While brushing my teeth this morning, it occurred to me that there are significant similarities between a toothbrush and a tonearm/cartridge. The bristles would be analogous to the cartridge and the brush handle to the tonearm. In either case it is the business end of the device that does all the work. The bristles track the contours of your ivories in search of hazardous waste deposits, while the cartridge tracks the record groove transducing wall modulations into an electrical signal. I think that this is where the old adage came from: "A used cartridge is like a used toothbrushnobody wants one!"
Remember Rube Goldberg? He was a cartoonist during the late 1920s to early 1950s who specialized in devising the most outlandish and ingenious devices ever conceived by man, before or since. A Rube Goldberg mousetrap, for example, would occupy an entire small room. In taking the bait, the mouse would tip a balance beam, dropping a steel ball into a gutter, down which the ball would roll to strike a paddle whose spin would wind up a string that hoisted a weight into the air until it reached a trigger at the top, which would then release the weight to drop onto the unsuspecting mouse. Splat!
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.
Trends in turntable design shift back and forth over time, each "advance" turning out to be a mostly sideways move. Over its long history, VPI's founder and designer, Harry Weisfeld, has moved the analog goalposts back and forth as he's refined his thinking. His early turntables were mostly standard spring-suspension designs of normal size. By the time Weisfeld produced his fully tricked-out TNT model, which was originally designed to stably hold the heavy moving mass of Eminent Technology's ET2 air-bearing arm, he'd moved to a massive, oversized, sandwiched plinth with isolating feet at the corners. He first used springs and, later, air bladders originally designed to cushion a tractor-trailer's load, and which he'd found in a trucker's supply catalog. Via an O-ring, the TNT's outboard motor drove one of three pulleys that protruded from holes in the plinth, and attached to a T-shaped subchassis that, in turn, drove the other two pulleys via two additional O-rings.
VPI Industries' TNT turntable and JMW Memorial tonearm have evolved through several iterations over the last two decades. Some changes have been large, such as the deletion of the three-pulley subchassis and the introduction of the SDS motor controller. Others have been invisible—a change in bearing or spindle material, for example, or the way the bearing attaches to the plinth. And, as longtime Stereophile readers know, I've been upgrading and evolving along with VPI, most recently reporting on the TNT V-HR turntable (Stereophile, December 2001).
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.
"Hello, I'd like to apply for a Federal Grant? For what? Oh, to design and build a new, high-tech, very expensive turntable. What's that? It plays records. Yes, that kind of turntable. Of course they still make records. Why? How much time do you have? Oh, I forgot—you're a federal employee, you have all day! Well, I didn't mean to insult you. It was a joke....No, I'm serious about the turntable. You do? What kind of music? When are they from? RCA Record Club? Classical Music? 1950s and '60s? Yes. I'll give you $5 each. I know it's generous, but... How much money do I want for the grant? Coupla hundred thousand dollars. No, our turntables will never be used to play Marilyn Manson records—Marilyn doesn't do vinyl. It's in the mail? Thank you. I'll come get the LPs tonight."