New Adventures In Old Hi-Fi

Everyone knows that vinyl is cool. I was going to say ‘cool again’, but it’s now way cooler than it was back in the day. In fact, it wasn’t actually cool back then because it was mainstream and normal.  It’s the whole retro, hipster thing that has made it cool. That and our crazy, fragmented post-modern environment, which allows the emergence of niche markets like vinyl, and which looks backwards, rather than to the future, for inspiration.
For many of us the essence of the current vinyl craze is the timeless appeal of an old turntable, or at least of a good old turntable.  Many classic turntables are superbly designed and, frankly, beautiful objects. They don’t hide their light under a bushel either; rather than concealing their magic inside a box, they allow you to witness, indeed to participate in, the miracle of turning pressed plastic into music.
There is also the matter of their sound. The analogue-digital war raged for some decades, with flat-earthers like me claiming, against the tide of ‘progress’, that analogue was both different from, and better than digital music. Is the war over because analogue ultimately won?  Probably. Well, certainly for those who care about sound quality, as opposed to convenience and accessibility.
But we have to admit that as with Seinfeld’s good and bad naked, there’s good and bad analogue. Is there also a best analogue? I think there is. And I think that upgrading a classic turntable is the way to this Holy Grail. It’s a fun, rewarding experience in itself. But as well, it’s relatively easy and, if you weigh up the other options, ridiculously cheap. To illustrate this point, allow me to share one experience from my own analogue grail quest.

I owned a Linn Sondek LP 12 for decades – throughout the dark digital forest of the late eighties and the nineties, and beyond the first decade of this century – having moved up from a late 1970s Acoustic Research AR-XB and an eighties Rega Planar 3.  I thought the Linn was the best turntable ever made, and this belief was reinforced when Bill from The Factory upgraded the electrics for me a few years ago. And more recently I thought I’d take things as far as I could, so I bought a refurbished Linn Troika cartridge. The Linn Sondek-Troika was widely regarded as an–or the–ultimate British-minimalist combination, and I was very happy with it.
But I happened to see an old AR-XB on e-bay.  Nostalgia got the better of me and I bought it. Although venerable, the AR is a good turntable.  But its arm is rubbish. I had replaced the arm on my original AR with a JH uni-pivot, and I thought I might do that again. I then read a favourable review of a current uni-pivot arm, a carbon-fibre unit called The Wand made by Design Build Listen in New Zealand. I contacted Simon Brown of Design Build Listen and asked him about putting a Wand on an AR. He was very helpful and he explained how it could be done.  (He also suggested that I might think about old idler-drive turntables such as those made by Lenco and Garrard, but that’s a story for another occasion.)

Around the same time Bill from The Factory told me that he’d acquired a seventies-vintage Thorens TD 160 in good shape. The Thorens is a classic belt-drive suspended-sub-chassis design like the AR and the Linn. Bill was only asking a couple of hundred bucks for it, so I couldn’t resist.  As with the AR, the weak point of the Thorens was the arm.  I therefore decided that I’d get a Wand and have Bill put it straight onto the Thorens instead of the AR, which was relegated to back-burner status.  I’d also been talking to Bill about upgrading the motors of old turntables. He suggested that I try a DC motor, so I ordered one from Decibel Hi-fi. I only needed to buy the motor itself, which was quite cheap, because Bill said he could make a control box/power supply for it.  To finish things off, I bought an Ortofon Cadenza Bronze moving-coil cartridge, which had been receiving excellent reviews.

Listening to the upgraded Thorens Bill put together for me was an amazing experience; I was genuinely shocked when it completely blew the Linn away. And the really interesting thing was that it was vastly superior to the Linn in precisely those areas – pace, rhythm, timing, and bass response–which were regarded as the characteristic strengths of that turntable. I felt as though I had been living in Plato’s cave all those years and I had just come out into the light. Or, to revert to the medieval-grail-quest motif, I realised that on my journey of discovery I had for too long been held in thrall by the spell of British minimalism. But, like a good knight-errant, I had eventually learnt something.

So, to use the currently fashionable newspeak, what are the ‘learnings’? The most obvious is an awareness of the difference a DC motor can make–particularly, I suspect, with any belt-drive turntable. I urge anyone with a Linn Sondek to make the upgrade. The difference will be huge. Even Linn themselves, after decades of claiming that their AC motors were the bee’s knees, now offer a DC upgrade. The more general ‘learning’, however, is an appreciation of just how good an old turntable can be with a service and a couple of sensible modifications. Old turntables can not only sound much better than they themselves used to, but also–of this I’m sure–beat new ones.
You have to pick the right turntable to improve, of course. Something with a heavy-ish platter is needed because platter mass leads to speed stability and (therefore) better sound quality. This goes for other turntable designs such as direct drives and, especially, idler-wheel drives, as well as for belt drives. The real sine qua non of an upgradeable turntable, though, is a good main bearing because everything else is fixable or replaceable. I myself had my fingers burnt here: I bought a classic Ariston on e-bay, only to find upon delivery that it had been running without oil in the bearing and the spindle was ruined.  It’s probably better to buy from a dealer, or from someone who will allow you to examine the bearing. Or just accept that e-bay is a lottery.
But no-one needs to buy a new turntable–whether it’s a bland, built-to-a-cost Pro-ject or Rega, or one of those obscene, mega-expensive ‘statement’ turntables that sound like CDs in any case. It’s much more fun to bring an old turntable back to life.  And it will sound magnificent. 

Dr Walter Kudrycz