Acoustic Sounds
By: Michael Fremer

March 10th, 2024

Category:

Editor's Choice

Supatrac, Lyra Atlas Lambda SL/ SAT CF1-12, Lyra Atlas Lambda SL Reveal

with an asterisk

Thanks to everyone who listened to the Blackbird/SAT files and weighed in on which they thought sounded better. If you read through all of the comments you found that opinions varied, which is to be expected. That one arm costs around $3500 and the other more than $50,000 tells you how fine (and surprising) is the Blackbird's performance.

Over the next few weeks three more arms will be put to a similar test—two are from Pro-Ject and one is from Ortofon. So stay tuned!

Oh, right! File "C" is the Supatrac Blackbird. File "D" is the SAT. The "asterisk" subhead at the top refers to this: when I double checked the Supatrac arm tracking force after posting the files, I found it to be somewhat higher than I'd originally set it: 1.84 instead of 1.72. I don't think that had a significant effect on the sound, but it might have contributed a tiny bit to the differences observed by listeners.

Comments

  • 2024-03-10 12:24:28 PM

    Patrick Brennan wrote:

    Incredible result for the Blackbird, especially considering that many believe the Blackbird to be better sounding than the SAT. Congratulations Richard!

    • 2024-03-10 01:01:11 PM

      Come on wrote:

      Yes, and my big congratulations to the Blackbird! Although the needle drop comparison will definitely (in my experience) not reveal the same as a direct AAA comparison, it was a very clear result for C in my case (level differences considered and cared for). Only in a somehow bright setup I could imagine, the perceived less energy, speed and openness of the SAT would give a different impression.

      That said, I’m not sure those needle drop comparisons do justice to those products. Too much (on the way of the needle drop and in the digital chain of the listener) is influencing. In my experience, such needle drops for whatever reason are usually still far away from the real AAA thing. Anyway thanks to Michael for this interesting comparison.

      • 2024-03-10 06:58:22 PM

        SUPATRAC wrote:

        Thanks fellas! And thank you Michael for an informative and entertaining contest.

  • 2024-03-10 12:37:36 PM

    Mark Cherrington wrote:

    What I found interesting is how some people preferred one over the other for being more dynamic while others preferred the other arm for precisely the same reason. On my system, the two sound very different--both wonderful, but quite different. I don't know whether I should be pleased or alarmed that I preferred the $50,000 arm (once again, champagne taste on a beer budget). This is a fascinating comparison, and extremely valuable. I really appreciate all the time and effort you put into doing this. And having the full-res files available on Dropbox is wonderful. Given Richard's comments about his approach being opposite that of the Well-Tempered arm, in terms of regidity, it would be really interesting to have a comparison of those two arms.

    • 2024-03-18 08:09:17 PM

      cracking resonance wrote:

      Hmm, let‘s be jointly alarmed. that we‘re still not old enough to spare us from that expense. ;-) Gosh, it was even more fun to listen to, not just nicer. Creepy.

  • 2024-03-10 01:29:22 PM

    Zaphod wrote:

    So cool! I preferred the Blackbird over the SAT. So, I can honestly tell my wife that I can save us 46.5K just by buying the Blackbird.

    Honestly, I am enjoying my current arm, an Origin Live Conqueror, and thus content.

    I will be in need of a new Cartridge only due to it being a wear item, so just a suggestion but an article on Styli wear and choosing a replacement cartridge would be great. Especially with all the various Styli types and MC vs. MM vs. MI and understanding the preloading and Step-up Transformer vs. Dedicated MC Phono-Stage. How to set-up a MC to work on a MM phono-stage. Etc etc etc.

  • 2024-03-10 05:41:08 PM

    Anton wrote:

    I am happy to have preferred "C," merely for the pleasure of not being able to afford a rig that is priced closer to my world!

    Congrat to Blackbird for "over achieving." Well done!

    • 2024-03-10 05:59:24 PM

      SUPATRAC wrote:

      Thank you Anton!

  • 2024-03-10 09:33:42 PM

    AV wrote:

    This was most enjoyable and very helpful Michael. Many thanks for your efforts. Great to have an amazing product like the Blackbird on the market. Well done Supatrac.

