Listening #204: the New Garrard 301

Some loss of innocence is expected with both age and experience. Because I tick both boxes, and in spite of my best efforts to the contrary, I'm often a bit blasé in the face of new review samples. I wasn't with this one.

A brief recap: At the 2018 High End show in Munich, UK-based SME announced that they had taken steps to reintroduce the classic Garrard 301, a transcription turntable that's been out of production for more than half a century (footnote 1). At the time of its introduction—production began in 1953—success for the British-built 301 was instant. It was also enduring; it stayed in production through 1965. Its high-torque AC motor and idler-wheel drive ensured the fast startups required by broadcasters, and its timeless styling and obviously high-quality construction earned it a place of honor among the hi-fi perfectionists of its day.

But when belt-drive turntables, which are cheaper to build, came into vogue, idler-drive models lost their luster—albeit not before Garrard sold an estimated 65,000 301s. (Its mechanically similar replacement, the 401, was even more popular.)

Then something happened: Audio enthusiasts with a taste for vintage gear—those willfully ignorant fools who prefer cleanly designed low-power tube amplifiers, built without a cylinder head's worth of aluminum, and very efficient, low-distortion loudspeakers—discovered that idler-drive turntables were virtually unique in their ability to reproduce music with its sense of drive and impact still intact—surely a product of those generally high-torque motors—and decided that the Garrard 301 was one of the best, if not the best, of the breed. Prices of old 301s began to poke through the cloud cover, and a cottage industry formed around the restoration of old 301s and the making of compatible plinths.

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It was into this world that SME, in the person of Ajay Shirke—a noted record collector who is also the chairman of the Cadence Group, which owns SME and other audio brands—dropped their 2018 bombshell. Some of us were excited. Others wondered how the 301's reintroduction would affect those whose livelihoods depend, at present, on the demand for restoring and maintaining existing samples. Still others reacted with the sort of belligerence one sees in film clips from 1963, when reporters would go around Liverpool asking early fans of the Beatles how they felt about the spread of Beatlemania: They resented the fact that their group would now belong to the world.

Then, in time for my August 2019 Listening column, it was revealed that the first wave of new Garrard 301s wouldn't be entirely new: Rather, they would be built with mostly refurbished used parts (chassis, platters, motor casings) and new-old-stock parts (various fittings and springs). Combined with these would be a relatively few newly manufactured parts.

The plan was for the company to gradually phase in a greater proportion of new parts as older stocks were depleted. As Shirke pointed out, SME, which in the day manufactured a number of parts for Garrard, is already in the process of tooling up to manufacture new platters—which, like the originals, will be cast and then machine-finished, rather than machined from solid as with many aftermarket 301 platters. Indeed, in my email correspondence with him, Shirke stressed SME's intention to manufacture new Garrard 301s precisely as they were made during their original run, without attempting to second-guess or "improve" so much as a single element of the original design (footnote 2). That is commendable.

Here it's worth noting that, contrary to some reports, in 2018 the Cadence Group purchased all things Garrard—its designs, its knowledge base, all of its logos, everything—from Gradiente Electronics of Manaus, Brazil, which had acquired them in 1979. At the same time and in a separate arrangement, Cadence purchased from Terry O'Sullivan the Loricraft company, which designed and manufactured under their own name a line of very fine record-cleaning machines, and whose licensing agreement with Gradiente had allowed them to service Garrard turntables and to manufacture a turntable called the Garrard 501. Cadence now continues to manufacture Loricraft record-cleaning machines, but has shut down Loricraft's repair and restoration business, as well as their business of commissioning and supplying spare parts for the 301 and 401. According to Shirke, the Cadence Group will make spare 301 parts available to purchasers of new Garrard 301s, as needed.

