The bottom line is that the Woody is a keeper, and likely

to be the last tone arm I will ever own.  It is that good! 

Mike Bodell, Bend Oregon

 

Below is a thoughtful review by a satisfied Mike Bodell of his 240 mm Woody tonearm. Our thanks go out to Mike.

 

 

 

Review of Pete Riggle's String Theory™ Woody™ Tone Arm

Mike Bodell

 

Pete Riggle has designed and built a fantastic tone arm — I might as well get that out of the way. In May I received one of his tone arms and have enough experience with this marvel to now comment.

 

Just a few notes into a 1962 recording of hardbop jazz pianist Dodo Marmarosa, I knew this tone arm was special. To confirm my initial impression, a good friend with golden ears, exclaimed upon first hearing, "It sounds like you are inside the music." That about sums it up.

 

My first turntable–the mid-1960s Garrard Lab 80–had a wonderful wood tone arm. Since then I have owned increasingly more modern and mass produced turntables with attendant tone arms: a direct drive Technics, several B&Os including a linear tracker, a Rega RP3 modified with a series of Groovetracer upgrades, and my mainstay, a JA Michell Gyro SE with DC power supply and a modified Rega RB250 tone arm.

 

A couple of years ago I purchased Pete Riggle's VTAF device–Vertical Tracking Angle on the Fly–and metal stub and counter-weight to upgrade my Cardas-wired Rega RB250 tone arm. Since my Michell needed the arm board to be drilled out, I elected to stop by Pete Riggle's Eastern Washington studio. On that trip, I saw for the first time another beautiful wood tone arm, this one in mahogany and finished in a French polish, that he affectionately dubbed the String Theory™ Woody™.

 

Pete demonstrated that tone arm, mounted on a Thorens turntable, and I simply could not believe what I was hearing. I sat stunned, as he played a 10" UK reissue of Elvis Presley's "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" It sounded as if Elvis was standing right in front of us, breathing into the microphone, moving from side to side, singing with all his Sun Records passion, to just us. It was the most live- and lifelike I have every heard in a vinyl recording, packed with detail and nuances in this huge sound stage. Simply, the sound was magnificent, while to be sure, Pete's entire system is incredible. Every other album Pete played that day in his Garden of Earthly Delights sounded awesome. That experience left a deep and indelible impression on me. Less than two years later after more than one audiophile suggested I could do better than the Rega RB250 tone arm, I decided to take the plunge.

 

Now the JA Michell Gyro SE is fitted with Pete's 240 mm Woody arm (available from 9 to 14 inches at the same price), which includes the VTAF device, coupled with an Ortofon Cadenza Black moving coil phono cartridge. At my request, Pete fitted the tone arm with a Discovery Plus 4 wiring harness and cable. For this review, that match up was played through a Whest PS.30R phono preamp, Conrad Johnson PV15 tube line-stage with C1 upgrade, a CJ MF2500A power amplifier, and Ohm Walsh 3 speakers upgraded to the latest 3.300 driver, all on a Samson stereo rack. Interconnects and speaker cable are the latest from Grover Huffman and vintage Audioquest, respectively. On tone arm aesthetics alone, I may have come full circle, yet the String Theory Woody has proven to be no ordinary match.

 

Before I get into what I hear, I will comment on tone arm build quality and ease of setup, in part because so much has been made of it in other reviews. To be sure, I have read a host of opinions on the Woody, notably the detailed two-part observations by Thad Aerts in 2011 published in Hifi Zine, John Hoffman's 2011 review in Positivefeedback.com, two reviews in January 2014 by members of the Southeast Michigan Audio Club available with comments on AudioKarma.org (including those of Pete Riggle). Finally, I read Art Dudley's mixed review from late 2013 in Stereophile (130).

 

On visual aesthetics alone, the Woody has been called, "a gorgeous instrument", "steam punk", "cottage industry", and less affectionately, "kludge". Without question, if your idea of sound is the sight of a Rega RB2000 or a Raven 10.5 tone arm, the Woody as pure eye candy may disappoint. To be sure, an element of cottage industry is present in materials, particularly hardware. Yet the Woody tone arm is extremely well designed in clearly an Occam's Razor approach, based on a solid principle of parsimony, economy, or succinctness applied with Pete Riggle's considerable engineering and tone arm problem-solving skill. Personally, I think the tone arm is beautiful, but then again, how it sounds is much more important to me. Perhaps it is fitting that Pete Riggle after a career designing free piston Stirling engines would move on to tone arms, where approaches to design are all over the map and spark heated debate among audiophiles. To be sure, the Woody required a turntable arm board modification and that alone might be daunting to some. In my case, the Michell arm board was already prepared to accept the Woody. But installing the Woody still managed to take me a few hours.

