The Tri-Planar tonearm has a long and rich history. In fact, the Tri-Planar actually traces its origins to the 1980’s and to a tonearm designed by the late Herb Papier of Wheaton, Maryland, aptly named the Wheaton Music tonearm. The tonearm remains visually quite similar even today, nearly thirty years later. However, Herb Papier’s hand-picked successor, Mr. Tri Mai has been anything but complacent when it comes to the Tri-Planar tonearm. Indeed the tonearm has undergone at least five generational updates since Tri Mai took over the reins from Herb.
I have never seen the first iteration of the tonearm, but I do recall the second or perhaps the third version renamed the Tri-Planar when it debuted at CES in the early 1980’s. As a 20-something audiophile, I was a sponge and listened intently to any comments or opinions that the high end guys of the time would have about any piece of equipment. I do recall that some at the time were dismissive of the Tri-Planar because it looked “too complex” or “too busy” and “overly complicated” for it to ever sound right. By that time I had burned through a few tonearms of my own such as the Infinity Black Widow I and II, an SME, a couple of Grace’s, and had already settled into the Panasonic (Technics) R&B Series EPA 500 tonearm system. Having the EPA 500 pretty well cured me of the notions of “busy” tonearms being a bad thing. In my book, adjustability is absolutely necessary to achieve optimal performance on a variety of turntable and cartridge combinations. One other thing I do recall is that the Wheaton/Tri-Planar had dared to be the first conventional (non-straight line tracking) tonearm to hit the $2,000 price point. That was a huge leap. By comparison, I believe the well regarded SME of the day was half that price as was my EPA 500 when equipped with all three tonearm wands.
Today, the current Tri-Planar Ultimate II, looks just as “busy” as the original, has undergone many refinements, is beautifully machined, and at an MSRP of $5,800 is nowhere near being the most expensive tonearm out there. It is the subject of this review.
I had always been interested in hearing a Tri-Planar in my own environment. Over the past couple of years, I couldn’t help but notice that most installations of the Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101 turntable I came across had a Tri-Planar mounted on it, and these sounded nothing less than spectacular. In fact it was George Merrill himself who provided the final nudge toward my inquiring about a review of the current Tri-Planar when he suggested it may prove to make me re-evaluate my decision to continue with the 30 year old EPA-500 tonearm system. I spoke to Tri Mai and he agreed to a review and generously offered to build one in the wiring configuration of my choice. Several weeks later, I received a Tri-Planar Ultimate II with balanced wiring. At the same time, Mr. Merrill kindly provided a Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101 tonearm board that was pre-drilled specifically for the Tri-Planar Ultimate II. So, the stage was set for an audiophile smack down of sorts!
Though I have written the following in other tonearm reviews, it bears repeating. Tonearm reviews are a tricky endeavor. The purpose of the tonearm is to carry the phono cartridge (energy transducer) and sweep it through an arc that enables the stylus to trace the record groove accurately. The tonearm needs to do so with as little interference as possible. As such the tonearm must possess a pivot bearing of very low lateral and vertical friction, it must also be of sufficient mass to enable the phono cartridge to exert enough downward force to play the record groove as dictated by the cartridge manufacturer, and it must not influence the sound produced by the phono cartridge through introducing mechanical energy of its own and failing to drain away mechanical energies that are introduced from external sources. So really, a well-designed tonearm should yield a true and honest playback of the sonic qualities of the phono cartridge, good or bad. That is it. This all sounds too easy, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. That’s why we have a raft of tonearms being developed and offered all over the world; each with its own unique take on what an optimal tonearm should be. In order for a tonearm to pique my interest, it not only should be a “silent partner” in the turntable playback system, but it should provide the flexibility and adjustability to allow for any phono cartridge to sound its optimal. This ability, to me, is what separates the “men from the boys” in terms of tonearm design.
In terms of feature set, I doubt that there is another tonearm in production today that quite matches the level of adjustability that the Tri-Planar Ultimate II is blessed with.
Azimuth adjustment is a piece of cake. The tonearm wand is an ingenious two piece design with a portion fixed to the gimbal pivot and the wand/shell portion attached via two yoke clamping screws.
Vertical Tracking Force can be set for just about any phono cartridge out there of any mass due to the series of 5 counterweights that may be employed for that purpose.
Vertical Tracking angle can be adjusted by turning the vernier on the VTA tower. Height measurement lines are marked on the tower to enable you to reliably repeat the height adjustment.
Other very nice features that enable you to further optimize the performance of the tonearm for a particular phono cartridge include adjustable dynamic damping via a damping trough and adjustable paddle, and adjustable damping cuing height and speed.
Since this is my first intimate encounter with a Tri-Planar, my approach is to evaluate the current tonearm as it is, without reference to possible improvements over previous versions since I do not have the historical context to do so.
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