The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XCVI: Finding Nirvana--Interview with Dave Archambault of Vinyl Nirvana
I've mused in the past about getting off the audio merry-go-round, about buying that last audio system I will ever buy in my life and then retiring to the countryside where I'll spend the rest of my golden years listening to RCA Shaded Dog LP's, UHQRs and Three Blind Mice LP's--the original pressings, of course. In the vision I have for that last system, my analog source is usually a gorgeously rebuilt vintage turntable such as a Garrard 301 or a Thorens TD-124 or a Lenco. It looks like the day it rolled off the assembly line, except for the fact that it's been dropped into some giant wooden plinth that's made out of some exotic wood with a name like bubinga or wenge or padauk .
Or who knows--maybe I'll get a beautifully restored direct-drive Technics SP-10 and piss off the 1200 Army for good. I'd seriously put it on my short list.
At any rate, turntables like that are not that hard to find in 2014. They do, however, come at a price--a price that sometimes has five digits in it. I like to think that if I had all the money in the world, I'd probably spring for the granddaddy of them all, the Shindo Labs Garrard 301, as that final analog source. It's the price of a new Honda Accord, but at least that's including the Ortofon SPU cartridge and Ortofon/Shindo arm. I can easily picture myself with white hair, stooped shoulders and a glass of Lagavulin in my left hand as my right hand cues up my MFSL Doolittle LP (Ken Shindo of Shindo Labs sadly passed away a few weeks ago, which means new Shindo 301s are going to disappear and the existing ones will skyrocket in price. That's too bad, because those were genuine works of art. They sound absolutely wonderful, too).
Fortunately, there are more reasonable options for perfectly restored vintage turntables. For a long time, I've been championing David Archambault and his Vinyl Nirvana site. Vinyl Nirvana has been around for almost as long, if not longer than the Vinyl Anachronist--Dave says he started the website around 2002. I forgot who originally turned me onto the Vinyl Nirvana website, but I immediately bookmarked it once I saw all of Dave's amazing restoration projects. I was particularly fascinated with all of his AR turntable restorations--I've owned both an AR-XA and an ES-1 and I'm still a big fan of these designs. In fact, I never really gave Thorens much due until I spoke with a friend about an old TD-160 Super that Dave restored. That friend told me he preferred his Thorens slightly over the Michelle Orbe SE/SME V/Koetsu Rosewood analog rig I had back then. I thought he was nuts back then--now, I'm not so sure. Vintage tables, in my opinion, have meaty, direct sound that's a tempting alternative to the high-performance 'tables designed over the last couple of decades.
Based out of New Hampshire, Dave's been restoring old Thorens and AR turntables with uncommon attention to detail and performance. He isn't trying to transform them into glowing, jewel-laden machines that cater to the 1%--he's trying to get them close to their original pristine condition as possible. Like car restoration specialists, Vinyl Nirvana is all about keeping it stock. Best of all, these beautiful turntables aren't as costly as a new car--more like a new bicycle.
That doesn't mean David reins in his imagination while bringing these beautiful machines into the 21st century. His plinths, while beautifully understated, do sport such gorgeous hardwoods as zebrawood , Caribbean rosewood and yes, paduak (needless to say, those hardwood bases weren't available back in the '60's and '70's). After Dave performs his magic, these turntables look elegant, modern and as close to perfect as a complicated piece of machinery built fifty to sixty years ago can be.
PSF: So tell us, how did your love for turntable restoration begin?
Dave Archambault: From my early teen years, I've enjoyed tinkering with electronics. Being the youngest of five, as the older siblings would move on, I'd be the one to confiscate the leftover broken audio equipment and repair it if I could. As an adult, this transformed into early Saturday morning yard sale expeditions looking for pieces to upgrade my system or to help out friends. Eventually, with the advent of eBay, I was able to purchase with less effort and more discrimination. That's when I started to focus on mainly turntables. Their main appeal to me has always been the mechanical aspect: how each small thing can affect the sound in much the same way as tuning a musical instrument.
PSF: How's business at Vinyl Nirvana? It seems like the word is getting out about what you do, but are you still feeling the effects of the latest Vinyl Renaissance?
DA: In June, it will be three years doing this full-time. Before that I was a full-time educator and just ran the business as a way to de-stress. Business has steadily increased since going full-time. Due to some great advice early on, I resisted the temptation to spread out into other areas, and I have kept the focus on mainly the suspended sub-chassis belt-driven turntables. I am the "AR and Thorens guy." With a little research on the Internet, people researching turntables can discover these are two quality brands, and then a couple of clicks later they are on the Vinyl Nirvana website. It's hard for me to discern whether my increase in business is due solely to the "Renaissance" or because I am also offering many more turntables on any given day. There is certainly no doubt that this Renaissance is alive in the media, however.
PSF: It seems like you're a one-man show at times--buying, selling, restoring and getting the word out about Vinyl Nirvana--but you must have some kind of support staff... right?
