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VPI JMW 12.7 Tapered Twelve-Inch Tonearm Review

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VPI JMW 12.7 inch tone arm

Believe it or not, when people visit our home the first thing they notice isn’t that I am an audio reviewer, but all the paintings. I remember when Ted was up installing all the Synergistic Research gear he asked if we were Francophiles. I was kind of caught off guard because I’ve never even thought about going to France. The reason for the question is obvious though when I start thinking about it. The first things you see when you come in our house are five paintings by a wonderful Russian artist, Liudmila Kondakova. She is our favorite living artist and it just happens that she mostly paints scenes of Paris. Her paintings have amazing detail, incredible colors, and just make you feel like you are standing there looking at the streets and the buildings she has painted.

Also hanging in the same room is an original oil of Market Street in San Francisco by a up and coming young artist. It has rich, warm hues, and a brilliant way with light that is way beyond anything Thomas Kinkade has done. The painting also is very emotionally involving, but in no way does it really look like Market Street in San Francisco. Yes, it captures the feelings and emotion of Market Street at the end of a work day, but very little of the detail.

I’ve shared all this to say that both paintings are legitimate art forms. When it comes to the art of sound reproduction though I’m always looking for both, and I tell you it’s probably not out there. Some of my favorite reviewers have been moving more and more toward the feelings and emotion of musical reproduction, in fact I expect most of you who read my reviews would put me in that camp.

Yet, truth is I’m something of a ‘fence straddler’ at this point. Yes, I love SET amps, but only those that are very fast and quick; yes, I love Lowthers but I love the DX4 Silvers more than the much revered PM2As; and yes, I love very low output, low impedance moving coils used with step up transformers. But, and I mean a really big but here, I love my Clearaudio Wood Anniversary CMB turntable. I love it because with the magnetic/ceramic bearing it is the most transparent source I have yet heard. Another case in point came when I re-tubed my Wavac EC300B, I assumed that I would want all NOS tubes, but as it turned out even the most revered NOS 6L6GC tubes robbed my system of what I can only describe as sounding “alive”. Yes, the NOS 6L6GCs had some very special qualities, but they didn’t sound alive like the inexpensive, coke bottle, Chinese 6L6GCs that come with the amp. Yes, you want the best Western Electrics you can get for front-end and power tubes, but to my surprise the coke bottle 6L6GC is the finishing touch to make my system sound alive. I’ve taken you on this long journey because it is important if you are to understand how different tonearms affect the sound in any given system.

Rabbits Chased if Not Caught So Let’s Start The Review

I’ve owned a lot of tonearms over the years. Some came on the turntable and others were purchased separately. I’ve had arms from AR, B&O, Clearaudio, Dual, Linn, Magnepan, Mapleknoll, Rabco, SME, Transcriptor, and Well Tempered. All of these tonearms and I’ve never even thought about owning a twelve-inch tonearm. All that changed as I made more and more trips over to Pitch Perfect Audio in San Francisco to hear the very best audio system I have ever heard and spin some tunes with Matt. That great system would be the full Shindo system, including Shindo’s twelve-inch arm. When spinning tunes at Matt’s, the other table he uses also has a twelve-inch arm; the EMT tonearm.

With both of these arms, there was an effortlessness to the sound that I really liked, so I begin to look for and request some high quality twelve-inch arms to review. I immediately ran into a problem of finding twelve-inch arms that you didn’t have to wait a long time for, heck a couple of them had waiting list over a year. The first twelve-inch arm I have actually had in to review and listen to in my system was the excellent DaVinciAudio Grand Reference Grandezza. If it were not for the fact that it came with a price tag of $10,200, I would have purchased the review sample for myself.

So, after the Grandezza I set out to find a more affordable twelve-inch tonearm that could give me most of the sound of the DaVinciAudio. VPI has a decade of experience designing and building twelve-inch tonearms, so I requested their newest one for review. VPI says the 12.7 incorporates all its knowledge of tonearm construction so as to produce a state-of-the-art tonearm design.

According to the VPI website the design goals that bring the 12.7 to fruition started with a machined tapered arm tube for minimum standing waves within the arm wand, and maximum rigidity with low mass. They wanted the tonearm to be fully adjustable in all parameters to optimize results from as many cartridges as possible. This is partial accomplished by the use of damping fluid in such a way that the user can adjust the amount of fluid. The 12.7 has such a substantial mounting base that for all practical purposes it becomes part of the turntable armboard. Their website also states that they voiced the 12.7 to be as neutral as possible, while building a pivoted tonearm with vanishingly low tracking distortion that also has exceptional speed and agility.

Description and Setup

The JMW 12.7 Tapered twelve-inch tonearm is a damped unipivot design that uses, as the name implies, a finely machined tapered arm tube. The quality of the workmanship is as fine as I have seen at any price, but not as flashy as some. This tonearm is about playing music not about bling. The counterweight is designed so that almost all of the weight hangs below the tonearm tube and the VTA is set not at the tube but by a dial made into the mounting post. The dial is nicely numbered and makes getting the correct VTA a snap. This setup makes it very simple to adjust the VTA for records of different thickness, a very nice touch. The armlift works perfectly fine, but I do wish it had been damped going up as well as going down. The finger lift is a joy to use once you get used to the way a unipivot tonearm feels on your finger.