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A study in cream
My review loaner—serial number G003—arrived during the last week of August, shipped in a heavy-duty carton made specifically for the new 301 and its companion products: an SME M2-12R tonearm, the model number of which reflects its approximate effective length in inches (it's actually 308.81mm, or 12.16"), and a plinth whose generous (25.5") width was obviously meant to accommodate that transcription-length SME. The top surface of the plinth is fitted with a 4"-diameter round armboard, cut for and fitted with an effective-length–adjustable metal arm mount of the sort that SME has used for decades. According to Shirke, the new Garrard 301 is available only as a part of this package. (Only the SME M2-12R tonearm can be purchased separately, for $3100.)

My sample of the 301 itself was, to the extent that I could tell, a detail- by-detail recreation of a post-1957 Garrard, with an oil (as opposed to grease) main bearing and a platter whose outer rim bore gear-cut speed-indicator marks for use with a strobe. I was told by Ajay Shirke that its motor pulley, idler and motor bearings, brake switch and supporting parts, rubber mat, name plates, and all springs were newly manufactured, as were the isolation grommets used between the motor unit's chassis and the plinth. The platter, motor, main bearing and spindle, and idler wheel were all remachined and resurfaced to contemporary specs; the chassis was stripped and cleaned—as were various other mechanical bits—and repainted. Given the crisper creases on my original, the finish on the new 301 seems very slightly thicker than the original. But they nailed the cream color.

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And that being said, I'm not sure I can describe my feelings upon seeing, for the first time, an absolutely pristine sample of something I've only ever seen look weathered and worn and covered with a patina of God-knows-what. This was especially true when gazing at the mechanicals, with the platter out of the way (it's packed separately for shipping): Where were the dirt, the scratches, the oil stains, the nicotine, the mold, the discolorations, the cracked rubber, and the stretched-out springs? It was all a bit trippy, but in a very nice way.

And it must be said that the new 301's packaging—similar, overall, to the packaging in which new SME turntables are contained—is superb and has obviously been designed specifically for this motor unit and its new plinth, with the SME tonearm in situ. (The counterweights and other bits and bobs are packed separately.) SME has even devised a couple of plastic fittings—molded in red, presumably to grab the attention of the new owner—intended to protect the motor's pulley and eddy-brake disc during shipment, and two appliques alerting the owner to the need to loosen two transit bolts to free up the motor's suspension. Such details suggest that SME is playing the long game.

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Druthers in arms
Long game or not, as a hobbyist who has at one time or another disassembled every part of his own Garrard 301, I confess my nerdy anxiousness to take this one apart, too. So I did—up to a point.

My pokings-around were enabled by the design of the new SME/Garrard plinth, built in such a way that the motor unit and tonearm mount are both fastened to a 1"-thick slab of hardwood, 15.75" wide and 22.25" deep. In turn, that slab rests within the plinth's hardwood frame: Plastic pegs on the underside of the former fit into compliant, Sorbothane-like isolation pods fastened to the gussets of the latter. To remove the slab, one simply lifts it straight up, using the tonearm mount and the bearing access hole (footnote 3)—exposed when the platter is removed from its bearing spindle—for purchase. The plinth incorporates cable links for both the motor's 120V AC and the signal from the tonearm wiring, the latter made for SME by Crystal Cable; most enthusiasts will surely hail the former, while the latter may earn the disdain of those who believe that an unbroken signal path offers superior sound. (On that count I am something of an agnostic.)

Although the core of the plinth is not terraced in the manner of some contemporary designs—a refinement that, among other things, minimizes the size and number of resonant cavities beneath the motor unit—the frame is built with a sturdy wooden "floor," with strategically placed openings that enable the cooling of the motor. The height of the plinth's four plastic feet is adjustable.


Footnote 1: Garrard Turntables UK Ltd., No.1 New Finches, Baydon Road, Baydon, Marlborough, Wiltshire SN8 2XA. UK. Tel: (44) 1223 653199 Web: garrardturntables.co.uk.

Footnote 2: There is a single exception to this: In the original 301, various under-chassis mechanical parts, particularly elements of the switching linkage, were plated with cadmium to resist corrosion. But EU restrictions now limit the use of cadmium, owing to its toxicity, so SME has chosen to plate those parts with zinc instead.