 

On core design of the Woody, Pete Riggle provided the following statement: "The Woody bearing design is categorized as a constrained uni-pivot. Uni-pivot tone arms are free to rock from side to side. Lateral rocking of the Woody tone arm wand is limited by a snubber system located under the arm wand, below the pivot. The snubber, designed to intentionally limit arm travel, includes a cup for dampening oil and allows azimuth adjustment with a record in play, using a lever located on the lower platform. During setup the user laterally balances the arm wand within the free play of the snubber system. Ideally the user would re-balance the arm after azimuth adjustment, but, in practice, small azimuth adjustments can be made without this lateral re-balancing."

 

The manual for installing the Woody and aligning a phono cartridge is a tome and you get a taste for Pete's writing style in the paragraph above. By drawing on a distillation of 'Riggleze' and assisted by considerable experience of others (notably, Mister Pig on AudioKarma.org), my routine to set up the tone arm, once mounted in the arm board, was condensed to these seven steps:

 

1. Estimate a suitable vertical tracking angle,

2. Set cartridge over hang,

3. Align cartridge cantilever to the center gridline,

4. Set tracking force,

5. Dial in azimuth with the azimuth adjustment lever,

6. Twist counter-weight slightly until the snubber allows slight rotation either way, and

7. Set anti-skate.

 

The first five steps were a snap. My experience in working Riggle's VTAF device eased the early going. This initial step meant getting the tone arm into roughly the correct lateral and vertical alignment, and adjusting the cueing device to operate within an appropriate range. My made-to-order Woody tone arm is 240 mm in length, same as my Rega RB250, and a Stevenson cartridge alignment was performed next using a mirrored AVID template, set at ~237.4 mm from stylus tip to pivot point. The template's mirrored surface allowed me to quickly align the cantilever along the center gridline for both settings. For the Ortofon, I used 2.2 grams of vertical tracking force, at least initially. Next, I used the azimuth adjustment lever, at the pivot base of the tone arm, to level the tone arm, aided by a bubble balance near the cartridge-end of the arm. All of that was relatively straightforward.

 

As a side note, Stevenson alignment geometry is designed to minimize cartridge distortion toward the end of an lp side where such distortion has the most audible effect. While the Baerwald alignment has become a de facto setting among audiophiles, Rega favors the Stevenson alignment.

 

Step 6 was a bit trickier. Mostly because I did not know what to look for and since Pete Riggle's copious written instructions differ from what some other Woody users employed. The idea here is to suspend the tone arm on the uni-pivot string bearing such that it is free to rock slightly if touched in a left and right direction looking down the axis of the arm wand. Pete Riggle suggests twisting the low-slung counter-weight just off of center until the arm is free to rock slightly in either direction, limited by the snubber located below the arm wand directly under the pivot. This frees the tone arm, effectively suspending it by a string. This string is made of a proprietary material that is incredibly tough and was designed to last a lifetime. Other users found that adjusting a set of knurled nuts on each side of a threaded rod orthogonal to the wood arm made it easier to accomplish the same task. According to Pete, those knobs are designed to fine tune the tone arm balance. Therefore, with Pete's guidance, I used his method, which became quite easy once I understood what to look for.

 

In my case setting the anti-skate was easy to do. The Woody comes with a more complex device for setting anti-skate. I elected not to use it, in part because it can put the cartridge stylus at risk. Instead, I employed the blank side four of Johnny Winter's "Second Winter". First, with the record spinning, I cued up the tone arm on the flat vinyl, making sure I was in complete control of the tone arm since it can skate inward quite quickly. By slowly twisting the string of the string bearing with a knob on the top of tone arm housing, torsion is built into the string such that the tone arm can be set to ride at a designated null position on the vinyl. By that I mean, once set, the record spins, but the tone arm remains in place on that flat slab of vinyl, while in practice it does move slightly back and forth over a very narrow range. Since record grooves offer more drag than blank vinyl, setting the null position about one-third the way in from the outer record edge is appropriate. With that accomplished, this optimal position was locked into place with a knurled set screw.

 

The final step was to add a dampening fluid to the pin cup, at the tone arm base. Viscous oil was supplied, along with a syringe to carefully fill the cup to a desired level. The idea is to dampen any vibrations along the string such that the entire assembly achieves a resonant frequency below 8 to 10 Hertz. A small amount of oil was required.

 

As it pertains to performance, Pete Riggle flatly states, "Compare the Woody tone arms at $1,900 to the Schroeder and Reed tone arms in the $4,000 to $5,000 range, and the Durand arms priced at $16,500."

