THE VINYL CHEAPSKATE - Roger S. Gordon, CPA
UPGRADING THE ET II HIGH PRESSURE TONE ARM
Note: This review originally appeared in POSITIVE FEEDBACK
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ET Larger Diameter High Pressure Manifold $550, $450 with trade-in
ET Damper Trough $95
Pressure Regulator (Motronix-like Build-It-Yourself) $150
ET Magnesium Tone Arm $150
Bright Star Padded Cell Isolation Chamber $179
As a music lover and an audiophile I am constantly torn - do I
spend my limited resources on attending concerts, expanding my
record collection, or upgrading my stereo system. After much
angst, I concluded that somehow my budget had to be set to allow
all three activities. Thus, like many audiophiles, I have had
to stretch my purchases of hardware over a number of years and
to restrict my purchases to primarily used and/or demo equipment.
The Autumn of 1994 marked the end a three year period during which
every single component in my system was replaced. While my new
system is a substantial improvement over the old, nirvana has
not been attained. Upgrading a stereo system is a never ending
task. So like Sisyphus rolling his boulder endlessly up the hill,
I am embarking on another three year plan to upgrade my system.
Since a poor front end can make the downstream components sound
less than their best, I have started my new upgrade cycle at my
primary music source - the analog front end. At the start of
my previous upgrade cycle I had purchased a used VPI MkIII turntable
with an original ET II tone arm. The MkIII was upgraded to MkIV
status. The original air pump, cartridge, plus cash were swapped
for a WISA high pressure air pump, an ET II high pressure manifold,
an ET II damper trough, and a Benz Micro 3-MC cartridge. Rather
than buying the Herb Wolfe/Air Tech surge tank to accompany the
WISA pump, I built one from PVC drain pipe and parts obtained
from a tropical fish store.
If money were no object, I would replace my front end with a VPI
TNT III turntable, a Graham 1.5t tone arm and a Benz Micro Reference
cartridge. However, since I do not have a spare $15,000, are
there more affordable alternatives? Well, in the last year upgrades
have become available for both the VPI MkIV and the ET II. These
upgrades are moderately priced and can be purchased as the budget
permits. However, no upgrades, even moderately priced ones, are
worthwhile unless they make a discernible sonic improvement.
Do these upgrades make a sufficient improvement to justify their
cost? Therein lies the tale of this article. Over the past few
months I have upgraded both my turntable and tone arm. The upgrades
were done one at a time so that I could hear the change each upgrade
made to my system. The results of upgrading the VPI MkIV will
be covered in my next article. The results of the ET II tone arm
upgrades, in the order in which they were installed, are covered
in this article.
Bright Star Padded Cell Isolation Chamber - The Padded
Cell is a large box constructed of medium density fiberboard.
The inside is lined with sound absorbing foam. There are three
small foam covered holes on the backside. The lid is held in
place by screws. So what do you do with this box? One of my
pet peeves with the WISA air pump is that it is noisy. Moving
the air pump to another room is not practical for me. Thus, I
have had to endure the pump's noisy buzz intruding into my listening
pleasure. With the Padded Cell, that intrusive noise is now a
thing of the past. The WISA is sealed inside the Padded Cell.
The noisy buzz is still audible, but it has been attenuated to
such an extent that I can not hear it even while listening to
quiet passages of music. Thanks to the Padded Cell, I can now
peacefully co-exist with the WISA.
ET II Large Diameter High Pressure Manifold - This new
manifold is a direct replacement for the original high pressure
manifold. You just remove the old spindle and push the old manifold
out of the base and then insert the new manifold into the base
and slip in the new, larger and heavier spindle. The new manifold
allows the spindle, which is suspended on the air bearing, to
be increased in diameter by about ¼th of an inch. Now ¼th
of an inch may not sound like much, but it is the surface area
of the spindle within the manifold that helps determine the stability
of the bearing. The surface area of the new bearing is about
25% larger than the surface area of the old bearing, plus the
tolerances are closer than in the original high pressure manifold.
This makes for a much stiffer bearing. In addition, the new
manifold comes with Cardas wires for connecting the tone arm wires
to the terminal block (the magnesium tone arm comes with new wires
for connecting the cartridge to the spindle wires). These wires
are supposed to be a small improvement over the Van den Hul silver
wires supplied with the previous version of the ET II.
So, what is the sonic affect of the larger bearing surface and
the new wires? In my system, the impact was a major one. It
was the biggest improvement per dollar spent that I have ever
made in my system. As soon as I put the first record on I noticed
that the sound was much brighter. I listened closely to the top
most and bottom most octaves. Was there extra extension on top?
