Old school vs. new school
The suspended-turntable wars of 2016
Orgasm Addict: basically a dirty limerick wrapped in a catchy punk-rock riff released by the Buzzcocks in the late ’70s. Analog addict: a fair descriptor of what I suffer from (“suffer” is a relative term). Analog addict not so much for hardware specificity either (it used to mean turntables or tapes), but that has changed over the last several months when it comes to source. No, what I’m referring to is quality of sound that can be divided into two types for me: analog-like, and just straight-up analog. *Footnote 1
What’s the price of admission to this so-called analog show?
Now that’s a more complicated question to try, and answer. How much for Ella Fitzgerald belting out “Every Time We Say Goodbye” on the Persian rug in your living room? Duke Ellington playing piano well behind the pre-amp? Satchmo sweating it out between the speakers? That depends on many variables, and the biggest in my experience is always going to be budget.
The $5,000 range (excluding cartridge) for a turntable/tonearm combo seems to be a sweet spot along the path to analog audio nirvana with a number of outstanding choices available, but here I’m going to concentrate on two made available to me: the Linn Sondek LP12, and Oracle Paris MK V.
This review was originally imagined as a knockdown, drag ’em out battle between these two similar-priced analog rigs (approx. $7,500 CAN with tonearm, and cartridge), that in my opinion, both bring something special to the world of turntables. But as I listened comparatively to them more, and more, I found that type of review didn’t make sense. Because is one really better than the other? The answer is no. But do they both sound great? Yes.
The Sondek has been around for more than four decades, and there’s a definite familiarity in the hi-fi world with its sound, so I’d like to use that as a benchmark of value for money. Both ‘tables get you awfully close to sonic heaven for their price point, albeit in different ways. The subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences of which I will tell you shortly. These two turntables both have an uncanny ability to get to the heart of a recording through true ’50s tone, their ability to reproduce complex harmonic structures, to imbue emotional weight, to deliver sharply-delineated imaging of instruments, voices, and engrossing realistic 3-D spatial representation of performers. These are all things I value highly to induce relaxation, and enjoyment when spinning the big black discs. So, when you couple all that with a real knack for low-level textural detail retrieval – a feat many turntables in my experience can either over emphasize, or gloss over – and you have a recipe for long-term listening satisfaction in my opinion.
While the LP12 came into being in 1972 from the mind of Scotsman Ivor Teifenbrun, and has since continually acquitted itself as one of a handful of top-tier transcription turntables of choice for three generations, the Paris is a relative newcomer to the scene, albeit with a rather distinguished lineage. The Paris (now in its MK V configuration) is a product of Canadian intuition, and was introduced in late 2011 by chief Oracle designer/engineer Jacques Riendeau, the brother of famed Oracle founder Marcel Riendeau. Marcel taught university-level philosophy in Quebec when he started up the company in the late ’70s (*Footnote 2), a fact I was unaware of, but that adds fuel to my conspiracy theory of the constant cross-pollination of engineering, design, philosophy, and aesthetic that seems to be part of the foundation of all legendary hi-fi products. Oracle rose to fame in 1979 with the launch of the Delphi turntable: A design which has a core philosophy of “groove isolation,” and which many would argue has been as heralded as the Sondek for its articulate sonic prowess, and some would argue, its divisive place in the pantheon of influential turntable design with its “full-floating spring suspension, and micro vibration stabilizer system.” So, while the Paris is not the Delphi, its design draws from a deep pool of experiential engineering prowess, and lauded complex manufacturing, and production skill, albeit at a lower price point than the Delphi. In fact, Jacques said budget was what dictated the Paris’ innovative suspension design to begin with.
Oracle Paris MK V
… and interview with Oracle’s Jacques Riendeau
I caught up with Jacques in the spring, and after some email tag, we were able to discuss the design of the Paris, and Oracle in general:
Rafe Arnott: In my estimation, for all intents, and purposes the Paris is a significant departure of previous Oracle suspension designs. What was the design précis for this design? Was the initial idea behind the Paris to provide an entry-level turntable for the reborn Oracle company? Was the suspension design a matter of budget, or simply the adoption of new technologies to achieve a level of performance for Oracle at a certain price point?
Jacques Riendeau: The Paris suspension system sure is a budget compromise. It is a semi-floating design with the similar purpose of the Delphi suspension system which is to keep the unwanted energy out of the record playing surface. The combination of MDF for the plinth, fibreglass for the suspension rods and urethane rubber allowed us to reach a very efficient level of isolation.
