Gramophone Dreams #10

This Gramophone Dream is about my continuing adventures as I slowly scale the pyramid of analog audio. I'm still too close to the sandy earth to see the mythical gold tip or enjoy a six-figure super-turntable. However, in this month's episode, I do reach a level where I can relax, play some eternally beautiful music, and peer out over the vast desert of record-player mediocrity.

While writing about the Pioneer PLX-1000 turntable in my March 2015 column, I decided to acquire a Linn Sondek LP12 and hear how this notoriously musical, belt-driven, audiophile 'table might compare to that rugged DJ deck, whose job it was to replace the Technics SL-1200 Mk.2. To that end, I was able to acquire a low-mileage Sondek LP12 with a clean-as-new platter bearing, a Valhalla power supply, and a Linn Basik LV X tonearm. Game on!

1946: SME Ltd. is established (England).

1957: First Thorens belt-cum-rim-drive TD 124 turntables are produced (Switzerland).

1973: First Linn Sondek LP12 turntables are produced (Scotland).

1975: Dynavector Systems is founded by Dr. N. Tominari (Japan).

1989: I own a Shindo-modded Garrard 301 with Ortofon tonearm and SPU cartridge.

1992: Linn Products introduces its first CD player (Scotland).

1993: I own a Sony Discman CD player and three turntables: a Denon DP-3000 direct-drive 'table with Denon step-up transformer and Denon DL-103 cartridge; a Thorens TD 124 'table with Fidelity Research FR64s tonearm and Supex 900 Super cartridge; and a SOTA Sapphire 'table with Sumiko MDC-800 "The Arm" tonearm and van den Hul–modified Koetsu cartridge. I also had a borrowed Linn LP12 Valhalla with Linn Ittok arm and stock Koetsu Rosewood Signature cartridge. At the time, I loved the Koetsus, the FR64s, and the MDC-800. I felt certain the Thorens was the best turntable. Today, I am a different sort of audiophile altogether.

Linn's logo represents a stylus tip touching the surface of a record. That logo was designed in 1972. Today, Linn is a sophisticated, forward-thinking digital company that still makes LP12s because, I imagine, they feel they must. The turntable is their iconic root—their identity. Linn's current entry-level turntable system, the LP12 Majik (simple onboard power supply, simple subchassis, unsuspended baseboard, Pro-Ject 9cc tonearm, Linn Adikt cartridge) costs $4320; their fully loaded Klimax record-playing system (Radikal DC motor and outboard power supply, Keel one-piece subchassis-armboard, Urika onboard phono preamp, Ekos SE tonearm, Kandid MC cartridge), costs $17,200. The current LP12 (turntable only) costs $2630.

Over the years, Linn has upgraded the LP12's platter bearing many times, its power supply thrice (Valhalla, Lingo, Radikal), and its subchassis at least five times. They've introduced new baseboards (the plate at the bottom of the plinth, to which the feet are fastened), including one made of solid aluminum. Add to this a wide range of tonearms and cartridges, and it's clear that Linn has invested more than four decades of consistent invention into a very basic record-playing system that countless audiophiles believe is unsurpassed. Which reminds me:

1993: My then-favorite Stereophile reviewer, Corey Greenberg,">writes: "If you asked me to name a single specific high-end audio component that could make or break a system, I'd name the Linn LP12 turntable. Of all the thousands of hi-fi products I've heard over the years, not a one of 'em—not a speaker, amplifier, or digital processor—has been able to draw me into the music, no matter what the associated componentry, like the LP12."

Meanwhile, today, a nice used LP12 with Valhalla power supply costs less than $1000 on eBay. And because information, upgrades, and parts are so widely available, vintage Linn LP12s are timeless and eminently serviceable—even by the owner.

Many audiophiles have shied away from the LP12 because they perceived the Linn experience as precious, the turntable itself as fussy. They were certain they could never master the black art of setup, and the nearest Linn dealer was in the next state. They imagined their LP12s going out of "tune" easily and often—and then what? Maybe it would never be right again!

I shared these fears. However, writing about budget turntables has precipitated in me an uncontrollable need to become intimate with this most legendary of audiophile record spinners. I assuaged my fears by calling my friend, Sound & Vision contributor and professional turntable technician Michael Trei. I asked him if he would guide me through the entire process, from updating the Valhalla's power supply and dressing its power and tonearm cables to getting its three-spring suspension to bounce just so. He has the official Linn setup jig—a metal frame-style stand that holds the turntable still and provides access to its innards—and knows lots of special little tricks that only practice can teach. Since the 1980s, he's set up more than 300 LP12s.

