Listening #122

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 unit—but of greater importance than just about everything else.

To those axioms I would add a qualification: My own tastes in sound are best served by a combination of a very low-compliance cartridge and a high-torque motor, the latter intended to let the record groove literally drive the former. But that relationship can't exist, let alone thrive, without a pickup arm capable of handling the considerable energy present within the cartridge—while at the same time, one hopes, remaining unperturbed by the vibration and noise given off by the motor.

Those who associate the lowest of low-compliance cartridges with the most dramatic and impactful playback often choose a pickup head such as the Ortofon SPU: a choice sometimes also accompanied by a longer-than-average "transcription"-style tonearm, whose greater-than-average mass can work hand in glove with a stiff cartridge suspension. But while the SPU may be the champ, it isn't the only serious competitor in the ring. Besides, not every audio perfectionist wants a 12" tonearm—and many of those who do don't have a turntable that can accommodate such a thing.

Happily, I now have experience of at least one 9" tonearm that can stand, literally and figuratively, alongside its 12" competition.

Size isn't everything
Twenty-five years ago, when vinyl still overshadowed the slouching birth of CD in the world of high-end audio, most retailers and reviewers could be counted on to have in their possession one or more of just seven predominant turntables: the SOTA Sapphire and its variants, the VPI HW-19 and its variants, the Linn LP12, the Rega Planar 3, the Goldmund Studio, the Oracle Delphi, and the Roksan Xerxes.

If the market for high-end turntables appears flatter today, it's only because the selection therein has continued to spread slowly outward, like a stain. While the above firms remain in business—notwithstanding the odd change in ownership or the molting of models from their lines—their goods are now sold alongside high-end turntables from Artemis, Audio Note, Audiostone, Avid, Bauer, Brinkmann, Clearaudio, Continuum, DaVinci, Denon, DNM, E.A.R., Feickert, 47 Laboratory, Funk Firm, Galibier, Grand Prix, Hanns, Kondo, Kronos, Kuzma, Merrill-Scillia, Michell, Micro-Sekei, Music Hall, Nottingham Analogue, Onedof, Origin Live, Palmer, PBN, Platine Verdier, Pro-Ject, Redpoint, Rockport, S.A.P., Scheu, Simon Yorke, SME, Spiral Groove (née Immedia), Spotheim, T+A, Transcriptors, Triangle Art, TW Acustic, Wave Kinetics, Well Tempered Lab, Wilson Benesch, Win Labs, and at least a half-dozen companies and individuals who sell rebuilt, reconditioned, or modified samples of classic idler-drive turntables from Garrard, Lenco, and Thorens (footnote 1).

Sixty-odd companies now compete with one another in offering four-, five-, and six-figure turntables to you and me and perhaps a hundred thousand other hard-core vinyl enthusiasts: arguably a case of too many trying to sell too much to too few.

High prices aren't the only ills in this product-clogged community: The poor devil who wishes to bring to market a new tonearm no longer has a clear idea of which turntable will wind up under his creation—a state of affairs that has surely hampered innovation. One example is that linear-tracking tonearms, the placement requirements of which place considerable constraints on the installer, have all but disappeared from the market.

The cynic might conclude that the only variables with which to attract tonearm buyers—apart from sound, of course, which remains unknowable until a given pairing can be tried—are build quality and aesthetics. Assuming so, there can be no more beguiling line of tonearms than those designed and built by Frank Schröder, a Berlin resident who spent the early part of his adult life as a watchmaker—so poetically ideal an embodiment of craftsmanship that it sounds improbable.

Schröder, whose handmade tonearms are known as much for their use of exotic hardwoods as for their Åberadjustibility, is now one of the busiest men in perfectionist audio: Since his tonearms began appearing in the US in significant numbers—I saw my first one in 2004, on a Galibier turntable—Schröder has enjoyed the distinction of being consistently backordered, with wait times that stretch to a year and beyond. Audio enthusiasts who share my passion for steel-string musical instruments will see parallels in the careers of such luthiers as T.J. Thompson, Wayne Henderson, and Lynn Dudenbostel.

As any politician might have hoped, an American small business has answered the call: Artemis Labs, of Simi Valley, California, has commissioned from Schröder a unique tonearm design called the TA-1, which the US company now manufactures, in-house, to the inventor's specifications. Sheer availability is the great advantage to this arrangement: Rather than waiting several months for a Schröder creation to put between his or her turntable and phono cartridge, the eager audiophile can have one now, the definition of now left only to the imagination of one's FedEx courier. The US-made arm also carries a price advantage: The Artemis TA-1, which retails for $3950, is less expensive than all but one of the tonearms made in Berlin by Herr Schröder.

