Listening #93

One more word for unhappy consumers, in any marketplace, who confuse praise for the new with rebuke for the old: 20 years on, I continue to admire the best qualities of my Linn Sondek LP12 turntable (itself not the first LP12 I've owned). I smile to think of all the records I enjoyed during those two decades.

But singing in church is one thing, and burning heretics is quite another: From time to time I'm troubled to wonder if an even greater degree of enjoyment could have been mine, if not for my slavish devotion to the indestructible beat of the flat-Earth doctrine, with its matchbook stylus cleaners and its pre-stressed P-clips and its foolish attitude toward record cleaning and its anemic motors.

That last one in particular stuck in my craw for a very long time, and I'm glad it did. For years I parroted the Linn party line about small, low-torque motors, and how they were the only ones suitable for playing music, given that small motors make less noise than larger, more powerful ones. Yet with shocking straightforwardness for a universe as cruelly funny as this one, it turns out that lack of drive in a record player correlates with the same in music.

And there you go: By putting exponentially more power in their amplifiers than in their turntables, the manufacturers to whom we flat-Earthers looked as leaders took their own most important axiom—and got it precisely backward. I sigh Sam Tellig's saddest sigh.

Mass appeal
An equally important realization then became corollary to that of the need for torque: As with the relationship between an amplifier and its loudspeaker, a motor unit, to use Garrard's delightful term for it, requires a complementary load in order to generate useful power. The key, in phonography, is to mate the torque of the motor with the compliance of the pickup—and, consequently, the compliance of the pickup with the mass of the tonearm. Thus, in a very real way, the motor and the record together drive the source transducer.

With that realized, there remained one last piece to the puzzle. But for me, at least, the final penny didn't drop until recently: I had to end my decades-long hate affair with high mass.

Heaven knows I had my reasons. From 1985 until recently, I watched as a succession of ever-more-massive preamplifiers, amplifiers, cables, connectors, CD transports, DACs, and turntable platters—the last being the one part of the thing whose mass shouldn't get crazy-high, lest it outpace the power of the motor meant to drive it—were used to lure trophy-system buyers back into the salons, again and again. High-end equaled high-mass, and some of us can be forgiven for equating that quality with sound that was attractive in a static way, but otherwise dull as death. High-end meant high-mass meant high boredom.

Things weren't always that bad, of course. In the early days of American hi-fi, prior to the wastefulness, sloth, and sham engineering of inch-thick faceplates and unliftable amps, the benefits of sheer heft were propounded and accepted in relation to only two types of domestic products: mass-loaded loudspeakers (think Bozak et al) and intentionally massive turntable plinths.

Because I was lucky enough to have an after-school job in what would now be called a specialty audio store, massive turntable plinths appeared on my radar in the mid-1970s: A few of our more settled customers fashioned heavy, outsized plinths from plywood or solid hardwood, as alternatives to the lightweight boxes with which their idler-wheel turntables were supplied. (Our store was an authorized dealer for Benjamin Miracord—neé Elac Miracord—but idler-wheel models by Dual and Garrard were at least equally common in those installations.) One customer even spoke of having a granite slab made to put beneath his already-massive plinth, although I can't say whether that would have been to improve the sound, prevent mistracking caused by footfalls, or some hopeful combination of the two.

And there it is: While not every type of player stands to benefit—notwithstanding the more grating aspect of their mystic bravado, Linn is right about the LP12 sounding best when placed on a light, rigid platform—there's something about a very massive plinth that brings out the best in a rim-drive turntable with a powerful motor. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say: There's something about a massive plinth that subjugates the worst in a rim-drive turntable, the worst being the extra noise produced by a larger motor's larger bearing, and the potentially more intrusive rumble from the platter bearing.

Unsurprisingly, the precise mechanism by which a good plinth sounds good and a bad plinth sounds bad is more a matter of conjecture than of fact; as with conical equipment supports, interconnects in which a shield is connected to ground at only one end, digital upsampling, and other products that have an audible effect for reasons unknown, I have yet to see even the tiniest scrap of evidence as to why different plinth sizes or different plinth materials or different turntable-to-plinth mounting schemes sound the way they sound. Nor do I have the slightest idea which parts should or should not be coupled, decoupled, damped, isolated, or painted pink and called Sally. And neither do you, no offense intended.


billyb's picture

You are correct, Mr. Dudley. When i listen to great country songwriting, it's a shame where the industry has arrived. I'll be listening to Nelson, Parton and Kitty Wells et al. Good lyrics and songs just don't die. Darkness on the face of the earth, I've just destroyed the world i'm living in, yesterday, today and tomorrow, This white ring around my finger. the list goes on. Thank heavens for those rebels who carved out a true genre.

Freako's picture

... AND for Alison Krauss!