Swedish Neutrality: SAT Tonearm

Swedish Neutrality: SAT Tonearm

Tonearm specialist and engineer extraordinaire Marc Gomez, who was born in Barcelona in 1972, is a relative newcomer to the high-end scene. About a decade ago, he began haunting used record shops and amassed a collection of vintage LPs. After a while, however, he became dissatisfied with the state of analog playback. In particular he felt that tonearms were even more critical to vinyl sound reproduction than is generally assumed and that their quality could be significantly improved. In 2010, he started his own company Swedish Analog Technologies (yes, it’s based in Sweden) that produced the new SAT tonearm.

Recently, Gomez visited me to install it on my Continuum Caliburn turntable, where it replaced a Cobra tonearm. If the Caliburn turntable has a weak link, it always seems to be the tonearm (and it’s a pity that the Continuum company doesn’t appear to be doing much with the turntable these days). I had learned of the SAT tonearm several months ago and discussed its properties extensively with Maier Shadi, the affable proprietor of the Audio Salon in Santa Monica, who is the principal U.S. dealer for the tonearm (as well as an esteemed purveyor of many other exclusive high-end marques). I knew Shadi had already installed the SAT on a Brinkmann turntable and appeared to be quite smitten by its sonic prowess.

Certainly a good deal of thought has gone into the construction of the tonearm. Gomez, who holds a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering and materials science and has worked on projects for Rolls-Royce, Saab, and AstraZeneca, attaches great importance to composites in his quest to produce as neutral a tonearm as possible. His tonearm is made from carbon fiber. According to his website, “Each laminate is made of several plies of CF pre-preg fabrics. Pieces for different plies are CNC machine-cut following a pattern extracted from the CAD models of the ’arm, then laid sequentially to a tool, taking into consideration the load paths so that the component will deform very little during use, under the effect of loads.” These parts are then cured in an autoclave.  Throughout, the goal is a stiffness that is supposed to shift, as far as possible, any resonance out of the critical midband. Gomez himself claims a first resonance of the ’arm tube at 3kHz. 

When I asked Gomez how he went about deciding to design the tonearm, he replied, “The one thing I would say is that I developed and manufactured the ’arm not as an audio product, but as a mechanical measurement device, using methodologies and tools that are employed by real engineers in other advanced fields of technology—which are not governed and influenced by myths and unfounded assumptions. I decided I would do it this way. I was not going to follow the mainstream. I wanted to approach it as a purely engineering problem. I started by looking at what happens at the interaction of the record and the stylus, and how it translates into a set of mechanical demands for the ‘arm. Once I had those specifications, I could design the geometry and specify the laminates that would provide the required properties for the ‘arm.

Gomez frowns upon damping a tonearm with fluid. “If you damp,” he says, “you are impeding the natural free movement of the arm. It slows down movement. Instead of being a positive solution, it is detrimental.” Gomez adds that there is “no such thing as synergy of cartridge and tonearm.  Any cartridge will perform better in a good ‘arm than in a lesser one, and for a given arm, a good cartridge will sound better than a lesser one. This has nothing to do with the resonance frequency of the system cartridge suspension-‘arm’s effective mass, which is another matter.Provided you are using LPs that are flat, you can use any cartridge. SAT is an extremely rigid ’arm. It excels compared to others with low compliance cartridges.”

The design of the tonearm may be complex, but mounting it did not prove particularly difficult. Gomez supplied an elegantly finished protractor that uses a Lofgren curve. His tonearm uses a detachable headshell that can be rotated to adjust azimuth (an oscilloscope, which I use, offers a precise way of measuring it). Mounting a cartridge on the SAT is also simpler than with the Cobra because the cartridge is clearly exposed in front, so it’s easier to make adjustments. Interestingly, I ended up running the Lyra Atlas cartridge at 1.53 grams weight rather than the 1.65-1.75 recommended by the manufacturer. It was audibly superior with no mistracking, which could be due to the stability of the SAT tonearm.

So how does the darned thing sound? After having lived with and enjoyed the Cobra tonearm over many years, it surely was going to be something of a jolt to deploy a different one on the Caliburn. And so it was. The first and most audible change was simply a jump in resolution. Gomez is a particular aficionado of a BIS label LP of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that is performed by the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble. The sound was more liquid, precise, and refined. It was easier to discern string textures and sonorities.

One initial reservation I had, however, was that the sound initially seemed somewhat thinner when contrasted with the Cobra. But as I continued to play the SAT tonearm, sonics became noticeably fuller and richer, particularly in the bass region, surpassing the Cobra. On the well-known Soular Energy album, for example, Ray Brown’s bass sounded more sumptuous and organic than I’ve previously heard it. Ditto for a lovely rendition on the Nonesuch album Cousins that features Gerard Schwarz on cornet and Ronald Barron on trombone. On the “Blue Bells of Scotland” and “Cheerfulness,” the power of the trombone comes across in truly impressive fashion. In addition, the nimbleness and gracefulness of Schwarz’s playing is beautifully highlighted by the SAT. Perhaps most impressive is the alacrity with which bass and kettle drums now explode out of the Wilson XLFs. On orchestral works—the new release by Acoustic Sounds of the RCA Living Stereo LP Spain comes to mind—it’s simply a pleasure to sit back and hear how effortless it sounds. By contrast, the Cobra lacks the last degree of finesse and speed that the SAT possesses.

I could go on about the SAT’s attributes—its effortless dynamic expansion, jet-black backgrounds, and ability to stop on a dime—but it’s early in the game and I’m continuing to break in the tonearm wire. But it’s already abundantly apparent that if you can swing the lofty tariff ($28,000), then the SAT is more than worth auditioning. For anyone searching out state-of-the-art analog performance, this is it.