(REBUILT BY JEAN NANTAIS)
PART ONE- MY TURNTABLE HISTORY
PART TWO- THE RE-EMERGENCE OF (VINTAGE) IDLER-DRIVE TURNTABLES
PART THREE- THE SUPERIOR PERFORMANCE OF THE REFERENCE LENCO L 75
PART FOUR- THE REASON FOR THE SUPERIOR PERFORMANCE OF THE REFERENCE LENCO
PART FIVE- THE VARIOUS LENCO (AND IDLER-DRIVE) OPTIONS
PART SIX- SOME ISSUES CONCERNING THE LENCO AND OTHER IDLER-DRIVE TURNTABLES
PART SEVEN- CONCLUSIONS
ADDENDUM- NANTAIS (2011) SPRING (REPLACEMENT) MODIFICATION
PART EIGHT- REFERENCE LENCO MK. II NEW!
MY INITIAL WEBSITE CORRESPONDENCE WITH IDLER-DRIVE ENTHUSIASTS
LENCO & IDLER-DRIVE LINKS NEW!
This is the finest turntable I have ever heard. Now I've heard countless turntables in the last 40+ years, in my own system as well as in private homes, showrooms and at audio shows, but none of them can match this turntable in its overall cumulative strengths. While it was inevitable that I would eventually discover a turntable to outperform my personal reference of more than 17 years, the Forsell, what is amazing is that this new reference uses a technology (and actual model!) from more than 4 decades ago. Adding to the mystery is that fact that I had long felt this approach was obsolete (based on my actual experiences of the past, and not just simple "theory").
Accordingly, I now feel I have a considerable amount of investigating and explaining to do, to both my readers and to myself. My immediate goal is to understand and describe the underlying basis of what I (and others) am hearing. I will then attempt to put all of this into a reality-based perspective that will be both helpful in finding a direction/strategy for future component choice while also providing a rational foundation for that direction and choice. Based on my previous history when experiencing something that was radically different, I feel the best approach is to first take a step back and start from the beginning, with a short review of My Turntable History.
My first turntable (not counting my parents' "Victrola") was the legendary Acoustic Research (AR) AR-XA. I used the AR from the late 1960's until 1972, when I purchased my first "serious" turntable; a used Thorens TD-125 (which had a Rabco SL-8E linear tonearm).
I also owned a large variety of other turntables during the 1970's (all of them purchased used), including the Ariston RD-11s and a good number of Japanese direct drives. Not surprisingly, I ended that decade with the (then already famous) Linn Sondek LP-12, which was the best of all the turntables that I had heard at that time.
However, an amazing number of important turntable innovations occurred in the 1980's. Fortunately for me, I owned an audio store during almost this entire decade. This enabled me to hear virtually every serious model, either in my home, my store or both. While I was a dealer for only a few of the manufacturers, this still didn't hold me back. I made certain, with a generous trade-in policy, direct imports, along with loaners and organized "shootouts", to hear everything possible. There are far too many turntables in this group to list, but my own personal turntable choices are a different matter...
I first replaced the Linn Sondek with a (second generation) Oracle Delphi, but that was itself soon replaced by the (original) Townshend Rock in 1982/3. The Rock, for years, withstood all challengers, but I eventually sold it because my listening room lacked a stable temperature. This, in turn, meant that the Rock (with its high viscosity oil bearing) would have variable RPM speed day-to-day, which drove me crazy, so I eventually replaced it with a (late model) Goldmund Studio and T-3F tonearm.
Near the end of the decade, I had the Versa Dynamic Models 1 & 2 (the Model 1 was an employee "loaner"). However, I eventually returned back to the same Goldmund Studio (now with a SME V tonearm), mainly to eliminate the complexity of operating and maintaining the Versa. While I really enjoyed the Goldmund/SME combination, it was not as good an overall performer as either the Rock or Versa models, when all of them were fully optimized. Since then, things have been very different...
In late 1992, I purchased the top-of-the-line Forsell "Air Force" Reference. Unlike Forsell's standard "Air Reference" model, the "Air Force" also had a flywheel, which (the manufacturer claimed) increased the platter's inertia 40 times; in effect going from 25 to 1,000 lbs!
Unfortunately, it took almost 30 minutes to get the Forsell to the proper speed and then stabilize it. Even worse, the starting speed changed every listening session, thus forcing the user to repeat the process from scratch each time. Further, once started, the platter had to remain moving, making the process of taking the LP on and off a precarious process. The Air Force was a little better in performance, but not worth the hassle (and expense) in my opinion, so I replaced it with the "standard" Air Reference. This is the Forsell I have now used, on and off, for the last 17 years.
The Forsell Air Reference, now long discontinued, is an air-bearing turntable, with a dead 25 lb platter and a dedicated record clamp. It comes with an air-bearing linear tonearm. When I/we first heard it "stock", it easily outperformed any turntable/tonearm combination I (and my associates) ever heard. However, we were not satisfied with the status quo, so we significantly improved its performance, by using far superior air regulation and isolation (this is described in the Reference Turntable File). The overall improvement was such that our standard model was now definitely superior to even the (stock) Air Force (flywheel) model.
The Forsell had/has a number of critically important strengths. It was very neutral and natural. It also had the lowest sound-floor I have ever experienced, plus a naturally large and focused soundstage. The frequency extremes were excellent, but I had heard better (Melco in the bass). The outer details were also outstanding, but I had heard its equal. Overall though, no other turntable could capture the recording as well as the (modified) Forsell. Nothing we heard came close to it while I was in Toronto. Since I moved to Florida, the Forsell has proven to be handily superior to both the VPI Aries 2 and then, later, the original VPI HR-X (with the light cheap platter). If there is one point to all of the above, it is this: The Forsell Air Reference, after being optimized, is one formidable turntable.
This is where things have stood now since 2005, with me continually searching for something better. While, at times, I began to feel discouraged, I never gave up. Then something, highly unexpected, came my way.Top
Starting in 2003, I began to receive a growing number of letters from readers who were impressed with (and switching to) vintage idler-drive turntables. In each case, the original turntable was modified, usually with a much better plinth (both heavier and deader). I was, as is my nature, highly sceptical of their glowing descriptions of these models, since I considered them hopelessly outdated (see the "correspondence" section below). This was because of the sonic problems I had heard myself decades earlier, which were thought to be inherent and unsolvable. My viewpoint at that time was simple...
Every turntable I had heard in my early life, up until the AR, was an idler-drive, though I was unaware of any distinction at that time. To overly simplify matters; the idler-drive turntables had an idler wheel between the motor spindle and the platter, while the new belt drive turntables used a belt between the motor spindle and platter. This belt innovation was supposed to better isolate the motor's inherent vibrations from the platter, which would then reduce the audible "rumble" (the descriptive sound of those vibrations).
At that time, the late 1950's and 1960's, rumble was becoming more of a problem because of the growing popularity of "stereo" (mono cancelled out rumble) and the increasing number of speakers which had enough bass extension to make it audible. Matters came to a head when AR (and then KLH) came out with acoustic suspension speakers (especially the AR 3). These models were relatively small in size (2 cubic feet), but they still had extended bass response. Now virtually anyone could afford, and fit into their rooms, a speaker with bass deep enough to easily hear any rumble. (The fact that AR soon came out with their own belt drive turntable, in 1961, makes a lot of sense now, when looking back 50 years ago.) As for myself, I owned the Acoustic Research AR-5 for a few years back then, and I was easily able to hear the rumble from a (stock) Thorens TD-124, placing me in the belt-drive camp. Further...
Belt drives were also much less complicated (and much less expensive) to manufacture. Accordingly, they began growing their market share. However, in the 1970's there was a new competitor, direct-drives, which eliminated the idler wheel (and belt) by direct coupling the motor and the platter. Importantly, they also had no audible rumble. Direct drives became incredibly popular during the 1970's, but with a few exceptions, almost all serious audiophiles still preferred the belt drive models. Meanwhile, idler-drives, while still having some proponents (who were by then considered "eccentric"), were believed to be now "obsolete", and were mainly forgotten by the audio "mainstream" (especially the audio press). This perspective was considered the "common audio wisdom", and not seriously challenged, until the last decade.
Then the readers letters started arriving (again, still posted below). I received a particularly important letter from an audio manufacturer I knew, Roger Hebert, of Wyetech Electronics. Hebert informed me that he had replaced his (late model) VPI Aries with a modified Lenco, and he wasn't looking back. There were now far too many positive anecdotes about idler-drives for me to simply ignore them any longer. Accordingly, I finally made a promise to my readers (in late 2006), posted on this website (see below), to look into this idler-drive phenomenon. However, I had a serious dilemma; I didn't know what exact direction I should take, since, as a completely independent audio journalist, I had only limited resources, both financial and time.
In the end, I decided to make just one serious idler-drive commitment. If it worked, great, and if not, that was it for me. So it was everything on one throw of the dice. Then came the next big question: Which idler-drive model should I choose, and from whom? I immediately ruled out the Thorens TD-124, because I had too many negative experiences with it in the past, the last being in 2000/1. I didn't want my negative bias of the TD-124 to become an "excuse" or an "issue". For the sake of practicality, that left only Garrard and Lenco. The new Garrard 501 looked really interesting, but I felt it was grossly overpriced. Then, as it turned out, three Canadians ended up making the decision for me...
Roger Hebert (a Canadian) had brought Jean Nantais* (another Canadian, and the person who had rebuilt Herbert's "modified Lenco") to my attention. Nantais had also previously been mentioned to me by another reader, so I already knew of him. Eventually Nantais, who had been aware of my website for some time, contacted me directly, and we started a correspondence. Nantais was highly interested in me auditioning his rebuilt Lenco, though much less enthusiastic when he found out I was now living in Florida, and not Ontario (as he had assumed). Finally though, we were able to make a mutually acceptable arrangement, which involved a third Canadian (a former customer and now a friend and "associate").
*Nantais is the person who began the famous, ultra-lengthy thread in the Audiogon Analog Discussion Group with the title of: "Building high-end 'tables cheap at Home Despot", which actually began the Lenco awareness "movement". (That original thread was tragically removed from Audiogon, but there is a part "II" still posted.)
This associate had purchased my original Forsell Air Reference, just before I left Canada to move to Florida in 2001. (The Forsell I've used in Florida since then is owned by a close friend, whose own audio system has been inoperable for years.) My agreement with Nantais was straightforward: If my associate felt that Nantais' Lenco was as good or better than the Forsell, then, and only then, I would get involved. So the two of them made arrangements for a Forsell Vs. Lenco "shootout", in early 2009, in my associate's home. They both promised to keep me well informed.
This shootout occurred on schedule, but the results were somewhat ambiguous. Worse, they had considerable difficultly isolating the two turntables respective performance, which would have made the comparison more focused and relevant. (This is why the "results" were never posted on this website.) However, they still agreed to further comparisons, since my friend did hear "promise" with the Lenco and Nantais, surprised at the Forsell's performance (compared to other "famous" turntables he had heard), now realized how he could further improve his Lenco.
While Nantais and my associate were making their (now regular) comparisons, I began a correspondence with another Lenco enthusiast; Jean Veys. Veys, located in Europe, was experimenting with slate plinths for the Lenco. He was really excited with the results, and he later experimented with heavy (20+ lb) platters (which have always appealed to me). Now things were really looking interesting, but also more confusing. Further, this complicated my "one throw of the dice" strategy. The climax of all this came in August and September 2009. I informed my friend about Veys' slate Lenco, and my friend replied to me with a shocker; informing me that he had now purchased Nantais' latest Lenco! He also sent me pictures of it, which were really impressive. I asked him for the details.
According to both of them, Nantais had made further improvements in the plinth, bearing, feet and platter interface. This new design also allowed my associate to use a better tonearm, the Eminent Technology (ET), which made the comparison with the Forsell more relevant. The bottom line- My associate preferred the Lenco/ET to the Forsell. My thinking at this point was this: Since the ET tonearm was not quite as good as the Forsell tonearm, this meant that the Lenco was able to overcome that disadvantage and still outperform the Forsell. Accordingly, I had no excuses left to avoid going ahead with the (Nantais) Lenco. However, based on correspondence with Jean Veys, I covered myself. I requested that we would eventually hear both a wood and slate version of the Lenco, and I would decide on which one I preferred. In any event, I would end up with one of them. There was still one final act before I received my Lenco...
