Roksan Xerxes and Artemiz

This review first appeared in Hi-Fi Review in May 1989 (Please excuse any literals you might find in it: it was OCR’d at the end of a painfully long day.)

Xerxes-Artemiz

Roksan’s Artemiz tone arm and revised Xerxes turntable: a formidable combination, as Malcolm Steward finds…

For our many readers who’ve been asking if and when we were going to offer a review of the Roksan Artemiz tone-arm. Here it is. Or, rather, here it isn’t. What follows is not a tone-arm review, more a review of a turntable and tone-arm combination. I’ve yet to see an Artemiz fitted to anything other than a Roksan Xerxes, which would seem to be its most natural resting place anyway, and it’s not possible to review an arm in strict isolation. A tone-arm can only work as well as the turntable will per­mit,  and so it seems eminently sensible to look at the Artemiz in conjunction with the turn­table upon which it was developed

Since I first reviewed the Roksan Xerxes it has undergone some minor detail changes and been fitted with a new main bearing, so I was doubly interested to listen to this combina­tion. From what I have heard, both through my own experiences with the Xerxes and as feed­back from Roksan dealers, the deck has not changed radically: rather it has retained and further developed those characteristics that marked it out as being well above the ordinary in the first instance. The bearing change and, I’m sure, other improvements, have, for exam­ple, enhanced its remarkable speed stability under dynamic situations. When I first heard the Xerxes I was struck by the way it didn’t falter when playing heavy, left hand piano chords the way many of its rivals did. Instead of the usual wavering of pitch that often accom­panies the occurrence there was a feeling of real security with the Xerxes. The latest incarnation sounds even more sure-footed and stable. And the deck’s ability to wrest detail and information from the groove and project it forth with a sharply focused clarity is another aspect of its performance which seems to have taken another step forward.

But we’re not here to talk about the deck, rather to discuss the Artemiz tone-arm, now available, after some delays, for a very reason­able (that is reasonable in terms of quality tone-arms) £350. It is, as one has become accustomed to expect of Roksan’s products, an unconventional design, or, at very least, a design with some unusual features: the com­pany has never felt the compulsion slavishly to follow fashion.

The arm has a one-piece aluminium arm tube that is interference-fitted into the cylindri­cal bearing-yoke At its other extremity the tube is pressed flat to provide a mounting plat­form for the cartridge. No finger lift is fitted but the broad front of the platform area can be used for accurate cueing once the technique has been practiced and mastered. For those who prefer assisted cueing a conventional lever-operated lift/lower assembly is fitted. At the arm’s rear end things first start to get really interesting. A small threaded counterweight stub is. again, interference fitted into the bear­ing yoke. Along this travels a small cylindrical rider flanked by two milled nuts. The counterweight proper attaches to the rider which the milled nuts position and lock at the point where it is exerting the correct down-force for the cartridge in use. Sounds simple? But this is no ordinary counterweight — in Roksan parlance this is an intelligent counter­weight. Imagine, it you will, a metal bracket in the form of an inverted U. Attached to the ‘open’ end of the U is a steel billet — the weight proper. At the opposite end to the weight the bracket is drilled and the resultant hole then threaded. Through this passes a pointed screw whose position within the hole is adjustable and eventually fixed by a milled nut like those used to position the counterweight rider. When fitted to the arm the only point of contact between the counterweight and its stub is the point of the screw through the bracket part of the counterweight assembly — a unipivot counterweight, in fact, and one that is free to move fore and aft, and from side to side. The raison d’etre or point (if you can excuse the dreadful pun) of this arrangement is to minimize the effect the counterweight has upon the cartridge when the latter exp­eriences accelerations, and further dyn­amically to adjust the tracking force when the sty­lus tracks a warped record surface. As the sty­lus is driven upwards on the front edge of a warp so the bulk of the counterweight mass moves backwards, effectively reducing the tracking force. As the arm descends on the rear edge of the ripple the weight moves for­wards so increasing the force back to where it should be for a nominally flat record. Oh. I forgot lo mention that the intelligent counter­weight also has another trick up its sleeve: the locating screw is adjustable so that the vertical position — and hence the centre of gravity — of the counterweight can be altered relative to the plane of the stylus/record interface. This, Roksan tells me, can be used to tune the arm to suit the different compliance values of a variety of cartridges. If you can grasp the principle behind this, it’s an easy adjustment lo make: if you’re still groping with the idea of the move­ment of the counterweight adjusting the tracking force then leave it to your dealer.

