Primary Control Tonearm

If you are lucky enough to have tried bespoke tailoring in Savile Row, you will know that nothing off the rack really comes close to it. The term “bespoke” originates in Savile Row, a street in Mayfair, Central London, famous for prestigious tailoring for the individual customer.  It is understood to mean that a suit is custom measured, cut and made by hand to provide a perfect fit where it literally hugs one’s body. In the world of high-end analog audio, if there is such a thing as a “bespoke tonearm,” the Primary Control tonearm from the Netherlands fits this description.

Primary Control is an Amsterdam-based company that specializes in exquisite custom-made tonearms.  Its owner, Bernd Hemmen, is an electrical engineer whose lifetime passions are music and audio. His fascination with the mechanics of turntable and tonearm design led him to create a tonearm that gives users precise management of every conceivable setup parameter, or, as he calls it, “Primary Control” over adjustability in order to allow a cartridge to retrieve signals accurately. After eight years of research and development, the Primary Control tonearm is born.

The ”bespoke” process begins with a consultation with the designer (or the dealer) about your specific turntable needs, as there really isn’t a standard model of the tonearm.  The options are plentiful:  9”, 10.5” or 12” lengths; the metal parts come in matte, shiny, or black; and the armwand in carbon graphite or an exotic wood of your choice. My first review sample took a little over four months to arrive, a 12” model with a Macassar ebony armwand. A few months later, a second 10.5” model made of carbon graphite and titanium followed. The armwand is made of a titanium tube and a carbon graphite outer layer, separated by carefully inserted damping material to optimize resonant characteristics. These two arms are the first to land on North American soil.

Immediately Engaging

The Primary Control’s exquisite elegance can be felt right away as you unwrap the shipping box. Unlike most tonearms packed in molded Styrofoam boxes, the Primary Control is housed in a wooden box with precut foam inlays. It looks and feels expensive, reminding me of the now discontinued DaVinci Grandezza. From afar, the arm itself looks almost like a Schröder Reference tonearm with a nicer finish. The head shell mounting plate and the armwand look remarkably similar, and are both situated to the left of the mounting column.

The Primary Control employs a unique proprietary two-point pivot, similar to Basis Audio’s Vector arm of the ’90s. The entire bearing structure is hidden within a round housing made of Delrin, making the bearing mechanism invisible to the naked eye. It wasn’t until I disassembled the entire bearing housing (a task not recommended by the manufacturer) that I began to understand the working mechanisms of the arm. The arm has a bearing cup mounted on the underside of armwand, which sits on a vertical sapphire bearing that points upward, based on the concept of most unipivot tonearms on which the entire armwand is balanced on a single point of contact.

Distinctly Different, Yet

Proponents of unipivot tonearms often argue that these tonearms provide a better top-end extension and a more vibrant presentation. But the free multi-directional movement of a unipivot arm is as much a nuisance as it is an advantage. Without horizontal stabilization (as in the case of the Moerch UP-4), the armwand wobbles from side to side during play resulting in measurable distortions and increased crosstalk between channels; therefore, the newer unipivot designs will have some sort of horizontal stabilization mechanism to remedy the problem. The Graham Phantom and the Durand Talea use magnetic force to stabilize the arm, whereas the Reed 3P adds on additional side bearings to restrict horizontal movements. The Primary Control incorporates a lower horizontal ball bearing into the pivot housing which makes the armwand “lean” continuously onto a right pivot, virtually eliminating side-to-side wobbling. The horizontal bearing also creates a center of gravity offset from the main pivot, which will improve stability and balance. By turning the counterweight assembly, you can adjust the “leaning force” which essentially changes the horizontal damping of the tonearm. Too much damping causes the sound to become muddy and lifeless, while too little makes the sound thin and nervous.

The instruction manual is short, concise, and filled with detailed diagrams. If one follows the 16-page manual closely to perform cartridge alignment, VTA, Azimuth, VTF, anti-skating and horizontal damping, even a novice will achieve a relatively good setup. Fortunately, some parts of the manual will tell you what sonic changes to expect with certain adjustments –– something very few owner’s manuals will do.

