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Clearaudio Satisfy tonearms: the Carbon Fiber, Satinee Wood, and Ebony, Review

Jack Roberts in serious-lifting

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Clearaudio Carbon Fiber, Satinee Wood, and Ebony Tone Arms

Description

One of the things I love about the Satisfy tonearms is that they have a simple eloquence about them. I am a firm believer in the KISS (keep it simple stupid) principle, especially in audio design. Even the anti-skating design is a lesson in simplicity. The Satisfy tonearms are simple nine-inch arms with exceptional structural rigidity that is combined with ultra-low friction. They are precision, handcrafted, two-axis tonearms. The horizontal bearing shaft is made out of wolfram whose polished ends are mounted in sapphire watch bearings. The vertical tonearm bearing is very precise in its working and is made of long-life ceramic bearings.

The Satisfy Carbon Fiber tonearm has the usual and simple adjustments for vertical tracking force, azimuth, anti skating, and vertical tracking angle. You will need a tracking force gauge of some kind. The Satisfy arms are too simple in their design to have any kind of built-in tracking force setting; you simply move the counter balance until you get the desired tracking force. I used the little inexpensive one from Shure because I believe the last little bit of tracking force adjustment has to be set by ear, so what it does matter if I have it set to the .001 of the recommended tracking force. The vertical tracking angle cannot be changed while playing, but it is easy enough to do. By the way guys, you do know that you change the VTA more when you change the tracking force than you do when you move the arm up and down some small amount, right?

The anti-skating and azimuth adjustments are just so eloquently simple. The Satisfy tonearms don’t really have headshells, as you can see in the pictures. It simply has a mounting bar that connects to the tonearm with one allen screw. This makes setting the tonearm up really quite simple. Likewise it has an elegantly innovative, and simple magnetic anti-skating control. There are three or four small magnets mounted in the outside of the bearing housing, across from them is an adjustable screw that you can simply turn to vary the distance from the magnets to adjust the skating.

One last thing I would like to mention in the description is the arm lift. It works very well; it’s damped just enough; and when in the UP position it gently raises the arm as you move it back toward the arm rest so as to make it less likely you will hit the stylus on the edge of the peripheral ring.

A Little Info to Get Us Started

There are just too many good opening lines for this review. I could start by saying how satisfied I have been with the Satisfy Tonearms, or I could just say what a satisfying experience this has been. I could, but that’s kind of corny don’t you think? I think it would be better to just say that even though these tonearms are not the very best made; for that matter, they are not even the best tonearms that Clearaudio makes. Of course, they aren’t the most expensive tonearms either, but with the right cartridges they are quite good; in fact, I feel when mated with the right cartridges, they are very, very good.

Let me stop right here and tell you what these arms can’t do. They can’t get the very best out of a Decca London, an Ikeda, an Ortofon SPU, or even the vinyl community’s beloved Denon 103. This being said, the Decca London Reference worked as well in this arm as it did in the EMT or the Tri-planar tonearm. What also needs to be said though is that there are some incredibly musical sounding cartridges being made right now that do not require medium-high to high-mass tonearms. These include the incredible Benz Ebony TR and the EMT TMD25 as well as other cartridges from Benz, Clearaudio, and Ortofon’s great new Rhondo series, just to name a few. By the way, any cartridge with a compliance over 12 that I’ve tried with the Satisfy arms has performed superbly.

A Confession Before I Start

This could be a review or just a story with a description of three tonearms, because the way tonearms and cartridges work together to play music makes it difficult for me to review just one or the other. The compromise I end up making is telling you how one or the other sounded with the tonearms or cartridges that I had on hand or could borrow. Tonearms also have such mystique to them. Just look at them; some look like scientific instruments, some look like they came off an alien spaceship, some like precision engineering equipment, while others look very plain and simple looking. The Satisfy arms fall into this last category, especially the carbon fiber one.

Tonearms don’t just look different though, they are designed so very differently while all trying to accomplish the same task. Just look at them: some have gimbal bearings, some are unipivot designs, some have knife edge bearings, some place the bearings in the same plane as the arm tube, and others down on the same plane as the record. Then, there are all the different ways of applying anti-skating, and of course there isn’t even agreement on something as simple as the headshell; some have one, others don’t. There are even a few with two arm tubes that move independently to attempt tangent tracking. Then, of course, some tonearms are damped, but most aren’t. Well, I guess I’ve kind of overstated my point: tonearms are very differing. Heck, if all that’s not confusing enough, I almost forgot to mention tonearm designers can’t even agree on how long tonearms should be. So wish me luck as I try to do justice to a review of a Clearaudio Satisfy tonearm.

