Listening #180: Swissonor TA10 tonearm

Everything you know is wrong.—The Firesign Theatre

The Swissonor TA10, a contemporary tonearm designed for the Thorens TD 124 turntable (1959–1970), challenged me to set aside some of the things I thought I knew about phonography. On at least one of those counts, it succeeded.

Handmade in Switzerland and modeled on the Thorens TP 14 tonearm of the 1960s, the TA10 ($3990) improves on its predecessor with an effective length of 240mm, which Swissonor says is the longest that can be achieved with a stock TD 124 armboard (the TP 14's effective length was only 210mm), and replaces the non-universal plug and socket of the TP 14's removable headshell with the more common SME standard found on most contemporary headshells, pickup heads, and tonearms. The TA10 also replaces the TP 14's stamped-steel bearing housing with one machined from aluminum, and adds their own original arm-lift design: a chunky, cam-style mechanism that provides non-abrupt cuing without the need for damping fluid.

The TA10 is a J-shaped tonearm with an offset of 35.5°; its vertical bearings are oriented with an identical offset, to ensure a full range of vertical arm movement without changes in cartridge azimuth. Two counterweights are supplied: one for cartridge/headshell combinations of 18–30gm, the other for those weighing 30–50gm. The downforce is static, and set by leveling the arm, then adjusting the position of the counterweight for the desired downforce. (The TP 14 offered dynamic downforce by means of an adjustable spring.) Within each counterweight, a rubber O-ring adds a degree of compliance to the interface of weight and armtube; four user-adjustable setscrews, spaced around the perimeter of the weight, apply variable pressure to the ring, and thus a means of fine-tuning compliance—a nice touch.

Sounds like a straightforward, conservatively engineered product, doesn't it? Yes, indeed. Now fasten your seatbelts.

Seriously
Swissonor, many of whose products are sold by the Thorens-refurbishing specialists at Schopper AG, also based in Switzerland (see "Listening" columns passim), is a company with a vision: these guys are serious—about the Thorens TD 124 in particular, and about their distinctly music-oriented and altogether uncompromising approach to domestic audio in general.

The first Swissonor product to cross my attention was their replacement platter for the TD 124, precision-machined from a non-ferromagnetic alloy, and marked with the same strobe markings as the original. (Original Thorens platters were made of magnetically permeable iron alloy, to which most phono cartridges feel an unhealthy attraction.) I shudder to think how much it must have cost Swissonor to tool up to make such a thing, just as I wonder if they've sold enough to recoup that investment. (The Swissonor platter is still available, for an eminently reasonable $1100.) For a small, independent, audio-only company to invest in the design and manufacture of such a thing for a turntable that hasn't been in production since Igor Stravinsky walked the Earth is remarkable—and that's not to mention Swissonor's replacement for the TD 124's shell-like upper platter, made from aluminum by means of spin-forming, a lost art on a par with the winding of transformers. As I said: serious.

1217listen.side.jpg

It wasn't until I saw a TA10 in person that I could fully appreciate that seriousness. The arm is shipped in a specially made, two-part box of dense fiberboard held together with staples and rivets. It comes preinstalled (footnote 1) on a proprietary Swissonor armboard (I'll return to that in a moment) that is itself bolted to three wooden supports fastened to the box's bottom half. The arm rest and cuing device are also prefastened to the board, as is a roughly L-shaped underboard bracket that provides support and strain relief for the phono cables, which are presoldered and neatly dressed. The shipping box is topped with a label bearing that arm's version number, something I didn't notice until I'd received my second review sample (but I'm getting ahead of myself).

Cheered by how much of my usual tonearm-setup work had already been done for me, I unfastened the Swissonor armboard from the packing, noting that one of the three wooden supports had come loose—yet the armboard and arm were still held tightly in place, and the wandering support appeared not to have wreaked any havoc. I was face to face at last with a tonearm that, until June 2017, I had only read about—and I was shocked to see that the armboard's three bolt-holes were fitted with soft, rubbery grommets that protruded below the board's surface: The Swissonor board, which is machined from a composite of fiber and phenolic, is meant to be mounted on the turntable compliantly. Recovering Linnie that I am, this bit of apostasy made me feel like a Roman Catholic (I'm one of those, too) whose parish priest has just invited him to a bar to attend a combination orgy and swearing contest during Lent: surely, any degree of compliance between tonearm and turntable will result in the dreaded condition known across Earth's flat expanse as Loss of the Tune. I resigned myself to using the product as the manufacturer intended, but made a mental note to try it without the grommets before the review period ended, and set about installing armboard and arm on my own TD 124.

