ONLINE - ISSUE 7
Bluenote's Bellagio, Bellaria, Baldinotti Package: Maurizio's
"Statement" Vinyl Front-End
Just when you thought it couldn't get any better...
In a way I'm glad to report the analog side of the industry seems to be prospering, though I'm sad the industry at large is going through a rough patch. Conversations with manufacturers, retailers, and advertising guys all confirm what I've sensed by reading the ads in the audio magazines: There is a lot of interest in turntables, tone-arms, and phono cartridges just now, and greater sales volume during the last two quarters than many of them can remember, despite the world-wide economic slowdown. Or maybe because of it, and young audiophiles' realization that there are a lot of good LPs out there to be had for a buck or two in 2nd hand stores. In any event, because it is generally agreed that the best LP front-ends do give wider, deeper sound-staging, along with that warm, velvety (not etched) sound quality missing from all but the best SACDs, there is more interest than ever in well-designed and well-built LP playback gear.
Ironically, this increased interest came about because CDs and now SACDs (and their players) have together raised the bar on what is possible from mid-fi rigs (better clarity, better signal to noise ratio, freedom from ticks and pops, freedom from groove noise, greater dynamic range, ruler flat frequency response, etc.), and "better turntable" designers have had to meet the challenge. A very good example is the Italian made Villa® top-of-the-line rig: their Bellagio turntable, Bellaria tone-arm, and Baldinotti moving-coil cartridge, which I'll refer to as their "3B rig." This sort of vinyl front-end gives near-SACD performance, and eye-poppingly gorgeous design.
I guess I should begin with a description of the Bellavista, for those who have forgotten my unexpected infatuation with that "little brother" table reported in a previous issue. (See my Positive Feedback Online review in Issue 5 at http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue5/bellavista.htm.) The Bellavista rig is a rigid chassis design. If you have any footfall problems in your room, it is incumbent on you as user to solve them with an isolation platform, or by attaching the turntable to the studs in a wallpreferably both. I made an isolation platform out of two maple cutting boards with large-cell blister-pack in between, and placed that on my desk-top, which is bolted to a wall. I placed the turntable on top of that. The turntable bearing assembly, the motor, and the tone-arm are all directly mounted to one plinth. The Bellavista plinth is made of polished black acrylic (also known as Plexiglas®), which has the curious behavioral characteristic of being able to dissipate vibrations. For further information, a comparison of the characteristics of black acrylic and medium density fiberboard, or MDF, see Positive Feedback Online Issue #5.
Neither the motor's vibration, nor the rumble from the bearing are together so great (-79 dB) as to eliminate this table from the category of "damn good performer." In the same price class, the VPI Aries Scout claims rumble of -80 dB. The plinth does a creditable job of quieting the vibrations, even without an isolation platform. So if you have a very rigid floor, as in poured concrete, and/or a very well designed equipment rack, you might opt to do without an isolation-platform for one or other of Villa's® Bluenote turntables, but I advise against that.
Villa's best, the Bellagio turntable, has many mechanical engineering stratagems that act as mechanical filters, or vibrational traps, that might be mistaken for stylistic whimsy. For example, the motor is mounted to the base, a clear acrylic plinth of rectangular shape. It passes through oversized holes in the two black acrylic plinths, without touching them, to get its pulley high enough to attach the belt to the turntable platter. Thus the motor's vibration is isolated from the turntable platter, except for the elastomer belt that drives the table. There is a slot in the clear plinth that is perpendicular to the center of the turntable platter. This means instead of throwing away your belt every time it stretches a bit, you can re-tune the pitch with Villa's oversized stroboscope and a screwdriver, moving the motor a slight distance away from the turntable's center. This is something I've not seen before, and it turns out to be an ingenious scheme, a bit of fussiness that yields good returns. It will keep you alert to proper speed and pitch, without having to rely on manufacturer's claims. And it is relatively easy to do, a tweaker's delight.