Another Great Accident

One of the most fun things for me, about being a reviewer, has been the number of great components that have come my way by complete surprise.

For example, I was out comparing SACD to vinyl when I happened to hear them compared over the WGA Ikonoklast Model 3, maybe the best bargain in true high-end speakers (the WGA Ikonoklast 3HO supplants the original 3. –Ed.); then there’s the whole Shindo line that I never would have heard if a yankee from New York named Matt Rotunda hadn’t moved to San Francisco. Matt, as I have mentioned before, is one of the two or three best dealers I have had a chance to meet over the years and he introduced me to my beloved Shindo preamps. Then there’s the Lowther DX-55-equipped Teresonic Magus that I would have never heard if my editor Constantine hadn’t talked me into doing a survey of mini-monitors. From reviewing the Teresonic Magus, it led to a chance to hear, then review, and finally own the incredible Ingenium Silver with the Lowther DX4 drivers with silver wound voice coils. I could go on but let’s move onto the Satisfy Tonearm.

When I got the Clearaudio Ambient turntable, it came with a Satisfy tonearm. I reviewed the table as a whole and didn’t give too much coverage to the arm. Then, other tables with other arms came in for review, including the notable Merrill-Scillia MS21 with Tri-Planar tonearm. Each time I was surprised when I tried them with the Satisfy tonearm with how well the Satisfy held its own against others. By the way, I always did this so I could be sure what I was hearing was a difference in the turntables and not just the arms. In every case, the arms on the other tables were much more expensive, some over three times as much. Then, because of my love of old jazz that is often found on mono records, the decision was made to get a table which I could mount two arms on. I settled on the Clearaudio Anniversary Wood CMB. I started auditioning this table with the Satisfy Carbon Fiber Arm with planned to add a more expensive arm after I got a clear hold on the difference in the turntables.

This is where the big surprise came. For as long as I was using my beloved Benz Ebony TR, I could not find a tonearm I thought played music better than the Satisfy. You need to know I tried tonearms that were as much as four times the price of the Satisfy tonearms. Now understand, it wasn’t that I couldn’t hear a difference in the different tonearms, it was very easy to hear large differences from one arm to the other. Truth is, there was one that sounded very similar to me, more on that latter.

Now you also need to understand I never set out or was asked to review any tonearms (Be careful what you wish for. –Ed.), I was just trying to make a decision about which two arms I wanted to own and mount on the Clearaudio Anniversary. With the surprise discovery of how good the Clearaudio Satisfy Carbon Fiber tonearm was with the Ebony TR, I began to do research (that would be emails and phone calls) to see if there was a true mono cartridge that would work as well as the Ebony TR in this arm. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that EMT indeed was making just such a mono phono cartridge. I did the math and there came an even better unexpected surprise. For just a little more that the price of just one of the more expensive tonearms I had thought I would need, I could get two Clearaudio Satisfy Carbon tonearms, the EMT mono cartridge, and as luck would have it, I already owned the perfect transformer from Auditorium 23 for the EMT.

Let me tell you, I was pretty excited about this news, because it meant I wouldn’t be waiting six months to a year to get the second arm and mono cartridge. This is exactly what I ended up doing and it is really a sweet setup. The Shindo Masseto has two phono inputs with a toggle to choose between them. One of the inputs is a standard phono preamp. The other input takes the signal through a pair on mono transformers that match beautifully with my Micro-Benz TR. This setup means all I have two do is throw the toggle to one or the other and I can listen to either mono or stereo. There’s no changing arm wands, or headshells; thus there is no changing VTA or VTF. Like I said, this is a really sweet setup, well let me get back to the review.

Garth of Musical Surroundings encouraged me to try one more thing before I made my final decision. You see, the Clearaudio Satisfy comes with four choices of tonearm tubes:

The Standard, that I have never seen;

The Carbon Fiber, that I had been using;

The Satinwood or satineee, two common names for a very dense wood with a specific gravity of 0.69 that comes from Central and South America;

The Ebony, made from the extremely dense ebony wood that can have a specific gravity as much as 1.020, so dense that termites will pass on by.

These tonearm tubes aren’t interchangeable; you have to decide which one you want and go with the arm made with that tube.