Nantais, taking no chances, since this new Lenco might also have to challenge a 4 motor Kuzma, decided to build me a "Super Lenco", which he now calls "The Reference". It has an even better (cost no object) plinth than my associate's earlier model, plus a new, custom made bearing (also cost no object). He informed me that it would take longer to build, but I informed him that I didn't care as long as it was finished before my associate made his annual visit to me in February (2010).
As it turned out, the Reference was finished (barely) on time, and it went to my associate's home first, where comparisons were made. The results- It was superior to both the (older) Lenco and the Forsell. In fact, the improvements were so noticeable that my associate even ordered a new Reference for himself. Shortly thereafter, my associate loaded the Reference Lenco (along with the Graham Phantom II Tonearm) in his truck and drove down to Florida, where I was his last stop.
And now it's time to describe what I've heard and observed since this "Reference Lenco" arrived in my home in late February 2010.Top
My most important observation is that the Lenco did not fail in those areas where I originally expected it to fail. Based on my prior experiences with idler-drives, I was concerned that I may hear "rumble", and even if the rumble was no longer itself directly audible, I still expected the higher sound-floor of the Lenco to obscure low-level musical information. As an audiophile whose entire system was designed to have the lowest sound-floor theoretically possible, any component that noticeably compromises this area would be unacceptable to me, regardless of its other virtues.
As it turned out, the Lenco's sound-floor was basically as low as the Forsell's (which has an air-bearing platter). In fact, I couldn't distinguish them. Since the Forsell had the lowest sound-floor I ever experienced, the Lenco's (highly welcome) achievement in this area is both surprising and unexplainable (at this time). In any event, with this highest of hurdles successfully breached, the next challenge was the Forsell's neutrality and/or lack of coloration/character. Once again, to my surprise, the Lenco matched the Forsell in this critical area (especially for those serious audiophiles who don't want a relentless "editorializing" or "bias" in what they hear). Further, in the area of transparency, the two turntables were also indistinguishable to me. In short, the two turntables sounded very similar in "the basics", which is something I hadn't experienced before at this high level.
After this preliminary and requisite examination, the Lenco went into "new territory", where the Forsell was not able to follow it, and some of it was even "unchartered" for me. By going back to (and expanding on) my contemporaneous notes, what you will read below is what I observed in the various and important performance/musical parameters, some of them unique to turntables, with actual LP examples provided whenever possible:
A Superior Degree of Articulateness (and "Speed")- Or, in musical terms, the rare ability to accurately reproduce staccato notes (single or consecutive) without the usual smearing. Staccato notes are sharply defined, yet musically related. They usually come in bunches, which start and finish in a short time frame. They usually involve plucking and/or percussive instruments. The (almost impossible) task for the turntable is separating and individualizing each and every single note, while also retaining the critically important "relationships" between these notes.
It is this rare ability which also allows the original rhythm and tempo to be heard. Importantly, it also makes the music more "intelligible", so that the words of the lyrics are more easily discerned. Finally, the end result of all this is that everything is more noticeably organized, providing a greater sense of musical meaning. I've never heard another turntable equal (let alone surpass) the Lenco in this general area.
The LP that first, and most clearly, demonstrated this capability was Laurie Anderson's "Mister Heartbreak". The exact cut was "Kokoku". Still, it must be further admitted that countless other recordings could also be used as solid examples.
However, the most amazing and surprising display of the Lenco's pure "speed" was also the most subtle. More importantly, it came when I was listening for something else. I was playing Pfitzner's "Gesange fur Bariton und Orchester", a (somewhat rare) German EMI LP (065-45 616) that I am very familiar with. My main focus was on the voice of the soloist Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, using the 1st cut on Side One: "Herr Oluf". At the very end of an orchestral crescendo, as things became quiet and the harp became prominent, I experienced something for the first time: A high harp note came and went so quickly that I didn't realize it, or react to it, until it was already well gone (my guest described it as "like lightning"). All that remained, to prove it actually occurred, was its decay.
Now in "real life", this may be not be that unusual, but in Audio, I had never "heard" this "disappearing act" before, even with the fastest electronics and/or plasma tweeters. For me, this was a "revelation", demonstrating a speed unprecedented in my experience. And, if nothing else, it also definitively proved that if something is "lost" at the source, it can never be recaptured, no matter what lengths are taken.
A Superior Reproduction of Sustained Notes- This parameter not only concerns "vibrato" notes, but also the decay and the echoes of all notes. The Lenco provides the listener a sense of "security" when a sustained note, or passage, begins and develops. (It is especially noticeable with Organ Music.) This is true also of "real life" and even CD reproduction. However, it's unprecedented (for me) when it comes to phono sources.
In my experience, the Lenco's only possible rival was the Forsell "Air Force", which had both a heavy platter, and the further application of a massive flywheel. The LP that first graphically displayed this unique quality was (the late) Michael Hedges "Aerial Boundaries" on Windham Hill (particularly the 1st cut on Side One).
Let's now take a larger perspective; Consider how highly unusual it is for one component to excel with those contrasting extremes of music reproduction. In this particular instance, with both vibrato and staccato notes. These two highly contrasting notes provide very different challenges to the component, yet the Lenco reproduces both of them outstandingly well. It is this rare type of achievement which epitomizes the Lenco's exceptional level of performance.
Superior Immediacy and "Presence"- This is most easily noticeable as an enhanced feeling of vividness. It is still somewhat subtle (compared to the Forsell), and maybe even partially psychoacoustic in nature. I believe it is caused by the superior speed and articulation discussed above, plus the consistency of the Lenco's performance, regardless of the volume level and musical complexity of the recording. This improvement can be heard with any well recorded LP, so no example is necessary in this instance.
Superior Bass Reproduction- This is obviously no surprise. In fact, if there was one area where even a completely uninterested person could hear the improvement with the Lenco, this would be it. The Lenco excels in every subset of bass reproduction; impact, control, detail, weight, extension, texture and decay. You can hear its special quality with virtually any good LP, though one record which particularly stood out was the soundtrack "Emerald Forest". The entire LP was impressive, but especially revealing was the last cut on Side Two.
A Superior Reproduction of Musical "Flow"- This is difficult to describe, because it takes some time for it to effect and register on the listener. Further, it's not something you listen "for", because it doesn't just "happen". I would best describe it as the sense of being in a "consistently stable center" (a platform), which is always unchanged, even as the music continually changes in complexity. This "stable center" provides a perspective (or foundation), which allows the listener to hear all of the musical ebbs and flows, large and small. These flows, in turn, reflect the musicianship and the structure that were a natural part of the original recording. This is in contrast to other turntables, where one hears an almost mechanical and arbitrary reproduction of the same recording.
If I can make an analogy, it's like being in a ship so large that no waves (flows) can effect it. This means you can clearly see the various flows, always knowing that the flows themselves are not effecting (distorting) your view. In contrast, a small boat can be so effected by the waves (flows) that you will soon lose the ability to distinguish the different flows from each other.
An excellent example to verify this sense of structure, and which actually inspired my thoughts on this subject, is the Decca/London album of the Shostakovich/Haitink 11th Symphony, 1st Movement, though other records, especially symphonic, may be even more revealing.
A Superior Sense of Weight and Natural Body- This is also quite subtle. It's caused, I believe, by the tonal consistency previously discussed above. This consistency provides a noticeable "relationship" between the original notes and the "after effects", which then helps form a singular "body". In effect, with the Lenco, the musicians, and their instruments, have more natural "substance", as though there was more (and proper) "gravity" at the time of the recording. Any decent natural recording will provide an example of what I am attempting to describe.
A Superior Lack of Homogenization- This improvement is critical to me, and obviously one I greatly value. It is heard at all volume levels, but it's most easily noticed during the most complex musical moments; orchestral crescendos, or during loud passages with non-classical music. The Lenco smears the music (instruments and voices) noticeably less so than other turntables I've heard, which, in turn, allows relatively soft sounds to finally cross the "threshold of audibility". It also allows the musical relationships, between the instruments, to be more easily noticed, understood and appreciated. While unrelated, even the textures of instruments are now better heard.
At best, the "tiny" can be heard clearly, even when it's loud. Accordingly, you may hear some things for the 1st time. Things you didn't know were ever there (how could you know?) in the first place. Once again, any good recording with complex passages can verify my observations. In this instance, the particular LP which brought this improvement to my attention was (at least according to my notes): Rimsky-Korsakoff, "Russian Easter Overture", Maazel, Decca/London.
Superior Dynamic Response, Tension and Intensity- With the Reference Lenco, I get the sense, maybe for the first time, that "nothing is being held back". And this sense occurs frequently, so it almost becomes "common". You feel the musicians are truly "serious" and "committed". With some special recordings, I even experienced a "tremendous concentrated force", to a degree unprecedented for me. This capability is not to be confused with simple "explosiveness", which both turntables share.
The Lenco also helps break down the intimacy barrier, which will normally separate the listener and the performer(s). This is a very rare accomplishment. On some familiar records, the combined effect of the above can be almost shocking. The Lenco is also outstanding in its ability to "startle" the listener, which is one of my fundamental tests.
This is also the perfect opportunity to bring up a word that is continually overused, and more importantly misused, by audiophiles. I'm talking about the word "involving". Many audiophiles routinely claim that certain components are "involving". This is total nonsense. The most that any particular audiophile can ever claim is that he or she, as a listener, feels "involved" when that component is being used. This feeling is strictly a personal response. This same personal response may, or may not, occur when other listeners hear the exact same component. So how then does the Lenco turntable fit into this discussion of "involving"...?
The Lenco has the unique capability, in my experience, to make it more obvious whether the musicians themselves are now "involved" (or not!) in any particular recording. This is in stark contrast to the listener's (unpredictable and personal) reaction to that reproduction of the musicians involvement. That is a profound difference. The Lenco can then reproduce, to a superior degree than all other turntables I've heard, the musicians "involvement" with the music. That is one of its singular achievements.
To be as clear and unambiguous as possible: The Reference Lenco outperforms every other turntable in my experience, and at any price. It is superior, or at best equalled, in every single sonic parameter. In fact, there is not even one area where I'm able to criticize its performance (at this time).
Next, I would like to discuss how and why I believe the Reference Lenco is able to perform at this unprecedented level. Then I will give my perspective on the various options available to those readers who are interested in purchasing the Lenco. Finally, I will explore some related issues and questions concerning the Lenco, idler-drives and turntables in general and the reproduction of music.Top
I initially wrote "ReasonS" in the above title, but I then felt that would be disingenuous at best, because there is only one ultimate and logical explanation for the Reference Lenco's superior performance, and that is its (optimized) Idler-drive System. I came to this conclusion after a process of elimination, using as much cold logical thinking as within my capabilities. My methodology was to directly compare the Forsell and the ("Reference") Lenco models I auditioned, section by section. With such easily noticeable sonic differences between them (as described in detail above), there must also be an obvious difference(s) in their design and/or execution to separate them.
So below is my comparative analysis, part by part...
Shelf Isolation- Both turntables used the exact same isolation system. This is a heavy metapolymer plate, with hard rubber-like feet further isolating it from the shelf. The Forsell also had "fluid bags" underneath it, while the Lenco has three heavy-duty brass footers ("bear paws"). I don't see any clear advantage here for either turntable. If there is one, it would be very subtle in its effect.
Suspension System- Neither turntable has a suspension, so this is a non-starter.
Bearings- The Forsell has an air-bearing, while the Lenco has a custom-made bearing, with ultra-low friction. Any advantage would have to be negligible, especially in the case of the Lenco. In fact, I believe one can argue that no contact bearing, in theory, could be noticeably better than one using air, so I believe that any slight advantage here would have to favor the Forsell.
Plinth- Both turntables have heavy wood plinths, though the Lenco plinth is much heavier, so it does have an advantage here. However, the Forsell's motor is in its base, instead of the plinth, which gives it an advantage. In the end, I believe that the Lenco may still have a slight overall advantage here, but once again it will be negligible in effect (which is proven by their similar neutrality and low sound-floor).
