Transcriptors Vestigal tonearm

Because this is an unusual and controversial tonearm design, and has had astonishing claims made for its performance by the manufacturer, this in-depth report goes deeper and is longer than is usual for Stereophile. We will return to a reasonable balance of reportage in the next issue.

The manufacturer's initial advertisement for their mis-named "Vestigal" arm (footnote 1) was so laced with nonsense that we will admit to having been skeptical about the product from the outset.

For example: Transcriptors claims that the "Perfect Arm" should have zero mass. If it did, the low-frequency resonance due to the compliance of even the best cartridges would occur in the upper-bass range, and the output would peak at that frequency and fall off rapidly below that. Transcriptors claims that the "Perfect arm" would work at zero tracking force, which is a nice idea to entertain but will just have to wait until some genius perfects a cartridge that works without contacting the groove. Transcriptors claims that phono "system resonance" should ideally occur above 30kHz, and then claims the resonance of their arm to be "over 180Hz."

They fail to point out that there are two fundamental resonances in every pickup system, one at the limit of high-frequency response (due to stylus mass vs vinyl compliance), and one at some low frequency (due to stylus compliance vs the combined effective mass of the arm and cartridge) below which the pickup's output falls off rapidly.

We will not comment on the other rather bloated claims that Transcriptors makes for their new arm, except to observe that the last time a disc system was "hopelessly outdated" was when the LP replaced the 78, and that some of those LPs that we own which have been played over 100 times are still what we would consider Hi-Fi, albeit rather noisier than when new.

So, what is this wondrous device anyway? In all respects but one it is a conventional (although certainly not conventional-looking) low-mass tonearm. The difference is that, instead of havinq its vertical pivots located back at the arm base, they are placed right behind the cartridge. It is a most unusual-looking arm, with a vaguely spidery quality that some people find oddly repulsive and others find fascinatingly attractive. Unlike the Stax and the SME arms, which look unambiguously like precision instruments with the flash of costly jewelry, the Transcriptors Vestigial gives the subtle impression of something alive, which is undoubtedly why it seems to elicit such a strong reaction from so many people.

You've probably seen the ads for it, but the photos of it are more tantalizing than enlightening, so in case you've never taken a close look at it "in the flesh," so to speak, our sketch below shows the details of its construction. The pivots about which lateral motion takes place are located to one side of the base of the arm, so the entire length of the arm is involved in lateral (horizontal) motions. Vertical movements, however, occur about a pair of pivots situated right behind and beneath the small platform that holds the cartridge. And that is what's so unusual about the Vestigial arm: Its inertia (mass) in the vertical plane is much lower than that of any other tonearm.

Low vertical mass is a good thing, up to a point at least, because it allows the cartridge ride up and down over record warps without significant change in tracking force. Thus, a cartridge that requires 0.5 grams of force for clean tracking with most discs can actually be tracked at somewhere near that figure, because the force won't drop much below its nominal setting when it rides the downhill portion of a warp.

It's an ingenious idea, but while the Vestigial design is unique in some specific respects (its odd-ball shape, for example), it is not the first tonearm to use this principle. Pickering & Company had an arm with its vertical pivots right behind the cartridge as long ago as 1953, and it was followed subsequently by similar designs from Shure Brothers (the "Studio Dynetic") and Gray Labs. All three had the distinction of coping more easily with warps than any other designs.

Actually, Transcriptors does not make any claims for their arm's ability to cope with warps. What they do claim for their design is a "180Hz system resonance—well outside air-moving frequencies no distortion or feedback." Apart from the gobbledegook quality of this description, it sounds like a recipe for disaster, for if "system resonance" did occur at 180Hz or thereabouts, the arm could be expected to skip grooves on heavy modulations near that frequency, and its ability to stay with the groove below that frequency would be dubious at best. Fortunately, that "180Hz system resonance" appears to be as illusory as some of the other sky-pie touted by Transcriptors.

