Everything makes a difference. Everything. File that away.
There are two kinds of good sound: good sound sound and good music sound. While I could describe the distinction in few words or many, it's easier to point to two recordings of Elgar's oratorio The Dream of Gerontius: by Sir Adrian Boult and the New Philharmonia Orchestra, with tenor Nicolai Gedda singing the title role (2 LPs, EMI SLS 987); and by Malcolm Sargent and the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, with Heddle Nash in the lead (2 LPs, EMI RLS 709).
I imagine the Boult version, recorded in stereo in 1976, fits most listeners' definitions of good sound sound. Although made somewhat after the golden era of British recording, it nonetheless typifies EMI's best work: open and clean, yet with realistic warmth and texture and color, and commendably free of distorted peaks. Boult's Gerontius is also spatially convincing, having both believable scale and a good sense of instrumental and vocal placement on the recording stageand the depth and power captured in the sounds of timpani and, especially, orchestral bass drum must be heard to be believed. Indeed, no matter how many times I play this record, the thunderous climax to which the orchestral introduction builds is emotionally stirring.
There's little sonic thunder in Sargent's mono recording of Gerontius, made in 1945: the intro's orchestral bass drum can't be heard at all, the timpani barely. And yet, from the first notes played in unison by the clarinets, bassoons, and violas, there is a momentum, a temporal inevitability, in every line. The first harp arpeggio is breathtaking in its deliberateness, and the singingespecially by Nash, although the chorus is especially convincingis lit from within by a level of emotional conviction I've not heard in any other recording of Gerontius. It is impossible not to play the whole thing straight through, all four sides, and it ends too soon. This is good music sound.
I'm sure every Stereophile reader's collection contains both kinds of records. I'm equally sure that all of us trot out examples of the first kind when people visit and ask to hear some musicand I suppose we sell our friends short in thinking they won't be equally or even more impressed by records of the second kind. It's a trust thing, I guess.
If I had to make the choice, I'd rather have the sort of playback system that shows the second kind of record to best advantage; experience tells me that, after a while, systems that show off only the first kind tend to bore me. But there's no reason we can't have both. File that away, too.
I still believe that the most important part of a good record-playing system is a good record player, and that the critical critter is the turntable itselfwhat old-timers called the motor unit. If the turntable doesn't drive the record with sufficient noiselessness, physical stability, consistently accurate speed of rotation, and sheer grunt, then there's no use obsessing over the rest of the systemyou're screwed from the start.
But the turntable can't function without a structurea plinthto which it and its tonearm are fastened. (Obviously, this doesn't apply to such skeletal designs as various models from Rega Research, in which the supporting structure is part of the turntable itself.) A good plinth can enhance nearly every aspect of the turntable's performance, not only by holding the parts perfectly level and still, but also by damping or even drawing away the excess energies produced by the motor and the platter bearing. A poor plinth will store and then re-release those energies with such efficiency that they impinge upon the musicand a truly horrid plinth will amplify those energies. In the horrid category, the worst plinths are simple boxes in which a hollow chamber with a single aperture combine to function as a Helmholtz resonatorsomething you definitely don't want beneath a sensitive transducer.
In recent years, renewed interest in such vintage idler-drive turntables as the Thorens TD 124, Garrard 301 and 401, and various Lenco models has spurred hobbyists and commercial manufacturers alike to new heights of creativity (footnote 1) in plinth design. Pinterest, Tumblr, and Facebook are filled with photos of different design approaches: MDF, HDF, plywood, hardwood, softwood, slate, aluminum, and various high-density polymer/mineral composites all enjoy popularity as materials for plinths and tonearm boards alikefor the latter, brass, bronze, and polymer also have their supportersand size, mass, and internal complexity can range from moderate to high to extravagant, with prices to match.
