Listening #40 Page 2

The TD 124's platter is switched on and off with the same crow's-head knob that selects between the four basic speeds (78, 45, 331/3, and 16rpm). At the center of the knob is a fine-speed control, for slight changes in pitch, the workings of which are downright ingenious: A crescent-shaped permanent magnet sits adjacent to the idler pulley, and within the underside of the pulley is a magnetically permeable reflector that pivots slightly and slowly as the pitch control is turned. The position of the reflector determines how much of an Eddy effect (see "Listening" columns passim) the magnet exerts on the pulley and, ultimately, the drive system as a whole. You can demonstrate it for yourself after removing the platter, idler wheel, and drive belt: With the pitch control turned fully clockwise, you'll be able to spin the idler pulley easily with your finger, yet as the knob is turned counterclockwise and the reflector moves into a position directly opposite the magnet, the pulley becomes harder to propel, and in fact no longer remains in motion after you stop spinning it.

That this slowing effect remains small during use is a testament to the platter's mass. Thorens used iron instead of aluminum in an apparent effort to increase the flywheel effect, but the magnetically permeable metal posed a hazard for any magnetic phono cartridge; ie, most of them. Thorens' solution was to cover the entire platter with a shell of spun aluminum (to which the rubber mat was bonded) as a barrier to the cartridge's fatal attraction. That also allowed for a clever declutching system: Rather than forcing the user to start and stop the whole drive system every time the record is changed or flipped over—which would subject various parts to premature wear—Thorens placed a long, thin crescent of metal under the edge of the platter shell, though not under the platter itself. With the tug of a Bakelite knob, that metal sliver rises just high enough to lift the shell free of the spinning platter, allowing it to pause.

But some enthusiasts believe that the real heart of the 124 is its platter bearing, which comprises a hefty steel well bolted to the Thorens' cast-alloy chassis from beneath, and a 0.55"-diameter, tool-steel bearing axle that's fastened to the platter. The bearing well contains a steel ball, which is accommodated by a recess machined into the end of the brilliantly polished axle; sintered bronze sleeves and an oil bath complete the picture. Other, fancier platter-bearing designs have come and gone in the nearly half-century since this one debuted, but few have equaled it, and none has put it to shame.

Which brings us to the heart of another matter: Given that the TD 124 went out of production while LBJ was still in the White House (footnote 2), you might well wonder how its various parts hold up. Assuming that a brand-new TD 124 could compete with the best contemporary players in a performance sense—and I hope to tackle that question before too much longer—it's reasonable to ask how close the performance of a decades-old 124 can be brought to that of a brand-new sample.

Luckily, the 124 has some real engineers among its following. In the same sense that the Garrard 301 has attracted the talents of England's Terry O'Sullivan and his Loricraft Corporation—which now owns the rights to the Garrard trade name—a German company called Norma-Hylee-Tech (N-H-T) has been drawn to the Thorens cause.

The two young founders of N-H-T, Norbert Mahler and Hyun Lee, have designed an impressive plinth for the TD 124, as well as a complementary 12" tonearm called the Trionius. More to the point, they devote a great deal of their professional time to buying and refurbishing old 124s, in some instances using brand-new parts of their own design and manufacture. The finished product, referred to as the N-H-T Concept 124, is distributed in America by Brinkmann USA, alongside that company's own record player. That alone must give the old flat-response geezers a bad case of the vapors: Two points of view from one company! Horrors!

Lawrence Blair of Brinkmann USA brought me a review sample of the N-H-T Concept 124 late last year, and it's taken me a while to get a handle on it. For one, only two types of phono cartridge are approved for use in the Trionius arm at this time: versions of the legendary Ortofon SPU series with integral headshells, and a version of the basic EMT moving-coil cartridge, likewise built (by N-H-T) into a dedicated headshell. That made direct comparisons to my own gear difficult, at best.

In next issue's column, I'll offer a detailed look at precisely what N-H-T does to a Thorens TD 124 once they get their hands on it, and I'll do my best to describe the sound that continues to attract young and old audiophiles alike to this unique approach to playing records. And believe me: This style of player has a sound all its own, one that contains pieces of the truth that I think we may have been missing all along.

Vale, Kondo-san
Before there was a Lamm ML2 power amplifier—or a Halcro dm58, or a Naim 500, or a Wavelength Cardinal—there was the Audio Note Ongaku, which has often been described as the best-sounding audio amplifier ever made. My friend Herb Reichert, who was Audio Note's US distributor for a time, loaned me an Ongaku for a few days in 1996, and I'll never forget the experience. Until just a couple of years ago, it was the best amp I'd ever heard—but saying even that doesn't do justice to either the Ongaku's qualities or the artistry behind it. Listening to an Ongaku in 1996 was like my first trip to a gallery after a lifetime of clipping pictures out of magazines.

The following January, Herb introduced me to the Ongaku's creator, Hiroyasu Kondo, while the two of them were having a cigarette outside their CES exhibition room at the Alexis Park Hotel. I expected Prospero but got Ariel: a slight, kindly man whose playful spirit was unmistakable, despite all the foreign words and phrases.

Hiroyasu Kondo's ideas on music reproduction continue to thrive in products made by Audio Note and by the company that now bears his name. He passed away in January, at the Alexis Park. In an industry populated with too few visionaries as it is, his loss was one we couldn't afford, and our hobby is unfixably poorer. I wish him Godspeed on his journey.

Footnote 2: Note to Gerald Posner: I am not suggesting a link.