Turntables come and turntables go, and so do arms, cartridges and the other paraphernalia surrounding vinyl replay. However, unlike the majority of ‘me too’ CD or digital replay systems, many vinyl replay products still manage to have an enduring place in people’s memories, almost regardless of when they were encountered. For my sins I hold my hands up to having a Dansette multi-changer record player as a callow pre-teen, followed by a Garrard SP25 of some version or other, that followed by a Technics 150 with SME arm. And so the list goes on.
At the other end of the scale, there are those products which immediately conjure interest – the DS Audio optical cartridges (though the patent for this technology was filed in the 1930s), Pierre Clement mono pick-ups, Simon Yorke turntables, a whole host of other ‘stuff’ (each has their own wish list I’m sure), and in my case The Wand tonearm. Its design has intrigued me for ages, and, having never had the chance to hear one in a system I knew, had no idea what to expect. So, when I was offered the opportunity to review one I jumped at the chance.
Getting lost in the music
I feel it’s only fair to set the scene a bit before delving into the review proper. As a practising musician and a live-music lover, the essence of a performance is not necessarily a note-perfect rendition but a combination of the performer engaging with the score emotionally, assessing and then presenting the composer’s emotional intentions to the audience and then accessing that emotionally-driven process via a home audio replay system. There are many ways in which this can be achieved – some sit with me better than others, but essentially it’s the emotional connection which does the job, transporting the listener (or in some cases as the performer) to ‘another place’. I suppose it’s that old cliché of ‘getting lost in the music’.
Now, the Wand cannot ‘put right’ anything amiss in the recording but if it goes half-way to making that emotional connection then that’s a big plus in my book. Obviously the little things like tracking, consistency, set-up and all the other mechanical elements have to be right too, but at the end of the day, we don’t listen to those, but the music.
The Wand turntable and arm come fantastically well packaged, and as delivered should manage to withstand almost any nasties a delivery company could throw at it. Assembly is, while necessarily being slightly fiddly in places, utterly straightforward, with the instruction/assembly manual being comprehensive, clearly laid out and simply illustrated.
Set-up with the gauge and protractor was very easy, and seemed very accurate. Mounting the cartridge is something which needs a steady hand and some care, but other than that it was as straightforward as I’ve seen. The only thing I was curious about – and it’s an observation, not a criticism – was that the cartridge is mounted to the arm with a relatively small contact area between the cartridge body and the arm itself. A lot of other arms or headshells extol the virtues of greater contact area is better. We shall see.
Now, for those of you unused to a unipivot arm, it doesn’t quite wobble as much as the famed Naim Aro tended to (though that was supremely stable when actually playing). The Wand’s clever pivot design gives a high degree of what might be termed handling stability. You’re not at all as unsure as you might have been when handling an Aro. Fortunately the lift-lower lever works very smoothly; you can rest assured that even if you accidentally flick the lever down your stylus won’t be digging divots out of precious vinyl.
The massive (yes, it’s mightily massive) arm-bearing/counterweight assembly sits resolutely about its bearing. So much so that you can rest assured, it will still be sitting there after the next tsunami, unfazed. I think it’s this solid, single point of support which, coupled with the Wand’s hugely oversized arm-tube, that allows it to perform as well as it does.
Styling; well, in my book it’s a visual triumph. A black-topped plywood plinth of the non-square variety, a long curved rear edge, and an oversize platter coupled with the seemingly massive arm-tube diameter make for a striking statement on an equipment rack.
Sadly cliché’s abound in the reviewing world. It’s very difficult to get away from certain phrases, and I suppose it’s a bit like trying to describe the taste of a good whiskey or a fine wine. The written or spoken language we usually use doesn’t always convey everything, besides which everyone sees/hears/feels things differently, so all I can do is do my best to convey my experiences.
To put it plainly the Wand combination was like putting the lights on. Somehow everything seemed very clearly defined, open, airy and fresh. This was even true in darker or more serious music where somehow the combination allowed a deeper degree of insight into the mix.
Dropping the stylus gently into the first lead-in groove, and the CBS 76852 – a wonderful recording of Boulez and the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite – came to life. This recording was made in 1968, all analogue, and chosen initially for the sense of immense quiet behind the performances. Certainly the first pressing is impressive, with very little vinyl roar between (or within) tracks, no pre-echo that I was able to discern, and just a fabulous capture of two superbly presented works.
What’s going on
I mentioned putting the lights on. I particularly love listening to music in very low light. Somehow the visual distraction of my room, relaxing though it is, sometimes intrudes on my listening, and the world is quieter later in the evenings, and darkness allows me to hear further into what’s going on.
With this recording on the Wand it’s almost as if I’m in the auditorium all on my own, the orchestra up on the stage, playing in the dark, and someone puts all the lights on. Even though everything is brightly lit, the inky blackness which went before is still there, still tangible. All the elements are somehow far better defined. Sudden crescendi, those uber-quiet moments, spatial separation of different parts of the orchestra, the clarity and immediacy of the percussion section, they were all beautifully brightly lit without being spot-lit.Listening to this recording is always a captivating experience, but the Wand somehow made it more so.
Maybe a change of pace is needed. Arctic Lake’s Closer spun next. An EP from 2017, Paul Holliman and Emma Foster have a sound not unlike London Grammar, but with deeply expressive, ethereal and atmospheric music. Pushing the frequency extremes (top and bottom), and yet with ‘stuff in the middle’ which demands a certain clarity, a certain poise from the replay system, this EP is a good test for any system. Low bass can sometimes cause tonearms to oscillate (albeit slowly), and this in turn muddies the upper reaches of what’s being played. Not here though. Emma Foster’s voice remained calm, stable and utterly in focus as Paul Holliman wove sonic tracery around her. Again, the pressing is very good, with a quiet background which doesn’t intrude into everything else going on. The more I listen to this the more I hear each time.