Another thing that disturbs one on first acquaintance with the Artemiz is the fact that its bearings rattle. And what’s more they are supposed to! At least, they are designed so to do when the arm is not in the process of play­ing a record. This is a necessary by-product of the unconventional bearings employed in this arm. Instead of the more usual ball races, we find here an arrangement where each bearing consists of a hollow cone into whose inside wall are embedded three small ball bearings. This forms one half of the bearing assembly which I’ll call the ‘hub’. The other half — let’s call it the ‘axle’ — consists of a point into which is fitted another ball, this one having a smaller radius than the three in the hub. When the axle is inserted into the hub it is adjusted so that there is a just perceptible amount of free play left hence the rattle. However, in the dynamic situ­ation that obtains when a record is being played, the drag exerted upon the stylus as it is pulled by the record groove causes the arm lube to try to follow the record as it rotates The ‘axles’, connected as they are to the arm tube, travel forwards but their progress is halted by two of the balls embedded in the inside of the ‘hub’ races, So long as there is fric­tion between the stylus arid the record there will be no play ai the bearings — simple.

What else should I mention? How about the bias arrangement? This isn’t entirely conven­tional either Consisting of a spring (which is adjustable through an uncalibrated dial) and a thread (whose position is also adjust­able) that pulls on it, it is possible to vary both the bias force and the arc over which it operates. The adjust­ment template provided with the arm will help here but again I’d suggest that if you’re planning to fiddle you seek the advice of your friendly dealer beforehand.

Three final points before we get on to the lis­tening tests: 1) the arm has a black anodised finish and looks pretty good to these eyes; 2) it is cabled throughout with Japanese Isoda wire which is custom-built to Roksan’s specific­ations. From the cartridge tags at the headshell end through to the plugs at the cable’s preamp end there is but one joint in the wiring This is inside the arm-pillar where the wiring changes from the ultra light gauge stuff — used within the arm tube — to the more robust type used externally The arm cable terminates in gold-plated RCA phono plugs and there is a separate grounding wire provided, and 3) the Artemiz fits into a Rega cutout — so upgrading from the popular Xerxes/Rega starter combination is facilitated

Most of my listening took place at home with the deck running into my active Naim SBL set­-up. I also took a day off and sauntered over to lan Rankin’s abode to compare the Xerxes/ Artemiz to his similarly priced Linn LPl2/lttok front end. lan uses an Audio Technica AT-OC7 cartridge so I fitted one of the same vintage to the Xerxes to make for the fairest possible comparison. The turntable was sited on one of Roksan’s dedicated, three-legged turntable supports.

I started listening with Andy Sheppard’s debut album, and the track Java Jive in partic­ular. The immediate impression was that the Roksan was retrieving a host of information and low level detail from the record, and that it was presenting it in a remarkably well ordered and precise manner The pitch of notes and their place in time was scrupulously fixed. Instrumental timbre was similarly convincingly handled. This LP provides a stern test for front end components with its wealth of nuances and subtle information. If too much of this becomes muddled or is lost the track falls flat. With the Xerxes/Artemiz combination in charge it retained its vitality and sparkle and the broad spectrum of instrumental harmonics that provide much of its vivacity. In temporal terms the combination worked well, ade­quately reflecting the timing adjustments the players make in order to inject a sense of ten­sion and release into the music. When playing this track on the LPl2/Ittok, however, a curious situation emerged. Although the Roksan’s sense of timing seemed slightly stricter and more openly expounded than that of the LP 12, the latter seemed to imbue the music with an easier sense of progression, a more natural ebb and flow. A peculiar dichotomy, and one seemingly insupportable when addressed by logical examination: if the Xerxes has the greater stability in dynamic situations why did the Linn allow the music to flow with greater freedom? A further contradiction was that when listening for specific aspects of the two decks’ performances on this record, the Xerxes seemed to pick out more information than the Linn; yet instruments sounded even richer and more full bodied on the Linn.

