Hey, Toshiro Mifune
Came Back As A Tonearm!
The RS Labs RS-A1 Tonearm
Review By Ian White
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What is it about products like the RS-A1 tonearm that scares audiophiles to the point where they run from the room like little girls? I know that the feminist movement emasculated most of our manhood, but I didn't realize that we were talking about all of it. I've seen three grown men drool on the floor in front of one, as they were too terrified to get close enough to drool on the plinth. Talk about a lack of manners. John Wayne is rolling in his grave somewhere in response to our transformation into meek and cowardly mice.
Opponents of uni-pivot tonearms will most certainly not give this somewhat crude (yet ingenious) looking design a fair chance, and that's their loss. Trust me. I've become a huge fan of
uni-pivot designs over the past couple of years, most notably the Wilson Benesch ACT .5 and the Morch UP-4, and I was really intrigued by the design of this tonearm from Japan and how it would fare against the Wilson Benesch and the highly coveted SME V. I can hear the SME crowd pounding on the keyboard already.
I recently read your review of the crude and ridiculous RS-A1 tonearm and took great exception to your suggestion that my SME V was somewhat inferior to this
uni-pivot from Japan. I seriously suggest that Mr. Rochlin limit your reviewing assignments to speakers and power amplifiers as you clearly have never heard a properly set-up SME V and have done nothing but bring shame on yourself, your mother in-law, the people of the State of Israel, and the residents of your entire apartment building."
Thank you for taking the time to read my recent review of the RS-A1 on www.EnjoyTheMusic.com. It is gratifying to know that there are audiophiles such as yourself out there who still enjoy listening to vinyl as much as I do and are always looking for a way to liven up their otherwise dull and emotionally detached sounding analog set-ups. Good for you sir!
It will probably come as a surprise to you to learn that it was in fact a comparison of the aforementioned tonearm mounted to a refurbished British turntable of unknown age (worth about $200 according to the dealer who rescued it) versus a fully tricked out Michell Orbe with your beloved SME V, a Benz Micro Ruby and the Hovland phono cable, that convinced me that a review was in order. Both arms were connected to the rather lovely Audiomat Phono-1 phono stage and almost twenty-five thousand dollars worth of tube electronics and speakers. The RS-A1 was connected to some French phono cable retailing for under one hundred dollars and a Benz .9 moving coil cartridge. The difference in price between the two analog set-ups was about $13,000. My mother in-law and Ariel Sharon wanted to know if you've ever learned how to cha-cha, when clearly you've been slow-dancing all of your life.
It's good to vent sometimes.
Looking carefully at the photographs, you will notice that the arm does look a little crude. Do not adjust the resolution of your monitors; the RS-A1 looks that crude in real life as well.
Notice if you will, the complete and utter absence of anything resembling a tonearm tube. I know that we have all become rather used to
round tonearm tubes over the years, but the RS-A1 breaks with tradition and is a flat, squared-off looking
aluminum tube that connects to a horizontally rotating headshell. Confused yet?
If you flip the arm upside down (not something that I would suggest doing with any real haste as the tonearm wires are extremely thin and not likely to respond well to undue stress), you'll notice that the wires are enclosed in a tunnel and the all-important downward facing brass bearing cup.
As for construction, the RS-A1 is a uni-pivot design that is akin to other
high-end designs such as the Graham 2.2, Naim ARO, etc. The missionary bearing is
machined from steel, then carefully shaped to a single point that peaks upward
within the assembly. A threaded brass screw allows the counterweight to be
adjusted by turning the counterweight clockwise/anti-clockwise as found on
many tonearms while tracking force is adjusted via thumbscrew. So far it is all
very much straightforward. On the base of the arm, you'll find a pair of RCA output jacks (there is no grounding post), a magnetic tonearm support, and that's about it. The base of the arm is fairly heavy, which proved to be a solid design choice, seeing as the arm can not be bolted to an armboard and just sits on the table's plinth. Scared yet?
What makes the RS-A1 so unique and controversial is its use of a rotating headshell, whose range of movement is six degrees in either direction. The headshell is connected to the tonearm through the use of a needle bearing, and the rationale behind the design is that it provides a small amount of tracing error correction and that the "joint" offers relief from stresses imposed on the cantilever as it attempts to simultaneously trace two groove walls of varying thickness. The headshell, being somewhat independent of the rest of the arm, is also not affected by the mass of the arm. It all sounds rather complicated, but once you manage to set the arm up properly, it begins to make some sense.
Domo harigato Gordon-San
as my Japanese is all based around
After slowly removing the RS-A1 from its dense foam packaging, which is a task that I suggest purchasers do with caution as the tonearm wires are fragile and can be ripped if one is overly excited with their new purchase, one should take one look at the Japanese instructions, sigh, and immediately proceed to the English ones provided by Gordon Rankin. Rather than detail every last tidbit of the set-up process, I want to specifically address a couple of items that Art Dudley dealt with in the his review of the RS-A1 in the November/December 2000 issue of
Listener, which I feel require some further clarification.
