World Premiere Review!
The Audiomods Series Six is the first totally in-house all-Audiomods tonearm. Previous versions up to the Five relied upon the ubiquitous Rega arm-tube, albeit a modified version. Jeff Spall is Audiomods; it's his business based on his tremendous interest in vinyl replay and tube amplifiers. Jeff is an enormously practical "un-tweaky" audiophile. Over 10 years ago Jeff started out by modifying Rega arms; as the years progressed there became less and less Rega content in the Audiomods arms and upgrade kits. The Series Six, the subject of this review, is Jeff's latest development using the foundations and learning from the Series III, IV and Five. The development journey can be viewed at the Audiomods website under the Resources tab. The Series Six finally bestows "complete Audiomods arm" status as the arm-tube is now an Audiomods part, or I should more correctly say assembly as it's not a simple singular part. Having reached this zenith there's an argument that Audiomods is not the most appropriate branding but it's a strong brand within the niche of tonearms so it needs to remain.
Configurations Used For The Review
The Trans-fi is normally exclusively partnered with the Terminator linear tracking tonearm. At the end of 2018 the owner of Trans-fi retired resulting in the Salvation turntable being no longer available though, the Terminator tonearm is newly re-available from musicfromvinyl in Russia. The Salvation deck sits on magnetic feet which levitate the deck; there is also a magnetic bearing for the 9 kg platter.
My 301 normally co-habits with an Origin Live Encounter MK2, this is the version with an aluminum arm-tube described as being a dual-pivot. Both decks were used on stands positioned on a solid floor.
The cartridges I used were:
I must comment on the Transfiguration Spirit; the loss Immutable Music's Seiji Yoshioka in 2018 has seemingly robbed us of this brand and very special cartridges. Even though my Spirit MkIII is a comparatively lower-end Transfiguration cartridge, it does perform wonderfully if your preference is for clarity, spatial precision and dynamism. As you'd expect given it's 2019, my not so young Spirit has been re-tipped, this was performed by Northwest Analogue and I'm very pleased with the result.
In an ideal world I would have also included belt and direct-drive decks with and without suspension as well as several other tonearms, not to mention more cartridges but I have a life to live and this review cannot be never-ending!
The phono stages used were based around two models. The Temple Audio solid-state Harmony MM and MC (moving magnet and moving coil) versions were the first pairing, both with supercapacitor power supplies. The second pairing was the tubed Hagerman Cornet 2 for MM level cartridges plus my S&B TX-103 step up transformers for when the Transfiguration Spirit was in use.
The rest of the system was purposely varied during the review period, there were Class D amplifiers from Temple Audio, a EL84 PSE one-off amplifier from Firebottle, a pair of 300B SE monoblocks and a vintage Philips Black Tulip 22AH380 Class A/B power amp paired with the matching 22AH280 preamp. The preamp used for the Class D and tube amps was based on the excellent Dave Slagle AVC transformers. There was also a Rozenblit Sub Buddy which is a four-channel tube line driver with high-pass filter for the main speakers and a feed for the bass sub-system. The bass subsystem comprised very powerful Class D amplification with DSP controlling two pairs of 15" baffle-less drivers. The wideband loudspeakers were the Open Baffle Bastanis Sagarmatha Duo. I also used MarkaudioSota Viotti One speakers.
A vital assistant for the review was my Dr. Feickert cartridge setup tool, this being the older original version. Without this tool I'd have gone completely crazy setting up all the cartridge and deck combinations.
The Audiomods Series Six Tonearm
Some of the key features of the Series Six:
The carbon fiber arm-tube is worthy of mention as it's not just a simple tube, it took Jeff four years to finalize. The arm-tube is of varying thickness carbon fiber stepped 0.5 to 1.5mm with composite bracing inside. The main arm-body/bearing housing is aluminum. The carbon fiber tubing continues about 55mm within the main arm structure which secures it very well. The arm-tube a key element to get right if resonance isn't going to give the arm a strong sonic signature. Jeff has aimed for a neutral arm which allows pretty much any cartridge to deliver its best.
The counterweight is a wonderful thing. It's splits into two; between the two main sections sit a pair of lead discs with a copper disc in-between them. Aside from looking extremely attractive the lead / copper combination acts as constrained layers to impart damping. The standard configuration weighs around 135g, with a second lead and copper disc another 28g is added to the total weight. The counterweight includes a fine adjustment via a small cylindrical weight to the rear. Not only does the adjustable counterweight allow for cartridges of differing weight, it allows the effective mass of the arm to be tuned.
