Listening #41

Going from being an audio hobbyist to a professional reviewer is like passing kidney stones in an emergency room staffed with Playboy bunnies: Not only can you not have what you want, but you don't even want it anymore. In fact, you begin to consciously associate desire with a blinding pain in your crotch.

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And if you think I shouldn't whine about this cushy, cushy job, think again: There's nothing more brutally sadistic than to tease a man by dangling a never-ending stream of desirable but unobtainable worldly goods before him, only to snatch them away three months later and ship them off to someone else. By the same token, it's cruel to take a more or less doctrinaire man and force him to change his playback philosophy all the time. (Yes, you can forget what I said last month about having a flexible point of view: I was just trying to sound noble.)

The truth of the matter is, it's killing me to think how much I loved the Norma-Hylee-Tech Concept 124, a rebuild of a 1950s-era turntable (the Thorens TD 124) that has as much in common with my Linn Sondek as Neil Young has with Neil Diamond. Lawrence Blair of Brinkmann USA, N-H-T's North American distributor, started me down this road to perdition last fall when he brought to my house a sample of the Concept 124, complete with N-H-T's own specially designed plinth and Trionius tonearm, plus two compatible cartridges: an N-H-T-modified EMT and a stock Ortofon SPU.

Then, in January, Blair visited again, collecting Sample No.1 and leaving off Sample No.2: another reborn Thorens, even mintier than before, with a smaller version of the plinth, an aftermarket platter (more on that later), and an Ortofon AS 212i tonearm. He also brought a different Ortofon SPU: an altogether more modern cartridge than the one I had before.

Different strokes
Backing up for a moment: The first N-H-T plinth I tried, which was machined from a multi-ply hunk of wood almost 5" thick, was very big and exceptionally heavy: big because it's intended for use with a longer-than-average tonearm, heavy because it incorporates an enormous metal puck of sorts, into which the tonearm is mounted.

For customers who aren't interested in long tonearms, and whose ca-9" arms can fit on the armboard of the Thorens motor unit itself, neither the extra real estate nor the puck is required. That's why there's a newer, smaller version, which also has a smaller price: $1250 or so, as opposed to $2000 or so, depending on finish.

My sample of the smaller plinth had a feature that's now been adapted to the larger one as well: four alloy-plus-elastomer isolation feet (footnote 1), made by Harmonic Resolution Systems of Buffalo, New York. Of the many such things I've tried over the years, these are the most effective by far: My first N-H-T, with its hard rubber feet, was extremely sensitive to footfalls; the second one, with the HRS feet, was immune to all but the most vigorous and unlikely floor-stomping. No kidding: night and day.

The tonearm that came with the second sample of the N-H-T was one of a pair of newly revived Ortofon designs, now built in Japan: Mine was the 9" AS 212i ($1280); a 12" version, the AS 309i, is also available (footnote 2). Both use captured ball-and-race bearings, counterweights calibrated for downforces of up to 5gm, a complete absence of antiskating provisions, an S-shaped alloy tonearm tube, and a detachable headshell of the usual sort.

That's where the Ortofon SPUs come in. Some folks are surprised to learn that these heavy, 1950s-era cartridges are still being made at all, but the truth is they're enjoying something of a renaissance, thanks to renewed interest in older audio technologies. Ortofon SPUs come pre-mounted, more or less permanently, in headshells of Bakelite, a primitive plastic discovered by chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland in 1907, the year Mahler began work on Das Lied von der Erde and Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Tom Kitten was published. We're not talking space-age here.

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The cartridges themselves are almost as primordial as the headshells: All are ultra-low-compliance moving-coil types with stubby aluminum cantilevers and diamonds so big that only a 10x magnifier is required to see whether the tip is clean or dirty. Differences between the half dozen or so SPU models are generally a matter of stylus profile and type of wire chosen for the coils (that and the size of the headshell—selected to suit either 9" or 12" arms, as above). Recommended tracking forces for most SPU models are around 4gm; by contrast, my beloved Technics electronic stylus-pressure gauge goes up to only 3gm—which, in case you were wondering, is also the weight of the average penny, not including Scotch tape.

Then there's the platter upgrade, from Schopper AG in the eastern Swiss city of Winterthur. I've never been there, but I can't help imagining that, when I die and go to Heaven, it will be very much like the Schopper storefront, which is operated by a music lover named Juerg Schopper and his two assistants, Christine and Ursi. The business was founded back in 1923 by Herr Schopper's grandparents, who started it as a musical instrument store. It evolved through a number of stages over the years, selling radios, tubes, phonographs, records, and the like; Schopper AG now offers new and used audio equipment and collectible LPs to a worldwide audience through their website.

Not long ago, Juerg Schopper made the acquaintance of an older gentleman who had been the production director at Thorens AG during the TD 124's heyday, and together they created a small line of evidently high-quality replacement parts for the contemporary TD 124 market. Among them is the Schopper platter, which represents their effort to eliminate the original's most singular flaw: It was made of a magnetically permeable "gray" iron, and thus was a danger to most phono cartridges, which want to smash themselves into it.

