Judy Spotheim: Seeing & Hearing The Light
By Jonathan Scull, January 2000

Judy Spotheim, maker of the SpJ arm and the gorgeous La Luce turntable that I reviewed a while back for Stereophile (October 1998) and that has subsequently become one of my references for LP playback. She's an intelligent, well-read individual who has a penchant for asking me, "You didn't read that in the manual?!" Ahem. Although the following interview was taped on the phone from her home in the Netherlands, I hope to meet her sometime soon.

Jonathan Scull: Your full name is Spotheim-Koreneeff, and you're originally from Israel. Did you live there before moving to the Netherlands?

Judy Spotheim: Yes, I lived in Tel Aviv, and my late husband was Dutch, so now I am living in Eindhoven, Holland.

Scull: So Judy...what drove you to it? What prompted you to design La Luce?

Spotheim: Oh, that is quite easy. [laughs] I was using at the time a turntable made in the United States by a very well-known manufacturer. I won't use any names. It was not giving me the results I wanted, no matter how many flywheels I used to turn the platter. About that time a friend of mine from Belgium who has one of my tonearms decided to upgrade his turntable. I tried to pull a few strings to help him-could they look favorably on the order and have it processed quickly, and so on. It was supposed to be one of the best turntables in the world, my friend assured me. But we waited and waited, and nine months passed-just like a pregnancy!-but no turntable. I was feeling very embarrassed, so I asked him if he was willing to wait another couple of weeks because it would be quite easy for me to design a turntable for him.

Scull: "Easy" to design a turntable?!

Spotheim: Oh, yes, very easy. I designed it in two or three hours, actually. I understood the principles and I knew what I was looking for. And I knew that it should be as simple as possible-no frills-and that it should be technically very reliable.

Scull: The tonearm took a little more time?

Spotheim: Yes, that took quite some time-about six months. It's a much more complicated device than the turntable.

Scull: You were dissatisfied with "commercial" efforts?

Spotheim: Well, I've had so many problems in my audiophile life with tonearms and turntables. And living in Israel, you couldn't just pick up the phone and order every other week another one! They are very expensive to import. So in Israel you always have to work around problems that you encounter. You have to make variations on a theme, you might say.

Scull: Okay, Judy, I accept that in Israel one has to make do. But it's still rare for someone to just sit down and design a turntable-especially one so striking, technically accurate, and fine-sounding as your own.

Spotheim: Thank you. But you know, the wife of my friend who wanted the turntable was a ballet dancer. A very musical family, very particular that things should look nice. I am, too, but to a lesser degree. But I understood what she wanted and promised her it wouldn't be an ugly black box but instead something like a sculpture, nice-looking, with a nice feel too.

Scull: When do you do your best work?

Spotheim: Usually the good ideas come to me in the night. When I was designing the tonearm I slept with a pad and pen near my bed. I let my subconscious continue working as I slept. That's quite common, you know. When you should write a book, for example, all of a sudden in the middle of the night you find the right word to express an idea. And you must wake up and write it down! Otherwise, in the morning you will surely forget it. That's how I came up with the solution for the azimuth adjuster.

Scull: The traveling pivot?

Spotheim: Yes.

Scull: When I first realized how the traveling pivot worked, I was intrigued. And I was floored by the sound. It obviously works.

Spotheim: Thank you. I registered a patent on it, you know.

Scull: Can you tell us, briefly, how it works?

Spotheim: Well, think about an ice-skater spinning a pirouette on one skate. When he wants to slow down, what does he do? He drops the other skate to the ice and controls the spin, turning more slowly until he stops. But it doesn't mean that he couldn't continue turning. He would just lift the other skate back off the ice, you see? That is the basic idea of how the two pivots work.

Scull: They have to be close to each other?

Spotheim: Yes, so the second pivot doesn't hinder the travel of the main pivot. You must understand that there is no such thing as a true unipivot. They all have to have an antiskating adjustment. And the antiskate device ties the tonearm to the base, so you end up with two pivots, or one pivot controlled by another. In reality, a true unipivot arm simply does not exist.

