Linn Ekos tonearm
John is correct in so many things hi-fidelical that I didn't then have the courage to point out that, yes, in theory modern arms add nothing to the sound of the cartridges that they carry. In practice, however, not all the mechanical energy imparted the stylus by the wiggling groove being dragged past it is transformed into an electrical signal. Plenty is left over to excite all manner of resonances in every physical part of the disc playback system—cantilever, cartridge body, arm, and turntable. In a metaphor coined in the '60s by the English pickup cartridge expert Jean Walton, the situation is akin to a Model T being driven at speed over a rough, off-road course. If something can rattle, it will. Is it not reasonable, therefore, to insist that the anachronistic usage is actually a more correct description of the role of the arm in determining ultimate sound quality?
Unless the arm is so good that it doesn't make any contribution.
But how many of those are there? Not many. It would be safe to say none, but a few get close to that paradigm: the legendary Swiss Breuer was the first tonearm I heard that was more like a pickup arm, while Sumiko's no-longer-in-production "The Arm" built further on that performance; certainly the Airtangent tonearm reviewed a couple of months back by Arnie Balgalvis deserves a high ranking in this category; as does the Eminent Technology ET2 in the midrange; the Rega RB300 is a surprisingly low-priced contender; Bill Firebaugh's Well-Tempered Arm is J. Gordon Holt's preferred choice; but what in my mind gets the nearest to achieving the sonic equivalent of being a black cat in an unlit room is the SME V (and its lower-cost cousin, the IV).
So why, then, given my recognition of the merits of the eight arms above, have I stuck with the Linn Ittok LVII arm for most of the last eight years' worth of listening?
Putting to one side the question of cost, it's down to two things: bass quality, and the fact that a record-playing system is just that: a system. First, although I'm told the Airtangent gets remarkably close, I have never heard a tonearm without a fixed pivot and gimbal vertical bearings give the tightness of bass that I find essential to musical enjoyment. Bass transients should shock the listener, but both on parallel-tracking arms and on arms that use a knife-edge bearing, they kind of sneak up on the listener instead, defusing the impact. I know, I know, as John Crabbe used to say (and probably still does), "There's no such thing as a bass transient!"—and he's right. As pointed out in this month's "Letters" section, the harmonic content that goes to form the leading edge of, say, the sound of a bass drum struck hard, is much higher in frequency: in the upper midrange and above. But what else would you call the sound of a drum? "Bass transient" describes precisely the fact that the sound carries a good deal of low-frequency energy, all of which arrives at the same time. Ever since I first used the original Mission 774 tonearm (designed by John Bicht, now of Versa Dynamics fame), I have been sensitive to any smearing of that bass-transient information, ruling out for me such an otherwise excellent arm as the Eminent.
Though its negative effect on sound quality was an order of magnitude lower than the SME 3009 III I had been using up to that point, that Mission was not the easiest arm to set up or match with pickup cartridges, which brings me to the point of treating the record-playing front end as a system. Simply to buy a Class A rated cartridge, tonearm, and turntable from Stereophile's "Recommended Components" listing is no guarantee that the result will be Class A sound. The performance of each of the three major components depends to such a large extent on the other two that all need to be carefully selected to work together as a system.
It is this system aspect of record-player use that has kept me with the Linn Sondek all these years. I have heard and used turntables that appear to be better in one or more areas (though I rarely hear one with as good speed stability). The SOTA Star Sapphire, for example, offers a tighter upper bass with better overall extension; but I couldn't get it to work as well at producing music on a consistent basis. So, given that I choose to use a Linn, what tonearms will work in combination with it?