03 April, 2012

Review: Thorens TD-309 Part I

pic: my Thorens stable: top; the new TD-309; bottom, the venerable TD-124 with SME3009 (my TD-125 is unused at the moment)

Review: Thorens TD-309 Part I
Talk Vinyl: Denon DL-102 review Part I
Talk Cable: Gotham GAC-2111, DGS-1

Online Manual for TD-309 (must-read for those interested; its wonderful illustrations make understanding the deceptively simple turntable easier)

Unusual Looks and Design Ever since the Thorens TD-309 came out, I had wanted one, for its daring looks as well as unusually sophisticated design (not obvious at first glance), both out of the mainstream and perhaps not for everyone. I inquired then at the HK dealer, and found out they shamefully did not even import it. I decided to wait. Secretly I thought to myself that the unusual design would not sell well and I would wait for clearance when it is discontinued.

Reviews As I think most aspects of performance had been well covered in the many reviews from around the world and as I agree with the majority opinion that the turntable is exceptional, I shall not go into great details in my review, instead concentrating on a few points not covered as well. Best of the reviews were HiFi News UK, Ralph Werner/Fairaudio.de Germany, avhub Australia and High Fidelity Poland (you might also want to read HiFi Choice and Goodsounds). The Stereophile review is not on line but it made Class B of Recommended Components. Note one unusual thing, the Australian article revealed Steve Harris (UK) as one of the designers; well, he is the reviewer in the HiFi News article, isn't that conflict of interest?

One-time Sale Fast forward to late last year, when I suddenly saw in Mong Kok the non-glossy red version on sale at a good discount. On inquiry I found out that the dealer was selling it even cheaper. I was struggling as I wanted a black one, and only the red was available in HK. My procrastination turned to wonder when I found out in the US Audio Advisor had a special for both the non-glossy black and red ones at an even more unbelievable price (sorry, the sale had long ended), and I immediately ordered one. It seemed these were Thorens overstock. Audio Advisor still sells the glossy black and red ones at regular price, and the HK dealer still does not usually carry this model and does not have even have a glossy one on display (shame on them), but the non-glossy red one possibly may still be found on sale. 

Packaging I did not get to see the turntable until three months later. As one of the reviews mentioned, the packaging was a little flimsy, but everything inside were in place. A little oil had leaked out but I think part of the reason was that mother had improperly placed the box on its side. Unpacking was a breeze and the manual is truly excellent. I double checked the alignment of the installed Audio Technica AT95 cartridge with the supplied (commendable) paper mat/protractor and it was good. The turntable was up and running in no time.

Isolation Ability In the hotly contested low- to mid-priced group, it is not often (if at all) that one sees a more costly to implement suspended design, and that is wonderful. The unusual suspension design works a treat on isolation. Believe me, I know, as my racks are "soft", their spikes resting on stone slabs on the thick carpet (no spikes through the carpet).

Construction/Ergonomics While construction quality and ergonomics are generally good I have several reservations:
  • Use of plastic for the triangular sub chassis as well as for the arm rest are regrettable. Don't tell me that's for resonance control!
  • The RCA connectors are rather light weight and a little too recessed, making them somewhat difficult to reach.
  • As noted in Stereophile, the clips on the tonearm wires are flimsy; great care should be exercised when mounting and dismounting.
System Used
-Shindo Monbrison preamp (built in phonostage)
-Wavac MD-811 amp
-YL Acoustics 4-way horn loudspeaker

Sound with AT-95
As all the reviewers have mentioned, right out of the box, the sound was wonderful. I was surprised by the fine balance of the Audio Technica AT-95. Aside from a slightly fat mid-bass, there was little to fault. Immediately apparent was the turntable's excellent PRaT, making evrything fresh and exceiting. As one of the reviews had mentioned, I noted too a slight leanness in the upper midrange. A few play and I switched cartridge.

Sound with MONO Denon DL-102
 Previously, I had heard this cartridge to great effect in mono replay. My own efforts though were hampered by the lack of a suitably heavy arm for this heavy cartridge. I first installed this on my cheap Audio Technica turntable, but the arm could barely be balanced and the sound was only so-so, rather thick and lacking in life. Later I switched the cartridge to the Technics SP-1200MkII and the sound improved significantly. I was happy with the vital presence of the midband but knew more resolution could be had.