Platter- The Lenco's cast platter is dead, balanced and oversized, giving it a greater amount of inertia relative to its (9 lb) weight. The Forsell platter is even heavier and made of metapolymer, so I believe it still has a small advantage here. However, even this advantage mainly disappears because of the...
Platter Interface- The Forsell has its gravity clamp, while the Reference Lenco uses the Goldmund (metacrylic) mat plus a (Harmonic Resolution) clamp. The Goldmund mat effectively eliminates the Forsell's metapolymer platter advantage and it even reduces the Forsell's platter weight difference. Both clamps use materials to absorb unwanted vibrations and they also reduce LP "sliding". When everything is taken into consideration, these two related areas, when combined, are very close to a wash in my estimation, with the slightest advantage still for the Forsell, though any noticeable differences would have to be subtle.
In Summary- It's obvious that all of the critical design areas are reasonably close, with the Forsell having slight advantages in its air bearing, motor isolation and heavier platter, while the Reference Lenco has slight advantages in its heavier plinth and (by default) its platter interface. I think it's also clear that none of these parts, individually, or even collectively, even come close to explaining all the significant differences in actual performance between the two turntables. This leaves us with the last remaining difference in design, and this time it is unquestionably significant...
The Forsell uses a good quality motor, with a belt around the attached spindle and the platter circumference. The Lenco, in stark contrast, uses a heavy-duty motor (with high RPM), with a tapered spindle directly connected to an idler-wheel which, in turn, directly moves the platter. From a purely logical perspective, using the process of elimination, I believe their respective drive systems explain why the Lenco outperforms the Forsell in all the sonic areas described in the previous section. In turn, the similarities of the above six parts explain why the two turntables still both perform at the same high level in the important areas of neutrality, transparency and sound-floor.
In short, I believe, to the point of conviction, that every single sonic advantage enjoyed by the Lenco is explained (and caused) by its (highly superior) drive system. However, the Reference Lenco's high quality plinth and bearing etc are still critical. They are the reason for the Lenco's lack of noticeable sonic problems when compared to those competing turntables designed and built to the highest standards (such as the Forsell), but using a different drive system. So the complete package is necessary to reach the outstandingly overall high level of performance I've experienced with the "Reference Lenco".
And now I will try my best to explain why the (Lenco's) idler-drive system provides such a noticeable sonic superiority over other turntable drive systems.
A well-designed and executed idler-drive has more effective torque (ET)* than any other type of drive system. It's that simple. The amount of ET is critically important, because it is required to overcome the inherent "groove resistance"** of the LP. The less the "groove resistance" (or "friction") effects the platter speed, the fewer sonic problems (stylus drag**) the system will experience (and you will hear). In short- Every single change in the record groove requires some amount of ET to overcome it (without any alteration in speed). This is true even if it's a tiny change (like the high harp note discussed above), but especially if it's a large change (deep, powerful bass notes or complex crescendos).
Effective torque, in effect, is required to properly "initiate" a musical note (or passage). Since a continual stream of new notes must appear while the LP is being played, adequate ET is a necessity at all times. Without the proper amount of ET, the sound will vary, depending on the amount, and type, of notes (resistive changes) coming into play (as various physical changes in the groove). It's this variance, or musical inconsistency (distortion), which good idler-drives diminish better than any other design.
Further, my "total conviction" comes from a direct experience, which is an incontrovertible confirmation of everything I've written above...
While I heard all of the described improvements from the first day I used the Reference Lenco, they were virtually doubled after the rebuilder, Jean Nantais (during his 2010 visit), first replaced a weak spring and then cleaned both the idler-wheel and the bottom of the platter (where they connect). Since these modifications increased the ET (which I could actually feel with my finger at the time), and effected nothing else, I don't see any other logical explanation for my/our observations and experiences. Accordingly, this is not simple and thoughtless "dogma" and/or "speculation".
This brings us to a critically related subject: What about inertia? What role does it play in this issue (since many turntables have heavy platters just to increase inertia)? The critical question- With a large amount of inertia, does a turntable still require a large amount of ET?
I am not a physicist, but the overwhelming amount of direct (and anecdotal) evidence comes down to this: Inertia is required for the turntable to "sustain" existing musical notes and sounds, but it has only marginal utility when it comes to the "initiation" of musical notes (where adequate ET is required). If this were not so, any turntable with a heavy platter would be able to equal the Lenco's performance. However, even turntables with both heavy platters, and flywheels, have failed to equal all of the Lenco's strengths in my experience. Accordingly, I feel it is incontrovertible to argue that inertia, in any amount, is not enough, on its own, to allow a turntable to perform at the highest possible levels of performance. (Do not forget that the Lenco also excels at "sustaining" notes, despite its lack of a seriously heavy platter.)
The "bottom line", or the ultimate conclusion, of the above is thus inescapable: A large amount of effective torque is an absolute requirement to reach the highest level of turntable performance. Idler-drives, when well designed and executed, are the only type of drive system in our experience that can produce this required amount of effective torque, thus only idler-drive turntables are capable of achieving the "highest level of turntable performance". However, all of the remaining parts of the turntable must also be of outstanding quality to reach this ultimate potential. If not, there will be the usual sonic "trade-offs" (between the various turntable designs), which we audiophiles find so frustrating (and sadly, the norm). So, in other words...
When everything is otherwise basically equal (isolation, plinth, suspension, bearing, platter interface etc), and consequently become non-factors, a good idler-drive will outperform all the other turntable designs. Unfortunately, things are rarely equal in audio, which is the main reason why idler-drives are now rare, grossly underestimated and vastly unappreciated. One purpose of this review/essay is to redress this regrettable state of affairs.
Finally, can there be any exceptions*** to this claim of idler-drive superiority? Well, since heavy platters and flywheels, along with electronic regulators (such as the Linn Lingo and VPI SDS) are still inadequate, that leaves us with a drive system with multiple drives (motors). I've heard a number of turntables with two motors. Unfortunately, none of them had the effective torque of the Lenco. One of my associates has extensively heard one with four motors; the Kuzma Stabi XL4 Turntable, and he has been very impressed with it. A comparison between the Lenco and the Kuzma was originally scheduled in February 2010, but later cancelled. We still hope to make this comparison eventually. However, even if the Kuzma succeeds, consider its cost and complexity? It may well be the one exception that proves the rule.
* I use the word "effective" to distinguish this capacity from "gross" torque, which is the forte of (a few) direct drive (DD) turntables. Unfortunately, the use of electronic circuits ("feedback") in all DD motors, which is required to control their unusually low RPM (33 & 45), basically compromises what should be their inherent advantage. This is proved by typical DD turntables, which are usually no better than even belt drive turntables in those areas where the Lenco (and other idler-drives) excels. Further, even expensive DD turntables, such as the Goldmund Studio and the vintage Japanese models now in vogue (which I've heard and even owned****), noticeably lack the Lenco's strengths. One modern direct drive, the Grand Prix Audio Monaco, may have finally solved this problem, but, once again, at what price?
** The term "stylus drag" has been commonly used by others to describe the problem that idler-drives excel at overcoming. However, I prefer instead the term "groove resistance", because it is more precise, direct and graphic in describing exactly what the turntable must overcome, while "stylus drag" is the result of turntable failure. (For people with a physics background, "friction" may be the best descriptive and applicable word in this instance.)
***I will also discuss "rim drives" in the Options Section. I presently consider rim drives, without belts, to be in the same general family as idler-drives (if properly executed) until proven wrong.
****I owned a stock Sony 2250 for around a year, and auditioned, more than once, the top-of-the-line Denon in a Mitch Cotter B-1 Turntable Base with a Fidelity Reserach 12" Tonearm. One of my closest associates owned the Technics SP-10 MK II when it was current, but he preferred the Linn Sondek at the time. However, see Option #10 in Part Five (below), because our combined experiences with the finest vintage direct drives are definitely incomplete.Top
To all those readers who are now seriously interested in purchasing a Lenco, my first word of advice is to avoid being blinded by all of the superlatives I've used to describe the performance of the Lenco. It must always be remembered that all those superlatives, while well earned, apply only to the Lenco I actually heard, and to no other. My description then is of one particular turntable, which while demonstrating (and proving) the unprecedented potential of the basic design, does not promise the actualization of that same potential to others.
This is because there is a huge difference between the "Reference" Lenco I heard and a completely stock Lenco, no matter how good its condition. So to provide a necessary and helpful perspective, I would like to use an (automobile) analogy...
First, you must think of the original stock Lenco, even if it's still in mint condition, as a "jalopy". However, this particular jalopy has an unexpected fluke, which takes it far out of the ordinary. For some unknown reason, the manufacturers decided to use a Formula One racing engine and drive train! Of course, this engine is completely wasted if no "modification" is ever made to the rest of the car, but all that matters to us is that a modification is possible. It's just a question of what modification will fully optimize that outstanding engine. Still, we must never forget that this automobile, without any change, will always be a jalopy, regardless of its engine etc.
In effect, when you purchase a stock Lenco, you must only look at its basic drive system, platter and bearing, and forget all the rest, because it will be eventually replaced. (Like Michaelangelo "seeing" David "imprisoned" in the huge piece of marble, and then carefully removing all the "excess".) In short, when you purchase a stock Lenco (or any other vintage idler-drive turntable), you are also making a long-term commitment to take the necessary measures for it to reach its fullest potential, at the least possible expense, in time and money. Without that commitment, you have nothing special, a common mediocrity at best, while its dormant potential is relegated to the theoretical and the irrelevant.
And so here are all the options that are currently available to potential or existing Lenco owners, along with other idler-drive alternatives (and I will add other options as they become known to me). The order of the options is irrelevant:
1. Rebuild by Jean Nantais- This was my choice, and I'm obviously very satisfied with the results. Nantais' background is discussed above. He lives and works in Ontario, Canada. He now has his own website (see below).
Nantais also rebuilds Garrards and Thorens, and has similar plans for them as he did with the Lenco Reference. He has also upgraded the Sony 2250 and various other heavy direct-drives.
2. A DIY Project- This is, by far, the most popular route to take. Fortunately, there are websites, people and dedicated companies to assist you along the way. If you feel confident in your mechanical abilities (I don't!), then nothing can beat this method for "bang for the buck". Below is one website I am familiar with that is dedicated to the Lenco DIY community:
Lenco Heaven- This website is operated by and for Lenco DIY enthusiasts. Besides it many members, it also has multiple sources and contacts. I consider this website a virtual requirement if you want to eventually purchase and optimize the Lenco on your own, and even if you decide to take a different direction. Its membership is free:
Plus two people and an established business to buy parts from:
Jeremy Clark- He has designed custom made bearings for the Lenco. Information and pictures of Clark's bearings can be found on Lenco Heaven. The prices appear reasonable to me. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Peter Reinders- Builds a new "top plate" for the Lenco, which is called the "PTP". He also builds complete turntables based on the Lenco drive system. His email address for contacts and orders is: email@example.com
Oswalds Mill Audio- Various plinths and parts. See below.
3. Finished Lenco Turntables- Jean Nantais isn't alone in offering the Lenco as a finished component. Here are two other Lenco rebuilders.
Oswalds Mill Audio- They also offer a true alternative to the wood based Nantais version. (see below)
Here is their description of their custom made Lenco...
"The OMA Anatase Turntable uses the excellent Swiss made Lenco motor and platter, with OMA's own bearing and new idler wheel assembly. All of these components are secured directly to a massive 2" thick slate plinth which weighs approximately 80 pounds. Each one is custom made to accommodate whatever tonearm you wish (or two arms.) If you already own a Lenco, we can take it as a donor, and give a discount on the price, or you can purchase the Anatase complete"
PTP Audio- Offers two turntables using "the drive system of a vintage Lenco, mounted on a modern stainless steel chassis in a solid Corian plinth." (see below)
4. A New Idler-Drive Turntable- There are at least two new Idler-drive turntables being manufactured today. I haven't seen, let alone heard, either of them.
SASKIA IDLER TURNTABLE- This is described as: "The first all new idler drive turntable in decades, Saskia was designed from the ground up by Win Tinnon to reach a new level of excellence in vinyl playback. Assembled from solid, specially selected clear Pennsylvania slate, the turntable weighs slightly over 200 pounds. The idler mechanism, bearing, platter and spindle are all new designs, not copies of designs of the past."
