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.
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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.
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.
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:
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.
Good Is It?
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
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.
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.
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!