In "Listening" columns past, I've written about plinths made of slate (from Oswalds Mill Audio) and polymer/mineral composites (the PTP Solid 12 turntable), and I've probably written way too much about my own efforts at designing and building plinths made of stacked plywood and hide glue, for use with my Thorens, Garrard, and Rek-O-Kut turntables. Now I've had the opportunity to live with yet another designthe plinth made for the Garrard 301 by Woodsong Audio, of Sandpoint, Idaho (footnote 2), whose aftermarket eddy-brake disc for the same turntable I reviewed in my March 2016 column.
Viewed from above, and especially when its two articulated armboards are both pointing straight back, Woodsong's unapologetically curvy Garrard plinth ($1900$3800, depending on construction, appointments, and finish) looks a bit like the Bearsville Records logo. (The Woodsong is also available with a single armboard, for those who think one.) The plinth itself measures 20" at its widest point, 15.75" deep, and, without its adjustable feetmade by British company Track Audiojust over 4" tall.
The Woodsong plinth is made of Baltic-birch plywood, with a bottom layer of manmade slate and, at its center, a layer of Panzerholzliterally, armor wood (sometimes called tank wood), an unusually hard, dense plywood made in Germany by Delignit AG. Internallyie, the area that's cut away to make room for the motor unit itselfthe plinth presents an intricately terraced structure, to accommodate the 301's motor, platter bearing, and various moving parts. To this chamber is applied a heavily textured black acrylic finish that, if nothing else, gives the Woodsong a distinctly professional lookand, I assume, a bit of damping. Even more impressive is the evident quality and sheer beauty of the Woodsong's veneer. My review loaner was clad in cocobolo, finished in a hand-applied oil that Woodsong's founder, Chris Harban, buffs to a lacquer-like gloss; other veneers are available, ranging from the merely pretty to the stunning.
The same oil finish is applied to the Woodsong's armboards, which are machined from hardwood. (Indian rosewood is standard, although the ones on my review sample were made of ebony.) A single, hefty bolt serves as a lockable pivot for each armboard; the range of adjustment is approximately 150°enough to accommodate tonearms ranging in length from under 9" to over 12". On my loaner, one armboard was drilled for and fitted with a bronze mounting collet for my EMT 997 tonearmI'd supplied the collet ahead of time, along with the output-jack housing for the EMT's flying signal leadswhile the other was drilled for the collet of my Thomas Schick tonearm.
With the vast majority of Garrard 301 plinths, in both domestic and broadcast settings, the turntable drops into an opening just large enough to clear its mechanicals, leaving the Garrard's cast-alloy chassis aboveboard; indeed, that's how the original mounting template had it, said template having been slipped into a pouch within the hardcover owner's manual supplied with every new 301. By contrast, Woodsong provides a rabbeted (ie, recessed) fit that conceals the bottom lip of the chassis and draws the eye to the turntable's own subtly shaped designan aesthetically nice touch that may, for all I know, pay a sonic dividend as well. The 301's four mounting bolts are accommodated by hidden threaded inserts.
Meticulous woodworkers who know how to measure carefully and cut preciselya fraternity for which I'll probably never qualifycan produce a plinth in which a turntable's parts clear the plinth's structure by just enough to prevent interference or overheating, and not a millimeter more: too large a cavity means too much air to resonate. Chris Harban is one of these woodworkers; he calculates the distance between the inside of his plinth and the bottom edge of the 301's platter bearing well enough that he supplies, with each plinth, a precise amount of Bostik Blu-Tack putty to place between the two, as a damper. I don't know if other plinth makers have ever attempted such a thing, but it seems a worthwhile idea. And if it isn't . . . well, it's reversible.
Footnote 1: I won't say science is unwelcome in these waters, but I'm unconvinced in the extreme that any two technicians, any more than any two listeners, will find honest agreement on what does or does not constitute good performance in a plinth.
Footnote 2: Woodsong Audio, 71 Gooby Road, Suite B, Sandpoint, ID 83864. Tel: (208) 304-0973. Web: www.woodsongaudio.com.