Mounted just behind the VTA adjustment cylinder is a little black box that house two extremely high quality RCA jacks. I want to thank Mike Zivkovic at Teresonic for loaning me a pair of their Clarison Gold interconnects that are made with signal conductors made of pure (99.999%) 24-carat gold. These are the finest interconnects I have found at any price and the only interconnects that I use in my system.

As long as you have an armboard that will accommodate a twelve-inch tonearm, setup is pretty straight forward with the instructions. I know at this price point there is an assumption that either the user is pretty experienced with tonearm set up (and I’ve been doing it for over 30 years, but this was only my second unipivot), or that the dealer will set it up. The instructions are surely adequate but some precise photos, and more precision drawings would be helpful, if only to boaster one’s self confidence that they are getting the very best out of the VPI 12.7.

Now that I have complained a little bit about the instructions, let me say that VPI should receive high praise for the tools they included. The alignment jig was ingenious and made setting up the tonearm very easy. Likewise, the tiny metal rod that they provided for helping you adjust the azimuth was brilliantly simple, inexpensive, and effective. One, last praise about the setup is on the fine tuning adjustment for vertical tracking force. After you have moved the counterweight and got it close to the right VTF and the correct azimuth, it would be such a pain to have to move it again to fine tune the VTF, and the good news is you don’t have to. There is a supplied allen wrench that fits in the back of the counter weight and you can turn it just enough to get the VTF just right without messing up the azimuth.

The VPI 12.7 was mounted on my Clearaudio Wood CMB Anniversary turntable. I used it with both the Miyabi Standard and the Benz-Micro Ebony TR moving coil cartridges. The rest of the system consisted of a Shindo Masseto preamp, Wavac EC300B amp, Teresonic Ingenium Silvers speakers with Lowther DX4 Silver drivers. Everything was plugged into an Audience aR6-T and I used the new Audience Au24 powerChords throughout the system.

Listening

With the VPI 12.7’s base installed on my turntable and my Miyabi Standard cartridge installed in the tonearm tube, it was time to listen, and I was excited to get started. I do have some preconceived ideas about the sound of well-designed twelve-inch tonearms, and the 12.7 did not let me down. It allowed my system to sound as smooth, and as relaxed as it did with the $10,200 DaVinciAudio Grand Reference Grandezza tonearm. The musical flow was incredibly natural, instruments and voices were as substantial and full of natural color as I had heard.

Another thing that good twelve-inch arms are capable of is an incredible sense of power, momentum, and scale. This one ability is the main reason I developed an interest in twelve-inch tonearms. It goes a long way in helping recorded music sound more like music. The truth is, with the VPI 12.7 in it, my system had as much scale and sounded just as huge as it did with DaVinciAudio In Unison turntable and Grand Reference Grandezza tonearm, but without the exaggerated bass that the DaVinciAudio duo had.

Until I heard the DaVinciAudio tonearm on my Clearaudio table, I had always thought that the above flow, scale, power, and momentum came at the cost of tonal neutrality. The good news is that the VPI 12.7 is even more tonally neutral than the DaVinciAudio or, for that matter, any tonearm I have ever heard.

There is no doubt that my system with the VPI 12.7 as the tonearm produced the biggest and best soundstage I had ever heard in my listening room. It was wide, deep, and great in vertical recreation as well. Best of all, it was very cohesive, none of that instruments and voices floating around in some reverberant space. No, it was as solid and cohesive soundstage as I have ever heard and had great scale to boot.

As good as it was at allowing my system to produce a great soundstage, with the VPI 12.7 the level of detail and the precision of imaging was not quite as good. I’m not talking about razor-sharp detail, I think all of you who read my reviews know how little tolerance I have for that kind of detail. Still, I have heard more subtle detail and more precise imaging from my system when using the better nine-inch arms, including the Clearaudio Satisfy Carbon Fiber tonearm. The Satisfy may be the most underappreciated tonearm in high-end audio. I don’t want you to think this is major problem, it is one of those things that many audiophile are readily willing to sacrifice for the kind of flow, scale, and soundstage I described above.

The 12.7 tonearm also allowed my system to sound very dynamic. These dynamics produced a powerful sound with a great sense of a very solid foundation to the music. With the 12.7 in my system, it also had very good PRaT to go with that contributes to the wonderful flow of the music the system also has with this tonearm. The 12.7 though did not let my system produce the very last word in micro-dynamics.

In most ways, this tonearm had it all for a very fair price. Without a doubt it is one of the best values in tonearms. It is capable of taking recorded music and with the right system making it sound wonderfully musical in your home, what more could you ask for?

Manufacturer’s Comment:

Very good review, he really nailed the fact that most 9″ arms have slightly more retrieval of detail but 12″ arms have flow and scale. Mr. Roberts has ears!!!

We have actually made a 9″, 10″, 11″, and 12″ version of the 12T and had the same results. Is it real or is it more detail than the master tape on the 9″ arms??? We have reel to reel master tapes of some of our favorite records (Solti “Planets”, Ansermet “Scheherazade”, etc.) and I think the 9″ actually gives more detail than what is there, not a terrible thing most of the time, but probably not as true as the 12″ to the original master. Tough to call though so this is where personal listening tastes and system matching really come into play.

Technically the review was flawless, all I can say is good job and thanks for thinking the arm is a great value, we think it is also.

BTW, we find the Classic length arm (10.5″) to be the ideal compromise between detail and scale, you might find that tonearm very interesting to play with.

Mike Randall
VPI Industries, Inc.

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