Tonearm Reviews

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Michael Fremer  |  Jul 08, 2024  |  First Published: Nov 01, 2015  |  0 comments
How big is the performance gap between TechDAS's new Air Force Two ($52,000) and original Air Force One ($105,000) turntables? How do you halve the price without also sacrificing the build quality and features of the flagship model that defines the brand? Even $52,000 is more than most people pay for an automobile, not to mention a turntable. Still, TechDAS's assertion on their website that the price of their new model price is "reasonably improved" over the old strikes me as an understatement.
Michael Trei  |  Jun 05, 2024  |  10 comments
I sometimes joke about how audio designers create products that resemble themselves, not just in how they look, but also in the design approach used, and especially the way they sound. So, we have tall, cool, pragmatic Scandinavians making gear like the lean, elegant Børresen loudspeakers, while the Italians build luscious curvy equipment endowed with natural wood and leather, like Sonus Faber speakers and Unison Research amplifiers. Continuing this blatant stereotyping, we have Acoustic Signature founder Gunther Frohnhöfer, a stout German known for creating precision-built turntables that are as solid-looking as he is.

When I visited the Acoustic Signature factory in 2023, I watched as they hewed massive slabs of aluminum into beautiful, heavyweight turntables. This approach is the opposite of the lightweight-but-rigid philosophy embraced by Rega, and while the resulting performance has different strengths, I would argue that it is at least equally valid. As with Rega, Acoustic Signature products have a purposeful simplicity, in a way that would allow a nonaudiophile to instantly recognize what their function is.

Alex Halberstadt  |  May 22, 2024  |  5 comments
Photo by Michael Stephens

Last May, during a visit to High End Munich, I was ushered into an exhibitor's room with much ceremony. Other showgoers had been shooed out so that I, a reviewer at an important magazine, could listen to the hi-fi undisturbed. The room featured obelisk-shaped "statement" speakers, monoblocks with enough tubes to light a cafeteria, and a wedding cake–sized turntable, all connected with python-thick cables. The whole thing cost as much as a starter house in coastal Connecticut.

The room's proprietor asked me to choose from a small stack of LPs. I went for Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else, a wonderful Miles Davis record in all but name. I know it as well as any other piece of recorded music. When the system began to play, it was doing all the audiophile things expected of an expensive hi-fi. But while I recognized the notes, I struggled to recognize the music. Something was clearly, obviously amiss. The rhythmic emphases and stresses that convey music's meaning and emotion were landing in the wrong places.

Michael Fremer  |  May 06, 2024  |  First Published: Jan 01, 2016  |  0 comments
In the April 2000 issue of Stereophile, I reviewed SME's Model 10, which was an attempt by that storied company to produce an "affordable" turntable. I described the Model 10's $5500 turntable-only price—about $7600 in today's dollars—as "stiff." (At the time, the Model 10 cost $5995 with SME's M10 arm, or $8250 with their IV.Vi arm.) But 16 years later, the same Model 10 costs only $5000 ($7000 with the more recent Model 10 arm, which is superior to the M10).
Ken Micallef  |  Mar 21, 2024  |  16 comments
In the early 1980s, I worked in a pop band playing AM radio hits, grooving behind my Yamaha drums and Zildjian cymbals as sweat drenched my body and my ears rang. We danced. We pranced. My shiny silk jumpsuit led upwards to a 2"-high afro, which women ran fingers through in hopes of finding contraband smokes ... Then overnight, everything changed.

At the beginning of the previous decade, Technics had released the SP-10, the first direct drive turntable. That was followed in short order by the SL-1100. Clive Campbell, aka Jamaican-American DJ Kool Herc, pioneered the simultaneous use of two Technics SL-1100s, initially at his sister's birthday party in the Bronx, inspiring "block parties" (rigging streetlamps for power) and hip-hop culture. Kool Herc isolated drumbeats from records by James Brown (with drummers Clyde Stubblefield and John "Jabo" Starks) and the Incredible Bongo Band (powered by master studio drummer Jim Gordon), among others, creating "breaks" for heated dance-floor partying. Soon, Lace Taylor (aka Afrika Bambaataa) and Grandmaster Flash (The Message) took Kool Herc's inventions into the mainstream, and hip-hop went global.

Michael Fremer  |  Mar 05, 2024  |  First Published: Apr 01, 2016  |  0 comments
"HOW MEASUREMENT FAILS DOCTORS AND TEACHERS" was the headline of a story in a recent issue of the New York Times's "Sunday Review" section (formerly called "News of the Week in Review," now rendered obsolete by the 24/7 news cycle created by and for the terminally self-absorbed). The writer, Robert M. Wachter, a professor and interim chairman of UC San Francisco's department of medicine and author of the book The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine's Computer Age, said that healthcare and education "have become increasingly subjected to metrics and measurements," and that the focus on them has "gone too far."

To me, that headline screamed "Audio!" And the book that needs to be written is The Digital Recording Revolution: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Audio's Computer Age.

Michael Trei  |  Dec 06, 2023  |  1 comments
About four years ago, the stand-alone tonearm market went through a bit of a crisis. First, in December 2019, SME announced that it would stop selling tonearms separately, effective immediately. From that point on, SME tonearms would be available only in combination with SME turntables. . .

