Well, FWIW, I'm thinking Nottingham. I'm tired of dicking around tuning up my suspended tables, and I like the design principles of the Nottingham line, especially the Spacedeck. I just haven't figured out what type of arm to use. Pricewise they are very reasonable and they seem to be getting good press.
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The type of improvements you will get from a better arm/table/cartridge are, you again hear many new things that you cannot hear now, from the bottom to the top including soundstaging, with less record noise.
I don't know the price range you are considering. However as far as the arm and cartridge are concerned I would suggest the Origin Live Silver arm with a shelter 501 mkII put this on a Teres 150
and you will be set for life, and never look back. Your Benz will work with this combo until you can afford a shelter.
The front end is were you should spend you cash.
You can spend a little less and get less performance, that will of course better the mm7 combo you use now, but doing it right the first time is money in the bank, and a lot less frustrating.
I believe this to be the best combo for the money by a vast margin, and will probably be very close to, if not in the same class as the TNT HRX
This post will be long and cover a lot of territory, but you've asked a lot of questions!
The Aries + JMW-12 list for about $3,600 right? That's without the .5 arm upgrade ($900), which is essential to handle any decent selection of cartridges. You get a discount, so let's pretend your TT/arm budget is $3500-4000.
Chris Brady and Twl both report the 200 series bases outplay the 100 series bases. The biggest jump is from acrylic base to wood, birch to cocobolo is smaller. FWIW, neither of these gentlemen has ever steered me wrong.
There is a similar progression in platter sound. Leaded acrylic beats clear acrylic and leaded cocobolo beats both. CB demoed platters at the Midwest Audio Fair last spring and at VSAC last month. All observers agreed on this progression.
For your budget I'd get a cocobolo Teres 245 ($2575 or $2375 if you sand and finish yourself). This is a killer TT and gives you a clear upgrade path to the 255/265. The only difference between these models is their platters, and CB even offers trade-ins on used platters.
TERES vs. VPI
A Teres 245 will stuff an Aries IMO. This sounds controversial so let's just compare verifiable specs:
- better plinth (cocobolo outplays acrylic, as mentioned above)
- better bearing (viscous damped and tighter tolerances, 12 hour seat time vs. 2)
- higher mass platter (better speed/resonance control)
- better motor (quiet, stable DC vs. noisy, unstable AC; several VPI owners have upgraded to Teres motors; AFAIK no Teres owner has ever changed motors, except to a newer version from Teres)
- better controller (Teres reads platter speed in real time and self adjusts; Aries... umm, I think you fiddle the belt)
- better belt (stable mylar vs. stretchy neoprene means better speed stability, I've tested this on my TT)
You get the picture. I'd expect even a Teres 135 to outplay an Aries, it has every advantage listed above except for the plinth.
More controversy. If you hope some day to upgrade to a Shelter or top Koetsu then you must avoid unipivots. They can't fully control low compliance cartridges and won't let them play their best. The Graham 2.2 is a possible exception, but that would blow your budget.
The OL Encounter is a great arm by all accounts. It is ideal for a Shelter and superb with a wide array of other cartridges. The OL Silver can be modded up to within a whisker of the Encounter, though the Encounter wins in the end due to its superior wire. Read the "Strange Tonearm Tweak" thread for details on modding a Silver and a direct comparison of the two.
Hope all this was helpful.