Listening #41 Page 2

Again, where the Thortofon combo had trouble keeping up was in getting very subtle sonic details across. The timbral differences between, say, different kinds of electric bass guitars were much clearer and easier to hear on the Linn rig. So was the sense of air in a recording—not to mention bumps, groans, crashes, and other noises in the studios.

And, yes, because bass notes were clearer in their attack/sustain/decay entireties, the pacing of some music was snappier with the Linn—although the Thortofon was hardly terrible by comparison, and was certainly less ponderous than, say, your average ca-1985 Goldmund or SOTA.

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I can't think of a better contrast than the one provided by a fine LP of Ølvin Fjeldstad and the Oslo Philharmonic performing the Brahms Symphony 3 (from the RCA/Reader's Digest Music of the World's Great Composers series, no catalog number), which Robert Pincus of Cisco Music found for me last year. When I played this disc with the Thorens TD 124 package—just about any of them, really, except for when the SPU Classic A was in use—the sound was wonderfully chunky and full, with tremendous force to everything: the perfect foil for the sometimes thin presentation of my Lowther Medallion speakers. On the other hand, when I played it on the Linn and listened to the plucked basses under the first movement's second theme, it was like a metronome—or, ironically, a Swiss watch. The Thorens didn't convey that musically insistent pacing very well at all.

A few random observations
• The Thorens TD 124 took almost as long for its speed to completely stabilize as it takes my Sony SCD-777ES SACD player—freshly returned from the Sony service center with a $300 tab, and minus the original carton I sent it in—to load a disc and read its table of contents. Thank the good lord God for progress.

• If you own a TD 124—and especially if yours has the original, non-Schopper platter—you might want to try inserting a felt record mat, of the sort supplied with Linn and Rega turntables, between the main platter and the platter shell. I did, and it seemed to make record noise somewhat quieter and easier to take. The only downside was that it rendered the Thorens' declutching system, which I came to enjoy, more or less useless.

• In use, the Schopper platter appeared much more well made than the original, and exhibited significantly less wobble and runout error. In fact, the Schopper platter was at least the equal of the one on my LP12, if not quite as true as the high-tech ceramic platter on the Rega Planar 9—which remains the best I've ever seen in that regard.

• If you already have a TD 124, or if you recently got lucky on eBay—which is unlikely in the extreme, given what I feel is that company's continually declining interest in forcing sellers to treat buyers fairly—you can send it to N-H-T, in the person of their American distributor, and have it evaluated for one of three rebuild stages, which can cost anywhere from $250 to $1750. In the most extreme cases, all that will remain of the original will be the platter, platter shell, and cast chassis. All other parts, including the motor, motor isolation system, idler pulley, idler wheel, main bearing, and other assorted gews and gaws, may be reconditioned or replaced as needed.

• It's impossible to talk about a record player such as this without coming to grips with the whole matter of downforce and cartridge tracking: You have every right to wonder whether an increase in stylus pressure ranging from 50% to 100% or more, compared with the cartridge you're using now, might hasten the ruination of your record collection. Unfortunately, there's a real shortage of scientifically valid data on the subject—by which I mean studies that eliminate every variable other than downforce; studies in which a reasonable and repeatable indicator of sonically consequent record wear is determined ahead of time; and, most important, studies conducted or commissioned by someone other than a phono-cartridge manufacturer. (Sure, you can find lots of "photographic evidence of record wear that would have been avoided by switching over to the latest version of our Bio-Chisel cartridge.")

As with the now rightly ridiculed notion that achieving ever-lower harmonic-distortion numbers was all that ever mattered in amplifier development, the quest for ever-lower downforce numbers, cheered by the mainstream enthusiast press of the 1960s and '70s, was little better than irrelevant—and served only to poison the well for the enthusiasts who followed. Meaning: us.

Still: More pressure equals more friction, and more friction at least implies more wear, all other things being equal—which they aren't, of course. So what's worse for the groove: being played with a stylus that's set for 1gm but that "chatters" at certain frequencies, or being played with a stylus that's set for 3gm and that doesn't feed vibrational energy back into the vinyl? Is playing a record once a week at 4gm better or worse than playing it twice in a half hour at 2gm? When we find noiseless, dead-mint records that date from the 1950s, had their original owners really played them on the equipment that was available at the time, or are they unused?

No one knows. Absent any proof other than what our ears hear in the here and now, we can only act in accordance with whatever explanation sounds convincing to us as individuals. I'm inclined toward caution myself, and while my enthusiasm for the apparently unique qualities of older playback technologies is sincere, I'll also admit that there are perhaps a hundred or so irreplaceable LPs in my collection that I'm not willing to play at 4gm, or without antiskating (another boogeyman, and a can of worms that I patently refuse to even look at, let alone open).

• I'm kind of amazed at the low prices of these things, overall, relative to the rest of the market and to their apparent design and manufacturing costs. The N-H-T plinths and rebuild services are very reasonable; the Schopper components are exceptional values; and the Ortofon SPU cartridges are giveaways. What's going on here?

I don't know. But I have an idea what'll happen next: In another couple of weeks, Lawrence Blair will drop by to pick up his record player. He and I will take it apart and pack it up, and if the weather outside is bad I'll help him carry it to his Ford Explorer. Then he'll take off down the road with the N-H-T and the SPU and all that other good stuff. The next day I'll miss it, and the day after that I'll miss it some more. But I'll go back to my Linn, anyway, which still plays music nicely.

And look: Here come Doctor Tawny and Nurse Pepper...

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