In regard to the problem of adjusting the azimuth at the headshell, which Art felt was a shortcoming of the RS-A1 as he was unable to properly adjust the headshell so that it was level, I think I have a solution that is rather simple. One thing that I noticed while reading Art's otherwise excellent review was that the cueing hook on his sample was turned to the right from its original position. After going through the provided instructions, I was unable to locate any information that suggested that the cueing hook should be turned to the right. In fact, during the set-up process, I noticed that levelling the headshell was impossible if the cueing hook was turned from its original position. The added weight on the right side causes the headshell to tilt ever so slightly.
That being corrected, I came to the realization that the headshell still wasn't perfectly level. In order to get the headshell to balance properly, users should take a pair of needle-nose pliers and carefully pull the tonearm wires at the bottom of the base until the added tension causes the arm to sit perfectly level. It took a few tries, but I did manage to get the headshell almost perfectly level. It's a pain, but not a problem that can't be corrected.
The second issue that I want to address are the three threaded pairs of mounting holes on the headshell. Not only are they frustrating to use, but they don't allow you to use any cartridge that you want. I managed to mount a Rega Super
Elys, Benz Micro MC Gold, and Benz Micro H2.0, and in the case of the Benz cartridges, not without some effort. While not the ideal positioning, the Benz worked only with the rear pair of holes and they were not 100% flush with the rotating point of the headshell, as per the supplied instructions. The instructions suggest that the easiest way to mount a cartridge is to turn the arm and base on its side rather than mounting the cartridge from above with the arm positioned on the plinth. The "recommended" method of mounting saved time and was not as scary as it sounds.
While I don't want to discourage the use of the arm on tables with sprung suspensions, especially a really good table such as the Michell Gyrodec SE, I'd be lying if I said that it isn't a risky
endeavour. Because the RS-A1 is not secured to the plinth (even if you use the supplied blue dots which attempt to make the base "stick" to the plinth), you are asking for trouble if some curious fellow decides to push down on the table or if curious children or pets frequently come dangerously close to your table.
But is it good?
After removing my Wilson-Benesch ACT .5 from the plinth of my Audiomeca Romance
(Orbe SE being modified at the moment), I set-up the RS-A1 with the Benz H2.0 and carefully lowered the cartridge onto the first unsuspecting record.
Blues guitarist R.L. Burnside has been one of my favorite new discoveries of late and his 1998 album
Come On In [Fat Possum Records 80317-1] is in my opinion, one of his best. The title track "Come On In" has always sounded very immediate and forceful with the Benesch ACT .5, but the RS-A1 took this song to another level with a significant improvement in transparency, detail, and pace. The RS-A1 also increased the depth of the recording as well with Burnside sounding less constrained and not confined between the speakers. What it didn't do was make Burnside sound larger than life, which I think would have been a step backwards.
From a pace perspective, the RS-A1 makes the Benesch sound slow on almost every recording. I've always been satisfied with the pace of music with the ACT .5, but the RS-A1 clearly demonstrated that I've been stuck in fourth gear for quite some time.
Switching to jazz, I dropped Miles Davis' Nefertiti [Columbia Stereo PC 9594] onto the platter and only reconfirmed what I heard with the Burnside album - a greater sense of detail, transparency, and a massive improvement in pace. Compared to the Benesch ACT .5 and the SME V (putting my flak vest on right now), the RS-A1 does make music sound slightly thinner, but I'd argue rather strongly that the two British tonearms sacrifice timing, transparency and detail for a sense of smoothness and
colors that the RS-A1 does not pretend to have. From the perspective of dynamic ability, the RS-A1 absolutely massacres both arms, making them sound slow and lethargic. The RS-A1 adds boldness to the presentation without making everything sound too large.
Putting it bluntly, with rock, alternative, classical, jazz, blues, and even techno, the RS-A1 proved itself to be bolder, faster, cleaner, larger, and more detailed sounding than either the SME V or
Wilson-Benesch ACT .5 and at a significantly lower price.
What would John Wayne do?
If John Wayne was still alive and he listened to vinyl (come on, can you picture John Wayne playing with something as puny as a CD?), he'd have a hard time finding a tonearm that would make him feel as secure with his masculinity as the RS-A1, and at a price that even the "Duke" wouldn't object to. The RS-A1 requires someone who isn't afraid to deal with a very fidgety tonearm that is capable of producing some dramatic moments even before it reaches the groove.
It is somewhat crude in its construction, but you'll forget all about it once you hear how vivid it makes music sound.