The arm has a rated effective moving mass of 1 gram vertically and 6 grams laterally, including the cartridge. The initial advertisement for the Vestigial arm shows it with an ADC XLM cartridge, which weighs 3.8 grams and has a rated compliance of 50x10–6cm/dyne.

The formula for calculating the low-frequency resonance of a tonearm-pickup combination is


where FR is the low-frequency resonance in Hz, M is the total effective mass of the arm and cartridge in grams, and C is the compliance of the cartridge in cm/dyne (footnote 2).

Calculating the resonances in each plane of motion yields a figure of 9.2Hz lateral and 22.5Hz vertical. These figures were confirmed (within 0.3Hz) by our measurements using slow sweep tones. (Several of the CBS test discs have sweeps extending down to 10Hz; the frequencies were halved by running the discs at 16 2/3 rpm, taking the lower limit down to 5Hz.) Neither of these figures even approaches the claimed 180Hz resonance.

In fact, in order to get a system resonance at 180Hz with a pickup of the XLM's compliance, the effective mass would have to be 0.016 grams. With a mass of 1 gram, on the other hand, the pickup compliance would have to be 0.78x10–6cm/dyne in order to achieve system resonance of 180Hz! We wonder, now, where in Heaven did Transcriptors get their 180Hz figure? And who would want it anyway?

Footnote 1: The dictionary does not acknowledge the existence of this word. It does however list "vestigial."

Footnote 2: Manufacturers' compliance figures are usually for static conditions—that is, with the stylus displaced but stationary. The figure will usually be different under signal-modulation conditions, but the difference at low frequencies is not likely to be enough to affect significantly computations of arm/cartidge resonance.

Transcriptors Limited
Unit 10 Daybrook Business Centre
Daybrook, Notts

eugovector's picture

It's articles like this that make me wonder what JGH would have said about products that tend to get a bit of coverage in the modern mag, like pretty much anything from Synergistic Research.

John Atkinson's picture
eugovector wrote:
It's articles like this that make me wonder what JGH would have said about products that tend to get a bit of coverage in the modern mag, like pretty much anything from Synergistic Research.

Stereophile hasn't reviewed a Synergistic product in years.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

eugovector's picture

And yet, that didn't stop you from putting them on the 2015 Recommended Products List.

John Atkinson's picture
eugovector wrote:
And yet, that didn't stop you from putting them on the 2015 Recommended Products List.

My apologies. Hadn't had enough coffee when I responded this morning, as I forgot that Michael Fremer had written about the Synergistic Research ECTs, HCTs, and PCTs in the February issue's "Analog Corner" column.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

jmsent's picture

... many years back, and it was a total piece of junk.

T-NYC's picture

... David Gammon was correct in his use of Vestigal as Google shall tell, although Vestigial is also correct. As to the rest of the review, I agree based on the available empirical evidence and a reliable first-hand account.

Venere's picture

Holt and Gammon both sound like insufferable assholes. Not sure what the point is for reprinting crap like this for a product that no longer exists. Review some new equipment that has some relevance to your readers. Lastly, articles like this only serve to show what a pain in the ass analog reproduction is (was?) and why the entire world (other than a handful of tech-dweebs who would prefer to tinker and adjust their turntables and tonearms rather than actually listen to music) has moved on to digital sources and playback. I'd rather have crappy sound from an iPod that have to deal with all the BS discussed in this "review". Fortunately, there is also the option of listening to music on a quite satisfying modern system consisting of a disk player, an integrated amp with onboard DAC, and a pair of speakers. What an appropriately named product, the Vestigal remains of a dead technology. RIP.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

I also wonder why republishes ancient reviews of defunct gear. Must be Altzheimer's.

John Atkinson's picture
Venere wrote:
Not sure what the point is for reprinting crap like this for a product that no longer exists.

1) There is a demand for our reprinting these classic reviews from the magazine's earlier days, to judge from the emails I receive from readers.

2) When we started our website, one goal was eventually to have all the magazine's reviews reprinted on-line, going all the way back to the first issue. We are well on the way to achieving that goal, hence the appearance of a review from 1975 like this.

