It seems like a lifetime ago. I had finally purchased my first "serious" turntable, a Rega Planar 2. Of course, the star of that turntable is the arm, used by countless other manufacturers on their own turntables. Since their introduction in 1983, Rega has sold more than four hundred thousand RB series arms, making it one of the top selling, if not the top selling high end arms of all time.
I enjoyed the Planar 2 for a while, but knew there was better. I finally got tired of taking the ribbing from a couple of my friends- "When is Nels going to buy a real turntable and get rid of that Rega tinkertoy?" I reviewed a few turntables and while I heard a definite improvement, I did not fall in love with anything until a factory refurbished SOTA Star Series III showed up. Compared to the Planar 2, it was expensive. If memory serves me correctly, it cost nearly four times more than the turntable it replaced. It also turned out to be an excellent value as I have enjoyed the Star for the last seven years. I have lusted after a few other ‘tables (SME models mostly) but I have no reason to make a change. I like the Star as much today as the day I made the cash commitment.
To save money, I moved the RB250 arm over to the SOTA. The plan all along was to upgrade the arm at some point. Have you priced a SME Series V lately? It is definitely not in my budget. Leslie would completely freak out (something I have not seen in the four years we have been together, nor do I wish to.) I did, like many Rega arm owners, upgrade the plastic end stub as well as replace the counterweight with an Expressimo Audio Heavyweight. This made a nice performance upgrade, but compared to the turntable and the Dynavector cartridge (at the time a DV10x4 MkII, now a DV-20XL with a ruby cantilever) bolted to the end of the arm, the arm itself was the definite weak spot.
I had considered other models: there were some bargains to be had when the Audio Quest tonearms were discontinued some years back. Not only did I have to consider the cost of the arm- if the arm was not designed to drop into the standard Rega hole on the arm board, a new arm board would need to be purchased from SOTA. Their arm boards are not exactly pocket change. Many of the usual choices in tonearms were immediately discounted: I do not mind a unipivot arm on a turntable with a solid plinth, but I will not mount one on a suspended model like the Star- I feel there is just too much of the "shimmy shimmy shake" going on. While I had seen numerous rewire options for the RB250, I longed for something better. A rewired and heavily weighted Rega seemed to me, at the end of the day, like putting lipstick on a pig. If I was going to upgrade, I wanted a real upgrade. The years passed the one day, I stumbled across the Audiomods website.
Holy Mother Of Wow!
What chief cook and bottle washer Jeff Spall of Audiomods has done is nothing short of amazing. What starts as a Rega RB250 or RB251 arm finishes as something so different as to be nearly unrecognizable, in a good way. In fact the only original Rega parts that are reused on the Audiomods creation are the arm tube (and even that goes through some serous changes) the arm rest and the cueing mechanism. Take a minute and really look at the pictures again. Back? Keeping the images fresh in your mind, think of this- every single part of this arm is handcrafted by an artisan in his workshop in Great Britain. The more I look at what he has done, the more impressed I am. Not only did he imagine it in the first place and piece it all together in his mind, but he has the mad skills when it comes to metalwork to bring the ideas into physical form. Although all of the parts are made by hand, nothing looks or feels handmade- there is serious precision going on here. This is the arm Roy Gandy could have and should have made, but did not.
How unrecognizable is it? Leslie came in from work as I was finishing the cartridge alignment. She looked at the arm. "Pretty" she said. And she was right. I need to explain that Leslie was an art major in college, and now teaches Graphic Design at a local University. She notices things all the time that amaze me. Just last night we were watching television and a cellular phone provider commercial came on. "Did you notice anything about that commercial?" Uh, oh, here we go again. "Ummm, no?" I stammered. I am sure I had a blank stare on my face. "The company logo is all over the place in that ad." Sure enough, the next time the commercial came on, she pointed it out to me. "See? There, there, there, there again" And I did see it, although I never would have if it had not been pointed out to me. Common items in the commercial had been arranged "just so" to mimic the advertiser's famous company logo. It is as if she sees the subliminal.
