Every so often something comes along that changes everything. In childhood, the new kid gets a yo-yo, you go to a drive-in and there’s pizza during the intermission, you visit Yosemite National Park for the first time, the Beatles are on Ed Sullivan, and your father finally fires up the Dynakit Stereo 70 he’s been building and the lavish music makes the drab living room disappear. As an adult, transformative moments in audio happen so rarely that you grow used to mere incremental improvements, but then the faded pastel of your listening experience is blasted away by the bold colors of something truly radiant. The Helius Designs Viridia turntable and Phaedra tonearm were just that for me, and I’m still basking in their glories.
Geoffrey Owen, the British owner of Helius Designs, is an accomplished scientist and mechanical engineer who built his own tonearm back in the ’80s. He called the existing ones “little more than metal sticks with a transducer at one end and a counterbalance on the other,” saying they were “blighted with resonances, fitted with pretty standard ball-race bearings (or wobbly unipivots),” and had no regard for dynamic balancing. He concluded he could make a better arm that featured a captured unipivot bearing, dynamically balanced, and using three balls and a sharp and hardened cone to create a tetrahedral configuration he claimed was chatter free. Owen called it the Cyalene. He released his Helius Cyalene arm next, then later the Omega. His basic design was so impressive that for a while Audio Note used an OEM version for its turntables. Through the years, with evolutionary improvements (culminating with the Phaedra), the captured unipivot has been the mainstay of Owen’s designs.
Crucially, for the bearing of the Phaedra ($6595, all prices USD), three 5mm silicon-nitride spheres (an especially hard material) are polished to optical standards and placed in a formation with a smaller sphere in the center, creating points of contact to form a tetrahedral design that, Owen claims, is also self-aligning. The bearing splits the inertial masses of the horizontal and vertical planes so that they work against each other, resulting in an extremely stationary platform for the cartridge. There is no fluid damping—instead, the arm is damped by differential masses, i.e., according to Owen, each bearing plane has a different resonant frequency.
The Phaedra tonearm brings together numerous other design elements: a centroid principle of dynamic balance; magnetic downforce; a fixed counterweight as close to the bearing as possible; and adjustable VTA, azimuth, and anti-skating. The geometry is Owen’s design, accomplishing a claimed tracking error of less than a degree. The 10″ armtube—bi-elliptical, tri-metallic, and tapered—has features intended to negate resonance and, though it looks huge, the arm in fact has a very low effective mass. It’s best suited for the medium to stiff cantilevers used in most MC cartridges. The captive cables of the arm terminate in a pair of RCA jacks to attach interconnects of your choice running to the phono preamp.
Sometime near the onset of the vinyl renaissance about ten years ago, Owen built a suspended ’table of his own—the Alexia. His design differed from most in that, rather than supporting or suspending a subchassis with sets of dampened springs free to move in every direction, it featured Owen’s unique construction fixed in the lateral plane but movable in the vertical. His suspension used double wishbones linked together beneath the subchassis, able to move vertically without lateral movement. Owen’s ’table could still isolate itself from the outside environment (like other suspended ’tables). Its vertical compliance also allowed for changes in tracking force, record thickness, and record surface amplitude (warps).
For the Viridia ($7195), which debuted in 2017, Owen beefed up the wishbone suspension and added other improvements that addressed issues of isolation, speed variation, acoustic reflection, bearing noise, cueing, and damping. In addition, the Viridia was magnetically suspended—its two front feet housed opposing neodymium (a rare-earth metal) magnets constrained by O-rings that further isolated it from environmental influences.
The motor, housed in the left rear pod of the plinth, is an upgrade from the Alexia’s. Made by Maxon in Switzerland, it's a rare-earth model with precious metal brushes. The motor sits in a noise-filtered isolation cradle suspended from the underside of the subchassis. It’s rigidly linked so that, when the subchassis moves, the motor moves with it, minimizing motion relative to each other that might cause speed and pitch variation. Designed for low mechanical noise, the motor has electrical characteristics that are matched to the Viridia’s speed control, which is optically encoded and guided by a laser embedded under the platter. Like the earlier Alexia, the Viridia is belt-driven, using a material of medium compliance to link the motor pulley to the platter.