3) This review was a classic example of theory and practice being opposed, hence I thought readers would find it instructional.

4) It costs you nothing to read this review, so what's the problem?

Venere wrote:
Review some new equipment that has some relevance to your readers.

Each issue of the print Stereophile features reviews of "new equipment." Even if you don't want to purchase the print magazine, those reviews eventually find their way on to our website.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

I think an archive of all prior reviews is a great idea. Hopefully, it will include music reviews and feature pieces, as well.

John Atkinson's picture
Osgood Crinkly III wrote:
I think an archive of all prior reviews is a great idea.

Thank you. I forgot to list a 5th reason for posting these historical reviews and essay: it allows new readers to discover what a pioneer Stereophile's founder, the late J. Gordon Holt, was in the art of audio journalism.

Osgood Crinkly III wrote:
Hopefully, it will include music reviews and feature pieces, as well.

I am slowly working my way back posting the "Recordings of the Month" and am about to reach July 1982. All the "Records to Die For" features and many music features are already available in our free on-line archive.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

corrective_unconscious's picture

I saw this arm and table in high school, and it was one of my formative, first experiences with high end audio along with hearing the Dahlquists and the room dividing Maggies. It's interesting to read such a scathing criticism of various claims made for the arm, because it reminds me how much of my interest in high end audio to this day is based on the industrial design, the gadget aspect, the nerdy coolness of the gear, regardless of how much sense any of it makes in financial or even music reproduction terms.

volvic's picture

I love these old reviews, takes me back, learn new things about old gear and how great some of the old gear was and was not.

Bill Leebens's picture

Personally, I side with George Santayana's epigram, "Those who are unaware of the past are condemned to repeat it"--proof of which can be seen in US military policy, as well as the audio industry, in many instances.

Evidently, some readers side with Henry Ford: "History is bunk." How can one argue with a man who once said, "I've got no use for an engine that has more cylinders than a cow has teats??"

Amazing how pissed off folks can get at something that is offered at NO COST TO THEM, like the historical features.

God bless you, John. You are a patient man.

Alaskagram's picture

As a professional sound engineer I can tell you that the resonance of air is 7Hz the air will not support a wavelength longer then this. Consequently the air can not complete the feedback loop. Above this frequency the wave lengths are huge untill above 40Hz. Most home listen rooms are too small for wavelengths below 40Hz to form air borne resonances and as a result most feedback in turntables come from mechanically coupled resonances. These resonances can come from floors,table tops ,etc.. This why predicting these standing waves is so difficult.
During the heyday of the discos it was standard practice to suspend the turntable or use a sand box to dampen feedback. So it may not be prudent to blame "feedback" on just one part,the tonearm, rather the entire system must be taken into account.
P.S. the reference to being a "sound pro" is that after 30+ years mixing live sound I just might know a thing or two about feedback. Tonearm compliance may not so much, feedback yeah.

corrective_unconscious's picture

Has nothing to do with compressions and rarefactions in the air...well, not until that resonance impacts various parts of the audio reproduction chain and the thus changed result is repoduced in air.

The physical size of a room is one factor of many which determine the longest wavelength effectively supported by that room. It could have an acoustic "size" that is much larger, depending.

SET Man's picture


Is Stereophile having Altzheimer's? Not to me! I'm surprised to see that some people are having problem with Stereophile posting old reviews like this one.

For me, even thouhg this arm came out before I was born... I'm 37 by the way. I do enjoy reading old pieces like this. It is a glimps of how we got here today and it is also useful for those collectors and those whom enjoy vintage audio stuffs. And not to mention that old pieces like this can also inspire what's to come in the future.

And the best parts of these historical reviews like this on Stereophile is that it's free!

By the way I'm listening to Bjork's "Debut" LP on my 1971-72 vintage Transcriptor Hydraulic Reference with SME 3009 II Improved arm and Benz Micro ACE HO cartridge ;)