Copyright 1995


Note: This review originally appeared in POSITIVE FEEDBACK

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ET Larger Diameter High Pressure Manifold $550, $450 with trade-in

ET Damper Trough $95

Pressure Regulator (Motronix-like Build-It-Yourself) $150

ET Magnesium Tone Arm $150

Bright Star Padded Cell Isolation Chamber $179

As a music lover and an audiophile I am constantly torn - do I spend my limited resources on attending concerts, expanding my record collection, or upgrading my stereo system. After much angst, I concluded that somehow my budget had to be set to allow all three activities. Thus, like many audiophiles, I have had to stretch my purchases of hardware over a number of years and to restrict my purchases to primarily used and/or demo equipment.

The Autumn of 1994 marked the end a three year period during which every single component in my system was replaced. While my new system is a substantial improvement over the old, nirvana has not been attained. Upgrading a stereo system is a never ending task. So like Sisyphus rolling his boulder endlessly up the hill, I am embarking on another three year plan to upgrade my system.

Since a poor front end can make the downstream components sound less than their best, I have started my new upgrade cycle at my primary music source - the analog front end. At the start of my previous upgrade cycle I had purchased a used VPI MkIII turntable with an original ET II tone arm. The MkIII was upgraded to MkIV status. The original air pump, cartridge, plus cash were swapped for a WISA high pressure air pump, an ET II high pressure manifold, an ET II damper trough, and a Benz Micro 3-MC cartridge. Rather than buying the Herb Wolfe/Air Tech surge tank to accompany the WISA pump, I built one from PVC drain pipe and parts obtained from a tropical fish store.

If money were no object, I would replace my front end with a VPI TNT III turntable, a Graham 1.5t tone arm and a Benz Micro Reference cartridge. However, since I do not have a spare $15,000, are there more affordable alternatives? Well, in the last year upgrades have become available for both the VPI MkIV and the ET II. These upgrades are moderately priced and can be purchased as the budget permits. However, no upgrades, even moderately priced ones, are worthwhile unless they make a discernible sonic improvement. Do these upgrades make a sufficient improvement to justify their cost? Therein lies the tale of this article. Over the past few months I have upgraded both my turntable and tone arm. The upgrades were done one at a time so that I could hear the change each upgrade made to my system. The results of upgrading the VPI MkIV will be covered in my next article. The results of the ET II tone arm upgrades, in the order in which they were installed, are covered in this article.

Bright Star Padded Cell Isolation Chamber - The Padded Cell is a large box constructed of medium density fiberboard. The inside is lined with sound absorbing foam. There are three small foam covered holes on the backside. The lid is held in place by screws. So what do you do with this box? One of my pet peeves with the WISA air pump is that it is noisy. Moving the air pump to another room is not practical for me. Thus, I have had to endure the pump's noisy buzz intruding into my listening pleasure. With the Padded Cell, that intrusive noise is now a thing of the past. The WISA is sealed inside the Padded Cell. The noisy buzz is still audible, but it has been attenuated to such an extent that I can not hear it even while listening to quiet passages of music. Thanks to the Padded Cell, I can now peacefully co-exist with the WISA.

ET II Large Diameter High Pressure Manifold - This new manifold is a direct replacement for the original high pressure manifold. You just remove the old spindle and push the old manifold out of the base and then insert the new manifold into the base and slip in the new, larger and heavier spindle. The new manifold allows the spindle, which is suspended on the air bearing, to be increased in diameter by about ¼th of an inch. Now ¼th of an inch may not sound like much, but it is the surface area of the spindle within the manifold that helps determine the stability of the bearing. The surface area of the new bearing is about 25% larger than the surface area of the old bearing, plus the tolerances are closer than in the original high pressure manifold. This makes for a much stiffer bearing. In addition, the new manifold comes with Cardas wires for connecting the tone arm wires to the terminal block (the magnesium tone arm comes with new wires for connecting the cartridge to the spindle wires). These wires are supposed to be a small improvement over the Van den Hul silver wires supplied with the previous version of the ET II.