It was then that I had another surprise: The Swissonor didn't fit. My TD 124 is mounted on a stacked-plywood plinth of my own making, and though I'd drilled the right-rear corner of my plinth with an opening large enough to accommodate the undercarriage hardware of various other tonearms, the TA10's pillar and cable bracket wouldn't clear. (Most original and contemporary TD 124 plinths, the latter including Schopper's most popular model, are frame-style structures with generous openings under the turntable's armboard area.) Swissonor's thorough and reasonably well-translated instruction manual anticipates this, informing the user that the TA10's phono-cable bracket can be rotated to alter its position and thus clear solid "consoles." That helped a little, but my plinth still obstructed the arm pillar. Installation was halted until I could whittle, grind, and file away enough plywood to make things work. It was my own darn fault. I never anticipated needing to create an open area beneath the rearmost end of the TD 124's armboard—but that's the very portion of the board that Swissonor must press into service to make a 240mm tonearm fit where a 210mm arm usually goes.

After that chore—the last big mess I made in my Cherry Valley workshop before our move to a new home!—I installed the armboard and arm with ease and fitted the TA10's large counterweight, along with a lingering review sample of the Ortofon SPU #1S pickup head. (The Ortofon got my vote for Budget Component of 2017; as I write this, I don't yet know how it fared in the voting overall.) Because the TD 124 was still on my bench, I decided to assess the tonearm's bearings before carrying the player back upstairs and putting it in my system.

Twist my arm
My first really good turntable—indeed, the first high-end audio product I ever owned, not counting the vintage McIntosh tuner I bought in the early 1970s and kept for only a short time without fully appreciating just how good it was—was a Rega Research Planar 2, purchased new in 1979 or so.

At the time, the Planar 2 was bundled with a Japanese-made Lustre tonearm, which I came to regard as the weak link in that budget-perfectionist record player. (The titanically superior RB300 tonearm, designed and made by Rega themselves, wouldn't appear until 1983.) My Planar 2 sounded better overall than the budget turntable it replaced, but on dynamic peaks I nevertheless heard from it a hard-sounding distortion not unlike the sound of a mistracking phono cartridge—and my entry-level Dynavector cartridge had never produced such a sound before being installed in the Lustre. It was during my efforts to diagnose the problem that I hit on a repeatable and reliable method of detecting excess friction in a tonearm's vertical bearings: "floating" an arm by setting its downforce mechanism (if any) to zero and adjusting the counterweight to achieve perfect balance, then watching carefully to see if the tonearm tube, when nudged up or down, returns to the same resting position, and noting the speed and apparent ease with which it does so.

The Lustre arm failed that test—miserably. As I described in this space more than 11 years ago, I learned a valuable lesson when I tried to solve my problem by returning to my Rega dealer and trading in my Planar 2 for a Planar 3, on the assumption that the Lustre arm on the more expensive Planar 3 would be of better quality than the one on the Planar 2. It was a naïve assumption, of course, and one that I never had the chance to test: When I returned to my apartment and unpacked my new Rega, I realized that my salesman, the store's turntable specialist, had swapped my old arm onto the new turntable.

Shouted epithets, not all of them from me, followed in short order. Reached by phone, the hi-fi salesman began by lying. (I know what you're thinking, and you may rest assured that I, too, was shocked.) But when he realized that I had him to rights, he changed tactics and blamed me: "Why can't you stop obsessing about audiophile nonsense and just enjoy the music?"

In other circumstances, that salesman's condescension might have been justified. Heck, I've thought and said and written the same thing myself when confronted with hobbyists who readjust tonearm height for each record they play, or devise elaborate systems for adjusting speaker toe-in from their seats. I intend to have his advice carved on my tombstone. I'll even instruct my survivors to dig a hole that goes all the way to hell and post a sign: "DEPOSIT SYSTEM DEMAGNETIZERS HERE." But objecting to being stuck with a defective product is never nonsense. For a person who knows the value of a dollar, it's the only reasonable response.

Back to modern times: I'm sorry to say the Swissonor TA10 was as poor as the Lustre in this regard. After floating the armtube, I found that, within a small range of movement concomitant with that of normal record playback, the armtube would stay wherever I put it, unfazed by such theoretical constructs as gravity and static balance. Obviously, one or both of its vertical bearings were sources of considerable friction.



Footnote 1: A boardless version is available for those who wish to use the TA10 on turntables other than the Thorens TD 124.

