Product name: SUPATRAC Blackbird Sideways uni-pivot
Manufacturer: SUPATRAC - England
Cost: 1500GBP (Currency conversion) - (YMMV)
Reviewer: Graeme Budd - TNT France
Reviewed: November, 2022
I've had the pleasure over the last few months to have quite a unique product in my system. And by unique I mean not only from a design point of view but from a visual one too. By now you know what the product's called as I've already written it twice on this page but just in case and for those who weren't paying attention the product in question is the SUPATRAC Blackbird Sideways uni-pivot tone-arm.
I appreciate I may have scared all but the hardened vinyl audiophile here as I can see you already thinking that this device combine the inherent wobble of a Unipivot with the not exactly rigid properties of a thread bearing. And you wouldn't be considered unreasonable for thinking that (even though in reality it's not the case!) I mean we're about as far away from plug and play as the Holbo Turntable I reviewed a few years back and the joys of air bearings, linear tracking and pumps it entailed. But at tnt-audio.com we're made of sterner stuff and once you've read this I hope you will be as well.
So where do we start? The arm is the result of a lot of thinking during the lockdown - most of it quite out of the box - by SUPATRAC's proprietor Richard. It starts at the business end with a box section carbon arm tube which is suspended at the other end by a thread attached to two points just forward of the counterweight assembly and hung from the arm pillar. There's then a horizontal pivot that retains the arm in the horizontal plane. I think a picture is worth all the waffle I can come with so see below for the bearing assembly.
Bias is adjusted by a pivoted falling weight - its effect being adjustable by the position of a grub screw (amount of bias) and the amount of slack in the thread (where it kicks in). There's no arm rest as such. Instead there are some adjustable magnets to hold the arm in position without pranging your cartridge when you're not using it. I rather like it as it gives the impression the cartridge is levitating above the deck.
There's a final bit of string used as an arm lift. This may surprise a few people but I'd say don't knock it until you try it. Certainly on a unipivot the idea is not as stupid as many of you are thinking. It's certainly not just for cost reasons as a normal finger lift is also supplied for those wishing to maintain a traditional approach. The arm has a Linn/SME type cable socket so you can use any cable you wish. The supplied one is based on Van Zandt microphone cable similar to that used by Johnny from Audio Origami in his excellent products so no complaints there. The supplied plug is a 90 degree one but depending on your deck a straight is also available (more on this later).
Further adjustment is also possible by a sliding weight that fits over the arm allowing effective mass adjustment further increasing the arm's compatibility. You probably won't need it with most cartridges but it's an appreciable extra.
The example I have is standard Linn geometry (so will also fit Kuzma and a few others) but due to the hand made nature of the arm you can pretty much have what you want including 12 inch arms and the like. Richard 3D prints a few of the parts allowing extensive adaptability to what you need. The VTA adjustment is LInn style with a simple bolt on the arm collar - probably not one for the VTA maniacs out there.
The arm arrives in a Pelicase type box and were you to walk through any town with it you may get a few strange looks as it's pretty much handgun size. Inside you get all the necessary to build and install the arm including tools, gloves(the pivot is pretty sharp), a protractor and some comprehensive instructions. I also spent a long time on the phone with Richard who was more than happy to answer any questions I had and was extremely efficient when it came to getting round any issues I had. The only thing I would have appreciated extra is some longer cartridge bolts.
As you may have guessed from the above this is no RB250. The process isn't inherently difficult and is certainly a lot quicker than building that big Lego set that you bought for your kids last Christmas in the eternal hope that they'd build (and play with) it themselves.You do have to take your time. The sideways uni-pivot arm bearing length has to be spot on and centered. The counterweights have to be properly centered. The bias thread is blooming thin and for anyone with fists of ham it ain't gonna happen. And whatever you do don't try it when you've had (to quote Richard E. Grant) "a few light ales".
You're going to have to forgo some masculinity and read the manual if you wish to avoid frustration. The other thing you will have to watch is the distance available inside your deck. In my case as the arm cable plug angle wasn't exactly the same as the corresponding cutout in my Linn Axis I couldn't fit the cable. An hours swearing later I'd had to take the arm to bits to change the angle and remove the top plate to be able to thread the cable in and put everything back together. SUPATRAC can supply a straight cable which should get round this but your mileage will of course vary. LP12 owners should be fine as the base board is much thinner.
Anyway once you've done all this the cartridge alignment is fairly easy once I'd found some bolts to fit although I admit I still hadn't (at time of writing most of this) worked out how the supplied alignment protractor works so I used my Polaris plus as usual. I'm sure it's easy but I just couldn't fathom it. Richard has since explained it and it is and I was just having a moment..
The Blackbird is also delivered with a 3D printed stylus balance. I used this and then tried my electronic balance and the 3D printed balance is pretty spot on. This is most definitely an arm that will have to be set up at home so well done to SUPATRAC for coming up with an elegant and simple solution.
Before talking about the sound there are a couple of "living with the Blackbird" points I'd like to talk about.