Scull: I see. Judy, you've got customers all over the globe, is that right?

Spotheim: Yes, I even have one in the Far East who wanted the base-plate, usually stainless steel, to be done in titanium!

Scull: Very exotic.

Spotheim: Yes, and very expensive, very crazy to manufacture. There's only one place I could turn to for that kind of work-only one factory that would meet me with a cup of coffee and a cake, so to speak. But surprisingly, they told me "No problem"! When I received it from them, of course, I was very curious to hear it and see how it worked. I wanted to make sure everything was perfect. But I found it so difficult to part with. [laughs] I knew I wasn't going to do many like that-in pure titanium! Anyway, I finally sent it to my customer, and I received such a nice letter back in return. He even sent me a book written by his father.

You see, sometimes I have good contact with my customers, people who really appreciate how it's made as well as how it sounds. You know, I listen to every turntable and tonearm before it leaves. I adjust it, I fine-tune it-I enjoy. I like to break it in a bit and I try at least two cartridges in every arm, for instance. I have to know my babies, Jonathan!

Scull: [laughs] Right!

Spotheim: I could never make La Luce or the SpJ arm with mass production, for example.

Scull: No, Judy...you'd better not.

Spotheim: I was hoping you would ask me why I called it La Luce.

Scull: You take the words from my mouth.

Spotheim: La Luce is Italian, of course. It means "the light." You could say the name came to me from the mouths of babes. Some local children come to my place to play around in the yard with the animals I have there-like my cat, and the chickens and so on...

Scull: Chickens?!

Spotheim: [laughs] Not chickens...how do you call them? Ducks!

Scull: Ah-ha. I knew there weren't any chickens pecking around your yard.

Spotheim: I have small ducks in a pond behind the house. So one of the children was at that time about eight years old. He liked sometimes to listen to music because, you know, he found it so nice. He was looking carefully at the turntable late one afternoon when a ray of light came through the window. He suddenly said, in Dutch of course, that the turntable not only made music but it also played with the light.

Scull: Ahhh...

Spotheim: Yes, and I said to myself, "That's it!"

Scull: You know, George Cardas is such a hippie, he told me to put a colored record on the platter and shine a light through it.

Spotheim: Well, you could use a prism...

Scull: Say, Judy, you're not an old hippie too, are you?

Spotheim: [laughs] Nooooo...

Scull: Let me ask you-when we listen to our high-end systems, should we be listening for the re-creation of the absolute sound in a real space, or a faithful reproduction of the master tape? Or something else?

Spotheim: What the microphones picked up. It can sound very faithful, it can be very flattering....It depends on how the microphones were placed, their frequency response, how the tape was cut, and even what cutter head was eventually used. But don't ever think that you can hear at home what you hear in a concert hall! That's a lie. What you hear is what the microphones picked up.

Scull: Okay...

Spotheim: For example, take an opera singer in a concert hall or an opera house. Say a soprano wants to go from forte to mezzoforte. It could be a contralto, too, but I'm thinking soprano because the voice is very sharpened, if you know what I mean.

Scull: SMm-hmm...

Spotheim: Let's say she drops her voice from forte to mezzoforte, piano to mezzopiano, and then to piano pianissimo. By the end she may not be able to control it completely with her throat or her "resonance" box. So vocalists sometimes use a little trick. They move their heads slowly sideways or downward away from the microphone.

Scull: Ah-ha!

Spotheim: That, of course, lowers the pressure wave on the microphone. What you hear in the concert hall at that moment is a sound that you cannot pinpoint exactly where it is. It moves from left to right a bit, as if you recorded a vocal and mixed it a little bit out of phase. And listening to opera, I heard this phenomenon on my turntable and tonearm. Not that the voice physically moved from one speaker to the other! No, it was staying in one place, but you could hear the pressure on one microphone become a little bit less than on the other. Then it faded away or came back, depending on if the singer moved her head away or back. So when I heard that on La Luce, I said to myself, "Well, here I have it!"

Scull: Judy, you got it! Your love for music dates from early childhood?