Was the bottom end being rolled off? After listening to several
records I concluded that the frequency extremes were essentially
unchanged. So what was causing the brighter sound? After playing
a few more records it came to me - the change was in the mid range.
In comparison to the present, my prechange mid range had a dark
coloration as if smoky glass was in front of the sound. I had
never noticed this until it was gone. As I played more records
I also noted additional detail on familiar recordings. Nothing
earth shattering, but definitely more detail from the mid range
down to the low bass. If you have an ET II high pressure manifold,
scrape up the bucks and buy the upgrade. You will love it.
ET II Damper Trough - The purpose of the damper trough
is to damp oscillations in the tone arm caused by record warps.
Because of its design, the trough is seven times more efficient
at damping horizontal oscillations than vertical oscillations.
I had been using the damper trough for several years and had
not paid much attention to it since few records in my collection
have warps. Prior to starting the installation of the larger
diameter high pressure manifold I removed the silicone fluid from
the damping trough. Splattering silicone fluid all over my turntable
is the last thing I wanted to do. Upon completing the installation
of the new manifold I did not refill the damper trough. Without
the silicone fluid the damper trough has no affect upon the ET
II. I thought that I would listen to the new manifold for a week
or two and then add fluid to the damper trough and listen for
the changes. Unfortunately, my time with the damperless ET II
was limited. The new bearing is so frictionless that on records
with a wide runout groove the tone arm would pick up substantial
horizontal momentum in traversing the runout groove. This momentum
would cause the tone arm to crash against its inner stop and then
rebound like a ball bouncing off of a wall. With little friction
to damp the rebound, the needle would bounce back to the last
groove of music. A rebounding tone arm is not recommended for
long term health of either cantilever or vinyl record. As soon
as I refilled the damper trough, the rebounding ceased. Aside
from curing the rebound problem, did refilling the damper trough
have any sonic affects? I believe I heard a slight lowering of
the noise floor and a slight increase in definition, particularly
in the mid and low bass. However, the changes were small. So,
should you spend $95 on the damper trough? If you don't have
a lot of warped records, the trough may not be that beneficial,
except to solve the rebound problem for which it essential.
Build-It-Yourself Air Pressure Regulator - The May 1993
issue of The Absolute Sound (page 98) had a rave review
of the Motronix Acuflow Air Regulator. The word through the audiophile
grapevine subsequent to that article was that the Motronix was
a must upgrade for anyone with an ET II tone arm. The $500 price,
however, discouraged many from buying it. Fortunately, there
is now an alternative. In Volume 2, Issue 1 (page 44) of the
audiophile voice(), David Nemzer related how he
discovered a company() that would supply the parts
needed to build a Motronix-like air regulator for a cost of $155
including UPS shipping. Needless to say, I ordered the kit.
The kit consists of a filter, an air pressure regulator, a mounting
bracket, a pressure gauge, and three fittings. If you choose
to mount the regulator vertically you will need something (wood,
Lucite, etc.) to which to bolt the regulator, plus two screws
or bolts to attached the bracket to the something, plus an additional
two machine bolts to attached the bracket to the top of the regulator.
Since the regulator works in any orientation, you don't have
to mount the regulator. I have the regulator lying on its side
on the top shelf of my Lead Balloon. The filter, which must be
vertical in order to work properly, is hung over the side of the
shelf. Not aesthetical pleasing, but functional and cheap.
If you are not going to be mounting the regulator, you will need
a 14mm crescent wrench, a ¼" allen wrench, some pipe
joint compound, and a knife or scissors to cut the air hose.
Once you read the minimal directions and figure out how everything
fits together, assembly should take only a couple of minutes().
The directions are not very helpful, so just go slow - it will
all fit together - eventually.
Once the regulator is put into the system, turn the control knob counter clock-wise. As you tighten the knob, the air pressure, as measured by the air pressure gauge, will drop. The gauge is measuring the output pressure. You will need to experiment with the proper pressure setting. As you decrease the output pressure, you are bleeding air off, thus making the airflow smoother. However, the drop in air pressure loosens the air bearing in the tone arm (the stiffness of the bearing goes up by the square of the pressure). Thus, you will need to experiment to find the proper balance between smoothness and pressure.()
Once the regulator is properly adjusted, the effect is readily
apparent. In my system, there was a very noticeable improvement
in definition, timbrel accuracy, and transient response. In orchestral
works, where the tuba and trombones are playing the same line,
it was now easy to separate the sound of the tuba from the trombones.