DA: I definitely have great support. First of all, my wife who has allowed me to almost completely take over the basement of our home and who has been incredibly understanding of the time needed to establish and sustain a small business. Then there is my plinth maker Vinny Pace with whom I've been friends for over 30 years. His superb craftsmanship has definitely taken my turntables to a new level. My web designer for both Vinyl Nirvana and my sister website Vintage Thorens is Andre Gagnon, another person with whom I've been friends my whole life. Then I have a great relationship with my machinist Bill Fisher, and a whole host of other small businesses in the Seacoast New Hampshire. I sometimes joke that I am really a general contractor for someone's turntable project, and in a sense, that is really true. I have people with care and expertise working in the areas that are not my strengths. And then I am the one who does final assembly of all of the completed parts, and, of course, I provide the customer service.
PSF: Over the years, I've received countless emails asking me for specific recommendations for vintage turntables. The budget, however is often miniscule. Which vintage turntables, when properly restored, compete with entry level 'tables in the $300 to $500 range from the likes of Music Hall, Pro-Ject and Rega?
DA: There is lots of helpful info out there on getting the maximum performance from an AR XA, the first turntable AR introduced in the early '60's. It is very easy to work on, and with a small amount of careful work, they can be made to perform at a high level. In the Thorens line, often the TD-165, TD-166 MKII and TD-150 can be had for less than $300 and brought up to snuff easily.
PSF: Outside of the usual Garrard 301s and 401s, Thorens TD-124s and TD-160s and AR ES-1s, what vintage turntables should prospective buyers look for? Any "diamonds in the rough" that few people know about?
DA: I think the Dual top-of-the-line idler drives like the 1019, 1219, and 1229 are exceptional tables. However, in buying one, you need to figure in the cost of sending it to someone to be restored. They are known for getting gummed up and getting these back in shape is no work for the weak of heart. So again, these models can be had cheaply, but I advise speaking to one of the great Dual restoring companies out there about the potential costs before you do. Besides the Dual idlers, as I mentioned above, the Thorens TD-150 is often overlooked among the Thorens seekers.
PSF: Say someone just found an old Garrard, Thorens or AR turntable at a yard sale for a few bucks and it's in terrible shape--but there's definite potential. If they contact you to get the turntable restored to as close to its original condition as possible, what does that usually entail? How much does the average restoration cost? How long does it usually take?
DA: At this time, I am just the AR and Thorens guy, but with a few clicks it's pretty easy to find experts to work on the other major brands. My typical restoration is $175 plus shipping each way. I try not to nickel and dime people to death, so that price includes most of the things I typically see that need replacement on their specific model. There are certain models which require work of a greater depth, and you can read about those on my restoration page. Typical turnaround in the fall to winter months is 5 to 6 weeks. In spring and summer, it's 3 to 4 weeks.
PSF: After spending a few minutes on your website, the average Internet surfer will quickly learn that you champion the art of proper boxing and shipping of turntables. What tips can you give a turntable shipper so that it arrives at its destination intact?
DA: The most important thing is to secure the heavy platter and the tonearm. Before you ship, figure out how exactly the platter is attached. If it removes easily, do so and wrap it in padded material, placing it in the bottom of the box under a piece of cardboard. With the tonearm, just use a bread tie or elastic band to attach it to the armrest. Finally, it's important to double box in sturdy boxes.
PSF: You've talked about shipping nightmares with improperly packed turntables, and you've mentioned all the "horror stories." What's the single worst shipping disaster you've received at Vinyl Nirvana?
DA: About two years ago, a customer was sending their top-of-the-line Thorens TD-125 with SME 3009 arm to me for restoration. They had initially sent me pictures and the unit was quite nice. I sent the owner packing instructions, but for one reason or another they either didn't get them or didn't read them. So, as warned above, they left the heavy outer platter in place, as if by some magic it would stay there while handled by conveyor belts and delivery persons halfway across the country. Of course, the platter came off, shearing off the motor pulley and causing cosmetic damage to the tonearm and the top plate. It was a mess. After learning the cost of restoring the table, they decided to sell it to me for parts. Sad.
PSF: What are some of the happy turntable stories, the positive ones about why the customer is getting back into vinyl?
DA: My favorite stories are the family ones. Most often it is a son who has inherited his father's turntable and wants to have it restored to its former glory. To work with someone like that, and then to get the final e-mail after the turntable is running again in that person's home, is really gratifying. There have also been many instances where a wife or girlfriend has wanted to surprise their significant other with a restored turntable. Often that involves an education process before the sale, and then working through the details from picking the right turntable to eventually helping with set up. Again, those e-mails are incredibly gratifying that describe the surprise and satisfaction of the recipient. Finally, I have had the luck and privilege to sell to a couple of musicians with whom I have great respect: Ben Folds and Ray LaMontagne. It is still surreal to me that each of those artists is playing their LP's on a Vinyl Nirvana turntable.
PSF: What, in your opinion, was the most satisfying turntable restoration project you performed in terms of ultimate sound quality? What was the single turntable you rebuilt that you really wanted to keep for yourself and you hated to see it go out the door?
