The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CXI: Ten Turntables to Lust After
I've wanted to do this since I started writing this column back in 1998. I wanted to make a complete list of ten turntables that I really, really wanted to own one day, an analog bucket list so to speak. I'm glad I waited more than 18 years to do it since I've heard so many different analog rigs just in the last couple of years and the finalists have changed dramatically. The recent Vinyl Revival has fomented some very real changes in analog design--direct-drive, for example, is emerging as a dominant approach in the upper echelons of the industry, while very affordable yet well-designed ‘tables are within the reach of nearly every music lover. Every time I turn around there's a new turntable brand on the market claiming some new technological breakthrough, a new King of the Mountain/Flavor of the Month, and suddenly I'm obsessed with that product until the next shiny object comes along.
If I had created this list for the second or third Vinyl Anachronist column all those years ago, I might have come up with an interesting list with some pretty compelling analog rigs on it. But I feel confident that not one of those 1998 turntables would make it onto my 2016 list. It's not so much that turntables have improved that much in the last two decades. In fact, several of the turntables on this list were available in 1998. Some of them were even available in 1968--many vinyl lovers are discovering the sonic strengths hiding in older designs from Thorens, Lenco, Garrard, EMT, Commonwealth and even Technics. But my tastes have changed considerably over the years, and my knowledge has hopefully increased.
Another reason for wanting to make this list now, in 2016, stems from a bit of restlessness. Over the last couple of years I've been throwing out subtle references about "getting off the audio merry-go-round" and finding "a system for my retirement." I'm quite a few years away from that scenario, but I am starting to think about the last turntable I ever want to own, and what that will be. Hmmmmmm.
My current analog rig--a Unison Giro turntable and arm and a Transfiguration Axia cartridge--is quite superb and it makes me happy. Now that I'm distributing The Wand tonearm from New Zealand, I'll probably throw one of those on the Giro and raise the bar. But is this really the last turntable I will ever own? Don't I want to try living with a beautifully restored idler-drive turntable? Maybe one of the newer direct-drive designs that make me doubt that belt-drive ‘tables are really the way to go--despite what I've said all these years? Maybe I just want something big and clunky and heavy that takes three people to lift. I crave something different, something I haven't had before.
So after years of editing and rearranging the list in my head and having my audio perceptions continually challenged, I'm ready to make the list. Before I do so, I want to make one thing clear. This is not a list of the Ten Best Turntables, or anything like that. All ten of these turntables fulfill the following criteria:1. I dig it. That means there's something about this turntable that really appeals to me, such as its looks, the way it works or even the story behind it.That said, let's get to the list:
2. I like the sound of it. As I've said dozens of times, everyone has different preferences when it comes to sound. Some people want to hear every bit of musical information buried in the grooves of an LP, and others want to be hand-delivered to a sonic la-la land wrapped in the warmest, softest blanket imaginable. Those two things are seldom the same.
3. I've heard it. I'm not fantasizing about photos in a magazine. I've had "seat time" with each one of these ‘tables, so I know they provide the type of experience I'm looking for. So if you're mad at me for not including your turntable on the list, chances are I just haven't spent enough time with it to form a solid opinion. Drop me a line and I'll send you my shipping address.
10. Rega RP10 turntable with RB-2000 tonearm
(Photos courtesy of Rega Research)
From a practical standpoint, this is the turntable on the list that I'm most likely to actually buy one day. It's relatively inexpensive, especially since it includes the Rega RB-2000 arm which retails for $2000 on its own. With its outer plinth in place, which is necessary when you want to use the dust cover, the RP10 looks fairly ordinary in a shiny, glossy sort of way. Remove the outer plinth and you'll reveal the RP10 in its skeletal form--a light, sleek and minimalist ‘table that provides a lightning fast sound and a clarity that's unheard of in an analog rig at this price.
It's simple, sounds great and looks totally bitchin'. What else do I need?
Cartridge recommendation: Rega includes their low-output MC cartridge, the Apheta, as a package deal so you'll save some money. But I've always loved Dynavector cartridges with Rega, and the XV-1 was the one I used with the former Rega flagship, the Planar 9, and it really impressed the hell out of me.
9. Audio Note TT-Two Deluxe turntable
(Photo courtesy of Part-Time Audiophile)
I've always loved this modest-looking British turntable because it's a wolf in sheep's clothing. Based on the Systemdek II turntable, which was a relatively affordable rig that was available in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Audio Note TT-Two Deluxe takes that very basic design to the nth degree by using two AC motors to spin the platter instead of one. Those two motors, placed on opposite sides of the spindle, balance the energy within the ‘table so that vibrations are almost completely isolated from the spindle and the platter. That makes the TT-Two Deluxe and uncommonly quiet turntable.
