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Clearaudio Universal Radial Tonearm Review

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Clearaudio Universal tone arm

Clearaudio is a German company known for superbly engineered products. In regard to tonearms, they have been better known for their refinement of the linear tracking tonearm. Yes, they have made several radial tracking tonearms including the Carbon Fiber Satisfy tonearms that I have used for the last three years, but they never made a radial tracking tonearm at the level of their linear tracking ones. Now they have, it’s called the Universal and it is a beautifully engineered carbon fiber tonearm that sells for $5,000 and looks like it’s worth every penny of it.

I have no idea why there hasn’t been more press and buzz about this tonearm. If you haven’t noticed, a little over three years ago Clearaudio started making major changes with some of their turntables. It started with making the plinth of the turntables out of many layers of “Panzerholz”, a solid bulletproof wood that is used in Germany for limousines and some special armored trucks. They flank the top and bottom of this very special wood with solid aluminum sheets. The result was to produce the first turntables I had heard with real warmth and transparency at the same time.

Then they came out with the ceramic magnetic bearings that completely elevated the level of transparency. Their new turntables also use a high torque DC-motor, a newly developed optical speed control that consists of an infrared sensor, a high precision reflection scale, and a corresponding speed circuit. They also added a stainless steel sub-platter and change the platter from acrylic to a much deader, synthetic material. I mention all this because in my opinion, the house sound has significantly changed at Clearaudio. The new Universal tonearm falls right in the middle of this new, improved, and more musical sound. So let’s take a look and listen.

Description

The Universal tonearm’s packaging does a perfectly good job of protecting the tonearm for shipping, but they didn’t spend mega-bucks on fancy wooding boxes and fancy looking tools. Instead, you get everything you need in a simple, safe package. I personally like Clearaudio’s decision to spend the money on the arm and not to drive the cost up with extravagant packaging.

The Universal tonearm is handcrafted with the highest possible accuracy. It is designed to be flexible enough to use almost any cartridge. The counterweight system is really nicely designed. It has four counterweights to choose from, and once you choose the right one to match your cartridge, there is a very precise fine-tuning mechanism. Clearaudio has also made adjusting of the azimuth very easy and precise.

The tonearm uses very high precision vertical and horizontal ball bearings. It uses the light-weight, but extremely stiff carbon fiber material for the tonearm tube. Unlike the Satisfy Carbon Fiber, tonearm tube on the Universal has three different sections with three different diameters. This tube construction seems to reduce resonance considerably compared to the Satisfy Carbon Fiber or any of the wood tubed arms I have used. This results in a very quiet and solid background. The Universal’s build quality is beautiful, and looks and sounds well-designed.

Setup

Tonearms come in different shapes and different lengths. They are made from different materials, with different bearings, and different degrees of sophistication. There are some that look so simple, and others that look like they were designed by Rube Goldberg. Thus, some tonearms are so complicated to setup that they literally take hours to get right and only seconds to get them out of whack.

It only takes a few minutes to open the Universal’s box, choose the right counter balance, mount the tonearm on the turntable, mount the cartridge, and do the alignment. The Universal tonearm I used did not have the VTA on the fly option. It is available, although I found it very easy to adjust the VTA without it. Truth is, the Universal took me about thirty minutes to set up and a hour or two of listening to finish dialing it in. It is very simple and intuitive to set up and use.

I used the Universal with both the Miyabi Standard, the Benz Micro Ebony TR, and the Allnic Verito “Z” moving coil cartridge (review to come). It was also fitted onto my Clearaudio Wood Anniversary turntable and the Clearaudio Innovation Wood turntable (review to come). The rest of the system consisted of a Shindo Masseto preamp, Audio Note AN-S8 SUT, Wavac EC-300B amp, Teresonic Ingenium Silvers with Lowther DX4 Silver drivers. Everything was plugged into an Audience aR6-T. I used the new Audience Au24 powerChords throughout the system, speaker cables were the Teresonic Clarison and I used their Clarison 24-carat gold interconnects.

Listening

I usually find it very hard to talk about the sound of a tonearm, because they should allow a cartridge to track the LP so it can get the music out of the grove without the tonearm imparting any sound of its own. So the real question is, how did my system sound when I put the Clearaudio Universal into it?

The short answer to that question is beautiful, powerful, and relaxed. It is simply amazing how a tonearm with the exact same geometry, and made out of the same material as my Clearaudio Satisfy tonearm, can allow my system to sound more like it did with the twelve-inch, $11,000 DaVinciAudio Grand Reference Grandezza tonearm. Truth is, the system sounded better with the Clearaudio Universal than with any other tonearm I have used. It was more detailed and more precise while at the same time having just as much or maybe even more of that powerful and relaxed sound that made my system so special with the Grandezza in it.

I think the reason the sound was so good with the Universal tonearm in the system is because of the way it eliminates resonance and its ability to be set up to match well with different cartridges. Regardless of the actual reason for its improving my system, the amount of air and space was much better recreated significantly. The weight to individual instrument and voices was another significant improvement.

With the Universal tonearm, my system sounded very dynamic. These dynamics produced a powerful sound which provided a very solid foundation to the music. With the Universal in my system, the sense of PRaT and the wonderful flow of the music was simply beyond anything I have ever heard. The micro-dynamics were also simply the best I have ever heard. The Universal tonearm also allowed my system to handle space, imaging, and soundstaging better than I have ever heard it before.

I’ve saved the best for last: the bass. I have to admit I was shocked. My system reproduced drums, acoustical and electric basses with incredible impact that provided a foundational solidity that I had not heard in my system. It had this wonderful air and space around and within bass instruments. There was this beautiful, natural, realistic warmth to the bass while still being the most precise and taught bass I have heard in my listening room. This fundamental rightness of the bass was carried all the way up into the upper mid-bass. I heard quick fast attacks followed by beautiful full decay that lets you hear different layers of the timbre of the instruments.

Conclusion

With the Universal Tonearm, Clearaudio has brought us a radial-tracking tonearm that is as good as their reputation for linear-tracking arms. It is beautifully crafted and engineered. It is also the first tonearm I have used on the Anniversary or Innovation turntables that is significantly better than the already highly underrated Clearaudio Carbon Fiber Satisfy tonearm. After trying several tonearms in the price range of the Universal, I found it to be clearly the best on both the Anniversary and the Innovation.

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