Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Happy 131st Birthday/AR XA

With all the March Madness hype, I neglected to honor the 131st anniversary of a device that may have done more to bring pleasure and the arts into homes across the world than any other. Yes, phonographs or record players or turntables, if you will, have been now spinning the entire world over since a transcription proto-type called a phonautograph was patented on March 25, 1857 by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a Parisian inventor.

Thomas Edison later added the ability to play back, as well as merely transcribing in the 1880s but Edison used cylinders instead of disks for play back. Emile Berliner then patented the still famous Gramophone in 1887.

While certainly records and players have improved over the interim, the basic technology has not changed, and is arguably the musical playback system with the best overall fidelity still in general use, given the demise of the reel to reel tape format that was formerly embraced by music aficionados, but seldom used or produced anymore. Even measuring from the invention of the Gramophone, this amounts to a run of over 120 years, perhaps only paralleled by its analog cousin, film, which has had a similar run and still is the preferred medium in Hollywood.

In honor of this amazing medium, I thought I would pay a special homage to what I consider to be essentially the zenith of the phonograph industry, which is the turntable made by Acoustic Research(AR), and which was called most famously the AR XA turntable, followed by its slightly better, but less attractive sibling known as the AR XB.

While these two turntables might have been slightly exceeded by future successors and copy cats, none would ever have the same influence that the AR Turntable had, given its prominence during the golden era of the LP record which started in the late 50's and ended around 1983, when it lost its position of prominence to cassettes and then CDs among the masses, if never among music aficionados, most of whom continue to swear by their collections of vinyl.

AR was perhaps the company most responsible for bringing high fidelity to the masses, by coming up with an entire new way of designing speakers so that they could be both small enough to fit into the average home and still be affordable. The Boston-based company would go on to dominate speaker sales during the 1960's and due to partner spin-offs, led to the formation of other well-known audio firms, most notably, KLH and Advent by Henry Kloss, both of which would be almost as influential in audio as was AR. Kloss would end up his career by designing and selling the Tivoli Model One retro table radios that you see everywhere that are a throwback to two of his earlier famous table radios at Advent and KLH.

Edgar Villchur was the founder of AR. An art major in college, Villchur began dabbling in engineering and electronics and started a hi-fi and radio shop, while teaching a NYU course on Reproduction of Sound. Henry Kloss was one of his students, and together they cracked the nut of a speaker design that could overcome the size and distortion problems prevalent in speakers during that era. Their creation, the AR-1, which became known as the first acoustic-suspension loudspeaker system was based upon relatively simple principles of physics that had just been basically overlooked by other designers. When they couldn't find any takers for their design, they started AR in the mid-1950s. Within ten years, AR would control one third of the speaker market. For interviews with two of the founders, see:

Villchur then sought to do for the turntable market what he had done in speakers. He set out to design a low-cost machine that would exceed the RIAA(recording industry) specifications in every aspect. His creation, the AR XA was completed and ready for sale by 1961. Villchur had created a classic for the ages, a turntable with a simple elegance and minimalist design, which sold for $58 not including cartridge. The AR XA, with its reserved styling and wood base would go on to win design awards and seems to perfectly embody the time in which it was created. Here is a picture from a hobbyist site:

The turntable was an immediate sensation and sold far more units than anticipated. It truly offered something to everyone. It was inexpensive. It was elegant. It was excellent in performance and it was a tweaker's paradise, and enthusiasts began swapping out the tone arms and trying different configurations to "improve" it.

You may have had a friend who had one, and, well, his dad liked the AR XA because it was cheap. Your friend liked it, because even though it was inexpensive, he knew that his friends were not going to disrespect it; it had great currency in the Hi-Fi community, unlike say one bought from Sears or JC Penny or even Radio Shack. Together with Advent and Dynaco, AR was a brand for people who knew the value of a dollar at the margin and knew what was "good enough."

Now, 35 to 50 years later, many of these units are still functioning perfectly happily, and those that have been placed up in someone's attic, generally only need a new belt or stylus to continue to emit their sonorous cadences. How can this be? Well, Villchur designed the AR XA so that there really was not much that could go wrong with it. Unlike so many of the mid-fi as well as some hi-fi turntables, the AR XA did not change records; it did not start itself and it could not stop itself. Having none of these likely-to-break features, the internally-grounded AR XA basically served only to spin records, and was only dependent on its reliable motor and regular belt changes, and maybe a little sewing machine oil now and again for its joints.

