Review: Trans-fi Terminator II Tonearm
It’s a quaint notion that one buys for keeps, but that’s where many including myself once dwelled contentedly in the audio hobby. As one who long ago fell from this state of grace into audiophile nervosa(and yet who secretly desires to moonlight in eco-terrorism, or at least to wear a sandwich board in front of a Starbucks denouncing, “Repent, the 50 Cent Cup of Joe is Near”), I nurse hidden yearnings for the end of things to buy. It is thus satisfying when a “keeper” hi-end product comes along-- particular when offered at a bargain direct-to-consumer through cottage industry. (BTW, cottage industry in audio survives somewhere between the desert island of DIY and the horse latitudes of stratospherically expensive boutique manufacturers—in the case of the Terminator, on the Emerald Isle.)
From another perspective, when a system upgrade takes a leap in the direction of perceived faithfulness to source (or at least startles the listener by overcoming heretofore unrecognized limitations), the audiophile may become temporarily mute. I’m not talking about the proverbial slack-jawed, spittle-drip, knock-your-socks-off moment of disbelief. Rather, at such moments one’s critical sense of concepts like dynamics, texture, pitch timbre, timing, flow, etc., are subsumed within the whole cloth of music. For example, a significant upgrade might at first actually seem less “dynamic.” Then upon reflection one realizes that dynamics are there in spades, but instead of being recognized as an isolated metric of the listening experience, the quality of dynamics is now contained within a more revealing, natural presentation. Eventually through extended listening all improvements are fully digested and the critical faculty reemerges. But there is that unforgettable moment in which words fail. Perhaps restlessness along the upgrade path is nothing more than the desire to repeat these inarticulate breakthroughs in the realm of the auditory senses, which may mimic the organic quality of music itself—when the audiophile critic within us like Hal regresses into infancy while singing the lyrics of Daisy, with mumbled last words at the moment of disintegration: “Yes, finally, resolution and transparency…”
If this is too much praise, know at least that the Trans-fi Terminator is an excellent linear air-bearing tonearm. Its modest but unusual appearance resembles an over-engineered slide rule—a touchstone for those born in the years between the calculator and the abacus. Successive refinements to production have brought the arm to a level of fit and finish worthy of the product’s performance. The radiused and polished aluminum headshell, the delicate carbon-fiber arm, the precisely machined and polished stainless-steel double counterweight assembly-- all quite beautiful in comparison to prior versions of the Terminator and the precedent of similar DIY designs evolved by Paul Ladegaard. The functionality and aesthetics of the aluminum mounting frame and encapsulated solid oak mounting block could use further development (including the addition of hash marks to allow repeatable VTA settings). But the product has evolved well beyond its DIY roots. Aesthetically it will appeal to anyone who ever played with an Erector Set or who admires the industrial planer geometry of paintings by Ferdinand Leger or Charles Sheeler.
This arm must be effective for reasons other than linear tracking. Yes, linear tracking adds clarity during the inner groove and out-of-tangency sections of an LP that challenge a conventional pivot arm. But from the moment the stylus is dropped anywhere across the record, one is aware of something special apart from perfect tangency. I can only guess that the benefits of linear tracking are accompanied by further benefits associated with an isolating air bearing and low resonance of a short arm wand that’s a mere 5-7cm in length from bearing to stylus.
And what about that air bearing? Linear air-bearing arms like Kuzma, Rockport, and Eminent work on a different principle. They typically employ a long arm with a 360 degree collar bearing attached to the end, which rides perpendicularly down a perforated, pressurized tube. Because the collar bearing has a small surface area, a precision-manufactured perforated tube and high 40-50psi working pressure is typically necessary to stabilize the bearing in three dimensions. Much like a rocket that floats in space, the free-floating collar bearing is pressurized by air streams in all directions that effectively control pitch, roll, and yaw. Uniform delivery of air at very high pressure is necessary to stabilize the bearing. Such designs are therefore considered “hard” air bearings. The pump/tank system is complex, requiring dryers to extract condensation attendant to highly compressed air. The arm need sophisticated damping to prevent the rushing vibration of air under high-pressure from modulating the wand and stylus.
The Terminator is a simpler construct that functions as an air-bearing in the horizontal plane and a pivot arm in the vertical plane. This approach separates and simplifies the problems of vertical and horizontal resonance control. The carriage overhanging the record platter looks something like a hang glider. A carbon-fiber wand dangles like the pilot underneath a horizontal span of lightweight aluminum angle that floats on air introduced through a mating surface of aluminum angle. The wing’s large surface area and angled crossection obtain frictionless stability in the horizontal plane at a very low (and non-critical) 2-3psi working pressure. The low working pressure produces very little noise and vibration-- making arm construction and damping less critical than with “hard” bearing designs. Pressure is provided by—get this—a $50 aquarium pump pushing air through a smoothing tank made from a $10 converted plastic petrol can. No high-pressure air reservior, no condensation, no complex pump system need apply. The wand utilizes a knife bearing to pivot in the vertical plane. As designed the arm tracks warps well. One must take care, however, not to knock the knife bearing off its perch. The very lightweight aluminum carriage and “soft” air bearing design reportedly make the arm compatible with cartridges of widely varying compliance. I noticed no torquing of the stylus on my medium-compliance Lyra Helikon. Once the carriage is leveled and VTA and azimuth set according to clearly written instructions (it took me an evening to get through the entire installation process), the arm performed flawlessly first time out. Contrary to fears, when the arm is run with insufficient air pressure it simply mistracks—no damage to stylus or grooves. Right out the box, mounted on my highly modified VPI TNT, the Terminator surpassed prior Graham 1.5tc and SME IV in all regards. Deep controlled bass, airy detailed extended treble, bite on brass, metallic edge to guitars, rosin on bow strings, timbre and impact on skins, purity of female voices, midrange that bloomed markedly after 20 hours break-in of supplied copper wiring.
The Terminator unraveled complex layers of multitrack recording on the Who’s Quadrophenia (original Track pressing). I’ve never considered this an audiophile recording, but Terminator vividly revealed newly discovered depths of craft sufficient to forgive Townshend his hiatus during decades to follow. On Dirt Farmer—an excellent pressing-- Levon Helm brought all of the Band’s Americana to life from his upstate barn. When Levon sings about Calvary I believed it. To cut to the chase, through album after album-- whether audiophile pressings like Acoustic Sounds Janice Ian Breaking Silence, Lucinda, Mosaic box sets of Miles/Coltrane, Quintet & Plugged Nickel, Soul Note, Black Saint, & Pablo jazz representative of vinyl mastering at a high point in the 1980s-- Terminator dug deeper into the grooves than any arm at this price or any price has a right to. From a design perspective, it’s a linear air bearing arm with fewer problems to solve; this is borne out in the listening and in the wallet. There may be better arms but I doubt it. There are certainly more complex and far more expensive linear air designs, if you’re inclined to pursue such things.
I must add that from a customer service perspective, Vic at Trans-fi was responsive at every stage in the process, from early queries through gathering of specifications on my turntable as needed to fabricate a custom mount, through production and shipment—all within two weeks of first contact.
Modded idler/thread drive VPI TNT with custom platter bearing & 12V battery-powered Mark Kelly AC-1 controller. Lyra Helikon. Hovland Musicgroove phono cable. Atma-Sphere MP-1 Mk II with 70db hybrid phono section. Modded BAT VK75SE. Modded Merlin VSM-MX & BBAM. Modded Velodyne DD-15. DIY copper foil ICs and speaker cable.
Graham 1.5tc. SME IV.