So, what is the sonic affect of the larger bearing surface and the new wires? In my system, the impact was a major one. It was the biggest improvement per dollar spent that I have ever made in my system. As soon as I put the first record on I noticed that the sound was much brighter. I listened closely to the top most and bottom most octaves. Was there extra extension on top? Was the bottom end being rolled off? After listening to several records I concluded that the frequency extremes were essentially unchanged. So what was causing the brighter sound? After playing a few more records it came to me - the change was in the mid range. In comparison to the present, my prechange mid range had a dark coloration as if smoky glass was in front of the sound. I had never noticed this until it was gone. As I played more records I also noted additional detail on familiar recordings. Nothing earth shattering, but definitely more detail from the mid range down to the low bass. If you have an ET II high pressure manifold, scrape up the bucks and buy the upgrade. You will love it.

ET II Damper Trough - The purpose of the damper trough is to damp oscillations in the tone arm caused by record warps. Because of its design, the trough is seven times more efficient at damping horizontal oscillations than vertical oscillations. I had been using the damper trough for several years and had not paid much attention to it since few records in my collection have warps. Prior to starting the installation of the larger diameter high pressure manifold I removed the silicone fluid from the damping trough. Splattering silicone fluid all over my turntable is the last thing I wanted to do. Upon completing the installation of the new manifold I did not refill the damper trough. Without the silicone fluid the damper trough has no affect upon the ET II. I thought that I would listen to the new manifold for a week or two and then add fluid to the damper trough and listen for the changes. Unfortunately, my time with the damperless ET II was limited. The new bearing is so frictionless that on records with a wide runout groove the tone arm would pick up substantial horizontal momentum in traversing the runout groove. This momentum would cause the tone arm to crash against its inner stop and then rebound like a ball bouncing off of a wall. With little friction to damp the rebound, the needle would bounce back to the last groove of music. A rebounding tone arm is not recommended for long term health of either cantilever or vinyl record. As soon as I refilled the damper trough, the rebounding ceased. Aside from curing the rebound problem, did refilling the damper trough have any sonic affects? I believe I heard a slight lowering of the noise floor and a slight increase in definition, particularly in the mid and low bass. However, the changes were small. So, should you spend $95 on the damper trough? If you don't have a lot of warped records, the trough may not be that beneficial, except to solve the rebound problem for which it essential.

Build-It-Yourself Air Pressure Regulator - The May 1993 issue of The Absolute Sound (page 98) had a rave review of the Motronix Acuflow Air Regulator. The word through the audiophile grapevine subsequent to that article was that the Motronix was a must upgrade for anyone with an ET II tone arm. The $500 price, however, discouraged many from buying it. Fortunately, there is now an alternative. In Volume 2, Issue 1 (page 44) of the audiophile voice(), David Nemzer related how he discovered a company() that would supply the parts needed to build a Motronix-like air regulator for a cost of $155 including UPS shipping. Needless to say, I ordered the kit.

The kit consists of a filter, an air pressure regulator, a mounting bracket, a pressure gauge, and three fittings. If you choose to mount the regulator vertically you will need something (wood, Lucite, etc.) to which to bolt the regulator, plus two screws or bolts to attached the bracket to the something, plus an additional two machine bolts to attached the bracket to the top of the regulator. Since the regulator works in any orientation, you don't have to mount the regulator. I have the regulator lying on its side on the top shelf of my Lead Balloon. The filter, which must be vertical in order to work properly, is hung over the side of the shelf. Not aesthetical pleasing, but functional and cheap.

If you are not going to be mounting the regulator, you will need a 14mm crescent wrench, a ¼" allen wrench, some pipe joint compound, and a knife or scissors to cut the air hose. Once you read the minimal directions and figure out how everything fits together, assembly should take only a couple of minutes(). The directions are not very helpful, so just go slow - it will all fit together - eventually.

Once the regulator is put into the system, turn the control knob counter clock-wise. As you tighten the knob, the air pressure, as measured by the air pressure gauge, will drop. The gauge is measuring the output pressure. You will need to experiment with the proper pressure setting. As you decrease the output pressure, you are bleeding air off, thus making the airflow smoother. However, the drop in air pressure loosens the air bearing in the tone arm (the stiffness of the bearing goes up by the square of the pressure). Thus, you will need to experiment to find the proper balance between smoothness and pressure.()