The lightweight Delrin platter is only an inch thick but is affixed with an artificial suede mat designed to create an acoustic coupling of the record with the mass of the platter. This effectively presents the stylus with a record that is thicker than an inch, thereby minimizing sonic reflections generated by the movement of the stylus within the groove that could create acoustic feedback, a ghostly echo effect that would mask fine details in the audio signal. Helius also provides a platter weight to further prevent this echo.
The platter bearing is magnetic. Opposed neodymium magnets lift the main bearing off the floor of the bearing well, itself filled with a few drops of non-compressible oil to prevent the bouncing that would create oscillation in the audio signal. The cueing mechanism is also magnetic, precise and easy to operate, and with a very secure catch for the tonearm.
For rigidity, the subchassis’s bottom plate is aluminum and its top plate is Perspex (a premium acrylic) for damping. The main plinth and the outer cylinders (sporting handsomely squared-off, serrated outer edges) seem to be made of the same dark gray aluminum as the base of the subchassis. The whole thing weighs barely 16 pounds.
On the front left pod are three operating buttons—33 1/3, On/Off, and 45, all made of black plastic and ring-lit. The middle On/Off ring lights up blue, and the two speed buttons flash quick bursts of green to start, but then settle at constant green once the ’table has been brought to appropriate speed. Around back of the left rear pod is an IEC socket for the power cord.
From above, the Viridia and Phaedra combination looks a bit sci-fi. It has the form factor of a carbon-black drone with the gleaming metallic spear of a rocket (with an ominously bulbous raw aluminum back end) off to its right side.
Set up and operation
In early April, FedEx delivered two heavy cardboard boxes on my porch, sent from EAR-USA/Sound Advice, the Helius Designs importer for the United States. The Viridia was in a box with the assembly instructions and a user’s manual on top, and under them, sandwiched within four layers of cutout foam, were the plinth and platter, both in protective plastic bags. Following the instructions, I lifted the plinth assembly (with its four gunmetal-colored surrounding pods and black support feet), still bagged, out of the box and placed it on the floor of my listening room. The initial setup of the plinth involved some intricate mechanical maneuvers—mainly undoing the transit screws and carefully releasing the subchassis. Once it was free, I felt its springiness and saw its exclusively vertical motion in relation to the front plate of the plinth.
Next, I removed the platter from its bag and took a look at its bearing, a clean metal post fitted with that magnet to lift the platter off the floor of the bearing well. There was an encoder disk on the underside of the platter—a crucial part of the Viridia’s speed-control laser mechanism—and I was careful to keep my fingers off it so that no prints would interfere with its precision. I tipped about three drops of bearing oil into the bearing well of the plinth.
After I moved the assembled Viridia to my audio rack, I found the rubber belt sticking out from the hood over its motor and fitted it around the platter. I plugged an Audience powerChord SE LP into the IEC of the ’table, pushed the speed button for 33 1/3, and the platter spun, wrapping the belt neatly around itself. The button flashed green when pushed, then, once the platter had spun to its exactly calibrated and constant speed, it turned a steady green. (When I switched it Off, a blue ring illuminated, and the platter and motor went into a quick and controlled deceleration, the laser underneath the platter clocking everything.)
Unlike other tonearms, mounting the Phaedra tonearm was fast and simple. Made to fit perfectly with the Viridia ’table, the Phaedra comes with a round metal mounting plate that bolts easily onto the right rear pod of the plinth with three screws. Though the instructions advised to mount the phono cartridge onto the arm before mounting the arm itself, I did not follow them. I decided it would be easier and risk less damage to the cantilever of my cartridge if I mounted it after mounting the Phaedra arm. That worked perfectly.
The main intricacy came later in adjusting the Viridia’s suspension, which was tricky and tedious. I had to go back and forth until I got the subchassis to depress around 10–15mm below the main chassis. The record weight needed to be on the platter, so that I could then add the main counterweight and a smaller weight to balance the arm as close to neutral as possible. I adjusted the large suspension screw located in the middle of the chassis so that the level of the subchassis rose to the point where its underside met the top of the front plate of the plinth. This took some time.