Effective mass is also varied by way of light and heavy cartridge plates, these are around 2g and 7g respectively. Effective mass of the 9" arm can be as low as 9g or more typically 11g depending on the cartridge plate in use and the position of the counterweight. The cartridge plates are a simple but very effective solution to getting the offset angle correct. The single mounting bolt I found very easy to adjust. Changeovers between cartridges was easy and was made even easier as I had spare cartridge plates meaning they could remain attached to the cartridges even when off the deck. Three plates normally come with the arm, two light ones (threaded and non-threaded), plus there's an unthreaded heavy brass one. By "threaded" I'm referring to when cartridges don't have internal threads, you can either use bolts with nuts with the non-threaded plate or bolts straight into the threaded plate.
The anti-skate setup is nifty, it's a short thread running over a pulley to an adjustable weight, and again a couple of different weight options are provided.
The review arm had the optional VTA adjuster which works "on-the-fly". I confess I'm not a VTA-jockey who continually adjusts VTA from record-to-record. The super slick micrometer-based adjuster on the Series Six is persuading me to think much more about VTA. Setting VTA whilst a record is playing works very well indeed – at least it does on my decks which don't have bouncy suspension. There's also a lock to gently screw down when you have VTA set. It all works very easily and smoothly.
Finally, there is a nice indicator where the pivot point center is located. This makes measuring the spindle-to-pivot distance very easy and repeatable.
For my system, I hardly ever change anything and when I look at it, most comes from small makers. My main turntable is a Denon DP-80 in a very heavy plinth from George Darras in Greece. I tested the final prototype Series Six against the Five on the Denon equipped with both arms. The "reference cartridge" had been a VdH Canary, but I'm now swinging towards a Denon DL-S1 that has been "hot-rodded" by Dominic Harper at Northwest Analogue using his best Gyger-profile stylus/cantilever assembly. This is really quite exceptional, with outstanding detail retrieval and imaging. It's also very, very quiet on 50-year-old discs. For testing, I try to use a range of different types, from high to low compliance, so others are Musicmaker, Zu-Denon 103R and Dynavector 17-DIII.
The phono stage is normally a Graham Slee Era Gold/Elevator combination, I am ordering his Accession which will let me bypass the pre-amp. Right now, I'm using Cinemag stepup transformers from "Bob's Devices" as the MC stage.
I also have turntables to cover different types, so a Gyro, early Teres, Garrard 401, a Lenco 75 that I've never got round to finishing and a very dog-eared Technics 1210. Rest of the system is a Glen Croft pre-amp/phono stage, antique Pye HF25 amplifiers and LS3-5A/AB1 combo, built up by Doug Sterling from Rogers parts.
And To The Sound... At Last I Hear You Say
First up was the Series Six 610 mounted on my Garrard 301 with an AT150MLX MM cartridge. This is a cartridge which needs very careful setup, it's really rather revealing and when it right it's very right. With the aid of my Dr Feickert cartridge set up tool I was able to set the spindle-to-pivot distance for the arm in seconds and then align the cartridge – overhang first then offset. This was a process I went though many times; without a good setup tool I'd have gone mad or thrown in the towel such were the number of cartridge and deck swaps I wanted to make to complete the review.
It was clear straight away that the 301 / Series Six / AT150MLX combination worked very well indeed. The character of the deck and cartridge shone through. Bags of detail were revealed from the cartridge, with traces of fullness from the deck plus a very "solid" rhythmic sound. There was none of the brightness some accuse the cartridge of possessing, time would tell when this was due to the 301 dulling the top-end, though the deck has a modern high-precision main bearing which imparts a more modern, full-range sound. My gut feel is that when an AT150MLX sounds bright is usually due to setup or capacitance issues. The AT150MLX performed very well, it was so easy to hear its style with the Series Six – a little MM character trading some subtlety for thrust, and it did a great job – detailed and insightful.
I swapped between the Cornet 2 and Temple Harmony phono stages; actually, the two units were very close in sound even if their technology couldn't be more different, i.e. tubes versus OpAmps powered via supercapacitors. I find supercapacitors are real game-changers where low noise is vital, they suck up any noise rendering audio circuits extremely quiet and clean plus delivering excellent bass tightness with great dynamics.
