In September of last year, my friend Mark started a thread on AudioFlat called “Rather cool new arm.” Mark is the most knowledgeable person I know in hi-fi, so when he calls something both “cool” and “new” — he said of the design “I’ve never seen this idea before and it does look like a genuine innovation” — it’s worth taking note. I totally didn’t understand the design myself — Mark called it “sort of a cross between a unipivot and a thread bearing” — but I kept watching the thread (no pun intended) with interest.
Over the next several months, something really interesting began to take shape. The thing that hooked shallow me was just how cool and different the new tonearm looked — a Concorde-like design with two square sections of carbon fibre making up the main arm and a big dramatic tapered “thrust box,” something totally unlike anything I’d seen before, appealing directly to the(large) part of myself still suck in its adolescent obsession with 1977 Star Wars aesthetics.
I said I’d love to try one, and by the spring, Richard, the designer, said one was ready for me — only the second arm he’d completed. In early June, it arrived. Being very, very, very happy indeed with my Tiger Paw Javelin tonearm, I wasn’t expecting the Blackbird to better it.
Much to my surprise, it absolutely has.
I’ve only had it in my system for a couple of weeks, and haven’t had the chance to apply the months of tweaks it sometimes takes to get an arm/cartridge combination sounding its best. I also haven’t been able to run it with my preferred tonearm cable (a plug compatibility issue), having to rely instead on the stock cable.
But from the first notes I heard out of the Blackbird, I’ve been blown away.
This is the best tonearm I’ve had in my system: better than my Linn Ekos 2, better than my Naim Aro, and better than my beloved Tiger Paw Javelin.
Below is a video giving my impressions to this point and explaining what’s different about the Blackbird’s “sideways unipivot” design. For more details, read on.
To be honest, I was sort of dreading the installation process. An early iteration of a brand new design, a fiddly-looking setup procedure with lots of strings (!) whose exact purpose I didn’t yet understand… it seemed like it would be a challenge. But I just rolled up my sleeves, got the instruction manual out, and off I went.
It was actually pretty simple.
The SUPATRAC Blackbird arrived in a flight case — which might have seemed like overkill if you hadn’t seen what FedEx did to the box it arrived in!
Here are the contents of the box:
Among the goodies included: tweezers, gloves, and a screwdriver for installation; a (very good) first draft of the manual, all the screws and bolts required, a VTF gauge… and of course the arm itself, which looks even cooler in person than in photos.
You get a good look at the construction of the Blackbird in the photo below: two bonded square sections of carbon fibre make up the arm, reinforced by U-shaped sections of aluminum at the headshell and where the arm meets the thrust box. The fact that the polished aluminum inserts give the arm a “chrome bumper” look that perfectly matches my Naim boxes is just aesthetic karma…
I got the Javelin out of my LP12 and began installing the Blackbird. Here I’ve got the base and pillar + bias rig installed, with the manual guiding my every action…
While installing the arm, I did notice one little rough spot in the finish: some file marks on the edges of the thrust box. It’s my one niggle about finish — but also a reminder that this arm is completely handmade, a real labour of love. I expect these rough edges (literally) will be worked out in future iterations. In the meantime, I’m happy to have these little indicators of hand craftsmanship.
The Blackbird has a third hole for Linn’s three-bolt mounting system (you can thank me for insisting on that design element, Troika fans!), so getting my preferred cartridge installed and aligned was a breeze. The cabling is a slight mess with the Troika’s flying leads, but Richard has made me a new internal wiring rig, which I’ll have soon and which will tidy this all up.
Before long at all, the Blackbird was flying…
From the first notes, I was pretty much blown away by the Blackbird.
The first record I put on was Bert Jansch’s The Black Swan — a beautiful and beautifully-recorded disc. I did an immediate double-take. Bert’s voice sounded stunningly lifelike, beautifully placed in space and texturally rich. Acoustic guitars rang out with clarity and snap.
I moved on to a couple of Bob Dylan records which I’ve been listening to obsessively lately (Another Self Portrait, disc 2; the MoFi 3x45rpm Blonde on Blonde), and I was again struck by the naturalness and clarity of the presentation. I put on a fairly warped disc (Neil Young, Hitchhiker), and the Blackbird handled its topography with ease. I listened to something with a bit more kick, Mariah’s “Shinzo No Tobira,” and it hit hard. Paul’s vocals on the White Album’s “Blackbird” were almost uncomfortably intimate. A decidedly average pressing of Mayall and Clapton’s Bluesbreakers sounded stunningly excellent — deep and rich and wide.
This was all with a very rough setup. As I dialled in VTA, VTF, and azimuth over the coming days, it all just got better.
Listening to Neil Young’s live album Tuscaloosa, I heard spatial cues I’d never picked up before which conveyed an enormous sense of space, especially on the opening acoustic numbers. I put on what has become my #1 reference track, Aldous Harding’s “Swell Does My Skull” from Party, and it sounded at least as good as I’ve heard it before: clear, spare, full of drama, positively spooky. Again, spatial presentation was a real strong suit — the soundstage was very wide and extremely well defined, with Harding’s voice jumping straight out of the mix into my own skull.
I haven’t often noticed the “wider than the speakers” soundstage effect in my system, but it became a feature of most records I’ve listened to since installing the Blackbird. On Charles Mingus’s under-appreciated live record Wonderland, the effect was positively disorienting at times. On Can’s majestic Future Days, Damo Suzuki’s voice on “Bel Air” seemed to be coming from a good two feet to the left of my left speaker. More double-takes.
To my developing Blackbird vocabulary of “clear,” “natural,” “intimate,” and “wide,” I added “robust” — there was nothing shrill or grating coming out of the system, though I never felt like I was lacking any detail.
Listening to bunch of fairly busy rock music, I noted impressive separation of instruments. A track like Dungen’s “Panda” sounded amazing with the Blackbird, with instruments really neatly situated. On the Neil Young Archives versions of Tonight’s the Night and Young Shakespeare, I was taken aback by the pinpoint accuracy of instruments and voices in the soundstage, most evident with harmonies, where all voices were beautifully distinguished.
The most revealing single listening session was spent with a non-glamorous 1980s pressing of Joni Mitchell’s Blue. This record had always sounded pretty good — but never that good! There was a clarity and intimacy to Joni’s voice, a delicacy on guitar, and a depth and liveliness to percussion that I had never heard before. It was like hearing this record — one of my favourites — for the first time.
While writing this, I’ve been listening to Robert Forster’s Danger in the Past and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass (can’t wait for the remix!). The Blackbird continues to amaze me, presenting the familiar and unfamiliar in ways that consistently make me do aural double-takes…
My journey with the Blackbird isn’t over. Richard is going to send me a new arm with a different logo, a heavier counterweight, and a Javelin-style wiring rig that will allow me to use it with my preferred arm cable while also being more Troika-friendly.
I’ll post updates when it arrives. For now, though, I’ll be listening to my records!