Mounting my ZYX Ultimate 4D cartridge onto the tonearm was easy, as the Phaedra’s headshell is more or less fixed. Alignment was a breeze, using the template provided. I connected a pair of Jorma Prime cables (1m RCA interconnects) into the captive jacks and plugged the other ends into my phono stage. There are clips for clamping the cables to the chassis of the Viridia, but I never bothered. Finally, using a spirit level, I leveled the ’table by manipulating the front feet under the chassis.
The finish was adjusting the tonearm settings. I set the anti-skating with a fluted knob on the right-hand side near the arm’s base. Cueing height can be adjusted with a pin underneath the chassis, but I was happy with the lift, factory-set at 5mm, and stayed with it. Going by ear, I never needed to adjust azimuth by using the screw inside the tonearm above the counterweight hub. Adjusting cartridge balance entailed adding external counterweights, first a large one and then a much smaller one. I simply slid the provided weights along the counterweight shaft to create neutral balance. To adjust tracking force, I turned the provided Allen wrench that fit neatly into an M8 screw socket at the back of the counterweight cover, and then cued and re-cued the cartridge onto the scale of a Winds Arm Load Meter. I made VTA adjustments on the fly with the knob that projects forward from a short metal platform at the base of the tonearm. It lowers the arm by about 2mm from its factory setting and can raise it about 10mm. All these operations were easy and untroubled, and demonstrated the efficient and intelligent design of the Phaedra.
From the first launch of sound, I felt the Helius Phaedra and Viridian combo create a robust presence with rhythmic precision and an ability to cast convincing sonic images within an expansive soundstage, especially with acoustically recorded music. But that sound was never in your face. The perspective was more 12th row rather than front—set reasonably back in the orchestra section, but still catching the waves of sound before hall reflections might smooth things out. The images and instrumental timbres were clear with no sonic confusions or smears. There was a weightiness to the music but also a light touch when called for. Through almost everything I played, the Helius combo presented intimacy as well as scale and boldness.
For instance, one of the first LPs I spun on it was Venice, an Analogue Productions reissue of an RCA Living Stereo release (RCA LSC-2313) that was a compilation of orchestral pieces performed by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Georg Solti. On its first track, the “Preludio” to Act I of Verdi’s opera La Traviata, I heard delicately pianissimo violins that then swelled gorgeously, the double basses bouncing away like a circus organ, and violas and cellos noticeably fattening the sound as they joined in. Together they created a sweeping, skating feeling to the music and a deep, complex sonic field that extended horizontally before the plane of my speakers. I could separate different string sections from each other, pick out various parts as they played, and felt stirred by the French horns adding color and depth. When the festive music wound down into sweeping, feathery notes, I discerned a mordant delicacy that presaged the tragic plot of the opera. The Helius ’table and arm made this previously average-sounding record into something very special, like replacing a cheap red wine with a great Barolo.
My audio system had never sounded bolder, not only for orchestral music but for a jazz ensemble as well, like the barrelhouse rhythms of a composer like Charles Mingus. Indeed, on “Boogie Stop Shuffle” from Mingus Ah Um (Columbia/Legacy Vinyl 88697335681), I felt the doubling choruses of Booker Ervin’s tenor sax and Willie Dennis’s trombone drubbing my forearms up to my elbows, the rich harmonies punchy in time with Dannie Richmond’s thwacking drums swinging hard and fast. On “Better Git It in Your Soul,” the band’s rhythmic hand-clapping, Mingus’s improvised vocal hollers, Jimmy Knepper’s droning on the trombone, and the wailings of John Handy’s alto and Ervin’s tenor sax created an explosive universe, a great tapestry of organized cacophony. The Helius gear definitely had swagger.
Yet, the Phaedra and Viridia could play with superb finesse when called for—possessing a feathery touch with the most delicate of sounds. When I played “Clair de Lune,” the famed solo piano piece by composer Claude Debussy, its achingly slow tempo, as performed by Ivan Moravec on Debussy (Connoisseur Society 1866), was exquisite. The beautiful chiming of the right-hand melody came like chiffon clouds over a plein-air landscape in progress. Moravec’s notes rose in the soundstage as though from an actual piano, the image of his big, concert grand high as the ceiling and wide as the walls of my listening room. Isolated, individual notes came ghostily, sending teasing chills like soft snowflakes landing on still pond water.
