Jun 062015
 

As I wrote a little while back in a blog post:

Masterpieces is a mono recording from 1950, so I used the Ortofon SPU mono CG 25 Di MkII cartridge (check out Art Dudley’s just published review of it here), which produced a fantastic musical experience together.

As a point of reference, Pete stopped by and listened to the Ortofon mono setup a couple days ago, and followed up with a message to the audio troops saying, “I’m exploring this after having my socks knocked of by Jeff’s mono SPU playback of an Ellington album from 1950. I look forward to listening to 500 or more classical and popular mono records waiting on my shelves to surprise us all. This is going to be fun,” and “As I hinted yesterday, the mono SPU,  on a mono record of course, has a tonal quality that is so rich and enjoyable that it must be heard to be appreciated. Mono may not please everyone, but I would like to have a mono SPU setup for the many hundreds of mono records hanging out on my shelves.” Pete has now been bitten by the mono SPU bug.

Pete’s not kidding, Masterpieces with the mono Ortofon was a mind blower, particularly in terms of timbral textures and tone color, it was amazing. I can’t begin to tell you how thrilled I am having a mono setup on my Garrard player system to listen to my favorite old mono jazz records.”

Masterpieces by Ellington front

As you might know, Pete Riggle handcrafts the highly adjustable Woody tonearm (so named for its wood armwand), which has made a very positive impression on the underground audio scene, where it has been universally praised for its smooth, rich, spacious, and tonally natural presentation of music.

I’ve heard Pete’s Woody in a variety of different enthusiasts’ systems over the years, and its always provided a very musical experience, but I’ve never actually heard one in my own system.

Well, after the above mentioned listening session here at Jeff’s Place, Pete decided he had to have an Ortofon SPU Mono CG 25 Di MkII in his life, but there was a problem: Pete’s Woody tonearm – like many modern tonearms – doesn’t accept Ortofon SPU cartridges.

Woody SPU on GP2015

Prototype Woody SPU tonearm mounted on the back of my Garrard Project player system.

So Pete decided he would develop an SPU compatible version of the tonearm that shared the basic DNA and adjustability of his Woody, but instead of a curved armwand like my Schick tonearms, Pete incorporated a pivot into the Woody SPU armwand inspired by the Garrard TPA-10 adjustable offset transcription tonearm (you can see one here if you scroll down).

Woody SPU on GP2015 2

Woody SPU tonearm closeup.

Pete’s adaptation of the Garrard articulated joint is used to provide EMT-like curvature to the armwand, and keeping with Pete’s belief that adjustability is a good thing, it allows alignment of Ortofon SPU phono cartridges, which is something I can’t do with my Schick tonearms, for example.

Pete asked me if I’d like to hear his Woody SPU prototype on my Garrard Project 2015 player system, and being one to rarely turn down a new audio adventure, I immediately said, “Yes!”

Pete hand-crafted a new armboard (see above) that was an exact match for the beautiful  CNC-machined Artisan Fidelity armboard, and finished it with a lovely piece of Brazilian Rosewood, which surprisingly was almost identical in appearance to the Macassar Ebony used by Christopher at Artisan Fidelity. Beautiful!

Also, you might notice the slot in the armboard that allows the Woody SPU tonearm to be moved back & forth over a range that allows the use of both SPU type A & G phono cartridges, as well as for setting the overhang.

Woody SPU on GP2015 3

The Woody SPU prototype is a bit of an intimidating looking creature when you’re used to the simplicity of the Schick tonearms, as it has all sorts of knobs & gizmos sticking out all over the place to allow for full adjustability of all the tonearm’s parameters (overhang, VTA, azimuth, tracking force, anti-skate, etc.)

Pete’s armboard was a perfect fit into my Artisan Fidelity plinth. We installed my Ortofon SPU Classic stereo cartridge into the Woody SPU’s SME receptacle, set the overhang, adjusted the height of the arm so it was parallel to the record surface (i.e. neutral VTA), adjusted the tracking force, checked the azimuth & cartridge alignment, and we were ready to listen to a little music.

