The more a product under evaluation gets out of the way, the more challenging it becomes to describe its characteristics. The Phantom III leans closer to this ideal (like a few other well-regarded tonearms) than to overlaying any consistent signature or coloration on the music. The baseline performance of the Phantom III is fundamentally sound. There is a proportionate blend of resolution, detail, bass response, soundstaging, and imaging—along with other traits—that creates a “wholeness” with musical reproduction. With such a tonearm, connected cartridges are more apt to show their individual character more overtly.
One example of the Phantom III’s freedom from signature or coloration was Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D Minor performed by Michael Murray on a Telarc LP [DG-10088]. Using a new (I was told) and freshly installed TDC01 Ti cartridge, the sound was very good but it was also obvious that the leading edges of each organ note were being emphasized at the expense of complete harmonic development during and after the initial key/pedal press. As a result, the soundstage remained restricted, somewhat flat, and the music was less involving. Switching armwands to a Lyra Etna, which has more hours under its belt, opened up the soundstage and allowed the notes to fully express themselves, from the moment the valves of the organ opened through resonating pipes to close, so that that the music easily breathed the sound of the First Congressional Church (Los Angeles) into the listening space. The difference was clear and unmistakable. Seasoned cartridge owners know that a fresh cartridge needs time to burn-in. Therefore, some of this difference (the flat and musically less involving part) was based on that aspect and some of it could be attributed to the different character of the cartridge (favoring initial transients). What is worth knowing about the event is the Phantom III made these differences perfectly clear.
With Etna, Atlas SL, Colibri XGP, or Hana SL on the Phantom III, the ’arm traced the groove of Dire Straits’ “So Far Away” and “Money for Nothing” like it was nothing. On this Mobile Fidelity reissue, the solid bass drum on “So Far Away” took on the character of the installed cartridge but never lost its grip, while the cartridges also tracked the guitars, keyboards, and vocals along the way. Likewise with the swell of sound as the song builds up to a crescendo during the start of “Money for Nothing,” with less stable ’arms (or ’arm/cartridge combos) this intro can turn into a somewhat distorted and incoherent mess.
Groove tracing is undeniably tied to how well a cartridge and tonearm combine to form a stable pair. Given an optimal setup, the sound at the beginning as well as the end of an LP can be excellent throughout. Most talk about the disadvantages of vinyl playback (usually with pivoted ’arms) inevitably includes end-of-the-record inner-groove distortion, where the wavelengths cut in the grooves get progressively shorter and the stylus tracing of said groove more demanding. It has been reported that the Eva Cassidy Songbird [S&P-501] LP’s inner grooves have been difficult for certain playback systems to trace cleanly, most sounding a bit strident musically and on vocal crescendos. A good tonearm (like the Phantom III) and careful setup of a good cartridge should eliminate any audible identification of this issue. On the Phantom III a cartridge like the $750 Hana SL has been just as stable at tracing the inner grooves as the more costly cartridges mounted on the same ’arm. Using the Hana SL (or any of the other cartridges mounted on the Phantom III), the last tracks are just as clear-sounding as the first ones; Eva’s vocals retain dynamics and the music maintains separation and coherence. The same ability to maintain steadiness, coherence, and clean tracing of the grooves during classical music crescendos, which in many cases occur at the end of the performance closest to the inner grooves (such as Shostakovich’s 5th symphony), is just as apparent as it is in the beginning tracks. Granted, one can choose an alignment profile (like a Stevenson alignment) that caters to lowering tracking distortion towards the end of the record. However, in most cases, a thorough setup, a very good ’arm, and a capable cartridge give a significant advantage over the former alone. The Phantom III is securely in the camp of “a very good ’arm” to use for this purpose.
Moving to comparative music listening, the Phantom III’s ability to pass through distinguishing differences of vinyl pressings are exposed with Jacqueline Du Pré’s performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto on the EMI label [ASD 655] supported by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli. The reissued heavy vinyl pressing (dead wax: ASD 655 A-01-01-1) produced a warm tone throughout the performance. Du Pré’s cello took on the tone of the instrument’s body with limited harmonic structure, while the sound of the bowing of the strings was significantly reduced: less resin/string and less delicacy. The cello tended to sound blurred as did the rest of the orchestra. Switching to an earlier, although not original, pressing (dead wax: ASD 655 2YEA 1143-20C-1—1), Du Pré’s cello regained its balance. One heard the resin of the bow gliding across the strings, wonderfully controlled vibrato, and a lovely tone. It’s as if the sound of Du Pré’s bow jumping on and off the strings via skillfully executed contact gave a feeling that the cello and bow were locked in a highly coordinated dance. Engaging, indeed. The sound of Kingsway Hall was cast in clear relief within the performance, adding to the increased portrayal of dynamic swells during crescendos. The entire presentation was more captivating with enhanced pianissimo-to-forte musical drama. The Phantom III contained enough transparency to the signal that it conveyed the audible contrasts of this same performance (presumably produced via different processes at different times) without making those differences less obvious to the listener.
Ultimately, a properly implemented tonearm needs to perform its job of accepting a mounted cartridge and allowing proper alignment by having options for fine-tuning tracking force, azimuth, overhang, zenith angle, VTA/SRA, etc. Adjustments should be done with stability and repeatability, and allow ease of use in daily operation. Finally, the tonearm should be able to portray the differences between mounted cartridges and allow those transducers to perform optimally at or near their potential. The Graham Phantom III met these requirements, was flawless in daily operation, and sounded pretty darn good. Give it a listen and see/hear what you think.
Specs and Pricing
Type: 9", 10", or 12" uni-pivot tonearm with magnetic stabilizer
Prices: Phantom III 9", $7000 (extra 9" armwand $1000); Phantom III 10", $7400 (extra 10" armwand $1400); Phantom III 12", $7900 (extra 12" armwand $1900)
Graham Engineering Inc.
25M Olympia Avenue
Woburn, MA 01801
Analog vinyl: Basis Audio Debut Vacuum, Basis Audio 2800 Vacuum ‘tables; Basis Audio SuperArm 9, Basis Audio Vector IV (x2), Graham Phantom III, Lyra Atlas, Lyra Atlas SL, Lyra Etna, Lyra Etna SL, Lyra Titan-i, van den Hul Colibri XGP, Hana SL
Analog tape: Otari MTR-10 Studio Mastering tape deck (¼" 2-track) with custom Flux Magnetic Mastering Series repro head and secondary custom tube output stage
Phonostage: The Raptor (Custom), Lamm LP2 Deluxe, Ayre P-5xe, Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+, Zesto Audio Andros Téssera
Preamplifiers: Dual Placette Audio Active Linestage, Lamm L1.1 Signature, Lamm L2 Reference
Amplifiers: Custom/modified solid-state monoblocks
Speakers: Vandersteen Model 3a Signature with dual 2Wq subwoofers using M5-HPB high-pass filter
Cables: Assortment of AudioQuest, Shunyata Research, Tara Labs, Acoustic Research, and some custom cables
Racks/Accessories: Minus-K BM-1, Neuance shelf, Maple wood shelf, Symposium Ultra, Aurios Pro, Walker Audio, Klaudio RCM, VPI RCM
Listening Room: 18' x 8' x 43'