Key to all the above—and especially to its relative ease of manufacture—is the fact that the Artemis TA-1 is designed with high-tolerance ball bearings: a more conventional choice than the magnetically damped, suspended-unipivot bearing around which other Schröder arms are built. Yet the TA-1's bearings, which use hybrid-ceramic rather than steel balls, appear sophisticated in their own right, especially inasmuch as the centers of rotation for both the horizontal and vertical bearings are located closer than usual to the level of the record platter: a performance ideal for any designer who wishes to minimize the effects of record warps and changes in vertical tracking angle (VTA). Schröder accomplished this by placing his tonearm's vertical bearings at the bottom of a columnar axle that supports—and, in both horizontal and vertical planes, moves with—the armtube. (I believe a similar approach has been used by Mörch in their non-unipivot arms; perhaps it's something in the umlauts?) According to Artemis Labs, the horizontal bearings of the TA-1 are also damped, internally, by hidden magnets.

Horizontal and vertical bearings alike are enclosed within a short, cylindrical housing of alloy about 23mm in diameter, above which the bearing axle is topped with a cylinder machined to the same diameter from a very different material: a brown phenolic that I mistook, at first glance, for wood. It's through the latter part that the armtube passes, held tight with a grub screw that also allows a small degree of rotation, allowing the user to adjust cartridge azimuth. An alloy arm pillar, also 23mm in diameter, extends below the bearing housing and supports a pinball-flipper–shaped gantry of phenolic that holds a cuing mechanism of the usual sort, alongside the TA-1's antiskate mechanism. The last is a chunky little hex-head grub screw, the far end of which is fitted with a tiny neodymium magnet; its threaded opening is angled in such a way that turning the screw clockwise brings the magnet closer to a metal tang secreted within the bearing housing: Thus can the antiskate screw increase, as desired, its outward pull on the armtube.

A major portion of that armtube is indeed made from an exotic wood: kingwood (Dalbergia cearensis, a close cousin to Brazilian rosewood), to be precise, machined with a gentle taper. (The tube is 11mm in diameter at its smallest, 12mm at its largest.) The wood is nearly solid, being drilled with a tunnel of just 2mm wide for the wires. The frontmost portion of the armtube and the rather long counterweight support are machined from aluminum alloy. The former is milled with an elliptical slot, through which a separate aluminum cartridge platform is held in place by a single bolt; the width of the front end of the armtube is such that it can be straddled by two cartridge-fixing bolts only when the cartridge platform is close to the correct offset angle (the very tip of the tube is machined at that angle, serving as a helpful guide). The "hanging" counterweight comprises three machined brass parts, the largest of which can be interchanged with ones of different mass—available from Artemis Labs, as are cartridge platforms of different mass—to suit different cartridge-weight ranges.

Based on my experience, how easy one finds it to install an Artemis TA-1 will probably range from average to above average, depending on the turntable in question. For my vintage Thorens TD 124, I began by mapping out the arm's 222mm spindle-to-pivot distance on a blank Michael Tang tonearm board and drilling a 15/16" hole for the arm pillar. (Frank Schröder recommends an opening of between 23 and 25mm.) The TA-1's alloy arm-mounting collet, which has approximately the same shape as its cuing gantry, is fixed to the armboard at a single point; on a metal or polymer armboard, a hole must be drilled and tapped for an M6 machine screw (supplied), but a wooden surface such as mine can be accommodated with a wood screw (for which I drilled a 5/32" pilot hole).

I encountered only one notable problem: Because the platter of a Thorens TD 124 sits rather low in its chassis, the height difference between tonearm board and record surface is considerably less than with other turntables—and so the TD 124 user must keep the tonearm as low as possible within its own height-adjustment range. Yet I was prevented from doing so by interference between the top of the arm-mounting collet—the point of which I'd aimed straight toward the front of the turntable—and the bottom of the cuing mechanism. I tried rotating the cuing gantry to a position where the two parts didn't hit each other—with the gantry pointing to 8 instead of 6 o'clock—but when I did that, I found that the antiskate mechanism no longer worked properly.

Footnote 1: Not to mention turntable brands that have come and gone, including but not limited to AR (old and new), Meitner, Phonosophie, Pink Triangle, Revolver, Sonographe, Townshend, Voyd, and C.J. Walker.

Footnote 2: Artemis Labs, 260 Marvista Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91106. Web: US distributor: AYDN Audio, Inc., 679 Easy Street, Simi Valley, CA 93065. Tel: (818) 216-7882. E-mail:


smittyman's picture

Worth the price of admission for Jokerman.

MVBC's picture

Anyone owning a piano knows that wood is never an inert material and responds to climatic conditions. How is this wood based tonearm supposed to fend off this reality especially when one is adjusting for fractions of a millimeter?enlightened