  • 2024-03-10 09:37:43 PM

    AV wrote:

    A note to Supatrack....in this industry positive reviews seem to lead to major price increases beyond those caused by inflation. Hopefully that won't be the case here so more analogue fans can enjoy this amazing product!

  • 2024-03-11 02:25:25 AM

    T68 wrote:

    Very interesting comparison and a salute to the inventor of the Supatrac (sideways unipivot tonearm bearing). This time the word "gamechanger" is appropriate.

    A real interesting test would be a cheaper cartridge like an AT VM95 on both arms. We could be very surprised by what the Supatrac can eek out of something like this ...

  • 2024-03-11 05:47:27 AM

    Billy wrote:

    What a great result Richard! Of course, I liked "C". But I've lived with 2 Blackbirds for a good while and I think I know the sound signature. I like to change things, often. But since I found SUPATRAC the Blackbird has been a permanent part of the system and it always delivers. Pace, rhythm and timing and explosive dynamics, deep, controlled bass that slams you in the chest.

    The fact that the "C" file was measured and found to be 1db louder was also a giveaway, I've found that the Blackbird seems to allow cartridges to play louder.

    Once you get the hang of it setting it up is easy enought. And you will get the hang of it because it's a keeper!

    • 2024-03-13 04:11:07 PM

      SUPATRAC wrote:

      Cheers Billy! Always good to hear from you!

  • 2024-03-11 05:47:28 AM

    Billy wrote:

    What a great result Richard! Of course, I liked "C". But I've lived with 2 Blackbirds for a good while and I think I know the sound signature. I like to change things, often. But since I found SUPATRAC the Blackbird has been a permanent part of the system and it always delivers. Pace, rhythm and timing and explosive dynamics, deep, controlled bass that slams you in the chest.

    The fact that the "C" file was measured and found to be 1db louder was also a giveaway, I've found that the Blackbird seems to allow cartridges to play louder.

    Once you get the hang of it setting it up is easy enought. And you will get the hang of it because it's a keeper!

  • 2024-03-11 07:22:51 AM

    DL wrote:

    Thanks Michael for doing this! I preferred D.

    So how did they both sound compared to each other whilst playing on the TT?

  • 2024-03-11 08:48:49 AM

    Ian Southall wrote:

    Post 1 The critical listening is now over and I, at least, have shown myself to be thoroughly confused about the Blackbird’s influence on the sound quality of the turntable / tonearm / cartridge combination Michael used. Like many I have been intrigued about how this arm works. I would like to offer some analysis and speculation in the hope of stimulating discussion amongst those (perhaps very few!) who are interested: The bearing system I posted previously that I feel the primary bearing is the arrangement of threads in an inverted “V” (flexure bearing) like the one in the Well Tempered arm. The “sideways unipivot” is a secondary bearing that functions to correct the main weakness of thread bearing arms, too much freedom to move back and forward as whole, in the manner of a playground swing. This bearing is being used to restrict a movement. Interesting parallel: the Graham Phantom has a true unpivot (point in cup) bearing as the primary bearing. The main weakness of the unipivot is its tendency to roll around the axis of the arm tube. This is corrected by a secondary bearing system – a horizontal ball race, magnetically linked to the arm tube. The secondary bearing does not bear the weight of the arm, and being only lightly loaded, adds little friction.

    • 2024-03-11 08:50:09 AM

      Ian Southall wrote:

      Post 2 When the Blackbird is set up as per the manual with the arm set exactly horizontal this is, in principle, a low friction bearing system in respect of horizontal motion. The threads bear the weight of the arm. However, despite this heavy loading, they have intrinsically low friction. The “sideways unipivot” is a simple, unlubricated plain bearing (the point rubs directly against the front face thrust box. This is not a special low friction material (powder coated steel?). It is not an intrinsically low friction bearing, but this probably does not matter. It bears none of the weight of the arm and is lightly loaded by the groove / stylus friction pulling the arm forwards. There is also a, deliberately added, magnetic force that adds to the loading (to help maintain the point in contact with the plate). I would predict that horizontal friction levels are competitive with more traditional bearings. When operating in the horizontal plane the arm pivots about an imaginary vertical line joining the apex of the inverted “V” formed by the threads and the point of the “sideways unipivot”. These points should be set so that they are exactly vertically aligned

