Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Deciding on my next Turntable

I have a large collection of LP records, but both of my turntables have been broken for the past two years.  Though my two existing turntables are well regarded as being ultimate perfectionist good sounding turntables, they have not been reliable.  Both of my turntables have broken twice.  They each got fixed the last time they broke, though after much delay.  They are, in order of my preference, a Sony PS-X800 with Fulton mat and Michell clamp, and a Linn Sondek LP12 with Valhalla power supply and Linn Ittok arm.  I've alternated among them, finally settling on the Sony as my favorite until it broke, then using the Linn until it broke.  For reasons of historical accident, the Linn which has non-removable headshell (I originally wrote non-removable cartridge--that's what it seems like) has my Panasonic Strain Gauge cartridge, and the Sony has my Dynavector Karat 17D2 cartridge, both also highly regarded but as different as the two tables are.

My feeling about LP records is that they sometimes offer a superior sound to standard resolution digital sources, and that this is partly because of "information" (any analog storage system has in some sense infinite resolution only partly obscured by noise, and standard digital sources are somewhat limited in this same "information") and partly because records are mastered differently--and better from the standpoint of a serious listener because they are limited in how far producers can play the loudness wars.  Playing LP's can also be a somewhat relaxing experience (or it can be tense…) akin to an I Ching divination.  In my opinion it is worth having an LP playback system if you have LP records, both for regular use and for copying LP records to digital formats for use in my music server.  I have copied about 10 LP records to digital format, and in several cases I like my transcriptions better than commercial CD's.  Two such LP's are among my favorites, Hope from Klatuu and Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy by Eno.  Though the truth is I really didn't listen to records much after I had a sizable collection of CD's in the mid 1990's.  The truth is I don't listen that much to CD's either.  I often live in silence, and FM Radio is likely my most-used source of music, but it's pretty much only for background music.  Serious listening, which I believe in but rarely do, is best with LP's, CD's, or advanced resolution digital sources.

For quite awhile my plan had been to buy a nice but not super high end Rega turntable.  My friend T thinks they are pretty good, and has defended some of Rega's design choices, such as the small inner platter driven by a small belt.  In fact, this goes way back, he almost walked me through buying a Rega turntable in the early 1980's.  I did end up getting a Dynavector Karat Ruby at his advice, but then I broke it before using it.  I only got the Dynavector Karat 17DII as a gift from a friend, the late Professor Bill Banks, in the late 1980's.

I looked at the Rega models and decided that the P6 was about the level of unit I wanted.  I hate noisy motors and it has a 24 pole motor with custom tuned power supply in a separate box.  The usually light glass platter in the less expensive Rega's is enhanced with an additional ring of glass to bring up the rotational inertia.  Meanwhile, the top end Rega's look nice but have even more impressive looking competition.  I had wanted to buy a similar level Rega P25 back 15 years ago when the dealer convinced me to buy a second hand Linn instead.

So the plan was to buy a P6 for my own selfish birthday present.  But instead around the time of my birthday this month I was preoccupied with my broken dvd recorder, something which I have played with a lot more than any turntable ever (especially the hard drive video recording feature of my RDR-HX900) so I bought myself two replacement video recorders instead, a Pioneer DVR LX70 said to be the best of the genre, and a Magnavox which is one of the few available new in the USA.  The LX70 was a big roll of the dice, but has turned out well so far.

So my birthday passed without a turntable self present, and I had more time to think.  I was thinking of a turntable that looks more like a statement than a P6.  Soon I had discovered the Michell Gyrodec, which now seems very much like the kind of thing I like.  Of course it's cool looking, perhaps the coolest looking turntable ever because of the spinning brass weights.  But it also fits my preferences, being designed for use with a clamp, and offering a screw down record clamp as an option (an option which I'd definitely go for).

I had never thought much about Gyrodec because it was introduced about 5 years after I left my job at an audio salon.  From that earlier period I had known about the Transcriptors Skeleton turntable, and it set a high bar for what I'd like a turntable to look like (a high bar now met by many so-called statement turntables), but to me it seemed a wrongheaded design.  The record is only supported by a few points, with the rest of the record left to vibrate in the breeze.  I knew that was bad because I experienced a similar thing with my Dual 1209 turntable, my very first.  The Dual never sounded quite right, I figured, because it only held any particular record with one or two concentric rings of plastic.  That was a good design for keeping motor rumble out of the record, but not good for establishing groove quietness for good tracking.

Well J.A. Michell had been hired to engineer and build the Transcriptors so I unfairly connected the faulty design it has with the name Michell.  But it seemed either that Michell himself had other ideas, or he learned fast, because the Gyrodec was very different, and exactly as I would have wanted it.  The Gyrodec was built for record clamping, with a platter deliberately made out of a plastic composite material to couple well to a vinyl record.   It also has other very good ideas, such as an inverted oil pumping bearing, and a 3 point suspension with tensioned springs.