“The Lark Ascending” by Ralph Vaughan Williams on 180g heavy vinyl is an example of the ease the Helius rig had with music that has a range of dynamic requirement. The selection is from solo violinist Hillary Hahn’s Retrospective (Deutsche Grammaphon 479 8506), with Sir Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, and the music was captivating and luscious to hear. There were a beautiful thrum and bloom to the orchestra, then Hahn’s shimmering, articulate violin, delicately fluttering as the sound of the whole rose like ground fog in the background. Woodwinds freshened things with a sprightly woodiness and French horns made plaintive calls from deep within the soundstage. Timbres were completely distinct. Then crescendos came, richly and luxuriously, without confusion or congestion. Hahn’s violin could sound murmurous, then bold, flowing faintly near the end before it disappeared into the bucolic silences of the forests the piece invoked. I felt a spaciousness around the instruments and distinguished perfect placements within the fine scaling and sonic presence of the orchestral array. Again, here was clarity in complexity.
Female vocals were clear and expressive, whether operatic or soulful street singing. Laura Nyro with Labelle created a beautiful tapestry of a capella voices singing on “I Met Him on a Sunday” from Gonna Take a Miracle (Columbia PC 30987). While three of the four female vocalists sang close doo-wop harmonies, each of them took a turn on lead, weaving a rhythmic street madrigal of exquisite timbres. Nyro’s contralto-to-mezzo ranged through a breathy chest voice in the upper midrange, turning pliant and reedy when she wailed way up high.
Timing with the Helius equipment was superb, evidenced by a tune like “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” by the Modern Jazz Quartet on their album The Last Concert (Atlantic SD 2-909 1198). Percy Heath’s stand-up bass and Milt Jackson’s vibes briefly locked together at the start, before Heath’s reverberant walking line on the bass carried the bottom propulsively forward. Then Jackson’s vibes took over, softly plosive and richly chiming, alive with fountainings of harmonics in ringing sustains as his mallets struck the keys. A chatter of Connie Kay’s drumming came from the rear of the soundstage, about 4′ deep in my room and 9′ wide, extending farther than the distance between my speakers. The presentation sounded very immediate, with a persuasive organic presence and lots of touch, nothing out of place within the natural flow of the music.
If I had to raise a criticism of the Helius arm and ’table, it would have to be of their rendering of hard rock music. At times, despite its strength with acoustic music, the Helius rig didn’t have quite the punch and sharpness that electronically amplified music often demands. On Jethro Tull’s “A New Day Yesterday” from a British pressing of Stand Up (Island Records ILPS 9103), though Martin Barre’s lead guitar was clear and exciting, providing that character of psychedelic funk that the age and the band were known for, Clive Bunker’s drums sounded like there was a thin linen sheet thrown over the kit, and Glenn Cornick’s fuzz bass was too fuzzy and without enough bite. Though Ian Anderson’s lead vocal had no trouble cutting through the sonic scrim veiling the rhythm section, and neither did the big, manic line of his flute playing, somehow I felt they both lacked the blazing sock that made this music so thrilling when I was a teenager.
Don’t get me wrong—for me this slight faltering with hard rock was a minor failing, as I mostly listen to classical, jazz, and opera. The Helius combo handled all of these just fine. And it was equally good with American folk acoustic music. There were the same qualities of clarity, precision, and timbral distinctions among instruments on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the group finale to the album of the same title (United Artists UAS9801) by musicians from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band joined by a boatload of country superstar elders like Doc Watson, Brother Oswald, and Mother Maybelle Carter. The tune features a multitude of instruments—banjo, autoharp, violin, numerous guitars that were flat-picked and slide-steeled—and a chorus of voices that produced a rousing sound that nonetheless possessed moments of individual clarity in each instrumental solo and the various male and female vocalists who took a verse throughout the song. The vocal style of these old-timers might sound unpolished by today’s CMA standards, but the recording, through the Helius playback system, captured the emotional grit and joy in that traditional Grand Ole Opry feeling of communal acceptance and hope. And what else are music and stereo good for if not all the feels?
