Hanss T-60 Turntable and Graham Phantom II Supreme Tonearm

Play It Again, Sam

Equipment report
Categories:
Turntables,
Tonearms
|
Products:
Graham Engineering Phantom II Supreme,
Hanss T-60
Hanss T-60 Turntable and Graham Phantom II Supreme Tonearm

I wrapped up the review period of the new Hanss T‑60 turntable and Graham Phantom II Supreme‑44 tonearm with a clutch of new vinyl releases I’d picked up from the Newport Audio Show, which included stereo recordings from the early Columbia and Decca catalogues. From Impex Records, there is a rare collaboration between Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein in Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto; from ORG, the classic Pierre Monteux account of Daphnis et Chloe, Ataulfo Argenta’s collection of Spanish‑inspired pieces, and the jazz classic Ben & Sweets. The reproduction on all of these recordings is full of life and dynamic, but otherwise they are notably different from one another. I was extremely impressed by degree to which the T‑60/Graham combination (the pickup was my reference Ortofon Windfeld) proved capable of readily resolving both broad and fine distinctions. It is always reassuring when I can play a variety of sources on a record‑playing setup and get a corresponding variety of reproduction with little or no sense that a recurring set of artifacts is being pasted on everything. I also wanted to suggest the extent to which this setup always brought me back to the music because it offered so few artifacts on which to hang adjectives.

Bob Graham’s Phantom B‑44 ’arms have gone through several models, each one at the time of its appearance easily taking its place among the finest that money can buy (even the earliest iteration is still part of that select group). The latest, which he calls the “Supreme,” costs $5499 in its 9.25‑inch length (which I reviewed), $5749 in its 9.72‑inch length, and certainly earns the title (if there are further improvements he’s going to have to come up with a new adjective, as I don’t know how you top “supreme”). Indeed, I’ll go one step further and say that this is the most thoroughly thought‑through and easy‑to‑set up‑and‑adjust ’arm I’ve ever used, and it’s without question one of the three best-sounding of those with which I’ve had long experience. It may in fact be the best sounding, but that’s not a statement I can make with confidence because I either don’t have the others around for direct comparison or cannot place them on the same turntable.

The design of the Supreme is enormously sophisticated and far too extensive and complex to cover in a review. I recommend a visit to Graham’s Web site where you’ll find a detailed description commendably free from hype. Among other things, Graham reviews alternatives for various design decisions, argues for his choices, but grants the others their due as well. The main changes in the Supreme are an improved Magneglide stabilizer system, new internal wiring for better detail and freedom from mechanical resistance, a new titanium armwand, and an upgraded pivot and pivot‑housing assembly. According to Graham, the new housing assembly “provides greater energy control and damping, along with improved bearing performance,” and incorporates a slightly reshaped counterweight that permits a greater range of pickups to be used. (I haven’t tried any low‑mass, high-compliance pickups, but Graham says they can be used successfully without the usual worry of the resonant frequency occurring in the warp range.)

The cornerstone of the Supreme, as of all Phantom models, is the patented Magneglide system, here further refined, for which six principal benefits are claimed: improved lateral stability, easy azimuth adjustment, improved bass reproduction, improved system damping, true vertical pivoting of the stylus tip with no rotation as the arm is raised, and improved anti-skating correction. Graham claims that the lateral stability of the bearing is such that, unlike other unipivots, there is no side-to-side wobbling, which I can confirm: The ’arm really does feel like a fixed‑bearing ’arm with the advantages of unipivot. All earlier Phantoms can be upgraded to the Supreme, and, like all Graham ’arms, two mounting configurations are available: Graham’s own base or an SME‑style base (the review sample came with the latter).

