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Pete Riggle Engineering and Audio String Theory “The Woody” Tonearm – Part 2

Part 2 of 2

Photos by: Erik Putens

Pete Riggle Anti-Skate Measurement SystemBefore I go on to talking about the sonic characteristics of The Woody, there is one more set-up detail I want to cover. Shortly after Part 1 of this review was published, Pete Riggle sent me a new anti-skate tool that he has devised, called the Pete Riggle Anti-Skate Measurement System. Photos are included below so you can easily see what the thing does. It worked well, with the only drawback being that the ruler faces the rear of the turntable. I spent the better part of the time contorting my torso around the turntable to read the anti-skate measurements. It wasn’t until I was almost finished that I realized that with sufficient light, I could see the measurements on the ruler through it and I could read it from the front of the turntable. Most folks will presumably be using the tool while setting all the other tonearm parameters – and this is usually done somewhere other than where the ‘table will spend the majority of its life playing records. Point being – the fact that the ruler faces the rear of the turntable is really a non-issue. I’ll say this though – the tool works – and it beats the hell out of trying to float the tonearm steady (via a string) with one hand while somehow trying to measure the distance between the two legs of string with the other. This was the method for setting anti-skate in the set-up manual when I initially received The Woody.

I got the anti-skate as dialed as I possibly could by turning the knob that is on the “upper platform” at the rear of The Woody. In my case, this meant that the distance between the two legs of thread needed to be 1.06” apart. Once I was as close to 1.06” as I thought I could get, I gave it a listen and went on to fine-tune it by ear, and – like the VTA and azimuth settings – did so as the record played. It was interesting (and convenient) to hear the music come into focus as I got the parameter closer and closer to correct. When it was all said and done, I don’t think I was all that far off with my initial setting, done via the original juggling act. I’ll reiterate though that with the tool, the procedure is far less of a pain and there is less of a chance that you’ll damage the stylus on your cartridge. The Pete Riggle Anti-Skate Measurement System can be used on any tonearm and can be yours for $99; it does, however, come with The Woody as part of the package. Given the simplicity of the thing, $99 seems a bit steep but maybe it’s worth it because of its simplicity. I remember seeing the Wally line of turntable set-up tools and he had something similar to Riggle’s design and it retailed for something like $150 – for whatever that’s worth.

Second, I was curious about the cable chosen for The Woody. I asked Pete about this to which he said:

“Tonearm internal wiring and external cable are demanding aspects of tonearm development and manufacture.

One of many carefully thought out design objectives for The Woody(tm) is a continuous wire run from the Cardas cartridge clips to the RCA plugs. A part of the continuous wire run is the compliance loop, which cannot be shielded because a shield in the compliance loop would be too stiff. The need for continuous wire, unshielded over a portion of its length, tends to rule out the use of generic shielded cable (much of which doesn’t sound good), forcing the use of small diameter individual conductors with a specially developed shielding system for the portions of the wire run along the arm wand, and between the tonearm mounting system and the RCA plugs.

A reliable source was established for Teflon-insulated 32 gauge wires with seven strands of silver plated copper per wire, in the four requisite colors of red, green, white, and blue. Listening tests showed this wire to have desirable performance characteristics.

Thin-walled brass tube was chosen to shield the wire run along the tonearm wand. For the cable between the tonearm mounting system and the RCA plugs it was necessary to provide a shielding system sufficiently robust to protect the fine wires and provide durable strain relief at the tonearm mounting system and at the RCA plugs. This was done using two small-diameter polyethylene tubes running side by side, one for each channel, with the pair overwrapped with a foil shield, a copper drain wire, an oxidation barrier, and covered with a braided jacket for appearance and abrasion resistance.

The resulting wire and cable system, while not inexpensive to produce, provides excellent listening characteristics, is manufacturable at small scale, is robust and is attractive visually.”

So there you go.

OK – enough about setting the thing up. Let’s talk about how it sounds! Prior to this review starting, or even having The Woody in my possession, I had made some CD-R copies of various records via my usual Rega RB250 with the Zu/Denon DL-103. The one that I have listened to the most has been The Miles Davis Quintet’s classic Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet. So, I made a CD-R of the same recording via The Woody and the same Zu/Denon cartridge and listened to both on my audio system and via my iPod. For all the purists reading this – save your self-righteous condescension. Yes, the signal was digitized then converted to an MP3 (gasp!), though lossless. The differences between the two tonearms, despite my blasphemous approach, were readily apparent and intact. Listening and comparing via my iPod gave me the opportunity to listen in multiple different settings. Plus, for a review of this nature, it removed the anomaly of system/room/cables/electricity/etc. Not that one couldn’t argue that some of the same environmental elements may affect iPod/earbud listening, but I would argue that they are minimized. This ends my justification rant.