      • 2024-03-11 08:50:57 AM

        Ian Southall wrote:

        Post 3 The most interesting feature of the Blackbird’s bearing is what happens when it is called on to pivot in the vertical plane. There is a difference between movements above and below the horizontal. Of course, these movements are over a much smaller arc than the necessary for horizontal movement. They comprise movements necessary for cuing, warp - riding and setting the initial arm height to optimise SRA/VTA. When the arm pivots up above the horizontal, it pivots up from the point of the “sideways unipivot”. The arm physically swings backwards away from the plane of the inverted “V” thread bearing. (You can see this in a short video Supatrac have posted showing how the bearing operates). This shifting mass of the arm causes some of its weight to load the “sideways unipivot”. Hence upwards movements cause increased friction in all planes. Setting SRA by raising the pillar height – cartridge end low - is therefore not a good idea (unless you adjust the bearing by screwing it away from the thrust box to reduce the friction. Doing so may result in the arm pivoting about a non – vertical axis and cause azimuth errors as the arm pivots horizontally across the disc. Perhaps it would be better to use wedge shaped spacers between the cartridge and the arm to set SRA with this arm (Wally Tools custom spacers?) In terms of behaviour over warps, bearing friction increases over warps. One might speculate that this acts as a primitive form of damping (early automotive suspension had friction dampers – friction is force that opposes movement!) This behaviour is separate from considerations of whether the arm is neutrally balanced.

        • 2024-03-11 08:52:00 AM

          Ian Southall wrote:

          Post4 The only situation when the arm needs to be pointed downwards from the horizontal is to set SRA with pillar end high. When the arm pivots downwards it pivots from the apex of the inverted “V” thread bearing. Contact between the “sideways unipivot” and the thrust box will break. If adjustments are made to restore contact, this will again lead to a non - vertical pivot axis and issues with changing azimuth across the disc. Again, head shell spacers may be a better solution. I am leaving for the moment any influence the bearing type might have over the vibrational behaviour of the arm – I may post again about the arm tube in general – you have been warned!

          • 2024-03-12 08:49:52 AM

            Sam Casanzio wrote:

            I'm confused. Please clarify in greater detail what people need to be "warned" about with your comment. Thank you.

            • 2024-03-12 09:54:18 AM

              Ian Southall wrote:

              It is a joke against myself - I have wittered on for far too long already and probably should not test readers patience by posting any further.

              Still, I do think that I achieved at least one thing by clarifying that the Blackbird arm must be operated exactly at the horizontal to work correctly. Supertrac do not mean quite the same thing as is commonly excepted by audiophiles when they says “Set the VTA/SRA”

              • 2024-03-12 10:19:04 AM

                Ian Southall wrote:

                I of course meant “accepted” not “excepted”. Truly, this is not my natural medium!

        • 2024-03-11 10:31:32 AM

          Ian Southall wrote:

          Correction to the above: It should read “Setting SRA by lowering the pillar height - cartridge end high is therefore not a good idea…….”

          • 2024-03-11 10:33:17 AM

            Ian Southall wrote:

            Correction is to “Post 3”

            • 2024-03-11 02:06:40 PM

              SUPATRAC wrote:

              Agood analysis but some aspects do not seem right to me.

              First, I do not recommend running the arm nose-down. It is designed to run level with the platter.

              If your cartridge has enough of an SRA error that nose-down is desired, either reduce the downforce so that the SRA becomes correct, or switch to a cartridge which isn't broken. In practice this isn't an issue - warps shift the record surface upwards; no warp can push the record surface down through the platter. A well configured Blackbird tracks warps very well and warps are generally inaudible. Of course, like any tonearm you can set it up wrong, but when you do it does not seem to perform worse than other arms. In fact it is surprisingly tolerant of misconfiguration.

