04 March, 2010

Talk Vinyl: All My Turntables (Arms and Cartridges): A (Rambling) Overview

Talk Vinyl: All My Turntables (Arms and Cartridges): A (Rambling) Overview

In this day and age, the turntable lives a strange existence. Whereas once no one would think twice about buying one, and no one complained of "difficulties" in handling, now many view it with trepidation. While it's understandable if some novice has cold feet at first, it's inexcusable that many self-proclaimed "experts" (some also charge for their dubious service) tell people not to get into it because adjusting the tonearm and cartridge is "very difficult". Truth is, It is very simple, and good sound can be had for very little. If you ask me, it's a lot easier to get into than "serious" CAS (at least what people are doing, now so complicated it's bordering on the absurd). My experience is quite utilitarian, but here I chronicle it and hope it can be of use to some people.

Part I: Salad Days
With the first money I earned as a busboy (传菜员) in NYC, I bought my first stereo system in 1973. A cheap Harman Kardon receiver, horrible speakers, and a cheap Akai cassette deck, no TT. It was rather out of the blue. I never had any classical music experience in my Beijing Opera-suffused childhood, but listening to NYC's wonderful radio stations made me a convert very fast (the perennial WNYC, WQXR; make sure you listen to them, now easily via the internet, wherever you are; I still do!) . Lacking money to buy records I just taped the broadcasts. It was a fruitful period. Imagine, discovering Sibelius' Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony for the first time!

Pioneer PL-10: still an excellent entry level TT
One year later, when I got more money I bought the PL-10 and started buying records. At the time, Dual and other more expensive TTs were out of budget for me. This TT, which is still with me, therefore holds a special place in my heart.

The PL 10 was Pioneer's base model manual turntable in 1973 or 74. It was their $99 turntable when the best-selling PL 12-D's price rose to $119. It has a little more plastic than the 12, but is essentially the same TT (belt-drive, same motor, platter, suspension, tonearm), differing only in the simpler anti-skating mechanism, plastic instead of metal headshell and lack of a cartridge setup device. The PL-12D is a legendary budget table. It's perhaps little known that it was designed by now-Marantz guru Ken Ishiwata. There is A beautiful article on the PL-12D in retrohifi, from which a little excerpt:

The PL-12D, is a belt drive system with an aluminium one piece platter, which comes with a choice of two speeds, 33 and 45 rpm; a manual action 'S' shaped tone arm, a SME style screw-on headshell and a detachable Perspex lid. Though the 'Anti-vibration sprung floating chassis' was one piece on which the platter spindle and the tone arm are fixed, it actually produces excellent results and was usually paired off with the Shure M75 range of cartridges.

I cannot remember what cartridge I first used. Maybe a Hitachi I recently found in my drawer. It was soon supplanted by Empire 2000E/II and III. This cartridge satisfied me at the time (but after I got my first Shure V15, I never looked back).

In NYC now I run 2-3 systems at once. The PL-10 now serves my bedroom system and I often play more scratched but desirable LPs on it. I habitually installed the least of my cartridges on it, but I sometimes felt it's demeaning of the TT. The simple tonearm is actually surprisingly good: it tracks well even at low weight, and tells you immediately of the sound of the cartridge. I have the idea of modifying the TT if I have time. At least the lead-out red/white cables need to be upgraded. Perhaps a speed box (its speed inherently is excellent though)? But the sealed bottom deterred me. I've not done an A/B comparison, but I strongly suspect this TT as a package is better sounding and more resolving than the classic Rega P3 (more on that later).

SME 3009 S2 (fixed headshell): Enter the Shure V15
The second TT I bought in the mid-70's, based on either a High Fidelity or Stereo Review recommendation (yes, I was a reader), was a cheap direct-drive turntable kit. I forgot the name of the maker. Although it was a mistake, at the time I didn't much notice. The good thing about this bad purchase decision was that I had to buy a tonearm, and I bit the bullet and bought the SME 3009 S2 (very expensive for me at $99), which I still use to this day. It was at this time that I bought the Shure V15 Type II, and later Type III and IV. My last IV stylus (VN45) just last year went out of service (belly touching the LP surface); adding up, my Shure's have provided me with 30+ years of service.

