For the qualities I most value in a music systemimpact, substance, texture, color, and, above all, the ability to play lines of notes with a realistic sense of momentum and flowthe venerable Garrard 301 and similar well-made turntables with powerful motors and idler-wheel drive are the sources to beat. Unfortunately, good-condition samples of the Garrard 301 and 401, the Thorens TD 124, and any number of exotic EMTs have become scarce and ever more expensive.
Yet there exists an alternative that offers a great deal of the 301's forceful goodness, and more than a little of its sheer vintage coolosity, all at a fraction of the price: the Rek-O-Kut Rondine Jr., an American-made turntable that was produced in sufficient quantities that, one hopes, the extortionate effects of vintage-market greed might be kept at bay. Perhaps best of all, the Rondine Jr. is simple: so simple that its restoration, not to mention the construction of a suitable plinth for it, is well within the capabilities of most audiophiles.
The products of the original Rek-O-Kut corporation of New York City (footnote 1), failed to attract my interest for a very long timepartly, I admit, because I was put off by the company's name. I treasure the records I've collected since age 10, and the idea of offering up a single one to a machine whose name contains not only the word cut but a malevolently goofy misspelling of same (cf Megadeth) was a bridge too far. By now, having researched the brand to the slim extent that fading memories and the Internet allow, I know that home record cutters were, in 1939, the first commercial products of the company's founder, a former screw-machine operator named George Silber. But today, audiophiles and broadcasters remember Rek-O-Kut for their generally high-quality turntables, sold under a model name that could have belonged to a heroine from a Roy Orbison song.
Introduced in 1956, the Rek-O-Kut Rondine turntable offered a machined-alloy platter, large-diameter bearing, powerful motor, and a three-speed (331/3, 45, and 78 rpm) idler-drive mechanism, all for the reasonable price of $74.95, tonearm and plinth not included. The upmarket Rondine Deluxe ($119.95) added a pilot light and an upgraded (Pabst) motor, while the Rondine Jr. ($49.95) offered high performance in a no-frills package.
The Jr., which is built around the same motor, platter, and platter bearing as the regular Rondine, is perhaps the most interesting Rondine of all. It has two matching idler wheelsone for each of the Jr.'s speeds (footnote 2)and a simpler mechanical design than that of the Rondine (and a far simpler mechanical design than that of the Garrard 301 or the Thorens TD 124). The Jr.'s single control knob is fastened to the motor assembly itself. By moving it to the extreme left, the user brings the smallest portion of the stepped motor pulley into contact with the leftmost idler wheel, forcing it into contact with the platter's inner rim and driving same at 331/3rpm; by moving the knob to the extreme right, the larger-diameter portion of the motor pulley contacts the rightmost idler, for higher-speed playback. Because one idler wheel sits about ¼" higher than the other, no portion of the drive mechanism needs to be raised or lowered with respect to the others. With the control knob in its center position, neither idler is engaged, and an integral power switchactivated during use by means of a simple metal camis turned off.
Vibration control in the Rondine Jr. is likewise simple. Below deck, the heavy motor hangs from a mounting plate with the help of four chunky isolation grommets, the centers of which are fitted with thin brass ferrules for their mounting bolts. Above deck, the mechanism that supports the idler bearings and wheels is attached to the main plate using three of the very same grommet-and-bolt affairs.
That serenely simple main plate is also home to the Rondine Jr.'s platter bearing: the one part of the Jr. that may be a little too simple, and surely the one that comes in for the most criticism from vintage-audio pundits. The steel bearing shaft, which is 5/8" in diameter, is press-fitted into the hub of the alloy platter, and ground flat for contact with a ¼" steel ball bearing. The latter sits at the bottom of a bearing well that's ostensibly crude compared to those from Garrard and Thorens. Rek-O-Kut literature refers to a proprietary Rek-O-Kut lubricant, which the user is advised to both pour into the well until the ball is just covered, and smear over the bearing shaft; a spiral groove in the latter is presumed to help maintain that coating.
More fun with alcohol and swabs
There was a day in early June when I still had yet to even see an original Rek-O-Kut turntable in person; the next day, I had two of them in front of me, in pieces; a third arrived a week later. And two weeks after that, a nearby friend brought by Rek No.4, which he'd just purchased on eBay. Just lucky, I guess. I was also fortunate that two of those machines were Rondine Jrs., and was offered the chance to buy one of them, with an apparently original plinth, for $100. (I passed on the tonearm, the headshell of which screamed Pontiac.)
Footnote 1: Rek-O-Kut ceased making idler-wheel turntables in the 1960s. In 2000, with the blessings of the founder's descendants, electronics manufacturer Mike Stosich, of Esoteric Sound, acquired the rights to the name Rek-O-Kut. Esoteric Sound, 1608 Hemstock Avenue, Wheaton, IL 60189. Tel./Fax: (630) 933-9801. Web: www.esotericsound.com
Footnote 2: There are actually two Jrs.: the L-34, which functions at 331/3 and 45rpm; and the L-37, which offers 331/3 and 78rpm.