DA: The most satisfying projects have been the Thorens TD–125 Long Base reproductions. In the late '60's and early '70's, Thorens produced a very small number of TD-125 with a longer base to accommodate 12 inch tonearms. I was made aware of this about five years ago by a repeat customer for whom this was his Holy Grail turntable. Well, after a year of fruitless searching, I began to research exactly what were the differences, and it turns out that the only difficult part to replicate was the front fascia plate. So I worked with a local sheet metal manufacturer and a silk screening company to get a quality replica made.
Featuring 12 inch arms by SME or Ortofon, these have been the best sounding tables I have produced. I started out capping sales at just three in 2012 and 2013, but for 2014 we are going to create a total of six. At some point, I will definitely be keeping one of these for myself.
PSF: A properly restored vintage turntable can provide incredible sound quality, and many people feel that they can be competitive with today's modern high-end turntables. But to me, as well as a few others, vintage turntables do sound "different"--but not in a bad way. What differences do you hear, and what can your audiophile clients expect when they make the switch to vintage?
DA: Again, my focus is on the suspended subchassis, belt driven vintage turntables. I personally believe this was the pinnacle of turntable design. I believe that each of the main turntable designs out there are capable of excellent sound, but only these suspended subchassis, belt driven tables exhibit a characteristic sound from the lowest model to the highest. What I personally hear, that I don't hear to the same degree in other designs, is an "airiness" around the notes of any given instrument or voice. There is a musicality there I don't consistently hear in other designs. Only those with a suspended subchassis.
PSF: Here's the "kids" question I keep asking everyone in my interviews--are you seeing a lot of young people buying your vintage restored turntables? What do they tell you when they're describing why they are interested in turntables that are older than they are--or even their parents in some cases?
DA: Unfortunately, because most of my packages start over $400 these days, I don't get as many customers in their teens and 20's as I would like. I do get inquiries, and I try to steer them in the direction of finding something on Craigslist that will get them started. Most of them are not specifically looking for vintage, they're just looking for an inexpensive way to get into vinyl, and vintage often provides that. My guess is their interest is piqued by the media frenzy around vinyl right now. Turntables are pretty invasive at the moment: watching a recent NFL game, I saw a turntable in an iPhone ad, a Toyota ad, and then McDonald's! That's pretty amazing for 2014 when you consider the medium was pretty dead just 15 years ago. So I think there's a curiosity out there built by the sudden appearance of them in so many places.
PSF: While you go into explicit detail on your website about why your clients should invest in one of your restored turntables, what's the single biggest reason to do so--in your opinion?
DA: Value. You simply can't get the machining quality today that these turntables provide at their price point. For example, the contemporary Thorens company offers a suspended subchassis, belt driven turntable, but it starts at over $3000 without a tonearm. When I looked closely at that table, the quality is good, but still doesn't approach what you find in these tables from the mid-60s through the early '80's. There was so much competition in that era, every company trying to outdo the other. It really produced exceptional quality, and that is shown in the fact they are still going strong 40 years later.
DA: There must be a vast difference between owning your own small business and being part of public education, What challenges have you had in reconciling the two?
PSF: In reality, there is no reconciliation. As I mentioned earlier, working on vintage turntables was a way for me to relieve the stress of my educational career. Nothing would help me to forget a bad day than getting my head lost in a project. Though being a teacher and principal is a very public job, I have always considered myself an introvert. That public part of the job never came easily to me. Now, I spend the majority of each day isolated in my workshop and that aspect suits me just fine. I enjoy the interaction by phone and e-mail regarding turntable projects, and I enjoy the small community that has been created on Facebook and various audio forums. Also, I recently did a presentation on the history of sound reproduction for some fifth grade classes at a local elementary school. I'm thinking that at some point expanding in that direction will help to fill what once was a full-time career in education.
PSF: What do you have planned for the future? Any changes, special projects or incredible deals?
DA: Two years ago, I introduced the VN-150, which is a Thorens TD–150 with an extended base making it more Linn LP-12 sized. Extending the armboard of the original unit, and placing it in a three-quarter inch hardwood plinth, has brought that to a table that's capable of extraordinary sound for its price point. An LP-12 today sells for thousands and thousands of dollars, but this VN-150, at just $1500 plus shipping with a nice Cardas-rewired Rega arm, gives it a run for its money. Yet, instead of buying from a giant corporation or conglomerate, you are getting the individually tailored buying experience I provide, which includes up to one hour of phone help in set up if needed.
The other change is I am working with a local semi-retired audio tech to sell more tables in the $400 to $600 range. As mentioned above, the Dual 1019, 1219, and 1229 models. He services them, then I detail them and present them for sale.
If you would like to see the amazing turntable restorations performed by Vinyl Nirvana, please check out Dave's website at www.vinylnirvana.com
Contact the Vinyl Anachronist at firstname.lastname@example.org and see his Blog site
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