Sperling TA-1

Tonearm or Magic Wand?

Sperling arm on JVC turntable

Product: Sperling TA-1 tonearm
Manufacturer: Sperling - Germany
Approx. price: €8211, extra armwand €2975
Reviewer: Jeff Maxson - TNT USA
Reviewed: July, 2022

A Tonearm to Set One's Sights By?

What are your audio priorities? Do you love a system that is "ruthelessly revealing" of detail, of the attack and decay of individual notes? Or are you more attuned to the bodies of those notes themselves, their coherence as wholes? Do you appreciate how your system spreads the music out in space, with a deep and broad sound field and with precisely defined images of voices and instruments within that field? Or are you more captivated by the tones and timbres of those voices and instruments than their placement? And are these either/or categories I've just set up or is it possible to have both/and?

These are questions I've been asking myself as I consider the Sperling TA-1, a tonearm I've been enjoying a lot for 6 months. And they're brought more to the fore by a 2015 column on the Sperling L-1 turntable and arm in Stereophile by analog guru Michael Fremer, helpfully stored in page views of the print magazine by the Internet Archive. I'm a great fan of Fremer and all he has done for the analog hobby over many years. So I'm happy to have a chance to respond to his findings with some of my own.

Fremer says that the sound of the arm "was pleasing and intoxicating--a low-Q, low-amplitude character that subtly accentuated the lower midbass, adding a pleasing warmth to male voices and double basses without at all mucking things up and becoming obtrusive. In my opinion, it was what importer Audio Arts characterized as the TA-1's 'magic.'" Low-Q refers to the relatively slow release of resonances. And though Audio Arts no longer represents the brand, I'd have to agree that this wand (and the accompanying arm base) is indeed magic. But first let's look at what that magic is made of.

Description

Sperling Audio, Germany, has been producing turntables since at least 2013. The TA-1 arm is designed by Robert Fuchs, known for magnetic bearing tonearms and turntables. It arrived chez moi in a large wooden box with foam insert and slide-on lid. My sample came with a glossy chromed finish to the brass parts, but there is also an attractive matte chrome available.

The tonearm is a magnet-suspended and -damped unipivot; a small cone on the top of the armwand hangs from a shallow indent in a magnet; opposite it on the bottom of the armwand, an inset ball approaches a second magnet below it. Both magnets can be raised or lowered by large knurlled screws. Armwands come in ebony, snakewood, panzerholz (my two wands) or other woods on request and in 9, 10.5, 12 and 13.5 inch lengths (I have a 10.5 and a 12). The cartridge is first bolted to the slots in a carrier (available in chromed brass or panzerholz--I have 2 of each), which is then attached to the arm wand with a bolt; offset is achieved by rotating the carrier and then tightening it down. The helpful manual (color pix!) notes that there is also a version of the base incorporating a VTA lifter--mine is adjusted with set screws in the heavy collet, which is in turn bolted to the armboard with a 10M bolt or threaded rod and nut.

The arm pivot is offset from the base, as in designs like the Kuzma 4point. In his review of the arm, Fremer notes that in order to achieve correct overhang, one must remove the carrier from the arm wand, slide the cartridge forward or back and then reinstall and recheck. However, one can also adjust overhang by rotating the arm base in its collet, bringing the pivot closer to or farther from the spindle. Yes, this may mean the arm wand is not perpendicular to the front of the turntable, but it is considerably simpler than the trial and error Fremer suggests. Two other of Fremer's peeves have been rectified on my sample: The continuous cable from cartridge tags to RCAs (mine is Kondo silver) has a p-clamp and bolt that screws into one of the three holes in the collet also holding the set screws. And the cueing platform is J-shaped, so that the wand nestles into the crook of the J when at rest.

Fremer is right, however about the outrigger weights (he identifes them as for setting azimuth, which in my sample is accomplished by rotating the eccentric counterweight). These are set at either end of a threaded rod behind the pivot point, and according to the manual should be rotated out to be flush with the ends of the rod. In any case, as Fremer says, they and the supplementary counterweight have no means of fixing and may resonate and rotate away from their settings. Likewise, he faults the arm's lack of antiskating. It's true that turntable users tend to set antiskating too high, based on tones from a test record, which exaggerate the demands of recorded music. (Despite this, I did test the Sperling with the Hi Fi News record; it passed the first 12db test tone and broke up in the right channel--too little antiskate--on the second 14db one.) And some audiophiles do set antiskate at zero because they say it sounds better, though others insist that then one's stylus gets worn unevenly.