COMMENTS
Ortofan's picture

Is this the first time that a manufacturer has suggested that a particular reviewer "should not write about our stuff"?
Swissonor doesn't sound like an especially customer friendly outfit.
For half the price, one could buy the Ortofon TA-210 tonearm which, when it was reviewed by AD, appeared to be free of the various mechanical anomalies exhibited by either sample of the Swissonor arm:
https://www.stereophile.com/content/listening-118
https://www.ortofon.com/ta-210-p-432
https://www.needledoctor.com/Ortofon-TA-210-Tonearm

Robert Deutsch's picture

A number of years ago, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece entitled "How To Write Manufacturers' Comments." https://www.stereophile.com/features/22/. This manufacturer obviously didn't heed my advice.

Bob

BKinTheBK's picture

It's as if he read your article and decided to do the exact opposite of every suggestion.

He also seems to have never bothered to read AD's articles. Art seems to be definitively anti-hi-fi and fervently pro music. No fancy cables, cords, power conditioners & a perspective that suggests a desire for music that "moves him" at the expense of hi-fi perfection.

Dudley basically raved about how great his music sounded while using Urs's tonearm.

Urs, dude, this is for you: "Picking out and refuting minor negative comments in a generally glowing review draws attention to the negative aspects of the review and may snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."

BKinTheBK's picture

to add:

- Never ever EVER claim superiority by saying that your technician plays the harpsichord. Non sequitur say what?

tonykaz's picture

I'm one, I care.

My Company will work closely ( very, if necessary ) with anyone writing about our Products, especially if the person has 70,000 Readers ( possible buyers ).

This Swiss Company only makes a tiny number of things, he can afford to snub a Non-European that can't get the set-up right or is having a difficult time of it. He has a ( responsible ? ) Importer to take care of these matters who might just surmise that our Mr.Dudley lives too far from Civilization to be considered "Worthy" of "Special" hand-holding. Oh-well, ( at $4,000 a pop ) a very Golden opportunity missed.

Come to think of it, why is the manufacturer writing the Comments, why isn't the Importer?

Because:

This Swiss guy might not be up to speed on writing in English annnnnd

He might be the Analytical type, not the Social Sales type.

He may be having a hard time just now, perhaps the whole thing is falling down over his ears, phew.

Still, to me, this Arm Review just doesn't make sense, Vinyl still dead, after all and the gray beards still playing vinyl already own pricy turntables.

Will someone who finds an old Thorens in the Closet spend $4,000 for a new Arm?

Tony in Michigan

ps. I still have a nice Vinyl collection to list on eBay as I merrily sail into the digital depths of the 21st Century, lucky me, I don't have to worry about any of this.

gbougard's picture

If one can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen
Why should Urs Frei pander to the nonsense thrown at his products and his company?
People should learn to de-entitle themselves, listen to those who know and stfu

Anton's picture

Problem: shipping with the counterweight on..

Question: did Art do that?

BKinTheBK's picture

so everyone can see Urs Frei for the ass hat that he is? Art's review was fair and actually quite positive! He loved the music. The tonearm checked all his most important boxes. Art even blamed himself for the plinth size issue.

If a review is mostly positive, yet cites some fairly considered critiques a businessman politely thanks the reviewer for spending his precious time listening and writing an even-handed review and then rebuts any disagreements like an adult. Or ... if you're going to be a dick, at least be humorous. No one likes an unfunny dick. No one buys products from an unfunny dick. How should a buyer expect to be treated if an issue arose and was faced with this "if i made a mistake it must be your fault" style of customer service?

Urs, you silly child. Take your ball and go home. Your colleagues should be ashamed of your letter and a grownup at your company owes Art and the readers of Stereophile an apology.

Anton's picture

At the end of the review.

Yes, it was an asshat response.

BKinTheBK's picture

thanks.

gbougard's picture

Urs Frei is pointing at Art's glaring mistakes and details the consequences of those mistakes
And he is the bad guy???
People think they know better than this guy who has spent a lifetime putting together fabulous sounding stuff?
And ignoramuses should be treated nicely just because they read stereophile???
No wonder Trump got elected!

Anton's picture

Did Art damage or mispackage the arm shipping it to himself?

From the manufacturer’s comments:

“Problem..... Was the tonearm Art reviewed shipped with the counterweight on? We think so. Solution: Leave off the counterweight for shipping, as we do. This is absolutely necessary, not only for Swissonor tonearms but for any design.”