The vibration of the motor is matched to the vibrational characteristic of the clear acrylic base (black acrylic could have been chosen as the plinth for the motor), and the base's job (besides establishing a fixing point for the motor) is to dissipate a great deal of the motor's noise. If you have a stethoscope, as I do, you can place the stethoscope's "pickup" on the clear acrylic motor board and listen with the motor off, then on. You will hear some considerable motor noise (whirring). If you listen to the two black acrylic plates in the same manner, you will hear so little motor noise that I guess it is near the threshold of this human's hearing. Maybe an instrument can hear it. The factory specification rates the rumble of the Bellagio at -83 dB down, though I must confess I'm not sure how that measurement is arrived at (With, or without, the needle in a groove? With, or without, the belt turning the turntable platter?); which is to say, is it a measure of bearing noise? Or motor noise?
In any event, it seems pretty quiet. If accurate, it is -3 dB more quiet than the Aires Scout. Since the dB is a logarithmic function, even more impressive. The SME Model 30/2 turntable, selling for $25,000 without tone-arm or cartridge, doesn't bother to specify its rumble measurement.
Ah, the chief design engineer, our old pal Maurizio Aterini, informs me via e-mail this very minute ("Stop!! Hold the presses!!"), that the noise is measured by microphone on the topmost plinth, ("What's that? Yeah, I'll tell them."). That would be thrust bearing and spindle bearing, plus motor noise. All the more impressive. On hearing a particularly quiet pressing of a Harmonia Mundi recording, one of my audio buddies commented that as played through the "3B rig," he'd never before heard such silence on the silent grooves that separate symphonic movements. More silent silence, dudes.
Three carefully chosen case-hardened steel springs damp the dual black acrylic plinths that make up the chassis. These springs are not "tuned" to eliminate footfalls: rather, they serve as a high-pass filter, blocking all frequencies above 300 Hz which might otherwise go on to the turntable plinth. This board resembles a jigsaw puzzle piece, nearly a rectangle with Mickey Mouse type ears on each corner. Maurizio says the very shape of these acrylic pieces serves to help damp out frequencies below 300 Hz. I've listened to this plinth with my stethoscope, and I've heard very little. I have pinged this lower black acrylic plinth with my thumbnail while a record was playing, and even through the amplification chain, it was inaudible! The lower plinth is so well damped I could hit it with the eraser end of a pencil ever harder until I finally gave up, with no feedback to the cartridge. If you try, and the needle jumps, your table is not set up correctly. Stop trying. I similarly hit on the clear acrylic motor board with no effect. ("Did anyone ever tell you that you were the cutest clear acrylic motor board on the East Coast?" "You hitting on me?" "Must be. There's no one else in the room.")
Maurizio says: The Bellagio has Titanium Grade 2 rods, and the second plinth is isolated with extra Rubber O-Rings (79 shores soft), and both are used to add extra damping to the two-part plinth and protect it from external vibrations. Titanium is used not just because it is expensive or exotic, but its specific technical characteristics enable the turntable platter to be less affected by ambient vibrational feedback.
If you've ever been on a construction site, where they were pouring steel-reinforced concrete you might have had a chance to play with such rods made of steel. If you dropped one you'd hear a ringing as in a blacksmith's shop. Titanium seems to dampen such resonances rather than accentuate them. I'd say a nice job of "materials-engineering" by Maurizio. "Nice job, Maurizio." Titanium has other qualities that make it good for audio applications, as well. We'll go into that in our discussion of the Bellaria tone-arm.
The third plinth, a nearly identical black acrylic piece to which are mounted the turntable platter and the tone-arm, is additionally damped by what I term an aluminum "bell-housing." Above, there is a large, thin, pie-plate shaped housing that is mounted to the plinth upside down; below, a smaller, similar, pie-plate housing mounted to the underside of the plinth right side up. They are under mild pressure to seat to the plinth and, I take it, absorb vibrations. I think the diameters and thickness of the pie-plate housings "tune" the whole assembly into a frequency-specific mechanical filter. This seems to be another slick design feature. When I asked Maurizio specifically, "How do they work?" he grew mysteriously silent. But he finally answered, "The Aluminum 180mm large 35mm thick and shaped platter enables the plinth to be tuned at the wanted frequencies." So I was close.
