SAT Pickup Arm Comparison Reveal

Here's the "reveal" for the five file SAT pick up arm comparison featuring the Ortofon MC Century. Thanks to all who participated and expressed their opinions.

The yet to be published CF1-09 review will be in the next Stereophile. On September 14th, shortly after the comparison story posted, Malachi Lui emailed:

"Listened to the files of SAT arms. 1 sounded too "hard" or "forward" for lack of a better term, 4 was too soft for me, 3 was natural and laid back, 2 was still between 1 and 3 and a bit less hard but not as natural as 3. 3 is the winner for me. I know I probably sound like Goldilocks in this paragraph: 'This one's JUST RIGHT!'"

The files were:

1) original SAT arm
2) LM Series ($24K) arm
3) CF1-09 (43K)
4) Technics SL-1000R ($20K--turntable, plinth, pick up arm)

The CF1-09 review has yet to be published. Yet Mr. Lui immediately "got" the sound of the CF1-09, whereas, as you'll read, I was finding it too smooth. Only over time listening did I realize that tapes sound smoother, records with a sharper transient edge that the CF1-09 seemed to eliminate while revealing more low level detail.

His description for the most part nails it, though I don't find the original arm "forward". Instead compared to both new models the original's bass is looser and slightly "larger". His description of the Technics as "too soft" was correct, as others noted in the comments. 3 was "natural and laid back" he wrote and 2 was between "1 and 3 in terms of the hard or forward sound he noted. So he pretty much nailed it, not just by number, but by accurately describing the sound—at least as I heard and wrote about it before he could have read it.

. Five minutes later he sent this:
"I actually noticed those differences from my iPad speaker. Guess I was right! There is a big improvement!"

Later, I sent the files to SAT designer Marc Gomez and challenged him to correctly identify them. I told him Malachi had done it. Fortunately for Marc, he aced it.

lgoldman's picture

Interesting. There were 22 readers on AP who opted for a preference in the test. 22% could detect no difference. 5% chose the third track as the one they preferred. 10% chose Track 2, but 64% selected Track 1 which you identify as the original SAT arm. This is simply a reader/hearer preference ranking but it has meaning on some level obviously because 'what people hear and like' - ie people with at least an interest in hifi - bears little relationship to the cost of the item used or what the reviewer thinks is his/her preference.

isaacrivera's picture

Was #1 closely followed by #1... #4 being the least liked. Now, there is a layer of veiling/coloring added (equally, I hope) to the test by the fact that I listened via my laptop and Grado open backs. What would be interesting is to listen to the arms side by side in person. I wonder if my preferences would hold or... can I come over Michael?

nagysaudio's picture

Older SAT tonearm is significantly better sounding than the more expensive newer version. The new Technics tonearms are nowhere near as good as their state of the art EPA arms from the 80s. It would have been interesting to put an SME V in the mix :)

Michael Fremer's picture
Many went for #1 because they were "wowed" by first exposure to SAT/MC Century, which can be a "wow" experience. I thought #2 has better controlled bass and is overall "faster" than the original but the original has a fuller, richer, bigger sound.....over time though, #2 beats it IMO. #3 is IMO by the best but it can fool you because it is far more subtle and revealing and definitely less "flashy"....
supamark's picture

that the arm that sounded to me - HifiMan HE-500 'phones and Schiit Asgard II class A head' amp; the 'phones especially are exceptionally accurate and revealing on my head/ears - the most accurate would be the most expensive. Nope, the one that sounded like a refined version of the original arm was. Shouldn't be surprised - "give 'em what they liked, but better" is generally a good idea.

About the Technics system? As I said in the prior article, "it's like... if the SAT arms were 1st gen masters, this is a 1 to 2 gen older copy. lost dynamics, detail, and sounds pinched during complex passages."

Since the cart' is the same for all of them, I'd be curious to hear one of the SAT arms on the Technics 'table to see how much of the sound was the arm and how much the 'table to which it's connected... quite curious. and if you could do the reverse (Technics arm on your reference 'table)? That would be pretty cool, and go a long way towards answering that age old question - what part of my vinyl playback system should I upgrade first?

