This review has been in the works for more than 18 months and was to appear in another magazine. So right away let me dispel the end-of-article suspense of whether I liked the equipment too much to part with it -- I voted yes with my wallet a while back. Basis and Graham are both distributed by Musical Surroundings of Oakland, California, and the combination is very popular for people assembling fine-quality analog front ends.
Basis 2800 Overview And Technical Details
The 2800 is the top model in the Basis 2000 line. It is identical to the $5,500 Model 2500 except for the addition of vacuum hold-down, which adds $2,500 to the price. The familiar Basis qualities are evident: a simple, elegant design with excellent materials and A+ fit 'n finish. The motor housing, finished in matte black, sits 1/4 inch to the left of the turntable. (You could also put it at the rear.) The compact vacuum control box can be set next to the turntable, but there is enough hose to allow other placements.
The 2800 has the same hardened steel, low-tolerance-specification thrust bearing assembly, 18-pound dynamically balanced platter and Swiss-made AC synchronous motor used in the flagship Basis Debut turntables. The bearing shaft is non-magnetic, electrically conductive, and grounded with silver wire to drain static charges. The subchassis is acoustically inert 2-inch acrylic. The compliant suspension employs oil-damped feet at each corner. Leveling is simply a matter of rotating the feet to center the supplied bubble level.
The vacuum hold-down is a low-pressure, high-flow system, designed to minimize vacuum-related damage to LPs. The reasonably quiet pomp is supplied with a 40 ft. hose so that it can be located away from the listening area. Connections are positive and quickly made. The vacuum control unit houses the off-on toggle and a vacuum pressure knob and gauge. The vacuum is independent of the bearing and causes no additional stress on it. The platter mat has a thin rubber flange around the outer circumference to facilitate vacuum seal, and a lightweight acrylic cap covers the spindle for the same purpose.
Graham Overview And Technical Details
The Graham 2.2 is an upgrade to the 2.0. The key difference between them is the pivot point, which is now brass rather than aluminum, with considerably greater mass. Converting a 2.0 arm to a 2.2 simply requires unscrewing the old part and screwing in the new. Arm balance and tracking force should be checked and re-adjusted as necessary after making the change.
The Graham is available in either a gold or silver finish. The contrasting dark finish of the detachable ceramic arm wand is electrocoated over a metal substrate embedded in the ceramic surface. The wiring is fully shielded from cartridge to the base of the arm. Graham offers a choice of either copper or silver interconnect (DIN plug to RCA or XLR) or a junction box that allows the user to choose any phono interconnect; all are well shielded. In addition to the original SME mounting base, custom-mount arm boards are available for Basis, VP I and Linn turntables.
The pivot housing and side weights for azimuth adjustment are tungsten. Silicon damping fluid inside the pivot housing provides both vertical and horizontal damping of the pivot. The user can add or remove fluid to adjust the level for more or less damping. In addition to the vertical indicator scale that shows relative height with VTA adjustments, the 2 .0/2.2 also has a Vernier scale that allows for very fine repeatable adjustments.
Some years ago, Graham arms put the unipovit concept back on the map, mounting a strong challenge tooth fixed-bearing and linear-tracking designs. Graham asserts that a well executed unipovit has inherent advantages - eliminating issues of too tight (friction) or too loose (chatter) fixed bearings, and avoiding the high maintenance typically needed by air-bearing linear-tracking arms. (Having struggled for a while with a Versa Dynamics table a few years back, I can say amen to the latter point.)
Having previously owned Rega and SME fixed-bearing arms, it took a while for me to get used to the Graham's free side-to- side movement when you are handling it, but that nervousness soon passed. The arm is a joy to use. One small but important virtue is that there is no sideways drift when cueing up and down; if you lift and then lower the arm in the middle of a cut, it touches down at exactly the same spot.
Both of these products are designed for easy setup -- for most folks on . But I am legally blind, and simple chores such as cartridge alignment are beyond my powers. Brian Hartsell of The Analog Room in San Jose, CA graciously did my setup. I have talked to enough satisfied owners over the years, though, to be confident that the setup process is as billed. Even more important to me is that the entire setup is virtually tweak-free -- I spend none of my record-listening time fiddling with the arm -- except for on-the-fly VTA adjustments. I'll say more about that later.
To Suck Or Not To Suck
I had some misgivings about using a vacuum turntable. Some of this apprehension came from my experience with the aforementioned Versa. Even more troublesome were the dire tales I'd heard about record damage caused by vacuums. Then there was the equation that pump = high maintenance and noise. It didn't take long to stop worrying about the pump. I wouldn't want it in the room -- it does make some noise -- but with it down a hallway 25 feet from my listening seat I don't notice it when music is playing. Someday I'll have it put in the garage, but there's no hurry.
