Acoustical Systems Aquilar Anniversary Tonearm & Palladian
Moving Coil Phono Cartridge Review
Acoustical Systems Aquilar Anniversary Tonearm, and their Palladian cartridge are exceptional pieces of audio equipment. Beautifully engineered, when mated they present state-of-the-art analog performance, allowing the listener to simply sink into the music.
The Long Story
The cause of Jules and my collective madness is that a lot of presuppositions are packed into the central question. The inquiry is for a description of how an audio system sounds, but to provide that description, we must have a vocabulary that expresses the concepts that are apt for the task. Largely, these concepts will simply describe perceptible qualities of the sound, and to an extent, these qualities are expressible along measurable dimensions; e.g. frequency response or total harmonic distortion. However, some of these qualities, as far as we know are not, and these are more difficult, as their sense must be conveyed by analogy; for instance, the sound may be described as rich, sweet, or delicate.
These notions are difficult because our task is to accurately describe, and norms of accuracy are notoriously difficult to pin down when applied to terms as vague as these. So, consider the discussion that litters the internet trying to pin down what it means to describe an audio system as sounding "analog" or "digital".
But suppose the meaning of terms like these were sufficiently settled to allow for a clear common usage, audiophiles would hardly be satisfied. As connoisseurs, we want to not only have onboard notions to describe an audio system, but also notions to evaluate them. For audio reviewers, this is acute, for they (we) are on the hook to describe the virtues of an audio system, tasked to say how good are the components from which it is composed. Inevitably, this evaluation is comparative: Is the bass better, the high frequencies more extended, and the mid-range richer? But just how are we making these differentiations? And are they really a matter of better or worse, or just of difference, perhaps very subtle, in an overall context of high quality?
There are some precepts about which Jules and I are in accordance. A central one is that audio systems are producers, not re-producers. What this means is that an audio system has to be taken sui generis – it is the sound, and only the sound, that is coming from the system that we are experiencing: the phenomenology of audio experiences is completely dependent on our sensory experience of the system. This position has consequences. An obvious one, long recognized by audiophiles, is that artistic credit goes not only to the musicians, but also to the sound engineers (and others) who created the recording.
Another is that there is a distinction between those aspects of the audio presentation that are traced back to musical properties, as opposed to those whose genesis lies in the properties of audio systems. Sometimes these latter properties can detract from the musical virtues, but in other cases, for example in articulated soundscaping, it can be a powerful enhancement of the experience.
Seeing Eye-To-Eye With Jules
What I think Jules is driving at is that the goal is to describe the component in a manner that reveals its intended voicing, and that to do that we must listen to how it contributes to the voicing of the system of which it is a component. Changes in the system, be they modifications or component changes, are evaluated by how they affect that voicing – do they enhance that voice, making it that much more compelling? The burden this places on the reviewer is that it relies on their experience of a system's voice, and an awareness of the parameters that contribute to that voice, in describing the "sound" of a particular component.
There are, of course, many parameters that can be isolated as contributing to system voicing. In my thinking, there are three major groupings of these aspects of audio presentation – density, dimensionality, and naturalness. Each has sub-aspects, and they interact in complex ways. But they are, in themselves, useful categories for thinking about system voicing and how it can vary.
To give a sense of what I mean by the density of presentation, I refer again Jules' review cited above for an eloquent appraisal: density has "to do with its ability to capture all of the most nuanced dimensions of harmonic interactions among the instruments and voices in an ensemble, orchestra or choir. Only very few of the very best systems can capture this most subtle feature of a musical presentation. It is a capacity to hear into the musical interplay between players and singers in a way that enables the listener to hear their influence on one another's playing and choices in the direction they take at any turn."
Where harmonic density is essential is in portraying the sense of listening to a group of musicians, playing a piece of music; that they are playing together. But more than this: density speaks to much of what we think of as musical detail. A denser presentation, one that is rich and full-bodied, is a window to subtle musical details that allow us to hear deeply into the music. To a large extent, musical density has been the central design principle of my system, and Jules pays it the great compliment of being capable of this sort of insight.
The second major aspect of system voicing is dimensionality. This term is inherently broad, covering aspects of audio presentation including dynamics, pacing, and rhymical drive, transient response, soundscaping, and imaging. It is intimately connected to the sense of presence of the music in the listening environment. It is important that aspects of dimensionality be naturally integrated into the presentation, and not overly attenuated or emphasized. Proper dimensionality requires a balance of the contributing factors; no factor should call undue attention to itself.