LP shopping in those days
A word about LP buying in those days. I started buying mostly at Korvette and luckily made the acquaintance of manager Marty Goldstein (some tidbits here (1963 Billboard), and here (1966 Billboard), who was an uproariously funny fellow. He used to be a producer/sales person of Westminster Records and husband of soprano Teresa Stitch-Randall, working at Korvette only after retirement. He and I got along real well; one time he even introduced a nice girl to me! Here's to your memory, Marty! I also occasionally bought at Sam Goody's. When Record Hunter came on the scene, I became a regular. It too is gone. I did not get a CD player till the late 80's (a Magnavox 1-bit) . I got ready to dump my LPs. Then one day, before giving my Milstein Solo Bach away I just A/B'ed it with the CD. There was no contest. It was a life-defining moment. After that, I started buying used LPs, lots of them. When Tower Records opened their Annex, I was in heaven. Here was a place where one could buy dis-continued LPs. Sometimes you found treasures, such as brand new BIS La Spagna, BBC Flight of The Condor etc. No wonder you frequently found the Chinatown HiFi gang there. Even better, it started carrying used LPs and the store was open till midnight, everyday. Never a dull moment! Well, that's history.

The Stuff of Dreams: The Dahlquist DQ-10
I upgraded my stereo around in the late 70's to Pioneer separates but they were not too good either. There was also another pair of direct-sale bookshelf speakers that was better than my first pair but still better forgotten. I knew my speakers were the limiting factor. I didn't have any hifi friends (a good thing) but I did have a good friend in Engineering School who bought a nice system after he got a real job. It was SAE equalizer preamp/amp, a Thorens TT and most importantly, the Dahlquist DQ-10, which I lusted after for many years. He was (is) one of those friends who widens one's horizon. Hey, introducing me to Sibelius and Bruckner immeasurably enriched my life!

Thorens TD-125: still formidable
After I finished my residency and got my first real job I bought what I consider my first serious set of hifi. At Audio Exchange I finally got a pair of my coveted Dahlquist DQ-10, for $500. I was lucky as at the same time I spotted a Thorens TD-125 with an SME arm board, which I snapped up for $100. I went shopping for preamp/amps, and finally decided on a pair of B&K rather than Adcom (another mistake I think). When I installed my 3009 on the 125, to say the least I was dumbfounded by how superior it was to my direct-drive, which I gave to a friend. The system made me quite happy and it stayed with me till now. I basically used it all along with my Shure V15-IV. The TD-125 is truly a marvelous TT, built to last several lifetimes. Read this great article on the TD-125 in the retrohifi site. For more pics of pristine samples, some with 12" arms, click here.

At its current price (prices has not gone up as much as the 124) it's a great bargain. Before my recent serious re-building of my NYC hifi this TT was my primary TT. When the V15IV went caput, I installed the Benz Micro Silver (which did not sound too good on my Audio Technica direct-drive, on which more later) and what a brilliant TT it is again! Fed into the ARC SP-9 phono stage It gave my main system a run for its money. Personally I feel the BM Silver is a lesser cartridge than the lower-ouput Gold, but I feel it still gives more with classicals than a Shure V15-IV.

Part II. LP in HK? You got to be kidding!
For my first 2-3 years back in HK, I did NOT bother with LPs. In NYC, although it briefly gets humid in the summer, I never had to clean LPs. NO, I'm not one of those who likes to clean LPs. I felt the weather in HK really not suitable. My LP collection stayed in NYC.

Then, fortuitously, the husband of a good friend of my girlfriend was an audiophile who was switching to CDs, and he generously gave me his LP collection of classicals. This was in the days before the LP revival. People gave away their LPs and TTs. A colleague also gave me his un-restored Ariston (fore-runner of Linn in the UK) RD-110 TT, which I later gave to someone else. This was also in the days before the popularity of record cleaning machines. Many of the self-washed LPs sounded quite dull. A cautionary tale.

Rega P3: Good, but not great.
Suddenly armed with a collection, it'd be a sin not to have them played back. I decided to do it with little fuss and got a brand-new Rega P3. I forgot what cartridge I used at first but soon it was the Elys MM. By this time I was fully into HiFi, and the Rega never did sound as good as it should to me. Although the arm is good, the TT is only adequate and I felt the Elys lackluster. I knew I had to move on. It was accelerated pace from this point on.

Thorens 150 and Linn LP-12: Virtually the same (for a great TD-150 article, click here; for more pics, click here).
Then I bought for cheap a Thorens 150 which even with the flimsy SME 3009 S3 arm in original plinth blew the Rega P3 into pieces . Roughly the same time I finally got a Linn LP-12 Valhalla. Using the same S3, I felt the LP-12 way over-rated, the cheap Thorens every bit its equal. Both delivered music with more zest than the P3. Rhythm and pace, that's what these suspension tables do well, much better than even very expensive tables with solid plinth and no suspension. If you ask me, it has always been my opinion that the TD-150 (and the similar TD-160, which you can still find NOS in 秋叶原) is THE suspension TT to have. Its price is ridiculously low and its performance up with the best of its brethens. It should also be a tweaker's delight. Needless to say, the P3 was sold.

