Listening #61 Page 2

The sound was richly, realistically detailed, without the slightest suggestion of added brightness. The latter quality may seem obvious to the point of being silly, given the 755-C's treble limitations, yet neither did it sound as dull as I might have expected. So far, the Altec has been responsible for at least two reviewing clichés, howsoever pleasant and true: first, that of discovering some worthwhile musical detail that had previously escaped my attention, in this instance the arpeggio that guitarist Tony Rice plays behind the fiddle in the opening bars of his song "Manzanita"; and second, my mono Altec sounded very much like a mono Quad ESL, albeit with less bass extension and a greater sense of touch, impact, and drama.

It seems to me that those latter strengths are where most modern gear, by comparison, falls down altogether: During the last 25 years in particular, the specialty audio industry has made gear that sounds less colored and less spatially compromised—but a lot less interesting and exciting, especially when playing real music as opposed to sound effects.

More evidence of that admittedly broad-brush observation can be had by sampling the best record players of the 1950s and '60s—the best and most notorious examples being the Garrard 301 and Thorens TD 124 transcription turntables...

Restoring the Thorens TD124

Whenever my family travels without me, I get a glimpse of how the human mind really works: I become a danger to myself by screwing around on eBay. Just a few weeks after I bought my Altec 755-C, I found a slightly-better-than-average deal on a Thorens TD 124 Mk.II turntable, ca 1967.

I've written extensively about the original '50s-era TD 124, but my new/old Thorens is that rare Bride of Frankenstein–like sequel that improves on the original, with a nicer-looking platter mat and twice the number of motor-isolation grommets, the delightful German word for which is gummimuffen. Apart from that and a few minor cosmetic details—I prefer the original's cream-colored enamel finish to the light gray of its replacement—the Mk.II is exactly the same. Some hobbyists have suggested that, for the Mk.II, Thorens replaced the iron platter of the original with a nonmagnetic aluminum one, but the latter seems to have existed only as an extra-cost option during the late 1960s. Predictably or not, most hair-shirt anachrophiles opine that the magnetically permeable iron platter sounds much better, notwithstanding its nasty habit of destroying phono cartridges in more or less the way the planet Mars is thought to destroy exploratory spacecraft. In any event, my Mk.II has the iron platter.

Here's what happened: For over a year, I'd been on the lookout for an affordable sample of the Garrard or the Thorens, comfortable with the notion that whichever I found first would be the one I liked best. Failure followed failure until recently, when a friend alerted me to an eBay auction with a misspelled heading: Thorsens. I'd missed it for that reason, and now I hoped that everyone else had, too, thus keeping prices low. (Significantly, the seller was a camera dealer, not an audio specialist.) My dream of finding an early-1960s turntable for an early-1960s price didn't quite pan out, but I did all right. My bonus for subscribing: The Thorsens came complete with its sometimes-companion TP 14 tonearm, missing only the headshell and bearing-housing trim plate.

Happily, the seller was honest and prompt, and underbilled me for the shipping. Unhappily, he exposed his non-audio roots by packing the record player somewhat poorly. The tonearm survived—remarkably—but not so the four threaded rods that secure the chassis atop its plinth. All were bent and two were sheared off, one so close to the chassis that its removal became a tragedy in three acts: drilling a deep hole in the center of its stub and tapping it with a left-hand thread. Act III—or, as they say in Sea Cliff, Act the Third—was the judicious application of gin and vermouth.

As with the Quad ESL, a healthy support network has grown up around the Thorens TD 124 series of turntables. Of those who offer parts and service commercially, none that I know is more reliable than Lawrence Blair of Brinkmann Audio USA, who supplied the Norma-Hylee Tech Thorens rebuild that I wrote about in April and May 2006. Blair is also the North American agent for the full line of Thorens upgrades from Jürg Schopper of Winterthur, Switzerland, an analog expert whose line has expanded far beyond the nonmagnetic platter upgrade I tried some months ago. Today Herr Schopper also makes upgraded bearings (as well as bearing rebuild kits for those who don't require a full replacement), plinths, armboards, outer platters, motor rebuild kits, and, of course, gummimuffens.

To date, the work I've performed on my TD 124 has centered around cleaning it and evaluating various parts for possible replacement. I've been lucky so far: The motor brings the platter up to speed within just a few turns, there's very little play in its main bearing, and most of what I took to be dings in the enamel have turned out to be dirt, which came off easily enough with alcohol and patience. Even my gummimuffens are perfectly pliant—although the four isolation mushrooms that go between the chassis and plinth are squashed flat and rife with cracks. The belt is hopeless.

