Listening #180: Swissonor TA10 tonearm Page 2

Once again, the reviewing assembly line shut down (and I rushed into production a different November-issue "Listening" column, about coffee). I contacted the head of Swissonor, Urs Frei, who agreed that something was amiss. His wife, Anne-Marie, mailed out a different sample the next day.

When this second sample arrived, I noted that its container—which arrived in perfect shape—was marked TA10 2.09. Only then did I take a closer look at the first box, which I now saw was marked TA10 2.06. The two arms looked outwardly identical.

But they weren't. The vertical bearings were definitely better in the second sample. Still, when I floated the armtube of the new sample, though it wasn't egregiously sticky, it was a teensy bit slow in returning to its zero-downforce position. Given my hope that the TA10 would prove to be, in essence, a vintage tonearm with modern, ultra-high-quality bearings—my own hope, not Swissonor's claim—I was slightly disappointed. Nonetheless, I pressed on.

I was glad I did: The first few records I listened to with the second sample sounded magical—a word I don't use lightly, and meant to suggest that the TA10's three greatest sonic strengths were among those aspects of playback most important to me. To wit:

1) Spatially, with mono and stereo records alike, the Swissonor TA10 brought forward things that needed to be brought forward—voices, instrumental solos, and the like. Not only did it bring those elements forward, the Swissonor arm seemed to enhance their presence in ways that weren't entirely spatial: there was a little extra kick to the attack components of notes from Tim O'Brien's fiddle in "Durham Reel," and in banjoist Pete Wernick's kickoff to "Midnight on the Highway," both from Hot Rize's first, eponymous album (Flying Fish FF206).

2) Trebles were meaty and substantial, not phasey and excessively, unrealistically airy. Flutes and violins in Lorin Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic's recording of Sibelius's Symphony 7 (Decca SXL 6236) really dug into every note—never in a harsh or screechy way, but with a great deal of human physicality.

3) Musical lines had momentum and drive. To illustrate this I could name almost any record I played with the Swissonor arm, but "Gloria's Step," from the remarkable new reissue, on a MoFi Ultradisc one-step pressing, of the Bill Evans Trio's Sunday at the Village Vanguard (Riverside/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UD1S 2-002), deserves special mention. It's always instructive to hear how a piano recording can come alive through gear that doesn't blunt or distort the music's forward momentum, and I can think of no better example than this.

On top of all that, this arm sounded huge. (Okay, so that's four.) Ruggiero Ricci's solo violin in the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with Matthias Kuntzsch leading the Bochum Symphony Orchestra (Turnabout QTV 34722), had the sort of scale I associate with hearing the performance from a front-row seat: The instrument was almost breathtakingly resonant, present—and big. And the sheer orchestral expanse, for lack of a better word, on the above-mentioned Sibelius Seventh (August was Sibelius month around here) was astonishingly wide, high, and deep.

The Swissonor TA10 delighted me with every record I played—and not once during its time in my system did I hear any of the sorts of distortion associated with a misbehaving tonearm.

1217listen.table.jpg

It never lost its Lustre
Let's back up for a moment and return to the topic of installation—a small matter, inasmuch as Swissonor does most of the work for the TD 124 owner, but also a large matter, in that the user still has some control over the minutiae of installing and aligning a cartridge.

The TA10 is supplied with a detachable headshell of the usual sort that appears to be an off-the-shelf OEM item, the likes of which are supplied with any number of arms from other manufacturers. Most photos on Swissonor's website and elsewhere online show TA10s being used with an Ortofon G-style SPU pickup head—the longer of the two SPU varieties, and far more common today than the shorter, A-style SPU. While I won't reopen here the whole snoozy subject of variations in stylus-to-mounting-flange dimensions, I must mention that a number of sources have, over the years, stated that those measurements should read 50mm for a G-style SPU, and 32mm for an A-style. My own measurements suggest that that is incorrect, and that the actual dimensions are 52mm for G-style and 30mm for A-style. I have found some G-styles with stylus-to-flange dimensions of as little as 51.5 and as great as 52.5mm; that said, I admit that I ceased making those measurements a while back, if only because I was starting to bore myself.

There are two points to this little side trip: First, as noted in their instructions, Swissonor has apparently made the same observations as I, and has designed the TA10's geometry for a pickup head with a stylus-to-flange dimension of 52.5mm—which, of course, I think is very wise. Second, also as mentioned in Swissonor's instructions, the arm-mount hole in the TA10's armboard is very slightly oversized, thus making it possible for the user to loosen the main mounting nut (the appropriate wrench is included) and fine-tune the arm's spindle-to-pivot distance and thus precise cartridge alignment.

Other adjustments are possible. Antiskating force, though uncalibrated, can be fine-tuned by moving a weighted thread to any of 10 ridges along the rod that supports it, with positions closer to the bearing housing resulting in lesser degrees of anti-skating force. By loosening and then retightening two setscrews on the arm pillar's mounting collet, the TA10's armtube can be raised or lowered relative to the armboard, thus offering the chance to fine-tune the vertical tracking angle (VTA). But the TA10 and the headshell supplied with it lack any means of adjusting cartridge azimuth. That, too, disappointed me, as the azimuth of my second sample was notably off: Viewed head-on, every pickup head and headshell I connected to the TA10 was tilted counterclockwise, to 11:59 instead of 12:00.