RA: Once the chassis design was decided upon, how intensive was the process behind determining the material involved for the sub-chassis, plinth, and suspension itself? Looking at the design, one initially doesn’t see a suspended ‘table at all, rather it looks like a low-mass plinth design, did that figure into the design? Did Oracle want to target a specific part of the now burgeoning ‘table market (Rega for example, which I think is a fair visual comparison for the uninitiated) with the simple, elegant, and eye-catching plinth style?
JR: The Paris is a continuation of the Oracle design philosophy. From the very beginning, it has been defined that the different materials used in the building of the turntable have to be inert in the sense that they do not contribute to the amplification of unwanted energy. The record clamp is made of Delrin. The platter is made of acrylic. The plinth is made of MDF. The low voltage AC motor is also decoupled from the plinth using a Urethane material. A turntable design is quite simple in fact… everything is about precision and accuracy. This is something we never compromise no matter what the budget is.
RA: What other manufacturers are using comparable turntable technology to Oracle in your estimation, and whose designs (current or otherwise) do you have an interest in, or think are pursuing a design path that you find intriguing?
JR: I can appreciate turntables that are well-built… with the right ideas… I do not think that a lot of the outrageously priced turntables in the market meet the well-built, with the right-ideas criteria.
RA: I’d argue that right now there is more money, time, and research & development being committed to turntable design than at any previous time in the history of high fidelity. What does the future of the record-player hold for Oracle in particular? Do you have any plans for a new design, or high-end model in the works, or will you continue to explore new materials in a pursuit of continued refinement of current designs?
JR: Oracle has been building record players since 1979. You are absolutely right, the analog market flourishing, and this is very good because the cause is right. Think about it: artists can create their music, and press vinyl records, and not be afraid of some jerks pirating their work. Analog is analog. You can’t have numerous digital formats that all claim to be the best thing since sliced bread. Furthermore, there are great companies manufacturing record players and selling them at a very affordable price. The net positive, and great result from this is that our young people are interested in buying records and turntables. So yes, there is a new Oracle in the pipeline … it is called the Origine and the introduction price is set at $2,000 USD, including the tonearm, and an Ortofon 2M Blue moving-magnet cartridge.
The high-level of fit, finish, and the feel of solidity when you lift, or touch the Paris is evident. It’s obvious that while Reindeau was building to a price point, the Oracle name is on this product, and the Paris lives up to the quality/performance expectation associated with the marque.
While the Linn Sondek LP12 exudes a reserved, Scotch-on-the-rocks, leather-bound-books confidence with its rich Rosewood plinth, polished cast-aluminum platter, and old-school rocker power switch, the Paris I received was all glossy-red, muscular angles, and space-age materials with a sly wink to French high-fashion in my eyes. It begs for attention, and every visitor I had over during its stay immediately checked it out, and commented on its great looks.
The Paris comes with an AC-synchronous motor, is belt-driven, and includes the ‘Turbo’ external power supply with umbilical ($2,755 USD).
This unit was tricked out with a configuration that Vancouver Oracle dealer Edward Ku at Element Acoustics personally specified for the Paris turntables he’s selling. It includes the Abis SA-1.2B tonearm with convertible geometry, and silver wiring ($2,500 USD), and new-stock Kiseki Purple Heart ($3,299 USD) as opposed to the usual configuration of Oracle-branded, and modified Pro-Ject tonearm ($950 USD) , and Oracle Paris cartridge ($1,150 USD). Edward also included the Siltech Phono Cable ($2,000 USD), and Black Diamond Racing The Pits isolation pucks ($65 USD each) for the review.
Linn LP12 Sondek
… background, and interview with Ivor Tiefenbrun
So while the Paris certainly has sex appeal in my eyes, the LP12 is more understated, doesn’t draw attention to itself, and quietly goes about its business of making music. The version I had on hand for this comparison review was the latest model ‘Majik’ configuration with an upgraded Trampolin II base ($4,000 USD), and instead of the supplied Linn Adikt moving-magnet cartridge ($550 USD) that comes included at this level of Sondek, it was fitted with a Koetsu Rosewood Standard low-output moving-coil cartridge ($3,499 USD).
