11 July, 2012

Review: Thomas Schick Tonearm, Part I

Talk Vinyl: Thomas Schick Tonearm, Part I
Talk Vinyl: Ortofon AS-212S Tonearm, Part II
Talk Vinyl: Ortofon SH4 and L-9000 headshells
Talk Vinyl: Midas body for Denon DL-103
Talk Vinyl: Audionix ADN-III, Part II

This article is dedicated to my wonderful friend Robin the Scot, who re-conditioned my Garrard and is now a Schick user too!

I placed the pic at the top for a good reason. If you are a perfectionist, one look at the pic will tell you not to read on. For the rest of the people, I can assure you the setup sounds a lot better than its admittedly improvised looks.

Talk Vinyl: Garrard 301 Reborn, Part III
Now I have finally started to approach where I have always wanted to be with the Garrard 301 - with a 12" arm.

Those new to my Garrard 301 saga - lengthier than Art Dudley's; but then I have owned one for much longer, more than 10 years in fact - may want to read Part I and Part II. For details on the restoration by Robin, follow the links at the top of this page. The Garrard now sits on a wood table that is a left-over from Robin, made of solid wood and more than serviceable sonically. Incidentally, although conventional wisdom has it that mass-loading is mandatory, but from my first, very light, make-shift plywood plinth I became convinced that wood works well too.

Since I had to partially disassemble the unit, l took the opportunity to take a photo. The Garrard 301 and the Ortofon AS-212S arm are mounted on the dark-wood top-plate. The "outer plinth", if you can call it that, has 4 corner braces, which are the only points of contact with the top-plate (in the top pic, note the clearance between the top-plate and the plinth). A slab of Blue-Tac serves the purpose of de-coupling. Rudimentary, to say the least. When I have time, I think I shall try rubber/sorbothane in lieu of the Blue-Tac. The plinth is placed upon three thrust ball bearings.

The Chic Tonearm
Having heard too many sluuugish 12" arms (not only with SPU), I was never in a hurry to experiment and have remained satisfied with my 9" arms, mostly variably modified Rega RB250/300's. However, having accumulated too many cartridges I started to feel the need for tonearms with universal head-shells. The Ortofon AS-212S was the result. It should also be noted that I have an SME3012, but it may need some work.

Although it has been popular for quite a while in various forums (like Lencoheaven), I first learned about the Thomas Schick 12" tonearm from Art Dudley's Stereophile 2010 review which, if I am not mistaken, remains the only mainstream press review. I am sure Schick has his handful and does not need more publicity. I knew then I wanted one, and subsequently joined a group buy arranged by our friend daiwok. When I got it a few months later, I lent it to Robin. He got so enamored with it that I had to order another one. This unit has been lying around for a few months - until yesterday.

Beauty and the Beast
Now, I am sure Thomas Schick would kill me if he reads this. The tonearm is beautifully made, and it deserves a better arm board, but I decided to just put it into action first, then upgrade later.

The arm came in a nice wood box, but you have to find the manual on the official website (not linked properly). Mine has captured tonearm cable.

I had a nice piece of wood floor tile around (you can get free samples at Home Depot). I took it to a neighborhood construction supply store. For HKD 20, The nice young man drilled a hole with a 22 mm drill bit (I doubt you have that size at home). It was not perfect, but the important thing was that it allowed the arm to pass straight through un-hintered. I should have asked him to drill the three 4mm hole for the arm base collar - my screws went it skewed.

Complaint The screws supplied have slotted screw heads. It would have been a lot easier to center if they have Philips screw heads (such as supplied by Ortofon)!! The straight blade screwdrivers also easily slipped and scratched against the beautifully polished collar. Quel dommage!

As shown in the pic, I fastened a flat corner brace (HKD 6) to the tile and the "arm board" was complete. The next step was the most difficult. With just a measuring tape I determined to the best of my ability where the board should be installed for the proper mounting distance of 305 mm, and marked the position with a pencil.

I then had to remove the top-plate with the heavy Garrard and worked on the outer plinth. I screwed the arm board onto the inner side of the plinth. Damn!!!! The screws I got (4 for HKD 1) had screw heads a bit too large and would not quite go in all the way. The arm board was just a little shaky so I applied some Blue Tac to where it contacts the top of the plinth. Finally I was able to get a reasonably secure feel and left it at that.