When I talked to Mr. Basis himself, A.J. Conti, he explained that rather than using the kind of low-flow, high-pressure vacuum systems prevalent in the past -- picture a thin hose sucking very hard -- he had designed a high-flow, low-pressure system using a larger-diameter hose. Between this basic concept and the ability to apply only the vacuum force needed to hold down the record, there is less likelihood of pressing dust and dirt into the vinyl.
The vacuum control box has a small gauge to indicate vacuum pressure, but it is useless to me. It doesn't really matter. I quickly developed a feel for backing down the pressure knob until the record is just securely held down. With a flat 180-gram audiophile LP, a light suck is enough. For a skinny RCA Dynagroove with a visible warp, I might have to crank up the pressure and in an extreme case even press around the edge with thumbs and forefingers to get a seal. Only very rarely did I find a record so warped that I could not get a seal.
Record damage? I have played hundreds of LPs on the 2800, some of them 15 or 20 times, with no deterioration I can attribute to the vacuum. Now, I have become very disciplined. Simply clean the platter mat with a clean Windex-dampened cloth every day or two (no dust cover -- do not like 'em), and my trusty old VPI HW-16 LP washer gets called into service before virtually every listening session. Having the vacuum has been good for my character. In the past I let a few crackles or ticks go if they were not too bad, but no more -- clean grooves are my religion.
How Does A Vacuum Sound?
The vacuum eliminates the need for a record clamp. The Basis clamp, for instance, is an impressively massive, beautifully made and easy-to-use device. But a couple of years ago when I had the entry-level Basis 1400 in-house, working on a review that never saw print (remember the late Fi magazine?), I began to notice the sonic effect of the clamp. Sure, it was helpful on flimsy pop and classical LPs; it damped down the often nasty highs and contributed to better image focus. But on good, pretty flat records -- not just the audiophile 180-gram LPs, but good EMIs and Deccas and Blue Notes and even Columbias, I often felt that the clamp constricted dynamics, and on some of LPs I detected what seemed to me to be "clamp colorations." I sometimes heard similar effects using the lightweight screw-down clamp of my old Townshend Mark III Rock table. The better the record, the less I wanted to clamp it.
I did not hear any of those sonic artifacts with the vacuum. I have tried increasing vacuum pressure far beyond what is needed to secure the record against the platter, just to see if more vacuum pressure yielded better sound, but the biggest audible effect of that is a hissing of air being sucked through the spindle hole. (The acrylic spindle cap provides a good seal, but excessive sucking pressure can defeat it.) The sonic benefits, on the other hand, are extensive.
One of the first things one notices is the blacker background -- a discernibly lower noise floor -- and less surface noise. Listening one night to Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings [Marriner/Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Argo ZRG 845], one could hear a faint low-frequency rumble that I have not heard in previous plays. I had forgotten to switch on the vacuum. Flick the switch, and the rumble is gone. Similarly, playing the Classic reissue of Gershwin's Concerto in F, [Earl Wild, Fiedler/Boston Pops, LSC 2586], the piano sounds unfocused. Again no vacuum, again the quick fix. (I almost never forget the vacuum -- but deliberately switching it in and out is very revealing, and is now a favorite parlor trick with which to amaze audiophile visitors.)
An especially dramatic dividend of the vacuum is the stunning improvement in spatial resolution. Even tiny deviations from flatness on an LP -- so small that they are virtually unnoticeable to even a good eye -- can wreak havoc on imaging. The Quartetto Italiano is playing Mozart's sublime String Quartet No. 21, K. 575. Typical '70s Phillips [6500 241] sound: warm and woolly, both tonally and spatially. Vacuum on, and now the players are firmly placed. Not only that, but the viola's lower register and the cello's upper are now clearly distinguishable. This old warhorse now sounds pretty decent. The same thing happens with my favorite recording of Kodaly's Hary Janos [Kertesz/London Symphony, London CS 6417]. The vacuum places the woodwinds precisely, both laterally and front-to-rear, and clarifies the layout of the entire orchestra.
Listening To Graham
Obviously the sounds being described here are the cumulative product of cartridge, arm, turntable, phono interconnect, phono pre-amplifier, and so on through the entire system chain. Still, I am trying to isolate characteristics that tell the story of both Basis and Graham. For this review, I began with my six-year-old (although rebuilt two years ago) Cardas Heart. It is a lovely-sounding cartridge, and it has lived in a Versa air-bearing table, a Townshend-modified Rega RB 300, and the Graham 2.0/2.2. The cartridge has sounded different in each rig, although always recognizably itself.