The LP12 came into being after Ivor Tiefenbrun discovered how much better his turntable at the time sounded when it was playing in a separate room from his speakers, and thus acoustically-isolated from certain playback frequencies. This he deduced, was a crucial key to getting more from his LPs: acoustic isolation vs. motion, or shock-bourne vibration isolation (ie; footfalls on a hardwood floor). He set about capitalizing on his father’s intellectual prowess, and the engineering company he founded – Castle Precision Engineering Ltd. – to help him create this new type of integral turntable suspension. In the process, he fundamentally changed the way engineers approached the mechanical playback of vinyl records. As the design of the ‘table progressed, Tiefenbrun implemented a modular approach to its construction. He did this so that critical components could not only be reassessed, and improved over time as technology, and manufacturing techniques advanced, but also so that older Sondeks could be easily retrofitted with the newer parts as they became available, eliminating the necessity of purchasing an entirely new turntable to benefit from the improvements on design, and performance.
Tiefenbrun is a very busy chap, but he made time for me, and we were able to chat over email about his approach to hi-fi, and the morphing of the Sondek from ’70s upstart, into contemporary legend:
Rafe Arnott: In my opinion, to call the Linn Sondek LP12 iconic in the hi-fi industry has become an understatement. I think it’s safe to say that the LP12 shares a place in the pantheon of industrial/mechanical design with the likes of the Leica M6 rangefinder camera, and Rolex Submariner wristwatch. Like these creations, it was designed with a singularity to its purpose: to do one thing great. In the case of the Sondek that one thing is the playback of recorded music from vinyl LPs.When you started to design and fabricate the prototype 45 years ago, was it always your goal that it would stand the test of time the way it has?
Ivor Tiefenbrun: As you say, the LP12 was designed to do one thing extremely well, and that clarity of purpose was executed through precision engineering and functional design. It is probably one of the longest lived consumer products in continuous production, if not the longest. From the outset, I designed the turntable to be modular, upgradeable and expandable so that any part could be replaced for service or could be upgraded over time. What sets the Sondek LP12 apart is the ability to upgrade a product purchased over forty years ago to current-day specification. This model of modular, expandable and upgradeable products and systems instantly became the hallmark of Linn.
RA: Over the years you have introduced a number of what could be termed ‘structural integrity’ changes internally to the LP12, but nothing that changes the basic design principles. Why is that? Was it a mindset of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”
IT: The concept behind the LP12 remains a constant that has stood the test of time. The changes we have made to improve the durability and/or improve the performance have been about doing things more precisely rather than just differently.
RA: As technology evolved were you able to finally, fully execute the original design concepts you had in your head for the ‘table? CNC machining, for example, has allowed you to make great leaps forward in improving the sound of the ‘table through ever-higher tolerances, and drastically reduce the number of parts (and resonance) used in the construction of the sub-chassis. Has advancing technology played a critical role in improving the LP12?
IT: Linn has always been an early adopter of advanced technology to ensure we are using the best tools possible. Our strategy is to lead, not to follow, and so we control all our own key processes in-house. All the improvements in our abilities are applied when appropriate across the entire product range, and the LP12, as our longest standing product, has benefited, and continues to benefit the most. Over a 40-plus year lifespan advancing technology has played a huge role in improving the LP12. For example, the original LP12 designs were hand-drawn, and now we have CAD which has enabled better visualization, making the process much faster, and easier to refine before we even begin to build. Furthermore, the CAD models enable the analysis of a component’s design which is a great benefit in the pursuit of structural rigidity, and CAD also allows the analysis of the component’s materials, and their interactions so we have been able to make use of materials not considered before. These CAD models are then programmed in CAM for use in CNC machining, offering the manufacturing improvements you mentioned.
RA:There are not a lot of turntable manufacturers that design, and build the ‘table, the tonearm, and the cartridge in-house like Linn does (Audio Note UK, Clearaudio, and Rega are a few that come to mind). How important is it in your mind to have control over the voicing of the ‘table by insuring it can be properly kitted with a Linn tonearm, and cartridge? Is that synergy (executed from concept, design, manufacture, and playback) critical to the final performance of the Sondek? Or could any tonearm, and cartridge be used in conjunction with an LP12, and achieve as rewarding sonic results as an all-Linn matching of ‘table/tonearm/cartridge in your opinion?