Noticing two tiny setscrews on the underside of the TA10's armtube, just behind the headshell-locking collet, I wrote to Urs Frei and asked if the arm could be adjusted for azimuth. He replied that it could not, and that "SPUs with azimuth assembly error cannot be compensated." Then he added the following:

"Philosophically spoken, you can get two kinds of listening experience: A) You are a high-ender. You fear all these and many more imperfections in sound reproduction. You finally will listen with high concentration to find out any kind of issue. It will crisp you . . . You will become a frustrated, paranoiac, high-ender. High-end hell. B) You love life and music. You enjoy listening to Sinatra singing in your home . . . You will become a happy man. Music heaven."

It's pretty much the same argument used by that Rega salesman of 35 years ago. This is not to equate Swissonor with the dealership that pulled a fast one on me, but I would point out to Urs Frei that there exists a third category of record lover: C) You are a music lover, not a frustrated paranoiac, but you nevertheless chafe at paying healthy prices for products with avoidable defects.

Forced compliance
While looking for an explanation for that azimuth anomaly, and before concluding that it was the fault of the TA10 tonearm itself, I took a long, squinty look at the Swissonor armboard and wondered: Could those rubber grommets be tilting the board relative to the turntable, and thus be causing the error? Because that seemed possible, and because I wanted to try the Swissonor gear without those grommets anyway, I decided to uninstall tonearm and armboard, remove the grommets, then reinstall arm and board—carefully, with all due care taken in the even tightening of the three armboard bolts.

Before doing so, I settled in with a great new LP: a reissue of Michel Legrand's Legrand Jazz (Columbia/Impex CS 8079), featuring Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, and 28 other jazz giants. As I wrote to Michael Fremer the evening after first hearing this very impressive record, "Holy shit!" (I can say those sorts of things to Mikey. He doesn't get offended.) "Vivid, tactile, colorful, and surfaces so quiet that the loudness of the opening notes was shocking. One of the most technically accomplished reissues I have heard." He wrote back saying that he agreed.

This is when I removed the grommets from the armboard. Then I listened again to "Wild Man Blues," from the Legrand album. It was good—but not as magical as when the grommets were fitted. Eddie Costa's vibraphone no longer popped out of the mix as before, Paul Chambers's bass was a bit anemic, and Herbie Mann's flute wasn't as meaty. (You there, in the back of the classroom—stop sniggering!)

I reinstalled the grommets—not as easy as taking them out. Every little bit of the lost magic returned. And the performance was no less tuneful, nor was it lacking in anything else. The sound was incontrovertibly better when armboard and arm were compliantly—some would say loosely—mounted.

Finally: All of the above observations were made with my mostly original TD 124, which I rebuilt perhaps 11 years ago, cleaning and lubricating as I went and replacing worn parts with new and NOS parts from Schopper AG. This turntable departs from stock in only one regard: I retrofitted its motor-mount bracket with the superior double-grommet isolation kit that Thorens introduced in 1966, in the TD 124 Mk.II.

But in correspondence after shipping me TA10 sample two, Urs Frei asked if I'd tried the arm with 1) his company's new #2.0 main platter bearing, which, along with TA10 sample one, had been sent to me by Swissonor's US distributor, Fidelis Music Systems; and with 2) Swissonor's nonmagnetic replacement platter, one of which I long ago purchased from Schopper AG but until recently had been mounted on my daughter's TD 124.

I look forward to trying the new Swissonor bearing, in which elements originally made of polymer are replaced with parts precision-machined from bronze, but I haven't yet had time to install it—something I intend to do in the latter half of September, when I've settled in to my new listening room. But after my daughter returned to college, I swapped my turntable's iron platter for her Swissonor platter. After readjusting the tracking force—all else being equal, one observes a decrease in downforce with the nonmagnetic platter, owing to the decrease in magnetic attraction—I listened again to some of the tracks described above. The differences were slight—slighter, by far, than when I compared the TA10 armboard with and without grommets. But with the Swissonor platter I heard better definition: note attacks, and thus playing and singing techniques, seemed clearer; and with double bass in particular, there was greater clarity of pitch.

Of course, even if a TD 124 equipped with a nonmagnetic platter sounded the same as one equipped with an original, iron platter, there are those who would consider the Swissonor alternative worth every penny, simply for offering freedom from worry that one's phono signal is being modulated or compressed or otherwise dicked with by the proximity of a large, magnetically friendly thing under the cartridge. I don't disagree. I guess paranoiac high-enders aren't the only ones who worry, after all.

If you own a Thorens TD 124 and are looking for a vintage-friendly tonearm whose sound will complement rather than counter your turntable's best characteristics—and one that looks the part, and is pleasant to use—I think the Swissonor TA10 is an excellent choice. I'm not too put off by the azimuth discrepancies—there's plenty of evidence that this company has some serious engineering cred, and they've made a name for themselves by serving a small but passionate vintage-audio niche. But buy it through a dealer you trust and that offers a liberal returns policy, just in case.

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=46&lang=EN) 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.

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