The Big Turntable Comparison
In this review I will be comparing various turntable systems: Direct Drive, Belt drive, Linear tracking arm and Pivot arm
Trivial it may be, but the kick starter for this review (and various other reviews along with it) was a humble Technics J3 linear tracking turntable, brought along by a friend to get me started on the turntable part of the Artesania Turntable Platforms review in a time when I only used digital. The diminutive J3 is nowhere near high end, but did already showe my digital front end a thing or two about emotional involvement. The J3 in turn started a comparison between the best of the Technics Linear Trackers such as the SL7 and SL10, which eventually led to me investigating the big linear trackers of the time (~1982), such as the Yamaha PX2 and Pioneer PL-L1000, throwing in various pivot-arm players as well, such as the Thorens TD166MKII, Avid Volvere, Technics SL1210 and Linn LP12.
My friend JW, who has all his life been faithful to his humble Thorens TD160MKII, was amused to see me return to analog, even if it was in the shape of these seemingly gimmicky Technics turntables. Although JW agreed that the SL10 and SL7 were indeed putting up some serious competition for my best CD player (Wadia 781i), he wasn’t really convinced of their quality in an absolute sense. After all, we could only compare them to my digital sources. Although the theoretical advantages of Linear Tracking (when done well, and the aging players are still operating within spec) seem to speak for themselves, the theoretical differences between my Linear Tracking Technics SL7 and JW’s Pivot-armed Thorens TD160MKII, remained a point for discussion for some time. Incidentally the SL7 when new, cost almost double the entry price for a Thorens TD160MKII, and the SL10 cost even more. Although prices generally don’t mean much, in this case they do indicate that in spite of their toy-like appearance, they are to be taken seriously.
I have been looking for a Pioneer PL-L1000, and the same day that I found one, I also found a TD160MKII in excellent shape for a good price, and even in the neighborhood of the PL-L1000, so I decided to just pick up both players on the same trip. Even if I wasn’t really interested in owning a Thorens, at least this would allow me to make direct comparisons, and put an end to the theorizing. You see, up until the moment of comparison, I was fully convinced that my Technics SL7 would easily beat the Thorens on all accounts except for refinement and maybe treble air, but interestingly, the Thorens turned out to be a real gem. Please see the comparisons below.
Linn LP12 Akurate introduction
Of course, when you say Thorens, automatically you think of the ultimate incarnation of the classic belt driven sub chassis principle, in the shape of the Linn Sondek LP12. Linn were kind enough to supply an LP12 Akurate for review, via their Amsterdam dealer Concerto Audio.
The LP12 came to existence after Thorens had already made a name for themselves for their excellent turntables and it is rumored that the LP12 was in fact based on the Thorens TD150 but improved in all aspects. Whether or not this is true I guess we will never know, but Linn themselves at least claim that their player has nothing to do with the Thorens.
In any event the TD166MKII and the LP12 are very similar in principle and in looks, having the same kind of spring suspension and sub chassis, and the same belt-drive mechanism, with all elements in the same place. However the LP12’s has a much higher level of fit and finish in every aspect, and much better materials are used. While the Thorens has a fiber-board cabinet, the Linn has a solid wood cabinet; the Thorens uses sheet metal as cabinet upside and sub chassis material; the Linn uses machined aluminum, The Thorens does have a proper platter, but the Linn’s platter and sub platter are smoother around the edges, more neatly polished and a little heavier. And of course the Linn has a bigger and closer-tolerance shaft and bearing, which the manufacturer claims is the biggest reason for the LP12’s fame. Finally there is the external Lingo power supply (not for the Basic Majik LP12 though) that creates an ultra-stable AC voltage, as opposed to a straight to wall outlet 230v AC motor in case of the Thorens.
The Akurate version of the LP12 uses a Linn Akito tonearm and is normally equipped with a Linn Klyde MC cartridge, but in my case I was delivered a Linn Adikt MM cartridge.
Above: The power light on the Lingo is incredibly bright. Because it was right in front of my viewing area, I temporarily covered it with a sticker.
