Audio Creative GrooveMaster III Tonearm By Greg Simmons
Being a review of a tonearm with an unusual banana-shaped arm-tube, I tried to write a banana-themed introduction, complete with really bad metaphors and bunches of ripe EMT 997s hanging from trees. But it turns out that bananas may work better in sight-gags than in prose. You know, Buster Keaton skittering across the sidewalk, that kind of stuff. Comedic literary aspirations gone awry. Alas, the jokes just weren’t that a-peeling.
However, my nine-year-old daughter offers this gem.
Q: What is Beethoven’s favorite fruit?
None of us are quitting our day jobs.
Tonearms! Get Ya Tonearms He-ya!
For the sake of convenience, most people buy a turntable package that includes a tonearm. It’s simpler that way and comes with the reassurance that – at least theoretically – the manufacturer has put some thought and effort into making sure the two pieces work well together. Manufacturers like it too as a value-added component of their products and presumably their bottom line. As a result, stand-alone tonearms are a fraction of overall turntable sales. One major online seller lists one-hundred and sixty-five turntables for sale, but only fourteen tonearms, most of which would likely be paired with their own manufacturer’s turntables sold separately.
It hasn’t helped that two of the largest makers of tonearms exited the market last year. SME made what stills seems like a shortsighted corporate decision to only sell their arms paired with their own turntables. Jelco – whose arms were among the greatest bargains in hi-fi – simply closed its doors, the victim of the pandemic, an aging workforce, and a failure to innovate Jelco, in particular, was a hard loss: In addition to being available to hobbyists, their arms were widely used as OEM equipment for turntables from companies like Dr. Feickert, Gem Dandy, and many others.
There are many other tonearm manufacturers, of course, but none of them have the market penetration that SME and Jelco had. Some are artisanal shops with no interest in volume or multi-month-long waits for sought-after models (you have to suffer for your art and also to play your records). Others are painfully expensive.
Fortunately, there are some tonearm manufacturers stepping into the breach with high-quality, well-engineered products that don’t require membership in the plutocracy to get your mitts on. The Audio Creative GrooveMaster III, the subject of this review, is one of them.
If You Try Sometimes, You Get What You Need
Earlier this year I decided to buy a new tonearm. Joe Biden was kind enough to send me a stimulus check, so I used it to stimulate the economy of…well, it turned out to be the Netherlands, but that outcome was honest and unplanned.
Before choosing an arm, the first thing I did was create a list of feature requirements: high-mass for use with moving coils and potentially SPUs; a removable headshell for cartridge swapping; quiet, high-quality bearings; compatibility with an SME-style sliding mount so I could use a Sota Cosmos arm board I had lying around the house; and, if at all possible, this tonearm needed to be priced at or below two-thousand dollars. U.S. distribution – someone to buy it from – was also a plus.
After a great deal of research, I’d narrowed my search down to a few choices. The GrooveMaster was at the top of the list for a number of reasons, but others included the Sorane TA-1, the AudioMods Series 6, and the Reed 1H (though that last one was way over budget). But the more I researched, the further ahead the GrooveMaster pulled. I liked the use of titanium for the arm-tube and the arm’s reputed build quality. It was also squarely within my budget and had been reviewed favorably by people I take seriously. Plus, the banana-shaped tonearm is unique in the tonearm marketplace unless you’re trafficking vintage EMT 997s.
Audio Creative, based in the city of Raalte in the Netherlands, is a partnership between Marco Bouwer and Dick van de Merwe. They make and sell their own tonearms, step-up transformers, a tubed phono preamp, a variety of DIY products for Lenco restorations, other turntable upgrades, as well as cartridges, accessories, and a sharp-looking brass platter mat. Interestingly, a substantial subset of their parts is available as individual components. For example, the RIAA correction module developed for their PhonoDude preamp is available individually to the DIY community. They also offer a DAC that can be purchased fully assembled or in its individual component modules to be optioned and assembled by the end-user. Their complete products – the tonearm is a good example – are beautifully finished, but as a product collection, they definitely skew towards hands-on audio enthusiasts. Having restored a few old turntables, I can appreciate their perspective. Audio Creative reads like two guys who regularly have good high-fidelity ideas that they turn into salable products, letting their mechanically inclined customers in on the action.
The Audio Creative GrooveMaster III Tonearm
The GrooveMaster III tonearm features a lot of high-quality materials and well-engineered parts. As mentioned earlier, the arm tube is made of titanium, and the manufacturer believes the stress of the curvature reduces unwanted resonance. The vertical bearing housings are stainless steel with a semi-ceramic ball stated to have tolerances within 0.0025mm. The horizontal bearings, also semi-ceramic, are angled to match the offset curve of the arm tube. The screw-down collar on the headshell collet is AC’s own improved design and has been increased from the typical 13mm, as found on the old SME arms, to a full 20mm. It makes a good, snug lock. The counterweights – five are included to be used in combinations to support a wide variety of cartridge/headshell mass combinations – are precision milled from stainless steel. Some assembly is required depending on the weight of your pickup and headshell. Anti-skate is magnetic, adjustable with a micrometer dial protruding from the right side of the bearing housing. The internal wire is solid silver. Available finishes are all satin silver or an optional satin silver with black trim. I chose the latter combination. Also in the box are a laminated protractor, a variety pack of Allen keys, a large paper mounting jig, and an excellent, well-laid-out instruction manual.
The Sota Star Sapphire – all Sotas, really – can accommodate a single nine-inch arm, so that’s what I ordered. But, in discussing my purchase with Mockingbird Distribution’s Phil Holmes, it seems the length of the GrooveMaster III can be customized to any effective length “within reason.” I confirmed this with Marco Bouwer at Audio Creative, who offered one caveat: they can’t make anything shorter than their existing nine-inch arm (229mm pivot to spindle) because it’s too difficult to get the correct curve, so no easy drop-in replacement for the 214mm nine-inch Jelcos. Audio Creative makes standard ten and twelve-inch versions of the arm as well, plus – targeting a very small cartridge sub-specialty – a second, slightly longer twelve-inch variation for users of shorter Ortofon SPU-A bodies. Their unusual ability to customize arm lengths likely explains why it’s cost-effective to produce arms specifically for that one type of cartridge. After all, Ortofon only makes one A-body cartridge.
Finally, Mockingbird doesn’t list it for sale on their U.S. website, but the Audio Creative website also shows an S-shaped ten-inch version of the tonearm. Mounting bases are available as either a fixed ring or a sliding base for an SME mount. The Audio Creative website also shows a new, optional, mechanically adjustable VTA system.
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