If you're a vinyl fan, the first cardinal rule should be to keep a firm grip -- and I mean all of your ten digits, mate -- on
R-E-A-L-I-T-Y. Forget tube junkies - they're not playing in these leagues. The black disk obsession trails off too easily into the far-outer edges of voodoo, fetish and plain old nuttiness. If you're not careful, you suddenly find yourself running your rig from your newly built, earthquake-proof concrete bunker basement, a sixty foot interconnect snaking its lonesome way exhaustedly to the listening room. Oh, and did I mention how badly you want that isolation table designed for electron microscopes that floats your whole turntable in a gravitational vacuum?

The problem with turntables - and half the fun? They are intrinsically mechanical devices. You actually get to see what's going on! The platter spins, the cartridge needle wiggles through the grooves to produce a physical movement which the cartridge moving coils translate into electrical signals. It's the identical process to what moving coil speaker drivers do - except in reverse. But unlike with speakers, a turntable gets you a front row seat with the perfect view. More importantly, you can tweak it incessantly without having to rebuild a speaker cabinet each time. Bass sounding a bit boomy? Let's nudge the VTA (Vertical Tracking Angle) up a notch. Need a little more bite to those leading edges? What about aluminium discs under the turntable spikes? Or better yet, brass? Bit of hash in the lower mid bass? Try a different oil in the platter bearing. The Never-ending Story. And you get to be its author and sell the movie rights.

So far, I've managed to keep a reasonably tight rein on incipient loopiness. My worst foible is to keep the turntable spinning permanently. "Dahlin', do we have to have that thing turning all night? This is the bedroom". "Good God, don't you realize how important speed stability is?" She gives me a wicked grin. "Speed stability? I love it when you talk dirty, hon'." (This is followed by a five minute rant on why keeping the, ahem, oil in the bearing at a constant temperature, hence viscosity, is absolutely crucial). You get the picture. Pillow talk vinyl-style.

Anyway, the wonder of a turntable is that it produces divine music through only four moving parts (OK, five - if you count the belt between turntable and motor; six, if you count the turntable's movement against the outer world; seven if you include your bopping head, more if something inside your head is rattling). You've got the motor, the platter bearing, the arm bearing and the cartridge needle. That's it. Everything else is passive (which is not to say it isn't important). Obviously though, these moving bits have a huge effect on the sound the rig produces.

Vinyl is good for you.
Tonearm Bearings

The tonearm bearing is the one that allows the cartridge to move vertically, horizontally, and across the record's plane. That's six degrees of movement. It makes the bearing by far most the complex moving part within a turntable. To make matters worse, these six degrees of movement are occurring simultaneously. Remember, very few (if any) records are actually properly centered. They will all be eccentric and warped to some degree. With a fixed bearing, the angle of the needle to the groove changes all the time. It's amazing we get any sound at all out of this mess.

Tonearm bearings have evolved along two main family lines. The fixed bearing keeps the bearing itself in one place, so the arm and cartridge are forced to move through an arc across the record. The parallel or linear tracking bearing keeps the arm wand parallel to the walls of the groove at all times. To do so, the bearing, along with the arm wand, has to move. This produces major stresses on the needle which has to find the energy to move the weight, absorb the friction of the cartridge, arm-wand and half the bearing traveling across the record while trying to follow the information in the grooves. That's a bit like trying to tap dance while balancing a cupboard on your back. You can imagine the expense and precision required to create a properly tracking linear arm.

Let's leave these exotic creatures for the moment and concentrate on the conventional fixed bearing. These come in several flavours themselves; the gimballed, dual pivot and the unipivot. The key problem with gimballed and dual pivot designs (as for instance in the Rega and SME arms as well as the Moerch DP6)? The bearing itself needs to be produced to incredibly tight tolerances. A loose bearing will produce audible "chatter" while over-tightening creates "stick" to get you stuffed the other way. Hence the attraction of the unipivot. It is by far the simplest of all bearings available. That is a considerable virtue by itself. The bearing is essentially a needle within a hay stack - sorry, cup. In one stroke, it gives you six degrees of movement, each of which isn't compromised by the others. Fantastic, you chortle? Why bother with anything else, especially since it's considerably cheaper to produce as well, giving you more sound for your hard-earned pound - or dollar if you live in the provinces?