Over the last several months, having launched a search for the replacement for my venerable Cardas, I have had the chance for extended listening -- six to eight weeks each - to the 47 Labs Miyabi, Koetsu Rosewood Signature and Koetsu Urushi Platinum cartridges. (Again, courtesy of Brian Hartsell at The Analog Room.) The Graham has allowed each of these fine moving coils to show off its individual character -- the Miyabi's speed, tonal neutrality and detail, the characteristic Koetsu warmth and epic scaling, as well as the truly extraordinary bass of the Urushi. With each cartridge mounted in a Graham arm wand, the process of changing the cartridge and rebalancing the arm is typically a three- to five-minute exercise. Several more cartridges are yet to be auditioned, but having the Graham makes the prospect of future changes something to look forward to, not dread. No worries, as the Aussies say.
Graham arms have been much praised for enabling easy on-the-fly VTA adjustment. For us low vision guys though, it's not so simple. When I first received the 2.0, I realized that there was no way I could safely insert the supplied hex tool into the vertical lock screw without risking disaster to record and stylus. So at first I just left the set screw unlocked. The pleasure afforded by dialing in the VTA (violins actually sounding like violins!) was so addictive that I was willing to trade off what I knew would be slightly compromised bass and imaging precision. But A.J. Conti came up with a brilliantly simple solution. He sent me the correctly sized hex key, which was then secured to the lock screw with silicon adhesive. Voila! Now I can simply turn the key 1/4 turn, make the VTA adjustment, then relock the screw. Have cake, eat cake -- thanks A.J.
The key question here is how does the sound of the 2.2 differ from the 2.0. The simplest answer is that essentially all of the good attributes of the arm get significantly better. The most dramatic changes in my system are in dynamics and bass extension/resolution. On Otto Klemperer's magnificent Mahler Resurrection Symphony [Schwarzkopf, Rossel-Majdan, Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, EMI SLS.806] there is a bone-shaking bass drum throughout the third movement. With the 2.2, the drum is suddenly deeper and tighter. At first I think it's less powerful than before, but I quickly realize that it's simply more accurately reproduced -- and more securely placed at the rear right center of the soundscape. On the old standby Nojima Plays Liszt [Reference Recordings RR-25], the piano sonority seems to well up from the floor, and the close-miked harmonics are startlingly richer and more complex.
The 2.2 delivers fabulous spatial, midrange and high frequency resolution. On Patricia Barber's 1989 debut album Split [Alto Analogue], Barber's fresh young voice -- so different from her present sound (which I love) that you can fool people -- seems to leap out into the room, and her scatting (I told you it was different) soars. Playing the reissue of Gil Evans' Out of the Cool [Impulse! Stereo A-4], I am overwhelmed at the rendering of that incredible jazz orchestra -- it's as if I can point to any single player within the ensemble's complex wall of sound.
It is not exactly breaking news that this is a great combination. After this experience, I would never want to be without the Basis vacuum. For $8,000 you can buy a 2800 or a Debut Mk. V sans vacuum. The big Debut is gorgeous, and has a more elaborate suspension implementation. But the 2800 suspension performed flawlessly in my environment, and the addition of a $500 Townshend 3-D Seismic Sink (review forthcoming) has delivered impressive improvements: an even blacker background from which previously unnoticed details now emerge; greater dynamic range; deeper, quicker bass with better pitch definition; cleaner transients, especially on piano and brass; a smoother, more open, simply more beautiful treble. I did not have an opportunity to A-B this setup with a Debut vacuum table, but at the least the Townshend Sink is a cost-effective way to make a fine turntable perform even better. Plus, the compact size of the 2800 is more suitable to my available space than the larger Debut.
Any owner of a Graham 2.0 who has not already sprung for the 2.2 upgrade should do so. It is a no-brainer. And of course, anyone considering a top-quality tonearm has to put the 2.2 on their short list.
If pressed to the wall, I would have to say that no part of my system has brought me more pleasure than this combination. To hear the new life issuing from 35 years worth of records is an ever-renewing thrill. Everything I play -- from Emmylou Harris to Miles Davis to Richard Thompson to Renata Tebaldi... to the great body of symphonic music that is my first love -- brings me happiness. The accurate scaling from intimate to epic, the precision, the dynamics, and most of all the emotional power of all this music are priceless.
Basis 2800/Graham 2.2 Combination
Graham 2.2 Unipovit Tonearm
IC-40 copper phono interconnect: $295.00
IC-70 silver phono interconnect: $695.00
Double-bushing bearing/spindle assembly
Platter: 18lb. platter
Chassis: Machined 2" acrylic stock
Basis Audio, Inc.
Voice: (603) 889-4776
Graham Engineering, Inc.
Voice: (781) 932-8777
Musical Surroundings, Inc.