My Analogue Journey Part II

It’s been a while since my first post in this series of articles dedicated to my personal discovery of great analogue audio. Over the last few months my time for writing on Hi-Fi has been scarce. What with the birth of my second child, Nathan, a move to a new home, and normal work life, I’ve had little time to even enjoy music. Writing has been a luxury I simply haven’t been able to afford. But after a number of months when I slowly put words down on the page, here is Part II of My Analogue Journey. I hope you enjoy this section of the trip.

 Part II:

A Vintage Turntable Project

My Analogue Journey was always meant to be about exploration and discovery. As I outlined in Part I of this essay, a number of years ago I set out on a Hi-Fi expedition to explore and document the experience of listening to great analogue audio and vinyl music. From the moment I set out though, I was aware that equipment review samples and the goodwill of others would only take me so far. I would eventually need to invest real dollars into a personal analogue playback system. As part of the experience I hoped to build a vinyl playback set-up that would perform at the highest level, commensurate with the best analogue audio systems available today. I knew, however, that high-end analogue equipment often comes with high-end prices, and I was not in a financial position to simply purchase whatever I wanted to hear. Compromises and planning would need to be apart of my journey.

Though both my time in Hi-Fi and my experience in professional sound studios, I also knew that any great music system is the sum of all its parts. When complimentary components are paired together it’s possible to create a musical synergy that lifts the entire system to a higher level.

A philosophy of synergistic system building is one of the key tenets of my long time Hi-Fi mentor, Ernie Fisher. Between 1995 and 2005 I spent a lot of time with Fisher listening to the incredible array of Hi-Fi electronics that passed though his doors. Fisher did most of the writing, but I got a lot of first hand experience with some truly remarkable audio systems. Not all combinations of components worked well though, even of two or more equally good pieces. Some of this could be explained by science and measurements, but some of it was instinct, a trait with which Fisher is well blessed. During this period I developed a good understanding of the way value can be found, or created, through the search for the right combination of components within an audio system.

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Ernie Fisher – Courtesy of The Inner Ear & Paige Rice Photography

While building my own analogue playback system I knew to pay attention to all four parts of the vinyl chain: the turntable; the tonearm; the cartridge, and the phono amplifier. Though I wanted to build an entire system from scratch, I wasn’t able to make four component purchases at once, so my key decision was where to start. My early instinct was to start with the turntable, a foundation piece from which I could explore the nuances of tonearm set up, and experiment with cartridge & tonearm combinations. The right table, I thought, would also provide consistency to my (prospective) writing ventures. With this as my core philosophy I started to look for a turntable that I also wanted to own.

An Unexpected Turn

When I started out I knew nothing about vintage turntables. I was aware of the difference between belt-driven and direct-drive tables such as Technics and Dual from my teenager years, when I had a pair of Technics SL1200’s hooked up to a small stereo mixing console and a tape deck, but that was a long time ago. As far as I knew, the only turntable technology to take seriously was the belt drive system. Despite being a niche segment within High-End audio, and a tiny part of the consumer audio world, there were still dozens of new model turntables to discover. Tables such as the Brinkmann Balance, the SME 20/12, the Clearaudio Statement table, the Kuzma Stabi XL and an Oracle Delphi were the kinds of turntables being written about in the Hi-Fi press and the kinds of tables I was curious to explore.

But then my friend David Beetles put a bug in my ear. My history with Beetles pre-dates his time with Hammertone Audio. In addition to his work as global distributor for Allnic Audio, Beetles is the most hard-core analogue audio guy I know. We hadn’t spoken in a few years when I reached out to him somewhere around 2007, but we ended up having a series of phone conversations that strongly influenced the direction of my journey.

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David Beetles (Hammertone Audio) Stefano Bertoncello (Two Good Ears Blog Spot) and Kang Su Park (designer – Allnic Audio Labs) – Courtesy of Hammertone Audio

Beetles knew my writing (like many Canadian audio enthusiasts he was a devout reader of Fisher’s The Inner Ear Report), and was excited at the prospect of someone new dedicating themselves to analogue playback and vinyl music writing. Beetles loves his analogue audio, and I imagine he could talk turntables all day. During out chat he provided feedback on all the turntables that had caught my attention, declaring with his robust Western Canadian charm, Ive hadm all Davey! He indulged my curiosity for quite a long time, but near the end of the conversation he made a pointed suggestion, recommending I look at the work being done by Steve Dobbins (Xactaudio) and Jean Nantais (Idler-Wheel-Drive) with older model Garrard and Lenco turntables from the 1960’s and 1970’s. For Beetles the future of analogue audio lies in the past.

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XactAudio Kodo turntable – courtesy of Steve Dobbins

Initially I was daunted at the idea of adding vintage and used electronics to the already bursting list of equipment I was curious about. I valued Beetle’s advice, however, and was intent to learn what I could about vintage model turntables. As I started reading I found that the more research I performed, the more fascinated I became by the world of restored vintage turntables: Garrard, Thorens, Lenco and EMT idler drive motors or direct drive turntables of yesteryear from the likes of Technics, Micro Seiki and Goldman.

