There are a multitude of ways to spin vinyl but for many the classic idler wheel tables of the 50’s and 60’s have always held a certain appeal. You know the names: Garrard, Thorens, EMT, Lenco et al. There’s something about the idler sound — propulsive, driven, vividly musical — that has given these ancient beasts a cult following among today’s vinylista.
The original recipe is, in most cases, a fairly standard formula. Mix one part high torque, high RPM motor, add a heavy balanced platter for flywheel effect, a dash of magnetic force to steady and smooth the transmission of power, a sturdy rubber rimmed wheel to rotate said platter.
The result was a pack of expensive, professional grade turntables built for a broadcasting duty cycle that would exceed any imaginable home use. And yet, despite their robust nature, they were still built to a price point, an approach that necessitated construction materials and weight of the units remain within the realm of the practical.
But what if one cast aside economic and other reasonable considerations and explored adding more to the areas deemed to matter most?
This was territory mined by Japanese masters (always the Japanese) and European cognoscenti both parties whose audio sensibilities always tend to be a few steps more advanced then current thinking and a few steps further still off the beaten path.
One of those in the vanguard was Stefano Bertoncello aka “TwoGoodEars” whose adventures in constructing his ultimate expression of a Garrard 301 have been well documented in his blog and on The Analog Dept. Stefano’s focus has been to extend the natural character of the 301, delivering more of what’s so delicious about these tables without changing their core being.
I recently was lucky enough to put together a suite of Stefano’s bespoke prototype creations along with a few of my own small modifications — would they improve the 301 in any substantive way?
A Symphony in the Key of CuSn
While my current setup dictates that I couldn’t yet follow Stefano’s all out assault (massive slate plinth and outboard bronze armpod were not yet in the cards), I could incorporate some elements in my own mix.
First up was the most substantive addition of the bunch — a precisely lathed and balanced bronze platter coupled with a companion bearing of appropriately gargantuan size. Unlike the original 6 pound cast platter this golden hued addition weighs in at startling 13.5kg (30lbs) or twice the weight of the entire original turntable sans plinth. The platter rides on another beautiful piece of industrial art — a stainless steel bearing of Stefano’s design employing an airgap and mix of grease and oil that spins with a silky precision for minutes after the table is turned off.
Attached to the bottom of the bearing housing is the “Foucault’s Pendulum” mod, a 2 pound bronze cylinder serving to further lower the center of gravity of the bearing and couple it even further to the chassis (as if the Brobdingnagian platter were not enough).
Finally riding astride the spindle is a 3lb “top hat” weight covering most of a 12″ record’s label and firmly seating the vinyl to the platter.
Here out of necessity I step off of the path hewn by Stefano’s careful decades of experimentation and choose a different tack for my final tweak. Unable to find the space for an outboard armpod and concerned that the additional weight of a such structure would be too much for my existing shelving I had a more conventional armboard crafted from the same bronze as the platter.
Similar in design to the cast armboard offered by Auditorium 23, this version differs in several regards. First is the positioning of the asymmetric mounting point which allows me to gain more clearance from an intruding rear wall. Second is a series of three interchangeable mounting collars attached via a machined thread to accommodate various arm pillars in a single setup. These are sized for a Thomas Schick arm, an EMT 997 / Ortofon 309 and a Fidelity Research (and presumably quite a few other arms not in my possession).
So, my friend, how does it sound?
The sound. The whole point of this esoteric exercise. It is, in a word, fantastic. Now I should pause here and note that 301 sounded fantastic in its original grease bearing, “lightweight” platter guise. But definite gains were had and they were immediate and noticeable.
First and most significant was the extended clarity in the transients. I liken it to the moment during an eye exam a new lens is clicked over and everything you thought was fine snaps into place with that bit more detail and edge definition. More air. Faster starts. Faster stops. Enhanced clarity at the extremes. Notes further away more clearly resolved.
Equal in measure was the solid pace, the propulsive force and bass resolution that became even more robust, up from an already substantial starting point. The ebb and flow of a tune was more cohesive, more alive.
Best of all, most critical for me, is that essential character of the Garrard is retained. There are plenty of modifications that on paper yield gains (power supply controlling speed vs eddy brake magnet comes to mind) but in the listening, to my ears, rob the turntable of part of what makes it unique. Not so here. Everything you enjoyed originally is present but now in spades. The same magic that drew us all in originally still exists — only now there’s just more of it to love.
Many thanks to Stefano Bertoncello for sharing his insight and creations. These were, I’m sure, hard earned — the result of many years of sometimes exasperating, sometimes expensive, always time consuming trial & error. There were likely many more dead ends than ah-ha moments. That we can all gain from his efforts is a gift, our hobby is richer for it.