Graham Engineering has been making tonearms since the mid-80s. Throughout that time, company founder and designer Bob Graham has been refining his designs for better performance. After starting with the original unipivots (the Excalibur and Graham 1.0 through 2.2 Deluxe), the company introduced its first “stable” unipivot around the year 2005 with the introduction of the Phantom B-44. The B-44 was stabilized by a patented Magneglide magnetic-stabilization bearing interface, which continues to be a part of the Phantom series ’arms as they have advanced in design. The progression of the Phantom series after B-44 over the ensuing years has been Phantom II and Phantom II Supreme. The available ’arm models in the lineup today are the Phantom III (under evaluation here) and Phantom Elite (reviewed by Paul Seydor in TAS 254); Elite is the top ’arm in the Graham Phantom series.
The Phantom III tonearm has two mounting options: a custom Graham circular base or an SME-type mount that facilitates connection to armboards cut for slotted SME bases. Additionally, the Phantom III has removable armwands that are available in three sizes (9", 10", and 12") so the ’arm can be adapted to the length requirements of the turntable it will be mounted on. These combinations of basic configuration choices provide a healthy number of arm-selection options when choosing a Phantom III to fits the user’s ’table.
The Phantom III arrived in a box-within-a-box. The outer container was of standard double-walled construction to survive the rigors of transport. The inner box has printed-on names, logos, and product identification along with a reusable flap to facilitate opening and closing. Inside this box are foam cutouts for instructions/documents, armwand, main bearing housing, and a host of accessory items for ’arm assembly and installation. Those accessory items are: a cartridge alignment gauge (with adjustable height settings), an armwand alignment gauge, damping fluid for the main bearing, cartridge screws and protective nylon washers, several base mounting screw sets, tweezers, and multiple hex driver/Allen keys for assembly and adjustments—all supplied in conveniently labeled zip bags. Optional items (if ordered) include extra armwands, auxiliary counterweights, and tonearm output cable.
The Phantom III has a removable black-colored titanium armwand (as opposed to a removable headshell) that extends to the bearing housing. Inside the armwand is a 5-pin connector that secures itself to the mating connector on the bearing-housing end. A precision fit is made possible by a keyed mechanical interface that includes a threaded attachment mechanism. Inside the bearing housing is the business end of the ’arm, containing the bearing cup and pivot point on the bearing cap. The concave polished-tungsten bearing cup is pressed within a stainless-steel cylinder, designed to be filled with a measured amount of damping fluid. The bearing cap houses the tungsten-carbide bearing point that fits into the bearing cup once installed. The bearing cap is threaded for secure attachment to the bearing housing. The rear counterweight is attached to a precision threaded shaft that makes tracking-force adjustments easy and repeatable. There is an anti-skate assembly located on the opposite side of the armwand from the ’arm lift. On the same side of the ’arm as the anti-skate mechanism, attached to the bearing housing, is the Magneglide magnetic stabilization system. This system serves to stabilize the ’arm pivot and keep it from rocking unstably side-to-side, like many unipivot ’arms do. (Its function is easily visible when handling the ’arm.) Additionally, the Magneglide allows for precise azimuth adjustment and serves to isolate the anti-skate function from direct contact with the main bearing. On the opposite side of the bearing housing from the Magneglide is the VTA height adjustment tower. This precision adjustment lets the user set the proper height for optimal cartridge VTA/SRA. (There is a set screw on the mounting collar that is loosened to allow height adjustment up or down, then tightened to lock the ’arm in place. A bubble level on the bearing housing next to the VTA height adjustment tower will show when the ’arm is leveled.)
The Phantom III installation is pretty straightforward. On the TechDAS Air Force III ’table, the main bearing housing (with SME-type mount) is installed on the cantilevered armboard, damping fluid is added to the bearing cup, and the threaded bearing cap (with pivot point) is installed. (Be sure to remove the pivot-point protector from the bearing cap. Hint: If the pivot-point doesn’t look/feel like metal, the rubbery-feel cap is still on.) In the next steps, the armwand is installed, the tonearm alignment gauge is placed over the ’table spindle, and the cantilevered armboard of the ’table is moved until the leveled armwand attaches properly to the tonearm alignment gauge over the ’table’s spindle (see manual). Once completed, the cantilevered armboard of the ’table is secured in place (which sets proper pivot-to-spindle distance for the ’arm) and the tonearm alignment gauge can be removed. (On the Basis Debut Vacuum turntable, the armboard is precision-machined for proper distance to accept the second Phantom III model with Graham custom mount, which can be verified with the tonearm alignment gauge via a method similar to the one used on the ’table with the SME-type mount mentioned above.)
With the removed armwand, the cartridge can be installed using Graham’s unique cartridge alignment gauge; the process is relatively quick and easy. The cartridge is mounted in the slotted head of the armwand so it is secure (using Graham’s supplied screws/washers or the cartridge manufacturer’s supplied screws/washers) but loose enough to be moved fore and aft as needed to set proper overhang and offset angle. Next, the cartridge alignment gauge is attached to the disconnected armwand; then it is positioned and adjusted to be level in height to the cartridge stylus. The cartridge is adjusted until it is properly lined up with the grid on the transparent window of the gauge. Once the cartridge is adjusted to its proper location, the screws securing the cartridge are tightened to keep it in place, completing proper alignment per Graham’s method. The cartridge alignment gauge is removed and the armwand, with attached cartridge, is ready to be installed into the Phantom III’s main bearing housing. Proper set-up adjustments and fine-tuning are then performed as normal: tracking force, VTA/SRA, anti-skate, azimuth, etc.
Some of the sound produced by the Phantom III (and cartridge) can be altered with the user’s choice of tonearm cable and phonostage. Most of these variables were considered during the evaluation. While it not possible to eliminate every one of them (they all have to work in concert to produce sound), some effort was extended to lessen the effect of a single component in the analog chain on the Phantom III. This was done by using at least two phono cables (both supplied by Graham Engineering), seven cartridges (Lyra Atlas SL, Lyra Etna, Lyra Etna SL, Ortofon Windfeld Ti, TechDAS TDC01 Ti, Hana SL, and van den Hul Colibri XGP), three phonostages (a custom unit, Lamm LP2 Deluxe, and Zesto Audio Andros Téssera), and two turntables (Basis Audio Debut Vacuum, and TechDAS Air Force III). Two versions of the Phantom III were also used: one of them had the SME-type base mount with a 10" armwand (used on the AFIII), and the other was configured with the Graham custom-mount circular base including the 9" armwand for use on the Basis Debut Vacuum ’table.