My review of the Funk Firm Vector FX-R tonearm

Posted on the Audio Asylum, December 2016

I used my SME Series IV for over twenty years, after it replaced the original RB300 on my PT TOO in around 1993. When my Pink was upgraded to full Vector status in 2005 I transferred it onto the new carbon and balsa arm board, and it did another ten years of faithful service. I would characterise the sound of the SME as even-handed and unperturbable. It does everything well, and is exceptionally satisfying to fit, adjust and operate, not to mention having beautiful lines and a flawless silver finish. All the same, I kept hearing reports of the high performance of the Funk arm, at the same time as hearing opinions expressed that the SME arms "sat on" the musical dynamics and that certain other arms on the Pink decks allowed the ebb and flow of music to be expressed better (the Alphason HR-100 and the Helius Orion were mentioned favourably, but neither is in current manufacture). I still had my Rega arm in a shoebox in the garage, and eventually had the opportunity to send it to Funk for the upgrade.

FX-R_on_Pink PCB Although I still had the original Rega armboard from the PT TOO, I ordered Funk's composite armboard specific to the arm, which has lead shot glued to the underside to ensure the mass distribution on the subchassis remains optimal. The FX-R proved quite straightforward to install - the only complication was the lack of an integral headshell: you bolt the cartridge to the crossbar/armlift, align the cartridge by rotating it and sliding it along the slot in the vestigial extension to the armtube, and then tighten the screw from above when everything is just right. Vertical adjustment is by sliding the arm pillar up and down in the base and then securing it with a single Allen screw, which is certainly more flexible and convenient than with the original Rega, where height was only varied from the default by means of spacers. I appreciated the horizontal lines on the side of the armtube, which are a useful aid (as the ones on the SME were) to levelling.

What were my expectations? I was always sympathetic to the Pink/Funk philosophy of low mass, stiffness and control of resonances. This resulted in a sound characterised by neutrality, transparency, clarity and low listening fatigue, and I would have been surprised if the FX-R had not further strengthened these virtues. The reviews I read reinforced my prejudices: Alan Sircom's impression in his HiFi+ review was "... how your cartridge might sound if the only thing keeping it in place were the tonearm cables". Others reported a reduction in surface noise and in "glare", and also very natural and free dynamics.

I can summarise my personal impressions of the strengths of the FX-R as an ability to hear right to the back of the soundstage, top-to-bottom clarity across the spectrum, with very clear and realistic high-frequencies in particular. Tonal colours are very wide-ranging and believable, while dynamics are powerful when they need to be, without being unnaturally emphasised.

One example of this transparency is when I listened to Yes's Fragile on Atlantic. As the rest of my system has evolved, I was starting to get the impression that this classic 1971 prog recording was unrecoverably murky. Listening to Heart of the Sunrise with the FX-R, though, was a revelation. It turns out that Jon Anderson's vocals are just pushed back in the mix a little, and where Jon was swamped before by Chris Squire's beefy fretless bass playing, his voice and lyrics (for what they are worth!) are now clear, and the bass has power and impact. I was also amazed by how much of Bill Bruford's creative percussion was now audible.

I seem to have been listening to a lot of guitar music recently. John Williams and Julian Bream's Together sounds like two musicians at the top of their game simply enjoying playing together, and their two instruments bloomed into the room with a pleasing tangibility, where with the SME I felt more that I had to actively listen into the performance to hear what was going on. John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola and Paco De Pena's is a set of semi-improvised pieces for guitar trio in a flamenco style; through the SME I was aware of the amazing technical virtuosity of the three musicians, but with the Funk arm the music-making was viscerally exciting, with the stamps and slaps on the guitar adding to the thrill.

I have a handful of albums that are older than I am, mainly jazz from the 1950s and early 1960s on classic labels such as Verve, CBS and Atlantic. One such is the Modern Jazz Quartet's Atlantic Years, recorded in 1958-59 in very early but vivid stereo: the quality and vibrancy of this recording is astonishing now. At the start of The Golden Striker I can easily picture the shimmering bells, recorded very forward in the mix. Cymbals are nicely metallic, while kick-drum, even at the back of the soundstage, has a very realistic "thump", and Milt Jackson's vibes shimmer vividly in mid-air.

