Friday, June 1, 2012

Legendary AR-XA manual belt-drive turntable

There once was a day when the best turntables were located in console furniture-looking stereo sets that occupied a prominent place in mid-century modern living rooms around the globe. Often combining TV's, tube stereo receivers, and reel-to-reel tape recorders in some top-of-the-line models, they were beautiful, sounded fantastic (usually, not always, depending on the contents of the furniture and the quality of the speaker components), but, unfortunately, were cumbersome to vaccuum around and required regular dusting, polishing and cleaning to maintain their pristine appearance. All in all, it was quite a chore just to keep them up and running, and looking their best.

Enter Edgar Villchur, stereo fanatic, educator, writer and inventor. He was already famous for his 1954 (same year as the Fender Stratocaster electric guitar was invented, and that of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley's debut, a most momentous year, all in all) invention of the acoustic suspension loudspeaker, utilizing a sealed cabinet and softer speaker suspension to form a portless enclosure capable of prodigious bass response for the first time with a bookshelf-sized cabinet. This started the trend of downsizing and separate components, rather than the all-in-one electronics-filled, furniture-styled cabinets that dominated living rooms nation- and worldwide.

Edgar received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in art history from City College in New York City. He worked in the theater, and had plans to be a scenic designer. World War II changed those plans, and he was trained by the US Army in maintenance and repair of radios, radar, and other equipment. He was stationed in New Guinea, where he rose to the rank of captain and was in charge of the electronic equipment for his squadron.

After the war, Villchur opened a shop in New York’s Greenwich Village where he repaired radios and built custom home high fidelity sets. He continued to educate himself in the area of audio engineering, taking courses in mathematics and engineering at New York University. After submitting an article to Audio Engineering magazine (later renamed Audio), he was asked to write a regular column.

Despite the fact that his Masters Degree was in Art History, Villchur applied for a teaching job at NYU in the mid-fifties, presenting the administration with an outline of a course in Reproduction of Sound. His proposal was accepted, and he taught that course at night for several years. This was the first time such a course had been offered anywhere. At the same time, he worked at the American Foundation for the Blind in Manhattan, organizing their laboratory and designing or redesigning devices to make it easier for blind people to live independently. The tone arm on the turntable made by the Foundation had 12% distortion. Villchur redesigned it so that the distortion was less than 4%.

One of his inventions for the Foundation for the Blind was a turntable tone arm that descended slowly to the surface of a vinyl record. This prevented the possibility that a blind person might drop the arm accidentally and that the sudden fall might damage the stylus or the record. In later years, when he was designing the AR turntable, he added this same feature to the tone arm. In the ads describing the advantages of the product, the photo showed a person accidentally dropping the tone arm, with a caption noting that this turntable was “For butterfingers.”

In 1961, Villchur designed a turntable (record player), and published an article explaining its several innovations. The tone arm and turntable platen were mounted together and suspended independently from the body of the turntable, so that a shock to the body of the turntable would have little effect on the playing of the record. Indeed, Villchur was fond of demonstrating this independent suspension by hitting the wooden base of the turntable with a mallet while the record played on flawlessly. The mechanical isolation of the tone-arm-platen assembly from the base had a further advantage. It eliminated the “muddy” bass sound that often resulted when vibrations from the loudspeaker were conducted through the floor and caused feedback through the pickup into the amplifier.

The low mass and damped suspension of the tone arm itself compensated for any irregularities on the surface of the disk so that even warped records could often be played without distortion. When released, the tone arm floated down to the record, so that if it were dropped, it would not crash into the disc (which could harm both the needle and the record). With its quiet motor and precision-ground rubber drive belt, the turntable had extremely low wow and flutter (the lowest of any turntable on the market at that time), and far exceeded the National Association of Broadcasters standards for turntable measurements. The overall look of the turntable was given an award by Industrial Design magazine.

This tonearm feature, unique to the AR-XA at the time, still amazes most people when I demonstrate it. To me this is the most brilliant idea, as I am incredibly butterfingered! I could walk past a turntable and knock it off the shelf with my belly if I wasn't watching my P's and Q's (and TT's!) To witness the AR-XA in action is to see its innovative design and operation before your eyes. To this day, decades later, they hold their dollar value as well as their audio quality quite well. To operate, you hit the switch, which activates the motor, which turns the platter. To adjust the speed, simply lift off the outer platter, adjust the belt up on the motor spindle, and there you have it. 45 rpm! Using the lower spindle setting renders 33 1/3. Manual play dictates that, at the end of a record side, you must manually retrieve the tonearm and return it to its rest. This is the most barebones-type operation I've ever seen on a turntable! Its beauty lies largely in its stark simplicity.

Mine is nearly mint, dating from around 1965 (as do my AR4X speakers), and save for a few dust cover swirls, looks very much like the day it was purchased new in the 1960's. I am the second owner, and the original owner definitely knew how to preserve this audio classic! I restored the missing AR badge on the lower left front corner (to give the table its original vintage look), and it sits proudly amongst my display of vintage audio artifacts. Plays and looks great, the AR-XA, after a new belt and cleaning, operates perfectly well, and on into the 21st century. No BPC here...

The AR-XA has won numerous design awards, and the Linn Sondek LP-12 and countless other suspension-type designed units owe a debt of design gratitude to the AR-XA, for they are but recreations on a basic thematic design originating in this model. Some are improvements, some just a slight variation, but they never would have been continually offered in this manner if not for Villchur and his forward-thinking invention, the first free-standing suspension audiophile turntable ever. His AR-XA set the trend for designs that still continue to be copied to this day.

Tomorrow we'll tackle another item in my repertoire that merits mention. Until then, keep your tubes hot and your antenna up! See you manana!

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