2019 August 25

     There are things we own, things that own us, and things in between. I buy a carton of eggs at the grocery store and they're mine. I can make them into an omelet, I can hard boil them and paint Easter decorations, I can even throw them off my rooftop. They're mine and nobody I know says otherwise.

     There are things that own us. Classic cars come to mind. People who drive old cars, especially old English cars, know the cars own them. I fly a 1965 Piper Cherokee that the paperwork says I own, but it's not really that way. I do what the airplane needs first and then the airplane goes where I want to go. We understand each other.

     I put old hifi gear in between. I own it, it's mine, nobody else has a claim on it. It requires tender-loving care to get it working and occasionally to keep it working, but most mornings I sit down and listen to my stereo rig of two score without incident. I put on a record, a tape, or a digital FLAC file and sit back for half an hour of music reproduction, thirty minutes of joy. Most of my hifi is from the 1970s, some older, some newer.

     The Vestigal tonearm is a one-theme product, lowering the effective mass of the phonograph cartridge relative to the vinyl record spinning beneath it. I have two concerns about this: First, is reducing mass anywhere and everywhere the right thing to be doing in tonearm design? Second, is a single-concept product designer going to compromise performance in other areas in the quest for one specific objective?

     I can produce an explanation why extreme low mass is better only vertically and not horizontally, but lower mass can still be overall a good thing for playing vinyl records. The articulated design produces far lower mass in the vertical direction than in the horizontal direction, and that difference wins over the wrong choice (in my opinion) of trying to reduce horizontal mass as much as possible.

     I bought a cool pair of Newton running shoes. Their theme was landing on the front of the foot, the way I ran most of my running life. They were pretty, they were cool, they were pretty cool, but they weren't well thought out past their foot-front theme. They were slippery in the rain. When my foot got sore in a mostly-downhill race I ran, they didn't give me anywhere to go in terms of landing on a different, not-sore part of my foot.

     On the other hand, I've been a passenger in Telsa cars. They're also one-theme products, a battery with a car attached. But they got the other stuff right, too. The display with full rear view and useful information is terrific, the suspension can take all the thrust the powerful motors can deliver, and the auto-drive stuff is super. They got it right, not just the theme part, but the whole car.

     So where does the Vestigal tonearm fall on this continuum? Is it solving the right problem? Not entirely, but it solves the low-mass problem well and the rest of the turntable works well. For example, the suspension is forgiving enough that I can open and close the glass dust cover without skipping the playing record. The tonearm is easily adjusted visually to keep the cartridge and stylus aligned and level.

     Yes, they got it right.

     In the mid 1970s I encountered a high-end audio store called Music and Sound Limited in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. When I was building tonearms out of Lego blocks, Larry, who worked there, showed me a tonearm called the Vestigal from a company called Transcriptors. It looked like a marionette with the head bobbing up and down to track small record warps better than anything else. The object of their game was minimum mass, both horizontal and vertical. I never saw it play a record, or even mounted on a turntable, just loose in the box. It inspired my own LOCI tonearm, also "articulated" with separate vertical and horizontal motion. The Vestigal is a beautiful tonearm.

     Maybe six months later, maybe a year, maybe two years, I saw a cool turntable called the Transcriptors Skeleton. It has a lovely platter that suspends the vinyl record on ten rubber dimples with five-fold symmetry and the platter-tonearm combination balances on a three-point spring suspension. By whatever artistic standard the Vestigal looks good, the Skeleton looks every-so-much-more-so beautiful. I saw the Skeleton, but not with a Vestigal mounted on it.

     But here it was on eBay, Skeleton and Vestigal from 1973, way too much money for a turntable and tonearm, even with a nice Ortofon phonograph cartridge. I winced, I decided that I could live with paying that much not just for a piece of audio history, but also for a piece of art, something lovely in my home that I can look at. I may think my Linn/LOCI looks terrific, but it's plain-Jane next to the Transcriptor set-up.