There are two important points which should be mentioned with regard to the mounting position of the armpost and the relative idle position of the armwand to the platter. The Primary Control is designed with the armwand situated to the left of the main column, meaning the mounting position of the main column has to be further away than normal. Both my JC Verdier La Platine and TW Raven tables require an 8” armboard to be made long rather than the normal 6” to 7”; otherwise the optimal position prescribed by the mounting template cannot be achieved on the 12” arm.   The anti-skating mechanism has been carefully designed to incorporate the use of several opposing magnets to provide for a non-linear force across the record surface. If the idle position of the arm deviates too far from the template’s optional  position, the antiskating force may be applied too early or too late, depending on whether the head shell position is too close or too far out relative to the platter. This is why the tonearm is “bespoke tailored” specifically for your specific turntable.

The Proof Is in the Listening

How does the arm sound? To put it simply, the ebony version is musical, elegant and soothing, whereas the graphite/titanium version is accurate, straightforward and lively.

Unlike other reviews I have written in the past in which a general sonic description can be pinned down, in this case it would be unfair to assign a blanket sonic description because every bespoke Primary Control tonearm will have sonic variations. Both arms display exceptional finesse, detail, and frequency extension which tonearms with less adjustability can only aspire to achieve. Depending on the type of music I’m playing, the seductiveness of one may draw me away from the other.

The ever-so-romantic display of poignant emotions was gracefully displayed with the 12” Macassar ebony Primary Control when the violin in the Andante in Act 3 of Delibes’s Sylvia was played (Decca SXL 6635/6, Bonynge – New Philharmonic Orchestra). Paired with the Dynavector XV-1T bamboo body cartridge, the ebony version gives a vivid display of organic qualities which are distinctively more prominent than with the graphite armwand. Though the sonic image appears more smudged and with less clearly defined edges, it makes up for the deficiency by presenting a picture which offers more human-like qualities, drawing you closer to the music.

Yet, when the grand finale in Act 3 of the same ballet is played, the graphite arm is decidedly more neutral, accurate and dynamic, but not so much as to veer towards the direction where it becomes analytical and hard sounding. It delivers a soundstage which is more upfront, yet extends further into the room. The sonic image has more three dimensional qualities. The bass goes deeper and carries more definition, texture and less boominess to the sound.

With vocal-dominant recordings ranging from 1950s Victoria de los Ángeles recordings to 2011 Adele albums, I find myself caught in the same dilemma. The ebony arm exceeds the graphite version on organic qualities, but loses out on dynamism and speediness of response. The same can be said with Fleet Foxes’ White River Hymnal, with which the graphite version offers a more upfront presentation than does the ebony version, which puts you in a few rows back. Halfway through the review, I like the arm so much I will add one of these to my reference system, but I am having difficulty in deciding which one.

The More Care, the More Sound

If there is ever a time in which the veteran can excel over the layman, the Primary Control would be the apt instrument for such a demonstration. With the meticulous attention to details and clarity in setup instructions, the layman can certainly achieve a pretty high level of sonic achievements by following setup procedures. But the Primary Control is also a tonearm which will allow a person with a bit more experience to take the sonic performance to a much higher level. Given the numerous bespoke customizable configurations available, combined with the precise adjustability of the Primary Control, it is a tonearm which offers limitless potential –– and you can be sure it will never be the bottleneck of any analog setup.

There is always a downside to anything elegant and exclusive. Just like the bespoke suits of Savile Row, the Primary Control comes with an elegant price tag. The price ranges from around $5,500 to approximately $8,000, depending on the configuration. Ten years ago, if I were to mention an $8,000 tonearm, it would likely have raised some eyebrows. But in 2014, where a slurry of new tonearm models have gone past the $10,000 mark, such as the Graham Elite, Triplanar Mk VII, or the Vertere Reference –– just to name a few –– they do make this bespoke work of art appear less exorbitant.    -Richard. H. Mak

Primary Control Tonearm

MSRP: Starting at $5,500

Funk Firm Little Super Deck

Things that reference hallucinogenic drugs tend to pique my interest.  And the Little Super Deck (or LSD) from the Funk Firm will indeed take you on a trip to vinyl bliss, doing so for a lot less money than you’d expect—$1,995 to be exact.  Our review unit arrived in a very THX 1138–esque shade of white, but the table is also available in black or red, or with a black top and wooden base.  You can also dress it up with a different colored Achromat for an extra $99.  Brian Tucker of Pro Audio Ltd., Funk Firm’s U.S. distributor, suggests using only the 3-mm Achromat, as the 5-mm version raises the arm too far for the correct vertical tracking angle to be established and bumps the arm up against the dust cover.  A standard felt mat, similar to the one on a Rega or Linn table, is included at no charge.