The third factor voicing is naturalness. In many ways, adjudging naturalness is the most difficult to describe, but here again balance – of the highs, midrange, and bass – is of the utmost. Systems can sound natural, even in with lower degrees of density and dimensionality, if they are accurate in their portrayal of musical timbre. We may enjoy a system for the naturalness of its midrange, but rolled-off bass or highs would detract from its overall naturalness.
Spoiler: I have gone through all this prose in order to set the stage for describing just how exceptional Acoustical Systems Aquilar Anniversary tonearm and Palladian cartridge are. They are components with profound voice, giving deep insight into the joys of playing records. More on this anon. But first, let me tell you about Acoustical Systems, how I came upon the company and their products, and some of the design and technical considerations that went into the execution of the tonearm and cartridge.
Acoustical Systems: The Company
Brakemeier, who also works independently as an audio design consultant for speakers and dedicated listening rooms, is a long-standing audiophile and record collector, especially of original pressings. He is one of the most knowledgeable people in the world on analog playback, with profound knowledge of the nuances and subtleties of audio recording and playback. The result, when combined with an encyclopedic knowledge of recordings, a love of music, and high engineering skill, is an exceptional range of analog front-end products.
Brakemeier came to the attention of the audiophile world with his development of the UNI-DIN alignment for pivoted tonearms. A significant characteristic of the UNI-DIN geometry is that it shifts the tangential points from the classic Baerwald and Lofgren profiles to reduce distortion in the inner part of records. All Acoustical Systems tonearms, including the Aquilar under review here, are designed around UNI-DIN geometry. Those who are interested in the technical details of UNI-DIN can read about it on the company's website. Listening for this review was done exclusively with the UNI-DIN geometry.
All Acoustical Systems products are marked by exceptionally high levels of execution; manufacturing and finish are of the highest order, with considerable thought being devoted to materials and design. The attention to detail shows in performance, where if there is a "company sound" it is of a natural, non-fatiguing, well-integrated highly musical presentation, yet rich with the sort of musical detail that makes listening to great audio such a special experience.
About two years ago, in an idle moment, I was surfing the internet when I decided to search for the SpJ arm. Up popped on the search a link to the AudioCirc blog devoted primarily to the audio journey of Eckart Eller in Bavaria. A perusal of the blog revealed that Eckart has six (or is it seven?) turntables, with multiple arms in a system housed in a custom-designed audio environment. But what caught my attention were the posts documenting his acquisition of anSpJ tonearm, in fact a very special one, as it is the only one made completely of titanium, as opposed to mine, in which the base is fashioned from brass and stainless steel.
And, importantly here, he told how he had sent the arm to Acoustical Systems for a complete dismantling and ultrasonic cleaning, and then a re-build and re-wiring. Contacting Eckart he graciously put me in contact with Dietrich Brakemeier, and facilitated my sending my arm to him for much-needed refurbishing. Needless to say, I was highly satisfied with the work, and I was very happy to have the SpJ back up and running.
While the arm was being worked on, I started conversations with Dietrich about audio and music, and learned that we thought in very similar ways about audio, and had very similar tastes in music. This led to two developments in my analog front-end. First, was using the Acoustical Systems set-up tools – the SMARTractor and the SMARTstylus, and setting up, the SpJ for UNI-DIN. I was immediately struck by how much more defined the soundstage became, with greater inner detail and much better integration of dynamics. The second was acquiring the Acoustical Systems SDP – the Special Decoupled Platter. The SDP is a second platter that is placed on top of the existing turntable platter, whose spindle is suspended in an isolating gel. The effect of the SDP is to isolate the record/stylus interface from bearing and motor-generated noise, while adding additional mass to the platter.
The effect when placed on my turntable's platter was not subtle – greater presence of the music emerging from a palpably blacker background. The SDP is itself a very worthy turntable upgrade that has been used successfully on various turntables including the Plantine Verdier, Micro Seiki, TW Acoustics, and others. The final piece of Acoustical Systems equipment added was the HELOX reflex clamp. Also utilizing critical damping, it effectively binds records to the platter in a tight interface.
Some Reflections On Tonearm Design
Add to this that vinyl playback is, mechanically speaking, inherently noisy, sourced from the record itself, the bearing of the platter, the motor, etc, etc. Thus, a central goal of analog design is to minimize noise, to place it as far below the signal as possible in order to attain a signal-to-noise ratio that makes the noise perceptually insignificant, and so lower as much as possible the perceptual annoyance caused by the noise. Success along this parameter is often identified with producing a black background.