Belt? Indeed: Unlike its friend the Garrard 301, the Thorens TD 124 has a belt and an intermediate pulley between its motor and the rubber idler wheel that drives its platter. Lawrence Blair says that anyone who buys a used Thorens should play it safe and replace the belt as a matter of course, given its tendency to stretch. The good news is that you needn't worry about the idler wheel. "Unless it has a flat spot from the turntable having been stored with the idler wheel left engaged," he says, "you can safely assume that it's fine." Even more good news: The Thorens also differs from the Garrard in its use of a double motor pulley. If you buy a second-hand TD 124 that's set up for use with 50Hz AC, you don't have to buy a new pulley: Just loosen two set screws and invert the one that's already there.

Blair recommends replacing the motor's gummimuffens as a matter of course. "That should be at the top of your list: It makes an enormous difference." He also says that the Mk.II motor suspension is vastly superior to the original, and offers a Schopper update kit ($190) to bring earlier models up to spec. Finally, Blair cautions against removing the platter bearing spindle from the bearing well unless absolutely necessary: The bearing sleeves lack the vents found on more modern designs, such as those of the Linn LP12, and unless the bearing is reassembled with the utmost care, the user might blow a seal (footnote 2). The alternative: "Before trying to remove the platter, remove [from above] the three bolts that fasten it to the bearing spindle's flange."

A note to cranky elderly people who fancy themselves Thorens experts: Your point of view may differ from the above, and you may even be right. No one cares. I offer these quotes more in the spirit of helpful advice than of spotty dogma, and while you're free to do as you wish, please keep in mind that angry letters describing those differences will wind up sharing file space with essays on the proper microphone technique for recording train whistles in stereo, or missives on whether a Romulan cloaking device will function properly on a Klingon Bird of Prey.

The TP 14 Tonearm

The Thorens TP 14 tonearm, with which I was unfamiliar prior to writing this piece, turned out to be a mixed surprise. My original intention, on seeing its picture on eBay, was to discard the one that had come with my new-old turntable and replace it with a Rega RB300 arm. I changed my mind when I saw various clever aspects of its design: the calibrated downforce spring, the Naim Aro–like falling-weight bias mechanism, the offset bearings for maintaining proper headshell azimuth. I changed my mind back again when I discovered the poor conditions of those bearings, and the fact that the weird downward angle of the counterweight support on my sample was not, in fact, an intentional part of the design. (A rubber isolation grommet had dried up and crumbled away, hence the sag.) So before leaving the topic, I'll simply note that the TP 14 is, in fact, a rebadged EMT 929, which was the shorter (229mm) version of EMT's S-shaped transcription arm. Maybe I'll get it working some day.

I do own a spare RB300, so I removed the TP 14 and its many supporting devices from the nicely aged tonearm board and drilled in the board an extra hole, 23mm in diameter, some 222mm away from the center of the platter. The Rega requires no spacers for extra height, and in fact could stand being just a bit lower. Later, when I replace the now well-ventilated original board, I'll use a 32mm wood bore to countersink the arm hole from above, to lower it some. For now, I have the Thorens up and running with the non–VTA-fussy Denon DL-103 cartridge in its headshell.

Even with a crappy belt—and without any isolation grommets between chassis and plinth—my Thorens sounded promising. The kettle drum that announces the woodwind chorale in the first movement of Mahler's Symphony 6, with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (Columbia 77215), sounded punchier and weightier on the cobbled-together TD 124 than on my Linn LP12. Then again, Neil Young's "When You Dance I Can Really Love," from After the Gold Rush (Reprise 6383), had more momentum on the Linn. (Forgive me if, in light of the revelations surrounding Larry "Family Values" Craig, I refrain from using the phrase "toe-tapping." For the rest of my life.)

I'll keep working on it. I've ordered a bearing rebuild kit, along with a new armboard and various other bits—in addition to which, I may have a chance to perform a before-and-after review on the motor-rebuilding service offered by the estimable Jürg Schopper. (Danke!) The thing is, I'm having a hell of a lot of fun—you know how I feel about that—and I'm enjoying listening to recorded music more than ever. And I'm hoping that those who learn their history might just be lucky enough to repeat it.

Footnote 2: In my current favorite joke, more or less the same observation is spoken by a penguin.