Book Review: Swiss Precision: The Story of the Thorens TD 124 and Other Classic Turntables

Swiss Precision: The Story of the Thorens TD 124 and Other Classic Turntables
by Joachim Bung. Published by Joachim and Angelika Bung, Schmitten, Germany (info@td-124.de), 2008. Hardcover, 288 pages, four-color, ISBN 978-3-00-021162-1. Price: €59 plus overseas mailing.

In 1956, an engineer named Louis Thévenaz presented his employer with the prototype of a turntable of singularly high quality, aimed at broadcast professionals and the burgeoning domestic audio market alike. The employer was Thorens S.A. of Sainte-Croix, Switzerland, and one year later, the first TD 124 (a tourne-disc, or turntable, with a 12" platter and four speeds) was introduced for the then-remarkable sum of 400 Swiss Francs. With its 10W motor, 10-lb lower platter, clutch-decoupled upper platter, combination drive system of belt and idler wheel, and sculpted good looks, the 22-lb Thorens TD 124 took the audio world by storm: After the Garrard 301 of 1953, the TD 124 was the player to which most European and American hobbyists aspired, and by the time production ceased in 1967, Thorens had made more than 90,000 of them.

Over a half a century after its introduction, the Thorens TD 124 attracts more interest than ever, from record collectors, audio enthusiasts, restorers of vintage equipment—and journalists. German writer and publisher Joachim Bung gave us the softcover Schweizer Präzision (Swiss Precision) in 2005; for this revised edition, Bung commissioned an English translation—supervised by occasional Stereophile contributor Ken Kessler—and filled it with even more stories, technical details, period advertisements, and original photographs. In all, Swiss Precision is nearly three times as long as its predecessor, and seems poised to become even more of a benchmark.

For the second edition of Swiss Precision, Bung has also expanded his scope to include chapters on the TD 124's many contemporary products: tonearms from EMT, SME, Fairchild, and Ortofon, and competing turntables from Lenco, Delphon, Rek-O-Kut, EMT, ELAC, Connoisseur, and, of course, Garrard. Each marque gets a thoughtful, fair appraisal, and while the Thorens TD 124 has pride of place in Bung's esteem, the strengths of its competitors are described with genuine admiration, just as the Thorens's own shortcomings are brought to light. The He-Man 301-Haters' Club this is not.

The new book works so well, on so many levels, that I scarcely know where to begin. When we first meet Joachim Bung, the author is at the wheel of his VW Beetle, driving from Westphalia to Frankfurt with his newly bought, second-hand TD 124 perched precariously on the back seat. "To this day," he writes, "a shiver runs down my spine at the thought of [it]." From there, Bung's love for the 124 is unmistakable, and his enduring affair with all things Thorens plays out over 288 illustrated pages, some photos published here for the first time. For instance: Only recently, in March 2007, did Bung locate the sole TD 124 prototype; his photos and description of it should be worth the price of admission to any true Thorensista.

Notwithstanding the abundance of model numbers, specifications, diagrams, and production estimates, Swiss Precision is no mere orgy of gear worship. We also meet the people who are integral to the TD 124's story: Rolf Ullmann, an influential Frankfurt dealer who helped propel the TD 124 and other groundbreaking products to their ultimate success; Jacques Basset, a former Thorens employee who now owns and maintains a remarkable collection of the company's prototypes; international collectors and enthusiasts such as Stefano Pasini, Keigo Takeuchi, and Holger Trass; and, of course, the Swiss restoration specialist and manufacturer Jürg Schopper—all still very much with us today, and each tied to the living history of this product that simply won't fade away. Of course, we also meet the delightful Thorens TD 184 record player (with built-in amplifier), the indescribably beautiful Delphon turntables from Copenhagen, and the General Electric VR-II "variable reluctance" phono cartridge, easily the best thing ever to come out of Schenectady, New York.

As a nonspeaker of German, I don't know whether to credit the writing, the translation, or both, but the new edition is a smooth read: The English version of Swiss Precision is as free of curious word substitutions and clumsy, unintentionally funny syntax as the typical owner's manual is full of them. Bung is more than just a hobbyist with a word processor: He's a good storyteller with, apparently, endless enthusiasm for his subject. The photos are uniformly superb, the layout is crisply attractive, and, as a bonus, the penultimate chapter—"Nothing Works without Cleaning and Lubrication"—provides the nascent TD 124 owner with maintenance instructions that are helpful and clear.

At €59 plus overseas postage, the hardcover Swiss Precision isn't cheap—but I can't help imagining that, like the Thorens TD 124 itself, the book will cast a long shadow for years to come. Strongly recommended to all English-speaking lovers of LPs, regardless of which turntable they spin them on.—Art Dudley

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