Listening #197: Simon Brown & The Wand tonearm

There’s a noise I make when I’m having trouble with something inanimate: a deep, growly huff that starts in my diaphragm and comes out in one or two quick, staccato bursts. I huff this huff when I drop a tool or can’t budge a seized bolt or the bottom falls out of a trash bag. It annoys my family and scares my dog.


I made that noise at least a half-dozen times while installing and setting up the Wand, a unipivot tonearm designed and manufactured by Design Build Listen Ltd., in Dunedin, New Zealand (footnote 1). That’s not to say the Wand is lacking in any way: It appears both well engineered and well made, and its thorough, eight-page installation manual is written with an evident zeal for perfectionism. Nevertheless, the Wand is fiddlier than average, especially when it comes to the unsmall matter of mounting cartridges.


The Wand is similar to the Sorane ZA-12 tonearm, which I wrote about in the February 2019 Stereophile, in that its armtube and headshell are one and the same, the latter being a continuation of the former. But the Sorane’s armtube is made from a solid aluminum bar—something easily shaped into a nice, flat cartridge-mounting platform, with mounting-screw holes of the correct size and spacing and offset angle. The armtube of the Wand is a carbon-fiber tube that measures a whopping 7/8″ in diameter, said whoppingness chosen to maximize the arm’s stiffness.


The Wand’s armtube is formed by grinding one end of a carbon-fiber tube at a shallow angle, creating on its underside an elliptical opening more than 3″ long and giving that end of the tube a slightly rounded point. (Think: Oliver J. Dragon, from Kukla, Fran & Ollie.) A small, oddly shaped fitting made of laser-sintered titanium serves as the cartridge-mounting platform; this is cemented to the underside of the armtube’s snout. (There—I said it.) On my 12″ sample of the Wand, the platform’s mounting-screw holes are offset by a fixed amount of about 15° (DBL doesn’t specify the precise angle). The holes are accessed from above, the inboard one via a corresponding hole drilled through the carbon-fiber snout, the outboard one via a semicircular cutaway in the snout’s edge. Getting at the inboard mounting hole is tricky, and appears doable only by dropping the screw into it with the threaded end pointed downward—as you can imagine, the shorter the screw, the harder this is. On the other hand, to hold a nut atop that mounting hole in hopes of installing its corresponding screw from below seems virtually impossible.


The other, snoutless end of the Wand’s armtube is secured to a combination bearing housing and structural counterweight, machined from brass, subsequently plated. Near the seam between carbon-fiber tube and aluminum structure is a deep recess containing a very small, downward-pointing ball designed to ride in a similarly small cup atop this tonearm’s height-adjustable mounting spindle. The very missionary Wand is designed so that, in use, the bearing’s point of contact is well above the stylus tip and most of the counterweight’s mass.


The Wand’s structural counterweight is supplemented with two kinds of auxiliary weights: one or more 0.05″-thick stainless-steel discs that fasten to the rear of the main counterweight (and are of the same diameter and approximate shape), and a single 0.73″-diameter threaded plug that contributes to holding the above-mentioned discs to the main weight. The discs counter most of the weight of the user’s cartridge, and can be rotated toward either port or starboard to adjust cartridge azimuth. The two discs supplied are enough for cartridges of average mass (6–8.5gm); additional discs can be bought separately for use with high-mass cartridges. The threaded plug is for adjusting downforce: screw the weight closer to or farther from the bearing. Simple.


Also supplied with the Wand are: a two-piece arm-mount collet; a gantry that serves as an armrest and as a support for the Wand’s cueing mechanism; a thread-and-falling-weight antiskating mechanism; a bit of grease intended to be used, sparingly, between the unipivot’s ball and cup; a small metal cartridge spacer (I’ll come back to that); a very well-thought-out stainless-steel setup jig/alignment protractor; and an Ortofon balance-beam–style downforce gauge. The Wand’s signal wiring is a single, unbroken run of Cardas cable, 900mm long from its gold-plated cartridge clips to its low-mass Eichmann ETI RCA plugs (footnote 2).


My review loaner was the Wand Plus, which is sold only by authorized dealers, and retails for $1800 for the 12″ version; the 10.3″ version costs $1600, the 9.5″ version $1400. Also available are a more expensive version, the Wand Master Series, and a more plainly finished entry-level model, the Wand Classic, the latter available only direct from Design Build Listen.


He persisted
The above-mentioned jig/protractor is an invaluable aid in at least five different installation and alignment chores, one of which is locating the precise spot to drill the Wand’s single mounting hole, which can range in size from 23 to 25mm. After installation but before being tightened in place, the arm-mount collet is free to turn: the mounting spindle fits into an off-center hole, so the spindle-to-pivot distance—and thus the overhang—can be adjusted by rotating the collet. I used a 15/16″ spade bit, which falls within that allowable range, to drill through an alder armboard I’d made for my Thorens TD 124 turntable.


The first of two cartridges I tried with the Wand was EMT’s TSD 15 N SPH—the same cartridge as my longtime reference TSD 15, but configured as a standard-mount cartridge, minus its otherwise integral headshell. In terms of ease of installation, this was a crazy-bad choice, in ways both obvious and unforeseeable: The TSD 15 N SPH lacks a stylus guard, thus forcing on the installer an extra measure of care—something I normally take in stride. I had it in mind to place the Wand belly-up on my worktable and install the cartridge while it was in that position—yet owing to both the roundness of the structural counterweight and the tonearm’s very low center of gravity, the Wand wished only to roll back and forth; it would remain stationary only in a prone position. I found myself holding the armtube with three fingers and the palm of my left hand, holding the fragile EMT cartridge in place with the thumb and forefinger of the same hand, and using my right hand to insert the mounting screws, hold them in place, and apply and tighten their nuts. I huffed and I cursed, colorfully and often.


Nuts fell. Screws declined to cooperate. The phone rang. Yet I succeeded. After that, things went as expected, with two exceptions.




Footnote 1: Design Build Listen Ltd., PO Box 5415, Dunedin 9058, New Zealand. Tel: (64) 3-4773817. Web: www.designbuildlisten.com. US distributor: Old Forge Marketing, 12 Roosevelt Avenue, Mystic, CT 06335. Tel: (860) 336-1723. Web: oldforge.marketing.


Footnote 2: In my pantheon are three superior RCA plugs: those from Switchcraft, Eichmann, and Audio Note. I find that Switchcrafts sound the best, Eichmanns almost as good, and the solid-silver Audio Notes only slightly less good than the other two, while boasting superior durability and smoother, more secure feel.

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