So what did I hear? First, I’m always astounded when I listen to CD-R’s recorded from vinyl. They retain the vinyl magic – and I, nor it really seems anyone, can explain why? It would seem that once the music is digitized, the magic that is analog playback should vanish- but it doesn’t. The copy of Workin’ that I have is nothing special – no audiophile, 250 gram vinyl pressed on the thigh of a virgin or anything like that. But despite its apparent mediocrity, it still sounds really, really good, in all its mono glory. The copy made via the Rega sounds rich, for lack of a better word. Or maybe sweet is an appropriate adjective as well. It is incredibly lush and musically intact in terms of timing and texture. Stereo qualities (center-fill, since it’s a mono recording) are spot-on. The most apparent detractions from neutrality via the Rega arm were in terms of aural exaggerations. The bass was solid though a bit, well… rich. And exaggerated. The bass was a little out of proportion with the rest of the frequency range. It did retain its texture and tunefulness and wasn’t flabby or undefined. The mids were super creamy, which seamlessly integrated with the lightly rolled-off highs. Listening to Miles and the gang via the Rega had me thinking of the sonic signature a lot of tube amps stamp on recordings – which is that romantic, late-night, slightly hazy, a bit larger than life presentation. It’s the sound that a lot of folks strive for and find via tube amps. I don’t pledge exclusive allegiance to either the tube or solid-state camp, but have found this sonic quality wonderful, especially with certain recordings – mostly acoustic organic recordings like Workin’.

Ruler of the Pete Riggle Anti-Skate Measurement System

Ruler of the Pete Riggle Anti-Skate Measurement System

The Woody, in comparison, came in and did some housekeeping and tidied everything up. Paul Chambers’ bass rendered itself tighter and more taught. The mids took on more definition with the various instruments’ tonal and textural qualities sounding more natural – or more like themselves. The highs were slightly more extended and though surface noise was not an issue with the Rega in place, it didn’t become more of one with The Woody – despite the highs opening up. The frequency range as a whole had less of a haze around it with The Woody in place. Did The Woody sound better than the Rega – at least based on comparisons using this one recording? Yes, and pretty much in every way. I have a handful of other vintage jazz recordings that I had transferred from LP to CD, which I compared from both the Rega and The Woody. The observations that I noted from Workin’ held true from start to finish.

I decided to move onto a more modern recording – Bon Iver’s first full-length For Emma, Forever Ago. The presentation of the recording in terms of space as well as the frequency extremes were tightened up just as I had heard from the jazz records. The best analogy I can muster to describe the differences I heard between the two tonearms was that the Rega was like watching a really high quality tubed television. Then, take the same program material you just viewed and watch it on a state of the art plasma or LCD or whatever. There is really no contest. The Woody brought more air to whatever it played while also raising the level of definition. There were many times while listening where I wondered how much better it could really get short of better equipment downstream.

The Woody even did great things when I listened to some of my hardcore records from the 90’s. Things like Swing Kids 7” or the One Eyed God Prophecy LP sounded better than I had ever heard them. These are records that were not recorded the best and I’m sure the priority on their pressings was based more on price and speed of completion rather than sound quality. Still, The Woody was able to extract all that was there and articulate the mayhem better than I had ever heard. And, I have heard these records countless times via countless turntables, tonearms and cartridges as these are records I have owned longer than I have been an audiophile. Some critics may think that such juvenile, poorly recorded music is not suitable material for reviewing audiophile gear, but I would argue that it’s not really any different than using recordings that date back 50 or 60 years. Furthermore, such fast and furious music can put equipment through the wringer and either it can sort it all out or it can’t. The Woody could and did.

In comparison to my Rega RB250 with Incognito cable and Riggle’s CCM and VTAF already installed, The Woody bettered its already stellar performance in almost every way. And to be fair, given The Woody’s available adjustment parameters, it should. For example, the Rega doesn’t allow for azimuth settings, let alone as the record plays – as does The Woody. Furthermore, each Woody is made specifically for the cartridge that is mounted to the end of it, giving it a distinct advantage over most all other tonearms.