I’ve used Grahams extensively in the past, including for a pickup survey I once did. What impressed me about them and what is most impressive about this new one—and what separates it from every other one known to me—is that it’s the only ’arm I’ve ever used in which it is possible to get every parameter of pickup setup and installation right on the money, unambiguously, without recourse to special tools or instruments (except for a tracking‑force gauge—but surely anybody contemplating components of this caliber already has one). This is because you install the pickup off the turntable, as Graham uses ’arm tubes—he calls them “wands”—that detach at the bearing housing. First you remove the armwand, loosely install the pickup, then slip an ingeniously designed transparent plastic gauge over the head end of the ’arm. The gauge allows you to look directly at the bottom of the pickup as you position the tip at the crosshairs and align the cantilever so that it’s parallel with the front‑to‑back crosshair. Lock everything in, reattach the armwand, and you’re ready to set the ’arm height and azimuth. The azimuth is done with the Magneglide system. Suffice it to say it’s easier to do than to describe, ditto the anti-skating. The real stroke of genius was to put a bubble level on the bearing housing that frees you at last from having to eyeball the ’arm tube from the side. Once you adjust the bubble for level, you can raise or lower the ’arm during play while you find a preferred setting, yet return to dead level whenever you like (dead level, that is, parallel, is where the exotic stylus geometries of many pickups are optimally aligned with the groove). With most ’arms readjusting VTA for each record is so much of a bother I don’t; here I found myself doing it all the time because it’s so fast, easy, repeatable, and do-able while the record is playing

The only caveat is that because the pickup is aligned off the ’table you must make sure that the armboard is correctly drilled, which for the vast majority of users means letting the turntable manufacturer do it. Graham supplies a template and instructions complete with a jig to insure absolute accuracy. I’d still advise using the jig to make sure the work was done accurately, as Graham’s gauge cannot set overhang and offset correctly if the pivot‑to‑spindle distance was got wrong in the installation of the arm. And trust me, you’re going to want to use Graham’s gauge, because once you do, you won’t want to do it any other way. (I truly detest having to change pickups with the arm in place.) I am assuming it’s not necessary this late in the day to say that as regards engineering, fit and finish, quality of parts and materials, and precision machining and manufacturing, Bob Graham’s ’arms are second to none and equaled by only a few—but there, I’ve said it anyhow.

As with the Supreme, so with the Hanss T‑60. A lot of solid thinking has gone into this design and also a lot of technology and engineering, enough so that it would be impressive if its price were multiples of its $8000 ($8800 in the all‑black finish). I’ll anticipate my conclusions and say that this turntable represents one helluva value, while its absolute performance leaves very little to be desired in any aspect and parameter. Although the name suggests Germany, in fact Hanss is a Danish design for a Hong Kong company whose products are assembled in China from parts made there and elsewhere. The T‑60, which is second from the top of its turntable line, is physically large and requires a deep shelf (think two feet) or sturdy table that can support 130 pounds. Its chassis is made from a brushed anodized aluminum/black acrylic “sandwich,” designed for increased energy damping and dissipation and anti-vibration abilities. The platter, weighing a daunting 44 pounds, is made from aluminum, anodized to increase its hardness and overall dampening. There is no supplied mat, as the platter is intended to be used without one (but see sidebar). A record weight is supplied, but not a clamp (again, see sidebar). Support is by the three columns, two of which carry armboards. Standard boards are Rega‑type or SME, but Joe Cohen, whose Lotus Group imports the Hanss, says boards can be custom drilled for any standard‑length arm for which an accurate template is supplied (ten-inch and longer arms cannot yet be accommodated). The columns are resonance damping and use opposing magnets to provide an isolating suspension. Unlike sprung or hanging suspensions, however, this one doesn’t jiggle, but stays rock-steady.

The bearing assembly is a low‑friction ceramic/bronze type (made in Germany) that rests on a stainless-steel thrust ball. Opposing magnets, like those used in the columns, lift the entire weight of the platter. A knurled adjustment knob on the plinth’s underside allows vertical adjustment of the thrust bearing so that it just makes contact with the ceramic shaft bearing for mechanical grounding. As I’ve watched turntable platters getting ridiculously bigger and more massive, I often find myself wondering if the manufacturers ever run any tests to discover how well over the long run the bearings can withstand the pressures of platters so heavy. (I was shocked when one designer of a very highly regarded turntable with a huge platter told me he had no idea!) It’s encouraging to see a design that addresses this concern.