Well, throughout the two or more decades when the Linn and other lightly suspended turntables ruled the vinyl roost, unipivots couldn't even get a look in and most went out of production. The reason for that is plain - if your platter's wobbling, your unipivot is going to wobble, too. Those two just did not make it together. With the resurgence of mass-loaded suspension-less turntables, however, the unipivot is now making a dramatic comeback.

But, as with all things vinyl, this particular bearing has its own Achilles heal. When the arm rides over warps, it gets pushed up at speed. As it does, it will invariably tilt slightly to one side or the other and pendulum back on the way down. No matter how well balanced the arm, this will happen even if only on a microscopic level. On a well-set-up arm and most of the time, this effect will remain inaudible. Still, there's no doubt that this effect has physical repercussions.

So, with a blast of trumpets, let's now unveil the £689 Hadcock 242SE. It looks like a conventional unipivot, except it's not. The needle point isn't so much a needle as an elongated cone tip. The cup isn't a cup at all because it holds four tiny brass balls to act as a bearing. So it's a compromise, really - a semi unipivot, its scale reduced to virtually act as a unipivot while producing the greater stability inherent in a dual-pivot design. Very clever, you say - but does it work? Let's find out.

The supplied tonearm came with my favourite Incognito wiring, with its familiar black-plated sheathing, high quality and colour-coded gold plated RCA plugs. With the Hadcock, the ground cable isn't supplied with a clip grip which I would have liked to have seen. The mounting stub involves a brass nut and washer screwing onto the chrome-plated bearing shaft.

Its mounting hole needs to be at least 5/8 inch diameter and should fit most Rega boards. It did mine. VTA is adjusted via the usual and effective grub screw, with the shaft itself long enough to leave a bit of room above my 80mm high platter. The arm rest mechanism is well thought-out, rigid and adjustable, with precise and well-damped actuation a world removed from the wobbly contraption of the old 228. Anti-skating is via a small chromed weight which hangs by the proverbial thread off an outrigger. Moving on to the arm wand itself, we get two chrome-plated counterweights both of which are decoupled via rubber O rings and sport notches for initial weight settings.

As with the Moerch and Schroders, the azimuth is adjusted by twisting the counterweight. As for tracking weight itself, with an arm of this quality, a decent balance is a must though. Using it, you can dispense with the smaller of the two weights. The arm wand itself is a stainless-steel nine-incher, with what looks to be some kind of transparent plastic damping material inside the tube. The detachable headshell mount fits neatly via a grub screw, allowing for a good degree of adjustment.

Unfortunately, the finger lift is integral so it can't be removed. Then again, it goes some way toward balancing the antiskating outrigger on the other side of the bearing cylinder. The headshell itself is threaded, which is great if you only use unthreaded cartridges. However, you'll have to drill the threads out to get a fit with threaded cartridges. Build quality is high, and the arm (at least to my eye) is attractive in a minimalist way. My only complaint? The wiring loom is cut at the pivot end to allow for multiple arm wands and therefore cartridges. I'd much rather see an unbroken connection from pins to RCAs. Frankly, it doesn't take that long to unscrew a cartridge head, never mind that changing cartridges still means realigning azimuth and weight. You aren't going to save a lot of time either way.

Setup is straightforward. The arm comes in its own well thought-out foam-filled packaging and includes three Allen keys, two sets of cartridge threads, and two plastic-coated paper alignment charts, one for pivot point to spindle distance, the other for headshell alignment. One of the things I liked best were the visible reflections in the counterweight. By putting on a record, you can judge by eye if the azimuth is out, as any vertical line reflected in the counterweight will tilt slightly as the record revolves. Once I'd balanced the azimuth using a test record, there still remained a small tilt in some warped records, showing up the intrinsic unipivot problem without mercy.

So what about the sound? From the first note, it became crystal clear that this is a genuinely impressive tone-arm. It presents a huge and stable sonic landscape up there with the best, the arm digging deep into the details but, crucially, keeping a check on the framework of the whole. I used the arm happily for a couple of weeks without taking notes to let the cables break in. I then settled down for some critical passes.