The same could be said of Yes’ timeless Tales From Topographic Oceans. Released in 1973, this studio album on Atlantic is Jon Anderson’s interpretation of four Shastric scriptures. The complexity of the electronic wizardy provides lots of opportunities to trip up an arm/cartridge combination. Sudden loud passages, side-to-side separation (this is not the same as the soundstage in an acoustic recording) and phase shifts in the music were all deftly and solidly portrayed, with nothing upsetting the arm or cartridge. It would be nice to think that this is how the Yes team would have liked to have heard their album at home – to say I was impressed is something of an understatement.
It would be foolish not to include some jazz, so Oscar Peterson’s much-revered Night Train hit the oversized multi-layer platter. Oversized? Well, not really. Just 14 inches diameter. If you think about it, larger platters have been used in a variety of settings (most notably in studio settings) as they provide greater speed stability as a result of the potential to shift the platter’s revolving mass further out from the main bearing. And multi-layer as it’s composed of acrylic and aluminium layers to reduce any internal (or externally derived) vibration. It also has a lightweight screw-down clamp to ensure good connection between platter and record. This, coupled with a DC motor (with switchable 33/45 and (factory option 78) served to maintain what to the ear sounded like an absolutely-pitch-stable player.
Steaming through the night
Anyway, back to Night Train. I’m fortunate enough to have an original stereo pressing from 1963 that’s in very good condition. Just as a by-the-by, while listening to the radio in the car the other day I discovered that the title track was written as a ‘memoir’ to OP’s father (a sleeping-car attendant on the Canadian Pacific Railways), when OP used to travel with him on the night train, and mimics the sound and motion of the train steaming through the night. This album is beloved by many, and a bit like We Get Requests, has perhaps become slightly hackneyed. However, its musical content is still fresh, and conjures up a world from a different time – almost a world in black and white.
On this particular record the Wand excelled. The inner rhythmic patterns were so well presented, (particularly brushes on the drums), and its ability to create the space between the instruments without making them either distant or disjointed was quite remarkable. There was certainly a heightened feeling of ensemble between the players and it was just sooooo easy to become totally immersed in the musical journey taking place. Georgia on my Mind in particular gave me goosebumps, and it was a real shame the album is as short as it is.
No review would be complete without some female vocal somewhere in the mix. With so many fine vocalists to choose from I’m obviously not going to please everyone. Having ventured into that tortured territory occupied by Florence Foster Jenkins in a previous review I thought I’d stick to something a little more mellow. Carol Kidd’s self-titled album (ALOI AKH-003) from 1984 has been a long-time favourite. OK, it’s a bit schmalzy in places, but it’s well recorded, has space, air, and a real fine clarity. It also has very sudden percussive aspects to it (on piano) as well as deep acoustic bass, a finely-played percussion section and perhaps one of the finest piano recordings I have. If ever any pitch instability was going to show up, it was likely to be here.
Close-miking of Kidd’s voice makes the cartridge’s work that much harder – there’s no distance to ‘hide’ in, and every detail needs to be right. You should be able to hear the spittle in her throat, hear the smile on her lips, hear the curl of her lip – and you can. The bass, piano and percussion are all laid out behind. Not detached, but a slightly set-back integral part of the whole. Bass weight is about as realistic as you’d get, and the snap of the drumkit leads you to believe you’re right there, almost in the studio.
A few friends who are music-lovers have been in the house while I’ve had the Wand combination in situ. It’s been used with a variety of cartridges (about six) , and some different stand-alone phono stages (four, both solid state and tube), so I’ve tried to give it a fair hearing. A whole load more vinyl hit the platter too. Consistently, the friends’ response to whatever I’ve been playing on The Wand has been ‘Wow! I’ve never heard it like that before’ in a good way.
There is something so definingly, assuredly resolute about the way in which it presents, or rather allows me to access, music. It’s unfussy, unpretentious, and at its heart, actually quite basic, but so very well engineered. The arm ‘just works’, and for me has now set a benchmark. Maybe not the absolute ultimate that could be achieved in vinyl replay, but for the money that’s being asked, so close that it needs serious consideration where the emotional content of music of a prerequisite.
For others where deep bass, shimmering highs, ultimate definition is needed it’s up there too. It conveys dynamic impact so very well, and is also very adept at letting those micro-details in musical performances shine through without either being overpowered by other stuff going on, or by overpowering either. Its ability to portray the human voice with disarming realism is quite exceptional, and regardless of which cartridge you use it will enable that cartridge to really shine.
As far as the turntable goes, it seemed to be absolutely pitch-stable at either 33 or 45rpm. I did the really geeky thing of putting on a strobe disc and videoing it for an hour, then replayed the video to see how far the strobe lines moved. I was disappointed. They didn’t. But this is a very important facet of vinyl replay. Pitch consistency conveys so many important clues to what’s going on you can’t simply ignore it.
I am not looking forward to the day this combo goes back. My record collection has become much the richer for having the Wand combo in my system, and I’d encourage you to audition one. At this price point particularly, but in general terms, at any price point this is a piece of vinyl replay equipment which really sets new standards. Apparently a 14-inch version of the arm is in the pipeline. I do so hope one comes my way, though I may be lost forever if it does.