Total Cost: HKD 27 = USD 3.50 = GBP 2.25 = Euro 2.85

I know Thomas Schick shall never sell me another arm again.

After making sure the armboard was level, I started to do the adjustments. I first installed the humble Ortofon SH4 headshell with the Denon DL-103 that is resident on my AS-212S. The heavy counter-weight was pushed almost all the way to the front. Then, a problem. Ahhh!!!! The tile proved a little too thick - even with the arm all the way down, the tail was up. I then installed my taller Midas DL-103 in the considerably more expensive (and heavier) Ortofon LH-9000 headshell, which redressed the situation - correct VTA was achieved and the counterweight was now much further back. One caveat. I could not quite get the arm-lift  to work properly as-is, but that is for later as I usually don't use it. The Midas DL-103 had to be pushed almost all the way upfront for good Baerwald alignment. I used 2.5 gm tracking weight. Gears used in initial evaluation:

Phono Pre-Preamplifer: Audionix ADN-III (info here)
Preamplifier with MM stage: Leben RS28-CX
Amp: Wavac MD-300B
Loudspeakers: Tannoy Canterbury HE

The Longer the Better? The Heavier the Better?
One thing was immediately apparent - the sound was instantly likeable, quite "normal", without obvious anomalies that often arise from lesser arm/shell/cartridge combinations. No hum like Dudley described on his TD-124. Unlike many 12" I have heard, this one did not sound unduly slow. Hallelujah!

I have not written much about this before. On my AS-212S arm, both the heavy Ortofon LH-9000 headshell and Midas DL-103 had not previously performed well in comparison with their more humble siblings, the SH-4 headshell and the stock DL-103. But now, they perform quite well on the Schick. This is perhaps understandable, as the AS-212S is a lighter and shorter arm less suited to heavy headshells and cartridges.

Schick/LH-9000/Midas DL-103 vs AS212S/SH4/DL-103 I played several records on both arm combos. The difference is easily audible, and the comparison is enlightening, but not surprising:

Composure There is little question that the 12" is more composed. On my favorite version of Night on Bald Mountain, the under-rated Arthur Fiedler whips his band into frenzy. No matter how crazy it gets, the 12" is unfazed. Although this comes at a cost - frenzy is after all part of this music - I overall prefer it to the 9".

Background Darker for sure with the 12".

Transient Speed Although the Schick is fast for a 12", it losses out in this department to the 9". This is particularly evident in Jazz. The Duke's band is more uproarious; there is more attack.

Instrumental Body and Timber I'd say they are almost equal. The 12" has a fuller body but the 9" has a little more high frequency harmonics. Ray Nance's violin playing should be a little coarse - the 9" conveys that while the 12" is a tad too smooth. On the brass instruments though, the 9" is a little too sharp - the 12" has the more "throaty" feeling. Overall, the 12" just edges out the 9"

Bass The 12" does not have more bass, but I feel it plumbs more depth. Even if the leading edge is not as fast as the 9", it sustains better and in both the Ellington and the superb Nah Youn Sun Voyage one feels better the bowels of the double bass (LP highly recommended).

Resolution and Tracking I am not sure there is a significant difference. No edge to either.

Clicks and Pops More on the 12"

Atmosphere and Excitement For me, the 9" has the better "wow" factor, especially in jazz.

  • The Thomas Schick 12" tonearm is an instant classic. It is not cheap, but still reasonable and within reach. Although still not as fast as a good 9", it still has excellent transients. Its sound is commendably balanced from the word go. Can't wait to burn it in.Call me a satisfied customer.
  • The under-rated (and discontinued)(Jelco OEM) Ortofon AS-212S is also a superb arm, fast and just as resolving. This makes me want to experiment with Jelco's own and very reasonably priced arms. Maybe a 12"? :-) 
  • The performance of the Audionix ADN-III is a wonderful surprise! It just works marvelously with the Denon-DL103.
  • The headshell has a significant impact on sound.
Next, I shall replace the Audionix with a SUT.

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