Footnote 3: On 301s made during the first four years of production, that opening allowed users to tighten the pressure fitting on the grease bearing occasionally, thus forcing more grease into the well; after the late-1957 phasing-in of oil bearings, that now-needless opening remained a feature of all chassis.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
JRT's picture
AJD wrote:

"—discovered that idler-drive turntables were virtually unique in their ability to reproduce music with its sense of drive and impact still intact—"

C'mon Artie... That line is a little too hyperbolical.

Have you explained this principle to Fremer? He might be interested in knowing about this.

edit: I corrected my misspelling of Mikey Fremer's last name.

volvic's picture

I do remember Fremer at a hifi show listening to an EMT idler playing and saying how it was the best sound of the show. So properly done idlers can contribute to our analog world. Just need a lot of time and $$$ to get them right. Not cheap our hobby.

JRT's picture

My analog world is on the output side of the DA converters.

adrianwu's picture

I have been using a 301 for 15 years, and my friend has both the EMT 930 and 927. Although they are all idlers, they sound very different. Both EMTs have very big, solid sound. The bass is thunderous. Tremendous drive. The Garrard is not weak in these areas, and in fact sounds more natural to my ears.

Anton's picture

Nothing wrong with liking some euphonic coloration.

volvic's picture

Like I said below...to each his/her own.

volvic's picture

These different opinions; idler vs belt/direct is what keeps me coming back for more. I think it's fun. I don't want to read about DAC's being reviewed...uninteresting to me. I enjoyed my idler (TD-124), it was professionally restored and was quiet (most of the time), but I knew that the bearing wasn't made for stereo and that there was rumble present because inner detail I knew, was missing when I played records I was familiar with. In the end I realized that to try and get it to behave like my belt drives would have required a lot more money; for a better bearing, better idler wheel, better subplatter, better isolation and a better plinth and probably a PS Audio regenerator to adjust the Hz to get it's speed working properly. The TD-124 was sensitive to mains variations. I wish I had the space and workshop that Mr. Dudley has, I would still have the TD-124 and would probably have a 301, (so beautiful to look at). Is $23k a lot? YES! it is, but such is required to get these tables to function properly. There is no substitute for experience in restoring these beauts. If you can't do it yourself or have access to someone who can do it for you, then SME has the answer for you. While I don't have one and probably never will due to space constraints, I think it is great for us vinyl junkies to read about these tables and that there is a following out there that treasures these tables. Great review Art, read it twice.

jimtavegia's picture

I would be after a 20/12 or a model 15 and then buy a ton of new vinyl.

volvic's picture

Or a NOS Model 10 or the new 12. Save money for a nice cartridge and more vinyl.

Ortofan's picture

... revive the idler-drive tangential-tracking Garrard Zero 100?
http://www.thevintageknob.org/garrard-Zero_100.html

Robin Landseadel's picture

"discovered that idler-drive turntables were virtually unique in their ability to reproduce music with its sense of drive and impact still intact"

Also unique in developing flat spots on the idler, meaning that over time they become wow & flutter generators. Bad idea then, bad idea now.

adrianwu's picture

I have been using my 301 for 15 years, and I have yet to discover any flat spots. On the other hand, I don't engage the idler when the TT is turned off. Sure way to generate a flat spot.

dc_bruce's picture

it might be worthwhile to spend a little less ink gooshing over the mechanical bits and make some rudimentary measures, such as rumble and flutter and wow. Having owned a number of turntables in my time, I am certainly aware that there are tables that measure good but sound bad. But I'm not aware of any tables that measure bad (at least in these 3 parameters) but sound good. As a previous commenter has mentioned, the idler wheel should be considered a wear item, requiring periodic replacement just as is the belt on a belt drive table. Sorry to be cranky, but that's an awful lot of money for an entirely conventional product. While some audiophiles are deep into nostalgia (that's their right and privilege), others are not.
And yes, it would be interesting to hook this up to a VPI SDS ac power regenerator (no longer made, I believe). I found that it has a subtle but positive effect on my belt drive VPI table.

volvic's picture

The SDS will not work on a Garrard or TD-124 those tables use an asynchronous motor. The SDS is designed for a synchronous motor.

jimtavegia's picture

It is one of the reasons that I kept my Dual 502 in that it has a nice high torque AC motor, belt drive platter, and mine still functions great today and I just re-oil the bearing well once a year. But what held this table back was the tonearm, so I removed the Dual arm and replaced it with a Rega 202 and the difference was night and day, IMHO. It is not high end for some, but it works for me. For me it was hard to justify an SME arm on this plinth assembly.