The TW-Acustic Raven AC-1 ($16,500) with the Raven 10.5 tonearm ($5500) combination is a brand-new reference analog rig for me. The AC-1 is a great, almost gothic looker—black composite 2 1/4″-thick base and 2 1/2″-thick platter, with a gleaming copper top-plate and a stainless-steel plinth. Long an aspirational target of mine, I’d ordered it some few weeks before the arrival of the Helius equipment. At $22,000 total retail, the Raven tandem comes in about $8000 more than the cost of the Helius arm and ’table.
The Raven AC-1 replaced my Raven Two ’table, its “junior” in the TW-Acustic line ($7500 when last available) that was my long-standing prior reference. Both are unsuspended ’tables, employing constrained-layered damping, using Delrin, copper powder, and other materials rather than suspension to provide isolation from the external environment. The Raven ’tables and the Virdia use footers for further isolation and they all are belt-driven, though the Raven ’tables use exterior motors and controllers while the Viridia ones are integrated into the plinth. Weighing in at roughly 100 pounds, the AC-1 is even more massive than the Raven Two (about 45 pounds) and over six times the weight of the Helius Viridia’s mere 16 pounds (though actual weight isn’t that significant for a suspended ’table).
Crucially, the Viridia bearing is magnetic, whereas the Raven AC-1’s isn’t. Yet the Raven arm’s fixed-gimbal design—its four captured ball bearings provide motion in all four directions—perhaps creates a steadying effect similar to that produced by the Phaedra’s tetrahedral design. It’s a half-inch longer than the Phaedra’s effective 10″ length. And my Raven arm’s cables go all the way through the arm tube to the phono inputs, unlike the Phaedra’s, whose captured cables terminate fairly close-by its plinth, necessitating the use of a pair of RCA interconnects to reach the phono stage.
Both rigs are a joy to operate but both are somewhat demanding to install (what ’table and arm aren’t?). The Raven AC-1 is massive and impossible for anyone but an Olympic weight lifter to assemble solo, while dialing in the suspension of the Helius Viridian can rival a watchmaker’s tedium. The Raven arm’s cueing and cartridge alignment procedure is nothing special. By contrast, the Phaedra’s cueing mechanism is superbly precise and gentle in its drop, and its setup (including the cartridge) the most trouble-free I’ve ever encountered.
In short, the comparison here isn’t apples to apples, as their design approaches and executions differ so much. Finally, my listening sessions with the Helius gear happened just two months ahead of the arrival of the AC-1, which, for about a week, has occupied the top of my audio rack. With each arm and ’table combination, I used the same ZYX Ultimate 4D cartridge.
Though I can unequivocally say that the Helius combo flat crushed the sound of my old reference, the Raven Two with my Raven 10.5 arm, creating more richness and impact across the board, along with a delicacy and spot-on tonalities with a variety of instruments and voices, the comparison with the AC-1 and Raven arm is more complicated. The newly arrived Raven AC-1 and my 10.5 arm produced a firmer sound possessed of a muscular drive and an authoritative quality as opposed to the attractive fluidity, dimensionality, and sensuous airiness of the Helius presentation. On Mingus’s “Better Git It in Your Soul,” for example, the AC-1 provided a rich and emphatic sound that was explosive at times, excelling the Helius in drama and the most thrilling pyrotechnics of audio reproduction (bass slam, attack, imaging, and soundstage). Yet, I missed the sensitive touches of lyricism that the Helius afforded in the funereal dirge of the tune’s ending. Both rigs captured the plaintive beauties of Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending,” providing all its low-level details and delicate dynamics as well as the thrilling swells of the orchestra.
