Listening #118

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.

There are approximately 30 companies and/or individuals in the world who produce tonearms for commercial sale, and to browse their offerings is to harbor a similar suspicion. Some of those folks seem out of touch with their own products—an impression bolstered by the specifications they've provided for our most recent Stereophile Buyer's Guide. I don't want to single out anyone for ridicule, but there are enough nonsensical numbers on the tonearm pages to suggest a slight inability to discriminate between effective length, effective mass, and an effective hole in the ground. I wouldn't mind, except that the dust of confusion lies especially thick on the transcription-length (defined as 12" or longer) tonearms that I tend to prefer.

I'm happy to say that Ortofon stands apart from those companies that stock 12" tonearms in the same manner that J.C. Whitney stocks air-cleaner elements for the AMC Gremlin: The Danish company seems proud of their vintage-vibe arms. Maybe that's because Ortofon is sufficiently proud of their vintage-vibe cartridges that they persist in making new ones.

As a fan of Ortofon's tonearms and cartridges, I was happy to hear about Ortofon's new TA-210 tonearm, whose 329mm effective length makes it suitable for vintage turntables and the generously sized plinths with which they're commonly used. Of course, a longer-than-average tonearm is often assumed to be also more massive than average: a quality that can complement the generally low-compliance cartridges and pickup heads that vintage enthusiasts also favor. In that regard, however, the Ortofon TA-210 was somewhat surprising.

Ortofon TA-210 tonearm
First, a few basics: The Ortofon TA-210 ($1899) is a pivoting tonearm with traditional gimbaled bearings for lateral and vertical movement, and a curved aluminum-alloy armtube. The latter is unique in my experience for being damped, not by means of an inert coating or stuffing, but through the application of two extra parts: a rubber insert fitted to a short slot on the underside of the tube, and a proprietary thermoplastic elastomer insert fitted to an even shorter slot on the top of the tube. Ortofon suggests that, instead of encouraging the storage of unwanted energy by completely filling the tube, the sparing use of different materials in different parts of an arm can lessen the ill effects of unwanted resonances by spreading them over a wider range of frequencies.

In contrast to such things as the EMT 997 and the Linn Ekos SE, the Ortofon TA-210 is a static-balance arm: Tracking force is applied not with a spring, but by adjusting the counterweight's position to lessen its effect on arm mass. Said counterweight is supplied with an extra 45gm metal ring, which serves as an auxiliary weight: Two rubber O-rings on the inner surface of the ring allow it to be securely snugged into place when using pickup heads or cartridges weighing more than 21gm (the latter in tandem with the Ortofon's supplied 15.5gm alloy headshell). Arm height is easily adjustable, though not on the fly—about which I admit to caring little. A magnetic antiskating device, calibrated to correspond with downforces of up to 3gm, is provided; downforce itself is calibrated up to 4gm on a simple ring-type indicator, which has separate scales for using the arm with or without the auxiliary counterweight.

The TA-210 also comes with a removable cable, terminated with phono plugs at the far end and a five-conductor DIN plug of the usual sort at the near end. This allows the user to experiment with the cables of his or her choice, and removes from the installation equation the heartache of soldering.

Speaking of which, one of the TA-210's nicest features is something that ought to come packed with every perfectionist-quality, four-figure tonearm: a simple, accurate, well-thought-out installation jig. This 14" strip of clear plastic has a spindle-sized hole at one end, and a hole at the other that's sized for the guide pin of a two-piece locating device, the larger portion of which fits precisely into the tonearm's mounting collet. I have aped, in my own rough way, the same sort of thing for use with my EMT and Schick arms, using thin strips of plywood instead of clear plastic and, as a locating device—swear to God—a large-diameter spike from an old Linn Isobarik speaker stand. (With just a bit of sanding, the latter fits perfectly into the EMT 997 mounting collet.)

The precise distance between the centers of the two holes of the Ortofon jig is 316.6mm: That's the arm's spindle-to-pivot length, aka the mounting distance. (The stylus overhang of the TA-210 is 12.4mm; that, added to the mounting distance, gives us the 329mm effective length mentioned above.) And that brings us to the reliably entertaining subject of cartridge alignment, which of course constitutes one of the main reasons for wanting a 12" tonearm in the first place: Installed and adjusted properly, a longer-than-average tonearm, with its less-than-average overhang and smaller-than-average headshell offset angle, offers the potential for lower-than-average tracking-angle error—and the audible distortion that arises therefrom.

As fellow Stereophile contributor Keith Howard observed in his seminal feature "Arc Angles: Optimizing Tonearm Geometry" (March 2010), the performance advantage of a transcription-length tonearm is real, but so, too, is the potential for higher tracking-angle error and distortion if the thing isn't aligned perfectly: a pitfall for which I remain vigilant. Notably, Howard also computed a set of alignment specs that are measurably superior to the model on which most manufacturers and hobbyists rely, but I have resolutely not gone down that road with the Ortofon TA-210—or at least not yet. For now, I'm sticking with the tried and mostly true Baerwald-alignment math, and will save the tweaking for another day.

Back to the jig: When my review sample of the Ortofon TA-210 arrived, I elected to mount it on my Thorens TD 124 turntable, and began by cutting a new, blank tonearm board from plywood. (The plinth I made for this turntable, also from plywood, has four threaded inserts at its right-rear corner, allowing me to interchange armboards and arms while maintaining hard-won alignment settings.) With the new armboard in place, I set loosely on its surface the arm's mounting collet—with the Ortofon locating device at its center—then slipped the clear plastic jig over the locating device at one end and the platter spindle at the other. Doing so established an arc along which the arm's mounting hole could be accurately located, and when I found the spot along that arc that suited my board, I pressed the guide pin of the locating device into the wood to mark the correct drilling point. Then, holding the collet firmly in place, I removed the pin and used it to mark the drilling points for three mounting screws.

dalethorn's picture

The Beyer (now Beyerdynamic) DT-48 headphone was first made in 1937 and is scheduled to be discontinued this year, with a 75-year run. I don't know about availability during that entire time, but there it is.

Ironically, I was made aware of it from Stereophile's Recommended Components in the early 1970's.