Review: Clearaudio Unify Tonearm
The Clearaudio Unify tone-arm is a unipivot design of aluminum and stainless steel construction utilizing a sapphire pivot bearing. The carbon fiber tone-arm has an effective mass of 9gm and a 222 mm pivot to stylus distance. Anti-skate is accomplished by a weight suspended at varying distances from a post fixed to the pivot assembly. VTA is adjusted by means of set screws in the tonearm base. Azimuth is also adjustable through a set screw that permits minor axial rotation of the cartridge headshell. Choice of RCA external box or Clearaudio sixstream cable if offered. The tone-arm retails for $925, which is the purchase price I paid through the Needle Doctor. I have no business affiliations with anyone in the audio industry.
General Description and Setup: The Unify replaces an Origin Live (OL) modified Rega RB 250. This arm was, and the Unify is, mounted to a Clearaudio Evolution turntable. The Unify base mounted directly to the Evolution plinth via three allen screws provided with the tone-arm. The instructions provided with the tone-arm describe this as standard “Linn” mounting. The tone-arm comes very well packed in foam with all hardware required. I elected to use the RCA box option. The tone-arm wires are thin Litz style and must be treated with care during unpacking and setup. The wires are neatly bound at intervals and there is a mounting on the tone-arm base to secure the wiring. Overall I found the quality of the tone-arm materials to be quite high, far better than the materials used in the Rega, including those used by OL for the modifications. Machining and finishing were all of high order. The instructions for the setup are generally clear, but delicacy and patience is required when mounting the cartridge and handling the cable. I mounted a Grado Reference Sonata cartridge to the Unify which had been previously mounted on the OL RB 250. Adjustment of VTA also requires patience and multiple measurements/ assessments (physical/aural). I found the best results with the Sonata slightly (2-3mm) tilted downward from parallel/horizontal. A tracking force of 1.5 gm was used. Tracking force is adjusted by sliding the counterweight along the arm shaft. Measurement was made with a Shure tracking force gauge. This process also requires patience and fine motor skills to adjust the counterweight in small increments, taking care that the counterweight remains perpendicular to the arm shaft. The counterweight is secured via an allen nut. I should state here that with the OL RB250 setup there was no VTA adjustment option, and I did not attempt to change any of the mounting parameters of the arm/table combination that were made when the two were initially paired by the first owner. The Sonata mounted to the OL RB250 was essentially parallel to the record surface and this difference should be taken into account in my review.
System Parameters: The tone-arm cable plugs into the RCA box via a locking 5 pin connector. The RCA box is connected to the phono pre-amp by shielded SilverAudio Hyacinth cables. The phono pre-amp is an AES PH-1 (RCA Redbase 5691 and RCA clear-top 12AU7) connected to an ARC LS16 by Hyacinth cables. The LS16 drives an ARC VT100MkII via balanced Hyacinth cables. The amplifier drives Magnepan 2.5Rs via Purenote Epsilon Reference speaker cables. The ARC pre-amp/amp are unmodified.
Listening and the Music: I listen to classical orchestral and piano music with very occasional jazz. I have a number of original London and RCA LPs from the late 50s and early 60s originally purchased by my parents and passed on to me. I also purchased many LPs through the 1970s. I believe that we all have our own philosophy when it comes to music reproduction. Each person has different expectations, different experiences, and different tastes. When I attend the symphony I am physically removed from the orchestra and so the sound stage is inevitably at a distance, a panorama if you will. However, the instruments have presence, air, and immediacy. Inner detail should be present if listened for. Naturally I favor the “old” 2-3 microphone techniques from the late 50’s and early 60s, but the artist, performance, and the composition are the most important considerations, even if less than optimally recorded or on poor quality vinyl. For this review I will list a few of the albums that I regularly play to give the reader some sense of my perspective: Grieg piano concerto in A, Rubinstein/Wallenstein (LSC-2566); Stravinsky Petruschka, Ansermet (Lon CS 6009); Chopin piano concerto No 2, Rubinstein/Skrowaczewski (LSC-2575), Delibes Sylvia and Coppelia Suites, Rignold (VICS-1130), and Rachmaninov Preludes Op 23 and 32, Richter (Melodiya SR 40235).
I suppose you either embrace the unipivot concept or you don’t. In a distant time I had a TD 160 with a Magnepan Unitrac arm that was sonically quite good (it replaced an Inifinity Black Widow), but very difficult to live with. The Unify doesn’t have a basket full of BBs for anti-skate, but it is a very sensitive and delicate tone-arm. Lowering the tone-arm onto a record requires a steady hand to prevent tone-arm oscillations. However, the arm, once lowered, tracks smoothly and without inappropriate movements. The arm rests in a friction fit C-clamp which has slightly marred the finish of the carbon fiber, but I suspect this is unavoidable. The anti-skate counterweight, once anchored securely stays in place, but getting the monofilament loop to secure into a groove on the post takes some effort.
The soundstage presentation is clearly improved with the Unify as opposed to the OLRB250. Instruments are more clearly focused and the soundstage itself is more clearly defined with increase in depth and air. Within the limitations of the overall system, the timbre of woodwinds and strings is more life-like. Horn instruments were well reproduced with the OLRB250/Sonata combination, but I would say that the Unify’s added air and dimensionality increases the illusion of reality. Inner detail was previously good with OLRB250, but improved with the Unify. Woodwinds audible along with the strings are now more clearly defined and easier to place precisely in space. It is probably most accurate to say that the Unify allows the Sonata to do its job better rather than to say that the Unify sounds better than the OLRB 250. Although I felt that the OLRB 250 tracked well, my records are quieter with the Unify, with ticks and pops less noticeable.
I lived with the OLRB250 for one year and I have lived with the Unify for over 3 months. I have enjoyed listening to my analog system more frequently with the new arm. At $925 retail I think the Unify is actually a good value, if you are looking for a unipivot arm. The construction quality, attention, to detail, and aesthetic design are all top notch. I am not certain whether or not a low compliance MC cartridge would be suitable with this arm, and that is likely to be a consideration for many. The Sonata is a relatively high compliance MM (moving iron?) which I think works well with this low mass unipivot design. I cannot comment on how this arm would compare to other unipivot designs, but I suspect that the Unify would at least be competitive with arms costing more. Overall I would recommend this arm without reservation based on my experience to date.