It's an unobtrusive ‘table that sounds like one of those enormous, ornate analog monsters that fetch five figures or more and completely dominate your listening room.
Cartridge and arm recommendation: Audio Note, along with Shindo, is one of the rare audio companies where I would readily assemble a system with only that one brand. So it makes perfect sense to use an Audio Note arm, an Audio Note cartridge, an Audio Note step up transformer, Audio Note amplification and Audio Note speakers, all wired up with Audio Note cable.
8. Linn Sondek LP-12 turntable
(photo courtesy Linn.co.uk)
The legendary Linn makes the list because, quite simply, I've always told myself that "one day I really want to own a Linn LP-12." Introduced back in 1973 at a cost of around $360, this Scottish turntable is available with so many upgrades and accessories that a fully loaded LP-12 in 2016 with arm, cartridge and outboard motor will cost you nearly $20,000. There are plenty of LP12's flooding the used market, making them potentially a great bargain, but there is a caveat--Linns are notoriously difficult to set-up and need to be adjusted periodically, an issue that seems to be compounded with the age of the unit.
So why would I go to all of this trouble? Linn owners tend to get emotionally attached to the Linn experience as much the same as Jaguar owners get attached to their vehicles. On paper, it may not offer the finest performance, but it's an arrow through the heart.
Cartridge and arm recommendation: Like Audio Note, I'd take advantage of the synergy of a Linn arm and cartridge--they were meant to work well together.
7. EMT 930 turntable
(photo courtesy jpvanvliet.nl)
The very first time I ever saw this German ‘table, I thought "what is that ugly, industrial looking thing?" This was at a high-end audio show many years ago, and I had never heard of Elektro-Mess-Technik turntables, arms and cartridges despite the fact that they were considered the finest transcription turntables all through Europe throughout the second half of the 20th century. The idler-drive EMT 930 and its bigger and stranger-looking brother, the EMT 927, are indeed curiously industrial creatures with exposed innards and a plinth that looks like it was cobbled from left-over parts of an old erector set. That's because they weren't meant to look pretty, they were meant to provide the most stable platform for vinyl records possible--and to be set into studio fixtures. They were, at the time, an expression of the finest German engineering.
Once I heard that 930 at the hi-fi show start playing music, I shut up about the looks. I couldn't believe how solid and precise the imaging was on this unwieldy beast, and how that overall sound was so direct and had so much emotional impact.
Cartridge and arm recommendations: Again it makes sense to go with EMT arms and cartridges. While EMT hasn't made turntables in many years, they still make their elegant banana-shaped tonearms and their cartridges.
6. Kodo the Beat turntable
(photo courtesy of part-time audiophile)
This is the ‘table that finally made me reconsider my biases against direct drive. The massive Kodo, designed by the affable Steve Dobbins, is one of those newer direct-drive designs that are able to isolate motor noise from the spindle and the platter through clever engineering. Clever engineering comes at a price, and The Beat is not cheap. But it looks like it's worth every penny--it weighs 104 pounds. The platter alone, with its beautiful copper top layer, weighs over 22 pounds on its own.
My Austin audiophile buddy Arnie Sanders has one, and I was gobsmacked at the huge, almost limitless soundstage and the sheer heft of the lower frequencies. Plus, there's that incredible speed stability that only the best direct drive systems can achieve!
Cartridge and arm recommendations: Arnie has a Reed arm and several cartridges, so I might consider that. But with such a solid platform, any quality arm/cartridge combo will achieve its potential.
5. Wilson Benesch ACT One/Breuer 8 tonearm
(photo courtesy AudioEnz/The Vinyl Anachronist)
For many years this was my dream ‘table and arm combo. About fifteen years ago I heard this particular rig at a trade show in a room manned by Globe Distribution, a now-defunct Canadian importer. It was clearly the finest-sounding analog rig I'd heard up to that point, with plenty of three-dimensional textures and exquisite tonality. Then I heard the same rig at a different trade show two years later, and I still couldn't get enough of it. Then one day I got a call from Globe Distribution--they knew I loved this turntable and wanted to sell it to me for $10,000. I couldn't quite swing that price, even though it was a fantastic deal--the WB retailed for about $6000 at the time, and the Breuer arm cost about $8000. It's The Turntable That Got Away.
The ACT One was only available for a few years and it's hard to find used ones. The Breuer tonearms were made one at a time by a Swiss gentleman who appears to have retired (although the current Brinkmann arms are based on his designs), and they might have been one of the finest tonearms ever made.