One other drawback: I found the Sperling to encourage sibilance in cartridges that might be prone to it. The Krell (Miyabi) KC-100, the Koetsus Vermillion and Onyx and the DaVa FC-A1 had no problem, but there was an annoying level of sibilance on many recordings with the ZYX Atmos and the Ortofon SPU Royal N (though I finally got that cart sounding really great, unlike on other arms where it didn't have sibilance, but neither did it sound vivid or engaging). Soundsmith have a useful FAQ about the many possible causes of sibilance. Relevant here might be the lack of antiskating or inherent resonances in the tonearm, or it could be my setup, either of VTF or azimuth. The ZYX especially is a precise and unforgiving cart--though breathtakingly precise when all is right. But the behavior of the Ortofon might demonstrate that I had it set up optimally, but the tonearm itself is responsible for the sibilance.

The manual specifies the effective weight of the arm as "heavy." I contacted Robert Fuchs to try to get a number, but he wasn't able to give me one. In any case, this would suggest it works best with cartridges of low compliance, though many have found they can violate compliance/effective mass guidelines with no ill effects. The choice of cartridge carrier can dramatically alter the effective mass of the arm, as well. The panzerholz carrier weighs in at 2.3g, while the brass one is 13.1g, and mass added at the cartridge end contributes most directly to the effective mass of an arm. I applied the principle of constrained layer damping to choice of carrier, so with the stone-bodied Koetsu Onyx and metal-bodied Krell KC-100, I used the panzerholz carrier and with the lighter wood-bodied Koetsu Vermillion, I used the brass one. This way I also compensated for the weight, using the lighter carrier with the heavier cartridges.

RS Labs arm on JVC turntable

Listening

I began with the Sperling with 10.5" armwand on the JVC TT-81 turntable in custom rosewood plinth carrying the Koetsu Urushi Vermillion cartridge. And because I appreciate when reviews compare one component against another, I also set up the RS Labs A1. It's an arm readers may not be familiar with, but it's the one I have that will fit on the JVC.

The RS is a finicky arm to put it mildly. It's a unipivot with a pivoting headshell designed to be set up with underhang rather than overhang. The base merely sits atop an armboard or pod with no fixing screws or nuts. The unipivot is elevated 5cm above the headshell and the aluminum channel armtube merely sits atop the pivot point, with its extremely fine wiring hanging out in the open, ready to be broken any time the armtube might be knocked from the pivot. (Mine is rewired by Audio Advancements with more sturdy wire.) It's no longer produced, but when it was, it retailed for $500-$1000.

Still the RS is no slouch. According to a review by Ian White on Enjoythemusic, it challenged the $5000 SME V. White says the RS got out of the way of everything but the music, that the other arms he tried seemed veiled, colored and slow by comparison. I'd agree with this point, but found that I want the coloration of the Sperling. Especially the way it conveys space is captivating. Many reviewers talk about the depth of the soundstage, with voices and instruments arrayed one behind another as well as from left to right. My experience is more of a vertical plane, with the vocalist high in the center and various instruments arrayed to left and right, with not a lot of depth-of-field. Still, that level of spatial effects thoroughly immerses me in the performance. Imaging, especially of a singer or singers, is what's more critical to me: the sense of palpablity of a voice right in front of me. This is what the Sperling, carrying the Vermillion on the JVC and in my 120+ cubic meter room, delivered.

In comparison, on both female vocalists and larger scale pop/rock, the RS sounded thinner, the soundstage was more compressed, and more surface noise was present. Especially Joni Mitchell's upper register was emphasized, even on an early pressing of Blue, as if it came from the recent box set (is Bernie Grundman losing his high freqeuncy hearing, like many of us?) Of course these grumbles are only by comparison; before I heard the Sperling, the RS sounded great on the JVC. But now the one LP that sounded as good to me was Nick Drake's Pink Moon, a 2012 box set, Drake's resonant voice presumably making up for the lack of resonant energy from the RS. Interesting that while Fremer says the Sperling enhanced male vocals, I found the RS doing just as well. One important difference between my armwand and Fremer's: his was ebony vs. my panzerholz.