Since all materials have a resonant signature, effective tonearm design must choose materials in which that signature intrudes upon the signal as little as possible, and to the extent that it does, it must not do so in a dissonant manner - we do not want to "hear" the tonearm.
Moreover, an effective design must also allow for the stylus to be positioned as precisely as possible in the groove in all planes – azimuth, zenith, SRA, overhang, offset angle and anti-skating – with perfect leveling of the bearings and the lowest possible starting friction. A user-friendly tonearm will allow for ease of adjustment of these set-up parameters so that they can be locked in, and will allow any given cartridge to display its sonic character and virtues.
There are of course as many solutions to these problems as there are tonearms. But let's turn to the arm under review. The beauty of the Aquilar Anniversary tonearm, along with the Palladian cartridge, is how deeply thought through these design challenges are, with an engineering approach in which foremost is a love of analog audio. These are audio components built by an audiophile, a record lover, for audiophiles and record lovers.
Aquilar Anniversary Tonearm And Palladian Cartridge
The Aquilar Anniversary arm sits between the standard Aquilar and their Axiom tonearm in the Acoustical Systems line-up. The Anniversary edition incorporates into the Aquilar design the higher-quality bearings of the Axiom, selected for the lowest starting friction, along with calibrated micrometers for VTA and anti-skate adjustments, located on the tonearm's bearing tower. As with the other Acoustical Systems arms, the Aquilar Anniversary is designed to be set up with UNI-DIN geometry, for which a precision protractor is provided with the arm.
For the sake of convenience, in what follows I will take to referring to the Anniversary edition under review simply as the Aquilar.
The Aquilar mounts to the armboard at one-point, surrounded by three set screws that allow the arm to be leveled independently of the mounting armboard. The effect is that the bearing plane of the arm can leveled precisely in the horizontal dimension. Overhang is primarily adjusted by cartridge position in the headshell, and if necessary can also be adjusted by movement of the headshell on the armtube. Azimuth is adjusted by rotation of the headshell and is locked into place by a set screw.
A feature of the Aquilar, which it shares with other Acoustical Systems tonearms, is an innovative approach to counter-balancing of the arm. The counter-balance is split into three parts, main and secondary weights, and a lateral weight. The main weight is fashioned at high temperature under high pressure from tungsten powder; this material contributes immunity from vibration and resonance. The main weight is slid onto a counterbar that is embedded in PTFE, providing further isolation, and is locked in place by a set screw.
The secondary weight screws onto the main weight, and by turning it, the cartridge force can be fine-tuned. The lateral weight is located aft of the main and secondary weights. The effect of the lateral weight is to compensate for breakdown torque imposed by the offset angle of pivoted tonearms. In a gimbal arm, this is a static force, that while not noticeable in the movement of the arm, nevertheless increases the pressure on the inner groove wall, increasing skating force. The lateral balance incorporated in the Aquilar's design effectively compensates for these forces, allowing the arm to operate with much lower levels of anti-skate than other pivoted arms.
Two lateral balance weights are supplied with the arm, one machined from stainless steel, and the other from aluminum. In conjunction with the main and secondary counterweights of the arm, this allows for very fine-tuning of the arm's moving mass, and hence for mating with a wide range of cartridge compliance.
A further design feature of the Aquilar is that SRA can be adjusted at the headshell by turn of a set screw, a feature that the Aquilar carries over from the firm's Arché headshell. Adjustment at the headshell has significant advantages over adjustments made via the micrometer at the bearing tower: it maintains the plane of the cartridge's generator relative to the plane of the arm's bearing, and keeps the tracking force stable when adjusting the SRA. (If adjusted via the tower micrometer, the tracking force will increase if the tower is moved down, and will decrease if moved up.)
The Palladian is Acoustical Systems top-of-the-line cartridge. It sports a body made of Timet 1100 titanium that has been hand-hammered. Its looks will remind cooks of French copper cookware. The effect of the hammering is to eliminate any parallel surfaces. The use of titanium gives the cartridge an exceptionally strong body, with excellent energy transfer. The cantilever is made from tempered aluminum, and treated with C37 lacquer. The stylus is a Q4 Shibata EVO profile. As per the manufacturer's specifications, the cartridge has 5N pure silver coils, with a .33mV output and a recommended 1.7 gram tracking force.
In design, the Palladian represents an evolution of the design of the Acoustical Systems Aiwon cartridge, the primary differences being that the Palladian has a shorter cantilever and an additional winding in the coil that affords a special focused magnetic field.