Dropping the stylus on the record is a revelation, pure and simple.  After a few long evenings of playing records until the wee hours, I still find myself shaking my head, wondering how this much performance can be had for two grand.  As I listen to the records from the large pile of my Music Matters Blue Note collection, it becomes clear that this table gets to the heart of the music—it’s a master of tone.  Whether I’m listening to Herbie Hancock or Lee Morgan, the LSD delivers acoustic instruments with a level of tonal body and contrast that I’m not used to from a $2,000 turntable.

Though the sky is the limit for turntables these days, the $2,000-to-$3,000 range has so many excellent choices, with the playing field being upset on a regular basis.  Rega, Clearaudio, AVID, VPI and Pro-Ject (just to name a few) all have strong offerings that provide a major improvement in performance over tables costing about half as much.  With so much competition at this level, it’s a pretty exciting time for analog lovers who have a bit of spending money but who don’t want a table costing as much as a new car.

Some Assembly Required

A cursory look at the LSD doesn’t arouse suspicion, meaning that it looks fairly generic from a distance.  Closer inspection reveals just how much engineering has gone into this little marvel.  The LSD does not provide the same plug-and-play install that a Rega deck does, and there isn’t much similarity between the LSD and a Rega beyond the glass platters.  And, unless you’ve got good mechanical aptitude and are fairly intuitive, have your dealer set this baby up.

Unfortunately, the instructions for the LSD, which requires a fair amount of unintuitive assembly, are somewhat dreadful.  I understand that the cost of printing a manual like the one that accompanies a pair of Sonus faber speakers is prohibitive for a $2,000 turntable, but a high-resolution PDF file showing some actual pictures of the damn thing during each stage of the setup process should be considered essential.  I’m not singling out Funk Firm here, though:  I’ve yet to read a great turntable setup manual.

The photo included in the manual does illustrate the three-pulley “vector” system, which uses two additional free-spinning pulleys, so that the drive belt goes around the platter in a triangular formation, minimizing the need for multiple motors.  This is an ingenious solution for a table at this price, and a further example of how over engineered this product is—not to mention he fact that this system provides tremendous benefits when reproducing stringed instruments, particularly the violin.  Keep in mind that this is the same system used in Funk Firm’s flagship table, as well as the company’s $4,500 upgrade to the Linn LP12.

Just to see if this was all marketing hype or not, I used a shorter belt, driving the platter only with the motor pulley (returning to the Jung Trio for the same violin passages).  While you might not notice the difference the pulleys make when listening to your favorite rock records, those loving acoustic music will really appreciate the additional pitch stability this setup provides.

The LSD features a DC motor, similar to what designer Arthur Khoubesserian introduced decades earlier with his highly successful Pink Triangle table, powered by a small wall wart.  You can change speeds between 33 and 45 rpm using the switch on the plinth, which is handy for those having large record collections.

Moving Right Along

Those who are Jedi master enough to assemble the LSD will be highly impressed with how it implements some of its features.  Funk Firm takes a unique approach (patent applied for) to setting the anti-skate, using a weight attached by fishing line to a sliding rod. This allows for ultra-fine tuning of the anti-skate force, which couldn’t be achieved by simply putting the loop in a rung marked in ¼-gram increments.

Funk Firm also has a unique way to set the tracking force:  Using a combination of an under-hung counterweight and a vertical-track-force slider, located right on the arm tube, allows for a better optimization of mass on the table than merely adjusting the weight on the back end of the tonearm.  You can slide the collar up towards the headshell to increase effective mass for your favorite MC cartridge, and slide it back for the opposite effect when using MM carts.

The single screw holding the headshell in place allows adjustment of overhang and azimuth, and it is also a little tricky.  Keep the screw snug but not tight while making minor adjustments, or this will drive you bonkers.