According to Maurizio, the selection of the materials, and this construction, makes a series of filters keeping all frequencies lower than 300 Hz away from the tone-arm and cartridge. Not only does this keep the bass from becoming bloated, it makes for better tracking. I can vouch for that. Another "Nice job, Maurizio." The series of isolation plinths, together with the springs and bell housings, and soft rubber O-rings work as designed. I know of no other turntable sub-chassis one can whack with an eraser while playing and hear next to nothing through the amplification chain.
The double Bellagio turntable platter is made up of two platters bolted together, and its construction serves two purposes: it is more massive, and it follows Sir Isaac Newton's "a body in motion tends to stay in motion," etc. That is, larger, more massive turntables tend to stay in motion with greater stability. And, the upper platter is physically decoupled from the lower by five Teflon rings, 1mm thick, to further reduce any vibrations that might have eluded Maurizio's most fiendish traps.
I wouldn't be surprised if the noise measurements taken by Maruizio's method were higher than the noise taken from a cartridge on a "silent groove" test record (and following accepted industry procedures). Measuring the signal to noise ratio through a test record would capitalize on the platter's isolation and ability to dissipate (rather than transfer) vibrations. To translate such a ratio to dB down from some standard tone should be an easy arithmetical task.
The platters are made of Sustarin®, a Bayer® of Germany's patented acetyl polymer. Sustarin has improved upon the rectified polyvinyl platters used in the other tables in the Bluenote® line, being better at self-damping and able to discharge vibrations faster. Unfortunately, its molecular structure makes it harder to machine, causing increased rejection rate, causing increased price. But it might bring about another dB or so of damping, so Maurizio uses Sustarin®, as a good neo-Platonist would choose to use it.
Moreover, in order to more closely approximate the mass distribution of a fly-wheel, Maurizio chose to replace the nine gold-plated brass weights on the underside of the Belvedere turntable with sixteen, 20mm tall, and space them more closely together to maintain the geometry enabling a "balanced wheel" effect. This means the Bellaria's turntable platter is more massive, better balanced (like a tire's rim), more self-damping due to Sustarin®, and its upper platter is isolated by vibration-absorbing Teflon® washers. This series of incremental improvements makes it better than the next-best (the Belvedere) turntable in the line. By the time the "3B rig" presents the LP to the tone-arm and cartridge, the Bellagio's design has ensured the most massive, balanced (hence stable) turntable platter will be operating with the least possible amount of motor or bearing noise that Mauarizio can devise.
To get some sound through the system (while playing) by pinging it with the eraser end of a yellow pencil I had to strike the top-most plinth, the one with the turntable and tone arm affixed to it. Still, the sounds were not in the deepest region of bass, were not the equivalent of organ pedal tones. They were more in the cello region. When I did "plunk" the plinth with my thumbnail, it responded with a "plunk" of short duration. The vibrations are quickly damped by the black acrylic plinth, by the double turntable platter, and by the washers that decouple the upper from the lower platters, without much ringing. Maurizio has spared no expense, used all the tricks in his bag of materials-engineering on this one, selected the most suitable materials for his purposes, and put it all together in one superbly engineered turntable.
The Bellaria Tonearm
What about the tone-arm? The Bellaria tone-arm is a close relative to the Borghese. It follows the Rega-developed geometry, tone-arm length, and thickness of the tone-arm tube. It mounts in the same sized hole as the Rega arms. The Bellaria is a uni-pivot arm, and while many poorly designed uni-pivot arms have given that type a bad name, other excellently designed examples (the Graham 2.2, for one) keep the design alive. I am of two minds on the subject.
