Hardware Reviews

Supatrac Blackbird lets the vinyl soar

supatrac blackbird tonearm review www.the-ear.net

Supatrac Blackbird tonearm

Having experienced the Supatrac Blackbird my record playing world will never be the same again. My earliest memories of vinyl records are from my father’s system, which consisted of a Leak Dynamic moving-coil mono pick-up, Collaro 4T200 transcription turntable, Quad 22/II combination and a sand-filled corner cabinet housing a Wharfedale CS/AL Super 12 (Alnico magnet) speaker with a Super 3 Alnico tweeter on the top.

The Leak arm was a unipivot, and my love of unipivots continued through to include (or is it embrace) Tom Fletcher’s captive unipivots, and the Naim Aro. However, having visited an audio show recently I was utterly beguiled by another unipivot, the Supatrac Blackbird. I sat for quite a while, took a few photos, quizzed the designer a bit, picked up the literature and went home to ponder.

supatrac blackbird tonearm review www.the-ear.net

Somehow there was something very satisfying about the Blackbird’s presentation. Initially I wasn’t particularly aware that it was a unipivot; that realisation dawned after I’d had a good listen in the demonstration room, and then wormed my way through the crowds near the turntable in order to get a better look. That was when a second lightbulb came on. Yes, it was definitely a unipivot, but the pivot was horizontal, not vertical as in all the designs mentioned above.

How does that work?

In essence it’s actually very simple. The weight of the arm is suspended from a single point by two very pliable but non-stretchy filaments – think fishing line but considerably more flexible. So basically the arm hangs from this single point. However, the point of suspension is set slightly forward so the arm itself is trying to swing towards the cartridge. The unipivot points directly away from the cartridge and is held in constant contact by the tendency of the arm to swing forward. This is also the direction of pull exerted on the arm by the stylus being dragged through the groove so there’s no situation during playback where the pivot would ever lose contact.Sounds terribly complicated, darling, but is in actuality very simple. Since I first heard the arm there have been a couple of refinements, the most noticeable of which are an integrated arm-lift, and a VTA screw adjuster so you can raise or lower the arm pillar accurately to achieve optimum VTA for your chosen cartridge.

supatrac blackbird tonearm review www.the-ear.net

 

The Blackbird has some other unusual features, the counterweight is created with a magnetic block that sits in the cradle behind the pivot point. The arm is supplied with a conventional finger lift but Supatrac recommend the cord shown in the images, this allows for left or right handed operation and avoids the resonances that traditional lifts can introduce.

I tend not to prejudge any reviews by measuring anything – after all, my ears are my monitoring and evaluation tools – and in my experience, if one is not careful enough, seeing an aberration in a specification somewhere will almost always result in it being heard, whereas listening blind seems to give a fairer result. The only specification of note for me is that I tend to prefer 12” arms so I requested a 12” Blackbird for review. My venerable (but known and cared-for) SME 20 provided the support for the arm, and a variety of cartridges were used throughout the review process.

The Blackbird sound

I’ve used Freya Ridings’ self-titled debut album (GSR070V) for review in the past, but I was astonished by the sheer rock-steady presentation which the Blackbird gave. The sound seemed really anchored in space, and despite being what I tend to call multi-genre contains a wealth of variety in its soundscapes. Ridings’ voice is particularly individual, and somehow the Blackbird managed to wring such a believability from the grooves that there were times I was sure the whole ensemble was right in the room with me.

Supatrac Blackbird tonearm review www.the-ear.net

Turning to some older material, the Windham Hill sampler from 1982 (66.22941-01) is a very laid-bare, almost warts-n-all album. William Ackerman, the producer, seems to have wanted to make every single strand of the music accessible individually. Again, it’s probably not to everyone’s taste, but as an adventure in sound it contains some amazing performances, not least from George Winston (who in my view influenced Einaudi with some of his work).

The Blackbird managed to tie the whole together in such a coherent and engaging way despite the very raw nature of the recording with everything laid bare. Some systems leave this (widely varied collection of musical performances) presented as almost disparate parts. The Blackbird didn’t do that, and revealed the links between the different instruments in each track, it managed to weave a sense of one-ness into the music which would most likely be the effect had I been listening to it in a live environment. A very creditable facet of the Blackbird’s performance, and not one to be overlooked.