When I change SPU cartridges, I really enjoy the simplicity of setup on my Schick tonearms. All you have to do with the Schick is insert the SPU cartridge into the SME standard receptacle and snug up the mount, check to make sure azimuth is in the ballpark, adjust the tracking force, then listen to music. One-two-three and you’re done.

Woody SPU on GP2015 4

Except for the initial installation & setup, I basically ignored all of the Woody SPU’s adjustability, and did the ‘one-two-three’ play-music sort of setup that I do with my Schick tonearms, and it worked just fine that way. So I guess I really didn’t need to feel intimidated by the Woody SPU’s adjustability after all.

Woody SPU on GP2015 5

One thing that was immediately apparent, was that the prototype Woody SPU sounded like a million bucks, with a smooth, rich, sensual, spacious, tonally natural, nuanced, and very musical presentation of the music.

Consider these as first impressions, but compared to my Schick tonearms, the prototype Woody SPU was more even top-to-bottom, had a more balanced & articulate bass presentation, was smoother & richer, and was more tonally natural, giving it an easy on the ears likability that will win it a lot of fans.

In contrast, the Schick tonearm sounds more dynamic & colorful, has more complex timbral textures, and is more forward sounding. Appearance-wise, the Schick tonearm has a clean, streamlined, and polished look to it, which I really like.

The prototype Woody SPU looks rather rough-hewn in comparison. Don’t be fooled by the Woody SPU’s rough-hewn appearance, though, as Pete’s engineering background of working on high-tech government projects, private sector artificial heart research, previously owning his own loudspeaker company, and a love for making every kind of hifi component imaginable from scratch (amplifiers, massive horn loudspeakers, tonearms, etc.) means that the Woody SPU is extremely well-engineered.

Woody SPU on GP2015 6

The Schick and Woody SPU tonearms are both custom built for their individual owners, and excepting for the SME standard receptacle that can accept SPU cartridges, all similarities stop there. They couldn’t be more different in engineering philosophy.

Thomas goes for ultra-precision bearings (from my article about it): “Thomas eschews the use of the ‘loose’ bearings common in vintage tonearms, and instead uses high-tech bearings with a tolerance of zero micron positive, 7 micron negative, and which are designed to withstand continuous use at 100,000 rpm, so he not only achieves state-of-art performance, but also long-term reliability.”

Thomas’ choice reflects his broadcast background, while Pete sidesteps the whole vintage bearing thing by using a lossy string-theory approach to a bearing. That’s pretty much the opposite of Thomas’ idea, but as an enthusiast tonearm vs. a broadcast arm, you can’t argue with the results, the Woody SPU sounds magnificent.

I love the look of the musical instrument-like French polished wood armwand used on the Woody SPU, and the contrasting brass hardware. I also like the concept of the articulated joint that allows easy alignment of SPU cartridges, and the Woody SPU’s general adjustability when setting it up.

I’m not a fan of the look of all the ‘on the fly’ adjustors, which I think clutters up the Woody SPU’s appearance. The appearance of the adjusters makes them look like afterthoughts (even though they’re not), and diverts attention from the excellent engineering the Woody SPU contains. I’d rather see set-screws that once adjusted are essentially invisible, like on the Schick tonearms, which would really clean up the Woody SPU’s appearance.

Even as a reviewer who changes equipment a lot during the review process, once I’ve installed a new cartridge, other than an initial adjustment of alignment, tracking force, and azimuth, I really don’t need the ‘on the fly’ adjustability the Woody SPU’s adjusters offer.

One thing that was immediately apparent, though, is that the prototype Woody SPU tonearm is extremely good sounding, both musically & sonically, and it is more than a match for my Schick tonearms. When playing music with either the Ortofon SPU Classic stereo cartridge (aided by the terrific sounding Intact Audio SUT) or the Ortofon SPU Mono CG 25 Di MkII (straight into the MX110Z) the Woody SPU was mesmerizing to listen to music with.

Woody SPU on GP2015 7

I will have much more to say about the prototype Woody SPU tonearm in upcoming blog posts. Stay tuned, and thanks for stopping by.