This worked perfectly with my favorite MM, a NOS Ortofon VMS 20 Mk II, and the Lyra Kleos MC.  Dialing in the mass optimizes each cartridge better and ultimately eliminates that “thin” feeling that seems to accompany most budget turntables.  On the other side of the spectrum, my standard-issue late-’80s LP12 sounds slow and out of time by comparison—it lacks the sheer jump and acceleration on musical transients that this table possesses.  Some of this can be attributed to the F5 arm using the same Swiss Abec 7 bearings that my $5,500 SME V arm does.

Because of the F5’s ability to extract information from the black grooves, mating it with a cartridge that costs 50 percent more than the table still makes sense—though a cartridge at this level is probably at the limit of what most LSD owners will consider purchasing.  Lyra’s more reasonably priced Delos ($1,695) is a super partner for the F5 and LSD, as is the $850 Dynavector DV-20X2 and the $1,195 Sumiko Blackbird.  I also had excellent results with the $379 Denon DL-103R cartridge; the variable mass aspect of the F5 tonearm really comes in handy with this classic cartridge.

A Great Pickup Arm, All by Itself

As the F5 pickup arm is available separately for $1,295, the LSD seems like the ideal upgrade for a Rega table.  And, as we just happen to have a pair of P3s on hand, it makes perfect sense to take one for a spin, mounting an Exact 2 on each table. Those of you possessing a P25, P3, or P5 and wanting a serious upgrade should seriously consider an F5—everything improves dramatically.  The arm (sold separately) features the newer, three-point Rega mount.  The one supplied with the LSD is compatible with older Rega tables, and the mounting plate is similar to those of AVID tables.

My P3, already equipped with a Groovetracer subplatter, is now somewhat of a “Frankentable” with the F5 installed, but it’s a blast.  Bass weight increases dramatically:  Going back to The Art of Noise’s Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise? reveals bass that goes deeper and hits harder.  However, the biggest improvement is that of inner detail.

When listening to George Harrison’s guitar on “Taxman,” there is definitely more bite and decay compared to the standard Rega arm, and overall pace is improved, as well—no more cowbell required.  A similar effect is realized with “Eleanor Rigby,” in that the violins now have more separation and body, and less grain.

Finally, we gave the F5 a spin on the new AVID Ingenium, with similar results.  As good as the LSD is, the F5 is the star of the show.

It’s Like Buying a Pickup Arm and Getting a Free Turntable.

Putting the Funk Firm LSD through its paces with a handful of cartridges proves that this table is a steal for $2,000.  When compared to equally priced competitors from SME and Rega, the F5 pickup arm makes the LSD an even better bargain, with some innovative features that the competition doesn’t have.  But remember, this table will need a good dealer or good skills to set up properly.

But once it was setup, I could not find fault with the LSD, no matter what kind of music I listened to.  Going back to a few of the higher-dollar tables in my collection, I could see what I wasn’t getting in terms of dynamics and resolution, but the LSD combines it all so well, it won’t leave you wanting much more, no matter how good your system is.

The LSD strikes such a good equilibrium of basic, balanced aesthetics and the ability to reveal a lot of music that it may actually be a destination turntable for many analog aficionados.  Those stepping up from anything in the $500-to-$1,000 range will be shocked at how much music is lurking in their record collection.

And because of this, we are happy to award it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.  -Jeff Dorgay

The Funk Firm’s Little Super Deck

MSRP:  $1,995

REVIEW: Durand Tonearms – Talea

Listening to Frank Sinatra sing “Stormy Weather,” via the Talea Tonearm, combined with the Miyajima Kansui cartridge and AVID Volvere SP turntable, the utter clarity this combination provides is unmistakable.

Sinatras voice is crystal clear (thanks, in part to the latest MoFi remaster) yet with a beguiling dimensionality even beyond what I’m used to from the same combination, with a different tonearm.

It often feels like a wacky episode of Mythbusters, here at TONEAudio. A tonearm with a wooden armwand?  That can’t work.  A wood body cartridge with a wooden arm?  That will sound terrible. Transistors? Forget it.

Audiophiles are usually highly opinionated.  The longer many spend in the pursuit of high quality sound, the tougher their convictions are to change. I’m positive I was a wire-haired fox terrier in another life and I gravitate towards the different, the unexpected, or the thing that “shouldn’t” work.  Leading me instantly to the Talea.