I play the piano and so note sustain with ability to stay on pitch is excellent with this table, which has always been problematic with single instrument lp playback and note stability. The only table I should not have let get away was a Technics SP-10 with an SME arm. I made the mistake of thinking vinyl would die in the early 80's. I was surely wrong about that.

I'm sure owners of this table will be happy and proud of their purchase as it is as much art, engineering, and nostalgia as anything else. Next we will see someone resurrect the old Empire 598. Who would have thought the TT market would be this crowded as we enter 2020? There is no doubt that this new 301 is beautiful.

Doctor Fine's picture

I really don't see anything here that my $600 Pioneer PLX1000 can't equal or surpass.
The torque thing IS a big deal as it helps the stiff tracking heavy cartridges dig into grooves without slowing down like a springy belt drive is wont to do.
My Pioneer tracks incredibly well while pulling the ancient Denon DL103r through passages that would stop many belt drives in their tracks.
As for the arm---I doubt I would hear any big improvement over a properly adjusted Pioneer arm.
The longer length is a nice plus but I'm not getting any "inner groover distortion" or other bugaboos at this point so what is there to gain?
Maybe a new set of arm wires would put my Pioneer ABOVE this thing for overall sound output?
I don't know but my next door neighbor has a restored 301.
And I am NOT jealous---more like I'm sorry he is stuck with an ancient out of date piece of gear.
This whole turntable /Arm thing has gotten ridiculous.
Design the darn thing properly and use direct drive and be done with it.
Spend the rest on a new Mercedes.
Seriously Art, want to test your shiny new 301 against my properly adjusted Pioneer PLX1000?
Might be embarrassed if you do.

volvic's picture

I have acquaintances that have 301's and LP-12's side by side, and when friends come over to listen, the opinions as to which one is preferred is split right down the middle, between the guests in attendance. I too prefer the LP-12 with the Naim PS. I am sure the same would apply with your Pioneer. I would not consider this table for the price, as I said I would get an SME instead - better long term reliability and quieter. But the idea as to which is preferred is very subjective. Especially for people who own a huge collection of mono and 78 recordings, an idler with an SPU cartridge makes tremendous sense and can be a revelation with some of those older recordings.

Ortofan's picture

... try one of the latest Technics turntables with 78rpm speed (plus +/- 16% speed adjustment range) and either an Ortofon 2M 78 or Audio-Technica VM670SP phono cartridge.

volvic's picture

Not going to argue with that, in fact I’ve mentioned before on these very pages that if I were starting all over again, it would be the Technics 1200G.

MontanaMontanaDana's picture

Thanks for the detailed photos of the Garrard's innards Art. Obviously a lot of engineering here, on a par with the similarly priced Honda Insight hybrid. Ajay Shirke must be laughing his tailpipe off every time he sees one of these things (idler) drive off.

dial's picture

Like the reviewer says, that's a lot of money for a vintage design. It's perhaps interesting for i.e. a Lenco 75 or 55 for 50 $. Then you can buy or build a beautiful huge plinth and a good arm from Jelco or Technics.
Some measurements and a list of the gear for listening could help, but it seems to be so disappointing that it's not worth publishing.

jelabarre's picture

I hadn't realized these units were (relatively speaking) this common. I emphasize "relatively", don't think I'll ever be picking one up.

It's of specific interest to us, as John (you remember, the scary older brother who'd also go to the Norm shows) has some WWII Navy transcription disks. I still need to bring them over to a friend's house to transfer to CD (he had been an NBC broadcast engineer and has a home studio with old-school broadcast gear).

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