The unusual drive system is via belt, or, to be more precise, six silicon belts distributed between two motors, which are AC synchronous (custom-made in the Czech Republic), each housed in its own massive aluminum casing, again designed for vibration damping. The idea here is low torque to reduce motor vibrations that might reach the stylus/groove interface. The belts are deliberately low tension for the same reason. Supplied as standard with the T‑60 is Hanss’ SC-30 Speed Controller, an outboard power regenerator and controller that locks the precise speed and ensures freedom from fluctuating wall current. Two speeds, 33.33 and 45, are provided and the speed adjustment is via recessed screwdriver pots on the front panel (the screwdriver is supplied). The speed is read out from an LED display on the lower plinth, but Hanss also provide a strobe disc. Once speed is set, no further adjustment should be necessary (nor was it in the months that I’ve been using the setup).

Most of the time I do my own setups when I review turntables and ’arms, but on this occasion Joe Cohen and Neil Levy from the Lotus Group and Bob Graham, who happened to be in town at the same time, did the unpacking and setup for me. In the event, I’m glad they did. To start with, the supplied instructions are not all they might be. While there’s nothing here that any home user couldn’t manage on his own if willing to work slowly and patiently, the practical reality is that there are some atypical aspects of the task for which prior experience is a big advantage. And lowering the 44‑pound platter onto the bearing assembly really is a two‑man job, at least the first time. Positioning the two motors and stringing the belts are a little tricky but not difficult, though you if happen to touch one of the belts too firmly when the platter is spinning, as my five‑year‑old daughter, fascinated by all things vinyl, did, it slips right of the pulley and unstrings the other five belts at the same time. This could, I think, be prevented if the grooves in the pulleys were made deeper. Restringing the belts was a five‑minute job, but forewarned, as they say . . . .

The designers claim enough torque to start up the platter. Hmm . . . there was just enough at 33, but not at 45 until I carefully moved each motor about half an inch outward from the platter, increasing the belt tension, but even then I would usually give it an assist by hand. Once at speed, there is more than sufficient torque to maintain speed forever and a day, and, to be fair, the Hanss is not the only turntable to have the start‑up issue: It’s the usual tradeoff for the putative advantages of the lower noise and vibration of low‑torque motors. Most of the time, turning the motor on before you go get the record will be sufficient to give the platter time enough to reach speed. The only other idiosyncrasy is that the speed adjustment on the SC‑30 is extremely touchy, so much so that it took me a very, very long time and the patience of Job to get it set precisely at 33rpm, less so for 45 but still long enough. As noted, once set, it won’t vary and it’s extremely constant. All the same, Cohen assures me the designers are aware of the issue and working to correct it.

The mere mention of these peccadilloes, if that is what they are, gives them a disproportionate emphasis. Once the T‑60 was set up, dialed in, and leveled, it did nothing but do its job perfectly day in, day out for all the months of the review period and was a joy to use. One aspect of its performance that was as good as any turntable I’ve ever used is its isolation from external disturbance: pounding on my equipment shelf produced nothing—zip, nada, niet—from the speakers, which I assume is a tribute to all that mass-damping and opposing‑magnet suspension and isolation. The T‑60 is about as imperturbable a platform for vinyl as I have ever used, and that is high praise indeed from me. I must reemphasize this: Few things are more annoying to me than turntables that need constant fiddling with to maintain their performance or to reach peak performance. The T‑60—and of course also the Phantom ’arm —is a true set-it-up, forget-it-and-get-on-with-it product, and that too is some of the highest praise I can give. It’s probably owing to its great isolation that background blackness is very black indeed, perhaps not quite to the level of some (very much more expensive) Basis or SME models I’ve heard, but damn close enough.