The AR XA didn't even have anti-skating controls, or cueing, for goodness sake. You actually had to have a steady hand ready to put the needle down and then to pick it up at the end of a record.(If somehow a person dropped the tone arm, AR had developed something called arm dampening to keep the needle from hitting the record at a high velocity.)

But this minimalist approach added to the machine's elegance and reliability, together with the XA's brilliant approach to platter and tone arm placement.

On the AR turntables, both the tone arm and heavy metal platter move together, vertically and horizontally, on a suspension of springs. This produced a playing stability almost unheard of back in the 1960s and 1970s, where you had to be careful not to dance too heavily upon the floor, lest one make the needle jump. Indeed, the XA could even be placed upon a large speaker that it was feeding, which would usually produce undue acoustic feedback with other turntables. The U.S. based company which was AR has now been gone for 25 or 30 years, but among many of the elite companies still producing turntables, such as Linn Sondek and Sota, the AR approach continues to form the basis for their turntable design, albeit often at a cost of ten to 50 times the cost of a used AR XA or AR XB.

Also remarkable is the fact that current turntable design seems to have almost entirely embraced AR's model for turntable design in terms of simplicity. It is now difficult, if not impossible to find a high-end turntable that changes records or that even has auto-stop. Some argue that such devices impact upon the ultimate sound quality, which seems questionable to me, but nevertheless, the AR model of simplicity, be it due to cost-cutting or its actual effect on the sound, has won out in the market place.

While the XA didn't have much in the way of criticism, some users didn't like the dampened tone arm and its lack of cueing. During the early to mid-1970's, AR addressed some of these concerns and came out with a successor model called the AR XB.(There were also some AR-branded successor turntables up to the mid-1980's that were approximately of the same or even better, quality, but that were not successful in terms of sales, and, generally when people refer to an AR turntable, they mean either the XA or XB and not the post-1976 versions).

The XB removed the arm dampening, which was really the only major critique that users had about the XA. Apparently, under certain circumstances, the dampening mechanism could cause the tone arm to lose some of its responsiveness, i.e., to become "sticky."

To incorporate these changes, AR moved the on-off switch to the right side of the turntable, placing it in front of the newly-added cueing control. AR also made a few other cosmetic changes, among them, removing the AR logo from the front, where it was liable to be knocked off during shipping. The headshell color was changed from beige to black; the tone arm weight was changed from gold to silver in color, the tone arm shape was almost imperceptibly altered and perhaps, the biggest and most disappointing change was the deletion of the option to buy the AR turntable with a wood base or veneer. You could have the XB with any kind of base that you wanted, as long as you wanted a faux vinyl wood veneer. While the XB was still okay looking, the changes had made it look a bit cluttered compared to the XA and the vinyl just didn't have the elegant sheen of the wood base.

Perhaps, it wasn't surprising. These were the 1970's where people thought that Tang, Astro-turf and Similac baby formula were all superior to the real thing. Advent made the same decision with its sensational Smaller Advent speaker: vinyl only. Thus, unfortunately people were left with the difficult decision as to whether to purchase the functionally superior XB, with its cueing and improved tone arm, or the much nicer looking XA without the improvements.

Hackers soon found a way to completely disable the dampening function on the XA, but it still wouldn't have cueing and you just know that at some time you are going to drop that tone arm with disastrous results on your mint copy of Help! Some thought about swapping out the bases, but even though most parts are compatible between the XA and XB, the bases are not, so this was no simple solution.

Thus, when I made my own individual purchase on Ebay, I was somewhat indifferent to which one I got. A local seller had an XB that I picked up for around $75, which is between a fifth and a tenth of what a comparable new table would sell for. I bought a couple of new belts for it on Ebay for about $12 and put a Shure M97x cartridge (another great audio company that dates way back) on it--generally considered to be one of the better cartridges for under $150 dollars--and I was in business.

It was a pleasant surprise when I found that virtually all of my albums from college that had been up in the attic played perfectly. Why did we think that CDs sounded better, anyway? Oh yeah, no noise between tracks, but with respect to what is in between tracks, down in the grooves, vinyl still reigns supreme and so--Happy 131st to the phonograph!--and may there continue to be just as many happy returns.