Purpose of this review
As hinted at above, the kick starter for this review was actually the reviewing of the Artesania Turntable Platforms, which are used in combination with the Artesania Exoteryc audio racks. The results can be read here. But for this review I will focus on the differences between the pivoting/linear tracking and direct drive/belt drive turntable principles. Also I will describe the absolute audible differences between all players, the most interesting question of course being which player I will like best. Will it be the mammoth Yamaha PX2 or the Linn LP12? And how does the Thorens compare to the Linn? I can already tell you that I was in for some big surprises!
Due to the scale of the review, I decided to involve all my audio friends in these comparisons, divided over 2 groups in two weekends. Besides this being lots of fun, it also provided room for alternate opinions. As a result, the conclusion will also weigh in the verdicts of my friends. Interestingly, the conclusions were pretty much uniform, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Avid Volvere was kindly loaned to me by Ben Hoedjes of Studio Alkmaar, but it had been returned prior to this review taking place, so it wasn’t part of this group review. Nevertheless, I’d like to touch on it briefly. With its SME 309 arm, and outfitted with a range of cartridges (Benz Ace SH, Benz Ace lo, Grado Statement Platinum 1, Technics EPC202 and a Denon 103) the Avid’s most prominent sonic feature was its relaxed nature. It never sounded slow, but it also wasn’t in a hurry – its speed and drive were just right. It was never aggressive but did lean to the overly controlled side. Not that it was extremely analytical, but I found that regardless of cartridge and placement, and into the Musical Fidelity Vinl as well as into the Rowland Cadence, the Avid seemed to restrain dynamic contrasts, perhaps as a result of its clamp, without which, it cannot be operated. On all technical aspects, the Avid easily outclassed the Technics SL7 and SL10, but not in terms of involvement and sheer playing pleasure. I respect the Avid’s tonal balance, natural yet rich timbre and excellent bass, but ultimately it did not move me emotionally.
If you ask anyone what a typical turntable would look like, chances are that they’ll think of an SL1200. Enough has already been written about this ‘table, except that it sounds surprisingly nice even in audiophile context. Although the Technics SL7 beats it easily, still the SL1210 sounds much better than you’d expect given its low price and DJ application (which it really wasn’t designed for at first). The 1210 btw is simply a 1200 with a dark cabinet and otherwise the exact same turntable. While the 1210 is very affordable, it offers very sturdy and reliable build. I have already written more about it in the Turntable Platform reviews and the Technics comparisons, so will at this point only state that used with a variety of cartridges, the 1210 always sounds fast, dynamic and lively, as well as fluid and supple. It does not however have a very natural timbre, sounding somewhat empty and lacking colour and substance. Also, a few of my friends find basically any turntable with a Quartz Locked Direct Drive motor to sound too impulsive and creating holes between notes where the decay on long notes falls away seemingly too soon, which is not only also the case with the SL1210, but the latter is setting the record for sounding most, and I quote one of my friends: “like an automatic gun”. The Thorens was found to sound incomparably better on all aspects including the argument above, but importantly without sounding slow.
Due to its higher than average arm, this beast of a player is not happy with just any cartridge and it can for example sound a bit “meh” when partnered with a high compliance cartridge. But when partnered correctly, this is a stunningly musically involving player, with dynamics and bass to die for. The Benz ACE SH cartridge provided the most powerful bass I have yet heard from any record player, with plenty of dynamics and power, but I found the SH, as well as the older ACE Lo ultimately to be too technical and unforgiving. A match made in heaven was found in using an Audio Technica AT-33EV MC cartridge in the Yamaha’s standard head shell, playing into the Pass Labs Xono. This combination comes close to the Ace’s balls and power, but combined with the sort of refinement and fluidity typical of the better Denon MC Cartridges like the DL304, although the latter still has better treble extension and air, which the PX2 is inherently a little lacking. Set up like this, the PX-2 beats my Wadia 781i for bass, dynamics and sheer musical enjoyment. Heck, given a good record, it beats the 781i period. Going back to CD after having listened to records all night is a proper turn down. The sound of LP through the PX-2 is so much freer from the speakers, in a living, breathing manner, with images float freely in the room, while simultaneously being firmly earthed.
