The best tonearm I ever heard was a second-generation Mission Mechanic, ca 1986. It was mounted on a Roksan Xerxes turntable, and I spent several happy hours listening to records on that combination (with a low-compliance EMT cartridge) in two very different systems: one with solid-state amplification from DNM and Roksan's own dynamic Darius loudspeakers, and the other—my home system of the time—using tube amplification from Conrad-Johnson and a borrowed pair of Stax electrostatic speakers.
Oh, I talk a good game when it comes to the whole music-lover-vs-audiophile thing. But I admit that when it comes to record players, I'm just another hardware junkie. I love turntables and tonearms for more than the musical enjoyment they give me. Turntables and tonearms are my favorite toys.
I'm a tinkerer. From homemade audio isolation and room-treatment products to a local area network (LAN) connecting my Macintosh laptops, I'm always building or modifying something. One of my latest projects is a combination of parts swaps and custom-machined bits to better adapt the ergonomics of my exotic Italian Bimota motorcycle to my distinctly un-Italian 6'3" frame. But regardless of what I'm into, I can't resist the urge to tinker.
Andy Payor hurls a briefcase full of engineering and scientific mumbo-jumbo at in an attempt to justify the $73,750 price of the latest and greatest edition of his Rockport Technologies turntable, but really—isn't this all-air-driven design a case of analog overkill? After all, defining a turntable's job seems rather easy: rotate the record at an exact and constant speed, and, for a linear tracker, put the stylus in play across the record surface so that it maintains precise tangency to a radius described across the groove surface. By definition, a pivoted arm can't do that, so the goal there is to minimize the deviation. That's basically it. Right?
When Bob Graham introduced his 1.5 tonearm at the end of the 1980s, many thought he was dreaming: Vinyl was going the way of the console radio—who would invest two-grand-plus in a tonearm? But there was a method to Graham's madness—he'd designed his arm to be a drop-in replacement for more than 20 years' worth of SME arms, all of which shared the same mounting platform. Perhaps, in his wildest dreams, Graham had already envisioned the current "analog revival"—but even without it, he figured there'd be a robust replacement market, and he was poised to exploit it with what he thought was a superior product.
When I was visiting Santa Fe last Easter (footnote 1), one of the subjects I raised with JA was Naim's ARO tonearm. This unique unipivot design has languished in Class K of Stereophile's "Recommended Components" listing for far too long. JA explained that the regular reviewers have quite enough to do, thank you, just keeping up with speakers, electronics, and especially digital. The esteemed Martin Colloms is happily using an ARO on his Linn Sondek, and wrote a review for the English magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review in May 1991, but since there is a very small but nevertheless vociferous overlap in US readership between the two magazines, it is Stereophile policy not to have two reviews by the same reviewer of a given piece of gear.
"Tonearm?" muttered John Crabbe, my erstwhile editor at Hi-Fi News & Record Review, as he bent over my shoulder some 12 years ago to see what I was writing about. "A tonearm belongs on an acoustic gramophone—you should use the term 'pickup arm,' which doesn't suggest that the arm has a sound of its own."
Frankly, I'm fed up with the prophets of doom, those false seers who forecast vinyl's imminent demise. Some claim to have seen the writing on the wall as far back as ten years ago, sensing that the advent of the CD would perforce relegate the stylus-in-groove method of transduction to the trashpile of history. First of all, most of the music I enjoy happens to be on LP. And I'm sure I speak for many audiophiles who have also spent a lifetime building up a vinyl collection when I say we're not about to throw away our cherished treasuries of music. These LPs I expect to enjoy until the end of my time. Thus, I welcome any phono-system technological advance that will recover more information from the groove.
Tonearms, like Rodney Dangerfield, never get no respect. When was the last time you heard someone actually argue the merits of a tonearm? Right, not recently. "Hey, I just got that new Gizmo tonearm!" "Oh yeah? What cartridge are you using?" People pick out the cartridge for praise and consideration time after time, while the tonearm gets taken for granted.