When it came to the Audiomods arm, she missed it. I asked her to look at the arm again. She did and shot me a quizzical look. "What am I looking for, exactly?" I pointed at my arm, lying nearby. "The review arm used to be one of those." I told her. She still didn't understand. She looked again, but did not grasp it. I explained what she was looking at. "Do you mean some guy changed that into that….in his garage? Holy Crap!" Now, she understood. She gave the arm a closer examination. This is a woman who enjoys going to home improvement stores, and especially enjoys the power tools section. Not only that, she knows all the proper names of the tools, what they are used for, and how to use them. As she gazed at the arm, she whispered "amazing."
Audiomods is obviously a home based business, and because all the arm conversions are done by one man, one at a time, production is limited. Just as I have a "day gig" so does Jeff. There are only so many hours in a day. Looking around the Audiomods website, off in one corner is a section called "Teres Turntable." Jeff owns a seriously nice turntable — a custom built Teres — serial #26, which Jeff built (and later rebuilt) himself. For those who are unfamiliar with the Teres project, it started from a small group on an audio discussion board on the Internet. It has grown from a grassroots project to a commercial entity — Teres is owned by Chris Brady and is based in Colorado. Like the Audiomods tonearm, the Teres offers plenty of eye candy, with, from what I have heard, performance to match. As one might expect, the tonearm on Jeff's Teres is an early prototype of the Audiomods arm. In short, Jeff knows analog. Any poseur can buy an analog rig, but they cannot build one. The review sample documentation states that the review sample is serial number 46. Like I said- production is limited.
The stock Rega arm tube is the best part of the original design, but it can be improved upon. When the conversion is ordered, the purchaser is asked what cartridge will be used with the arm. This determines the size and the pattern of the holes drilled into the arm tube. The idea here is to match the arm tube to the cartridge that will be used with the arm. Another aspect of the modification is to make sure that the underside of the "headshell" is perfectly flat and true by removing miniscule amounts of metal as necessary. This, of course, will vary from arm to arm. One might think that the structural integrity of the arm tube has been compromised by drilling holes in it. To compensate for any possible weakening of the arm (which I think will be miniscule if it exists at all) three small braces are introduced inside the arm tube for reinforcement.
The bearings are upgraded, as one might expect. Jeff states that the new ceramic bearings cost forty times more than the stock Rega bearings. Also of note, is that the lubrication for the bearings differs depending on which bearings are being lubricated, horizontal or vertical. I can tell you from experience, the modified arm feels much different from the stock arm. It is smoother, and feels like a much higher quality arm.
Vertical Tracking Angle (VTA) is adjustable, as one would expect. The original Rega design, of course, is not. The arrangement for adjusting VTA (a set screw on the side of the vertical arm shaft) is the simplest yet most elegant solution for adjusting VTA on a Rega arm that I have seen. Roy Gandy downplays the importance of VTA, and he is partially correct. If one purchases a Rega turntable and mates it to a Rega cartridge, VTA will be close enough for government work, depending on the thickness of the LP being played. Replace the Rega cartridge with that of another manufacturer, or move the arm to a non Rega turntable, and all bets are off. A non Rega cartridge will differ in height. A non Rega turntable is bound to have a different plinth to platter surface measurement. Rega does realize this, and offers accessory washers that are placed underneath the arm to raise it to something approximating the correct height. This is how I had my RB250 mounted to the SOTA armboard. The Audiomods method is not only easier than using washers, but is much more accurate as well.
One last thing I want to discuss is the counterweight. Like most improved counterweights available for the Rega arms, the mounting hole is drilled above the center line, so that the majority of the counterweight's mass hangs below the end stub. This lowers the arm's center of gravity, with improves tracking. The similarities stop there, however. It has an "outrigger" weight out back that can be used for fine tuning vertical tracking force. The weight of the weight supplied varies depending on the compliance of the cartridge the buyer intends to use with the arm. The counterweight is made of a sandwich of stainless steel on the outside and three layers of lead in the center. This is designed to absorb energy from the arm tube and convert that energy to heat without releasing energy back to the arm tube.
Setup And Listening
The Audiomods arm seems to handle anything thrown at it with ease, whether it be a one hit wonder such as Tumbuk 3's debut Greetings From Timbuk 3 "The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades" or any sonic blockbuster that comes to mind. I hated this track when it first came out. It was way overplayed by the FM jocks. Years later, I actually like it. The track does have a prominent harmonica that at times can be rather "in your face"- just a bit much. With the Audiomods arm the harmonica is clearly in front of the other instruments, and has the perfect amount of "bite" without becoming offensive or irritating.