 

Art Dudley of Stereophile was less enthusiastic. I wonder if Mr. Dudley grew frustrated with the somewhat complex set up process, and never got the tone arm dialed in properly. If that is true, it is his loss. In an enlightening view, Thad Aerts, having played records in a wide range of musical styles and ages,likened the difference between his Rega RB250 (with Cardas Incognito cable and Riggle s counter-weight and VTAF) and the Woody as moving from of a high quality tube television to a state-of-the-art LCD set. He added, "There is really no contest." After a similar run of records, a Southeast Michigan Audio Club reviewer concluded, "(T)he sound is f•••ing fantastic and I would be happy to have one at probably twice the asking price." Other reviews noted earlier in this review also sing the praises of performance of the Woody. My listening tests involved records I knew fairly well. The more delicious the music got, the more records I pulled from the shelves. Over a several day period, I consumed the following titles:

 

Joan Baez 1960 debut, mono 1st pressing on Vanguard;

Willie Nelson's, Spotlight on Willie Nelson, RCA Camden 1974 Canadian 1st pressing;

The Complete Blue Note Recordings of the Tina Brooks Quintets, Mosaic Box Set, 1985 reissue;

Dodo Marmarosa's Dodo's Back, a 1962 Argo 1st pressing;

Horace Parlan's Us Three, Blue Note 1960, 2008 reissue by Music Matters in 2x45 RPM records;

John Coltrane's Blue Train, Blue Note 1957, Music Matters 2014 mono reissue, 33! RPM;

John Coltrane's Blue Train, 1967 stereo reissue on Liberty Records;

Grant Green's Idle Moments, Blue Note 1964, 2014 stereo reissue by Music Matters, 33! RPM;

James Brown's Pure Dynamite! Live at the Royal, King 1966 reissue;

The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Capital-EMI mono reissue, 1980;

The Beatles' Revolver, Capital 1st mono US pressing, 1966;

The Clash London Calling, Epic's 1979 1st pressing;

Déj Vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Atlantic 1970 1st pressing;

Disraeli Gears by Cream, a 1967 1st pressing on Atlantic;

Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II, Columbia House remastered 1977 pressing;

Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, MFSL, 1979 Japanese pressing;

The Moody Blues On The Threshold of a Dream, the 1981 half-speed remastered by Nautilus;

Graham Parker's Heat Treatment, Mercury 1976 1st pressing;

Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, 1982 Columbia 1st pressing;

Television's Marquee Moon, Elektra 1977 1st pressing;

Richard Thompson's Hand of Kindness, 1983 US Hannibal issue;

Richard Thompson's Daring Adventures, 1986 US Polydor issue;

Zephyr's Sunset Ride, Warner Bros., 1972 1st pressing;

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphonie NR.5, Berliner Phiharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan, Deutsche Grammophon 138 804, 1962 1st pressing;

Antonín Dvoøák, Slawische Tänze • Slavonic Dances, Op.72, Symphonie-Orchester

Des Bayerischen Rundfunks · Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik,

1975 DG 2530 593 1st pressing;

Charles Ives / Carl Ruggles, Three Places In New England / Sun-Treader, Boston

Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas, DG 2530 048, 1970 German 1st

pressing, and

Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1, Artur Rubinstein & Erich Leinsdorf, Boston Symphony Orchestra, RCA Red Seal, stereo pressing, 1963.

 

Record-by-record reviews are not particularly interesting to me. So I will cut to the chase. Within a few notes of the first record, I noticed how large the sound stage became. I focused next on how much more detail was present in the music. Virtually every record stunned me. I heard clarity, bass and treble power, detail and crispness, instrument and voice separation of the musicians, broader sound stage, and delivery of harmonic overtones mostly in classical music and some jazz, particularly with the piano. Overall the Woody helped the Ortofon cartridge deliver a wonderful sonic signature that made it feel as if you were inside the music. The Woody's greatest feat may be simply getting out of the way of the Ortofon Cadenza Black; becoming a fantastic cartridge delivery system.

 

With each record, the well-produced ones and the marginal ones, the music contained details and nuances that repeated listening to date had failed to reveal. Joan Baez singing never sounded more full and powerful, with an incredible presence to her voice. Led Zeppelin II was astonishing in how well produced the record was and the wider sound stage in service of the Woody was wonderful. Graham Parker's Heat Treatment and London Calling by the Clash were plagued by muddy sound with my earlier tone arms; the Woody opened those up. On the title cut of Nebraska, I heard Bruce Springsteen deliver nuances in his rough start that were lost to me earlier. In record after record, I heard more music that was live- and lifelike. On Music Matters Blue Note jazz records, details such as fingers hitting piano or saxophone keys or the host of sounds made by drum sticks was evident, even talking in the background, and moving positions of the musicians. Overall the bass response on these reissues was simply astonishing, so I knew I was getting the full benefit of all the work and investment Ron Rambach has brought to these Blue Note titles.

 

As I listened to each record, it was hard to hold back a smile. I really liked what I heard and I am happy with the tone arm. I expect that over the next few months, I will tinker with settings to squeeze a bit more from the turntable, tone arm and cartridge. But the bottom line is that the Woody is a keeper, and likely to be the last tone arm I will ever own. It is that good.