Encouraged by what I was hearing I switched to my re-tipped Transfiguration Spirit MkIII MC cartridge. This time using step up transformers into the Cornet 2 and I also used the Temple Harmony MC phono stage. The difference in sound between the AT150MLX and Spirit MkIII was far greater than I was used to. Both cartridges are towards the explicit end of the spectrum, so they share that characteristic.
The sound of the Spirit was clean with plenty of resolution...indeed I'd say I've not heard this level of resolution from my 301 previously. Nanci Griffith / Lone Star State Of Mind and Caro Emerald / Deleted Scenes From The Cutting Room Floor to name just a couple pieces - I was hearing deep into the mix making vocals more intelligible and background sounds especially clear. Bass missed the last ounce of ultimate power but that is a trait of the Spirit.
Van Morrison's Avalon Sunset was presented with dynamic impact and energy – it exuded life. Vocal and instrumental intonation and inflections were particularly well produced. The soundstage with both cartridges used so far used was very well fleshed out. The balanced wiring of the arm was as quiet as I could wish for, I could detect no hum with the more critical MC cartridge, the Temple Audio phono stage being totally silent even with my 102db sensitivity speakers.
By now I was playing with the on-the-fly VTA micrometer adjuster, it is genuinely easy to use on an unsprung deck. I'm don't usually mess unduly with VTA settings, I tend to set it to taste and not play with it. Hmm, the Series Six might be infecting me with the bug... it's so easy to adjust VTA and then then immediately hear the effect. Whilst I'm explaining how to use the arm I want to mention the finger lift. I know some folks find it fiddly to use. In my view it's great, I don't want a chunky piece of metal when I delicately place a cartridge balanced at 1.5g to 2g onto a record. The slender curved-wire finger lift somehow reminds me to be careful when cuing.
Getting the Dr Feickert out again I installed an Ortofon 2M Mono SE as I wanted to cue up some Beatles mono LPs and records from my mono jazz collection. I love old mono recordings; they are so free from artifice and play in such natural way on a two-speaker system. (Sonny) Rollins Plays For Bird was just sublime; I forgot about the equipment and simply enjoyed-the-music, to coin a phrase. Running through countless records I was similarly pleased. What I was hearing I can only describe as "communication"; it was a connection to the music and the performance.
By now I was beginning to sense a common thread. The Series Six allows the deck and cartridge to deliver their characteristics without adulteration. The bearings must be good and well setup, I can only imagine that the arm-tube is very well behaved in terms of resonance. Some arms sound "tuned"; they impart character which is fine if you want or need that. Indeed it's said that the original derivation of the word tonearm is due to the idea that we should pick an arm with a tone that suits our needs. I believe digital playback has given us a consistent benchmark to guide us about what is relatively correct. Prior to the digital days I recall some very diverse sounds from record decks, I don't hear such extremes any more. Personally, I prefer the tonearm to be sonically invisible enabling the cartridge to deliver to the best of its capabilities. This is what the Series Six does.
Up to now I'd been using Class D power amplifiers from Temple Audio. Seeing as I was getting great results I wanted to check out how the system responded to a very different amplifier, so I hooked up my tube EL84 PSE amp, which is far from being an over-smooth tube amplifier, it is a very good diminutive amp with little to obviously portray its sound as being a form of single-ended amplifier. It is a great match for my OB speakers too, which naturally is very important. I could hear the differences between the Class D and the EL84 amp but even though the differences were obvious, somehow they weren't that important versus the differences between cartridges. The Series Six was telling the whole truth about the cartridge, this was of greater significance.
One cartridge to go. This was to be my London Reference; it's essentially a modern and the highest-end Decca. Playing tracks from Van Morrison / Avalon Sunset and Madeleine Peyroux / Careless Love I was transfixed, yet again I was hearing the latest cartridge I'd installed at its best. When a London (Decca) is good, it's oh so very good. I was over the moon. I then settled down to play a complete LP once my initial track-playing was over. I was going to love this. But I didn't.