It sounds really interesting, and it looks beautiful, but it is extremely pricey. There is no website as of now, but the builder/designer can be contacted using this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
There is also an alternative to the Saskia (despite their claim above), though it is also expensive.
Garrard 501- This is manufactured by Loricraft, of record cleaning machine fame. It is distributed by Smart Devices in North America. I tried hard to find one used, at a good price, but I was unsuccessful. It also looks interesting. Part of their description:
"The 501 uses advances in technology which have come about in the years since the classic 401 ceased production, including an advanced bearing developed from and interchangeable with the original 301/401. It also used the years of experience Loricraft has gained rebuilding and restoring these classic turntables."
5. Garrard 301/401 Alternative- These two idler-drive turntables are more famous, and expensive, than the Lenco. They have almost a cult like following. Many audiophiles swear by them. There's plenty of discussion about them on the Internet. They can also be purchased refurbished, or improved in DIY fashion.
6. Thorens TD-124 Alternative- This is the turntable that inspired Stereophile reviewer/writer Art Dudley to finally part with his Linn Sondek (which really upset his fellow "Linnies"). I've heard the TD-124 on a number of occasions, but I was never impressed with it. I also found it complicated internally. However, it is highly important to note that I never once heard it even close to its best, so don't be prejudiced against it just because of my experiences. Still, there is a belt in the TD-124's drive system chain, which I'm convinced is a compromise, until I'm proven wrong with a direct experience.
7. Obscure Idler-Drive Alternatives- There are other serious idler-drive models, which are even rarer than the above, from Rek-O-Kut, Commonwealth and EMT (which are very expensive and heavy). While there are countless other vintage idler-drive turntables from various manufacturers, I don't know of any others that can be fully optimized like those mentioned above.
8. Used (Previously Modified) Idler-Drives Turntables- This means any used (Nantais) modified Lenco, or another used, previously modified, alternative idler-drive turntable. This option will appeal most to those audiophiles, who like myself, can not do the modification work themselves, but are still looking for the best possible price and value, and the least possible financial risk. You may find these "idler deals" at Audiogon, Audio Asylum and, I think, Lenco Heaven, and maybe even Jean Nantais himself, since many DIY idler-drive enthusiasts are constantly "trading-up". This is the option I would have used if I wasn't able to afford a "new" Nantais or an OMA Anatase Lenco.
Care, of course, must be taken into confirming the condition and the quality of the modification, so some research will be necessary to "earn" your "deal". Also, don't overlook potential shipping problems, both in cost, because of the weight, and the fact that a DIY project won't have standard shipping boxes. Purchasing only from an experienced and reputable DIYer is the best advice.
9. Rim Drives- This is a relatively new option, but it offers a true alternative (for some). There are two well-known U.S. based companies that offer these devices, VPI and Teres. Basically they are a portable idler-drive, which directly connects to the rim of the existing platter (which means it will replace the existing drive system of the turntable). It is certainly an elegant solution in theory, because you can keep your existing turntable, and avoid going through the hassle and expense of a completely new turntable (or project).
The VPI rim drive is designed specifically for (some of) their own turntables, while the Teres Verus is much more versatile. The Verus can be used with a variety of turntables (if the rim of the platter can be reached by the wheel). The VPI uses belts*, while the Verus is direct coupled to the motor (like an idler-drive), giving it the theoretical advantage in effective torque. I haven't heard either of these rim drives, but that "theoretical advantage" of the Verus appears to have borne fruit in actual practice, at least according to a direct comparison posted on Audiogon (Johnjc, 01-13-09), on a VPI Super Scoutmaster no less.
There is another company, Trans-Fi, that makes a new turntable, the Salvation, with an existing rim drive. Here is part of their description: "Slate plinth, Acrylic Platter, Inverted bearing, ceramic ball/nylon thrustplate, Direct Rim-drive/DC motor, Variable Rotary speed adjustment control 33-45rpm"
It looks really interesting to me, and the "Projected price with T3Pro (a linear tonearm) well under £2000"
Plus another company with interesting rim-drives located in Canada:
I believe that this option should be seriously looked into by those who don't want vintage components in their system, but still desire the (at least some of the) benefits associated with good idler-drives (effective torque), and also don't want to spend $ 15,000+ for a new idler-drive. Of course, only time will tell us if rim drives can give us all* the advantages of actual (high quality) idler-drives.
*Based on my/our collective experiences (and until proven wrong in practice), I am reasonably certain that any rim drive, which utilizes a belt anywhere in its drive system, will not provide optimum torque. In short, that rim drive will be a "compromise" when compared to a true idler-wheel, which has no belts in its drive system.
10. Direct Drives- While I have had no positive experiences with any direct-drives so far (with the obvious exception of the last version of the Goldmund Studio), regardless of their price, build quality and reputation, I would still not overlook some of the best models of the past (from Technics, Kenwood, Sony, Denon etc). A large number of serious and objective audiophiles have reported hearing outstanding results after the same type of (plinth) upgrades discussed above with the Garrard and Lenco idlers. Only a fool would ignore all these reports, and make the same type of mistake I made, and won't repeat. Accordingly, I look forward to audtioning one of these upgraded and all-out direct-drive models one day.
This is an exciting time to look for an idler-drive type turntable. In fact, considering the great variety of choices available today (some of which I'm certain I missed), this may be the true "Golden Age" of Idler-drives. Even better, I think it's only a matter of time for more models and options to become available (like from China). This website will attempt to stay current with the latest choices and developments.
Important Note- Below are an assortment of LENCO & IDLER-DRIVE LINKS.Top
Reference Lenco Issues
1. Can the "Reference Lenco" be further improved?- I believe so, but I also do not believe the improvement will be truly "significant". This is because the (current) Reference Lenco doesn't have any obvious sonic problems or the equivalent design weaknesses. A better version would have to improve on parts that are already of outstanding quality, and which are nearing the limits of technology.
2. The slate plinth- This will be the next step on our Lenco adventure, and I believe it's the change that has the most likely chance of improving the current "Reference" model (along with a heavier platter). However, I will make this a priority audition only if my associate, who has the same "Reference" as myself, informs me that he prefers it over our (wood) version. Also, I'm not ruling out another plinth material which is superior to both wood and slate. Bottom Line- I'm completely flexible when it comes to the plinth material.
General Idler-Drive Turntable Issues
1. The Critical Importance of the Plinth- When I wrote above (in Part Four), that "when everything is equal, an idler-drive will be superior to other drive systems", I must stress that I was being "figurative" and not "literal". In fact, if and when "everything is equally" bad, there is a good chance that the competing drive systems may sound better than idler-drives, at least in overall performance. If this were not true, idler-drives would have never "disappeared" in the first place. Accordingly, I believe this complex issue requires an explanation...
When you consider all the anecdotal evidence concerning idler-drives, starting from decades ago, right up until the present, the one constant fact is unavoidable; the plinth is the "make it or break it" part of these turntables. The largest and most easily heard improvements (or degradations) always involve the plinth. In the case of my "Reference Lenco", even a relatively small change in plinth materials made a significant sonic improvement, according to my friend/associate.
So I believe that while other turntable designs, like belt-drives and direct-drives, can get away with just a "good plinth", an idler-drive, because of its extra energy (effective torque "ET"), requires a truly dead plinth to really shine. This then is the unavoidable "trade-off" with idler-drives; The greater the amount of ET, the greater the requirement of a dead plinth.
2. Be CERTAIN that the original vintage turntable is operating properly- This is so obvious, that is shouldn't even have to be mentioned. Idler-drives are relatively complex devices and should never be confused with (simple) belt-drives when it comes to repair and/or maintenance. However, many audiophiles, including myself, do not have the knowledge and skills to know if a mechanical device is (or is not) at a 100% operating level (and nothing less than 100% is acceptable). Worse, we won't know how to get the defective machine back to 100%. So my advice is simple; if you don't have these skills, you better know someone who does, or purchase a working machine from someone who is knowledgeable and reputable.
3. Is an even higher level of turntable performance possible?- I'm not sure, but it would require both a sonic breakthrough in the plinth (slate or some other material), plus an even deader and heavier platter (and an effective clamping system). Importantly, there would also have to be no sonic trade-offs when these changes are implemented. In my opinion, the most obvious current candidate to reach this "new level" would be the Saskia turntable mentioned above.
4. Idler-Drives Compared to CD Reproduction- This is interesting. CD playback doesn't have any "groove resistance", so it obviously doesn't require any "effective torque (ET)". In theory, CD playback should equal, and even exceed, any idler-drive at its best. This is because the LP itself will not be perfectly (center) pressed, so there will always be some speed variations (distortions), regardless of the amount of the idler-drive's ET.
On the other hand, idler-drives should also sound more like (the best of) CD playback because of its superior speed consistency. However, since many listeners still much prefer (idler-drive) turntables, especially in those areas where idler-drives excel, can there be any explanation for this? I believe so...
CD reproduction is limited by its high sound-floor, which means it loses some low-level musical information. This, in turn, means something will be noticeably "missing", even if everything else is "perfect". Unfortunately, when you also consider Redbook sample rates, various filters and jitter, the cumulative degradation will even be audible on the "initiation" of notes, which should be the easiest challenge for digital reproduction. However, it is possible that CD playback will still outperform analog playback in the "initiation" of notes, if the competing turntable has low ET. At the least, it would be the trade-off between the turntable "smearing", and the CD "losing", musical information. The good idler-drives eliminate this frustrating choice of trade-offs.
5. Idler-Drives Compared to the ELP Laser Turntable- This is even more interesting. Unless I'm missing something, the ELP laser LP turntable not only has no "groove resistance", it also doesn't have any digital anomalies. I still haven't heard an ELP turntable in a familiar setting, but it would be fascinating to compare it to a good idler-drive. In theory, once again, it should equal (or exceed) any idler-drive in its greatest strengths, but what if it didn't? What could be the scientific explanation(s) for such a surprising result?
Maybe the present lasers are too large to reproduce the "note initiation" (which a Blu-Ray laser may directly rectify). The only other possible explanation would be a problem with the ELP's current drive system. It would have to have noticeable problems with speed consistency, even with no groove resistance. This could occur if it used some sort of servo or electronic devices to sustain its speed. If someone eventually makes a direct and serious comparison between these two designs, and I find out about it, it will be posted here.
6. Future Models- I feel that it is inevitable that new idler-drive models, or related rim-drive models, will become available in the near future, while belt-drives will (reciprocally) slowly lose their popularity and dominance. Some of these new models will be built in North America. However, I also expect some models to come from China. Of these, some will be based on Western designs, while others may be new Chinese designs or even "knock-offs" of the original vintage models that started all of this excitement in the first place.Top
I can understand how some audiophiles will read the above review/essay and come to the conclusion that this entire Lenco/Idler-drive Vintage Story "is just too good (or strange) to be true". In fact, I felt exactly the same way until what I heard, in my own system, with my own ears, convinced me that it was all valid. So, to be clear, when it comes to idler-drive turntables: There is a real "pot of gold at the end of the rainbow".
This means, at the very least, I strongly advise all phono-oriented audiophiles to hear a good idler-drive turntable, in a system you're familiar with, even if it's inconvenient. Simply ignoring these models, as I did for (too many) years, is not only unproductive, it touches on plain stupidity and even arrogance. "Excuses", at this point, are just a mask for some form of bias or denial.
However, despite my passionate convictions (which are common for a new "convert"), I feel it's also much too easy to simplify both what I (and others) have observed and the resulting conclusions I later formed. The first fundamental reality about idler-drives is...
While idler-drive turntable may offer the highest potential performance, these models also require the greatest effort to reach that level of performance. That's the trade-off, and it's also what ultimately doomed them in the audio marketplace. So there is no "free lunch" here, but there is still much for audiophiles to celebrate, because the good news dwarfs the hurdles. For example...