 Posted by at 11:19 am

  7 Responses to “Today’s Fresh Catch: The Woody SPU Tonearm Prototype from Pete Riggle Audio Engineering”

  1. “universally praised”? I would not call Art Dudley’s review in Stereophile one of praise –

    http://www.stereophile.com/content/listening-130

    Now the prototype you review may be much improved but Pete’s original product was called out for some failings.

    • Well, actually what I said was … “on the underground audio scene, where it has been universally praised for its smooth, rich, spacious, and tonally natural presentation of music.” So I’m talking about the way the Woody plays music, right?

      I just followed your link to Art’s review and read it. Art’s issues seemed to mostly about elements of its design and use that he found disconcerting or frustrating. However, after he put fluid in the damping trough, his observations about its sonics & musicality were similar to what I’ve reported here.

      But that’s neither here nor there, as I haven’t listened to the 9-inch standard Woody Art reviewed. My observations are based on the prototype Woody SPU with a 12-inch arm. The prototype Woody SPU I’ve got here sounds like I’ve characterized it in this blog post, and it is no slouch when it comes to music playing ability or sonics.

  2. I’ve become fascinated with vintage hi-fi recently. I can’t say I quite love it yet, it’s more of a crush at this point. Nevertheless, I was going to get a modern high-powered amplifier for my old Maggies, but now I’m *this* close to pulling the trigger on a 60’s Quad 303. My crossings with this blog (among others) have contributed to my liking of what our host Jeff describes as ‘timbral listening’ (am I correct?), focusing on music and tone-colour rather than sonic magic tricks.

    A recent run in with a busker – a violinist playing at the underground railway station in Helsinki – awoke me. It had been long since I had last heard a live bowed instrument. What we would in hi-fi terms describe as ‘treble’ or ‘highs’, were not there. It didn’t sound muffled or dark, it simply sounded non-bright. He was playing quite loud and reaching high on the fingerboard, yet never did it sound shrill or aggressive in any way. The sound had proper body which I’ve seldom heard in reproduction.
    I got home and played several CDs of violin recordings, and heard sound that before had not been unpleasant, but now… They all had a layer of “glass” to the higher notes that was just not there in the live sound. I switched from my NOS DAC to the outputs of the CD-player directly, and it was noticeably worse. Only after putting on a very old Soviet LP of a Bach sonata for violin and piano, did I hear the real BODY and TONE without any of the ugly sheen I had heard before…

    All this rushed back memories of listening to a live piano, and in comparison it sounding too bright on recordings. I don’t think this brightness is something inherent in digital playback, but is rather a result of how they’re produced. I have several CD’s of piano music where the tonal color is absolutely spot on, given that I play it back without a filter in the DAC. But vinyl seems to get it right more often than not.

    /braindump

    • I agree, to me much of hifi calls attention to the highs in a way live music does not.

      Check out this article on Quad gear by Tony Cordesman:
      http://www.theabsolutesound.com/articles/back-to-musical-realism-the-quad-system-part-1/

      Another option if you find most gear artificial in the treble is TUBES.

    • Awesome message, Miikka!

      Timbral listening really is something special, and I think brings out a lot of the reality of the music. It is a gift from music lovers in other cultures to us all.

      A lot of ‘old-style’ audiophiles just love the non-musical sonic artifacts of of recordings, and think that exaggerating those traits means high-fidelity.

      Not me. I want the music to move me, to have realistic tone & body to come through ‘loud and clear’.

      Thank you for your message!

      Kind regards,

      Jeff

  3. Thanks, Craig, for the Cordesman link. Yet another long-time audio writer returning to musicality.

    Mikka’s busker epiphany reminds me that when I first began to delve into fine audio in the late ’70s I tried for a time to avoid not only reproduced music but also live music that was amplified. It’s very easy to slip into “hi-fi” criteria and lose track of what music sounds like. (not that all live music sounds alike)

    I also found what Cordesman said about playing back poorly recorded especially relevant. Makes me wonder whether I should restore my old tone control-less pre-amp or sell it and acquire a vintage Mac pre-amp.

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