At this point I also started to experiment with cartridges. There was a period when I tried the Sumiko Blue Point high-output MC. It was lively and dynamic as hell but the bass was blunt for my taste. That ended when Sumiko's suspension proved unreliable. The excellent Goldring 1012 MM was so fast it must be one of the best cartridge for rock; however its kinda rough and happy nature proved just a little unsettling for classicals (but great for Stravinsky). Even then I still have fond memory of it.

Garrard 401 and 301. Invincible!

The next pivotal moment came when I got my Garrard 401, in a gigantic aftermarket plinth (not the Loricraft plinth in the pics). It came with a cheap RB-250 and a Supex cartridge. One play and I knew it! Once you get used to its phenomenally solid and tuneful bass (not like the deadly kind delivered by today's so-called super-turntables; I won't mention names) there's no turning back. Let's not forget Supex either; they made great cartridges and was OEM for Linn (more here, and here).

Then things happened in rapid succession. There was this this Malaysian who's leaving HK. I bought from him the Lowther TP-1 (with Queen Ann's legs) as well as the Garrard 301 (beige, in a terrible cheap plinth) and EAR 834P phono amp. I removed the arm/cartridge on the 401 and compared it with the 301. The sound was very close. Any difference was as likely due to the plinth as the TT. Since the 401 was much bulkier, I reluctantly sold it. The 301 is now on long-term loan to a good friend, who's built a nice plinth for it. At around the same time, one day I walked into my neighbor's LR and found a room full of vintage hifi! I didn't know he used to sell things in Apliu St. I bought a grey (said to be from RTHK) Garrard 301 from him, but to this day I haven't restored it!.

Back to the sound of the 401/301, I think they have few peers. Even with a cheap Rega arm, its composure and dynamism cannot be easily rivaled, let alone surpassed. Even from very expensive TTs I fail to hear the rock-solid, yet lively and musical sound of the Garrards. Yes, the LP12 and Thorens 150 were sold after I got into Garrard.

Origin Live RB-250, Benz Micro Gold, Denon 103
I decided to get into MC. So, I decided to get a better arm. I opted for the Origin Live-modified RB-250, just basic structural mod. The first low-ouput MC cartridge I got was the Benz Micro Gold. This was the time when the "water" goods of BM were outrageously cheap. This combination satisfied me. Benz did not seem the most dynamic of cartridges, but it was balanced and nuanced and a great match with the RB-250. At the same time I also got the high-ouput Silver, which I was not to use until last year (see above). I can attest that the Silver lacks the refined quality of the Gold. Also, since many people were using the more expensive Ruby at the time, I'd like to say I always thought the little increment in performance not commensurate with the increment in price. I'd be curious to hear the current MC 20E L. For their low prices and smooth sound, the cheap Benz Micro's are bargains, but I'm not so sure of their more expensive offerings.

Then enter the Denon 103, bargain of bargains. I organized a group purchase for my cheaptubeaudio group. From Germany, if I remember correctly, price was $800, still significantly cheaper than the BM Gold. All the good remarks about the 103 are true. It sounds big, bold and colorful, a great cartridge for very little and since I tend to tun several TTs at once I doubt it will ever be out of my life. At the time I bought also the Denon 304, Ortofon MC15 Super II , which I was not to use till later.

Clearaudio Champion and Audio Note TT1
When HiFi Duck first introduced the Clearaudio Champion, they sold it for a VERY reasonable price, and I got one. Rather than using the stock arm I installed my OL-RB250/Denon 103 on it. Compared to suspension TTs I liked the fuss-free operation and the sound was quite good. It did not have the authority of the Garrard but was still quite satisfying.

I flirted briefly with the Linn Basik with Akito arm. It performed quite wonderfully with the Goldring 1012 MM but not so well with Denon 103. It's worth a spin but not one to keep, even as a second TT.

Then one day I got at a very reasonably priced Audio Note TT1 with RB-300 (though lead out is AN silver wire). It is basically a Systemdek IIx. After I installed my Denon 103 on it, the performance of this TT surprised me greatly. Its full, tuneful and dynamic sound rivaled the Garrard and I think outstripped my previous LP12 for my taste. The screws for adjusting the springs are accessible on the top and that's a great blessing.