So for a week after my birthday I was imagining buying myself a new Gyrodec.  I imagined getting the following setup:

Gyrodec SE
Orbe Clamp upgrade (screw down clamp)
HS never-connected power supply upgrade
Techno Arm

Then I saw a review comparing the Techno arm with an SME 309.  The 309 had far better high frequency characteristics, according to the reviewer.  No more tizz.  So then I put 309 down on my list, replacing the Techno arm.  The 309 also has removable headshells, a feature I very much like (and might even begin considering mandatory).

Well the package total would have come to about $6000 for all this, $2400 for the turntable and $2400 for the tonearm, for starters.  That's as much as I was planning to spend soon to upgrade my broken bathtub to a luxury Kohler Tea for Two bathtub.  I had been figuring the difference between plain vanilla bathtub replacement and Tea for Two bathtub to be about $5000, and I really wanted the nicer one.

Actually, even though I haven't used turntables much, I still might get more use out of a good turntable that a bathtub, which I've used even less.  But a difficulty with the bathtub is that there's only once chance to get it right.  If I put in the cheap bathtub this year, if I changed my mind and decided I wanted the bigger bathtub next year, I'd have to re-do all the construction work, which is a large part of the total cost.  So if I need to skimp this year, it might be better to skimp on the turntable then get a better turntable later.

So it was as I was thinking about all this that I decided to take another look on eBay for turntables very much like my old Sony PS-X800.  Mind you, I've been browsing mainly Sony turntables on eBay for the past two months.  But I really hadn't gone much past Sony with regards to linear tracking automatic turntables, and there aren't many Sony's listed (actual PS-X800's in working condition are extremely rare).

As fate would have it, I came across a newly listed Mitsubishi LT-30.  I quickly checked the online story about the LT-30.  It is very much praised on AudioKarma and other audiophile websites.  One reviewer said it was the best he had heard so far, and another performed a shootout with very expensive Clearaudio and other tables, and the Mitsubishi won as the best sounding table.  That second review caught my eye because the reviewer was using the very same stylus as me, a Dynavector Karat 17D3.  So that satisfied my concerns about compatibility with my cartridge.  I wasn't long after that I did the buy-it-now on the LT-30.

I hope this works out, and if it does I think this is the right table for my bedroom.  I think it's very nice to have at least a semi-automatic table for the automatic lift off feature, in which the arm lifts off the record at the end of play.  Otherwise you have to get up and take care of it, which may not be good if you are making love.

It seems like the LT-30 has an excellent design in many ways, and should be both more reliable than the Sony PS-X800 and easier to fix.  One guy has posted all the details of his LT-30 repair on Audio Karma.  The LT-30 I am buying was just serviced and had its belts replaced, and I paid SquareTrade for a 2 year warranty.

It's a nice looking turntable, and has nearly a full length tonearm with respectable rigidity (stainless steel) and mass for a low compliance moving coil cartridge.

Even my friend Tim thinks this looks good.  He believes I can add damping to the arm, the chassis, and perhaps the arm carriage to make it all less resonant.  And he has argued that the "information loss" argument that claims the stylus needs to be held firmly in position with respect to the turntable platter is all wrong.  In fact, in order to play records, the tonearm must move freely with respect to the platter.  What the tonearm should not do is transmit and reflect audible vibrations.  And there's nothing wrong with the base of the tonearm being on a horizontal carriage that moves to eliminate tracking error, so long as the carriage movement doesn't generate noise (and the LT-30's tracking assembly is said to be very quiet).  What is wrong is vibration in the tonearm itself, which quickly leads to reflections and intermodulations.  It is key that those vibrations be absorbed as quickly as possible and as close to the stylus which generates them as possible.

I think now it may have been obsession with the bogus information loss argument that led to these linear tracking turntables being less popular than they might have been.  Obviously a linear arm is in a more complex geometric system than a pivoted arm.  But there is nothing wrong with that.  And especially the pivoted arm is not "correct" in any sense at all.  The linear arm is mirroring the cutter arm much better.

Tim doesn't even have a problem with the removable headshell.  He says that's fine the rubber washer can help absorb some vibration.  I think removable headshells have disappeared from respectable arms primarily because of the bogus information loss argument.  And I also have conspiracy theory involving high end audio dealers, especially Linn dealers, who want you to come to them for everything you need.

I love removable headshells.  Just as I expected, once my strain gauge cartridge was mounted by a Linn dealer to my Linn tonearm 16 years ago, it has stayed there.  I've never wanted to mess up the cartridge installation done by a professional.  There was a two year gap after my Sony died that I could have moved the Dynavector cartridge to the Linn to play records since the strain gauge demodulators I had were not working.  But I couldn't even get myself to do that, instead I waited until I got another strain gauge demodulator working.   Cartridges are very finicky and once you have one installed properly you don't, you just don't want to mess with it.

Removeable headshells are like getting your freedom back.  Not only do they make it possible to swap cartridges around, they make it easier to install and uninstall cartridges in the first place.  Linn dealers have a special jig which allows them to install cartridges on Linn arms easier, possibly with the table upside down.  That is not the kind of thing I want to do at home, and I'm not on first name basis with a Linn dealer.  I didn't like the sound of my Linn, it hasn't been reliable, and the manual arm and non-removable cartridge are highly inconvenient.  So I'm just not the right kind of person to be a Linnie.

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