Frank Schröder – the designer of the Artemis Labs turntable and tonearm – is something of an authority figure when it comes to vinyl. In fact, he’s a walking, talking vinyl Wikipedia. So on the face of it, who better to design a turntable and tonearm? However, to date, Schröder’s products have been extremely up-scale, hand crafted tonearms that have a waiting list that would put Morgan Cars to shame. Can someone who is used to working at that end of the market design products built in greater numbers?OK, so the Artemis Labs SA-1 turntable and TA-1 arm are not exactly mass-produced, but they are designed not to be custom made, and this is very much at odds with most of Schröder’s previous designs, which reflect his watchmaker training and fastidious approach.
As Schröder is best known as a tonearm guy, let’s start there. The TA-1 uses a new form of magnetic eddy current damping mechanism in the horizontal plane, and in place of his unique string and magnet bearing assembly, the TA-1 sports a hybrid ceramic gimbaled bearing that is as near frictionless as is functionally possible. It also uses a calibrated centre post for VTA adjustment, but the provision for relatively easy on-the-fly VTA changes as found on his Reference arms is gone.
Azimuth is controllable by loosening the armwand screw and adjusting the wand and the one-point cartridge mounting common to all Schröder arms is used. This works by mounting the cartridge to one of a range of mounting plates and affixing that to the arm, thereby adjusting the effective mass and making overhang (more accurately, overhang and tangency) easier to adjust. Finally, the wand itself is made from a rich oiled kingwood, and the lead-out wires are one long, uninterrupted length of cryo-treated pure copper. The arm fits the standard Rega mounting.
The SA-1 turntable was the first turntable part out of the Artemis Labs stable (prior to the deck, the Californian company was best known for its range of very nice valve amplifiers). Again designed by Schröder, the deck uses a high-mass platter on a relatively low-mass chassis, driven by a very high quality DC motor that uses magnetic tape in place of a belt, because magnetic tape is of uniform thickness. Once more... fastidious.
The high-mass platter is a carefully down-to-the-micron machined billet of aircraft grade aluminium, weighing in at almost 7kg, and damped with a paper/felt inlay. The platter turns on an oversized, non-inverted bearing designed with overlong self-lubing phosphor bronze bushes, and with rough edges factored in deliberately to aid the even spread of the oil film. Three mat options are available, to best suit your room, system and tastes.
The ‘belt’ is a loop of magnetic tape. This has several advantages. First, it means there’s a near-infinite supply of virtually free belts on tap. Next, tape is not rubber, so it is not bendy and stretchy; properties not recommended for precise speed control. As discussed earlier, tape’s thickness is more uniform than any rubber or silicon belt. Then, there’s the added bonus of a tape tensioner; something that’s definitely not recommended with rubber belts, but mean the tape covers more than 90 per cent of the diameter of the platter. More contact means no slippage or side thrust issues. This connects to a Swiss DC motor with a lot of torque, working to a predetermined drag factor thanks to an eddy current brake beneath the platter, so any traditional DC motor problems with variable load from cartridge drag are eliminated.
The chassis is a sandwich of a two layers of bamboo ply separated by a layer of ebony, with each layer of bamboo itself having three different layers with grain going in different directions. This effectively dissipates energy from within (vibrations from table itself) or without (footfall), without the need for a suspension system. The deck sits on three adjustable cones (Stillpoints are an option) and sports a small off-board power supply designed by John Atwood. This allows fine tuning of 33 and 45, and also includes a variable speed setting. It even has a notch in the spindle to centre eccentric spindle holes. A small Delrin puck sits atop the spindle.
Most good turntables go in one of two directions, sonically; added character or neutrality. This is different. It’s like it retains all the good parts of all the character-led decks (the precision of a direct drive, the effervescence of a idler wheel, the ‘bop’ of a suspended deck) with the inherently neutral performance of the ‘absence of character’ set. That’s a rare combination, the kind of deck that can go toe-to-toe with some of vinyl’s really big guns on their own turf, and not sound out of place. The last time I got this kind of performance from a turntable, it was a Pink Triangle Anniversary, and where this scores over that particular legend is it extends that exuberant yet honest performance across the full frequency range.