Maurizio manufactures the Bellaria with a great deal of attention paid to materials selection and production accuracy. It has many parts made of differing metals depending on the job they are to do. For example, the spindle that seats in the pivot is made of Titanium. The spindle is 4mm thick and is sharpened to a 0.2mm rectified, rounded, and polished tip. The pivot assembly is bronze-clad brass, which is massive and relatively soft, so as not to put two hard metals against each other, which might result in chipping. The pivot is atop a bell shaped housing also made of bronze-clad brass. This relatively massive bell-shaped cone (a Bluenote® proprietary feature) allows the tone arm to be self-adjusting, returning to proper azimuth as quickly as possible, with no internal viscous damping. The Titanium tone-arm tube is lighter and stronger than the same configuration of Aluminum. This makes for superior, faster settling, tracking. So you might say the proper selection and application of steel, bronze, brass, and titanium, in the hands of a superior design engineer, make for a better tracking arm. The Bellaria tube weighs 16 grams and the Borromeo, which is identical in length, weighs 17.5 grams. Even though titanium is approximately 60% heavier than aluminum, it can be worked as thin as is needed because it is so much more chip resistant. Maurizio says, "So we have been able to shape, for example, the Bellaria tube in six different sections to damp vibrations coming from the headshell. The thinnest part of Bellaria's tube is 0.1mm compared to Borromeo's Aluminum tube that is 1mm. I feel the Bellaria's sound performances are (arbitrarily) 30% better than the Borromeo."
Titanium is a great metal for tone-arm design, and twenty five years ago Technics used it in their top-of-the-line arm, the EPA-100, that was considered a gem in its day. More recently, Alphason also used Titanium. Titanium has a high strength/weight ratio, which enables it to be machined to very thin walls for use in a tone arm. It is very resistant to oxidation, has very low elasticity, thermal expansion, and electrical conduction. It is considered to be "diamagnetic" or one of those metals that is anti-magnetic. It has all these characteristics because of how its molecules set up. I'm not a physical chemist, so I can't go on about how it comes about, but it sounds to me like it is a pretty inert metal; maybe, sorta-kinda, the Teflon® of metals. (You chemists might infer its structure when thinking about Teflon® [carbon tetra-fluoride] and Titanium tetrachloride. And that both Teflon and metal Titanium are unattacked by most acids, by moist chlorine gas, or by common salt solution.) I can see how Titanium would find its niche in a tone-arm. I'm a little surprised Maurizio uses it only in the tube.
Intuitively thinking, being lighter and stronger than Aluminum, by whatever percentage, a tone-arm utilizing Titanium (where appropriate) would be that much better as a tracker. I'm not sure if any such relationship would be linear or exponential, or how to make an assertion of this type. Maurizio doesn't say anything to characterize Titanium's superiority in his brochure. Like, how could he say, "My Titanium arm is a 30% better performer than the same design with an Aluminum arm?" Did I tell you Maurizio was also a savvy guy? But, as a neo-Platonist, following inferences based on "ideal" performance, if one believes a lighter, stronger version of a tone-arm "should" be an improvement, then one ought to design for it. The theory has been seen to hold in the comparison between the Barromeo design (Aluminum tube) versus the Bellaria design (Titanium tube). Maurizio has developed different means of controlling resonances in the Titanium tube than he used in the Aluminum tube. We all know of examples that are counter-intuitive and might serve as exceptions that prove the rule, I think I agree with him on this one: Titanium should do everything better.
I think, if my memory (ha!) is still working, the Technics arm's reviews spoke of Titanium's having a higher internal resonance, a resonance that moved the arm's combined resonance above the audio band, which made for cleaner high frequencies. So in addition to being lighter, stronger, non-oxidizing, anti-magnetic, etc., it should be non-resonant in this application. At least, Titanium should move the arm's resonance point out of the bandwidth that would affect the interaction between a cartridge and the tone-arm, hence quality of sound. It should get rid of the tizz. Can you imagine Cheech and Chong's response to that? "Hey, man. Did you dig on what he said? He said Titanium gets rid of the tizz." "Psychedelic, dude."
