The Vinyl Vault, Part Two
Retro turntables and the custom market
Turntables are very often seen as totally archaic playback devices. Although we have seen some brilliant and wonderfully advanced technological creations in the past few years, there is still a very strong user base out there that makes use of very old turntables. In many cases these units have been serviced and kept in very good condition and in other cases they have been modified very heavily and can really compete with more modern designs. The more commonly used designs like Garrard have models like the 301 and 401 date from the 60’s yet these motor units are very often quite sought after and the main reasons are that they are sturdy and reliable and can still be serviced after all these years. Home constructors usually come up with wonderful designs that combine very diverse materials in the quest to dampen unwanted vibrations. Some even add a much more modern slant that gives these designs a new lease on life. Included herewith are a few images of the Garrard 301 and 401 models, with new plinths and also with a variety of tone arms, etc.
There are many other manufacturers that have produced excellent turntables through the years. Some have been based on the suspension system designs, e.g. Acoustic Research, Alphason, Logic, Dunlop, and some even older designs like Thorens, Connoisseur, Lenco, etc. Modern thinking does seem to eschew suspended or suspension designs as the high mass route does have its benefits, like damping. But it would appear that the allure of the vintage system is far more seductive than ever. With vinyl software now becoming more freely available and more sought after, a lot of people are hauling out their collections and servicing their turntables and having a lot of fun once again. In many cases the only thing that is preventing people from using their turntables is a broken stylus or a worn belt. Once replaced, they are spinning old favourites again. Shown here is an original Acoustic Research Legend turntable, circa 1961, including the original tone arm. Also shown are examples of Thorens turntables, one fitted with an Ortofon SPU, and the other with a beautifully re-built wooden plinth. We supply the entire range of Ortofon SPU cartridges. These are highly regarded cartridges and quite popular with 12” arms, of which Ortofon still manufacture exceptional units.
The custom builder aftermarket is very much alive. The thrill of building and modifying turntable motors and bases, adding special tone arms, finding solutions to damping problems, correcting vibration issues and then finally finishing the units with attention to detail and exceptional paint finishes or varnished wooden plinths must be quite fulfilling as the market actually seems to be expanding. In many cases older turntables are partnered with older amplifiers and speakers and nostalgia certainly plays a big role in these systems. But the bottom line is that these systems give immense enjoyment to their users, and definitely surprise many new listeners at the same time.
There are some considerations that need to be made when deciding on the viability of an old turntable and its refurbishing:
- Age and general condition – if the turntable in question requires many parts and is not in a good condition, the cost of replacement of such parts might be very expensive or not even possible at all. It might be possible to have certain parts machined and there might be replacement equivalents available, but generally many such parts may not be available at all.
- Cost of a custom plinth – the general approach is to retain the motor unit and mount it in a custom plinth. Some plinths are very advanced and contain multiple materials and are built to extremely high standard. It stands to reason that the cost might be very high. Unfortunately not everybody has the same carpenter skills.
- Tone arms and cartridges – older tone arms are generally not too brilliant and it would always make sense to replace the arm with a modern unit, with better bearing tolerances and the capabilities of better and more secure tracking. Conversely modern cartridges sound so much better than older units and give much better performance.
- Sustainability – you might have spent a tidy packet on getting the whole unit up and running, and you are quite happy. As all things in life you will reach a point where something will have to be serviced or replaced. Will it still be available, and will it be affordable? If not, are the available solutions affordable?
If you feel quite comfortable with the above aspects, go ahead and tackle the project. There is a certain perverse satisfaction in getting old audio components to produce lovely music, and the smiles on peoples faces is always the reward. The level of what can be achieved with a turntable is only limited by your imagination, and your inventiveness, but be prepared to do some dedicated and hard work to ensure an enjoyable end result. Shown below are examples of self-built tone arms and other related items like plinths and mountings and also some wonderful individual designs.
In the next installment we will be looking at phono amplification in depth, and the various ways in which one can convert the tiny signal from the cartridge into glorious and enjoyable sound.