24 April, 2011

My Corner: An All-Swiss Affair

click on all pics to enlarge

Letter from NYC 2011 (16): Setting Up (II), An All-Swiss Affair!
My Corner: My Listening Setups in NYC (II) - First! And Foremost?
Talk Vinyl - The Incredible Thorens TD-124

After telling you about my humble Casual Listening Station, let me make a leap to tell you about the early setup stage of my Reference Setup. Allow me to postpone till later my Day-to-Day Setups (being middle ones, they are by nature more insecure). Deciding what goes into the Reference Setup is more headache than you think. The intention is a Reference station. I applied the following criteria and built around them:

  • A permanent and convenient setup for my cherished Western Electric and Langevin gears, able to partner both horns and panels.
  • As the WE and Langevin preamps each has only 1 input and no phono, to add another full function preamp (Nagra PL-P for now) for easy switching between analogue and digital sources.
  • To partner with the best analogue and digital source I have. Perhaps a phonoamp later.
Analogue: Thorens TD-124 MkI/SME3009 S2 imp/Denon DL-304
Digital: Ensemble dirondo/dichrono hi-dac (Sondoro series)
Preamps: WE 106; Langevin; Nagra PL-P
Amp: WE 124 (silver)
Loudspeakers: YL horns (occasionally Magnepan 1.7)

WE 106 and WE 124
The heart of my system, such utter transparency and refinement! This is in the initial stage of setup, and you shall hear about these later.

Nagra PL-P
Until I setup further the WE and Langevin monsters, I shall be using the wounderful Nagra PL-P for both digital and vinyl playback.

Ensemble dirondo/dichrono hi-dac
I have always admired Ensemble products for their refined sound. In HK, quite a few people I know are still using their older (non-Sondoro) gears. You shall find diverse opinion on this combo on the internet. For me, it takes in-depth listening to reveal the beauty of this set. Delivering exceptional details that never call attention to themselves, they really don't stand out immediately. Partnered with the wrong gears they could even sound just a little less full in body than some, but when done right show a fleshy presence which together with great rhythmic sophistication and dynamic exactitude deliver the illusion of a live event. Talking about dynamic accuracy, let us examine the last track, Stimela (the coal train) of this much abused Hugh Masekela album, Hope. In the opening, the drummer's insistent bangs mimick the sound of a train. Most digital playbacks would homogenize the multiple hits and give you only a sense of a small crescendo. Not so the Ensemble combo, which uncannily deliver a sense of gradual, and powerful, increase in sound. Not only that, about a third of the way, one of the hits is actually less forceful than what had gone before; this is not well rendered usually, but clear as day with the Ensemble combo.

Is the Ensemble combo the best I have? Perhaps in some tonal area my Theta/SFD-2 combo can give them a run for the money, but there is little question that the Ensemble set belong with the best (and better most for musicality). I use their own Gigaflux BNC cable (which I happen to have) and the DAC uses an Ensemble power cord (I don't have another one for the transport).

The Ensemble has some upsampling options which I shall perhaps cover later, but right now I am using the 48kHz setting, so the CDs are upsampled a little.

Thorens TD-124 (MKI), Survival of the Best
My friend Mark gave me this turntable with an SME armboard a couple of years ago, and I never got around to it. It just happened this time my friend princetonsound upgraded his TD-124 plinth and gave me the old one. It is not very pretty, but the plywood looks to be of good quality, prompting me to not waste more time and set it up this time.

My friend the vinyl guru AL also has the same turntable in his arsensal, so I called on him to help me. Initially the platter turned only reluctantly, but after cleaning the mechanical joints by turning on and off a few times and running it for a while things smoothed out. Not bad for an ancient machine that had not been run for God knows how many years! AL showed me around the TT, so to speak, and many thanks!

The next day I removed the SME 3009 S2 improved arm, with its Denon DL-304, from my workhorse Thorens TD-125 and installed it on the armboard. Although the cutout seems wrong I was able to do a satisfactory 2-point alignment. Lacking a proper hex-wrench the arm is improperly swung outward, but aside from not being able to cue up at the end groove, that doesn't affect the sound. I could not only adjust the VTA by placing 2 records and an extra mat on top. I had trouble plugging in the SME cable and had to lower the turntable by doing without the "de-coupling" rubber sleeves over the fixing screws. Some may prefer to have the turntable directly on the wood plinth anyway, said AL.

After leveling the TT and adjusting the speed using only the external fine adjustment (when I have time I may fiddle with the coarse adjustment inside), I put on my first LP. My jaws popped out. Why, my! Despite the light plinth, surely not ideal, EVERYTHING IS THERE!

Mind you, I am coming off not only listening to my TTs here in the NYC, but also to my Technics SP-10 and Garrad 301 in HK, and I was still grabbed by the balls! A big soundstage, crispy presence, airy and smooth treble AND, full and taut bass! The last I stress, because it has always been said the Thorens is a little light in the bass (compared to the Garrad); well, not so here! And I heard no undue rumble. I don't need to A/B to tell you the sound surpasses my other TTs and I would hedge it may even have an edge on the Garrad 301. Well, I have the exact same TT also in HK; it would be time to get that running and do the comparison. My Vinyl Golden Age!

Talking about the friendly rivalry of Garrad vs Thorens, Art Dudley of Stereophile had recently written about his just acquired Garrad 301, though he has yet to make comparisons with his Thorens, which he had written about and worked on extensively previously (Listening 40, 41 and for the restoration Listening 65). His articles are valuable in providing info on many aftermarket services. I look forward to his further comments.

If you're interested in this wonderful Thorens turntable, visit the following indispensible sites:

Soundfountain's TD-124 page
(they have many wonderful pages on various vintage things)
analogue-classics TD-124 page (wonderful TT site)

(To be continued later)

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