              The pivot is very close to the height of the platter, so there is less movement (in the time axis) than with most arm designs which introduce some distance between pivot height and platter height. Although the upper part of the arm moves backwards slightly when a warp is encountered, the pivot contactdoes not move backwards, so I'm not sure I understand why this is relevant in an analysis of bearing function.

              It seems ro me that the important thing to understand about the bearing is that the arm is suspended in a way that does not interfere with the freedoms to rotate in yaw and pitch axes, but which constrains the roll movement found in other uni-pivot designs. Meanwhile the arm's potential movement in the time axis is resolutely opposed by a uni-pivot point which is oriented directly against time axis impulses.

              Anyway, thanks for your interest in the patented SUPATRAC bearing which is the innovation upon which the arm's performance hinges.

              • 2024-03-11 04:55:25 PM

                Ian Southall wrote:

                Concerning setting VTA/SRA. It is common practice with owners of other perfectionist tonearms to raise and lower the rear arm height to set this - but it may not result in a level arm. Some do this by ear and some like Mr Fremer use a microscope to set SRA to 92 degrees. This procedure may result in orientations of the arm that are tail up or down. Many feel that this is necessary because the manufacturers’ standards of orientation of the stylus on the cantilever are not what they should be - Michael has pointed out that this applies to specimens of some very expensive cartridges.

                Thank you for making clear that when you refer to altering arm height to set VTA, you actually mean setting the arm exactly horizontal. I agree with you completely that the arm does not function correctly if this is not done. Most arms still function normally tail up or tail down. The Blackbird is an exception to this, and it is good that owners should understand this.

                • 2024-03-11 05:17:37 PM

                  Come on wrote:

                  There are always some who make it all happen, see the Acoustical Systems arms where you can adjust SRA in the headshell and keep the arm parallel anyway.

                  • 2024-03-11 06:07:23 PM

                    SUPATRAC wrote:

                    When people alter arm tail height to 'set SRA', what measures do they take to compensate for the change in vertical torque reaction? How do they know that any change in sound has been caused by an infinitessimal adjustment in SRA rather than the rather more significant change in the vertical component of impulse reaction and the corresponding alteration in downforce?

                    I would expect the former to have almost no audible effect, and the latter to be quite easily audible, but I'm no expert.

                    Has anybody tried to quantify and compare those two effects?

                    • 2024-03-11 06:25:54 PM

                      Ian Southall wrote:

                      Michael has written extensively about this. See for example: https://www.analogplanet.com/content/does-setting-sra-92-degrees-work

                      Perhaps he might comment further here.

                      • 2024-03-12 02:41:42 PM

                        Sam Casanzio wrote:

                        Mr. Fremer, please do comment. Is it not advisable to raise or lower this arm for VTA adjustments?

                        • 2024-03-13 04:16:00 AM

                          SUPATRAC wrote:

                          I shall try to clarify my question.

                          When you consider the behaviour of the somewhat elastic cartridge suspension and its reaction in the vertical to drag impulses, is it possible that it could be acutely sensitive to the height of the pivot point above the record level?

                          Is it possible that some of what is heard after changing VTA is the result of changes in downforce and downforce-driven resonance? Looked at this way, the Bkackbird is already massively 'tail-down' because ther pivot is at or below the record level. Most arms can not even be configured with the pivot so low.

                          The Blackbird bearing allows further tail down configuration doing the arm is free to pitch upwards at the bearing. However, there is a limit to how 'tail-up' you can run it. To raise the tail by large margins it is necessary to withdraw the hoist hook so that the hoists lean forwards and do not make contact with the thrust surface. This configuration is not recommended because the yaw axis will no longer be perfectly vertical and minuscule variations in azimuth will occur as the arm progresses across the record, exactly like any other arm with a non-vertical yaw axis.

                          With regard to SRA, remember that each vertical movement of the cantilever rotates SRA through far larger angles than can be achieved by the VTA adjustments on most arms. It is the job of the cartridge maker to produce cartridges whose suspension and recommended downforce range hold the diamond in the appropriate posture.