Once the regulator is properly adjusted, the effect is readily apparent. In my system, there was a very noticeable improvement in definition, timbrel accuracy, and transient response. In orchestral works, where the tuba and trombones are playing the same line, it was now easy to separate the sound of the tuba from the trombones. This was very difficult to hear prior to installing the regulator. The timbre of individual acoustic instruments is now more accurate - the instruments just sound more like the instruments you hear in concert. Most startling was the regulator's impact on initial transients. Prior to installing the regulator, the initial impact of drums, triangles, cymbals, etc. was not as clear and distinct as in the concert hall. The sharp, fast rising initial transient, which resembles a square wave, was rounded off - smeared - into something like a sine wave. With the regulator, the initial transients were crisp and clear. The corners of the square wave are no longer as rounded off. The improvement in sound is everything that Myles Astor said it was in his The Absolute Sound article. If you own an ET II high pressure system, run to the nearest telephone and order your kit today.

ET II Magnesium Tone Arm - The magnesium tone arm looks almost identical to the old. The most noticeable difference is that the wires are covered by a woven metal shield instead of the black plastic of the original. Swapping the new arm tube for the old is a simple task. Once the installation is done, the overhang, tracking force, azimuth() and VTA will have to be adjusted. The magnesium arm tube is several grams heavier than the original tube. Thus, you will need to make a significant adjustment to the counter balance weights. Unlike pivoted arms, putting the weights at the extreme end of the balance rod does not affect the performance of the arm and in fact, is actually beneficial.

With the new arm tube installed, what changes sonicly? If you listen to gentle New Age music, quiet chamber music, or music lacking loud bass, you will probably notice little change. However, when the decibels start to rise and the bass drum starts to boom, the change becomes apparent. As you would expect, a heavier tone arm is just what is needed to handle a low compliance moving coil cartridge. As the decibels increase and low frequencies become prevalent, the record groove makes wider swings from side to side. A low compliance cartridge following these wildly swinging record grooves tends to transmit part of these gyrations to the cartridge and tone arm. This causes problems that result in the sound, particularly in the bass area, being smeared and muddy. The new magnesium tone arm, with its greater mass, provides additional stability to the cartridge. With the cartridge held in a firmer grip, more of the information in the record groove is translated into the electrical signal that goes to your preamp and less energy is translated into sonicly harmful mechanical energy. This improvement is most noticeable on power orchestral or well recorded pop records.

For example - two LPs that I always use for judging changes I make to my system are Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky (Athena ALSY 10003) and the soundtrack to Cat People (Backstreet BSR 6107). With the old arm tube, the voices and orchestra in Nevsky would congeal as the orchestra went from ff to ffff. The individual music lines would blur together. With the new arm tube, the orchestra and the voices remain distinct and separate, even at the dynamic peaks. On Cat People, the sound of the bass guitar would muddy slightly with each stroke of the kick drum. With the magnesium arm tube, the record groove gyrations caused by the heavy drum strokes no longer interfere with and muddy the sound of the bass guitar.

So, is this a worthwhile upgrade? If you have a low compliance cartridge I feel the answer is yes. Please note the caveat. With the added mass of the new magnesium arm tube added to the additional mass of the larger diameter spindle, the ET II arm is now a high mass arm. High mass arms are ideal for low compliance moving coil cartridges. However, high mass arms are not ideal for medium and high compliance cartridges (which include many of the popular moving magnet and moving iron cartridges). With that caution, I can recommend the magnesium tone arm as a worthwhile upgrade. However, the build-it-yourself air regulator, which costs about the same, made a much bigger improvement in my system, over a wider range of music.


All of the upgrades covered in this article will improve your system. The improvements wrought by these upgrades are also additive - each adds to the improvements made by the others. Based on what I heard in my system, I would rate the upgrades as follows:

Most Bang For the Buck (in descending order)

Build-It-Yourself Air Pressure Regulator

ET II Large Diameter High Pressure manifold

ET II Magnesium Tone Arm

Damper Trough

Bright Star Padded Cell

All of these upgrades are worthy of your consideration. I urge you to give them an audition.()


VPI Mark IV with ET II large diameter high pressure manifold, magnesium tone arm, WISA air pump, home built surge tank, Benz Micro 3-MC cartridge, Classe DR 6 Mark II preamp, Classe Seventy amplifier, VMPS Tower II Special Edition (current version), Purist Audio Design Elementa interconnects, Monster Sigma 2 speaker cables, and Lead Balloon turntable stand.

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