     So I got the box sent from Russia, well most of it, because the seller didn't pack it very well. (Here are videos of the product and pictures of my journey from a broken box full of parts to a working system.) There were tears large enough for parts to fall out, so I believe him when he says he packed all the parts even though some were missing. I found a fellow in Florida who had the missing parts and could tell me how they fit together. Life is good after all!

     So now I have it wired and running in my hifi. There's no user switch. Instead there's an old telephone-switch-style reed switch and a magnet that moves closer to the switch to turn it on. There are only three wires from the headshell back to the pivot, so the two cartridge ground wires are connected to each other. It's okay, it works, and it still looks lovely. The tonearm has no armrest as the anti-skate is set by balancing the back pivot so it gently stays away from the platter.

     Time for audition: The Transcriptors setup is beautiful and it sounds nice. In spite of having no way to regulate its constantly-changing vertical angle, in spite of the Ortofon being a middle-level performing cartridge, in spite of the suspension not being as smooth and balanced as it was forty-six years ago, the sound is smooth and balanced with a satisfying image on records that have a real stereo image. It's a joy to listen to it, not to mention how beautiful it is.

     Time for comparison: The Linn/LOCI/Denon is an easy winner. It does control the vertical angle repeatably and precisely and it has more horizontal mass. Inspired by the Vestigal I designed it that way. As I expected, its image is clearer and more consistent and its bass is a whole lot deeper and tighter. Voices and instruments are more real and there's more there there. It doesn't make the Transcriptors any worse and I would have been very surprised had it come out the other way.

     So now I have two good-looking, good-sounding turntables. No complaints. They go well with my two half-track and my quarter-track tape decks. There's a Camelot Magic digital-to-analogue converter to play the FLAC files I made from my compact disks (CDs), so now I'm in audio heaven with lots of input media.

     2020 April 5, Sunday morning.

     A month or two the Vestigal tonearm started humming on the inner grooves, both channels completely dead, nothing but hum. It sounds like an intermittent wire in the back of the 'arm, not something I can fix nor do I have anybody offering to do it for me. Ouch!

     Well, I got lucky and found another Vestigal tonearm on eBay. It came with the thread broken in shipping. Ouch! The thread broke right at the screw, so I was able to get the infinitesimally-shorter thread screwed to the back of the 'arm hanging (ahem) by a thread. With my aging poor eyesight and similarly-aging clumsy hands I got the thing mounted and one of the channels was dead. I checked with a volt-ohm meter and the "hot" lead was completely open, no connection. Ouch!

     So I went on line and, lucky once, lucky again, found yet a third Vestigal tonearm on eBay. It came with a Sonus Blue cartridge, no stylus guard so I had to be super careful (again with my aging poor eyesight and similarly-aging clumsy hands, so I had to solder the clips that broke from their tiny wires) in getting the thing ready to put on the turntable. This time I was smart, (it had to happen sometime) I checked the circuit for continuity, and all was good.

     When I mounted this 'arm, however, I found the threaded mount didn't reach through the Transcriptor-Skeleton-turntable armboard. It was shorter. Ouch!

     So I wrote a whiny email to my Transcriptors-parts friend in Florida. Maybe I could send him all three tonearms and get one good one back. He said he didn't have time to fix it for me. Ouch! He also mentioned there were multiple mounts and that I could get the right one on eBay. Eureka! The mount comes off and, Ah ha!, I already have the longer-thread mount on the dead-channel tonearm. Some minor surgery later and I had a Frankenstein Vestigal tonearm ready to mount. With the stylus hanging out there just waiting to hit something it was a bit harrowing, but I got the arm mounted, height set, overhang and angle aligned, tracking weight adjusted and ready to play.

     The end of the story is that now, 2020 April 5, Sunday morning, I have my Transcriptors system back up and running and sounding fine. It's a wonderful, lovely thing, maybe no Linn-beater, but who cares. I can still enjoy its beauty as I watch it and listen to it with two channels again. Whee!




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