Time for a change of record to Neil Young’s LP This Note’s For You. Here the Xerxes/ Artemiz impressed me more. Explicitly rev­ealing on guitar and voice, it captured the feel of the track much better than it had with the Andy Sheppard cut. Young’s phrasing and dynamic shading on electric guitar were pres­ented with great authority and poise. Slight changes in attack, subtle string bends, shifted accents within phrases were all revealed. His voice fared similarly, its whispery, fragile quality handled with great delicacy. Further revealed was the combination’s ability to separate instrumental lines and to present them within a rock-steady soundsta,. each instrument loc­ated securely with no movement brought about by alterations in level. Reverberation was also presented as a distinct entity and not simply as a phasey coloration. I found its performance to be, when judged in isolation, wholly satisfactory, the track really springing to life. It was only when I repeated the track at lan’s home and then played it straightaway again on the LPl2/lttok that I once again felt that the latter made the song a bit more ‘bluesy’, with a higher degree of atmosphere. These feelings are difficult to articulate with any real degree of precision or lucidity but my gut reaction inclined me towards the LP12 for its ability to express the emotion within the music, whilst the Roksan still seemed to bring out a little more information from the groove.

Thus far I felt that these contradictions were simply the result of my familiarity with the LP12, a turntable I have used now for many a long year: that it seemed instinctively correct because it was what I had become used to. Despite regular exposure to live music, and using a tuner to hear live broadcasts, I still hear most of my music via the LP12, so I asked lan — who is less familiar than I with either turnta­ble — for his- instinctive and immediate reac­tion to what he had heard from both of the combinations. Without any prompting or com­ment from me. he virtually paraphrased my findings verbatim. What we faced here, we decided, was a presentational conflict: we both admired the Xerxes/Artemiz for its ability to scour ever deeper into the record groove unearthing vast amounts of detail in the pro­cess, but felt that the LP12 somehow recon­structed the music in a manner that fell more naturally upon our ears. Clearly there was noth­ing fundamentally amiss with either of the decks, the Roksan combination being espec­ially hard to fault in terms of specific aspects of its performance.

Whilst listening to the Trevor Pinnock/Archiv recording of Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis — “Nelson Mass� these ‘presentational’ differ­ences were once again highlighted. Hearing it through the LP12/lttok, lan, who was hearing the record for the first time, passed no comments other than to remark that he thoroughly enjoyed the music. When I played it again through the Roksan he immediately enquired if it was a digital recording (which it is). When I asked why he hadn’t queried this the first lime around he replied that until he heard it through the Roksan the thought hadn’t crossed his mind. Was the Roksan ruthlessly exposing the unpleasant nature of the digital recording at the expense of the music which the Linn was failing to do — telling it like it really was in other words — or was the Linn simply presenting the music in a more involving way so that such considerations became of secondary impor­tance? You tell me.

So, if you’ll pardon a momentary lapse into Americanisms, where does that leave us conclusion-wise? The Xerxes/Artemiz is a first-rate combination, of that there is little doubt. That I found its overall presentation to be enigmatic and perplexing to come to terms with is also true. In all ‘mechanical’ musical parameters it excels: its conveyance of pitch, its tape-like timing security, its extraordinary level of information retrieval are all exemplary. On some records I felt completely at home with it, yet with others I felt it failed to convey the expression and emotion within the music with the same power as that of the LP12/Ittok, despite bettering the latter in specific areas. Sometimes, the sum of its parts didn’t quite measure up to the whole they would lead one to expect.

My best shot is to explain this conundrum so: considering the fact that Roksan isn’t exactly short of paying customers, and as many whose judgmental facilities I respect can find much in the deck lo comment favorably upon, it must be that listeners have varying degrees of sen­sitivity to aspects of music that I find important, and that their attention tends to focus on things that mine deems less important. Accordingly, with these thoughts in mind, I will finish by saying that the Xerxes/Arterniz is a damn fine combination and if you audition it alongside the LP12/lttok, as I have done, and prefer the for­mer, don’t worry one jot about the reservations I might have expressed. All that matters if its presentation touches you is that its design is skillful, it has integrity and is courageously dif­ferent, and I gladly doff my cap in respect to those who conceived it.


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