The Swedish Analog Technologies tonearm caused quite a stir when first seen a couple of years ago. Primarily that stir came about because of the arm’s very high price (it is one of just two arms – both launched in recent years – to cost as much as a new car); however, a few who looked beyond the big ticket saw a tonearm design that was a genuine step-change in vinyl replay, something that is all too rare in the 21st Century.
SAT (the tonearm, and the company itself) isn’t the result of unearthing decades-old development projects, or falling back on received wisdom and second-hand engineering skills. Marc Gomez, chief engineer behind the SAT arm, is an extremely highly qualified engineer and materials scientist in his own right, and has worked on everything from water-jet engines for Rolls Royce to the rocket engines for the Ariadne programme. Born in Barcelona, but based in Gothenburg in Sweden since 1999 (hence the name of the tonearm), we caught up with Marc during a recent stop-over in London and asked him just what it takes to design and build a tonearm in the 21st Century.
AS: How did the SAT arm come about?
MG: I have spent all my working life in engineering, and have worked on many projects for many companies over the years. This is the first time the project is one of my own!
Everything started when I realised that the arm was playing a major role in the performance of a vinyl playback system. When I realised that, and that I could back that idea up with numbers and physics, I started looking at what had been done before, what was available in the market, and I realised serious improvements could be made.
I understood that even if there was a very limited market for such an arm, I started work on a design that is built the way it always should have been built, with no prejudices or limitations. I made a requirements list, and from there I derived specifications, and then converted them into physical systems.
AS: How long did the SAT arm take to develop?
MG: It’s difficult to say how long the development of the product took because it wasn’t a continuous timeline and I had to interrupt the project for one to two years. However, I would say a matter of two or three years in total.
AS: Is it true that the SAT arm was developed without a prototype?
MG: Yes. I didn’t want to base the development on trial and error, but on theory, physics, and engineering practices. I went as far as I could without having to build prototypes, partly because of the time and money involved. You can explore a lot doing simulations using computers for example.
When we built the first sample, we then made a heavier and a lighter version, but the physics was correct.
AS: Many feel tonearm development reached its acme in the 1980s. Do you agree?
MG: In the late 1970s and early 1980s (especially in Japan), tonearm design and development was considered an engineering undertaking. That time was a big inspiration for my work: not in terms of design, but in how they were conceived and built. If you look at those arms, they were engineering work. Today, you see a lot of fancy-looking high-end equipment, which are not built by engineers who understand the mechanisms that dictate how such a component should be built. I think that’s the reason why the quality of many arms available today is not as good as they can be.
AS: What was the main design criterion in making the SAT stand out from its peers?
MG: It was about understanding what matters to make the arm perform as it was supposed to perform when playing a record. One of the main design specifications is it has to be as rigid as possible. Any deviation from this in the headshell or armtube, for example, results in a form of distortion. It removes some of the information the cartridge is reading. So I put a lot of effort into making the arm really rigid while still not being high mass, to accommodate the warps and eccentricities in a record. I address this in the armtube, headshell, yoke, and the rest of the static parts. I also put a lot of emphasis on the bearings, but it’s mainly rigidity.
AS: How about fine-tuning the arm?
MG: I haven’t tuned or even thought about tuning the arm. It is designed to be rigid and deform as little as possible, and I knew that would translate into better sound. Because what’s really converting the groove into sound is the cartridge, and what a tonearm should be doing is allowing the cartridge to sit in the groove and nothing else. Tuning an arm, or allowing inherent distortions from the arm itself to reduce the cartridge’s ability to do its job, are distortions that undermine the performance of the overall vinyl replay system.
AS: Is the SAT arm readily compatible with many turntables?
MG: The two kilogramme weight of the arm assembly can pose a problem for light, suspended turntables, but most other designs work well. We have used it to great success with turntables like the Air Force One, Two, and Three, the Kronos turntable, and the SME Model 30.
AS: What have been the most challenging parts of making the SAT tonearm?
MG: The most complicated part is the production side. Development wasn’t that complicated compared to putting them into production. It’s relatively easy to make one, but to make more and make them reliably and with consistency is a lot harder. Even getting the finish right is difficult, time-consuming, and costly to get consistent as a small manufacturer!
To this end, there is one small aspect of the design that I plan to improve. It is not an improvement that changes the performance or even the design of the arm, it is a more efficient way of construction, which becomes more important as demand increases. It’s not a cost-cutting exercise, it’s all about time!
AS: What impressed and what surprised you in making the SAT?
MG: I think I was impressed by how stable it is. Not simply in use – we engineered it to be a stable platform for a cartridge at the outset – but how stable it makes the cartridge sound in comparison to other arms. That aside, its performance and manufacturing processes are all in line with the mathematics. And I think the whole package worked out really well.
What surprised me was the case! It’s custom made for the arm, and it’s not easy to make. The cable, too, was a little unexpected, in that I didn’t expect it to be so time-consuming.
AS: Presently, there is only one product in the SAT line. Will that change?
MG: There will be more products. The current arm is very costly, both to make and to buy, so it’s possible we will be able to make a less-expensive version. But a lot of this comes down to the manufacturing processes involved, and also the volumes.
We were also fortunate to hear the SAT, on an Air Force Two turntable and sporting a Koetsu Jade cartridge. What becomes clear on listening to the SAT is just how much of what we consider ‘vinyl’ sound really does come down to the arm itself, and how much of that becomes apparent when the arm is not getting in the way of the music. A more thorough investigation is required in a later review, but even in relatively brief exposure, it seems to combine the best of unipivot arms with the best of gimbal arms, and reminds you of your favourite tonearm, only better! It may be extremely expensive, but looks like the application of good, modern science and good, modern engineering to the late 19th Century concept of a tonearm makes a lot of sense.