Michael Fremer's picture
Technics 'table in OMA plinth with SAT 12" arm and same cartridge
ashandger's picture

Michael, many thanks for sharing these files. Very interesting comparisons. Personally, I found file 3 to also have better rhythm and pace than file 1 & 2. I also have the original LP. May I ask if all the 3 arms have the same cable or has Marc changed the cable in the new arms? Thanks again.

Michael Fremer's picture
RCAs changed but I believe cable is same silver plated copper.
ashandger's picture

Many thanks for the feedback

volvic's picture

I did prefer the first one followed by number 3, when really it should have been the other way around. Guess I don't have golden ears. But I did suspect number 4 was the Technics and stated that as something in the back of my head recognized something about it so maybe it's not a total loss. Was fun though. Look forward to the next.

JEB-42's picture

Since the tracks were uploaded I have received my LM-09. The one major thing I noticed was that I hear a great deal more detail but yet at the same time less! This seems to be the complete drop of blur of noise. On Sunset, Roxy Music Stranded, there is a part where Brian Ferry lights a cigarette then takes a drag. I now CLEARY hear it as him inhaling and then exhaling (smoking a cigarette). Before the LM-09 I would have sworn the inhale was the string of a match. The layering is immense. It is now less compressed in the sense that many things were presented at the same loudness level and now they are definitely quieter, better placed but not as nearly upfront as other instruments. I am assuming closer to the true levels set in the mix.

I did not expect this type of wholesale improvement in my sound. It appears that the CF1-09 does this job even better. Having not understood it at the time I understand why I preferred the LM-09.

Thanks for putting this together! It was a lot of fun.

Michael Fremer's picture
The more things you play, the more amazed you'll be, I'm sure....
Johnnyjajohnny's picture

This is something that has been brought to Fremer's attention before, and he has corrected it as well at times, but this time it failed again: Volume levels.
The original SAT 1 tonearm was around 0.7 dB louder than the two other SAT files, which would explain why so many chose that one as their favourite - louder sounds "better", unless it's too loud, and since this was the first file in the batch, people probably adjusted the volume level on their system to this file, and the rest sounded duller because the volume was lower.
The Technics file was around 0.5 dB lower than the two new SAT arms, meaning more than a full dB lower than the first SAT file, which would make it sound a bit duller than all the others.

The volume levels simply have to be matched for any comparison to be fair, and it's the RMS levels (average levels) that should be matched, not the peak levels.

So why did Lui choose a different favourite? It's first of all possible that there simply were audible differences that he picked up on, but it's also possible that he set the volume level on his system to file 2 and 3, and then file 1 would be too loud, meaning too bright ("forward" in his terminology), but again the Technics file would sound "dull" in his system as well due to the lower volume level.

I haven't looked at differences in frequency response (yet), but I might.

I'm not writing all this to pass on judgement - just to point out that these things are important, and I would be happy to admit that I've been fooled by volume level differences many times as well as it simply affects everybody (but in the end I learned to always check the volume as the first thing). I've passed an ABX test with 15 out of 16 correct for a volume level difference of 0.2 dB. It is simply crucial.

lgoldman's picture

It is interesting how readers responded to the test and results both on AP and Audiogon (2018) sites - a plethora of views which didn't change the preference scores. Those quasi-apologists for the new more expensive arm seek to suggest the preference was a reflection of track sequence, track discontinuities in volume, and psycho-acoustic phenomena such as being 'wowed' (really?!). Those who opted for track 1 couldn't possibly have heard, understood, appreciated or believed what in any sane world should have been the 'obvious' choice. In effect, we were all 'fooled' because those who picked the new upgraded arm picked the 'improved' version. If one wanted some objective test of these explanations then we would need to have the test done again with a different track and where random sequence and volume were applied to diminish the input of such factors. It isn't going to happen and fair enough - who needs objectivity when you got passion!