At the top of this review I noted that the Hanss/Graham/Ortofon combination reproduced a variety of recordings in all their variety, which suggests that its sound is basically tonally neutral and natural. This is true, but to characterize it just a little more precisely, I would describe it as having a big, bold, and dynamic sound that is also exceptionally relaxed, inviting, and unaggressive. In sum, this is very much my kind of sound. It will do detail extremely well—there’s nothing I didn’t hear on any of the recordings I typically use to check for very fine resolution—without thrusting it at you, but nothing here ever detracts from what I call the big picture, which is the reproduction of whatever is on your records. The last thing I played before wrapping up this review was an old EMI recording on Seraphim called Greensleeves: English Folk Songs arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with the London Madrigal Singers conducted by Christopher Bishop. This was a great favorite a mine for many years after I bought it in the seventies, but in some move or other I lost or misplaced or lent it and never got it back or acquired another. At the Newport Show I was thrilled to find a new sealed copy at one of the used vendors, which I bought—along with Delius’ A Village Romeo and Juliet conducted by Meredith Davies, also sealed—for the princely sum of six dollars. The music and performances are meltingly beautiful, with songs such as “Bushes and Briars,” “The Dark‑Eyed Sailor,” “Just as the Tide Was Flowing,” and “Loch Lomond.” This last is sung with such warmth, lovely tone, and depth of feeling that I stopped what I was doing and played it again. Indeed, I wound up playing the whole album a second time. I could go on and on in arabesques of praise about this setup, but is a higher recommendation than that really necessary or more to the point?

Sidebar: Saddled or Bareback?

The only aspect of the Hanss’ performance that I found problematic derives from the lack of any sort of mat for the platter, but this may be an issue of taste. I have never heard a setup in which a record placed directly on a metal platter sounded sympathetic to my ears: The presentation is always a little too edgy, a little too bright, too many low level resonances. (Nor do I care for the thin felt mats favored by some manufacturers.) The problem is that unless you have vacuum hold-down, you just can’t get an intimate enough contact between the record and a metal platter to prevent low‑level resonances from developing; and even with really strong clamps there will still often be a vaguely metallic coloration. (The only material that ever works matless for me is the acrylic that A. J. Conti uses on his Basis turntables and whatever it is that SME uses for its platters.) Fortunately, a fix is easy: Cohen supplied me with an after‑market mat called the fo.Q RS‑912 ($210) that he imports and that he was thinking of adding to the T‑60 package (which I’d encourage). The RS‑912 is in fact two mats, one around a sixteenth of an inch thick (more or less) bottom mat, the other a much thinner and perforated upper mat. They can be used in tandem or separately. Together they made for a very nice listenable presentation, almost tube‑like, that eliminated the slight metallic glare of riding bareback but, by comparison only, made the bass feel just a trifle less defined than before (these effects are subtle). Removing the thick lower mat and using just the thin one did the trick: the edginess went away and the bass was for all practical purposes as well defined as with no mat at all. (I also preferred the sound with a record clamp, like, say, the SOTA, to Hanss’ rather lightweight weight.) To put this in perspective, your tastes may be such that you will prefer the sound with no mat at all, and it is a sound that seems much attuned to the contemporary preference for a toppier, more incisive sort of presentation, suitable, I imagine, for all kinds of contemporary pop music. If so, live and be well. By the way, I have to add that that bubble level on the Phantom ’arm made these mat/no-mat comparisons both accurate and a breeze!

Specs & Pricing

Graham Phantom II Supreme B‑44 tonearm

Bearing: Damped unipivot
Length: 9.25”
Price: $5499

Graham Engineering, Inc. 
(781) 932-8777
graham-engineering.com

Hanss T‑60 turntable

Drive: 33.33/45rpm, belt
Motor: Dual AC synchronous
Suspension: Opposing magnets
Dimensions: 25'' x 11.25'' x 17.25''
Weight: 130 lbs.  
Price: $7800 (aluminum and black), $8800 (all black anodize)

The Lotus Group (US Distributor)
(415) 897-8884
lotusgroupusa.com