Firstly I think it looks pretty darn good and the 45 degree angles go very well with the beveled plinth on the Axis. It also reminds me a bit of the Prometheus ship in Stargate SG-1 so a bit of 2000s nostalgia to boot.
Secondly the string arm lift whilst initially giving the impression that imminent cartridge pranging is just around the corner actually works really well especially as there's no lift mechanism so you have to hand cue. How this works on a fully bouncy deck I have no idea but Richard informs me certain "conventional" arm owners have pinched the idea and have started adapting this method onto other arms so there must be some method behind his apparent madness.
Thirdly once the arm is adjusted and settled it doesn't drift out of adjustment - I admit I was worried that it would have temperamental tendencies but nothing of the sort!
As mentioned above the Blackbird was installed onto my Linn Axis. I tried it with both the Reson Etile and Audio Note Io 1 cartridge (yes the very expensive one that no one in their right mind would fit to an Axis but I wanted to see what would happen)
I used my CEC PH53 phono stage and the Audio Note UK Step Up transformer where necessary. Turning tiny signals into noise was achieved by the Audio Note Oto SE and my Living Voice IBX-RW3s.
I started off with the Etile as it's the cartridge I know best on the Axis and usually lives on the end of the Audio Origami Linn Akito that usually inhabits the deck. Straight off the bat the arm appears to let more detail through and allows the cartridge to work at its best. I was looking for the classic unipivot traits of musicality but at the expense of frequency extremes. I'm happy to report this appears to entirely absent. Certainly the top end is all there and made an excellent stab at my mid 90s copy of Plaid's Rest Proof Clockwork. The track Ralome has some almost Hawaiian type guitar on it and can often sound harsh on upper notes. The Blackbird did the best job I've heard so far with this track to the point where I'm inclined to think there's a pressing fault on the vinyl and it can't be tracked better.
I thought I'd better check the low end as well so out came the Chemical Brother's Exit Planet Dust. I'm happy to report that the bass on all the tracks is not only present but fast and pretty weighty. So it would appear the the myth is not universal. Maybe the Blackbird is the exception that proves the rule?
Stereo separation and imaging is excellent. Instruments are clearly placed in the soundfield with some very convincing depth effects. In fact I was really enjoying things and only slightly missing the Audio Note TT2 Deluxe/Arm II/Io1 combo that I'd been listening to before this test. But the grass is always greener on the other side so it was time to borrow the Io 1 and see if any more performance was available.
And yes there is - the Blackbird clearly allows the better cartridge to show what it can do and unravel mixes and performances. I dug out a performance of Mussorgsky/Ravel's Pictures at an Exhibition. A CBS Masterwork it's not the fullest sounding record and I've always thought the bass was a tad light certainly when compared to the more recent version I have from Reference Recordings on CD. The Blackbird/Io 1 combination brought the low end to life especially the kettle drum's weight which was where I'd always found the recording lacking.
Similarly I had a lot of fun with a record I have of Johann Strauss's Waltzes, Galops and Polkas. Very light fare I admit and not what you'd call audiophile (late 70s RCA) but this time with lovely string tone from violins down to double basses it's obvious the orchestra is enjoying itself.
I've just realized I've mentioned instruments but left out voices. 2 records spring to mind from my listening sessions - U2s Pop (and in particular the track Discotheque) and the 12 inch single of Jamelia's Thank You. In both cases the main voices are locked firmly in centre stage and portrayed with excellent realism and character. Backing or doubled vocals are equally well locked into space whether spread left and right (Jamelia sounding gorgeous) or slightly back and off centre falsetto (U2). Where these two recording differ is that the rest of the U2 mix sounds flat to me and no matter what you do this is the case. The Jamelia record on the other hand adds space and dynamics. Further proof that the Blackbird lets the cartridge do its thing - the neutral nature of the Io 1 is preserved and what's on the disc is what you get.
As a final example I'm going to use GoGo Penguin's Man Made object record as it's very revealing of whether your system is doing things right Get your turntable setup wrong and the flow disappears. A lack of detail means the articulate and varied high hat work is uniform and the human nature disappears. And if your vinyl player doesn't do bass or tonal character, the double bass loses it's depth and body. But get these sorted - and the Blackbird with the Io 1 most definitely does - and it's magic.
Sometimes when a product comes from a one man industry who has decided to do things differently alarm bells start to ring. Dodgy finish, poor reliability or lack of reputation or dealer network can all work against products of this type. I think it would be a shame to miss out on this one as frankly the results are excellent and prove that with a bit of out of the box thinking and use of modern materials and manufacturing it is possible for a small manufacturer to go up against the bigger players and be ultra competitive on price and performance.
Richard has come up with a cracking arm - if you're one of the many Linn owners and you're willing to take a step outside the official Linn path you may well find the SUPATRAC Blackbird to be a very viable proposition especially when you're looking at a very substantial hole in your wallet for the next level of arm. If you're not a Linn owner - well he can make one for any geometry so it might well suit you too.
© Copyright 2022 Graeme Budd - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com