Some audiophiles will be able to achieve most of the idler-drives potential by themselves, if they have the necessary DIY skills and/or with kits. Further, considering their performance/price ratio, Lenco models modified by others, such as Jean Nantais (and maybe OMA), also offer outstanding value for the money when compared to competing turntable designs, even including those being sold used and heavily discounted. This is the reason why I can eventually see a time where many existing turntable manufacturers will also offer their own idler (or rim) drive models.
This brings us to the question of why the idler-drives died out in the first place? There are people who are far better positioned to answer this question than I am, especially if they were on the "inside" of the turntable business back in the 1970's. Still, looking back now though, 30 to 40 years later...
I believe that audio took a tragic "wrong turn" when it moved completely away from idler-drives. Audio did the same thing with tube electronics, but that didn't last long (a few years), while (high quality) idler-drives are still not manufactured today. This neglect was caused partially by ignorance, but also by the idler-drive manufacturers themselves, who did NOT evolve their turntables like the other serious turntable manufacturers. So, in the end, they were their own worst enemy. They had an inherent design superiority and they never took full advantage of it.
In fact, I am convinced that if any turntable manufacturer, 30 years ago, had built idler-drives as seriously as Goldmund built direct-drives, or as Micro-Seiki built belt-drives, we would still have idler-drive turntables being made today. Instead, we have the comedy/tragedy of a relatively mediocre turntable, the Linn Sondek, surviving all these decades, while ironically claiming a special performance capability in those exact areas, such as "PRaT", in which any good idler-drive is so far superior to it that the "comparison" is actually grotesque.
I can't avoid the question of money and cost, especially in comparison to the (belt-drive) alternatives. I look at this way; the Forsell, if made today, would cost around $ 25,000 (with tonearm, and if one considers 20 years of inflation). It has outstanding performance indeed, but the Reference Lenco (now $ 6,000+) is noticeably better. The only two commercial turntables that I believe could be even better than the Reference are the Saskia ($ 53,000) and the Kuzma Stabi, 4 motor version ($ 30,000). The only other alternative is the OMA Anatase, which may also be an outstanding performer and value.
As for those almost countless turntables with a single belt-drive, I seem them as fundamentally flawed, no matter what they cost, and no matter what lengths are taken to optimize the rest of the turntable (heavy platter, super bearings, "space-age" materials, "microscope ready" suspension etc). It's like someone running the Olympic finals of the 100 meter dash in body armour, and still expecting to win. To quote a "mainstream" reviewer (in a similar context), who actually owns a $ 125,000 version of this metal clad "sprinter"; "They're a lost cause".
I have never before been as satisfied with a turntable as I am with the Lenco Reference. Am I disturbed that I didn't get on the idler-drive "bandwagon" before this? No! If you allow yourself to think this way, you will eventually drive yourself crazy (and not just about audio related issues). I also listened to transistors for years and to pentode output tubes for decades (before moving to SET amplifiers). All that matters now is that I've experienced what a good idler-drive can uniquely accomplish, and I'm relating those experiences and observations to others, as best as I can.
Finally, to be direct, and maybe even crude, I put my money where my mouth is (and paid the full retail price). My detailed reasons for doing so are above.Top
This is a (2011) modification, developed (and sold as a kit) by Jean Nantais, which replaces the internal spring. The Lenco spring facilitates the critical connection of the idler-drive with the platter, and Nantais replaces it with a hanging weight. The weight is intended to optimize the torque*, keep it consistent with different speeds (especially at 45 RPM**) and eliminate the varying tension of the spring, due to aging, usage and manufacturing tolerances.
The cost of the Nantais modification kit is $ 60. There is also a description and discussion of the mod on both Audiogon and Lenco Heaven for the DIY crowd. The question then is: Is it worth it? The answer is definitely YES(!), though there is still a "qualification" at this time. First comes a description of the sonic changes that we observed, taken directly from my notes, that were made at the time (February 2011), which are all positive.
*This modification optimized torque, and nothing else. It is further proof that it's the Lenco's "effective torque" alone which allows it to be potentially special, and this should be remembered when the "sonic improvments" are discussed below.
**All of my observations and descriptions below were based only at 33 RPM. I didn't have enough experience with 45 RPM records to make fair and relevant (before and after) comparisons. This is unfortunate, because the differences at 45 should be even more noticeable.
Virtually all of the strengths of the Reference Lenco, that I reviewed (see above) almost a year ago now, have been enhanced. The sonics are even "tighter", more solid and controlled, and at all frequencies, though it is easiest to hear this improvement in the bass, especially staccato notes. The music, particularly lyrics, is more intelligible. The dynamic energy is more condensed and focused, as it is in real life. The sound is also more precise, cleaner and "certain". Once again, it is like taking the best qualities from CD/SACD reproduction, without their faults, and using them to enhance LP reproduction.
Overall, it is an important jump in performance, and is easily noticeable, so I believe all Lenco owners should implement it, whatever the method, assuming you want to hear the Lenco at its best. However, I hesitate to use the words "dramatic" and/or "significant", as have others. I reserve those particular words only for those rare large leaps in performance, such as hearing an optimized Lenco for the first time.
Finally, just for the record, after the modification, the Lenco makes some strange sounds after it is turned off and the platter slows down to a dead stop. It sounds like an empty stomach "grumbling". According to Nantais, this is normal and nothing to be concerned about.
While there were no sonic downsides that I (or my associate) could hear, there was one practical downside that must be mentioned. The hanging weight would sometimes "stick" when the Lenco was not used for a period of time (maybe a few hours, and always overnight). The Result- The platter wouldn't move at all the next time your turned it on, at least until you (again) loosened the hanging weight from below. After that, it would work as intended, at least until the next lengthy pause.
I assume that the string was "sticking" to the metal post that it goes through (which, in turn, is the conduit between the hanging weight and the idler-drive) until it was moved, and thus freed up. Nantais knew about this problem, and so did the associate who installed the modification. While they were working on a solution, some good news came my way from a surprisng source...
A second associate discovered an ultra-easy method to take care of the "hitch" (the sticking weight). You simply turn the platter before turning on the motor after a period of inactivity. That's it. Less than one revolution will do it. I've done this successfully myself many times now, so I can guarantee it will work. Even better, over time the sticking eventually stopped by itself, so I assume whatever was causing the problem had worn down by friction. So, as far as I'm concerned, this problem is now solved.
I would not hesitate having this modification made to the Lenco ASAP. It is one of the best sixty dollars, or even less DIY, that a Lenco owner will ever spend.Top
It has now been almost three years since I purchased the "original" Reference Lenco, and heard it in my own system. During this period, at least until now, I've heard only one change (and subsequent improvement), when the internal spring was exchanged for a hanging weight (in 2011). This "TJN Mod" has already been discussed on this website (see above). This time, for the MK. II, an entire series* of improvements were made, even including a new idler-wheel replacement, which was custom built for Jean Nantais, who is responsible for the overall design and manufacture of the Reference Lenco (MK. II).
*The II also has some "cosmetic" changes (new side panels), but they have no sonic effect, so they are irrelevant when evaluating its performance.
The actual details of these various changes, which involve the motor, speed adjustment slider, plinth/top plate coupling, plinth manufacture, etc. (along with the "hanging weight" and new idler-wheel), are only known by Nantais himself, and it's highly doubtful he will share them any time soon. As for myself, I can only report on what I actually heard. First though, I will disclose all the steps I took to make certain that the comparison between the two turntables was fair, accurate and relevant.
Needless to say, the rest of my system, from phono stage to speakers, including all the (signal and power) cables, remained exactly the same, but I went even further. I used the exact same tonearm and cartridge (Phantom Supreme/ZYX UNIverse), though they had to be moved from one tonearm board to another (and re-optimized, which was easy). Finally, I used the same three "bear feet", isolation platform and even used the exact same platter and platter interface (Goldmund mat and Harmonic Resolution record clamp). I had Nantais simply place the old platter on the new turntable. Frankly, I can't imagine anything more I could have done to make the comparison as fair as possible. The results...
The MK. II upgrade to the Reference Lenco must be described as "significant". This evaluation then means that I was wrong when I posted, in 2010, that while further improvements to the Reference Lenco were possible, they would not be "truly significant". In short, the sonic improvements I've heard with the MK. II go beyond what I thought was possible when I first heard the Reference Lenco. This is especially true if you also include the improvement from the TJN modification, which is part of the overall II upgrade (and there were no downsides to the MK. II upgrade, of any type). For further clarification, using "My Hierarchy/Levels of Audible Improvements", I would classify the MK. II upgrade as a Level 4 improvement (though with a serious caveat, see below):
Level 4- The improvement can be heard all the time, and without any effort, by an audiophile. However, it would not be unusual for it to be not heard by those listeners with no interest in sound quality. This improvement is still usually "significant"; meaning an audiophile will almost always suffer from its absence.
Lower Distortion- This is observable almost all of the time, with most records and at most volume levels, but it's most noticeable at higher volume levels, which are, of course, the most challenging to reproduce. In simple terms, it sounds as if there is "better tracking", though, in this instance, it occurs even during low volume levels. I found this improvement to be most satisfying, even though it was usually subtle, maybe because it was unexpected.
Better "Musical Flow"- The sound is even less "mechanical" than before, like water flowing in a brook or waterfall, without artificial "breaking" and cogs. It's more like a master tape.
More Natural Body/Yet still "Lighter on its Feet"- The true (and rarest) mark of a real improvement is when two areas, usually mutually exclusive, both become better simultaneously.
More "Relaxed"- It's as if the amplifier suddenly has more power. This subtle improvement is obviously related to the lower distortion mentioned previously.
Better Focus & Intelligibility- The placement of the musicians is easier to observe, even when they are moving around. The lyrics are more obvious and less effort is required to hear them clearly. The singer's mouth and throat are also better defined. There is also now a stability to the focus which I have never experienced before, and (importantly) appreciate the more I hear it (a "stabilized focus").
Better Bass- There is even more detail and control than before, like the amplifiers are now better at "gripping" the woofers.
Greater Overall Complexity and Texture- As an example, the inner details of a vibrato (instrument or voice) are more easily heard.
More Immediate- It is subtle, but it's still noticeable.
Lower Sound-Floor- Just a little bit during normal hours (up until around midnight), but easily noticed very late at night. A surprise, if not a revelation, for me. The lowest sound-floor, I believe, I've ever experienced (even including the "Forsell Era", when I lived in Toronto, which had far better AC than in Florida).
Less Homogenous- This is heard mainly during loud passages. There is also greater separation and individualization of instruments and voices.
More Intense & Forceful Dynamics- This is heard consistently, though it is not anywhere near as noticeable as my initial change from a belt-drive to an idler-drive.
Better Organization- The timing between the musicians is more obvious and the music now makes more sense. This is obviously related to the "better musical flow" mentioned above.
These improvements vary from "Subtle" to (at most) "Moderate", and nothing more, which is why I feel a non-audiophile may have difficulty hearing them (individually or as a whole). However, if we use an (imaginary) audiophile "formula", we get a different result: "Subtle or Moderate" X 11 = "Significant!"
To summarize all of the above improvements into just one simple description, that any (phono-centric) audiophile should understand (and appreciate):
I believe this is true because I listened to a number of 45 RPM records before and during this entire evaluation period, not to mention the numerous comparisons of 33 and 45 LPs I've heard over the years. The usual improvements that are heard when going to a good "45" are eerily similar to what I hear with the MK. II improvements. However, this simple 33/45 claim has a complex issue related to it as well, which I will now address.
To be clear, the "33/45" improvement is completely dependent on the quality of the original record; The better the record, the more it will sound like a 45, which means that mediocre LPs will still sound mediocre, with very little improvement, let alone a "45" of it. This observation, which was heard by more than just the writer, inevitably brings up a larger issue, which I find unprecedented concerning the MK. II's performance.
Let's start with this assumed fact: The better the recording, the greater the noticeable improvement (with the MK. II). Now this fact is generally true with almost all component improvements, not just turntables. It's always easier to hear the improvements (or degradations) with superior musical software, since there is simply just more "there" to be heard, changed or lost. However, for some unknown reason, I've never before heard such an extreme difference, in performance, between mediocre and excellent recordings.
