Sad though they may be, Flat Earthers endure in getting two things right: In any music-playback system, the source is of primary importance; and in a music system in which LPs are the preferred medium, the pickup arm is of less importance than the motor unitbut of greater importance than just about everything else.
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.
Until recently, my favorite shirt was one I'd found on a clearance table at Macy's: a red paisley thing with long sleeves and a button-down collar, not unlike the ones seen in photographs of Peter Holsapple or the young Syd Barrett. When I first found it, this shirt was dusty, and appeared to have been marked down at least a half-dozen times before bottoming out at a price that wouldn't buy a six-pack of Mountain Dew at the local stop-and-rob. Maybe it was on the verge of being discarded, but I suspect that the people at Macy's had simply forgotten it was there.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Spiral Groove's new Centroid tonearm ($6000) arrived just a few days before press time, so it would be risky to say anything definitive about it. But I will take that risk: using the system described in my review of the SG2 turntable, this may be the best tonearm I've heard. Its sound is different in ways that will open people's ears, and I predict that it will affect the design of every tonearm from now on. The Centroid's design deserves and will await full coverage in its own review, but here are the basics: It's a fluid-damped unipivot design unlike any other that gives the user fine adjustment of all relevant parameters.
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!"
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.
Much has happened in the analog world since I reviewed SME's flagship Model 30/2 turntable for the March 2003 Stereophile (footnote 1). Back then, spending $25,000 on a turntable (without tonearm) was an odd extravagance intended only for those seriously committed to the format, and who already owned large LP collections. Although new LPs were being pressed in growing numbers, the resurgence of vinyl was still spotty, and the long-term prognosis for the old medium remained in question.
I can't help wondering: how did the mainstream audio press, cheered Dynaco and Marantz and McIntosh and Quad for switching to transistors a couple of generations ago, greet the first tube-revival products from Audio Research and the like? What was the reaction when moving-coil cartridge technology, considered all but dead by the early 1970s, became the perfectionist hi-fi norm just a few years later? And what would the same people make of the fact that a high-mass, transcription-length pickup armwith interchangeable pickup heads, no lessis one of the most recommendable phono products of 2008? The mind boggles.
It's now been eight years since a Rega P3 turntable passed through my listening room. While the new P3-24 superficially resembles the P3 (and virtually every other Rega 'table), the company has made some significant changes, including upgrading to the high-quality, low-voltage (24V), electronically adjusted motor used in the more expensive P5, P7, and P9. As in those models, an electronic circuit trims the phase angle of the P3-24's motor coils, thus substantially reducing motor vibrations. In 1998, during a factory tour, a Rega engineer demonstrated the circuit's effectiveness to me. As he adjusted the circuit board's pot, vibrations from the motor dramatically decreased, until it was difficult to tell if the motor was spinning or not. Back then, this "hand-trimmed" motor technology was available only in the P9. The P3-24 uses a less sophisticated version of the same basic idea.