                          My experience with Blackbirds is that they track exceptionally well EVEN IF YOU SET DOWNFORCE SIGNIFICANTLY LESS THAN THE CARTRIDGE MANUFACTURER'S RECOMMENDED RANGE. I suspect that the arm's exemplary torque reaction allows this because it is effectively always very 'tail-down'.

                          This is also why I consider Michael's comparison valid even though downforce was higher than he intended. The arm's intrinsic vertical stability, arising from the low and chatterless bearing provides for a wide tolerance of acceptable downforce values.

                          It would not surprise me if vertical torque reaction caused the lion's share of effects which people hear as 'SRA optimisation' when they adjust VTA on traditional arms, since those arms usually have a pivot well above the record surface, allowing dynamic drag impulses to excite vertical resonance.

                          I hope that is clear now.

                          • 2024-03-13 04:58:49 AM

                            Ian Southall wrote:

                            Would I be right if I were to summarise your advice to Blackbird owners as “Set the arm parallel to the record surface and do not fuss with VTA/SRA”?

                          • 2024-03-13 05:08:22 AM

                            Ian Southall wrote:

                            Setting the vertical tracking force (VTF) for cartridges too far away from the manufacturers’ recommendations is not good practice. The alignment of coils and magnetic field within the cartridge depends on the static deflection of the cantilever (VTF dependant) The generator is at its most linear when VTF is set at as recommended.

                            • 2024-03-13 07:48:56 AM

                              SUPATRAC wrote:

                              With apologies to Ian Southall:

                              Setting the vertical tracking angle (VTA) for cartridges too far away from the manufacturers’ recommendations is not good practice. The alignment of coils and magnetic field within the cartridge depends on the drag vector of the cantilever (VTA-dependent). The generator is at its most linear when VTA is set at as recommended.

                              ;-)

                              The main thing is keep audio fun!

                              Cheers!

                              • 2024-03-13 09:23:15 AM

                                Ian Southall wrote:

                                The main deflection of the cantilever can be obsverved when the stylus is placed on a static record. However, this is not the best way to enjoy the music! You are of course correct that some further, very small, change to the cantilever angle will happen when you actually play records. The cartridge manufacturers know this and their recommendations will give one the most fun.

                            • 2024-03-13 08:06:36 AM

                              SUPATRAC wrote:

                              BTW, Roy Gandy of Rega has written an interesting tract on this subject in which he challenges the theory that SRA is crucial or that small changes in it are audible.

                              I'm not saying he or anyone else is right, least of all my own callow speculations, but vertical bias and resonance in the cartridge suspension could potentially marry Roy's theories with the fact that many people report that VTA->SRA is critically audible.

                              • 2024-03-13 09:42:40 AM

                                Ian Southall wrote:

                                With a apologies for humourlessly pressing the point, but Blackbird owners perhaps deserve to hear your advice: Should they always set the arm parallel to the record surface and not fuss with SRA/VTA?

                                • 2024-03-13 10:29:57 AM

                                  SUPATRAC wrote:

                                  It is their choice. I have striven to make the arm as configurable as possible within the various constraints. The right advice here may depend on individual copies of the plethora of cartridges, and even how they have weathered unknown periods of use and wear, so I am afraid I can not give definitive advice. The Blackbird is capable of being configured with the arm not level with the record surface, although it probably has less margin for tail-up configuration than some arms. I do not see that as a big issue. If you are concerned about this, then I recommend the many other arms which allow a greater degree of nose-down configuration, but I can not promise that they will sound as good ;-)

                          • 2024-03-29 04:44:10 PM

                            WallyTools -J.R. wrote:

                            I totally agree that the arm should remain as level as possible to avoid upsetting vector forces. The old saw about "lowering SRA/VTA" giving more bass which eventually gets flabby and "raising SRA/VTA" ultimately makes the bass lean is NOT what changing SRA and VTA sound like. That is the tonearm changing vector relationships. It is also changes to VTF that are not compensated for by the user and, on some arms, changes in azimuth.