But it was on rock that the Raven combo particularly bettered the Helius rig, rendering Cornick’s percussive fuzz-bass on Tull’s “A New Day Yesterday” with stunning drive and Anderson’s voice and flute with superior vivacity. The Raven tandem rocked harder than the Helius. Piano music was a toss-up, the Helius perhaps more sensitive, while the Raven captured more of the immediacy and quickness of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” MJQ’s “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” didn’t sound quite so plangent via the Raven setup, though, but more aggressive than deft, frankly. There was a deeper soundstage and perhaps firmer instrumental images, with crisper drums and more percussive vibes, but I found the Helius sound far more natural in the end, favoring the aching lingerings of romance in its long tails of decay as the shimmering notes from the vibraphone fell gracefully into silence. It was similar with Laura Nyro and Labelle’s “I Met Him on a Sunday,” the Raven ’table perhaps too brisk for the lightest shadings of the female vocals to be evident. In the “Preludio” of the first act of La Traviata, though the AC-1 and 10.5 arm created a big orchestral presence, the violas and cellos sounding lavish and the violins nimble, they lacked the ease and flow of the Helius ’table and arm somehow, just missing the connective nuances of the performance. I much preferred the Helius with female voices and classical music. With the Raven AC-1, I had to switch out my solid-state Zanden Model 120 phono stage for a tubed Herron VTPH-2 phono stage to hear similar sensuous and organic qualities in my system’s sound to those I had heard with the Helius rig.
Using elite orchestra comparisons, the Helius is like the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa (expressive and emotionally complex), while the Raven might be the New York Philharmonic directed by Zubin Mehta (modern and energetic, with saturated timbres). Or, in jazz terms, Helius is Lester Young; Raven is John Coltrane.
With a total retail price around $14,000, the Helius Phaedra tonearm and Viridia ’table aren’t cheap, but, speaking in high-end terms, I consider the combination quite a bargain. Though perhaps not the analog jewel in looks that a lot of audiophiles crave, the Helius tandem nonetheless provides a spectacular mix of sonic refinement, precise engineering, ease of use, and excellent affordability at its performance level. If you’re looking for a reference analog rig that delivers a rich and articulate sound with the finest sensitivity to the timbral details and dynamic flow of acoustic music, the Helius Viridia turntable with a Phaedra arm combo is one of the first considerations I enthusiastically recommend you make. I so thoroughly enjoyed my time with it that it challenged my own choice of a reference analog combo. In my experience, the sonic wonders of the Helius Virdia turntable and Phaedra tonearm were a starburst amidst the glimmerings of lesser lights, and it transported me to a new universe of analog listening where I remain. I bought them both. As the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō once wrote (and Ian Fleming famously echoed), “You only live twice.”
. . . Garrett Hongo
- Analog sources: TW-Acustic Raven AC-1 and Raven Two turntables and TW-Acustic Raven 10.5 tonearm, ZYX Ultimate 4D cartridge (0.24mV)
- Digital source: Esoteric K-05X SACD/CD player
- Preamplifier: Zanden Audio Systems Model 3100
- Phono stages: Zanden Model 120, Herron VTPH-2
- Power amplifier: Zanden Audio Systems Model 8120
- Speakers: Ascendo System M
- Power cords: Audience frontRow powerChord HP and MP, Audience powerChord SE LP
- Interconnects: Audience frontRow (unbalanced), Zanden (balanced)
- Phono interconnect: Jorma Prime (unbalanced)
- Speaker cables and jumpers: Zanden speaker cables, Synergistic Research Galileo Universal Speaker Cells with Foundation jumpers
- Power conditioner: Audience aR6-TSSOX with Audience frontRow powerChord
- Record cleaner: Loricraft PRC4
- Accessories: Box Furniture S5S five-shelf rack and amp stand, edenSound FatBoy dampers, HRS damping plates, fo.Q Modrate HEM-25B and HEM-25S Pure Note Insulators, ASC SoundPanels, Zanden Audio Systems AT-1 Acoustic Tubes and AP-1 Acoustic Panels, GIK Acoustics 4A Alpha Pro Series Bass Trap Diffusors/Absorbers, Winds ALM-01 Arm Load Meter, Audio Intelligent Vinyl Solutions Premium One-Step Formula No 6, TW-Acustic Raven and Helius Phaedra cartridge alignment tools, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab record cleaning brush, AudioQuest anti-static record brush, Furutech GTX-D NCF(R) AC duplex receptacles, Oyaide R1 AC duplex receptacles
Helius Designs Viridia turntable
Helius Designs Phaedra tonearm
Warranty (both): Three years parts and labor.
The White House
Aldington, Evesham, Worcs
1087 East Ridgewood Street
Long Beach, California 90807
Phone: (562) 422–4747