When the mood strikes, I enjoy classical music. Where I am fairly knowledgeable when it comes to rock and roll (Leslie says at long as it is not rock in the past twenty years) I know squat about classical music. I know a few composers whose music I like, and I know the performances I enjoy. Whether they are the "good" performances or not, I don't know, nor do I really care. A few nights ago, I pulled out my copy of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition/Night on Bald Mountain [Quintessence PMC-7059] Quintessence was the classical arm of Pickwick Records International, purveyors of "bargain basement" records found in nearly every drug store in the U.S. in the 1970's. They weren't known for the best quality records, to put it mildly. This one is nice, tough. The vinyl is quiet, the performance enjoyable. The cover is next to me as I write- it turns out the LP was sourced from RCA masters. The violins especially sounded close to what I hear when I attend performances at our local concert hall. Violins in person sound a bit dull to what I have heard on many audio systems. This is not to say that the Audiomods arm is dull, far from it, but I do believe it is giving a more accurate portrayal of the information contained within the record grooves.
I enjoyed every record I played on my turntable more during this review. Sure, some had surface noise, but low level surface noise was far less offensive. Impulse surface noise like a solitary POP, may have been a bit more noticeable the Audiomods arm. If that is the worst thing I can say about the sound with the modified arm in play (and it is) it performs very well indeed.
Not Quite There
Within hours of listening to the Audiomods RB-251, I knew there was no way I was ever going to go back to a (mostly) stock RB250. The differences are that great. But I hated the wiring. Compared to the mostly excellent execution of the rest of the arm, the wiring seemed rather cobbled together. The few plastic bits seemed out of place. The "string and weight" anti skating arrangement was a bit "fiddly." It was shame really, because otherwise I absolutely loved the arm.
It was then that I did something that one nevers does. I e-mailed Jeff and told him exactly my thoughts. This never happens. Am a pretty regimented guy. Upon receiving a review piece, a reviewer contacts the sender to acknowledge receipt and makes contact if there are any questions. Other than that, "mum's the word." The review is sent to the manufacturer before publication for error checking only. I do not want to make a mistake concerning the technical aspects of a product, but my opinion is steadfast. Corrections, if necessary, are made, then another once over, and it is off to the Editor.
This one went differently. It was so close to damn near perfect, I just had to do it. Made a small list of items that I felt needed to be addressed. I half expected Jeff to tell me to "sod off" as the say on the other side of the pond. Days passed. I received an email from Jeff, and it was clear that he had given my ideas a lot of thought. It turns out he agreed with them (although a couple of ideas were not as simple to implement as I had originally thought) and decided to offer my changes to customers from this point forward. Within 24 hours, my arm was sent in for conversion. The pictures in this review are of my arm (Serial number 52.) Jeff provided the pictures. In some shots you may notice the arm is mounted on a Rega plinth. It's just as well, because it photographs better than if it were mounted to the honey oak SOTA.
Let Us Talk Value
Taking this into account, the Audiomods conversion should cost far more than the current $745. (Pricing will vary due to exchange rates.) If the buyer has a Rega RB250 (in any condition) it can be traded towards a brand new arm, making the net cost only $639- and this is with the top wiring option. My arm is outfitted this way, with a continuous silver wired loom, Nakamichi RCA plugs, and sturdy ground wire.
Those who want to use their own interconnects can opt for an RCA jack termination block and save another $78. While this idea on the surface may seem appealing, I prefer the single loom option due to the lower number of solder connections, which I especially value when dealing with very low voltage signals.
There is one more option that is nice in these trying economic times. For those who are extremely short on dough, are gluttons for punishment, or do not mind fussing with small parts, there is a Do It Yourself kit. The cash outlay on this option starts at a meager $354. If you do not have a suitable donor arm, a new RB-251 can be purchased for $124.
Of note: RB300 or higher models cannot be converted- the bearings are not the same size as those used in the RB250. Obviously, these modifications cannot be reversed.
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