Long before the Linn-Sondek came on the scene and made a big deal about it, my experience suggested that turntables did affect the sound of reproduced music in significant ways; yet for a long time I refused to believe the evidence of my own senses because it ran so contrary to the common wisdom. A little history: My first serious turntable, acquired in 1969, was an Acoustic Research XA, a belt-driven integrated designed by the great Edgar Villchur. Its only switch was on/off, its features Spartan to say the least—going from 33.3 to 45rpm required repositioning the belt on the pulley (there was no pitch adjustment)—but its classic mid-century-modern style reflected its single-minded purposefulness. Balance was static, and tracking force was set with the counterweight and supplied plastic scale and weights. There was no antiskating (if this bothered you, Villchur advised increasing tracking force about fifteen percent).
What really sold me on the XA, however, apart from its affordability and the stellar reviews, was its isolation. Suspended on three damped, tuned springs, the platter and arm were so effectively isolated from the environment that, as AR liked to demonstrate, you could pound the top of the plinth with a hammer and no sound came through the system. Provided you mounted the XA on a sturdy table or shelf, nothing disturbed the stylus/grove interface. My choice of pickup was Shure’s M91E (a notch below its flagship V15 Type II), which at 1.25 grams tracked anything I placed on the platter. And, man, did that setup ever sound good: clean, low distortion, involving, with amazingly quiet backgrounds.
When I got a bit more money, I tried “better,” fuller-featured setups with supposedly superior arms. Yet nothing really sounded better (especially in the low end). In fact, most of them didn’t sound as good, and all were a lot pricier. Not until I acquired a Thorens TD125 with an SME 3009 II Improved and a Shure V15 Type III did I get a significant improvement, and even then my modest little XA/M91E was hardly embarrassed.
Like so much else that came from the brain and bench of Edgar Villchur, the XA was a pioneering design that enabled tens of thousands of music lovers to enjoy first-class vinyl playback. The influence of its tuned suspension is profound. Turntables as diverse as Ariston, Linn, Thorens, Sota, Oracle, SME, and Basis would likely not have been designed the way they are had there been no XA. So it is altogether fitting that Villchur’s little masterpiece has a permanent place in the Museum of Modern Art’s industrial design collection.
I foolishly sold my XA in the late Seventies, but several years ago I found a brand-new one and snapped it up. Outfitted with a V15 Type VxMR—Shure’s last state-of-the-art pickup, now discontinued (sighs short and frequent should be exhaled)—and giving me pleasure to this day, the AR XA will occupy a place in my permanent collection as long as I enjoy the reproduction of music in my home.