To put this in easy to understand numerical terms, just as an example (and not literal): Instead of a normal (and tight) 3 to 5% improvement "range" you would hear with an average (and true) component upgrade (depending on the quality of the source material), this time, with the MK. II, that same "range" is now something more like 1 to 7%. The "average" of both examples is 4%, but the expanded range, which I have probably exaggerated to make my point, is "the point".
I am obviously very enthusiastic about the MK. II upgrade, and highly recommend it to any current Reference owner, if the cost in time and money is not an undue burden. This upgrade may even have reached the practical performance limits of what can be achieved with the basic Lenco turntable. This would mean that, in the future, only a complete "start over", using a new motor, platter etc, would have a serious chance of achieving an even higher level of performance. In fact, I've been informed that Jean Nantais is even thinking along these same lines as this is written, but it's much too early to even speculate about this "Ultimate Lenco" at this time. From my own experience and perspective, the only possible improvement I can currently imagine would come from an even heavier (and even deader) platter, everything else being equal (if that is possible).
This then inevitably brings us to "The Big Picture" on turntables. These are my current thoughts on the most serious issues directly related to the Reference Lenco MK. II...
1. The Idler-Drive's Superiority- I believe that at the present time, with everything else being equal, an idler-drive has the greatest performance potential* of any known turntable drive system. My argument, based on my/our countless experiences, can be distilled to this simple reality: An "all-out" idler-drive, such as the Reference Lenco, can match an "all-out" belt-drive's greatest strengths (its low sound-floor, delicacy and purity). However, no belt-drive, no matter what measures are taken**, can equal an idler's drive's unique strengths (better flow, organization, bass and dynamics), so I don't see how any other conclusion is possible. I am still open minded about an "all-out" direct-drive, but I will wait until I actually audition a model*** which can equal, or better, what I am now hearing with the Reference Lenco before I change my mind.
To be clear, I strongly disagree with those audiophiles who believe that everything comes down to "taste" and/or that every drive-system is inherently "exactly equal" to each other (by some mysterious "Law of the Universe") in overall**** performance. I believe that these audiophiles are either overly attached to a particular component (or "character of sound"), and/or afraid of taking an unambiguous position, because of their fear of losing both their "reputation" for being "fair minded" (or "unprejudiced"), as well as some of their audio "friends". (See a recent Audiogon Thread, "Direct drive vs belt vs rim vs idler arm", for examples of this "thinking".)
*Unfortunately, modern idler-drives are inherently more difficult (and expensive) to optimize than other drive systems, so actually achieving their theoretical "potential" is somewhat of a rare event. This unavoidable reality is the true "trade-off" between drive systems. It is also the primary reason why idlers fell out of favor in the first place, now many decades ago, and are still shunned, even today, by manufacturers.
**I've already heard, more times than I can count: Air and magnetic bearings, multi-belt-drives, 50+ lb. platters, various flywheels, 100 lb. multi-layer plinths and every exotic material one can imagine, all of which utterly failed to equal a good idler-drive's strengths. Those belt-drives were almost always more expensive than the Reference Lenco as well.
***I believe that the new VPI direct-drive has the greatest potential of any known model at this time, because of its unprecedented motor.
****The "Universal Turntable Law" Defined- If one design is exactly 5.2% superior in one area, then the alternative design must be exactly 5.2% superior in another area, so it's all then some sort of a divinely willed "Cosmic Wash", which means that personal preference and "taste" are all that's left when choosing between them. In short, no turntable design can ever be declared to have an inherent overall advantage over any other design.
2. Future Improvements- Focusing on turntables alone, and ignoring tonearms and cartridges, I see two paths for future improvements, one of them being a radical change for phono-oriented audiophiles, including me. The first is simply a further evolutionary improvement of the Reference Lenco (or something very similar to it in design and performance), focusing on the motor, bearing and platter, since I don't believe there's much more that can be done otherwise. (I also realize a dedicated AC supply would help with day to day, and even hour to hour, speed stability, but I consider this to be more of a convenience rather than a true performance enhancement*.) Then there is, what just may be, my "ultimate dream" turntable, which can be built today (and even 10 years ago) with current technology (see "The Stealth Diamond in the Rough").
*Based on my experience using the Reference Lenco with an AC regenerator, which did not provide an improvement. In fact, an associate, visiting me at the time, even felt it compromised the sonics. However, I am still open minded to hearing an improvement with an AC regenerator if it's built specifically for the requirements of the Lenco's motor.
3. The MK. II's Wide Improvement Range- I now have a theory as to why the new Reference Lenco has only a marginal effect on "mediocre" records, and it's not "good news". I believe that the "original" Reference Lenco achieved such a high level of performance, that to hear a further significant improvement, you must have both a high resolution system along with records that are exceptionally well recorded and challenging to reproduce. So, to state the obvious: There's only so much musical information that can be extracted and heard from a poor or mediocre recording, no matter how great an effort is made, and we appear to have now closely approached that limit, at least with turntables.
Example & Proof- Please consider all of those famous Caruso records from 100 years ago, which will always sound horrible, even if they were played on a "perfect audio system". Now we've reached the point where a considerable amount of even recently recorded music, while obviously far better sounding than the Caruso recordings, is almost completely lacking whatever challenges it takes to distinguish great turntables from each other.
A large number of records were played during the evaluation period, but two LPs were used the most often, and they couldn't be more different from each other, which demonstrates the wide scope of this evaluation:
MEDIEVAL CHRISTMAS-BOSTON CAMERATA/COHEN-NONESUCH 71315- Space, decay, voices, harmonics, body, purity, focus, separation, transparency, immediacy, ambiance, intelligibility, vibrato, percussive precision, individuation, sound-floor, low-level dynamics, etc. In short, this LP has almost everything except challenging bass notes.
13 & GOD-ANTICON/ALIEN TRANSISTOR-ABR0050/N11- Voice and word intelligibility, musical flow, dynamics and bass rhythm, control, detail, extension, drive and impact.
The Reference Lenco MK. II (In My Own System):
Important Note- This is all the correspondence I kept and posted from around 2003 until 2009, concerning idler-drive turntables. I feel it is interesting to archive my slowly evolving feelings towards idler-drives, starting from my serious skepticism and ending with serious enthusiasm. For me, reading some of what I wrote years ago is now quite humbling. It will always be a personal reminder for me to keep an open mind in the future.
Garrard 301/401/Thorens TD-124 Turntables- I've been receiving occasional letters from people asking me my opinion on these two vintage turntables. This is what I have replied to them:
One of my friends had the Garrard 301/401 (with an SME tonearm) for a short period of time many (around 25) years ago. My memories are now obviously hazy, but I do remember that we preferred the Linn LP-12 at the time. I realize the 301/401 is now a rare and desirable collector's item, but I can't see it competing with the better modern designs.
In the case of the Thorens TD-124, I've actually owned 3 or 4 of them, the most recent in 2001. I also feel it does not compete with more modern designs, including the Linn, which is another older design that some people ignorantly feel I am overly critical of, and that I also don't fully appreciate.
These two turntables do have two important upsides:
1. They are very well built, using heavy duty steel, motors, etc.
2. They don't use a suspension, which is a sonic advantage if you can get away with it (see my Class A Turntable References above).
These designs, and all the other vintage turntables that I've heard, don't have the newest, highest quality bearings (noticeable rumble); dead or neutral platters (obvious colorations/smearing); and the latest techniques to reduce the unwanted energy generated from within them, and/or their acoustic environment (more smearing/more colorations). Their advantages don't overcome their disadvantages in my opinion.
I fully realize I didn't hear either of these designs "at their best", meaning with the best tonearms and with modern, isolated bases, but even if this were the case, I still can't imagine them improving to such a degree that they would be competitive today.
However, for alternative opinions on Idler Drive turntables in particular...
After my short write-up above, indicating my skepticism of these models, a reader sent me this letter which I felt should be shared for the sake of balance and a more complete perspective on the vintage Garrards:
"I just want to add an opinion to your recent December 2003 update concerning vintage turntables. I am an owner of a custom-built Garrard 401, and I have to say that I think it competes very favourably with many of the better turntables of today (though obviously not with the very best). I believe that the problems plaguing the 301/401 models were always to do with the fact that they were built into very poor quality plinths and bases - often no more than a plywood or chipboard box really. When I received my 401 around 3 years ago it was in such a configuration. I have since spent about £1200 ($2000?) on a proper custom-build by an experienced engineer/turntable builder, utilising superior materials such as ash, granite, Tufnol (a high performance plastic), and carbon fibre, as well as a very high quality custom power supply. I use an SME 309 (modified) arm with a Denon DL-304 cartridge.
Since the rebuild I have yet to experience any of the often listed problems so associated with these turntables, especially that of rumble. I've heard a number of turntables up to around £5000 and none compete with my Garrard (including the Nottingham Analogue Hyperspace which I heard a few weeks ago). I, and a couple of friends (whose audio opinions and listening skills I value very highly) have also heard the Clearaudio Master Reference, and this, in all our opinions, failed to match my turntable's performance. This all leads me to conclude that the design of these turntables is in fact exceptional, it was only (and largely still is) the way these products are built up which is the problem in my view. Even the engineer who built my turntable up commented on the quality of engineering of the 401, and the fact that it is rarely seen today. Perhaps it is important to note that I have never heard as low a noise floor in any other system.
This all sounds a bit like I'm blowing my own trumpet here, but I definitely believe in calling a spade a spade (which is why I read your website). I haven't heard many of todays real Class A designs, and I wouldn't expect my Garrard to compete with those, but am convinced that if my turntable was a production design today then it would be very competitive indeed.
Unfortunately people continue to re-build the Garrards into such inferior materials as marble, MDF and such like, so many people still have no idea of the potential of these fantastic designs."
"There is a great turntable and No.!: The EMT 927 and just a tiny bit less great the EMT 930. These are Masters of the Platine Verdier. Then... The Garrard 301 in a correct plinth can work wonderful in an all triode/horn system. It outperforms a Linn LP12 in its latest version with ease.
I started in that range with the following turntables:
Thorens 126 MKII, Micro BL91, Goldmund Studio (old wood plinth version), Kuzma Stabi-II (I was the distributor of Kuzma), Platine Verdier (concrete base), VPI TNT, TNT-III, Well Tempered Signature (still have it), EMT 930, EMT 927 (and a Garrard 301 is there as well).
I still favour the ZYX R100 Fuji as the best. No need for the Airy, the standard version is so good, I am fine with it. FR-64s tonearm: On an EMT-930, or on other heavy TT's, it can perform Class-A! Not the fx aluminium, that is Class-C. But the bearings must be 100%."
Personal Notes- The EMT turntables are more revered by their owners than any other turntable I can think of, excluding the Linn during the hysteria of the late 1970's. There must be something special about them, but, like the Garrards, I don't see how they can equal the modern designs using air bearings, flywheels and exotic materials etc.
It's been decades since I heard any Lenco turntable. From what I know now, I never heard any of them (or the Thorens TD-124, EMT or the Garrard 301/401) at their best at that time, or since that time. The same reader above (Teres/Galibier), had some news and observations to make about the Lencos. Here they are, slightly edited:
"Another thought for you. You may be aware of the Lenco phenomenon that has been running on the Audiogon Analog forum. There's a Canadian called Jean Nantais who has been championing the Lenco L75/L78 as a competitive turntable when suitably modified - an affordable alternative to the Garrard 301/401. In its day, the Lenco idler drives were criticized for their rumble performance. Now that acoustic isolation is better understood, it seems that the likely cause of the rumble problem was acoustic feedback due to the poor design, resonant plinths used in the 60s/70s.
These Swiss turntables have a very high quality balanced motor, a balanced platter and a good bearing. When the cheaper, non-precision steel parts are damped and greased and the 'table is installed in a high mass, solid plinth, they are capable of producing surprisingly good results. I have recently tried the experiment and the Lenco partnered by an FR64s arm and Koetsu Black performed to a very high standard. It hasn't bettered the Galibier yet, but came very close.
The Koetsus were allegedly developed and tested using idler wheel drive turntables and when so mounted the frequency balance of the Koetus Black is more even than when previously fitted to my Linn. Like the Garrards, the transients and dynamics are excellent, speed stability is very good and image location was accurate. To my ears, it betters the Teres, Nottingham Analogues and SME 10s that I have heard. I have also tried an Expressimo modified Rega arm with a DL-103 on the Lenco and that too performs very well, although the extra quality of the Koetsu stood out for me.