I then installed the Ortofon MC 15-II on the Clearaudio Champion. This is a strange cartridge. When I first installed it (after a long time spent with the Denon 103) I hated the sound. After run-in and adjustment of loading it began to show its qualities. It's not for those who like the full-bodied Denon 103, but its superb analytical quality is not to be dismissed. I have been thinking of switching the Ortofon to the AN TT1 and the Denon back to the Clearaudio. I reckon that would be a better match for both. Neither has made me forgot the Garrard, and one day I have to get the grey one going. Till then these 2 humble TTs are what I use now in HK. Unlike in NYC, in HK I only play LPs for visitors.

At this moment, I must say most visitors prefer the more rhythmically saavy AN TT1 to the Clearaudio Champion. I think both are bargains at current second-hand prices, but the AN TT1 (hence Systemdek) is something really special and certainly under-rated. AN UK has good taste in TTs (their TT3 is basically a Voyd!). As for Clearaudio, for the second-hand price of a Champion it's a good buy for fuss-free operation, but I have never been really impressed by its more expensive offerings, all too much acrylic and ludicrously expensive (this applies to much of modern TTs, especially German ones). Their "neutrality" is a mask for lack of soul, and that applies even to their "statement" products. Phenomenal bass maybe, but where's the swing?

Aside from a Thorens 124 and an Audiomeca Roma I have yet to put into operation, that pretty much sums up my TTs in HK.

Setups used right now in HK:
Clearaudio Champion/OL-RB250/Ortofon MC15-Super 2 and AN TT-1/Silver RB300/Denon DL-103 (both fed into EAR 912; while researching I came across my own article on EAR which I have forgotten!)(sometimes I toy with the wonderful and cheap ICL Model 4 phonoamp and for the Ortofon cartridge the Ortofon MCA-76 phono pre-preamp)

Part III: Re-building New York
Recently, I'm spending more time in NYC, and hence started to rebuild my hifi system there. One big difference between NYC and HK, for me, is that I play almost exclusively LPs there. Although hot and humid at the peak of summer, the duration is relatively short, and my LPs have lasted for decades without spoiling. No mold, no washing needed. Yes, I know some of you're going to say washing gives better sound, but I'd like to remind you I have heard too many records ruined by washing. An audiophile friend washes every LP he gets with his own fluid and everyone sounds noisy. One time we asked him to play an unwashed one and it was quieter! So be careful. My policy is wash only if the LP absolutely needs it. No, in NYC I don't even have a washing machine.

I was playing so many LPs every day that I started to feel the need for more TTs. When Amazon offered the Audio Technica AT-PL120 direct drive TT for $1xx (I see it has gone up in price significantly), I grabbed one. the built-in phono amp was not bad and it even came with a cartridge. This is a poor man's Technics SL-1200 (probably the only TT to have its own wikipedia entry). It works beautifully and efficiently, making you worry less about hifi since playing a record is so easy. Its sound is decidedly lean, so I soon ditched the stock AT (DJ) cartridge and now use it with a Grado Gold, a good match. No hum. One day I shall do a detailed comparison with the Technics owned by a friend. And I installed a Denon DL-102 mono cartridge on another headshell for my substantial mono collection (many Heifetz LPs!)

Then I got another direct-drive, the Revox B791. This is a work of art, though some samples are prone to failures. For very little you can experience a tangential arm that is a forerunner of the more famous Goldmund. If you don't have the installation kit, installing the cartridge can be a nightmare indeed. Its sound is decidedly direct-drive, very analytical. It is substantially superior to the AT-PL120 in resolution.

Last time I visited NYC by chance I came across a pristine sample of Linn LP-12 Valhalla. It came with original box, including the Ittok arm. All at a price I could not refuse. I first installed the Benz Micro Silver and though the sound was very good it was still not quite special. Just recently I installed the Denon DL-304, and the smooth sound was a distinct improvement. And then I got a second-hand (shoebox) Lingo power supply. It took me quite a while to get around the large electrolytic caps of the Valhalla board to unsnap it and install the Lingo board. Result? Well, I think the improvement was marginal, not as big as a swap in cartridge. I think if one just plays 33's it's not really worth the money, but 45' users (unfortunately I'm not one) would find the convenience over-riding monetary concerns. The real million dollar question is, can the LP12 trounce the Thorens TD-125. I think it may be quieter, but likely not better sounding.

Now my NYC setup is as follows:
Primary system: LP12/Ittok/Denon DL-304 (low output requires my PS Audio GCPH, a bargain as well as the most convenient phonoamp I've ever used) and AT-PL120/Grado Gold for stereo playback; AT-PL120/Deno DL-102 for mono playback (both use my BAT VK-P5 phonoamp, an outstanding bargain)
Secondary system: TD-125/Benz Micro Silver (phono section of ARC SP-9)

I have to stop somewhere. Detailed reports on the various phonoamps shall have to wait till later.

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