Two friends commented that while they thorouhly enjoyed the Yamaha’s sound, like the SL1210, the PX-2 portrayed some of the “almost too fast” quality, which is likely the result of their direct drive quartz-locked motors. I actually like this sense of speed and transient agility and liken it to a sound that marries the best of the analog and digital words. But it wasn’t until we started listening to the belt driven Thorens and Linn, that I understood better what my friends meant.
On the subject of tangential tracking, I was convinced of the advantages, even with the Technics SL7 and SL10, over pivot arms. This was not only theory, but I tested this with a variety of cartridges, and it was clear that the linear trackers had much lower distortion near the end of the record than the SL1210 or Avid Volvere. That is, until I tried the Benz SH and Audio Technica 33EV, both of which seem to track almost as well as any of the linear tracking turntables, even at the end of the record. The Benz especially seems to be helped enormously by its micro ridge stylus, sounding distortion free even on records that seem worn when playing them with other cartridges. So, it would seem that linear tracking is not necessarily better by definition than pivot arm designs, and make no mistake, it can even be worse if the adjustments are off. However a different advantage is that linear tracking turntables (the active ones at least) don’t need anti skating, which is a benefit in itself in relation to tracking accuracy, but also makes for very precise cueing because the arm isn’t pulled sideways while being lowered.
Above: the Turntable-Table. Alas it wasn’t to be enjoyed for very long because shortly after this review I moved the audio system from between the speakers to the side of the room, and only the core system could still fit.
Linn LP12 – Preface
Linn were kind enough to loan me an LP12 Akurate for these comparative reviews, via their Amsterdam dealer Concerto Audio.
I want to emphasize that it is never my intent to sable down any product, let alone the legendary LP12. Actually I was very much looking forward to it, and already took into account the possibility that I might fall for it and might have to get one for myself. I really had high expectations, but sadly, they did not come true.
First off I must explain that my particular LP12 Akurate version was equipped with an entry level Linn Adikt MM cartridge. I had asked for an MC version precisely because of this review and the higher grade cartridges in the other players, but a Klyde sadly wasn’t available. The Adikt fitted was brand spanking new, so I gave it some 8 records of playing time before carrying out the group tests. Although the other cartridges that I bought new performed great out of the box, this may not have been enough for the Adikt. Since the turntable itself is immaculately built, I cannot imagine that the results that I heard are typical of the product, but likely down to the Adikt being of less quality than the other cartridges.
Incidentally, the LP12 was adjusted by the dealer and said to be ready for playing right out of the box. VTA seemed spot on and I also checked the VTF which I found to be too high at 2,2 grams. This is likely as a result of the transport, so I readjusted it to the Linn-recommended 1.75 gram value.
Linn LP12 – Listening
The Linn was used in stock form, with a felt mat. We arrived at the LP12 after having listened to the Yamaha PX-2, and needless to say, we were all expecting to be engulfed in richly smooth analog bliss. Well, that’s not what happened. The LP12 was also connected to the MM input of the Pass Xono phono stage, set to the recommended values. Speed was spot on, as was timing and coherence, but the bass was quite lightweight, midrange was thin and not very acoustically convincing and treble was screechy and tipped up. While it was evident that the belt-drive principle produces an entirely different and arguably more emotional sound than direct drive, overall, the added fluidity and longer sustain and more natural decay couldn’t compensate for the fact that we found it ultimately to sound very uneven throughout the frequency range as well as dynamically restrained. It was a bit like the Avid in that aspect, leaning to the more technical rather than the more emotional. Again: the story could be entirely different when using a different cartridge or perhaps even a different arm, but it was agreed with the dealer that I wouldn’t do any cartridge swapping, so I left the Adikt in place. After this experience I have asked once more for a better cartridge but unfortunately one could not be provided. I am writing this review long after the LP12 has been returned to Concerto but I still wonder what it would have been like with another cartridge.
I did do some web research and found that throughout its life, all the LP12’s components have been upgraded to ever tighter tolerances using higher end production techniques, and it has been stated in several places that the old ~1977-ish LP12’s are very different from today’s LP12’s. The original was apparently known for its slightly overly colored and thickened bass and romantic sound, combined with PRAT to die for. The current LP12’s apparently sound much more neutral and indeed I would not call the LP12 I listened to euphoric by any stretch of imagination. Could it be that in the process of making it more perfect, the LP12 lost some of its original magic? I hope that a follow up review will provide some answers.