Spotheim: Yes. When I was very little, I remember my first encounter with an LP. I was about 13 years old, I think. There was a crazy old lady who gave soirées-you know what is that?

Scull: Mais oui, Judee!

Spotheim: Just checking. There we would sit and listen, not more than 20 people at a time. She really didn't like inviting children because they were impatient with classical music. But I was lucky and she invited me. And that evening I heard for the first time Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave. That was followed by Maria Callas' first Columbia recording of Puccini heroines. I came home very late in the evening, moved to tears by her voice. That was the beginning of my love for opera. And I used to always hear my mother singing in the kitchen. She had a lyric soprano and would sing Brahms lieder, for example.

Scull: Your mother came from a musical background?

Spotheim: She came from a home in Russia that was very cultured. I remember the first time I heard her sing the Brahms "Wiegenlied," you know, the Lullaby...You know, this is painful for me to speak about even now. [pauses] It was in the afternoon and I was doing my homework for school. My mother was singing in the kitchen, washing the dishes or something, and I suddenly began to cry. And she came and asked me what was wrong. I was ashamed to tell her I was crying because she was singing so beautifully. Anyhow, it was about then that I got my first "real" turntable and heard Verdi's Requiem conducted by Toscanini. Of course it was a mono RCA, but I remember my first encounter with it. I was in such a state of shock that for three days I refused food. And since then, of course, I've been hunting for records. [laughs] I remember once my mother and I were listening to music and talking about choral works, and she told me, "Ahh, you don't know what a chorus is until you've heard a live Russian choir in a church!"

Scull: Let me guess-you've heard plenty of live choral music since then?

Spotheim: Sure. Back when I was living with my husband in Geneva, the Don Cossack Choir performed in Victoria Hall. I really almost fainted when I heard that. Such massive voices, especially the lower registers, you know, the basso. The hall was really shaking! I was shivering when I heard that, and I finally knew exactly what my mother meant.

Scull: When I'd mentioned the Koetsu cartridge to you earlier, did I understand you to say you knew its creator, Sugano-san?

Spotheim: Well, you can say that the old man Sugano knows about me. I've actually received photographs from him. He knew me when I was living in Israel. At that time I hadn't yet designed the SpJ tonearm, and I'd made a tonearm from bamboo...

Scull: What? [laughs] You're so casual about it...

Spotheim: Don't laugh! [laughs] It was a so-called unipivot. It was working fantastic with a...how do you call it, a sewing needle?

Scull: What?

Spotheim: You heard me correctly. I made it myself. It was very delicate to adjust. And at that time I was corresponding with Mr. Koetsu. I sent him pictures of the tonearm, and he sent me one of his first cartridges.

Scull: Amazing...

Spotheim: It fit the bamboo nicely because the body was made of wood, of course. I even have a photo somewhere of Mr. Koetsu holding a photograph of me.

Scull: How did you meet your US distributor, George Cardas?

Spotheim: Oh, that is a very nice story. At the time I almost had the tonearm finished I was using internal armwires from a very old tonearm, nothing special. And I came to a point where I realized I had to try better internal armwires. So-this is true, every word that I'm telling you-I called a very well-known wire manufacturer here in Holland and explained what I was doing. I didn't need much wire, I was just looking for one-and-a-half meters of internal wire, and could he please send it to me? And he asked me quite bluntly if I had a business! I said no, it's not at that stage yet. "So who are you?" he demanded. I said here, you have my name and address, it's not espionage, I'm not trying to steal anything..."Oh, well, we don't know you and we're not going to deal with you!" He was very rude.

Scull: That's unfortunate.

Spotheim: He really brought tears to my eyes. I said to myself, "If that's the way I'm going to be treated by cartridge or wire manufacturers, well, it isn't normal." So around then I saw an advertisement by George Cardas for his wires. And I sat down and wrote a short handwritten letter to him. In it I begged for just a little internal armwire. Well, what do you know, after ten days or so I received from him a big parcel with wires and an encouraging letter.

Scull: Not what you expected.