With the generous assistance of Dietrich via Zoom, the Aquilar was set up on a mount he fashioned to fit on my turntable's custom massive granite plinth. The Palladian was affixed to the Aquilar using Acoustical Systems Timet cartridge screws, rather than the brass screws provided with the cartridge. In listening this made a subtle but worthy difference in greater presence and dynamics. The cartridge took about 50 hours to fully break-in, and after some experimentation with loads, 270 ohms, as recommended by Brakemeier, gave the best sonic results. All listening was done via the phono stage of my MFA Luminescence pre-amp, which has been maintained, updated, and modified by its designer Scott Frankland.
The review of the Aquilar Anniversary arm and the Palladian cartridge was done exclusively as a unit. There is a drawback to this, as it is not possible to tease apart the sonic contribution of the arm from the cartridge; thus, the constancies of the arm relative to other cartridges, or that of the cartridge relative to other arms was not evaluated. But to the extent that this is a shortcoming, it is counterbalanced by a certainty that the arm and cartridge are properly matched with respect to cartridge weight and compliance, and that the performance is as the manufacturer intended in the designs of the arm and cartridge. And this comports with the ethical principle for reviewers discussed above, that equipment is shown in the best possible light, to reflect the design sensibilities that are embodied in the equipment under review.
The Listening Experience
Seen from a high, overarching point of view, the effect of the Aquilar/Palladian combination is arresting. Throughout my extended listening, I was consistently struck by the depth of the voice of the system; a sense that it was speaking with greater profundity. Along the dimensions of density, dimensionality, and naturalness, the Aquilar / Palladian excels: the presentation is harmonically very dense, highly dimensional, and musically natural. The net result is a rich voicing, very present and forceful, yet at the same time balanced and subtly nuanced with detail. It is a beautiful, musical voice, and listening to it has been invariably pleasurable.
A striking characteristic of Aquilar / Palladian combination is that when listening it is easy to shift between unfocussed and focused listening, from listening to a group of musicians playing a piece of music to honing in on particular aspects, a single instrument, or how different musicians are interacting with one another. For instance, when listening to jazz groups, it became possible to focus on interactions of the rhythm section – how the drummer and pianist, for instance, are supporting each other rhythmically, or how the bass and piano are harmonically interacting, and then how as a whole they are supporting the lead horn. This ability to listen deeply into the music remained intact with very complex music, and this is one of the most striking aspects of this arm and cartridge. There is no fuss with large-scale music; it remains completely coherent over all sorts of music, from solo guitar to hard-bop jazz group to symphony orchestra.
The exceptional ability to follow subtle musical detail with the Aquilar/Palladian is nevertheless not something that is overtly highlighted; rather, it is seamlessly integrated into the sonic picture. The overall sense of musical integration is striking, giving a palpable sense of musical balance. As with detail, so too with the rendering of dynamics, which are fast and natural, yet fully integrated into the musical presentation.
The Aquilar / Palladian throws a large, open, yet fully occupied soundstage. Spatial relations in depth and width among musicians are precisely and quite dramatically portrayed. It is a highly coherent soundstage, in which images are properly sized and spaced without losing in any way their harmonic integration. This provides for a dramatic portrayal of musicians playing music in a natural space.
The timbral coherence of the Aquilar/Palladian is exceptional, from the bass through to the highs. While the bass is taught and deep, and highs, sweet and extended, where the Aquilar / Palladian truly shines is in the mid-range; it is rich and warm, yet crisp and dynamic. On my go-to record for mid-range, an original pressing of the Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane album, the Aquilar / Palladian provided the most moving rendition of Hartman's voice, with a velvety sound and rich body. The beauty of Hartman's voice was truly moving.
I was very fortunate to be able to have the Aquilar / Palladian in my system for an extended period, and these listening impressions were developed over listening to hundreds of records, old and new. Their performance especially gave great life to older records, this being largely due to the UNI-DIN set-up and the ability to subtly adjust SRA for proper tracking angle.
Among the records I listened to, some stood out in highlighting particularly clearly the attributes of the Aquilar/Palladian. Whereas the Johnny Hartman/John Coltrane album displayed a captivating midrange performance of the combination, its way with harmonic density was dramatically on display on Bill Evans' Waltz for Debby on an original Riverside, which is one of Dietrich Brakemeier's favorites. Here the nuances of the three musicians playing off one another is portrayed in deep detail; one can listen so deeply into the recording that the conversations in the audience can be followed. Listening with the Aquilar / Palladian, it is easy to see why this album, along with its sibling Sunday at the Village Vanguard, are the touchstone albums of jazz piano trio.