Background for DL-102 While the DL-102 qualifies as "legendary" even if it is still in production, there is really nor many serious write-up's on it. Here are some great links to let you understand more about this wonderful mono cartridge. The best technical article (basic spec's, nuts and bolts) is Murray Allen's Denon DL-102 Page. It is worthwhile to note that the frequency responses for the cartridge loaded at 47k (the usual MM phonstage) and at 1k (Denon's official spec) are almost the same, just slightly shifted in amplitude. This seems more in keeping with my experience below. The best all-around consideration is Philip Holmes' One Cartridge for All LPs. The important thing here is what all mono-philes understand, that mono replay of stereo LPs yield great sound (I agree). It should also be noted that, in contrast to the previous author, this author found loading at 1k provided much better results.

When Denon DL-102 Meets Thorens TD-309 And so with the arrival of the TD-309, the DL-102 was the first thing I wanted to try. Installation was a bit of a pain. I had trouble fitting the flimsy clips of the TD-309 onto the cartridge (as this is a true mono cartridge, two clips had to be attached to each cartridge pin). Where the cartridge is mounted, the arm only has 5 mm of overhang adjustment, and I was short by 1 mm or so on the Baerwald points. I could have perfectly aligned it by loosening one of the hex screws at the rear and moving the arm tube, but I decided just to let it go. It should be noted that the counterweight still had quite a bit of leeway to accommodate even heavier cartridges, making it a versatile tonearm.

As soon as the needle hit the groove, I knew I finally am getting there in my MONO quest. In terms of tonal balance, the improvement from my previous admittedly rather improvised mono setups was only too obvious: much more air and refinement in the treble, more transparency in the midband and a much cleaner midbass. So much so that the little leanness in the lower midrange noticed before had remained. I was surprised but delighted that the setup was able to resolve this. One more minor gripe: Like one of the reviewers I did too find that dynamics were slightly reined in on some material. Although the spherical stylus is not supposed to be sensitive to VTA, a small adjustment brought improvement. What is more amazing about the transformation is that the cartridge finally displayed all the rhythmic finesse and musicality that should be typical of Denon. Say what you will, Denons are champs in this area. But that's enough for now, as I shall cover more about mono replay in another article. One final important thing though...

Attention! Cable for the Turntable
The TD-309 comes with a 0.75 m length of RCA cable for connection to the tonearm output. I used it with the stock AT-95. It looks slightly better than the ubiquitous generic red and white cables; the diameter is greater, I think due to shielding. I soon swapped it out for better cables, like the Audio Note AN-V. However, after a while I realized things were not what they seem. With the stock cable, the sound is more balanced; several other cables I tried accentuated a little the high midrange leaness and seemed to restrict the dynamics a little. Only when I swapped in Gotham cables did things improved. So, do not underestimate the stock cable, with this turntable it is not easy to beat. You have to go through quite a bit of trial and error to better it. I happened to be soldering some new cables and so tried them out. Here are the best:

Gotham 10550 GAC-2111 (specs) This unusual cable is Gotham's replica of a classic EMT cable. The conductors are very small in gauge and the insulations rather stiff, making it difficult to handle. Sonically it is a winner. Superbly transparent with an abundance of top end air, somewhat less exuberant than GAC-2 and GAC-4, this cable shoots straight to the top echelon of Gotahm cables. A great bargain.
 

Gotham 60001 DGS-1 (specs) This is a thin coaxial cable, the cheapest in the Gotham range. It is somewhat rolled off on top, not as detailed as GAC-2, GAC-4 or GAC-2111, but there is something very attractive about its midrange presence and ability to invoke the live atmosphere. Another Gotham winner, likely more suitable in brighter systems.

3 comments:

  1. Hello DJ, I also have a Denon 102 mono cartridge but still trying to figure a way to install it with my VPI 10.5i arm. Any advise will be appreciated.

    Thanks
    HC

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi, I am not sure what is exactly your difficulty, and I am not familiar with VPI arms.

    I looked at a pic and see that the headshell is slotted so fitting the cartridige is no problem. The counterweight of your arm should be able ot support the Denon DL-102 which, though heavy, is just like many other high end cartridges. If it cannot balance, than you need a heavier counterweight or you can improvise and simply attach some kind of extra weight to your counterweight. I'd use a metal spacer/disc of some sort and a little blue tac.

    If the problem is alignment, then I am not sure. VPI has its own unusual alignment method, via its own tool, which I am sure you have. If you cannot align the cartridge by the VPI tool, keep in mind it is certainly not the only way to align cartridges (in fact, like Rega, controversial)! Use another protractor (many free ones) and choose either Baerwald or whatever.

    Vinyl Engine would be a good source of info.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi DJ, my problem is connecting 2 clips on one pin. One clip broke off from the wire once I tried to install it.

    Thanks

    ReplyDelete