This $9,500 tonearm arrives in a neatly constructed wooden box, that probably doesn’t cost all that much to make, yet the amount of care spent in its design and execution foreshadows the thought spent on the tonearm’s construction.  To those that complain about the containers that some gear is packaged, I appreciate the extra effort.  At this price, packaging commensurate with the product goes another step forward, reinforcing value. You wouldn’t feel quite right about buying a bespoke watch in a cardboard box, would you?

The Talea is a unipivot design, and is available with a fixed tonearm cable or a breakout box, allowing the use of standard 5 pin tonearm cables. Having this option will be of more interest to the user enjoying more control over this parameter.  Initial listening was done with the fixed tonearm cable, a Discovery Cable Plus 4.  Due to the delicate nature of the phono signal, and after using a number of premium cables at my disposal, I suggest sticking with the permanent cable, so that the delicate phono signal travel through as few junctions as possible.

The Talea is a 10.3-inch arm, but its offset pivot point allows it to be used in the same applications that a 9-inch arm can be fitted.  A quick call to AVID produced a custom mounting plate, and now that their engineers have the CAD profile stored, any AVID owners considering the Talea need only drop a note to the factory.  Those using a different table can take advantage of the handy mounting template and protractor included.

Assembly and setup is straightforward, taking about 45 minutes via the skilled hands of Mr. Durand.  After a few cartridge swaps, I quickly got the hang of the Talea, and thanks to VTA and azimuth on the fly, this is the easiest tonearm I’ve had the pleasure of setting up.

Color but not colored

Tonearms, like loudspeakers often take a different approach in their construction.  One school of thought works in aluminum and composites, attempting to subdue every molecule of vibration and resonance from the cabinet, letting only the sound of the drivers come through.  Yet another works with the driver and cabinet resonances to produce the final sound.

I’ll make no bones about it; I prefer the latter approach in speakers.  The massive, metallic speakers have always left me just a little cold. Guilty as charged when it comes to analog.  What’s the point of getting away from all the things that digital has to offer, strictly for an analytical sound?

After hundreds of hours listening to the Talea, it doesn’t sound colored.  It’s more like tint in the color of a photographic image, or muddiness in the middle tones of color that mask fine gradations are absent with the Talea – it is truly a high definition tonearm.  Think of the difference between listening to a comparison between a rare Stradivarius violin and something less exotic.  Or for that matter, a 1963 Fender Stratocaster versus a Squire Stratocaster. The notes produced are the same, yet the fine tonal gradations, the decay, the feel is completely different. There is more tonal saturation everywhere.

That’s what the Talea brings to the game.  Designer Joel Durand, a musician himself, discusses the myriad variations taken in developing this tonearm and how every material chosen for the arm is based strictly on its final effect on sound quality.  Listening to Joe Henderson’s sax on Pete La Roca’s Basra (Music Matters 45 rpm) is a true analog delicacy.  Every little quirk in Henderson’s playing is instantly delivered to the listener, while the cymbals linger that extra bit, fooling you into thinking that you are listening to the real thing.

A quick comparison

Even the mega, distorted guitar of Neil Young on his recent Americana release feels more real, more inviting. It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of the moment when something new enters the sound chain and even easier to be fooled into thinking the new gadget is better than what we remember.
A pair of identical Ortofon Cadenza Bronze MC cartridges mounted to the Talea and the SME V arms, each on AVID Volvere SP turntables with matching Furutech AG-12 tonearm cables reveals a distinct difference between the two tonearms. While this reviewer prefers the dedicated cable, for comparison purposes, the arm wand with a breakout box allows easy cable swaps and isolates the tonearms from the reproduction chain.

Tracking further through Americana, the Talea not only delivers more texture and tonal saturation, it is the master of low-level musical nuance.  The songs featuring Young’s wife, Pegi illustrate this perfectly. When using the SME, Mrs. Young is somewhat buried in the mix. Switching to the identical setup with the Talea, her voice is more easily discernible, with her voice having a more liquid quality.  The growling guitars in “Travel On” feel more like you’re sitting in a club, twenty feet from the stage. Switching back to the SME, some of that air, space and magic is gone. Much like the difference between a great triode tube amplifier and a single ended triode amplifier.  There’s an unmistakable richness that you will respond favorably to or not.