The Vintage Turntable Movement

The first thing that struck me about vintage model turntables wasn’t the tables themselves, but the culture and community that’s been formed by the group of analogue audio enthusiasts (like Beetles) who are adamant that the level of performance one can achieve with a well restored vintage model turntable surpasses that of the modern belt designs. Made up of users, hobbyists and restoration experts, there is a passionate movement behind the resurgence of both idler-drive and direct drive turntables.

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Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301 Statement Turntable – courtesy of Chris Thornton

Most impressive to me are the artisans who are dedicated to the restoration of these glorious machines. To name but a few, Steve Dobbins (Xactaudio), Raymond Clark (Classic Turntable Company), Matthew Taylor (Audio Grail), Chris Thornton (Artisan Fidelity), Terry O’Sullivan (Loricraft Garrard 501), Jonathan Weiss (Oswalds Mill Audio) Jean Nantais (Idler-Wheel-Drive), and Stefano Bertoncello (twogoodears), are thoroughly committed and passionate about great sounding audio. And I would be remiss if I did not mention Ken Shindo-san, founder of Shindo Labs in Japan and one of the founders of the vintage turntable movement, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 74. While none of these designs are inexpensive (they range in price from anywhere between $2000 USD for a restored motor drive to near $50,000 USD for a brand new, custom made motor and plinth combination), the work of these audio-atrisans designing and restoring one-of-a-kind turntable systems requires a passion that isn’t fuelled by economics, but rather by the pure pursuit of great sounding music.

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Shindo Labs 301 Music Player – courtesy of Jonathan Halpern and photo by Matthew Rotunda

For those who are curious to find out more about the vintage turntable movement there is a significant amount of information available via the popular press, blogs and Internet user groups. Some of the articles that influenced my own journey include Jeff Day’s 2004 series of articles for 6moons.com about his first Garrard 301 restoration project (Part I, Part II, Conclusion); Ken Kessler’s 2006 discussion of the merits of Garrard turntables for HiFi News; and Roger S. Gordon’s article for Positive Feedback about his experimentations with a Garrard 401. Stereophile’s Art Dudley wrote about his own Garrard 301 project in the spring of 2011, and more recently in the early 2015, Day followed up his earlier writing with an exemplary summary of the allure of Garrard turntables with his article The Garrard Project: From Simple to Spectacular, outlining both the history of the Garrard turntable as well as Day’s second, significantly more ambitious Garrard turntable restoration project, published at Positive-Feedback.

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Oswalds Mill Audio slate plinth with motor drive – courtesy of Jonathan Weiss

There are also a number of interesting blogs to explore, including Day’s private blog Jeff’s Place, which offers even more information about his own experiences with vintage turntables. Audio enthusiast Arthur Salvatore has written extensively on The Jean Nantais Reference Lenco turntable on his website Reference Components, and the aforementioned Stefano Bertoncello is both a writer and restoration artisan. Based in Italy, Bertoncello writes an exceptional blog dedicated to vintage analogue audio called twogoodears, and has also started a FaceBook chat group called The World of Bespoke Idler-Wheel turntables.

Finally, there are also chat groups dedicated to vintage turntables on Audiogon, The Art of Sound, Vinyl Engine and other sites around the web. Once you start looking, there is an endless supply of opinions, restoration tips and product supply to fuel any hobbyist’s curiosity.

You can’t hear anything by reading, however, so as part of my journey I started to seek out first hand opportunities to experience analogue systems based around vintage model turntables. Over the course of a few years there were three systems that stood out. The first was a Technics SP10 MKII within an Artisan Fidelity plinth, a Graham Phantom tonearm and Lyra Atlas cartridge. The SP10 combination had drive, outstanding pitch accuracy and an elegance that was engaging and dynamic.

The second system involved a Garrard 401, set in a basic birch wood plinth, that I was able to hear at a local Toronto dealer. I don’t recall all of the ancillary components, but the Garrard was using an Ortofon RS-309D tonearm. Set up alongside a Nottingham Spacedeck, the listening session allowed for quick comparisons between two turntable design styles. Playing side-by-side with the Nottingham I was able to perceive the drive and power the idler-drive Garrard table is known for.

While both of these systems were very good, it wasn’t until a few years later that I finally discovered the full capabilities of vintage model turntables. The Nantais Reference Lenco that I experienced with Roger Hebert of Wyetech Labs in Ottawa (which I wrote about in Part I of this essay) confirmed Beetle’s early advice to me: When restored and set up well, the sound from a vintage turntable was at least equal, and in some ways superior, to that of a modern belt drive turntable. At the time I heard it the Nantais Lenco was simply the best sounding analogue system I had ever experienced.

After the trip to Ottawa I could feel myself being drawn toward these vintage turntable designs. There was something within the passion, nostalgia and the Sonics of the vintage turntable world that had caught my attention. I knew that going down the vintage path would require a leap of faith, as auditioning and comparing different models was virtually impossible, especially when part of the appeal is the customization of the design for the motor and plinth. I was far enough along in my journey, though, that it was a leap I was ready to make. So following my visit with Hebert in the early winter of 2011 I was ready to start my own vintage turntable project.