Why would Mr. Angry Manufacturer kick Art’s butt over that? Speaking of ‘ignoramuses.’

dukeofhazard's picture

First of all, I want to thank Mr. Frei and Mr. Schopper to offer such idiosyncratic items for the vinyl loving community; and Mr. Dudley because of his funny and informative essays of this kind of equipment.

The interesting question here is, who has been trying to school whom, at first. Mr. Frei telling Mr. Dudley to not look closer and just trust: pay the hefty price and just shut up, because it is “swiss-made”, insinuating that this is what the “real” music loving habitus is all about. Or Mr. Dudley, retrieving a decades old story about hi-fi shopping disappointment and comparing Mr. Frei with a hi-fi-salesman from the seventies. Mr. Dudley could have just reported on the issue without the “filling”.

Producer from Switzerland are becoming more and more under pressure. For a normal Swiss income the price of the tonearm is “half” the expenses as for the rest in Europe or the States. Swiss currency is ultra-strong, and selling these products outside raises serious cost-benefit questions on the side of potential customers.

I hope, this incident does not end the investigation of Mr. Dudley into this kind of product. I ’am looking forward to a comparison of dedicated power supplies by Schopper (http://www.schopper.ch/index.php?page=schopper-power-supply) and Hi-Fi Hanze (http://www.hanzehifi.nl/shop/index.php?action=article&aid=468&group_id=4...) to decrease the voltage and support the magnetic eddy current break to slow down torque. Is there any real effect? Mr. Dudley, I hope I raised your curiosity…

Razorball's picture

First of all let me tell you that i am a big Swissonor fan, and having compared their gear and philosophy of hifi to others, I find myself vey happy and pleased I chose their amp, speakers and cables, and will need nothing more to keep me un-frustrated in my quest for the best sound. I heard systems that cost 3 to 4 times more and that doesn’t sound nearly as good (musical) as what I am proud to own. Yes their gear doesn’t sound « hifi », it just sounds purely « musical ». I know Mr Frei from a customers point of view, but I also had the pleasure to dine with him and his lovely wife, Anne-Marie. What striked me with the guy is that he is so passionate about his stuff, and mostly about the music and emotions it delivers. That being, he CAN be somehow radical with his opinions, and we had our moments when we tended to agree to disagree, always with a hint of Swiss humour (yes, yes, it does exist!). I know for sure that Mr. Frei respects Mr Dudley, and I am sure that Mr Dudley has respect for Frei, and the comparison between Frei and a 70s hifi salesman was purely humourous.
The amount of time,research, and again, passion, put into producing this arm was enormous.
I for sure think that the last line Mr Frei put in his comment was the one too much and should not have been written, that was done with the force of too much emotion and it it was from my point of view unnecessary. Maybe his own azimuth wasn’t in place??! :-) But isn’t it only the proof that Swissonor doesn’t give a damn about selling in the « hi-fi/ high-end » world and addresses mainly music enthousiasts and purists, maybe like me? This could also be perceived as a very punky, let’s say rock’n ´rollish attitude . As I said, I don’t want to defend his last line too much, I personally would have stayed more commercial with it, would it have been my company. I also think of Art Dudley as being the least « hi-fi/high-end » of the reviewers and one of the last that writes about what he really cares about.
I just want to stand for the man that appears like a dick to some that posted their reaction in this blog: Mr Frei is a good man, with a heart, a passion, and it saddens me that he comes out as unfriendly/uncommercial, because that is not that.

rbs12's picture

I will simply offer one other data point that makes me wonder if something wasn't lost in translation here. Last spring, I emailed Urs Frei inquiring about a Swissonor product that has been discontinued for a number of years. I received an immediate response that he would look for one for me. I didn't expect much, given experiences with other dealers/manufacturers. But to my surprise, about six months later, he contacted me, saying he had located one and putting me directly in touch with the owner. I bought it, the build quality is fantastic (easily the equal of my Shindo gear), the sound is wonderful and I am grateful to Mr. Frei for his uncompensated efforts. I would not hesitate to buy another Swissonor product.

Anerol's picture

I am impressed which turns this discussion has taken. Guys, this is our hobby and supposed to bring us joy and happiness. At least I think so. Differing opinions are just that - differing opinions.

I am one of the happy fews, and we will always remain few, that enjoys playing his music with the TA-10 of the current production run. I have had expensive tonearms and less esxpensive tonearms. New ones and vintage models. European built and Japanese built. If there ever will be a production of the s shaped arm wand for my Graham I will probably try it. Anyway, the TA-10 is a wonderful performer. Art and his description of the sound is absolutely in line with my perceptions.

In that sense I am grateful for this wonderful product.

X