Breaking The Sound Barrier:

The Supatrac Blackbird Tonearm – Part 1

By Roy Gregory

Tonearms are, on the face of it, fairly simple mechanical devices, with clearly defined operational parameters and physical characteristics. You know what it’s got to do and under what circumstances. It’s a situation that lends itself to innovation and lateral thinking, rewarding the inspired tinkerer with hours of experimentation and (if successful) satisfaction. Once you’ve made the big decision – are you going for a fixed pivot or a linear tracking/tangentially corrected design – the world is, pretty much your oyster. You can play with materials, bearing types, damping (of the movement or the structure as a whole), tuning options and geometry. The permutations are almost endless, which probably accounts for the sheer number of weird and wonderful tonearms that have appeared over the years, from the Infinity Black Widow to the ET II, the Goldmund T3F to the original Well Tempered Tonearm, the first Thales AV and the string/magnet bearing Schroeders – and that list merely scrapes the surface. Barely a year goes by without some interesting, innovative ‘arm cropping up, whether it’s a case of new thinking or new materials. The recent flood of exotic 3D printed or complex, tangentially corrected designs has pushed prices to new heights, without necessarily significantly improving performance, while even relatively conventional, gimbal bearing or uni-pivot designs seem to be getting increasingly expensive. Yet if ever there was a product category that benefits from engineering elegance and simplicity, that rewards innovative solutions to familiar problems, it has to be the tonearm. Set against the backdrop of rising complexity and spiralling prices, the essentially practical and inherently musical nature of products like Design Build Listen’s The Wand is a breath of fresh air. But more importantly, change the mechanical concept, change the materials and you change the inherent cost structure and (potentially) the cost/quality equation.

Which brings me to the Supatrac Blackbird, a tonearm that is the most innovatively different design I’ve come across since ‘arms like the WTT and the Kuzma 4Point – and which contains elements of both. It ticks plenty of boxes, being versatile, available in pretty much any length you want, is constructed from fashionably high-tech materials and looks as sleek and purposeful as it does different. But best of all, it’s distinctly affordable, with prices starting just the wrong side of £2K. Okay, so that’s hardly pocket change, but compare that to the ticket on other, more ambitious tonearms and it looks like a bargain – assuming of course that the Supatrac actually delivers. That’s a question I’ll be addressing in the second part of this review – although it’s a safe assumption that I wouldn’t be wasting my time on a product that fails on a musical level!

Why Blackbird – especially given that the arm is available finished in a range of custom colours? The clue lies in the stealthy appearance and an uncanny, almost bizarre suggestion of Lockheed’s fabled SR71 in the Supatrac’s purposeful shape. It’s stretching a point to say that the arm actually looks like the spy-plane, but as soon as I heard the name, I realised its genesis. The fact that the Skunk Works product is a jet-propelled bullet that shatters the sound barrier, travelling at three times the speed of sound is just a happy coincidence, at least as far as Supatrac is concerned…