Other landmark live recordings from 1961 are the Eric Dolphy and Booker Little Live at the Five Spot albums. Aggression, taking up a full side on Volume 2, is an amazing piece of improvised music – especially brilliant soloing from Dolphy on bass clarinet, and Little on trumpet. While the overall performance on this fantastic recording is breathtaking, virtually transporting one to the intimacy of the jazz club, what is particularly notable is Ed Blackwell's drum solo. Here we can hear the natural dynamics of the Aquilar / Palladian on display in Blackwell's driving, intense, complex playing that is completely engrossing.
More Music, More Discovery
The opening track, "Peggy's Blue Skylight", seems to begin with the band tuning up, throwing out a phrase here and there, and then organizes itself into a series of brilliant solos from George Adams, HamiettBlueitt, Jon Faddis and Don Pullen. The music is incredibly complex, with the kind of overlapping lines that are characteristic of Mingus' music. The Aquilar / Palladian tracks this complexity with unruffled aplomb; the music remains completely coherent, with each line delineated and clearly enunciated.
Joni Mitchell's Woodstock is one of the great anthems of the late 1960s. Two recent covers show how vital this song remains today. The first, from David Crosby on his album Here If You Listen, is a simple arrangement around close harmonies from Crosby – still in fine voice – Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis, and Michael League. In this beautiful recording, the Aquilar/Palladian displays the textures of each of the voices, and how they are harmonically interacting. The second version is on Hudson, the Jack DeJohnette, Larry Grenadier, John Medeski, and John Scofield collaboration. The star here is Scofield's guitar, portrayed with life and brilliance. On both recordings, the music is portrayed with breathtaking ease and naturalness.
Speaking of guitar recordings, two that put a vice on my attention were Kip Dopler's Reaching Out from the Inside, recorded by George Cardas, and the absolutely sensational Manitas de Plata box-set from Connoisseur Society. These recordings highlighted the Aquilar/Palladian's ability to track the micro-dynamics that make great acoustic guitar music engrossing.
The openness of the soundstage thrown by the Aquilar / Palladian, with its exceptional dimensionality in depth, width, and height, was constantly on display. Some examples of note: Wayne Shorter's ETC, in the justly praised Bluenote Tone Poet series (an album, which for the life of me I cannot understand why it was not released when it was recorded), Paul Motian's Conception Vessel, one of the earliest ECM releases, and Chris Jones' Roadhouses and Automobiles on the German Stockfisch label. With these, the soundstage was presented, with the instruments filling a large but musically packed space.
Speaking of the Chris Jones record, it also showed how tightly the Aquilar / Palladian plumbed the bass regions. This is especially demonstrated on the lyrically powerful track "No Sanctuary Here". Equally powerful bass and lyrics are on display in Leonard Cohen's "Nevermind", from his album Personal Problems. This is one of his last recordings, and "Nevermind" falls in with the apocalyptical part of his oeuvre. The gravel of his voice, accompanied by deep bass makes this a powerful and mind-sticking performance.
A great example of the acoustic bass is found on a record that Dietrich Brakemeier recommended to me – Charlie Haden and Christian Escudé's Gitanes on the French All Life label. Haden's bass playing here is moving, the Aquilar/Palladian precisely rendering the articulation of Haden's playing, the care with which he chooses his notes as he accompanies the guitar. The beauty of Haden's playing is also on display on the aforementioned "Conception Vessel".
A final recording to mention is Sonny Rollins' a capella version of "Body and Soul" on Brass/Trio, listened to on an original Verve copy. There is just nothing more to say than that Sonny's horn is just there, right in my listening room. One is simply swept up within the recording; it is an engrossing performance by the musical genius that is Sonny Rollins.
While the focus of the listening experiences mentioned here has been primarily on jazz recordings, my experiences were parallel for a wide range of other genres, ranging from the storied RCA Living Stereos and Mercury Living Presences to contemporary electronica, with many stops in-between. I listened to pressings from the United States, from Europe, from Japan, original pressings, and contemporary reissues. The listening experiences I have described were consistent across-the-board.
Mated, they provided me with the highest level of musical enjoyment I have enjoyed from my audio system. With the Aquilar Anniversary arm and the Palladian cartridge, my system spoke with musical profundity. We are in a golden age of analog playback, and Dietrich Brakemeier's designs for Acoustical Systems – their arms, cartridges, and analog accessories – are without doubt an important part of that story. They are wonderful components that present the beauty and depth of music with honesty, intensity, and joy.
Aquilar Anniversary Tonearm