I would suggest that anyone possessing the skill to build a solid plinth, and set up their arm/cartridge by themselves, would be well advised to try out the Lenco option, at least as a budget component. I am certain that the re-plinthed and modified Lenco performs better than any new turntable I have heard costing up to £2000."
Personal Note- I've been hearing so much positive "buzz" about these vintage idler-drives for the last few years that I now believe there must be something to it, assuming the owner has the execution done correctly. On the other hand, outperforming a Linn Sondek is one thing, while outperforming a VPI Aries or a Galibier, let alone a Forsell, Rockport or Walker, is another. I'll become a "true believer" myself when I actually hear one of these optimized "idlers" perform competitively with some successful modern turntable designs, and I don't even mean those expensive models at the highest level, which would be unfair, but something reasonably close.
GARRARD 301 TURNTABLE- I received another letter about this (idler drive) turntable from a reader. Once again, the observations could not be more positive. Here it is (my bold):
"I was looking through the Reference Turntable section and came across the discussions on the Garrard 301/401 and the Lenco's............ Just another music lovers opinion but I do have some direct experience you might find interesting.
I have been enjoying an original VPI Aries/JMW 10/ZYX Airy 3X-SB for some time now. About a year ago I started reading about how people were taking these old idler drive TT's and building good plinths for them and having great success (especially the Japanese). About three months ago I took the plunge and purchased a 301 off EBay. It was in great original condition, but I went through it and restored, lubed, and cleaned it anyway. I built a 4" Hard Maple plinth with an Ebony armboard and mounted a new Triplanar VII.
I'm not sure what I expected, but what I got was pretty well off the charts. Using my same ZYX cart it simply did my Aries in......... Much more dynamic, better leading edge definition (which I feel makes it time better). Bass extension like I have never experienced from analog. Better tonality, musicality............. on and on. The most surprising thing is that it's quieter........ This really shocked me. I figured this crazy old antique, which is supposed to rumble, would be rather noisy and have no resolution... WRONG!!! Again, much better than my Aries.
I know some of this is attributable to the tonearm, but I can't imagine it's accounting for everything I am hearing. I am sure set-up and execution has a part to play too. I may have gotten lucky, or maybe some others have gotten even better results?? Right now I don't really feel like tweaking around too much as I am busy listening to my records.
Hope this sheds some light for you............ There really is something about these things. If you ever get a chance to hear one done right you should check it out for yourself."
Personal Notes- First, let's get the "reasonable doubt" out of the way. I agree with the reader, the tonearm change, by itself, can't be the reason for "everything" he heard. The JMW 10 isn't that "bad", and no tonearm is that much better than it. So, logically, the turntable deserves a reasonable share of the "attributions" he heard. That being admitted, and absorbed...
All right, I'm convinced: There must be something to all of this "idler drive" excitement. There's just too much of it to ignore, and these enthusiasts aren't "Linnies" (holding on to a fantasy), but just the opposite; leaving some of the best modern turntables for something they recently discovered, that was manufactured in the distant (for audio) past. Accordingly, one way or the other, I'm now making a commitment to experience the reality of this phenomena, with direct observation, in my own system.
There are some hurdles before this will happen:
1. I won't be able to get to it until 2007, because of previous commitments (and I still want to hear another "modern" turntable and tonearm compared to the Forsell).
2. I don't have the required skills to build one of these turntables. So I'm going to have to find one being sold already finished, and without any compromises. I don't know how hard that will be.
3. An uncompromised turntable is an absolute requirement for me. I can only do this once, so it has to be right. I don't have the time for second-chances and/or "excuses" if I'm not impressed.
4. Further, and related, to the above requirements, I need to know which of the idler turntables is the best performer once it is optimized. My meaning of "best" is the least amount of audible flaws. I don't care about someone's idea of "musicality", I want the model that best preserves the signal, for better or worse.
5. The Thorens TD-124 is out of the running, since I already owned more than one of them, and was never impressed with it. I know none of them were optimized, but I'd be dishonest if I told you I could listen to it again without any prejudice. Besides, I never liked they way they operated, and even their appearance turned me off. (That's superficial, but still defendable while there are other options.)
Further Thoughts- I have to admit that I still have a degree of skepticism about idler-drives. This unease is based on the history of turntable development and marketing. This is my problem: I don't understand why none of the contemporary turntable manufacturers are using this method, if it's truly superior to what they are now using. If there's a rational reason for this reluctance, I can't think of it.
The manufacturers can certainly duplicate, if not improve on, the original technology. There are no patent problems by now, or excessive costs, associated with idler drives. Audiophiles, who already spend serious money on 1930 to 1960 technology (think horns and SET tube amplifiers), would definitely not be hesitant with new idler drives either, if they perform well. I am truly mystified by all of this. I don't know what I'm missing. Any rational explanation would be welcomed, and posted.
"I read with interest in your recent updates that you are contemplating the purchase of an idler-wheel turntable. You note that there are no manufacturers of such turntables now. That is not strictly true. If you look at http://www.garrard501.com/, you will see that Loricraft, the UK-based company that now owns the rights to the Garrard name, makes a turntable called the Garrard 501, which seems essentially to be an updated and optimised Garrard 301/401. I look forward to reading your thoughts on idler wheels Ė I have a Lenco L75 and plan to put it in a slate plinth (http://www.world-designs.co.uk/acatalog/Slatedeck_Plinths.html). Even in its existing plywood plinth, it easily bests my Linn, using the same arm and cartridge.
You may find these links of interest, also."
Personal Notes- I have to thank this reader for the correction, as well as clarifying my thoughts and goals. Forget the DIY updates, or even the second-hand updates, I've now decided to go for the "real deal", and will seriously try to purchase a Garrard 501 sometime next year. There will only be one obvious hurdle, the price: The top-of-the-line "Inspiration" is $ 22,000*, and the "Standard" is $ 13,500* (stainless steel versus aluminum chassis), and that does NOT include the tonearm. I will either have to find one used, at a really great price, or get one wholesale, if that is even possible. I would much prefer to buy one instead of getting a "loaner" (from anyone). The favor involved in such a serious loan would be just too significant to ignore, even unconsciously, plus I don't want to have any (even justifiable) time constraints during my evaluations.
*I'm not an expert on the price of (or the extra costs associated with using) stainless steel, but the extra $ 8,500 ($ 22,000 less $ 13,500) appears much too high to me. My associate, who is much more familiar with material and labor costs, doesn't use the word "appears", he claims the extra charge is totally unjustified. He goes even further: He feels that the $ 13,500 price for the "Standard" is also much too high, considering the retail prices of the original 301/401 models (a few hundred dollars). (His evaluation takes into consideration inflation, reduced "economy of scale" and all the upgrades.) If true, it would appear that this price is more of "what the market will bear" than the normal manufacturing cost/retail price ratio. I really hope he's wrong about this.
For interested readers, I now have Links to both the manufacturer in the UK, Loricraft, and the U.S. distributor, Smartdev (see below and in the Links File).
Meanwhile, another reader sent me his observations concerning the Garrard 301, but this time with a somewhat different take and outcome. Here it is, unedited (my bold):
"Your recent posting on this old TT encourages me to share my recent experience. 2005 was the year of the Garrard experiment for me. I went from an (VPI) Aries MK1 to a well maintained Garrard 301, with a hefty 8 layer hardwood base (similar to the expensive Shindo), with Schroeder DPS (with Ebony wand)/Airy 2. I was dissatisfied with the bass, and went to the Triplanar 7. This ended being a better match for my cartridge. My initial positive experience was similar to your reader. Yet I still felt I could do better. After 10 months, I tried the same arm/cartridge on a Teres 255, and found a vast improvement in low-level definition (lowered sound-floor in your parlance), transparency and tonal richness (completeness). It just sounded better. So the Garrard is no longer.
As to why the idler drives are no longer made, this has been discussed on Audiogon. The most compelling reason is cost to build; these are high parts count mechanical assemblies. Belt drives work very well, and are cheaper to make."
Personal Note- This letter further confirms my decision to go "all the way" with these idler drives. That's why it's only the Garrard 501 (at least first) or nothing for me.
This reader provides another choice other than a DIY project or the ultra pricey Garrard 501.
"I have a Garrard 301. I havenít gotten up and running yet. The whole approach to playing vinyl with Garrards fascinates me. Through my contacts with Jonathan Halpern at Tone Imports who is the Shindo Importer (whose line includes the Shindo modified version of the Garrard 301, and Auditorium 23 Garrard ancillaries) and Matt Rotunda of Pitch Perfect Audio (dealer for Shindo and Auditorium 23) here in San Francisco. I have had a lot of exposure to the Shindo version of the Garrard, and the philosophy behind idler wheel turntables. Jonathan is the preeminent scholar about all things Garrard. He knows just about every thing there is to know about them and the various iterations. He makes a very compelling case of the superiority of idler wheel tables over belt-driven tables. I wish there were a write-up somewhere about that perspective, because I think we could all benefit from knowing it.
I have heard the Shindo Garrard 301 many times, and I do love the sound. It is propulsive, meaty, and it simply allows the music to sing in a way that I havenít heard with other vinyl setups. Comparing my setup with a Zyx Airy 3SB mounted on a modified Well Tempered Reference to the Shindo, I think intellectually that my setup is in the same league. But my emotional response to Shindo 301 is stronger, and I think I enjoy music more through the Shindo it gets more of the music out of the grooves in a way that is hard to put your finger on. So, if I had the money to spend, it would be on a Shindo 301. Failing that, I will eventually setup my own Garrard with the great info I have gotten from Jonathan and Matt.
One of the things I have learned from Jonathan, is that getting that great Garrard sound is pretty dependent on the choice of the right arm and cart, with deference given to the SME 3012, EMT, Shindo and Ortofon carts etc. So matching up a well-plinthed Garrard with a modern arm and a Zyx for instance, might not reveal that Garrard Ďmagicí I have heard. But the fun is in the fiddling.
BTW, Matt Rotunda sent an email out announcing the availability of a plinth custom-made for the 301 by Auditorium 23 (Iíll forward it to you). It looks like it a great piece, and it includes a custom drilled armboard for your choice of tonearm as part of the deal. I will forward you that message. Iím tempted to begin with this as a base for my own Garrard."
http://www.toneimports.com (Link is also below and in Links File)
Personal Notes- This may be a good option for me (and others) if I can't find a Garrard 501 at an affordable price next year. However, there may be another issue here, based on the above letter, and one which I find increasingly disturbing the more I think about it...
It appears that the importer, and/or the re-builder, may require you to also use their chosen tonearm, an "Ortofon/EMT RF-297". (I would prefer either a Tri-planar or Graham Phantom.) There's a huge difference between simply touting the superiority of a good idler-drive, and then going on to state that you also need the older, vintage tonearms and cartridges to get "the great Garrard sound". This, to me, is now entering the world of "Nostalgia". To believe all of this, you must believe that the height of phono engineering was reached 40 years ago, and we've been going backwards ever since, not only in turntables, but everything else phono related. I don't buy that for a second.
I'm not concerned yet, because the previous readers, and many others, have had highly positive experiences with the best of the modern tonearms and cartridges. In fact, I'm not interested in any turntable, regardless of its performance otherwise, which doesn't work with our contemporary, associated phono components.Top
This interesting letter, from a veteran reader, brings up a number of issues concerning idler-drive turntables (and their competition). I've had only limited experience with my Lenco Idler-drive, but nothing I've heard so far allows me to challenge any of the reader's observations below. However, I must still reserve my own judgment at this time. There's only very minor editing and my bold:
"...Having owned many high-end turntables, I ended up with a Garrard 301 for the past 5 years. It seems crazy that I sold my old TT that was worth almost 10 times the cost of the Garrard, but I never looked back. With my experience with the Garrard (and the EMT 930) in the past 5 years, I have accumulated some insights about turntable designs that are far away from mainstream thinking.