The Thorens was used with a felt mat, very similar to the one used with the Linn. This is very important because the mat has a huge impact on the sound. Felt or Rubber for example is a world of a difference, rubber sounding very bouncy and dynamic, and felt sounding more relaxed. The Thorens was fitted with a Denon DL110 high output MC, into the MM input of the Pass Xono, set to the same values as the Linn. After the Linn, we really weren’t expecting much from the humble Thorens. Imagine then our surprise when it turned out to sound absolutely gorgeous! Like the LP12, the Thorens has excellent speed and a very fluid, organic feel, with very long sustain on notes, and by now the absence of the effect of quartz lock direct drive effect was finally dawning to me, and I have to agree that belt drive does indeed seem to be responsible for a more organic and emotionally engaging sound, in case of the Thorens as well as the Linn, without tipping over into an overly relaxed sound.
But it’s not only the platter motor system I’m sure. Tone arm construction and weight no doubt also have a large influence. For example the heavy and very solid arm on the Yamaha providing very solid bass as opposed to the very light arm on the Thorens providing exceedingly good low level detailing and treble air.
On a practical note, for the arm lift, the Thorens uses a knob on the solid part of the turntable which makes cueing very easy, whereas the Linn uses a lever on the arm, right on the sub chassis part, which makes it much harder to cue and lift the arm without causing the sub chassis to start wobbling and moving the arm in turn.
The Linn arm seems to be very solidly made but instead of providing a powerful bass as is the case with the Avid Volvere (with SME 309) and Yamaha PX-2, the Linn sounds thinner and faster, and more like the arm on the Thorens. The weird thing is that the Thorens with its very lightweight arm, does manage to sound fuller in the bass, with richer tonality overall than the Linn. Sure, the Thorens is also somewhat light in the bass, and definitely does not come near the Yamaha in terms of bass, or overall power. But the Thorens does manage to combine agility and sustain, dynamics and fluidity and transient attack with an utterly smooth and relaxed sound. And it sounds utterly natural with perfect timbre. To our 8 pairs of ears, instead of the more logical other way around, the Thorens took all that was good in the Linn, and improved on it. Needless to say, even if they admitted that the Yamaha can sound mightily impressive, JW and one other friend firmly voted for the Thorens’ sound over the Yamaha’s.
Above: SL10 on the left and SL7 on the right.
Here’s another surprise. What I will write now, will seem ridiculous, even to me, had I not heard it for myself.
Up until these listening sessions, I had been listening to the SL7 with a cheap to moderately range of needles. The best ones yet were the original Technics needles, having better tracking and more refined treble than all aftermarket samples tried, including the 50 euro Tonar replacements. Incidentally the cheaper ones are to be avoided in linear trackers because even if they are T4P and are made conform the standardized requirements, their cantilever length is not standard. Indeed I found ridiculously large differences in cantilever length, making for a permanent mistracking on the Technics arms, because their fixed position arms don’t allow moving the cartridge in order to compensate for needle tip position. With all the 7-25 euro replacement stylii this was clearly audible as treble sibilance. The Tonar was the best of the bunch, but it was still not as refined and airy as the original stylii.
Technics SL-7 with Jico SAS
Enter the Jico SAS stylus. Jico come highly recommended as makers of replacement stylii for virtually all cartridges. Jico stylii come in two flavors: standard elliptical and SAS. Together with a friend I ordered both for the Technics EPC202 cartridge, to make for a nice comparison. SAS is a special kind of needle shape, somewhat similar to Shibata but even more extreme. The standard Elliptical Jico already surprised us with superb tracking and treble refinement at least equal to the original stylus. At around 18 euro this is a no-brainer. Then came the SAS version. In a word: wow! Similar excellent tracking and refinement, but the added amount of detail that this stylus retrieves from the groove is insane. It’s like stepping up several levels and listening to a proper high end turntable. I kid you not!