Sade's Stronger than Pride isn't just my favourite of her works, it's also a well-produced record with great insight into her silk-spun husky vocals. It's also got glass bells which are a great test of harmonics and timbre. Right off the bat, her voice appeared correctly positioned and well separated from the rest of the instruments. Soundstage had both good depth and width, even if the drumset appeared slightly recessed compared to my resident Schroder 2. The glass bells on "Turn My Back on You" came through with the full complement of ringing and density, passing that test admirably to have me think that this was an arm I'd happily live with.

The images produced were beautifully stable, poised and attentive. The Hadcock turned out to be far less temperamental than the Moerch UP4 I lived with and loved, but sported the same gorgeous midrange. At the same time, bass was considerably more present and well defined. The Moerch, with its S-shaped arm wand and lowered counterweight was less happy tracking warped records and probably wasn't as good a tracker in the first place. The 242SE's take is altogether more assured. Like the Moerch, the Hadcock presents an ever so subtle lifting of the leading edges. Could that be due to the stainless-steel arm wands they both have in common? It gave Boccherini's "La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid" (that's "The Night Music of the Streets of Madrid") on Die Röhre - The Tube [Tacet L74] a delightful vibrancy at the expense of what I perceive to be "neutrality".

But on this record, the Hadcock also produced something close to the levels of deep jet blackness the Schroder achieves. When the violins are nail-plucked, the ticking sounds were full of the harmonic structure standing out from the silence. The inter-relationship between melody and countermelody was beautifully rendered, rhythms well caught and delineated. Instruments appeared well separated and with a good three-dimensional harmonic envelope. Boccherini's resolute bass motif came forward with full weight and scale. Time to smile, and smile big.

What about Jazz? The mono Steaming with Miles Davis entered the ring. Without a mono cartridge, instruments tend to bunch together at centre soundstage, making it considerably harder for the turntable to keep each instrument in its own separate acoustic reality. Again, the Hadcock showed itself to be a first-class performer. Granted, Miles' trumpet was slightly less well separated from the rest of the instruments, but in exchange, cymbals shimmered with realism and acoustic weight. The piano harmonics were slightly recessed, true, but at this point I was regretting that I didn't obtain a second arm board for my turntable.

I evaluated the Hadcock with several cartridges, from the Allaerts MC1S to the Music Maker 2 (an unusually brilliant match), from a Scheu-modded Benz Glider to a high-compliance Van den Hul Empire MC1000. The arm easily distinguished the sonic character of each one. If it imparted a sonic character of its own, I would place it as giving forth a sense of purposeful energy, but one that has not lost poise and control. The slight lift of leading edges remained apparent with all cartridges.

Returning to the Schroder after a happy month with the Hadcock was a surprise. I had thought I didn't miss it at all, but from the very first track, I heard that familiar openness, that lack of artifice and sheer naturalness which took me aback. It sounded more like real instruments rather than artificially produced sounds most arms produce. The relationship between leading edges and harmonic envelope flowed more naturally, as did the trailing edges. To be honest - while the Hadcock was in residence, I'd forgotten just how good my own arm was. So while the Brit can't quite aspire to the same league in my personal favourites stakes as the German challenger, its charms are considerable and its performance outstanding. It also has the kind of sound that can seduce at first listening but won't pale over time. It's an excellent match for any high-quality, non-suspended table. I'm sure it would also be right at home on rigidly suspended turntables such as the Avid or the Orbe. Now, I've saved the best for last. The Hadcock might be a very fine arm, but its price wouldn't let on. For some reason, I'd labored under the misconception that it weighed in at over £1000. At that price, I thought it a good deal, especially when you factor in the Incognito wiring. Turns out it costs £689.00 including Vat. That's $1,102 for the Yanks. What?! All I can say is, I'm amazed that you can get this quality of sound at that price. If I were in the market for a unipivot, this arm would be my first port of call. Land ahoi! You know what us sailors do after a long absence from solid ground under our feet, don't ya?

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