So next I moved the Sperling arm base to the SET/horn system and installed it with the Vermillion on the 12" wand on the Teres. Also I wasn't able to install the arm low enough to achieve the negative VTA the Koetsu likes, so I shimmed the cart with a thin aluminum bar at the rear with some BluTac in front of it. On the Teres, the Sperling was competing with the Viv Labs RF-9 CB arm, another underhung design, this one without a rotating headshell but with an arm tube that floats in a bath of magnetically-charged fluid. Here the contrast was similar to with the RS arm, though given the room's 2.5m ceiling, the scale was not so grand. The Vermillion on the Viv sounded clear and lively but drier, more restrained, presenting not as full a picture of the performance. That was on my reference "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" from Joni Mitchell's For the Roses, an early 70s recording with beautiful presence. I noticed less of a contrast with a later, more boistrous cut "Talk to Me" from Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. And on the huge-sounding "Big Sky" from Kate Bush's Hounds of Love, I felt the Viv might be better at sorting out the many threads of sound while the Sperling was better at conveying their overall impact. And one more note on this set-up: The Teres sits on Yamamoto footers on a Neuance shelf which in turn sits on Mapleshade brass footers on a DIY wall shelf. I have never had an issue with footfalls until installing the Sperling on the Teres, where I had to tread lightly on the sprung floor as I passed.

In one final move, I returned the Sperling to the JVC turntable in the large room, replacing the RS arm. I found more convincing instrument sounds, while voices were only slightly richer. Then I put on "Big Sky." It was massive! No issues with sorting out; it was beautifully clear and all-enveloping.

Waxing Philosophical

To return to Fremer's review, he finds the Sperling emphasizes the body of notes rather than their transients vs. the Kuzma, paying the Sperling a backhanded compliment: "My brain rode the gliding warmth, which also magnified the image size." But what's wrong with an artist sounding larger than life? I enjoy it when a singer's voice towers over me, making me raise my head to take it all in.

Clearly my audio priorities are different from Fremer's: "A friend believes that I like Kuzma's 4Point arm because I'm a reviewer and want a more 'analytical' sound. That's true. But an analytical sound is also what I'll want when I retire. I don’t want an arm to 'sound' at all. I want it to not sound, and to leave any sounding to the cartridge. The less an arm sounds, the more true detail it will reveal--at the very least, the more it will reveal the character of the transducer connected to it. The fact that not everyone feels that way is why we have tonearms that can be tuned."

It's true, the transducers in a system--cartridge and speaker--have a greater chance of having a distinctive or signature sound than other components in the reproduction chain. Still, to believe that a component imparts no sound of its own is mistaken. As Jules Coleman explains in a review on 6Moons, the debate between those who value detail or resolution vs. "musicality" is really about the leading edge of notes; what sounds like high resolution is really emphasis on the leading edge rather than on the body of notes. Real resolution, he says, will sound musical.

I'm not saying that Fremer always emphasizes resolution over musicality, but his choice of solid state electronics paired with dynamic speakers suggests that detail is more important than it is to me. Still the phrase "true detail" in the quote above implies a comparison of recorded music to the original event. This is more than a difference of musical priorities; it's about the very purpose of an audio system.

Sperling arm on Teres turntable

Writing in Enjoythemusic this time, Coleman points out the problems of using live music as a reference against which one compares an audio system. Coleman calls this the "reproduction" aesthetic (RA), "the point of view that the success of an audio system depends on its accuracy or fidelity to either the recording or the 'event' that is presumably captured by the recording." This is a mistake because (1) there is no such event--even live acoustic recordings rely on a series of decisions made by recording and mastering engineers, etc.; (2) the RA turns the listener into an adjudicator of the system's fidelity rather than an enjoyer of its sound; and (3) it puts the listener in an impossible position, with no access to the original performance, the master tape, etc. In contrast, Coleman proposes what might be called the enjoyment aesthetic (EA): "For me an audio system is designed to provide me with a certain kind of passionate immersion or engagement: with music and with musical experiences."