This was very difficult to hear prior to installing the regulator.
The timbre of individual acoustic instruments is now more accurate
- the instruments just sound more like the instruments you hear
in concert. Most startling was the regulator's impact on initial
transients. Prior to installing the regulator, the initial impact
of drums, triangles, cymbals, etc. was not as clear and distinct
as in the concert hall. The sharp, fast rising initial transient,
which resembles a square wave, was rounded off - smeared - into
something like a sine wave. With the regulator, the initial transients
were crisp and clear. The corners of the square wave are no
longer as rounded off. The improvement in sound is everything
that Myles Astor said it was in his The Absolute Sound
article. If you own an ET II high pressure system, run to the
nearest telephone and order your kit today.
ET II Magnesium Tone Arm - The magnesium tone arm looks
almost identical to the old. The most noticeable difference is
that the wires are covered by a woven metal shield instead of
the black plastic of the original. Swapping the new arm tube
for the old is a simple task. Once the installation is done,
the overhang, tracking force, azimuth() and VTA will
have to be adjusted. The magnesium arm tube is several grams
heavier than the original tube. Thus, you will need to make a
significant adjustment to the counter balance weights. Unlike
pivoted arms, putting the weights at the extreme end of the balance
rod does not affect the performance of the arm and in fact, is
With the new arm tube installed, what changes sonicly? If you
listen to gentle New Age music, quiet chamber music, or music
lacking loud bass, you will probably notice little change.
However, when the decibels start to rise and the bass drum starts
to boom, the change becomes apparent. As you would expect, a
heavier tone arm is just what is needed to handle a low compliance
moving coil cartridge. As the decibels increase and low frequencies
become prevalent, the record groove makes wider swings from side
to side. A low compliance cartridge following these wildly swinging
record grooves tends to transmit part of these gyrations to the
cartridge and tone arm. This causes problems that result in the
sound, particularly in the bass area, being smeared and muddy.
The new magnesium tone arm, with its greater mass, provides additional
stability to the cartridge. With the cartridge held in a firmer
grip, more of the information in the record groove is translated
into the electrical signal that goes to your preamp and less energy
is translated into sonicly harmful mechanical energy. This improvement
is most noticeable on power orchestral or well recorded pop records.
For example - two LPs that I always use for judging changes I
make to my system are Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky (Athena
ALSY 10003) and the soundtrack to Cat People (Backstreet
BSR 6107). With the old arm tube, the voices and orchestra in
Nevsky would congeal as the orchestra went from ff
to ffff. The individual music lines would blur together.
With the new arm tube, the orchestra and the voices remain distinct
and separate, even at the dynamic peaks. On Cat People,
the sound of the bass guitar would muddy slightly with each stroke
of the kick drum. With the magnesium arm tube, the record groove
gyrations caused by the heavy drum strokes no longer interfere
with and muddy the sound of the bass guitar.
So, is this a worthwhile upgrade? If you have a low compliance cartridge I feel the answer is yes. Please note the caveat. With the added mass of the new magnesium arm tube added to the additional mass of the larger diameter spindle, the ET II arm is now a high mass arm. High mass arms are ideal for low compliance moving coil cartridges. However, high mass arms are not ideal for medium and high compliance cartridges (which include many of the popular moving magnet and moving iron cartridges). With that caution, I can recommend the magnesium tone arm as a worthwhile upgrade. However, the build-it-yourself air regulator, which costs about the same, made a much bigger improvement in my system, over a wider range of music.
All of the upgrades covered in this article will improve your
system. The improvements wrought by these upgrades are also additive
- each adds to the improvements made by the others. Based on
what I heard in my system, I would rate the upgrades as follows:
Most Bang For the Buck (in descending order)
Build-It-Yourself Air Pressure Regulator
ET II Large Diameter High Pressure manifold
ET II Magnesium Tone Arm
Bright Star Padded Cell
All of these upgrades are worthy of your consideration. I urge
you to give them an audition.()
VPI Mark IV with ET II large diameter high pressure manifold, magnesium tone arm, WISA air pump, home built surge tank, Benz Micro 3-MC cartridge, Classe DR 6 Mark II preamp, Classe Seventy amplifier, VMPS Tower II Special Edition (current version), Purist Audio Design Elementa interconnects, Monster Sigma 2 speaker cables, and Lead Balloon turntable stand.