Thad contorting around the back of the Pete Riggle Anti-Skate Measurement System

Thad contorting around the back of the Pete Riggle Anti-Skate Measurement System

The thing does cost $1600 which isn’t cheap, no matter what it does. The RB250 is no longer made, but Rega’s current entry-level tonearm is the RB301, which retails for $495. If you were to do what I did and upgrade it with the new wire ($230), counter weight ($75), and VTAF ($150) – you’re looking at $950. I know, I know – the RB250 was sold for less when it was in production and once could be bought for less on the used market, but I want to compare two new products and the RB301 is the closest thing to what I have. So, $950 vs. $1600. One could argue that that extra $650 gets you an aesthetically stunning tonearm that cleverly addresses all the set-up parameters making it incredibly easy to initially set-up and also tweak down the road. One could go on to argue that the extra $650 also gets you a tonearm specifically designed for your chosen cartridge’s demands. Or maybe, just maybe, one could argue that $950 is a ridiculously foolish amount to spend on any one audio component. Hell, it’s not even a whole component really – but simply part of a larger, whole component. Furthermore, one could argue that all these ‘extras’ you ‘get’ for an extra $650 don’t really matter at all and you are wasting your money by pissing it away. Which ‘one’ are you? Well, let’s see.

First, all the ‘extras’ matter – a lot. Knowing what I know now, I don’t understand any tonearm manufacturer’s position of not thinking things like VTA and azimuth need to be addressed. I do understand designing a product to meet a certain price point and having to cut corners in order to do so. I think any analog enthusiast has had daydreams where we fantasize about having a ‘plug-and-play’ analog front end – one that sets itself up. That’s as likely as taking a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle and throwing all the pieces up in the air and hoping when they land, the puzzle is assembled. Yeah – not gonna happen.

That said – that is one major drawback of The Woody – you are most likely going to have to alter the plinth of your turntable. And, unless you are in the rare but fortunate position to know someone that not only has the same turntable and cartridge as you, let alone a Woody already installed, you’re not going to know what it sounds like prior to altering your ‘table and installing the thing. I believe that Riggle does offer a money back guarantee, but even if you send the The Woody back, you still have enlarged the mounting hole in your turntable’s plinth to accommodate the VTAF/Woody. I was faced with this dilemma when I reviewed the VTAF for The HI-FI Reader and obviously decided to take the risk – and am glad I did. Ultimately – that’s a choice you’ll have to make for yourself.

The only other criticism I can think of is that The Woody is made by one guy, one at a time. This is both a good thing and a bad thing… sort of. It’s good because the attention to detail is outstanding, not to mention you are getting a product made specifically for you and your turntable and cartridge. It’s a bad thing because, unlike outfits like Rega (who have been around for decades), Riggle could decide tomorrow to close up shop and do something else. Items like The Woody are niche-y, ‘cottage industry’ products that by their very nature are rare, and there aren’t going to be a lot of extra parts floating around aftermarket should you need them. That said, I’m not quite sure what you would ever need to replace. The machined brass parts are indestructible. The only thing I could see being damaged would be the namesake wood wand that could possibly be damaged due to very poor handling.

Oh – one other thing I don’t like about The Woody is how it is held in its resting position when not in use. Towards the rear of the tonearm on its underside is a small piece of metal that is screwed to the arm and is bent in a U-shape. This is magnetically held in place when the tonearm is not in use. I’m used to my Rega where when I’m done with a side of one record, I lift the tonearm via the cueing lever, then give the ‘arm a slight nudge and it rotates back to its resting position. You can’t do that with The Woody. If you do, the small U-shaped metal piece will hit the small block of wood that houses the magnet that supports The Woody when in its resting position. You have to lift the arm over the small block of wood then lower it to where the magnet is. The longer I used The Woody, the more this process became second nature – but, if it were up to me, I would have something more user-friendly.

None of the things I criticized about The Woody have anything to do with how it makes music – because that’s what it does, and does so beautifully. If you are in the market for such a thing, you need to decide if you are willing to pay the price for its music-making capabilities. It is, hands down, the best tonearm I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. $1600 is a chunk of change, but, as we all know, one can spend far more on tonearms – though none that I’m aware of, at any price, are handmade specifically to meet the requirements of the cartridge that will be attached to them. Throw in its stellar good looks and ridiculous ease of set-up and you have a clear winner.