To illustrate, Coleman compares two well known audio reviewers: "[The Absolute Sound's Harry] Pearson favored the big--very big, nearly bombastic-- detailed (e.g. rumbling subway trains), layered soundstages, and high resolution (in the vein of HDTV). In contrast, Art [Dudley of Listener and Stereophile] focused primarily on musical persuasiveness, engagement, presence, and dimensionality." I've always thought I was more simpatico with Dudley's EA approach. But the Sperling arm changed that. Now I crave the sense of space it creates in the room, the feeling of performers arrayed before me. I once owned a retipped Dynavector Te Kaitora that also startled me with its imaging. But it didn't connect me with the emotion of the singer compared to my other cartridges--a Shelter 901 and various Denon 103s--and I sold it. The Sperling arm showed me that I do value staging when it engages me more fully in the performance--the best of both worlds?

In the quote above, Fremer refers to the 4Point, rougly comparable in price to the Sperling. In the passage below, though, he has switched to the Swedish Analog Technologies (SAT) arm, at a price of $32K. I've inserted what I think he's saying in brackets into the quote itself:

"The feeling of physical space between instruments intensified, along with the mix's three-dimensionality. Not everyone cares about such things.

[He does.]

There are even those who claim that these sorts of imaging, space, and three-dimensionality are artifacts of the recording and playback processes, and are not part of the experience of hearing live music.

[These people are way off. They are part of hearing live music, and the SAT reproduces that.]

For them, there are arms like the TA-1, which produce 'magic' and make a most pleasing sound.

[Isn't it more like for people like Dudley, who don't appreciate soundstaging--whether artifacts or no--there are tonearms like the EMT, that don't emphasize staging, but are more about tonality (I'm speculating here). And for those who do appreciate it, there are either arms like the SAT that do it right and the Sperling that do it wrong, namely uncoloredly and coloredly.]

Inept wooden arms just sound warm, soggy, and lifeless. Inept metal arms sound bright, hard, and amusical."

[He doesn't mean the Sperling is inept; it does a good job of adding restrained coloration to the music, as he says in the first quote above.]

More on this coloration: "There was no doubt that the TA-1 had a 'sound'--something that Sperling tacitly acknowledges by offering the ability to tune the arm with choices of cartridge carrier and armtube materials." But what's so terrible about being able to tune a component? Audiophiles are constantly adding aftermarket feet and platforms to electronic components. Cables also are a means of tuning--though don't call them "tone controls" or you'll get in trouble. Presumably according to Fremer, a well designed component needs no intervention to make it sound as it should for every user in every system.

So is enjoyment everything, tuning our systems to our hearts' content to get there? What about argument that if we don't have any reference point--live music, presumably--then anything goes? Coleman says that's why you spend money on an audio system--to enjoy it. And what I enjoy is an emotional connection with the singer; if this isn't faithful to the original performance--even if I could determine that--then so what?

Conclusion

The Sperling is a pricey arm if bought new--I paid less than 20% of list price for my used example. Is it worth full price, especially relative to arms like the 4Point or current Reed, Thales or Schroeder offerings? Well, if you are paying list price, you could presumably audition it, even testing a variety of armwand lengths and materials. For me, it was more than just the RS Labs and Viv Labs arms do some things well and the Sperling does others. The Sperling brought a level of immersion in the music (magic?) that neither of the other arms did.

Even Fremer, despite his gripes, concludes by saying that if he were buying the Sperling turntable he reviews in the same column, he would also buy the arm to mount on one of its two armboards. It compensates for some dryness and analytical quality of the turntable, he says. So maybe we're not that far apart after all (though I'm still suspicious of his adherence to the RA). I used to think SET/horns was the only topology for me. Then I got the Stax/Emotiva combo. Maybe I would love Fremer's set up.

DISCLAIMER. TNT-Audio is a 100% independent magazine that neither accepts advertising from companies nor requires readers to register or pay for subscriptions. After publication of reviews, the authors do not retain samples other than on long-term loan for further evaluation or comparison with later-received gear. Hence, all contents are written free of any “editorial” or “advertising” influence, and all reviews in this publication, positive or negative, reflect the independent opinions of their respective authors. TNT-Audio will publish all manufacturer responses, subject to the reviewer's right to reply in turn.

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© Copyright 2022 Jeff Maxson - jeff@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com