Modern audiophiles might wonder why the switch was never made to an aluminum-alloy platter, as used by Garrard, Linn, Roksan, and other turntable specialists. But diehard TD 124 enthusiasts, including Herr Schopper and his Thorens alumnus, point to the need for something with the precise density and mass of iron, and that presents the same kind of surface to the rubber-coated drive wheel. After working on the problem for a number years, they hit on an iron casting with a flake graphite content—an alloy originally developed for use in mine sweepers during World War II, and which is said to be 98% less magnetic than the original. (Thorens was said to be interested in the same iron-graphite alloy back in the l950s and '60s, but it was far too expensive at the time.) So the Schopper platter is cast from a superior material and it's machine-finished to modern tolerances: within 0.018mm. The platter sells for $795 in the US—a bargain considering what's gone into it—and is also distributed by Brinkmann USA (footnote 3).

Different sounds
After using N-H-T's rebuilt motor units with a variety of plinths, tonearms, and phono cartridges over the past few months, I have a pretty good handle on what the vintage Thorens sound—some hobbyists might even say the idler-wheel sound in general—is all about. I'll bloviate about that in a moment, but before I do, I'd like to aim a couple of product-specific comments at those cartridges.

The first old-style Ortofon I tried in my system was the Ortofon SPU Classic A ($980). Maybe the Classic A's conical stylus kept it from retrieving all the information—with all the timing accuracy—that I'm used to getting from my records. Or maybe the Classic A isn't really an ideal mate for the N-H-T Trionius tonearm. Whatever: I just didn't care for it. The SPU Classic A had lots of punch and drama, and a pleasant midrange with plenty of rich, realistic texture—but I was disappointed by its performance at both frequency extremes. To put it another way: It had no highs and it had no lows. (Holy crap, it must be a Bose, haw haw haw.) I can understand why some people might love it, but I'll never quite join their ranks.

I had a very different impression of the next cartridge I tried: the Ortofon SPU Meister Silver ($1630), which takes the basic SPU concept and blasts it into the atom age with a nude elliptical stylus. It also has coils wound from "the purest 6-nines silver wire we've ever used," in Ortofon's own words. Whatever the reason, it's one heck of a fine pickup: All the bass notes and treble sparkle that had gone missing with the Classic A were present and accounted for here. And the SPU's calling card—its thunderous way with dynamic peaks—remained intact: It could get real loud real fast when it needed to, with an immensely satisfying kind of pressure, for lack of a better word, when it did so.

As for the TD 124 sound: It's not the sort of thing one can grasp by breaking it down in the self-serious, fatuous way of most "high end" reviewers. I mean, listeners who are inclined to pick apart the sound of a product in the deadly boring old "1000 words on the bass, 1000 words on the midrange, 1000 words on the highs" way are welcome to do so with the N-H-T Concept 124; they'll come away thinking the old Thorens has a fuller-sounding bass and a good deal less treble extension and "air." And that's true, I suppose—but it tells only a very small part of the whole story, for better and for worse.

On the better side, the N-H-T had a sonic and musical presentation similar to that of a single-ended triode amplifier as compared with its competing types: It was punchy, direct, and present—very present. When I listened to some of my favorite old Reprise-era Sinatra albums, such as September of My Years (Reprise FS 1014), Francis Albert was there, and his voice commanded almost all of my attention. When that attention did shift to the instrumental backing, I heard an exceptionally forceful and solid sound from plucked instruments in particular, such as string bass and harp.

As far as stereo imaging was concerned, the N-H-T seemed to make voices and solo instruments stay put better than my own turntables. But that may have been only the psychoacoustic aftereffect of a visual impression; ie, the Thorens might have sounded more stable because it's bigger and heavier than the other players I'm used to.

On the worse side, the N-H-T package missed some detail. I had to listen to the gorgeous "Once Upon a Time" on my Linn to be reminded that there's a guitar in the arrangement, and the triangle in "September Song" was all but lost by the Thorens.

Compared with the combination of Linn LP12, Naim Aro, and Linn Akiva cartridge, the modified Thorens with Ortofon AS 212i tonearm and SPU Meister Silver cartridge was considerably better at conveying force and substance—and was slightly more dramatic as well. The guitars and drums on Donovan's admittedly overcompressed masterpiece, Open Road (Epic E 30125), sounded as if people were actually playing them, rather than existing merely as disembodied sounds that just happened to have made their way onto a record. And the backing voices that begin in the second chorus of "Changes" jumped out of the left-channel speaker in a manner I'd never quite heard before. Awesome, Artie.



Footnote 1: The larger plinth actually uses three feet.

Footnote 2: The model names are confusing at first glance: The numbers refer to the distance, in millimeters, between pivot and record spindle.

Footnote 3: Schopper also makes a high-tech platter-bearing upgrade for the TD 124 ($369), a brand-new record mat of graphite-rich rubber that's said to be the ideal replacement for the original ($79), and other Thorens parts and accessories.

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