The reason for using a belt drive system is to reduce motor noise without resorting to expensive measures. I am now convinced that belt drive was invented not because idler drive was noisy, but purely as a cost-cutting measure; I have measured my Garrard 301, and the amount of rumble is negligible. I am using a 110dB/W/m sensitive horn system, which is -3dB at 20 Hz, and I do NOT hear any rumble. With a good modern reissue LP, the perceived noise floor is no higher than that of a CD. The idler drives are NOT noisy even with a brute of a Garrard motor, if mounted on a proper plinth. Belt-driven TTs often sound unstable. Piano music is often unlistenable because of pitch instability. I have compared my Garrard with CDs of the same piano recordings, and I cannot detect any pitch instability. Rock solid.
Suspended chassis is a disaster. All the suspended decks I have heard, esp. the lightweight ones such as the Linn, lacks the solid foundation necessary to portray large scale orchestral works. Electronic music and small scale vocal or instrumental music might sound OK, but it cannot deal with any large scale music. The combination of belt drive and suspended chassis is even worse, when you add pitch instability into the mix. The soundstage often collapses when things get a bit more complicated, and the imaging rapidly gets confused. The Garrard imaging is rock solid from the lowest PPP to the loudest FFF.
The notion of a frictionless bearing is totally misguided. Noiseless, yes, but frictionless, no. The problem lies with the variable needle drag when a record is played. Is it easier to control your car speed driving on ice or on a proper road surface? If the bearing is frictionless, the needle drag will result in large (theoretically infinite) speed variations. You then have to rely on the motor (via a stretchable rubber band) to try and correct that speed variation.
The engineers at Garrard understood this all those years ago, and added an eddy current brake to the drive mechanism. The brake imparts a constant drag on the platter for the motor to work against. Any variation in needle drag is tiny in comparison and has no effect on platter rotation speed. This results in rock solid pitch. The only modern TT design I have come across with a similar feature is Tim de Paravicini's magnetic drive design. Indeed, it was Tim who revealed this secret to me when I discussed TT design with him two years ago.
The Garrard has obvious design weaknesses too. The motor is extremely powerful, and the energy needs to be sunk into a massive plinth or one with constrained layer damping. I went the massive route and used a backbreaking slab of marble. The bearing design is also ancient, running the spindle directly on a copper thrust plate. Analogue Tube Audio in Germany markets a ceramic ball bearing with bronze thrust plate replacement, which reduces the bearing noise to a negligible level. This bearing is state of the art and is comparable to any bearing on the best modern decks. The platter is also a bit resonant, but this can be overcome with damping and/or platter mat selection. I use a suede mat from Acoustic Solid, first suggested to me by Jean Hiraga.
Even with escalating price that came with the Garrard craze, this turntable (and the 401) still represents remarkable value and is highly competitive or even superior to what is available today." (4/10)
Here's another reader's view of the Garrard 301 upgrades discussed above. I felt his warning should be shared. There's some minor editing and my bold:
"I read with interest the letter you posted from a Garrard 301 user. As a 301 user myself, I find no disagreement with anything he says - I've never had a turntable that sounded better.
However, about the bearing mod using a ceramic ball: On reading some forums lately , I've noticed that while many agree that it sounds better than the stock bearing and thrust plate, they have also noticed that, due to the fact that the ceramic ball is harder than the Garrard spindle, the ball starts to gouge out the bottom of the spindle. So it appears that this improvement may come at a price, that is, damaging a part that is probably difficult to come by, not to mention expensive. That has made me decide not to try that mod. Others may wish to think about it and read what some others have said before they try it. Yes, there is a lot of misinformation on some of those forums (What? you're joking, right?), but given this particular circumstance, what has been reported seems to make sense.
Disclaimer: I have no personal experience with this. I'm using the original bearing/thrust plate on mine, which sounds good to me, but I have not had the opportunity to compare the two, but even if the mod does sound better than the original, fear of ruining what for now works just fine is what keeps some of us from going that route. Caveat emptor, and all that." (4/10)
Here is a reader's letter about idler-drive turntables, and various related issues, which I believe sheds an interesting and different light on the reasons for their unique performance capabilities. There's minor editing and my bold:
"Besides the Garrard 301 that I am currently putting together, I also bought a Lenco L78 and plan to restore and rebuild it as well. It will take some time, but my goal is to compare and tweak both in order to see which one is able to perform better. From what I've read so far, I expect the Lenco to have a bit more potential than the Garrard. As of now, both will be housed in similar slate plinths.
Compared to a Garrard 301, the Lencos are still relatively reasonably priced on eBay. I'll keep you posted about my findings, but it will take a few months for sure.
The fact that VPI offers the rim drive system as an upgrade, to me confirms the superiority of the idler/rim concept. What I'm not sure about though is if positioning a flywheel between motor and platter (like VPI does it) is a better solution than coupling the motor directly via a lightweight rim drive wheel (idler drive) with the platter? The heavy flywheel between motor(s) and platter slows down the motor's speed correcting reaction.
A design idea that I have couples an eddy current brake mechanism with the platter (instead with the motor like on the Garrards). Like on the Garrards, the tiny artificial drag from the eddy current brake moves the operating point of the motor to an area where it operates with higher torque, PLUS it also 'loads' the connection between motor/idler/platter in a way that (in theory) should allow the motor's speed correcting reaction to load fluctuations from stylus friction to reach the platter quicker - and thus correct speed fluctuations quicker.
It's much like towing a car with a rope. When the car in tow simply 'rolls' the rope first needs to be tightened before the pulling car is able to correct the speed of the car in tow back to nominal speed. If the driver in the car in tow slightly breaks, the rope is tight at all times and speed changes of the car in tow can be corrected quicker by the towing car, since the rope does not have to be tightened first. The resulting speed fluctuations (wow/flutter) of the car in tow will be lower.
My train of thought might have other problems ... but it makes more sense to me than what VPI offers. VPI's rim drive 'de-couples' both motors from the idler (in the VPI design the idler is also a heavy flywheel) using belts. And making the idler wheel a heavy flywheel, further slows down the motor's attempt to correct speed changes that actually occur in the platter's speed, since the motor(s) have to accelerate the flywheel (with the very high moment of inertia) before the speed change of the flywheel can be used to correct the platter speed.
In the above example this would translate into putting a very heavy (rolling) third vehicle between the towing car and the car in the back whose speed changes we're trying to correct. The logical consequence is, that the speed changes of the car in tow will be larger and longer, because it takes more time for the towing car to correct them.
Well, it's all theory and it may lack a few things that Harry Weisfeld probably has already figured out? I guess the only way to find out is to try ..."
Personal Note- As still a relative novice in this subject, my current feeling is to avoid all belts until proven otherwise.
"I had an interesting conversation with Terry and Nigel from Loricraft/Garrard in England yesterday. I initially contacted them a few days ago with some technical questions around the 301 I'm currently restoring/rebuilding.
During our conversation, they explained, that the 301 actually sounds better when operating with 230 Volt and 50 Hz, using the 50 Hz pulley, which is a bit larger than the 60 Hz version for the U.S.. The reason for this - they explained - lies in the motor, which operates with higher torque when running on 230 Volt - which, the 301 was initially designed for anyway.
This makes sense to me, and confirms how important "torque" actually is. In our 'car analogy', this would simply increase the HP/motor torque of the towing car, enabling it to quicker correct speed fluctuations of the car in tow.
Another question - that, unfortunately I forgot to ask them - is related to the difference in sound between the highly thought after 'grease version' of the 301 that you might have heard about - and the 'oil version'. The main technical difference between both is, that the platter bearing of the 'grease version' is lubricated with grease instead of oil. Supposedly the grease version of the 301 sounds better than the oil version.
One obvious difference between the grease and the oil version is, that the grease lubricated platter bearing creates more drag and requires the motor to "work harder" - meaning operate in an area where it develops more torque.
If you scroll down to the speed vs torque chart* from an earlier email, this represents an operating point of the shaded pole motor "further away" from the end of the curve at 100% speed, and closer to probably 90-95% of nominal speed, where it simply puts out more torque, but also runs a bit slower.
If we compare this to the 'car analogy', the grease bearing creating more drag is the equivalent of having the driver in the towed car keep his foot slightly on the break, 'tightening the rope' between the towing car, and the car in tow. The towing car now needs to work harder to maintain speed, and thus debris on the street, that the car in tow runs over and tries to slow it down, has less impact on the speed of the car in tow.
And as far as I know, the early 301s were equipped with grease bearings mainly for use with mono records.
My interpretation/explanation: Because pick ups for mono records required heavier tracking force (increased flutter), Garrard chose a grease bearing design to have the motor operate with higher torque to better overcome speed fluctuations caused by the larger amount of friction between the (mono) record and needle.
The more I think about this, the more it makes sense Ö
It would really be interesting to see how other readers comment/react to this." (6/10)
*The reader sent me a chart, but I don't have the technical ability to reproduce it on this website.
As I've already written, I am not married to either wood or slate as the ultimate plinth. So now I'm happy to report that a veteran reader has come up with a radically different approach for a plinth, which I haven't seen before. He also has an interesting turntable project in the works. Here are all the details (minor editing and my bold):
"About materials for plinths, consider this if you wish the best, either Zanite or Anocast are the best for the application. Unfortunately, they are both casting materials, which means you need a mould with the final desired geometry. Only holes can be processed after casting, but this requires CNC machines. A casting mould could be rather expensive for a single plinth.
In my case, it did cost just double than granite, mine is 650 X 550 X 75mm, with all steel inserts for TT fixing, 3 tonearms and beneath inserts for suspension, was near $2K. Also, even if the surface flatness is perfect, it's not as nice as granite, because since Basetek used a wood cast mould. I will personally hand-lap the top surface of my plinth, but it must also be considered. Performance wise, it has no equal.
Zanite (Basetek) people responded well. Rockwell, manufacturer of Anocast, never answered a single one of my mails.
My TT project is being made by a company in USA dedicated to manufacture high accuracy devices for custom application... The TT is firmly fixed to the base by bolts. The suspension is placed beneath the Zanite base.
This new design has an innovative approach in several areas :
bearing, opposed thrust air bearings, big surface area, low profile, low pressure. No spindle concept.
motor, rotor-stator contactless, DC brushless, no wire wound, slotless direct drive, zero cogging
control, contactless optical encoder 8192 count per revolution (in disk) plus 40X extrapolator DeltaTau controller for a true 327thousand counts per revolution (nearly 60thousand per second)
motor driver, classe-A, ultra low noise, Veradan linear servo amplifier
housing, CNC 5-axis machined from solid aluminum block, 35 kg finished
Zanite 65kg 65 X 55 X 7.5 cm, to mount TT and 3 tonearms
suspension, 4 Vistek VIP bearings (between Zanite and rack)
platter, vacuum, carbon-graphite on LP contact, aluminium housing, lead balanced ballast&damping, teflon labyrinth for vacuum distribution
This is technology available off the shelf today with only minimum customary requirements, software for speed control / read out and housing shape.
I have under concept design an idler wheel TT, also with innovative solutions, but to be started during 2011." (9/10)Top
Lenco Heaven (Website dedicated to Upgrading Lenco Turntables)
Idler-Wheel Drive (Jean Nantais upgrades to the Lenco and other high-quality idler, rim and direct drive turntables)
Oswalds Mill Audio (Idler-Drive and Direct-Drive Upgrades plus finished models)
TT Weights (Rim Drive Turntables, from Canada)
Loricraft (Garrard 501 and 301/401 upgrades)
Smart Devices (Loricraft 501 and Garrard 301/401 upgrades)
Northwest Analogue (Idler-drive restoration specialists located in the U.K.)
Trans-Fi Audio (Home of of the "Salvation" Rim-Drive Turntable)
Artisan Fidelity ("Hand Crafted Plinths, Upgrades and Modifications" for Idler and Direct Drives)
Tone Imports (North American Importer and Distributor for Shindo Labs, Auditorium 23, Leben Hi-Fi, Euphya Audi and EMT)
PTP Audio (Manufacturer of the PTP for the Lenco, plus two turntables using the Lenco drive system)
Inspire Hi-Fi (Turntable upgrades, for both DD and ID, plus others, located in the UK)
Desmo V-Blocks (V Block Bearings up-grade for Goldring Lenco turntables, located in the UK)Top
THE REFERENCE COMPONENTS
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