Review System:

  • Rega Planar 2 turntable w/ updated/upgraded motor
  • Rega RB-250 tonearm re-wired with Incognito cable
  • Pete Riggle VTAF and CCM
  • Zu/Denon DL-103 cartridge
  • NAD PP-2 phono stage
  • Sony PS1 CD player with PS Audio xStream Power Punch 7 power cord
  • Sony SCD-CE595 SACD Player
  • Bottlehead Foreplay line stage
  • AMC CVT2030 amplifier
  • Zu Soul Superfly loudspeaker
  • Sonist Concerto 2 loudspeaker
  • Audience Au 24 speaker cables and interconnects
  • Gingko Audio Cloud 14 and Mini Clouds vibration control

Woody(tm) Tonearm Specifications

  • List Price: $1600 US
  • Additional charges if multiple hardware components required to accomodate various cartridge mass/compliance
  • Each tonearm system is custom computer modeled and hand crafted for a specific cartridge or range of cartridges
  • Range of cartridge masses accomodated: 3 to 20 grams, as specified by customer
  • Range of cartridge compliances accomodated: 5 to 30 compliance units, as specified by customer
  • Mounting hole diameter: 1.25 inches (31.75 mm)
  • Finishes: Metal parts lacquered; wood parts finished with hand applied French polish.
  • Tonearm length: 9 inches to 16 inches, as specified by customer
  • Tonearm effective mass: As required to achieve 8 Hz resonant frequency for specific cartridge or cartridges
  • Headshell material: Brass, aluminum, or rosewood, as required by resonant frequency
  • Headshell adjuster plate material: Brass, aluminum, or Brazilian rosewood, as required by resonant frequency
  • Cartridge mounting screws/nuts: 2-56 brass or aluminum. Material as required by resonant frequency.
  • Cartrige screw spacing: 1/2 inch
  • Finger Lift: Ergonomically configured True Mahogany
  • Tonearm wand material: True Mahogany is standard. Other woods as required by resonant frequency
  • Counterweight: Brass Counterweight for the Common Man ™, modified for low center of gravity
  • Counterweight stub: Hollow stainless steel
  • Pivot Bearing: Unique Stringtheory(tm) string unipivot is stiff in lateral plane
  • Tonearm handling: Snubber provides handling similar to standard gimbal bearings
  • Oil damping: standard . . . use arm with or without oil damping
  • Adjustments:
    — VTA on the Fly, using patented VTAF(tm) mechanism, including VTAF Teflon Upgrade
    — Azimuth On the Fly, using unique AZOF(tm) mechanism
    — Tracking force: slide counterweight, lock with knurled thumb screw
    — Overhang and cartridge alignment, using knurled nut with slotted headshell adjuster plate
    — Anti-skate provided by rotation of Stringtheory bearing knurled support knob
    — Anti-skate lock: set screw with knurled knob
    — Lateral Balance: rotate counterweight for coarse adjustment; fine adjustment using lateral balance weights
    — Lift/lower mechanism height adjustment: set screw with knurled knob
  • Adjustment tools: Knurled knobs eliminate the need for adjustment tools (hex wrenches not required)
  • Tonearm Rest and Lock: Brazilian rosewood tonearm rest with magnetic tonearm hold-down
  • Indicator: changes in azimuth and VTA indicated by circular bubble level on headshell adjuster plate
  • Setup tools included:
    — circle template for mounting hole
    — mounting distance gage
    — overhang gage
    — alignment protractor
    — novel Pete Riggle Anti-Skate Measurement System ™


Readers' comments

    Comments from the Manufacturer

    I thank Thad for a thoughtful review which really “gets” the objectives underlying the design and manufacture of the Stringtheory™ Woody™ tonearms. I set out to design a musical sounding tonearm which would be easy to use, beautiful to look at, and offer every darned improvement I could think of. Also, this is a low production “craftsman” product. It is by its very nature a one man show. Thad seems to understand this.

    Regarding Thad’s decision to do listening comparisons between the Woody and a Rega RB250 outfitted with the Pete Riggle VTAF(VTA on the Fly) and Pete Riggle Counterweight for the Common Man (CCM), I can only laud this choice. The Rega outfitted with the VTAF and the CCM is really a giant killer. That said, in our listening room (The Garden of Earthly Delights), we too have found that the Woody smokes the modified and improved Rega. Simply put, the Woody is more musical. Also much easier to use. Also much prettier.