Organ Fireworks by Christopher Herrick on Hyperion (A66121) is fantastically well recorded. Of particular note is the Trumpet Tune in D Major. The power of the trumpet stops on the organ is difficult to reproduce with any authority and integrity. Some lesser arms struggle to cope with the sheer power contained in the groove. However, the Blackbird’s tracking was totally assured giving the music an astonishing degree of clarity, poise and finesse without dumbing down the power of the full organ at full throttle.

supatrac blackbird tonearm review www.the-ear.net

But then there needs to be some tendresse, a capability to reproduce the fragility, the hurt, the pathos in music. While it may be an old recording now, Belinda’s dying aria from Dido and Aeneas on L’Oiseau Lyre (SOL60047) requires a real ability to extract the smallest of nuances from the grooves in order to convey the anguish of Dido as she passes away. I needn’t have had any concerns. The Blackbird’s ability to present a coherent and focussed rendition of the groove’s material is really worryingly good.

Can it do loud? Sure. The Telarc 1812 totally failed to fluster it. But what about pace, rhythm and timing? It can do that too. Some of Dudley Moore’s jazz, with its wonderful ‘plink plonk’ fun simply rattles along, and it requires a huge degree of self-discipline not to annoy the wife by tapping my foot in the air.

Lastly, one of my main criteria for evaluating a product is whether it manages to connect the material being played with me on an emotional level. That has to be a resounding yes. In many ways, despite it being a unipivot, the Blackbird presents one of the most, if not the most stable and coherent aural images I have ever experienced with vinyl. Some unipivot arms can wobble with the result that the stylus changes its angle within the groove. The way that the Blackbird is suspended, that simply doesn’t happen. The pull of the cartridge along the length of the arm actually drags the pivot points together, so there’s absolutely no chance of it chattering, even on a microscopic level.

So when Adele is singing her heart out, or when Martin Luther King is delivering his speeches, or when Elly Ameling is singing Brahms’ Lieder the emotional content is readily available. You don’t have to go hunting for it. That element is portrayed just as if the musicians were right in front of you.

Sound quality is superb too, with everything focussed, transparent and with all the right perspectives (see my earlier piece on appropriate volume levels). The weight of the low organ, the snap of a rim-shot, the pluck of a guitar, the break in a vocal; they’re all there with such natural realism that you’d be hard pressed not to be engaged and engrossed by what you were listening to.

supatrac blackbird review

 

Downforce is achieved  by moving magnetised metal weights which sit in or under (which is recommended) the platform which is very close to the pivot. Despite its simplicity this is actually a very effective way of doing things, and if any (very minor) azimuth adjustments are needed, easing the weights to one side or the other achieves very fine adjustment. The fact that these weights are very heavy in themselves, and sit low down also adds to the Blackbird’s stability.

Blackbird verdict

In short, I really can’t praise it enough, and for a new kid on the block to perform like this is really quite a testament to the designer’s vision. On a practical level, it can be supplied with a variety of arm-board mounts (to choice), and a number of different arm lengths are also available.

Oh, and the arm-lift, very similar to the standard Rega one, works so very well that I never had an issue with putting the stylus back in the same groove I lifted it out of. I didn’t ask how much the Blackbird costs, but whatever it is, it’s a real and genuine bargain.

Specifications:

Type: unipivot tonearm
Tonearm length: 12 inch (9 &10.5 inch also available)
Arm tube: carbon fibre and aluminium
Effective mass: 10g (9 inch)
Offset angle:
Pivot-to-stylus 229mm, offset 24º to fit 211mm spindle-to-pivot (Linn compatible 9 inch)
Pivot-to-stylus 237mm, offset 23º to fit 222mm spindle-to-pivot (Rega compatible 9.3 inch)
Pivot-to-stylus 267mm, offset 21º to fit 251mm spindle-to-pivot (Brinkmann compatible)
Pivot-to-stylus 305mm, offset 18º to fit 291mm spindle-to-pivot (SME 12 inch)
Arm cable: 30/0.04mm silk covered copper litz internal,  Van Damme Tour Grade Classic XKE Quad Ultra pure silver-plated OFC, Amphenol RCA external
Weight: 500g – 700g depending on length and counterweights
Warranty: 5 years parts and labour

Price when tested:
9 inch £2,300
10.5 inch £2,500
12 inch £2,700
Manufacturer Details:

Supatrac
T +44 77 04 50 20 20
https://www.supatrac.com/

Type:

tonearm

Author:

Chris Beeching

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