Even with replacement stylii, the SL7 already sounds very musical and surprisingly full, with excellent drive and pace, and with its original Technics EPS 540 stylus it sounds even more well-balanced in addition to being very smooth and forgiving of mediocre records. The sense of overly fast pace is less than with the SL1210 and because decay on long notes has much longer sustain than on the latter, this doesn’t bother me and it’s really been a pleasant listen right from the start. But with the Jico SAS, it comes ridiculously close to the Yamaha PX-2 in all aspects except bass fulness and timbre. It comes so close in fact, that the PX-2 can sound a little underwhelming when switching back to it, this substantiated because the SL7/Jico SAS combo also has more extended treble and better articulation in the bass. The Yamaha does have deeper and more powerful bass though. It’s more solid and rooted, and as said, it has much more natural timbre. That last aspect is the one area in which the SL7 most noticeably lags behind the rest. But remember: the PX-2 has a high grade Audio Technica MC cartridge while the SL7 has a standard MM cartridge. It is unreal how well it performs. When I look at it, set up next to the giant PX-2, I still cannot believe it. But we all heard it, and were perplexed.
Remember what I wrote above about solid and heavy arms versus light arms? Well, the SL7 has a pretty light 10cm arm which would normally result in a very controlled sound, but somehow it sounds more fluid and relaxed than most other players. In spite of the player being direct drive, it comes closer to the presentation of the Thorens in terms of fluidity, air and sustain than the other players, the Pioneer excluded. Of course, the Thorens does sound even more agile and refined, and also has longer sustain, and of course a more natural timbre, but the Technics does beat the Thorens for bass and drive. In a sense, the SL7 with Jico SAS, combines the best of the Thorens and Yamaha.
Like the Avid, the Pioneer was also a player that wasn’t listened to in the context of this review, but because of the interesting findings, I want to write about it here anyway. At first it was tried with the Benz Ace lo, and this definitely not a good match: the sound was thin, edgy and reminded me of how the Technics J3 sounded in terms of unnatural timbre and dynamic differentiation.
After this initial experience I had left it alone for a while, until recently, after I purchased a new Audio Tecnica AT150MLX MM cartridge and tested it first in the Pioneer. Even when connected to the affordable Musical Fidelity M1 Vinl, it now sounded nicely full. Even if it still didn’t have the acoustically convincing timbre of the Thorens or Yamaha, with the M1 Vinl it was now performing better than the Technics SL7 with Pass Xono!
The Pioneer uses an interesting arm drive mechanism in the shape of a so called linear magnetic motor, which is similar to older Sony CD transports, where a coil is attached to the laser assembly, which moves freely within or around linear permanent magnets. In the case of the Pioneer, the arm assembly rolls on 3 metal wheels over 2 steel bars with very little friction. While the Yamaha PX2 wins out in bass power, dynamics and natural timbre, the Pioneer easily beats the Yamaha in terms of treble air and extension as well as overal fluidity and sustain. It’s still no Thorens in the latter aspect, but to compensate, it has the least obvious direct drive characteristics. Of course, I am still comparing apples and oranges, with 2 different phono stages and 2 different cartridges but I do know that the Pass is definitely better than the Musical Fidelity in every aspect, and the cartridges are of the same make. Heck, the Pioneer’s AT150MLX is an MM design while the Yamaha’s AT33EV is an MC design, so go figure.
So many turntables – so many outcomes. I’m not a vinyl expert and don’t claim to have all the answers, nor do I think I have quite covered all the variables, but I did carefully try all kinds of placement options for all players and tried all the settings on all phono stages for all cartridges while making sure that the other circumstances remained similar. For example, all turntables were connected to the same outlet on the same mains extensionblock, using pre-marked phase for every turntable. Would you believe that phase matters, as much even on a direct AC Thorens as for any of the Quartz Locked DC Technicses?
In conclusion I do think that the above observations tell at least a big chunk of the story. I still have a lot to experiment with, especially in terms of arm-cartridge matching, but the differences noted so far between Direct Drive and Belt Drive, between Tangential and Pivot, as well as the observations between the various arms, hopefully are meaningful food for thought. With this introduction I hope to have provided an interesting point of view on the wonderful world of LP playback. It has been an interesting journey, which I’m sure is nowhere near finished.