Any cartridge with a Decca heritage can be a fickle so-and-so and so it was to be here. As the Series Six with the London Reference traversed the record I started to wonder if I was hearing a touch of mis-tracking, a couple more minutes in I found the sound becoming a little fuzzy and indistinct. The then noticed my 15" bass drivers wobbling like super-sized jelly (Jello within American English).
It was always going to be a tricky test; the reality is that few tonearms cope with the Decca / London design of cartridge. Sometimes adding mass to the headshell works so I installed the optional Audiomods heavy brass cartridge plate which is 5g heavier than the standard one. I also added mass to the counterweight by adding optional extra copper and brass sections to it, this added 28g. Splitting the counterweight and reassembling with the extra discs was new task for me, it is facilitated by the provision of a dummy arm-stub. The dummy stub allows you to align the counterweight components perfectly resulting your then being able to fit the counterweight smoothly to the real stub of the Series Six. The method works well though it does require a little bit of fiddling to get it just right.
With the extra mass fitted I had high hopes of aural joy. My hopes were dashed; the extra mass made the cartridge / arm mismatch worse. Extrapolating from this I wonder whether a super-lightweight cartridge plate plus removing the copper and one lead section for the counterweight might help.
Do I blame the Series Six for not being able to work with the London Reference? Not in the slightest. It's well known that these cartridges are tricky, unipivots with gooey damping or air-bearing linear trackers are usually found to better match the London / Decca range. The issue is a total lack of vertical compliance. Unless somewhere in the cartridge / arm system there is some form of compliance or damping, there's going to be trouble. I liken the issue to solid (or run-flat) tires on a car with no suspension. Performance would be wonderful on a totally flat, billiard table smooth road surface but drive on a real road, especially a UK road – it would be a disaster. The Terminator T3 Pro air-bearing arm which is usually home for my London Reference has a very fine layer of air between manifold and the wand carrier / slider to act as suspension. As I say, I don't blame to Series Six at all for not being compatible with this unique cartridge design. Having heard such a special sound when the cartridge worked over the first half of a record I was immensely frustrated but that's life.
Having run four different cartridges in the 301 / Series Six combination it was time to switch to the Trans-Fi Salvation deck. The retired designer of the deck made me an armboard such that I could mount the Series Six on the Salvation. My task was to run the same series of cartridges on the Salvation, so I could check whether the tonearm maintained its performance when fitted to a different deck.
Without going into too much detail, the Salvation sounded a little more detailed and fleeter of foot than the 301 even though the 301 has its modern high-precision bearing. The difference wasn't huge and as with the 301 what made the greatest difference was swapping between cartridges. I spent as long listening via the Salvation as I did the 301 so don't read anything into this much shorter section, to report more of the same would simply have been very repetitive.
I will say though... Madeleine Peyroux Careless Love was again sublime and even more so... Madeleine's voice was not syrupy as can be the case with a lesser setup, there was good separation of instruments and delightfully smooth and well-defined vocals. The cartridge which best delivered with this album was the AT150MLX; it just dug into the mix and extracted the most sense from the music. With a softer sounding cartridge and arm I've found the Careless Love album to sound overly syrupy to the point where I don't enjoy it. The Series Six, AT150MLX and Salvation stripped away the syrup and delivered a beautiful sound. With a more in-your-face recording, I'd choose the Transfiguration Spirit MkIII as my weapon of choice. The London Reference again wasn't an option as predictably it wasn't compatible.
A few points about setup – I aligned the cartridges to
Baerwald geometry and for VTF I used:
I'm all for systems not sounding so neutral that they are bland; what I want is to be able to subtly voice a system reliably and just in one or two places. The cartridge and speakers seem to me to be the best places to do this as this is where most colorations and character normally exist. Trying to balance character via a tonearm as well would be akin to balancing several spinning plates, which is not for me. The Series Six absolutely excels at providing an environment for cartridges to show their worth. The arm does not confuse with its own sound, it releases cartridge from any shackles.
Should your budget result in you needing to choose between a lower cost tonearm and higher cost cartridge – don't do it! Place the investment in the arm and save on the cartridge in the knowledge that the arm will get the best from the cartridge. Subtlety, expression, a well-formed soundstage, excellent frequency response; if your cartridge is capable of these attributes the Series Six will allow your cartridge to deliver. The Series Six is not expensive and indeed it's very good value, it's well finished and well thought out. Did I say it's very good value for money? It certainly is.