Garth offered to let me compare the Carbon Fiber, the Satinwood, and the Ebony versions of the Satisfy tonearm. So for a few weeks, I mounted all three arms on the Clearaudio Anniversary Wood CMB table. A great look but a little more precarious to use – you have to be careful when putting the LP and the peripheral clamp on, as to not hit one of the arms – than I would want to put up with for long term. Still, this setup made it very easy to move the Benz Ebony TR from arm to arm and compare the sound from the three Satisfy tonearms.

How They Sound

So let me share with you just a few words of comparison about how the two wood arm tubes compared to the Carbon Fiber one. The satinee arm was the most different in sound of the three: It was definitely the warmest of the three. Now don’t think that means it’s overly warm, not at all. Truth is, I expect that many will find this something they really like about this arm. I would guess it probably would mate wonderfully with many modern moving-coil cartridges. Compared to the Carbon Fiber using the Benz Ebony TR, the Satinwood gave up nothing in speed or dynamics to achieve this extra warmth. It did seem to give up a very slight amount of transparency and micro dynamics, though.

I also tried both arms using the Micro Benz mono cartridge. I wanted to see if it made any difference if the cartridge itself had a wooden body in comparison to a nude cartridge. In this setup, the satinee was not as warm and it was a close call between the two. I think if I were buying the arm to go with a nude cartridge, I would pick the satinee, but the difference is not so great that I would make this choice if I changed cartridges very often, because I think the Carbon Fiber has sounded wonderful with any cartridge with a compliance over 12 that I’ve tried it with.

The Ebony arm tube is a slightly different sound from the other two arms. Ebony is an extremely dense wood and that is exactly how it sounded to me. The music seemed a little bolder, and a little more substantial. It had a solidity to its sound that was very nice to listen to. It didn’t seem quite as warm as the satinee, but I think this arm would be a great match for some of the high output moving-coils I have heard.

Everything I have said about the differences in the sound of these three arm tubes needs to be remembered in context of the next statement. These arm tubes are cut from the same tonal piece of material; they sound much more alike than they do different from each other.

So how did the Carbon Satisfy Tonearm compare to other arms I have used?

The answer is, with the right cartridges it held its own with all I have compared it to. That would include the Tri-planar, the 12-inch Ortofon, Helius Omega Silver-Ruby, SME 3009 and SME 3012. Now, understand I did not have any of these arms in for review except for the Tri-planar being mounted on the wonderful Merrill/Scillia MS21 turntable I reviewed. Still, I have heard most of these arms with the exact same cartridges that I have used in the Satisfy arm.

Each of these arms, with the exception of the SME 3009, do some things better than the Satisfy Carbon Fiber. Both of the 12-inch arms sound a little more relaxed and track inner groves a little better. The Ortofon also allowed the Decca London Reference cartridge to track better. The Helius Omega Silver-Ruby was more detailed, had more extended frequency extremes, and was slightly more dynamic and transparent. The Tri-planar also had slightly better frequency extremes.

Conclusion

Not one of these tonearms, while using the Micro Benz Ebony TR cartridge, gave me a more musically realistic and satisfying experience than the Satisfy Carbon Fiber. To be honest, what I found even more shocking was that only the Tri-planar matched the Satisfy Carbon Fiber in this area, and by the way, for me this is the only area that matters. I guess if they cost the same I would have purchased two Tri-planar tonearms, but they don’t cost the same. The Tri-planar in fact cost nearly four times what the simple little Satisfy does. That means if you wanted two, like I did, the extra cost would be about the same as two Satisfy Carbon Fiber tonearms, the Auditorium 23 step-up transformer, and the EMT mono moving-coil cartridge.

So, you can see in this picture the vinyl playback system I ended up with. I don’t know how it compares to the very best, but let’s put it this way: everyone who has come to hear my system lately commented repeatedly on how incredibly lifelike it sounded. I think the Satisfy tonearm and the Benz Ebony cartridges is a true bargain when you mate them together, and the Satisfy is truly amazing for its price.

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2 Responses to Clearaudio Satisfy tonearms: the Carbon Fiber, Satinee Wood, and Ebony, Review


  1. mike fultz says:

    What kind of wires are in the tonearm?

  2. Ron Matthews says:

    I have a Satisfy. It was a good arm, until I needed a new base for it at which point I discovered that Clearaudio offers no aftersales service worth the name. I wish I had searched online before I bought the thing, so much for German efficiency.
    My experience with them was a world away from Rega who bend over backwards to help with problems.
    So if you buy from Clearaudio make sure you have your fingers crossed that nothing goes wrong with your purchase.

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