Speaking of magic

The Talea has a fine-grained presentation, not at all unlike analog tape.  What might be initially mistaken for a slight softness is actually an ultra fine gradation in both directions, loud and soft.  This arm is the essence of natural sound; switching back and forth immediately to the SME V and TriPlanar arms (again with identical cartridges) reveals a presentation that you will either dismiss or adore.  Put this reviewer in the adore category, but again remember my bias – I prefer things with a drop or two of smoothness.

On everything I could throw at the Talea, it presents a more natural timbre than everything else at my disposal, and for those fearing that a unipivot design can’t generate a solid bass foundation, you need look no further than this tonearm.  The Talea, like the VPI arm (also a unipivot) doesn’t give up anything in terms of weight, just the slightest bit of ultimate slam, that I only noticed on the heaviest rock records.  It is so much more intriguing everywhere else, I don’t see this as a compromise – and most of this can be mitigated by the phono cartridge you choose to pair with the Talea.  The only cartridge that proved a bit soft for me in this tonearm was the Koestu Urushi Vermillion, however one staff member was highly smitten with this setup.

Listening further up the tonal scale, reveals no lack of dynamics and acceleration. Snare drums and percussion bits are as vital played through the Talea as with anything else at my disposal. The more time spent with this tonearm, the more it seduces.  Its superlative ability to capture musical tones in such a natural way, just makes you forget about anything else.

While you might prefer something else for a steady diet of Led Zeppelin or Slayer, should your tastes drift more towards acoustic music, the Talea will spoil you for anything else.

Which is right?

We will probably argue over the merits of the finest examples of vacuum tube or solid-state electronics, the arguments will go on until the Earth cools.  But in my system, with the cartridges at my disposal, the Durand Talea is one of the most satisfying analog experiences I’ve ever had, especially in combination with the Miyajima Kansui cartridge (review in progress) or the Clearaudio Goldfinger.  This is a tonearm you should own. It is on the list of our Publishers Choice Awards for 2012.

The Durand Talea Tonearm

MSRP:  $9,500


Analog Source AVID Volvere SP, AVID Acutus Reference SP
Phonostage ARC REF Phono 2, Pass XP-25, Indigo Qualia
Preamplifier ARC REF 5SE
Speakers GamuT s9, Sonus faber Aida
Cables Cardas Clear
Accessories Furutech DeMag, DeStat, GIK acoustic treatments

Funk Firm Has A Winner…

Refinement constitutes the difference between P1 and P6 on the Formula One grid. The same can be said for analog reproduction. While there’s precious little genuinely new under the sun, careful refinement of existing technology continues to extract more information from the grooves of our vinyl collections. And it’s a huge bonus when performance increases do not cost a king’s ransom. Such is the case with the Funk Firm FX•R tonearm.

At $1,995 (with cable attached), the FX•R is competitively priced with its peers, the SME 309 ($2,295) and Rega RB1000 ($1,995). As detailed below, extended listening proves the FX•R as quite the bargain. Reviewed here is the $2,200 model with 5 – pin DIN plug to allow the tonearm cable of your choice.

Some might brush off the FX•R off as another modded Rega arm. But this model goes beyond the traditional rewire and damping treatment supplied by most purveyors. Three versions are available: the standard FX•R, with a mount similar to the original RB300; the FX•RII, with a winged mount like the RB 600-1000 arms possess; and a third model that acts as a “drop in” replacement for the Linn LP-12 arms.

The FX•R provides VTA adjustment and a 5-pin tonearm cable plug. The “simple cartridge mount” is the only feature that throws me for a loop, as it’s still as much work as any other ‘table lacking removable headshells. However, the clips that connect to the cartridge pins are much more robust than the standard Rega items—an excellent upgrade. For a complete technical explanation of the FX•R’s construction click here.

Courtesy of its small diameter and cross-bracing scheme, the arm tube represents the FX•R’s biggest variation on theme. By eliminating several common resonance and vibration issues, the FX•R claims to provide more solid bass response, a more open midrange, and greater low-level detail retrieval than other arms. ABEC–7 grade bearings (the same level of quality used in the SME V tonearm) are substituted for standard Rega bearings. A complete rewiring is also executed.

While I’m not in the habit of performing product shootouts, doing so seemed too intriguing to skip, and with an RB1000 and SME 309 on hand, along with a pair of AVID Volvere SP turntables, I threw down the gauntlet. A pair of Sumiko Pearwood cartridges were used for the comparison, and both ‘tables were optimized with the Feickert Adjust + system. Plugging both ‘tables into the magnificent Vitus Audio MP-P201 phonostage allowed effortless A/B comparisons in real time. Moreover, thanks to its pivoted headshell, the FX•R is quickly brought into alignment, with bias and tracking force set as you would any other Rega arm. The adjustable VTA is most welcome.

