Frank Schröder – the designer of the Artemis Labs turntable and tonearm – is something of an authority figure when it comes to vinyl. In fact, he’s a walking, talking vinyl Wikipedia. So on the face of it, who better to design a turntable and tonearm? However, to date, Schröder’s products have been extremely up-scale, hand crafted tonearms that have a waiting list that would put Morgan Cars to shame. Can someone who is used to working at that end of the market design products built in greater numbers?
OK, so the Artemis Labs SA-1 turntable and TA-1 arm are not exactly mass-produced, but they are designed not to be custom made, and this is very much at odds with most of Schröder’s previous designs, which reflect his watchmaker training and fastidious approach.
As Schröder is best known as a tonearm guy, let’s start there. The TA-1 uses a new form of magnetic eddy current damping mechanism in the horizontal plane, and in place of his unique string and magnet bearing assembly, the TA-1 sports a hybrid ceramic gimbaled bearing that is as near frictionless as is functionally possible. It also uses a calibrated centre post for VTA adjustment, but the provision for relatively easy on-the-fly VTA changes as found on his Reference arms is gone.
Azimuth is controllable by loosening the armwand screw and adjusting the wand and the one-point cartridge mounting common to all Schröder arms is used. This works by mounting the cartridge to one of a range of mounting plates and affixing that to the arm, thereby adjusting the effective mass and making overhang (more accurately, overhang and tangency) easier to adjust. Finally, the wand itself is made from a rich oiled kingwood, and the lead-out wires are one long, uninterrupted length of cryo-treated pure copper. The arm fits the standard Rega mounting.
The SA-1 turntable was the first turntable part out of the Artemis Labs stable (prior to the deck, the Californian company was best known for its range of very nice valve amplifiers). Again designed by Schröder, the deck uses a high-mass platter on a relatively low-mass chassis, driven by a very high quality DC motor that uses magnetic tape in place of a belt, because magnetic tape is of uniform thickness. Once more... fastidious.
The high-mass platter is a carefully down-to-the-micron machined billet of aircraft grade aluminium, weighing in at almost 7kg, and damped with a paper/felt inlay. The platter turns on an oversized, non-inverted bearing designed with overlong self-lubing phosphor bronze bushes, and with rough edges factored in deliberately to aid the even spread of the oil film. Three mat options are available, to best suit your room, system and tastes.
The ‘belt’ is a loop of magnetic tape. This has several advantages. First, it means there’s a near-infinite supply of virtually free belts on tap. Next, tape is not rubber, so it is not bendy and stretchy; properties not recommended for precise speed control. As discussed earlier, tape’s thickness is more uniform than any rubber or silicon belt. Then, there’s the added bonus of a tape tensioner; something that’s definitely not recommended with rubber belts, but mean the tape covers more than 90 per cent of the diameter of the platter. More contact means no slippage or side thrust issues. This connects to a Swiss DC motor with a lot of torque, working to a predetermined drag factor thanks to an eddy current brake beneath the platter, so any traditional DC motor problems with variable load from cartridge drag are eliminated.
The chassis is a sandwich of a two layers of bamboo ply separated by a layer of ebony, with each layer of bamboo itself having three different layers with grain going in different directions. This effectively dissipates energy from within (vibrations from table itself) or without (footfall), without the need for a suspension system. The deck sits on three adjustable cones (Stillpoints are an option) and sports a small off-board power supply designed by John Atwood. This allows fine tuning of 33 and 45, and also includes a variable speed setting. It even has a notch in the spindle to centre eccentric spindle holes. A small Delrin puck sits atop the spindle.
Most good turntables go in one of two directions, sonically; added character or neutrality. This is different. It’s like it retains all the good parts of all the character-led decks (the precision of a direct drive, the effervescence of a idler wheel, the ‘bop’ of a suspended deck) with the inherently neutral performance of the ‘absence of character’ set. That’s a rare combination, the kind of deck that can go toe-to-toe with some of vinyl’s really big guns on their own turf, and not sound out of place. The last time I got this kind of performance from a turntable, it was a Pink Triangle Anniversary, and where this scores over that particular legend is it extends that exuberant yet honest performance across the full frequency range.