-Fi's Terminator right up to prices that are stratospheric. Some of these arms have a very high level of fit and finish. The Terminator is well made but is not aiming for Swiss watchmaker perfection, except where such accuracy is required. If you prefer not to pay anywhere between a few thousand to many thousand dollars then look at The Terminator. Whereas the price of The Terminator may be about what you pay for a turbo-charged Rega I can confirm that performance is in a different universe, this is a "super-arm". The Terminator costs £499 in the UK including pump and smoothing tank, it is available for US customers at $859 but you need to buy the pump and tank locally. Shipping pumps and tanks across the world makes no sense; this is a sensible move by Trans-Fi.

It is interesting to note that The Terminator appears to sport the shortest arm and probably lowest mass wand of all available airbearing arms. Having heard the benefits due to shortening the wand I can imagine The Terminator will start a trend. Having such short arm does mean that the structure of the arm overhangs the platter but this in practice is not an issue, there is considerable clearance between platter and arm.

As for looks - it is true that some of the very high cost arms cut more of a dash. The Terminator has what I call a "Technik" look. Sculpted bare metal that is purposeful looking. I rather like it.

 

Setup
I found this scary the first time. I was desperate to hear my new arm but I was lacking in setup experience for such an arm and wanted to hear the arm using my treasured moving coil cartridge. Lots of potential for a bent cantilever here….  The Terminator can be installed on most decks in standard mounting positions, I use a Rega-type position but the mounting scheme is flexible. The arm is installed with my Garrard 301 sitting on the excellent Slatedeckplinth, the arm is mounted on a Slatedeck circular armboard. The slate armboard just sits on the plinth; the purpose of this is to provide pivoted arms with decoupling from the plinth. With the airbearing we already have perfect decoupling (a layer of air) so I clamp the armboard to the underside of the plinth. Care needs to be taken align the arm so the travel of the arm is correct. This requires correct positioning such that there is sufficient airflow to let the saddle levitate from the start to the end of records. With the arm structure in position you can mount the wand to roughly set VTA. You roughly set VTA via the mounting support and then set finely using the VTA adjuster thumbscrew, it is best to set this to around its mid position. Next, ensure the airbearing structure is level using the two thumbscrews at the side of the arm. Once this is done you can tighten the screw on the front of the arm to lock everything in place.

The knife bearing needs to be finely adjusted for position on the wand such that the stylus aligns along a line drawn through the centre of the spindle to the edge of the platter. Do not forget to fine tune azimuth too. The setup tools you need can be simply created on your computer and then printed on thin card. You will need a VTA card about 80mm long to setup the short wand for height, this just needs a series of thin parallel lines printed on the card. To set the stylus position you need a card that locates over the spindle with a line from spindle-to-edge and a series of lines perpendicular to this to help position the cartridge squarely in the headshell. You can instead mark up a trashed record if you prefer. In reality, it is easy to achieve a good setup; it is much harder to explain than do.

A few extra tips:

Don't over-tighten the grubscrew on the knife-bearing blade carrier, an interference fit is ideal, this lets you tweak the setup without continually using a hex wrench.
Experiment with an expendable cartridge if need be, probably this is a very wise approach for your first set up.
Use your stylus guard during setup (when possible) and when changing wands. I hope your cartridge has a stylus guard.

I thought I would have some fun with my test record – the Hi-Fi News Test Record – of course The Terminator should have zero tracking problems. I tried this test record for the hell of it. It was so wonderful hearing the inner groove torture track with no distortion, it was almost better than music! This set up record is now redundant, ditch your test records, they are not required.

Not only is setup easy once the principles are mastered but swapping cartridges is a doddle. Just purchase extra wands; it takes seconds to make a changeover (with stylus guard in place). I have 4 cartridges and wands, including one for 78s. Playing 78s can be quite a challenge for an airbearing arm but not for this one. The high velocities, small label area and seriously out of centre records require more arm travel than normal, along with the ability to follow the eccentricity. Old 78s do not challenge this arm.

Some more tips; use the air pump on max but then regulate the airflow close to the arm using an aquarium needle valve. Keep the arm carriage dust free; it seems sensible to say this although even in my dusty environment I have not found dust a problem. Finally, make sure the wires exiting the wand do not restrict movement of the arm, as most mis-tracking issues will result from poor cable dressing. You will get the hang of it quickly. It is not hard to pick up; it is simply different to coping with a pivoted arm.

 

How Good Is It?
Very. You probably want to know a little more....

First all I will tell you there are no hiss concerns from the airbearing. Even if your turntable is close to your listening position, you will not be troubled by hearing air exiting the airbearing.

As mentioned previously I have used the earlier Evolution arm for around a year. This arm was a huge revelation. In some ways, it has the benefits of CD, these being a consistent and stable sound across an entire album and a certain precision to the sound. There is no coming on-song as the null setup points are approached; quite simply it's always on-song. Once you hear this for yourself you may find it is just too frustrating to go back to a pivoted arm, especially a 9-inch one. With Evolution you get a tremendous consistency across the entire frequency range and precise sound that is not at all clinical. A lack of tracking error and perfect decoupling do their job.

I did not have any expectations for The Terminator improving on Evolution, I thought the latest arm was more about simplifying manufacturing. I was wrong.