My Vintage Turntable Project

Once I made the decision to build a system around a vintage model turntable the easy choice would have been to purchase a Nantais Reference Lenco. I had heard one and been very impressed. Nantais also lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, so his tables were available fairly locally to me as I reside in Toronto, Ontario. There were a few reasons, however, why I didn’t make that choice. First, Nantais Reference Lenco plinth designs are huge. I’m sure he has valid reasons why his plinths are as large as they are, but they have a significant footprint, and were simply too large for my small listening room. Second, I realized that after all the research I’d performed I had already started to plan the vintage turntable system I wanted to have built.

My preference for turntable motor was the idler-wheel Garrard 401, a choice based on appearance and design. I was aware that the 301 possesses more cache in the vintage turntable world, but for me the 401 has a sharper look; its straight lines more appealing for the kind of table I wanted to design. While selecting the motor was a key decision, when building a vintage model turntable the greatest appeal is the ability to design and customize the plinth.

Although some artisans, such as Jonathan Weiss of Oswalds Mill Audio (who uses slate for his plinths) use other materials such as stone in their plinth work, most plinths are built of wood. The goal of these heavy mass plinths is to create enough stability within the base to house the large idler-wheel motor.

The mass of the plinth has a damping effect on the motor itself, reducing low frequency noise. The criticism of idler-wheel turntables is the high noise floor (or rumble) that seeps up from the table into the cartridge. The concept of the heavy plinth is that their mass helps eliminate that rumble, while retaining the drive, power and pitch accuracy that the large idler-wheel motor assembly is able to produce. After a bit of planning I decided that I wanted to build a natural cherry-wood plinth for my Garrard 401, large enough for tonearms 12” in length, and built with a removable arm board to allow for efficient changing of the tonearm.

The two key figures in building my own Garrard 401 turntable were Matthew Taylor of Audio Grail, a Garrard turntable motor restoration expert, and Russ Collinson of Layers of Beauty, a wooden turntable plinth designer and manufacturer. Both Taylor and Collinson are in the U.K. where the Garrard turntable was born.

Taylor is an expert on Garrard turntable restoration and his work rebuilding Garrard turntable motors is extraordinary. Taylor’s company is called Audio Grail, and while you won’t find much information about either Taylor or Audio Grail on the net (Audio Grail doesn’t have a website), Taylor has produced a number of videos demonstrating his Garrard motor work, the best of which is this comprehensive video detailing his restoration work for an old Garrard 301. Taylor’s motors are usually available for sale on eBay, however you can reach him directly via email through eBay as well.

With Taylor’s guidance I selected a 401 motor that he had previously restored to his own exacting specifications. As you can see from the pictures below, the table was in beautiful condition. Because I ordered the motor from Taylor in the U.K. a small pulley (a part of the motor) adjustment was needed to accommodate North American 60 Hz power specifications as opposed to the 50 Hz British specs. Taylor made this change before sending it overseas.

Here are some images of the actual Garrard 401 motor I purchased through Taylor:

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My Audio Grail Garrard 401 motor – courtesy of Matthew Taylor

With Taylor’s help I then made contact with Collinson, a cabinet maker who specializes in furniture construction and restoration as well as turntable plinth design. By the time I contacted Collinson I already had a rough paper design for a custom plinth, and then worked with some samples of Collinson’s previous work to finalize the details.

We agreed that a plinth built of six layers of cherrywood would provide a good balance between mass and height while the depth and width dimensions were set by the 12″ tonearm length specification.

I wanted to use a medium to light cherry wood and Collinson suggested a shiny lacquer finish. Once the planning was complete it would take Collinson two months to complete the construction, which he documented for me along this way.

Below are some images of the plinth under construction in Collinson’s workshop:

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My Layers of Beauty Garrard 401 Plinth – courtesy of Russ Collinson

I made arrangements to have the motor drive and plinth shipped to me in Canada together after all the restoration and construction work was complete. After six months of planning and building, in the summer of 2011 a new Garrard 401 arrived at home, becoming my personal analogue base, while provide the foundation upon which my musical exploration would continue to grow.

Once complete my vintage turntable project was far from the most expensive option available, and in some ways now feels like a bargain. At that time my total investment in the motor and plinth was about $3500 USD dollars, split fairly equally between Taylor’s 401 motor restoration and Collinson’s plinth work. In the 4+ years since I ordered my table I have noticed that costs have increased significantly on both fronts. It may cost 1.5x to 2x that sum now for the same result. I image that as more audio hobbyist such as myself discover the merits and pleasure of vintage turntables there has been an increase in demand, which has subsuquently driven up the prices. I feel strongly that value is still there though, for those who seek it.

After the arrival of my Garrard 401 turntable my analogue journey really began, as the process transitioned from mostly research and information gathering to actual listening. Part III of My Analogue Journey will look at my experience with the new table, my discoveries with different tonearms and cartridges, as well as a chance encounter that ultimately brought the journey to a close.

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My Garrard 401 – Courtesy of me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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