Normally, turntables that sound this deep also sound almost ponderous compared to lighter sounding decks. Not so here. This is a deck of rare depth and detail in that depth, but it is not weighed down or anchored by that depth. It sounds as breezy and light as a Rega, but with the bass of a good VPI and the sort of absence of background noise and ‘inner calm’ that still makes Voyd turntables highly valued.
This almost doesn’t need musical examples. What it does, it does universally. Out came some old faves, and some new faces alike: the Pixies Surfer Rosa album on Mo-Fi was especially interesting, the loud-soft trademark Pixies post-punk thrash can easily either descend into an unexciting slow drawl or a light and loud tizz, but here it was eerily dark and brooding, with malevolent snare drum attacks hitting you like a brick and then going away. The four trumpeters taking it in turn on "El Gato" with Duke Ellington at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival concerts (Speakers Corner reissue of the Columbia album) hit you with surprising force, or – in the case of Ray Nance’s muted trumpet – surprising delicacy, and "Post To Wir" by Richmond Fontaine is rendered with such beauty and honesty, it’s hard not to weep.
There was no desire to fiddle about here. The package works so well, you won’t want to break the spell. The turntable and arm between them make such sense together that breaking up the package seems like transgressing some moral code of audio conduct (before the TA-1, the SA-1 appeared with Schröder Reference and DPS arms, Regas modded and stock, even Naim Aro arms with success… so its place as a neutral platform seems assured, and I dare say the TA-1 will appear on as many different turntables as the Schröder arms turn up on). In truth, I didn’t want to change a thing. Vinyl, for me, got to a special ‘as good as it gets’ place here. I wouldn’t change that for another turntable, whatever its cost.
Finally, a word about the manuals. They are written by a man who knows more about vinyl than practically anyone on the planet, and a person who’s mind works to a logical order. Even if you don’t own – or even ever consider owning – the deck or arm, it’s worth downloading the manuals, because they are a mine of information in their own right. OK, they are geared toward getting the best out of the SA-1 and TA-1, but there are some true turntable gems in there (especially about the relative tightness of different bolts in a turntable system… yes, it goes that deep). If you own the deck and arm, follow the instructions to the letter. Yes, installation will take far longer than you expected and you’ll need some additional tools to complete the job (a blank groove record, a mono recording, a test record, etc), but when completed… wow!
I’d like to say I’m impressed with the Artemis Labs deck and arm, but it goes much deeper than that. I’m blown away by what it can do. OK, so it doesn’t feed the restless audiophile who must adjust every parameter before they can listen and if you want your turntable to look like a glistening chrome aircraft carrier or a recently-cleaned oil-rig, there are other decks to meet your needs. But if you want a stable platform to play your records as they should sound, without all the hassle of fiddling about when set up, but with the sort of performance that has no real upper limit, the Artemis Labs SA-1 and TA-1 might be the only thing this side of Porsche pricing to ring all your bells. Artemis Labs hit the ground running here, by making one of the very best decks around. Highly recommended? Hell, I want one!
Permissible Arm Lengths: 220mm to 260mm
Platter Speeds: 33 1/3 and 45 rpm, trimmable, variable from approx. 25 to 60 rpm.
Size: Motor Controller (WxDxH) 9.5x25.4x11.4cm
Turntable (including feet): 45x35x14cm
Artemis Labs TA-1 Tonearm
Effective length: 239.3 mm
Pivot-to-spindle distance: 222 mm
Offset angle: 23°
Effective mass: 14 gr with Certal mounting plate; 19 gr with brass mounting plate
Manufactured by: Artemis Labs
Distributed by: Cool Gales
Tel: 0800 043 6710 (UK only)