There are two other differences between the Borghese tone-arm and the Bellaria: the Balance Weight, behind the pivot, is lowered until it is below the point of tracking. This lower "center of gravity" gives the entire Bellaria assembly better stability during playing, Maurizio claims. It functions much as the center of gravity in the design of racing cars. The lower the center of gravity, the more the drivers report the feeling of "being on the rails" in cornering. While tracking the spiral groove of an LP phonograph record, a tone-arm designer deals with the same laws of physics. So lower is better. And the Bellaria tracks like a Ferrari. "Hey, man. Did you dig on that one? He said, The Bellaria tracks like a Ferrari.'" "It's a mean motor scooter, dude."
Maurizio adds, "Lower is not necessarily better, but the balancing' of the design is in our opinion the way to obtain high performance. That's our real basic theory Balancing.' You know, the problem is not to do something good, but to do it with the lowest possibility of errors."
The other difference is the azimuth weight adjustment. The tubular weight, pointing down from the balance weight in the picture, is on its own rotator. To keep the azimuth perpendicular to the LP's surface, it can be raised anywhere from six o'clock to twelve o'clock, and then locked in place. Through trial and error, and with the advice of Adam Dragon of HyEnd Audio (Villa's importer, distributor, and one of the brightest young guys the audio field still attracts), I've found about 7:30 on the imaginary clock's face to be about the best. This is a fine-tuning of the tracking adjustments. When correct, the Bellaria tone-arm will track like, oh hell, like a DEA agent on the heels of Tommy Chong!
As to my sense of its characteristic sonic thumb-print, it sounds very clean and neutral. I mean CLEAN. In my experience with tone-arms, it is hard to keep them from getting too bright (their most significant physical shape resembles a piccolo, after all), or from being too forward. That is, if you play many cartridges through many tone-arms, you'll find that some cartridges have personalities of their own which mounting them in various tone-arms does not change much. We say, "Most moving coil cartridges have a rising high-end." We arrive at this after listening and measuring many of them. Some tone-arms become known as "laid-back" and good to use with a typical moving coil cartridge, correcting (somewhat) for the rising high end. Conversely, most moving iron cartridges don't have that characteristic "rising high-end" of the moving coils. But there are some tone-arms that have something like that emphasis. If you want your moving iron cartridge to sound like a moving coil cartridge, well you might use it with a "rising high-end" tone-arm.
I'd say the Bellaria tone-arm was very neutral, having neither "rising high end," nor "laid back" characteristics. It does not falsely enhance the bass or the treble, and it does not get in the way of the cartridge. If the nicest thing anyone can say about a tone-arm is that it has no character of its own, then I'll say it. The Borromeo has very little character of its own: it is neither pre-possessing, nor obsequiously spineless. It just gets out of the way of the turntable and the cartridge and lets them do their jobs. And, it tracks like a sports car.
The Baldinotti low-output moving-coil cartridge begins its life as a factory model (Maurizio won't tell me which), but then is post-engineered by Maurizio and re-worked by his men until it has the features and sonic character that he desires. You might think of this as a pejorative, but I remember when guys I knew took apart their Decca cartridges and filled up the voids with Mortite (a commercial caulking putty). This practice became so common the Decca engineers incorporated similar procedures into their production, and finally marketed a model where the whole of the inside (except the moving parts) was "potted" with melted wax, to damp internal vibrations that found their way into the signal. When tweaking becomes institutionalized as a step in manufacturing a product, it is an admission of the validity of the tweaking process. Maurizio tweaks an already quite good cartridge to achieve outstanding results. This is a very labor-intensive, therefore expensive, way to proceed. But as most of the best of the world's moving coil cartridges are virtually hand-built, it is merely in line with what is done at the rarified level of superior cartridges. It might be best to think of the Baldinotti as a one-of-a-kind cartridge, built on jigs provided by a large cartridge manufacturer, and fine tuned by hand through various steps in its assembly, something like making a violin.