The Suk Quartet recorded Brahms' Piano Trios on the East German Eterna label in 1980 (but it sounds much older than that!). Although these are classic performances, I never particularly enjoyed the recording on my old system, with it coming across as thin, closed in and slightly edgy. With the FX-R, though, while the recording is still lacking in atmosphere and presence, and the piano is receded in the soundstage, all the instruments have strong individual character and all the parts are much easier to follow.

On the occasions when I have been able to hear an orchestra close up, I have been struck by the sheer beauty and power of massed instruments playing an orchestral score, particularly the strings, but this has evaded every audio system I have lived with until recently. I've certainly never been convinced by the sound of CDs in this respect, as this medium has tended in my experience to homogenise the violin sections and remove the addictive texture I love. Even with the SME IV on my Vectored Pink, through my pretty decent valve electronics, I wasn't totally satisfied. I was very pleased to find that the FX-R takes a big step forward, with the extra resolution at high frequencies - presumably stemming from the lower resonance levels of the arm tube - giving much better characterisation of the tone of the violin section. Orchestral music is also generally easier to follow, with more front-to-back depth. I particularly enjoyed Mendelssohn's miraculous music from A Midsummer Night's Dream, played by the South German Radio Orchestra under Rafael Kubelik (DG). I also listened to one of Bernard Haitink's set of Debussy's orchestral music with the Concertgebouw, which have rightly earned rosettes both for the performance and the clarity of the recording: Danses Sacres et Profanes sounded ravishing (even with the elephantine harp!)

Is there anything I don't like about it? I can't think of anything the SME does better in sonic terms, but I have one or two gripes about the FX-R, mainly concerning the bits it retains from the slightly prosaic original. Because of the crossbar screwed between the top of the cartridge and the vestigial "headshell", the arm sits quite high up over the deck, and the lid of my Pink now fouls the counterweight, which is of course coaxial with the arm tube, unlike the elegantly low-slung one on the SME. Because the new arm tube is about half the diameter of the one on the Rega, once the arm height is set to be horizontal in use, the arm lift fails to raise it off the record, so I have had to get into the habit of using the finger lift on the head shell. The anti-skate bias adjustment mechanism it inherits from the RB300 is of limited use, and certainly isn't worthy of the performance level of the arm. Finally, the arm board now sits about a centimetre above the top plate of the deck, which to me looks rather inelegant.

So overall I am very pleased with the Funk FX-R, and the SME will be staying in its box for the foreseeable future. Funk's other top arm, the FX3, shares the same FX arm tube but dispenses with the Rega parts, so ought to improve on the practical shortcomings I mention, but if you have a spare Rega arm the FX-R is definitely a bargain.

Update: February 2017

Technoweight on FX-R I came across a review of the Michell Technoweight online, and it occurred to me that this might offer a solution to the problem of the Rega counterweight hitting the turntable lid. So after a couple of months with the FX-R, I ordered a Technoweight from Hi-Fi Gear (who, I should note, provided excellent service). This is a beautifully engineered little item that replaces the counterweight and stub on the back end of the Rega arm, and it has two advantages over the Rega arrangement. It adjusts the downforce by means of a nicely calibrated screw-in endpiece, and - more importantly - suspends the bulk of the counterweight mass below the arm axis, hence avoiding the lateral and upward girth of the Rega weight, at the same time as adding extra stabiity. The Technoweight was a doddle to install and adjust, followng the clear instructions provided. I confirmed the downforce at 1.75g with a nifty little Chinese digital scale I bought on the 'Net.

I did make the mistake of fitting the heavier of the two supplied weights: the instructions recommended this one for cartridges of normal weight. What I hadn't taken into account was that the aluminium and carbon fibre Funk armtube, of course, is a lot lighter than the Rega one it replaced, so the combined weight of the tube and cartridge needs less of a counterbalance at the other end than the original. With the heavier weight, I couldn't use the end screw for adjustment, as the "clamshell" weight was too close to the bearing pillar. With the lighter one, everything worked as intended.

Did the new counterweight give any audible improvements? Compared with the clear changes from the SME to the Funk tonearm, any differences were quite small. I think I heard an improvement in the solidity and stabiity of the bass, but that may have been a little bit of of expectation bias. All the same, the practical advantage of the lower counterweight, as well as the fine build quality and attractive finish mean I have no regrets about buying and fitting it.

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