    Thads’s decision to do his listening comparisons by recording vinyl to CD and listening with earphones is a brilliant way to remove room effects from the review process. One could carp about getting digitization involved, but my experience has been that vinyl transferred to CD still sounds like vinyl. I learned this when a friend brought me a CD of his test tracks recorded from vinyl through a simple George Wright phono stage using an AR turntable, a Grace 707 tonearm, and a Shure V15 type V cartridge. Wow! What a great CD. Sounds like great vinyl. Listening through headphones may not give a proper impression of the stereo air a tonearm will provide; I will vouch that the Woody does its job in this regard.

    Thad did have some reservations:

    Regarding the Pete Riggle Anti-skate Measurement System (PRAMS): The PRAMS™ can be compared to the Wally Skater. The PRAMS allows the user to get anti-skate dialed in correctly, for any tonearm. Thad found that I had installed the measurement scale in a manner that calls for the user to view the arm from the rear while precisely dialing in the anti-skate force. This kind of kinked Thad’s back. Hopefully he has recovered. This was an oversight on my part, with origins in the fact that in my listening setup, it is easier to work from the rear of the table than from the front of the table. This is easily solved, however, by a 180 degree rotation of the block which holds the scale, loosening the screw of the clamp which holds the scale in place, reversing the end from which the scale is clamped, and snugging the screw back down. Takes longer to find a small straight blade screwdriver than to make the changeover. Based on Thad’s experience, I am now shipping the PRAMS set up for viewing from the front, and mentioning in the owner’s manual the possibility of reversing the setup.

    I mentioned to Thad that I would probably sell the PRAMS on my website for $99.99. Thad observed that this is quite a bit for something as simple as the PRAMS (even though Wally gets $150 for his prettier lucite version). Yep, the PRAMS is kind of Tinker Toy in construction, allowing me to include it with the Woody at no extra charge. I have not yet put the PRAMS up for sale separately (although I will fill an order at a buyers request), but have decided to go with Thad’s gut reaction. When I do list the PRAMS it will be priced at $50 U.S. Truthfully it takes more than $50 of labor to build it, put it in a box with the instructions, and do a round trip to the post office.

    Thad also mentioned that the tonearm hold-down system requires a little getting used to after using the very effective system provided with Rega tonearms. This had never occurred to me, because I started stowing the arm in the most direct manner when I devised the hold-down system, and never looked back. I think the user will find it easy enough to get used to.

    This brings up the typical dilemma of the designer. When you choose to do one thing in a design, it precludes the doing of other things. Example: The Woody is designed to have continuous conductors from the cartridge clips to the RCA plugs. It would be nice to be able to use one’s own stash of cables to seek out the most synergy in the system. Unfortunately this would eliminate the virtue of continuous tone arm wires. One can, however put cables in series with the Woody cables for tone control purposes. I’ve done it and it works. It does require female/female adaptors.

    Now, Back to the arm wand hold-down system of the Woody. This was a dilemma for me. I had to have something that would not mar the French polish finish of the arm wand, or obstruct the users view of the arm wand. What I came up with is a magnet set into a hole in the wood arm rest block. The magnet attracts a formed chrome plated steel wire target, said target screwed to the bottom of the arm wand with a tiny brass screw. The design holds the arm wand down reasonably securely, and it won’t mar the arm wand finish, or clutter the appearance. I’d like the hold down system to be even more secure, but it surely is better than the complete absence of hold-down provided by arms like those of Thomas Schick and Nottingham Analogue.

    Now, finally, Thad’s question about whether the manufacturer of the Woody will decide to close shop and do something else. This happens eventually to all manufacturers. You just can’t buy original manufacturer’s parts for your old Nash automobile or Graf Zeppelin. That said, the Woody is virtually indestructible except for the arm wand. And truth be told, a good woodworker could replace the arm wand. As for my closing shop and doing something else . . . not gonna happen. At age 73 I keep getting good reports from my doctor (and my product reviewers). And I’m having a boatload of fun, having become a little old craftsman. In about 20 years, hopefully, someone will have to pry an unfinished Woody tonearm out of my cold dead hands, and I’ll have a smile on my face when they do.

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment. I can be reached at: peteriggle@msn.com .

    Kind Regards,
    Pete Riggle

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