Listening #65

The Oakland fluker said, "You mean we should lug our Connie Companion layout all that way? It's too heavy and something might happen to it."

"No, just to discuss rules and stakes," Norman said.

Dubiously, the Oakland fluker said, "Well, I guess we could do that. But you better understand—we take our Connie Companion doll pretty damn seriously."—Philip K. Dick, "The Days of Perky Pat" (1963)

For days I've found myself walking back and forth past my vintage Thorens TD 124 turntable, the platter of which is temporarily unbolted from its main bearing. Thus, the thing I've been looking at is not so much the classic Swiss turntable as the guts of the classic Swiss turntable.

The experience has made me sick—not sick of the Thorens, by any means, but sick at the thought that I once considered so many other turntables to be well engineered. They might have sounded good in some or another way, but well engineered? I was, in the truest sense of the expression, fooling myself.

Whenever I walk past that platterless Thorens and look at its inner workings, I see a machine in which almost every single part has been engineered to function within that machine—and nothing else. Can that boast be made for any contemporary turntable? Only a handful of conspicuously unaffordable choices come to mind, a list topped by the impressive Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn—although I'm appalled to think that a record player that costs more than a single-engine aircraft can't achieve the upper limits of its performance unless it's supported by a stand that retails for more than the price of a Subaru Forester. Let's all just take a moment and clear the sleep-boogers of delusion from our eyes and say: That's ridiculous.

The Thorens—with its cast-alloy chassis, its high-torque motor, its combination belt and idler drive, its heavy iron main platter and light aluminum upper platter, its "hidden" strobe and speed-adjustment control, its clutch mechanism for stopping the upper platter without stressing the motor, its vibration-isolation system, and its quick-change tonearm board—contains only a handful of off-the-shelf parts that might otherwise have found their way into an alarm clock or a water pump or an air-conditioner: eight screws, three fiber washers, three C-clips, and a short length of twin-lead wire. Every other part was designed, drafted, engineered, and made for the Thorens TD 124. And I don't mean "made" as in "band-sawn from a slab of MDF or acrylic."

It isn't odd that I should feel so sickened, but rather that it took me so long to start retching: This whole idea has been cooking away in my little rat brain since 1985, the year I bought myself a Syrinx tonearm—which sounded gorgeous, no question about it, and incorporated some very novel ideas (including an especially clever wire-abrasion system). That was also the year I found myself taking a leak in a urinal in some nameless public restroom and, looking straight ahead, saw a Syrinx tonearm mount: It was, apparently, an off-the-shelf plumbing fixture, to which a grub screw—sorry: a VTA adjuster—had been added.

I'm 53 years old, I don't make a ton of money, I have two sets of car payments and a daughter who'll go to college some day, and I do believe I've finally had enough of all this bullshit. I've had enough of hearing people say that such and such a thing is well engineered when, in fact, it's cobbled together by an amateur.

Then I look at that Thorens and say: "That is what good engineering looks like."

There are other examples. When I look at a Quad ESL-63 loudspeaker, I know I'm looking at a well-engineered product. When I look at a Marantz 8b amplifier, I know it. When I look at a Grace or Fidelity Research tonearm, I know it. I can even look at some contemporary components—the DNM 3-D preamp, the Nagra CDC CD player—and know it.

Yet when I return my gaze to an expensive turntable with a crudely bandsawn plinth, or a six-figure loudspeaker that uses an unmodified two-figure tweeter, or a megabuck amp in which a bazillion parts are stuffed every which way into the same chassis that the manufacturer uses for 20 other models, like Carvel's Fudgie the Whale cake mold, I know I'm looking at an underengineered mess, no matter how good it sounds (footnote 1).

And I've reached saturation with this, friends. I've reached critical mass.

I've decided that, from now on, if I'm going to spend my rare, hard-earned, increasingly worthless American bucks on anything, it will be a thing of quality: something that not only performs the task for which it was designed, but is also a joy to own. And if that little blood vessel behind my left eye goes BANG! tomorrow, like a balloon that's been contorted into one too many dachshunds, I want to make sure that all of the audio components my daughter inherits will be things she'll want to keep and use. Forever.

That shouldn't be terribly hard to do: I'll start by avoiding products that can't seem to last on the market for more than two years without expensive revisions. (If you're going to pay top dollar to an engineer who swears he's given you his best effort one year, then "discovers" some new mystery material or circuit layout the next, you might as well do so on your hands and knees.) I'll finish by using real classics, such as my Thorens TD 124, as the basis for all of my listening.

No unpleasant bending
"This is my grandfather's knife: My father replaced its handle and I replaced the blade, but it's still the knife my grandfather owned." That's how Wes Phillips illustrated the manner in which some Linn LP12 owners sacrifice the originality of their turntables in exchange for continually improved performance as they tramp the upgrade trail (footnote 2).

One might think that Wes's illustration would apply even more to owners of vintage Thorens turntables: Surely the ravages of time and technology have taken their toll, and many of the critical bits in any 50-year-old turntable will have been replaced by now, the originals rotting away in some scrapyard. The truth is quite different: Not only did the Thorens engineers get most of their flagship right the first time, but its various parts are remarkably hardy. Some TD 124 turntables can be restored to as-new condition for a pittance; and in those instances, where a half-century of progress really has allowed for some improvements over the originals, parts are now available whose level of engineering can keep pace with that of the originals.

Footnote 1: I can't help seeing a parallel between our dilemma and that of the automobile industry. In the middle of the 20th century, when many of the world's automakers—and all of the American ones—were engaged in a mindless battle to see who could boast the highest horsepower, the heaviest coachwork, and the tallest tailfins, a few other companies gave their engineering departments the freedom to make products that were safer, more efficient, and simply better. Because American consumers in particular came to regard the automobile as a necessity, even the most foolish companies were spared the Darwinian fate they deserved, and they survive today, putting on cattle drives at car shows and competing to see whose onboard DVD player has the widest screen. Compare all that to the audio industry's enduring watt wars—or their battles to see who can make the amp with the biggest heatsinks, the turntable with the heaviest platter, the loudspeaker with the greatest number of woofers†.†.†.

Footnote 2: And what of the Linn LP12? As a good-sounding turntable, it's a perennially recommendable gem, but as an engineering exercise it's only fair. Some core elements, such as the main bearing and two-piece platter, were beautifully done if somewhat derivative, but the pubs had apparently opened by the time the steel top plate was "designed"—and to suggest that the fiddly dressing of the tonearm cable was engineered into the design as opposed to being an after-the-fact kludge, howsoever necessary, is mildly outrageous.