The technical specifications are as follows: it is a "naked" moving coil design with frequency response from 18Hz - 45,000 Hz. Its output voltage is 0.3 mV with an impedance of 50 ohms. Its channel separation is >30 dB, and its channels are matched to <1 dB @ 1 KHz. The recommended stylus pressure is 2.4Gram +/- 0.5Gram suggested. The load resistance is suggested to be not less than 100 ohms. The weight is 11 Gr. The stylus shape is conical and made of two pieces to avoid split vibration. The coils are hand wound and utilize the best Oxygen-free Copper available. The damping suspension is made with a special polymer for long life and superior performance.
So how does it sound? It sounds very relaxed. Sometimes I think it sounds like master tapes I've heard at recording studios. Like it starts to capture the ephemeral "in the room" illusion that the best systems deliver. It is neutral, neither too yin nor yang, as described in discussing the Bellaria tone-arm. Perhaps the tone-arm and cartridge have a synergy; or perhaps each is really neutral. The highs are sweet, the mids are not "in your face," nor is the bass too bloated. The bass is firm and taut, more like what you expect from an SACD player than an LP player. The tonal response is realistically balanced. Playing jazz LPs that were considered good in their day [and of which I have the red-book CD and the SACD, like Miles Davis's Kind of Blue: Columbia LP (CS 8163)], the sonic thumbprint of the LP features a tad less treble. But, the rest of the frequency band seems very similar, and the soundstage sounds wider and deeper. That's pretty good: the velvety LP sound without the rising high end of the typical moving coil cartridge.
On the original cast recording of Fiddler On The Roof, Columbia LP (SX 30742), the entire cast shows up for "Tradition." The mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters each sing parts in what amounts to a rondo, and they are grouped right to left. You can pick out specific voices and follow them. That with a pit band playing brassily, and everyone singing as loudly as he/she can: It is astonishing. I didn't know that much information was on the record. I always thought the individual voices blurred into "sections" before, much as the violins in a live symphonic orchestra performance blend into "one big violin." I'll have to find a copy of Topol's Fiddler on CD, and compare.
So how does it sound? It sounds about as good as any vinyl rig I've ever heard. I haven't had the luxury to have a $30K or a $75K system at my place to play with, personally. At its price (around $8700 M.S.R.P. for the three-piece-set) it might prove a bargain. You've got to hear it for yourself.
This turntable was one of the hardest to set up I've ever had the challenge to get working optimally. It seems only fair to get each piece under review to work at its best, and when working optimally the Bellagio turntable is quiet, on-speed, and free from ambient vibrations as any I've come across. On the other hand, it is particularly sensitive to the mechanical shock of foot-falls, which means how your floor is built matters a great deal. If you have wooden floors, unless they are parquetry set on top of poured concrete, you'll find it difficult to get the table to work optimally. If you have wooden floors you must be prepared to bolt a platform to a wall. I know I'm repeating this warning, but it is imperative. You might play this turntable on a free-standing equipment rack for a while to see how it does. But do not plan to use it that way for long. It must be made as immune to footfalls as possible.
The Baldinotti cartridge is a very successful design, and it has a gorgeous sound. Being as fragile as any nude design, the fine wires that attach the coils to the output pins run some distance in an exposed manner. While handling this cartridge, if someone is not used to it, it is very easy to break the wire to the output pins. You should insist your dealer set the cartridge in the tone-arm. As I think of it, you should insist the dealer assemble and test the turntable in his shop (where all his tools and test bench are) and demonstrate it to you, before he delivers it.
The Bellaria tone-arm, operating optimally, can be affected by the pitch and roll that is generated by even minor warping in LP records. The way the spindle point and the bell-shaped housing interact sometimes causes visible swaying from side to side, depending upon the amount of warp in the LP. On badly warped records the whole tone arm jiggles around and reseats itself to perpendicular azimuth with each revolution, without mistracking. The woofers in my system flutter until the tone-arm is properly perpendicular again. Such woofer-fluttering might be O.K. if it was only present on lead-in grooves, but sadly that isn't the case. Some records are warped well into the music, perhaps an inch or two (or more) from the edge of the LP. Now you have a situation, where optimally set up, the uni-pivot design accentuates the warp in the record; the woofers flutter as the music is playing, robbing the woofers of some of their power. This rolling and correcting creates distortions and record wear, and potentially affects the sound in various ways too lengthy to go into here.