After two refurbishing sessions with Trei, I'm certain: If you can change the spark plugs on your 1958 MGA, you can set up your LP12. Everything you need to know about tuning and restoring a classic LP12 is covered in minute detail and illustrated with excellent photos in the Linn Forum's 31-webpage "LP12 Set-up—a brief overview" (footnote 1).

I'm attracted to the LP12 partly because it seems like the ultimate anti-objectivist deck. Proper setup includes many judgment calls about unquantifiable matters: a visual assessment of the "pistonic" quality of the bounce of the subchassis, a tactile assessment to confirm that fasteners are all "Linn tight"—a term straight out of Linn's 1980s-era setup manual. How does one know when his or her Sondek is properly tuned? LP12 fanatics say things like "When you can follow the musical plot" or "When you can feel the rhythms" or "When the music becomes fully communicative and well sorted out."

Most important to me, the LP12 is an established benchmark for audiophile-quality LP playback.

The Linn LV X tonearm
When Michael Trei and I finished updating and setting up my Sondek LP12, the first record we played was Black Uhuru's Red, produced by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare (LP, Mango MLPS 9625A), which we'd just played a little earlier on my Technics SL-1200 Mk.2 turntable with Abis SA-1.2 tonearm and Zu Denon DL-103 cartridge—it had sounded hashy and grainy through the midrange. We listened to "Sponji Reggae" on my new Sondek for about 20 seconds, and Trei looked at me and laughed. "Remember that old audiophile cliché? The lifting of many veils?" Embarrassed for the Technics, I laughed too.

The difference was radical. Transparency had increased tenfold. On the LP12, this well-worn LP by Michael Rose, Sandra "Puma" Jones, and Derrick "Duckie" Simpson sounded as I knew, in my heart, it was supposed to sound. Unfortunately, there was no hiding from the puffy, one-note bass—low-frequency detail was soft and smeared, all the way up into the male vocal range. Midrange tone seemed natural but thin, with blurry textures. Trei opined that the Dynavector DV-20X2 cartridge then in use was putting too much energy into the Linn Basik LV X arm—a discontinued medium-mass arm that was, in its day, offered as an entry-level choice (footnote 2). Nevertheless, the sound was musical and fun, and certainly the most organic analog I'd experienced in-house since I began writing for Stereophile.

SME M2-9 tonearm: $1099
Replacing the Linn LV X tonearm with the SME M2-9 that I wrote about in April was like switching from a vintage MX-5 Miata to a shiny new Lotus Europa. I'm not sure I've heard a more dramatic change in the sound of an audio system than the one produced by this simple tonearm swap. Every part of the audioband picked up energy and life. The bass went from a puffy generalization to fast, vibrant, and succinctly detailed. Rhythms became stronger and better emphasized. Sparkling detail appeared everywhere. With the Linn LV X, the soundstage had been lit by a weak incandescent bulb; with the M2-9, it was almost LED bright. Unquestionably, the stylus was now measuring the grooves with greater precision.

The M2-9's polished stainless-steel armtube seemed unusually adept at transferring energy. It played easy and sensual. High frequencies were clear and effectively resolved, if sometimes a tad overlit. Violins, flutes, saxophones, and trumpets sounded impressively natural, with a relaxed lucidity. Bass response was evenly crisp and naturally textured down to the lower limits of my speakers.

While the main sources of the M2-9's quality appear to be its high-specification bearings and rigid, properly damped armtube, many of the SME's more subtle musical talents, such as bass microdetail and midrange transparency, must be attributed to its detachable, well-engineered magnesium headshell and how easy it makes the accurate adjustment of stylus rake angle and azimuth.

Footnote 1: Linn Forums: click here and here.

Footnote 2: The original Linn Basik tonearm came equipped with a Basik cartridge: a high-compliance, moving-magnet, rebranded Audio-Technica.


volvic's picture

If some of the issues associated with the Technics might be solved with an improved bearing, and external PSU, would be interesting to then do a follow-up with the LP12.

bonbon's picture

Very good article in getting the most off the record - while this might stir up some discussion - are the advantages of the Linn, improved upon by some of the much more expensive turntables from several of the recent shows featured here?