                            I have corrected both SRA and VTA (different set of goals for different reasons) up to as much as 9.4 degrees ass-end down. Common wisdom says it should sound muddy down there. Not so at all. That is where that particular cartridge picked up every last bit of clarity, focus and inner detail that it did not have when leveled out.

                            SRA is arguably not nearly as important as VTA, either. Watch for some upcoming videos of mine regarding this issue.

                            Congrats on making a truly wonderful tonearm, Richard!

                            • 2024-03-29 04:45:30 PM

                              WallyTools -J.R. wrote:

                              The point being: compensate for SRA and VTA at the headshell!

  • 2024-03-15 09:00:13 AM

    Martin Straub wrote:

    Fascinating. I picked C as sounding better. I will most likely be calling Mr. Braine again to put in my order in the next couple of weeks. How difficult is the tonearm to set up?

    Interestingly, I came to same conclusion on C on both my office computer, an Audioquest dragonfly DAC into Sennheiser HD 600s as I did on the home system through a pair of Sonus Faber Stradivaris.

    Wow.

    • 2024-03-20 04:51:08 AM

      SUPATRAC wrote:

      "How easy it's the tonearm to set up?"

      If Michael Fremer can set one up, anyone can ;-)

      (Sorry Michael, just pulling your leg.)

  • 2024-03-22 04:23:27 AM

    SUPATRAC wrote:

    I've been trying to understand the differences between the piano sound in the opening progression of chords. The two files have a different effect on me when I try to understand those chords. In file D they are smooth, sophisticated and soothing. I am less aware of the deeper notes and their relationship with the chords. Consequently, with D the effect is nice and easy to listen to, if not full of surprises.

    But whoa! What have we here when I listen to C? Those same 'chords' are complex, jarring and rich, almost as if their constituent notes have been chosen to wake me up rather than soothe. C presents these chords less harmoniously. The deeper notes seem easier to follow as components of a complex stew of harmony and discord. I have a visceral and queasy reaction. These are jazz chords. It turns out they are not nice. They are designed to ***k with you! I suspect that the rich and unnerving piano sound in C's intro is probably closer to what was intended whereas the comparitively distant politeness of those chords in D is not as close to being there. We talk about hifi 'sound qualities' like 'detail' and 'frequency response' a lot, but none of that matters next to musical qualities - visceral impact, presence, mood, beguilement and credibility.

    On a good system, to my ear, C is the one which makes those intro chords a little more electrifying and addictive. From then on I'm hooked.

    You may say "he would say that, wouldn't he?", but below in the next comment is the email I wrote to Michael Fremer before he revealed which was which:

    • 2024-03-22 04:24:48 AM

      SUPATRAC wrote:

      What I wrote to Michael Fremer before the reveal:

      "They are both great, but C is just another level. Presence, drama, dynamics, the energy of the performance, expressiveness in the double bass and the ability to follow it as an accompaniment to the rest of the music even when it's busy as hell, the timing bringing everything together so that it's not just a string of notes, but a fractal structure which has meaning, and moves like a city.

      There's a bar when it's emerging from the bass solo where the piano plays four notes in a half-speed progression and there's a carefully delayed syncopated cymbal tap after each as a kind of impossible echo, which is quite funny - almost cartoonish, cheeky, impertinent for a melodically paralysed instrument like a cymbal to be trying to flirt with piano notes at all, let alone those exquisitely played, judiciously chosen notes. C just nails the timing of those cymbal taps and the piano passage which provokes them and makes them so fresh that the joke cannot be missed, it's effortless. D just doesn't quite pull the joke off. It lacks conviction, and I seriously doubt that is a quality of the original performance.

      C feels more like being there, and it makes D seem like listening to a dry, academic recording. With C I can smell the cigar smoke and hear where the point of the stick touches each cymbal. Every contact with every instrument sounds more natural.

      I suspect C is the Blackbird, because I reckon I'm used to that ultra-dynamic "punchy" presentation, which is more like real life, but if it's the SAT I will go back to the drawing board and develop a new arm to try to catch it, because I can't afford one!

      If I'm wrong I'll feel as embarrassed as a father who has failed to identify his own child."