Five months later, in May 2020, we received the second blow in this double whammy of bad tonearm news. That's when the Ichikawa Jewel Company of Japan, maker of Jelco tonearms, announced without warning that they were shutting down operations, closing their doors for good. They blamed a combination of an aging workforce, worn-out tooling that needed to be replaced, and the coronavirus pandemic. . .

We lost two key players all at once, but it's not as if we suddenly had nowhere to turn for tonearms. Turntable manufacturers like Acoustic Signature, Clearaudio, Origin Live, Pro-Ject, Rega, and VPI all sell their tonearms separately . . . A number of smaller tonearm specialists have popped up in recent decades: Acoustical Systems, Graham, GrooveMaster, Kuzma, Reed, Schick, Schröder, and at the ultrahigh end, Swedish Analog Technologies. Now we can add Korf Audio to the list.

Herb Reichert  |  Oct 18, 2023  |  5 comments
If you've read any of my previous Dreams, you no doubt realize that I am an empiricist by trade—that I believe in the value of relaxed, mindful observation, especially if my solitary observances are independently corroborated by others. Whenever possible, I test my observations by getting either the Spin Doctor, the Audiophiliac, or my Russian neighbor to listen and tell me what they notice. If they notice the same things I noticed, independently, I relax. Corroboration is important because when I submit a review, I have an obligation to get it right. I need to be confident that readers, when they listen, will likely hear the same thing I heard, for themselves.
Michael Trei  |  Jul 20, 2023  |  7 comments
Creating a new flagship model is never an easy task for an audio company. A good designer will have already incorporated all his or her best ideas into the prior flagship. For a follow-up, you typically get a scaled-up version of what came before, incorporating the kind of improvements a bigger budget will allow.

SME's history is well-documented. The company started out, in 1946, as an engineering company for hire. In 1959, after a few years supplying parts for the scale modeling and various other high-tech industries, company founder Alastair Robertson-Aikman wanted a better tonearm for his personal use. He leveraged the capabilities of his small engineering company to create what eventually became the legendary 3009 and 3012 tonearms. The reputation of the new arms spread quickly, and from the mid-1960s through the 1970s, SME dominated the high-end tonearm market. SME's corporate slogan was The Best Pick-Up Arm in the World, and few people at the time would have challenged that claim.

Michael Fremer  |  Jul 14, 2023  |  First Published: Dec 01, 2016  |  33 comments
I recently posted to AnalogPlanet.com's YouTube channel a video that compares VPI's Prime turntable and JMW 3D-printed tonearm ($3995) with Continuum Audio Labs' Caliburn turntable (ca $150,000 with arm and stand, discontinued) fitted with the Swedish Analog Technologies arm ($28,000). Both played "Braziljah," a snazzy track from the New Zion Trio's latest album, Sunshine Seas (LP, RareNoise RNR065LP), featuring guest Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista.

The Prime was fitted with a Lyra Helikon SL cartridge (ca $2500, discontinued), driving a reasonably priced phono preamplifier: the Audio Alchemy PPA-1 ($1795, currently under review for AnalogPlanet). Accompanying the Continuum Caliburn and SAT arm were Audio-Technica's AT-ART1000 cartridge ($5000), and Ypsilon's MC-16L step-up transformer ($6200) and VPS-100 Silver phono preamplifier ($65,000)—total cost, more than I paid for my first house, in 1992.

Ken Micallef  |  Jun 01, 2023  |  6 comments
Founded in 1978, VPI Industries appears to be one of the most successful turntable manufacturers in the world—certainly in the US. The New Jersey–based company sells turntables, tonearms, cartridges, record clamps, plinths, record cleaning machines, and a phono preamp. But that's not all. The company offers VPI-branded pillows, candles, mugs, stickers, T-shirts, and a tell-all company history, 40 Years on the Record.

And talk about turntables! From the entry-level $1499 Cliffwood to the top-of-the-line $104,000 Vanquish (found under the website's "VPI Luxury" page, accompanied by the adage, "Settle for Nothing but Extravagant"), VPI is clearly and rightfully proud of its analog achievements.

Herb Reichert  |  May 31, 2023  |  22 comments
I wish that all who love LP playback as much as I do could hear a Thorens TD 124 or Garrard 301 or EMT 930 in their systems, but those products are subject to the vagaries of supply and demand: They are rare and pricey.—Art Dudley
Michael Fremer  |  Mar 10, 2023  |  First Published: Mar 10, 2017  |  7 comments
The ability to fine-tune a vinyl playback system is part of what makes it possible to combine an archaic technology with modern thinking and materials to create musical magic, and take listeners to new heights of ecstatic musical pleasure. It's why so many young people are tuning in to vinyl, and helps explain why just today, as I write this, it was announced in the UK that, for the first time, revenues from sales of vinyl exceeded those from downloads.
Michael Fremer  |  Aug 23, 2022  |  3 comments
The AXIOM tonearm from acoustical systems (footnote 1)—the company prefers lowercase—has been on my To-Review list since I spotted it at Munich High End more than a few years ago, but for one reason or another, that never happened. Until now.
Michael Fremer  |  Jun 21, 2022  |  6 comments
Lublin, Poland, is about 130 miles from Lviv, Ukraine, a town that has been in the news lately. That's about the same distance as Hershey, Pennsylvania, is from my desk in northern New Jersey, where I'm writing this. They are close. Russian missiles struck Lviv on March 18, 2022, and as I write these words Lviv is preparing for more intense bombardment.

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