The Evolution 4 outperforms most pivoted arms up to at least $3,000. The Terminator's inverted "V" bearing, short and low mass wand bring a very significant improvement over what even Evolution delivers. I can only describe bass as crunching, there is zero overhang to smear the sound, the benefits to bass reproduction are profound. There is an almost complete lack of coloration. Soundstage is large and highly palpable, somehow it is quite forward, not in an over-pronounced mid-range way but the performance seems physically thrust forward. Individual placement and separation of instruments is very impressive. Treble is very clean indeed but not at all clinical. Above all else, there is an authority and sheer presence that I have rarely heard before at any level and most definitely not remotely in this price range.

 

What I Heard With The Terminator
Diana Krall Girl in the Other Room [Verve B0002DSUES] "Temptation", the strings at the start of the track are so real it's unreal! The sense of vibrating strings and shape of the notes brings a new meaning to the word palpable. The top-end is crisp and the piano towards the end of this track times superbly and exhibits rich harmonics. It is as though my idler-drive Garrard 301 has inherited direct-drive speed stability.

Spinning the bass-led Rodrigo y Gabriela 12-inch single, Stairway to Heaven [Rubyworks RWXVL41T], "Mint Royal Remix" brought a tumultuous level of bass, particularly when I turned up the subwoofers on the Bastanis Atlas loudspeakers. OK, I was over-cooking the bass but the point is that with such a tight bass I could get away with doing this without the bass overpowering the mid-range. Goldfrapp Supernature [Mute STUMM250] "Lovely 2 CU" provides similar results, the bass was sublime, and sound effects were so well executed.

Moving onto Joanna Newsom Ys [DRAGCITY DC303] was equally interesting, this time due to Joanna's vocals being so massively dynamic. Her vocals are a little like those of Bjork but with added dynamics to the point where they are scary if you are not prepared. The vocal dynamics were very impressively reproduced.

With Tanita Tikaram Ancient Heart [WARNERS 233877-1] I found pulsing bass and a wide-open treble that shimmers between the loudspeakers. Vocal projection was prodigious. Bear in mind that I am using a 300B SET into Open Baffle loudspeakers. Boy does this arm multiply the strengths of the rest of this system.

Fed with a diet of jazz the results were predictable. Wonderful atmospheric sounds, Stan Getz Spring is Here (45rpm) [Groove Note GRV1020-1] flowed around the room. Mingus, Rollins, Brubeck, Monk and Coltrane all performed for me magnificently. It is hard and unfair to pick on any single aspect but I have to comment that bass strings were played with such realism. By this I mean "fully described notes", not a sign of one-note bass. Loads of weight and presence too, just like the real thing.

I would put this arm up against any high-end / high-priced arm. I'm not saying it will outperform every other arm out there but I am confident that it would not disgrace itself.

 

Conclusions
By all means if you want to experience the benefits of reduced groove tracing error then go down the 12-inch arm route, this will give great results. Why not instead go the whole hog by eliminating tracing error completely? A parallel tracking tonearm does this for you.

The Terminator highlights the importance of the tonearm, setup changes are so obvious it makes setup an understandable and repeatable process. Let's face it, how many people get the overhang right on their pivoted arms? This is something you are bound to get right with The Terminator. Trans-Fi's current pricing is an introductory offer, there will surely be a waiting list so get on that waiting list! Why is there a waiting list? The arm is made in small batches, just as some other well-known specialist arms are. The performance of the arm places it in the territory of the very best but at about one twentieth of their price, the trade-off is that cosmetic finishing whilst reasonable is not excessive.  If Trans-Fi can keep their pricing anywhere near current levels they will be doing a great service to people on sane budgets.

Truly high-end performance for peanuts.

 

Scoring
The way I have approached the scoring is to treat The Terminator harshly. For sonics and value, my heart wanted to give straight fives across the board. Whilst there can be no doubt that The Terminator mixes it with the very best arms, I also have to believe further development is possible, although it is hard to imagine in what area the sonics are seriously lacking. I have mostly scored the arm with four to five Bluenotes. Was I scoring a Rega RB250 the average would have been a little over two Bluenotes. The after-market turbo-charged Regas would make nearer three Bluenotes.

 

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High-frequencies (3,000Hz on up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape width front

Soundscape width rear  
Soundscape depth behind speakers

Soundscape extension into the room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise (requires the purchaser to soundproof the pump)

Value for the Money

 

Manufacturer Reply
Thanks, Clive, for an honest review.

It is sometimes difficult to be objective soundwise when so closely involved with the development of a product. It's encouraging to know The Terminator is on the right track!

I have to admit the first time the Terminator tonearm touched the vinyl I was taken by surprise.... I did not expect to hear any sonic difference over the Evo, but everything has improved, from the tunefulness of the bass to the depth & width of the soundstage.

Major changes from the Evo include a lowering of the center of gravity of the wand in respect to the air-bearing carrier & its dramatic shortening. I agree with Clive that the improvement we hear is probably due to the latter.

The Terminator follows on from the Evolution in an attempt to simplify construction, ease setup & improve adaptability. The fact that it sounds better is a welcome bonus!

 

Specifications
Type: Tonearm
Price: $859 (US - no pump or smoothing tank) or £499 (UK - complete)
Spare Wands: £100

 

Company Information
Trans-Fi
E-mail: TransFiAudio@aol.com
Website: www.trans-fi.com 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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