Considering the apparent simplicity of playing a record and the sheer scope it offers when it comes to innovation and Heath-Robinson engineering, it’s remarkable how few new ideas have really stayed the course. Linear tracking tonearms remain, as do direct drive motors (recently enjoying a resurgence), but it’s remarkable just how many new record players represent a refinement or amalgamation of older thinking. Even the once omnipotent suspended sub-chassis seems to have had its day. Perhaps it reflects the fact that the engineering was indeed all too Heath- Robinson, a fact readily revealed by a problem that demands a pure engineering solution. Or perhaps it is the result of a lack of global thinking, in the sense that too many products offered solutions to a single problem rather than reflecting the all embracing and conflicting nature of the challenges. However, there are two obvious exceptions to this rule, and both attract small but vociferous and dedicated followings. One is Bill Firebaugh’s Well Tempered Arm and ‘Table, in all its various iterations. The other is the Rock…
Of course, the Rock isn’t a single turntable, just as there are various Well Tempered designs. Indeed, the various Rocks differ in almost as many ways as they possibly can, from solid plinth to suspended designs, universal motor units to integrated record players. But the one thing they all have in common, the thing that divides opinion into the pro and anti lobbies and in many respects, the thing that dominates the nature of their performance and musical presentation, is the front-end damping trough. That variation in design tells its own story: for every engineering challenge represented by a turntable or tonearm, there’s more than one solution – save one. Critical damping of the tonearm/cartridge resonance can only be achieved by applying that damping as close as possible to the source of energy, and that means the stylus record interface. That in turn dictates some form of front-end damping arrangement and nothing yet has superceded the fluid filled trough.
“But why the fuss?” I hear you ask. After all, there’s plenty of well-regarded tonearms that use minimal damping applied at the pivot or no damping at all.
Interesting to note then, that that other great turntable innovator, Bill Firebaugh damped his entire tonearm tube with sand and effectively immersed the main bearings in a silicon-oil damping well. For controlling resonance in the pickup arm is one of the great, unsolved conundrums of record replay.