A Wee Dram of Scotch: Linn Products' Ivor Tiefenbrun

More than 20 years ago, when the turntable was considered a perfectly neutral component in the playback chain, Ivor Tiefenbrun single-handedly demonstrated to the world that the turntable was not only an important part of a hi-fi system, but perhaps the most important part. That radical idea was the basis for the legendary Linn Sondek LP12 turntable, the product that launched Linn, and which is still in production 22 years later.

Ivor also had some unconventional ideas about music reproduction and what a hi-fi system should do—ideas often at odds with the traditional view of "high-end" audio. His message was so powerful and influential that Linn began to be seen almost as a cult. Cult or not, Ivor's company, Linn Products, grew from its tiny beginning to being one of the largest hi-fi companies in the UK, and Ivor was recently made a Member of the British Empire, an official honor, by Her Majesty the Queen.

We had the opportunity to spend some time with Ivor during separate trips we made in 1992 and 1993 to Linn's unique factory in Scotland, and also on a visit he made to Santa Fe last February on his way to the official opening of the Linn store in Chicago (footnote 1). Ivor is outspoken, irreverent, highly opinionated, a brilliant and original thinker, and one of the most fascinating conversationalists either of us has met.

Robert Harley: Why did you enter the hi-fi business with, of all things, a turntable?

Ivor Tiefenbrun: Well, like everything in life, it was an accident. When I grew up, we had a hi-fi system in our home. My dad was a hi-fi enthusiast. When I got married it was natural to put a hi-fi very near the top of my list of things I needed.

I rented a two-ring gas cooker for a fiver just to do until we bought one, and bought a clothesrack to hang my clothes on. We moved into a completely empty house without a stick of furniture. I went out and bought a hi-fi system that cost the price of a good small car. My wife was utterly appalled. She said, "We don't have any chairs to sit on." I said, "We don't need any chairs. We've got all we need—we've got music." You can do lots of things to music: you can dance, make love, relax—you have a bed, you have a floor. If we had to start again, we'd do the same thing.

But, inevitably, I discovered that the system wasn't as good as I thought it should be. It didn't compare with the system my father had. I noticed—I wasn't trying to notice—that if I listened through headphones with the speakers on and the speakers off, it would change the sound. I thought that was ridiculous—it meant that the turntable was being affected by the output of the loudspeakers. So I put the turntable outside the door and confirmed that that was the case. I thought this was nonsense. It was that feedback aspect of the turntable's performance that made me decide I would build my own.

Because I worked in my late father's engineering company, I had the ability to make a turntable. It was a tremendously well-equipped shop—still is. And so I made a turntable. I didn't have a wow & flutter meter, so I had someone measure it for me. He told me he'd never seen anything as good.

When I took it home and listened to it, it sounded much the same as the turntable I had. I thought I was missing something. I went to a man by the name of Jim Kerr and told him that I wanted to see how they make records. He had worked for Decca off and on for many, many years and had actually built my father's system. Although I knew how records were made, it was only when I actually looked at the process that I realized that the scale of the problem was beyond solution. The amount of information on a record pretty much guaranteed that it would be forever irretrievable.

Jim told me that the bearing system I was using wasn't good enough. He suggested the [single-point] bearing design that we still use in the LP12.

I slowly came to grips with other issues. I discovered that the recording process was a closed process. In other words, all relative movement between the cutter, the stylus, and the acetate [master] surface will leave its imprint on the acetate. So the playback process was open to an infinite scope for loss. I then started a long process of screwing about with turntables.

I foolishly assumed that if the thing measured better, it should sound better. I also assumed that if it didn't sound any better, there was no point in buying it. But I worked on the basis that you have to get more information off the record, and make the turntable immune to feedback. That was very different from the view that persisted at that time in the hi-fi industry. I ended up with a turntable that would improve the sound of any hi-fi system—which I thought was the minimum objective.

I discovered that people were very reluctant to believe that that was possible. I thought that once people saw that it was possible, it would incite them. It incited a kind of resistance rather than enthusiasm. [laughs]

Footnote 1: See "Industry Update," April '94 (Vol.17 No.4, p.37).—JA