Spotheim: No, but I was so glad-you know, he even included solder. I said to myself, "This man must be an angel." And he apologized for the wires, which were all black and not color-coded. He gave me the idea to color-code them with little touches of fingernail polish at the end. And I thought, "How deep does he think!"

Scull: [laughs] Yeah, George is deep.

Spotheim: So I took a nice piece of paper and I put dots of different nail-polish colors that I had in my house at the time-red, pink, blue, whatever. And I sent that back to him asking what color he liked! [laughs] I did. And I received another letter from him. He thought the pink was too old, the red too bold...but that's how I came to try his wire. Also, in parallel with that, I got another manufacturer's wire, which I tried and wasn't very satisfied with. But when I tried the wire from George Cardas I could immediately hear...I can give you an example. I have an original first pressing of an EMI white-label Faust from 1959 with Victoria de los Angeles. It's amazing-they recorded it with two microphones, of course-and on side one you have the offstage chorus as recorded there at the Paris Opera House. I've visited there, so I know how the balconies look, and I knew the girls' chorus was completely off to the left side. When I heard that with the Cardas wires, the sound came really from far, far left, and a little bit back. I was amazed! From the first vowel, you can judge precisely where the performers are on the stage. Then I tried it with the other wires I had in the tonearm...

Scull: At the same time?

Spotheim: Sure, I wired up two sets of armwires in that arm so I could switch by just moving the pins.

Scull: Great idea.

Spotheim: With the other wire I heard the chorus from the left, but it wasn't very clear from where exactly on the left it came. It was a little bit misty, you might say. So I knew the Cardas was the armwire for me. Then George told me he would like to try my tonearm and I sent him one, and that's how we came to know each other.

Scull: Judy, do you have a few reference recordings that you use to judge good sound?

Spotheim: Yes, there's Schubert's "Trout" Quintet on Discophile Français. You know that label?

Scull: I'm afraid not.

Spotheim: It's from the '60s and each album is a treasure.

Scull: What's the recording's number, if you please?

Spotheim: I have it here...DF740010. And there's Decca SET-468A, the Ansermet memorial album with Stravinsky's Firebird, and a second disc, of the rehearsal with the New Philharmonia Orchestra. This Firebird is the early 1916 version, by the way, and listening to the rehearsal in that great hall, you can hear Ansermet yelling at the orchestra and actually hear the record cooking, so to speak. It wasn't intended as an audiophile LP, but to hear the acoustics when he speaks, how natural it sounds...

Scull: Well, I've got a surprise for you, Judy. I have that album. Kathleen is crazy for Ansermet, and we picked it up one night in the East Village for $15. My version is a London ffrr, though, FBD-S-1. As you say, it's astounding.

Spotheim: You have that recording? That's amazing! Of all the people I've talked to around the world about it, you are the only one who actually has it!

Scull: But of course. What other reference discs do you listen to?

Spotheim: Well, London OS 25280, A Christmas Offering with Leontyne Price and Herbert von Karajan with the Vienna Philharmonic, recorded in 1960. All of side two is a marvel.

Scull: Tell me, Judy, do audiophiles in Europe have as hard a time dealing with women as they seem to in America?

Spotheim: No, I don't think so. Frankly, it's more difficult to find willing people on the fabrication side.

Scull: Ah-ha...

Spotheim: Yes, because it was the Netherlands and I didn't speak the language. I would go to various places to have things made and they would just stare at me. Here was a strange lady with strange ideas and very high demands for mechanics, fine metalwork, and so on. It was hard to explain myself to these people. A student who lived in my attic did the first technical blueprints. And, so, of course, I was literally shown the door at most of these establishments. But slowly I found people who were willing to listen and help.

Scull: Who is your customer?

Spotheim: The audiophile who is married and has a wife who won't accept some ugly black coffinlike thing in the corner. And who likes things to have a nice feel, a nice sound, and nice looks.

Scull: You probably keep your customers for a long time, but is there a warranty associated with the turntable?

Spotheim: [laughs] Yes-if you don't throw it on the floor, then you have a warranty!

Scull: Judy, thank you very much for talking with me today.

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