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.
As Chester Rice, co-inventor of the moving-coil loudspeaker, once ruefully observed: "The ancients have stolen our inventions." So often, what is painted as new and innovative turns out to be something someone thought of long before. We have a habit of forgetting, and that applies not only to inventions, but to knowledge of other kinds as well.
Brinkmann's 9.6 tonearm ($3990) resembles the German company's longer, more expensive 10.5 and 12.1 arms, which in turn resemble the legendary Breuer. The new arm includes the same headshell, armtube, mounting socket, and cueing device used in the other arms. The bearing system differs, though the Swiss-made ball bearings are identical.
While the more expensive arms use traditional fixed-gimbal bearings, the 9.6 has a unipivot-like construction for the horizontal bearing. The weighted arm housing sits on a small ball that rests on a pivot, also as in a typical unipivot design. A second ball at the bottom of the housing prevents "arm lean," but since the arm's weight rests on the top ball, the lower one isn't critical, and I could feel some play when I handled the arm. Vertical arm motion is effected via a second pair of captured bearings. This arrangement allowed the use of less costly parts and kept the price down, Brinkmann says. The arm's effective length is 248mm (231.5 from pivot to spindle, plus 16.5mm of overhang), while its effective mass, referenced to the center position of the headshell slot, is 12gm.
Turntables are intrinsically cool. Maybe it's that I am of the pre-CD generation, for which the acquisition of one's first really good turntable marked an audiophile's coming of age. Just as turntable technology has progressed to such awe-inspiring pieces as the SME 30/2 and Rockport Technologies Sirius III, less stratospherically priced 'tables now offer levels of performance that, if not revelatory, show why so many audiophiles (including yours truly) continue to love their LPs with something just short of fanaticism.
Like many audiophiles, I cohabit with someone who understands my audio obsession but has no desire to share it. That someone is my wife. Since I began writing for Stereophile, Ashley has helped me carry amplifiers, tape up boxes for shipping, and found room in our house for all the extra components and their boxeswhich sometimes make the place look like a scene from an episode of Hoarders. She's a peach. Every time new gear comes to the house or to my studio, my wife has calmly helped me move stuff around while I dance around like a six-year-old on Christmas morning.
Part New Jersey diner, part Wurlitzer jukebox, with a snakelike tonearm that at certain angles looks vaguely lewd, this boxy, man-sized creation from Australia seems to have been built around its distinctive looks rather than for any functional purpose. Combine that with its sky-high price—itself almost obscene—and the result is apparently the sort of product that envious, cynical, self-loathing audiophiles love to hate, and reviewers love to write about.
If analog disc is fading, it is a twilight of the gods. Tonearms, cartridges, and turntables get steadily better; the overall quality of the best analog disc systems today is far better than it was two years ago. Bruce Thigpen and Edison Price's new Eminent Technology Two tonearm is a case in point. It has evolved from a highly specialized product for only the bravest of audiophiles to a reference quality arm that any dealer can install, and any audiophile can safely use. More importantly, it may have no sonic equal at any price.
The Graham Engineering 1.5 tonearm, originally introduced in 1990, was a thoughtfully executed design that logically addressed all of the basics of good tonearm performance—geometry, resonance control, rigidity, dynamic stability—with effective, sometimes ingenious ideas, while providing exceptional ease and flexibility of setup. Over time, designer Bob Graham came up with ways to significantly improve the 1.5's performance, including the replacement of its brass side weights with heavier ones of tungsten, an improved bearing with a more massive cap, various changes in internal wiring, a far more rigid and better-grounded mounting platform, and a new, sophisticated ceramic armwand. (The original wand had hardly been an afterthought: its heat-bonded, constrained-layer-damped design consisted of an inner tube of stainless steel and an outer tube of aluminum.) The arm's name changed from the 1.5 to the 1.5t (tungsten), then the 1.5t/c (ceramic), and on to the 2.0, 2.1, and 2.2.
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.
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.
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.
Ideally, LPs should be played with the pickup stylus remaining tangential (ie, at a 90° angle) to the groovejust as the lacquer from which the LP was ultimately stamped was cut in the first place. Over the years, many attempts have been made to accomplish this. Back in 1877, Thomas A. Edison's original machines tangentially tracked his cylinders, but Emil Berliner's invention of the flat disc put an end to cylinders altogether. In the 1950s, a number of companies marketed so-called "tangential" trackers that used dual arms, based on conventional pivoting arrangements, to change the angle at which the headshell was mounted as it moved across the LP side. In 1963, Marantz introduced the SLT-12, which used a plastic pantograph to move the stylus across the record surface. Garrard's Zero 100 pivoting arm controlled its independently pivoting headshell with a bar that extended from the main bearing of the tonearm.
If the sole criterion for choosing a winner in today's hotly contested premium arms race was original thinking, the Immedia RPM-2 might well come out on top. While some of its design details resemble those found on other products, in many significant areas the arm is unique—not for uniqueness's sake, but in order to efficiently implement some clearly considered goals. If the unipivot RPM-2 bears a resemblance to any other contemporary arm, it is Naim's highly regarded ARO—which I've never heard. The similarity, though, would appear to be superficial.
No one has ever accused Franc Kuzma of designing glamorous audio jewelry. His turntables and tonearms are industrial-strength examples of engineering know-how and machining excellence. But to those who appreciate such things, his products are truly beautiful, even if they're not adorned with chrome, wood, and sleekly polished surfaces. And if looking at the 4Point tonearm ($6500) in pebbly Darth Vader black doesn't get your analog juices flowing, perhaps its innovative design will. But first, this message:
The lacquers from which LPs are pressed are cut in a straight line, and that's how the LP groove should be traced. Even when set up perfectly, a pivoted arm describes an arc across the disc surface, maintaining tangency to the groove at only two points on that arc. Yet despite numerous attempts at building and selling linear-tracking tonearms, few remain on the market, and most are fraught with technical problems. Linear-tracking arms can be anything but linear, committing more sins of geometry as they meander across the record surface than do their pivoted brethren.