Wow Factor

Via the FX•R, Thomas Dolby’s “I Scare Myself” from The Flat Earth and the Art of Noise’s “Camilla: The Old, Old Story” from In Visible Silence each reveal a significantly larger soundstage than to which I’m accustomed. Since they’re heavily processed, the songs certainly don’t tell much about tonal accuracy. Yet their overblown soundstage and attention-to-minute detail handily disclose a component’s ability to reproduce spatial cues.

Acoustic and vocal tracks, especially those with layered harmonies, disclose the efforts made to control resonance on the FX•R. An ideal example comes from Amy Winehouse and Tony Bennett’s “Body and Soul,” a duet on the former’s posthumous Lioness: Hidden Treasures. The singers personify smooth, and the result feels like one is listening to open-reel tape. Both voices hang in the air, filling the room, each taking a very distinct space in front of the listening chair.

Arguably, a violin is the toughest thing for analog to convincingly reproduce. Again, the FX•R impresses. Listening to a young Anne Sophie Mutter play Mozart violin concertos on a 1982 DG release equates to bliss, the music emanating without a hint of screechiness even though DG recordings can tilt toward the bright side.
Most convincingly, the FX•R delivers prodigious bass information—the entire trifecta of weight, detail, and control. This is what separates good tonearms from great ones. On classic Boogie Down Productions hip-hop, omnipresent grunt balances the driving reggae beat in “Bo! Bo! Bo!” (from the group’s Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop) while keeping the percussion tidy. At the opposite end of the aural spectrum, Jaco Pastorius’ self-titled album dishes up an abundance of bass texture and speed, through which the FX•R sails.

Head to Head

Initial excitement gleaned from new components makes it easy to get caught up in the moment and issue grandiose proclamations. Two identical ‘tables, with the only variable being the tonearm and a cache of duplicate titles from Mobile Fidelity, allow for context and streamline the comparison process.

Having spent hundreds if not thousands of hours with the SME 309 and Rega RB1000, these arms with which I’m not only very familiar but very fond. The SME’s removable headshell and easy adjustability are big pluses for anyone with multiple cartridges. Yet the rigidity lost at the headshell-to-arm junction costs a bit of upper bass weight. The RB1000 renders great top-to-bottom response and is incredibly easy to set up and use, especially with a Rega cartridge. However, the lack of adjustability is the price one pays in a non-Rega setup.

Funk Firm’s “Think of [the FX•R] as a Ford Cosworth or an AMG Mercedes” pitch repeatedly comes to mind during listening sessions. With direct comparisons via MoFi’s recent remasters of James Taylor’s JT and Rod Stewart’s Gasoline Alley, the FX•R always digs deeper into the music, not only painting a bigger sound space but rewarding with more decay and bits of information obscured by the other setup. Isn’t this what it’s all about for maniacal audiophiles?

There’s no question the FX•R extracts more music from grooves than the SME 309 or Rega RB1000. Warhorse tracks I’ve heard many times before always bring forth previously unnoticed details. Slayer had more bite, Sonic Youth more grit, and even Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is again a pleasure.

Makes the Grade

This is all about subtlety, for which one usually needs to shell out big bucks in analog. It’s refreshing to see a component this good that isn’t out of reach of most audiophiles. Even with a modest cartridge, the Funk Firm FX•R sets a new benchmark for what’s possible at $2,000 and still, remains up to task by going beyond the Sumiko Pearwood and moving up to the Sumiko Palo Santos, Koetsu Urushi Blue, and SoundSmith Susurro Paua by taking advantage of these premium cartridges’ additional resolution.

I’m happy to award the FX•R an Exceptional Value Award for 2012. This fine tonearm is now an integral part of my analog arsenal, and I look forward to investigating more of the company’s offerings. Very highly recommended.

The Funk Firm FX•R Tonearm

MSRP: $1,995 (with captive cable)
$2,200 (five pin -DIN)
$2,500 (12″ cable)
$2,600 (12″ sans cable)

Manufacturer’s Information