Cartridge recommendations: I heard this combo with both a Koetsu Rosewood Signature and an EMT--both excelled. But I would lean toward the Koetsu for a lush, seductive sound beyond belief.
4. Saskia II turntable
(Photo courtesy of Part-Time Audiophile)
Idler-drive design with no pulleys? Check? 275-pound plinth made from solid slate that takes three guys to lift? Check. A solid, authoritative sound that has haunted me ever since I heard it at the Rocky Mountain Audio Show last October? Check. Win Tinnon's behemoth is beautiful in both its sound and its looks, and for me it's a completely convincing argument for the superiority of high-mass turntables. Such a stable, immovable platform can only do one thing--support the integrity and structure of every music note. The only reason this isn't #1 on this list is because my time with it was all too brief. But for about an hour, I felt like this was the greatest turntable I've ever heard.
This is the ultimate turntable for getting off the merry-go-round--because once it's set down it's never going to be moved again.
Recommended arm and cartridge: The Saskia II was equipped with a Scroeder CB tonearm and an Ikeda KA-1 MC cartridge. Why mess with perfection?
3. Audio Union Helix One Turntable Designed by Mark Doehmann
(Photo courtesy Rafe Arnott and Part-Timke Audiophile)
I do know this $40,000 super ‘table really well. In fact, I'll never forget it. That's because I almost killed it. We used the massive Helix One in our Down Under Audio exhibit at the Newport Show this year, and it sounded utterly musical in every conceivable way. Its ingenious suspension completely isolates it from its environment so that you can actually grab the plinth with your hands and shake the turntable while it's playing, and the needle will remain in the groove, playing perfectly. Unfortunately, I thought that feature meant the Helix One was indestructible--so when I picked it up and moved it a few inches on the equipment rack I almost damaged its innards because it needs to be disassembled before moving. Yikes! Fortunately, I didn't kill the $40,000 turntable.
That said, we were honored to use this incredible ‘table in our system, and I'm forever grateful to Audio Union even though I'm pretty sure they've put a contract out on me.
Recommended arm and cartridge: A little self-promotion: we achieved great results with The Wand tonearm from New Zealand that I now distribute in the US. We used a 12" version of the new master Series. I also used my Transfiguration Axia cartridge in this system, but I'd probably move up to the top-of-the-line Proteus on a rig such as this.
2. Neumann PA2 turntable
Photo courtesy analogplanet.com/youtube.com)
I heard one of these rare gems many years ago, and I didn't even know what I was listening to. The Neumann is considered by many as one of the finest turntable designs ever--every bit of engineering is brilliant from its dual idler drives to the location of the motor to the solid plinth that absorbs all vibrations better than most modern ‘tables out there. It looks extremely modest to the untrained eye, but this turntable is almost without peer. It's also extremely rare--there may be less than two dozen of them on the entire planet. I don't know how I lucked out and heard one those many years ago, and I didn't appreciate it at the time, but if I was able to buy one now I would listen to it every day for the rest of my life.
But that might be a pipe dream--I recently saw a Neumann PA2 for sale that looked like they dropped it off a ten-story apartment building and they still wanted $6000 for it. And they got it.
Arm and cartridge recommendations: As stock as possible, with the best modern cartridge I could afford--after blowing my fortune on the ‘table, of course.
1. Shindo Garrard 301 turntable
(image courtesy toneimports.com)
Wow. Just wow. Look at that gorgeous machine. It exudes class, precision, tradition and refinement. It looks like a museum piece yet offers sound quality that, for me, is close to state of the art. This lovingly rebuilt and restored Garrard 301 turntable, with its Shindo-modified Ortofon SPU arm and cartridge combination, is a rare masterpiece from the late Ken Shindo of Shindo Labs. I first heard this more than a decade ago when it was $19,000 complete--and while it doesn't quite have the sheer detail and resolution of the finest modern supertables, it has something more precious--the ability to perfectly convey the emotion of the performers in a unique and direct way. You want goosebumps? You'll get it with this rare and beautiful gem. Availability is questionable after its creator passed away, and it was already over $30,000 the last time I heard it, but for me the pride of ownership of the Shindo Garrard 301 surpasses anything I've ever seen.
All of these turntables are incredibly expensive, it's true--the cheapest ones hover around the $5000 range and the prices soar from there. But this is about the end of the journey, of accomplishing something in your life and buying something to celebrate it. And now you'll have to excuse me--gotta go play Powerball so I can make this happen.
Contact the Vinyl Anachronist at firstname.lastname@example.org and see his Blog site
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