Motoring enthusiasts are familiar with the idea of a barn find. A car is left somewhere and forgotten for decades until it’s discovered by someone who realises that although, say, a SS Jaguar makes a fine chicken coop, it would also work as a vehicle. The barn find is the classic-car lover’s holy grail; it is an acquisition fantasy fuelled by fate and ending up with an average enthusiast possessing a to-die-for car.
The hi-fi equivalent of the automotive barn find is the estate-sale. But a hi-fi estate sale, arising as it must from the death of an audiophile, can be rather thought-provoking. I found this out recently when Bill from The Factory was asked to have a look at a deceased-estate hi-fi collection at a house in Goulburn. The collection turned out to consist largely of turntables ranging from old idler drives to classic direct drives by Technics and Denon. Feeling a bit vulture-esque, I bought a couple of the turntables from Bill: a 1959 Goldring-Lenco, and a 1980s Technics SL-1200 mk2.
This was not just my first Technics 1200; it was my first direct-drive turntable. I’ve owned belt drives from my earliest hi-fi days and lately I’ve been enthralled by vintage idlers. I suspect, too, that I have retained traces of an antipathy towards direct drives that goes back to my time as a card-carrying, Linn-Sondek-owning member of the British Minimalism hi-fi movement. The Technics had nevertheless been on my mind because I noticed that the authoritative British magazine Hi-Fi World had made the Timestep EVO its product of the year, and that the same magazine used the Timestep as an in-house reference. The Timestep is a Technics 1200 with various modifications including an external power supply and a replacement tonearm. So I wondered whether Bill and I might do something similar – or even better – with the deceased-estate Technics.
Improving the Technics was relatively straightforward, not least because I was able to use the mammoth DC power supply Bill made for my Thorens and Elac turntables. Simon from Design Build Listen, moreover, has a mounting plate for installing a longer-than-standard version of his superb Wand tonearm onto a Technics. And I finished things off by getting a platter mat from Timestep themselves and Isonoe anti-vibration feet from Divine Audio in England. Perhaps the most pleasing part of the process, however, was examining the main bearing on the Technics and seeing that there was no wear whatsoever on the thrust pad; ‘hardly used’ and ‘as new’ are clichés that usually arouse suspicion, but in this rare case they are accurate descriptions.
But despite the modifications, I still had some doubts as to how it would sound as I’d read that the Technics SL-1200 has a rather ‘grey’ presentation that may be contrasted with other more ‘musical’ turntables. I use the Ortofon 2M Black moving-magnet cartridge as a reference because I know its sound well, having heard it on quite a few different turntables. Installed on my modified Technics with its 10-inch Wand, the 2M Black sounded better than I’d imagined it could; I was even able to discern things that I’d never heard before – and on my favourite records such as the early Roxy Music albums, which I have listened to many hundreds of times through dozens of different systems. This is an audiophile’s nirvana, an experience usually found only in the early stages of one’s hi-fi journey.
In fact, the 2M Black sounded so good that I was hesitant about trying anything else; I suspected that I had chanced upon a special synergy of equipment compatibility and that, through luck again rather than skill, I must also have hit the arm-and-cartridge-geometry sweet spot. But I did tempt fate by trying out the Sumiko Blackbird, a high-output moving-coil cartridge. The Blackbird, although new and not yet run in, sounded even better; it retained the dynamic presentation of the Black, but it also had the vibrant detail of Decca London cartridges as well as a bigger sound stage.
Why did the Technics sound so good, and what of the 1200’s supposed greyness? Although when it comes to the British Minimalist audio movement, I’m an apostate, I think there is still some mileage in that movement’s flagship concept of hierarchy, which suggests that the turntable, as the first link in the audio chain, is the most important element in the system. And here we are talking about the turntable itself before the cartridge and arm come into play. Within British Minimalism the idea of hierarchy led inexorably to the belt-driven Linn Sondek and its claimed musicality. But thinking about this now, there’s no logical or actual reason why a direct-drive turntable should not figure in any hierarchy model. What is required in a turntable is absolute speed consistency. Everything else flows from this, and a simple, obvious means of achieving it is to have as-direct-as-possible a relationship between the energy of the motor and the turning platter. This is probably why – as we now know – many vintage idler-drive turntables, when properly set up, sound better than the belt drives that replaced them in the name of progress.
So, in response to the claim of greyness, it strikes me that there are levels of musicality: there is an ostentatious musicality, of which, frankly, one ultimately tires; and there is a deeper, more satisfying musicality that arises from accuracy. The latter is the Platonic form of musicality, and the former, to continue with Plato’s metaphysics, is an appearance rather than a reality. And although I can hear Plato warning me about hubris and its companion nemesis, I feel that with my modified Technics, I’m experiencing this deep, accuracy-derived musicality.
But I’m still feeling uneasy, and it’s more than just worrying about a visit from nemesis; it’s the deceased-estate thing. Towards the end of Petronius’ Satyricon, which was probably written during the reign of Nero, there is a deceased-estate story. A certain Eumolpus has been dying for some time and is besieged by legacy hunters. After his death, it turns out that in his will Eumolpus stipulated that any would-be beneficiary must eat part of his dead body before being able to claim an inheritance. The work breaks off, but the reader is left with the impression that they will do it, and this is certainly how Fellini played it in his movie version of The Satyricon. Petronius’s satire is revoltingly over the top, of course, but it does hit home, and I can’t help thinking of the legacy hunters when I look at my Technics.
Thankfully, a hi-fi estate sale also gives rise to some less grisly thoughts. In philosophy there’s an issue called the problem of other minds. All I can be sure about, the argument runs, is that I and only I have a consciousness; I can’t experience anyone else’s consciousness, and I can never have any direct evidence of it. It is therefore at least possible that other people are merely automata. This argument is sometimes countered by the idea of empathy, and it strikes me that my estate-sale experience is a case in point because it’s clear to me that I can in a sense enter the deceased audiophile’s head. I feel this in general terms because he and I share not only a love of hi-fi, but also an obsession for turntables. I can see it in specifics as well. When I noted that he had changed the tonearm on his old Goldring-Lenco, for example, I immediately realised that like me, he thinks that this is a great turntable let down by an average arm.
Not that the deceased audiophile and I necessarily see eye to eye all the time. Yet even here there is empathy. Bill told me that the most prominently displayed, and therefore presumably the most used, turntables at the Goulburn house were a couple of old Garrards and a more recent direct drive. It seemed significant that there were no examples of British Minimalism among them or, for that matter, anywhere else in the collection; there were no Linns or even Regas. I then realised that the dead man possessed a discernment that transcended fads and changes of fashion. In other words, he always knew something that took me decades to work out. So now I’m wondering what the judgement of posterity will be after the inevitable estate sale of my turntables. And I’m starting to doubt whether I should even think of them as my turntables, knowing that, as in the case of the Goulburn estate sale, they may live on after my death.
Dr Walter Kudrycz