I have seen other tone-arms, arms that were more stable in the horizontal plane due to their more traditional design (ball bearings plus gimbals, knife-edge plus viscous damping), and these arms also have trouble with similarly warped records. I have seen only a few arms track such badly warped records as well as the Bellaria. They were usually straight-line, not pivoted, arms. But here the Bellaria's greatest strength, its tracking ability, becomes its liability. On only slightly warped records the Bellaria is a great tracker. Unfortunately, it is also a great tracker on badly warped records. If you are willing to forego badly warped records, all this is of no matter. But if you want to play your old vinyl with expectations of good, problem-free reproduction, you might have to go to another arm. Any of the Rega arms, or those using the Rega's geometry (Graham, Alphason?) will pop right into the Bellagio's mounting hole, by themselves or with an adapter.
My advice to anyone interested in this turntable and cartridge is, make sure your dealer doesn't expect to be paid in full until everything is set up and running perfectly. When you pay top dollar you should expect top service in your home. Insist that he bring along more than one tone-arm when he does set it up. You chose which of the tone-arms you like best before you settle up. And get up and down and walk around while you listen to see if the cartridge skips. Who knows? Your house might be built in such a way as to make these caveats unnecessary.
So here we are, with the Bellagio turn-table and the Baldinotti cartridge getting top grades, and the Bellaria seen as a difficult design that requires optimum care in setup, and one that nonetheless has trouble with foot-falls and badly warped records. Wait a minute! Wait a minute! It's Adam Dragon on the phone. "Stop the presses! Stop the presses!" Adam assures me the Graham 2.2 uni-pivot design was used early in the design process as a reference for comparison. He tells me, even though it was silicon damped, it was just as jumpy in reaction to footfalls and seriously warped records as the Bellaria, and it exhibited the same lateral swaying and seeking the azimuth-only slower. Yet there are people who swear by the Graham, preferring its sound to all comers. Both designs are uni-pivot and as such should suffer the same slings and arrows of outrageous flooring. If they are similarly affected by springy floors and warped LPs, it becomes a trade-off you are either willing or unwilling to accept.
Again, I rely on my colleagues in these matters. Michael Fremer at Stereophile (March, 2003, p.79) writes in his review of the SME Model 30/2 turntable with the SME IV.Vi tone-arm, "if (I) were buying an SME 30/2 for my system, (I'd) go for the Graham 2.2. Detractors of uni-pivot arms would say that the Graham's inability to control bass energy was adding the warmth we heard and preferred, but we heard it on the SACD too." In other words, his decision was based on the sonic performance of the uni-pivot design, more than anything else, including its jumpiness caused by footfalls, and its azimuth seeking behavior. Art Dudley, in Stereophile (April, 2003, p.122-3), in a review of the Graham Robin uni-pivot tone-arm, writes a bit of theory about friction and bearings. This is what uni-pivot tone-arm lovers are trying to transcend, because, in the end, the least friction makes for the least distortion. I'd add to that, more intelligent use of materials and mechanical vibration traps can significantly reduce vibration and distortion as well.
I guess the downside of uni-pivot designs is they demand special treatment, but if you're willing to give it to them you can be rewarded by sound that is addictive. If you like the Graham tone-arms, you'll love the Bellaria, and all the arms in the Bluenote collection. The only thing I can relate to the sound of the 3B package to is the most relaxed LP front end I ever heard, which was the Clearaudio's best turntable, with their top cartridge, and their Souther tri-quartz based linear-tracking arm. The Bluenote 3B rig invites comparison at that level.
Retail Price (as reviewed): $8685