IT: When I started Linn I set out to make a complete system because I wanted to control every stage of the process from the capture of the recording all the way through to the sound the customer heard in their own home. By being able to check, monitor, and compare the sound at every stage we can make accurate assessments of performance; to us it’s not about voicing, it is about pitch-accurate sound reproduction. We are a precision engineering company. All our components are designed with merit that applies on a stand-alone basis. Having said that, components aren’t created to be matched with only one other specific Linn component – the LP12 was designed to accommodate as wide a range of tonearms as possible. Our tonearms can accommodate virtually any cartridge and our pre-amplification can do the same thing.
RA:It is regarded by many as one of the greatest-sounding turntables of all time. Considering the exponential advancements in the manufacturing sector in the last four decades, are you surprised modern turntable designs still fall short of many older ones? The LP12, the Garrard 301/401, and Thorens TD turntables come to mind as examples of designs that have stood the test of time.
IT: Most developments in turntables over the years have been about improving features or making them more desirable in other ways rather than focusing on core performance. Because the core objective of the LP12 has not changed since launch, its advantages have remained constant.
RA:Vinyl playback has seen a huge resurgence in recent years, contributing no doubt, to an increase in manufacturers paying attention to turntable design, and production in general, with many companies either reviving old standbys, attempting to update older designs, or throwing their hats in the ring with a new design. What do you think the future of turntable design holds? Is there any other manufacturer in particular whose work has intrigued or fascinated you? And why?
IT: The revival in vinyl playback has been driven by many factors, none of them really truly relating to absolute performance but driven by the attractions of handling vinyl, and the desirability of LP sleeve artwork, and of course the fact that even on a poor turntable the chances are that a record will sound superior to anything on an MP3 player. These days, 24-bit digital recordings offer even more potential than LPs, but the store of irreplaceable music on LP means we will maintain our commitment to that format for as long as our customers wish. We even digitize the output of our LP12 in our top performing Exakt systems so there is no end in sight to the challenge presented in extracting more of the music from the groove. The Technics SP10 was the most magnificent piece of engineering, and performed a role in broadcast studios that Linn could not usefully approach because instant start, speed change, speed adjustment, scratching, and so on were all required, and that is outwith our remit. Although we never employed direct drive motors we still had the highest regard for the Japanese engineers who blazed the trail with them. I admired Japanese companies like Technics, and Sony, and people in companies in other parts of our industry like BSR and Pioneer. I have also enjoyed very close personal contacts over my working lifetime all across the specialist hi-fi industry, and continue to do so.
That’s all well, and good, but how do they sound?
To keep things simple when listening to these two tables, and because of the varied loading requirements of the two cartridges, (plus, I prefer valve moving-magnet phono stages with a step-up transformer, and I couldn’t source two SUTs to fit the bill of both carts while I had them in-house) I used the wonderful, and incredibly affordable Musical Surroundings Phonomena MK II+ for comparative listening. That’s not to say I didn’t listen to each ‘table with other phono stages on their own, when time/gear availability allowed, but for the sake of comparison, and because of it’s chameleon-like loading capabilities, the Phonomena fit the bill perfectly.
I started off with the 200g version of Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits from Analogue Productions. This is a fantastic – if a touch hot – remaster done out of Sterling Sound, transferred, and cut by Ryan Smith, who bypassed the board, and jacked the tape output straight into the cutter head of a Neumann VMS 80. No EQ on this, and I’ve found some turntables / tonearms / cartridges can lose their minds on the uppermost freqs, not so with both the Linn, and Oracle. Walking After Midnight came across as incredibly smooth, with rich, extended highs, and creamy mids. No small feat, as in my estimation this recording can come across as lean up top on some rigs. Both ‘tables gave a great sense of the space of the room/studio where Cline was recorded, with deep 3-D spatial separation between Cline, and the backup singers – Cline standing in the foreground – fully formed, and life-sized in her placement between the speakers. Plenty of taut bass was on hand, with excellent timbre to percussion: a true life paper-dryness from drum brushing, and flourishes. Farris Coursey plays skins on this cut, and the ‘clip-clop’ effect sounds positively incisive, with the bass drum snapping-out the lower octaves, and ride cymbal decay holding steady pitch. No wet paper bag hits, or cymbal-shimmer drop off here. Both the Kiseki, and Koetsu delivered music with more meat, and less bone, with none of the top-end sizzle I’ve mentioned that lesser set-ups can let sneak in at the most inopportune moments.
The Who, Who’s Next? is an album I’ve never heard a good pressing of, and the Masterphile Series half-speed master version from MCA that was cut in 1980 that I own is no exception, but it’s less bad than others. Every version I’ve heard of this LP sounds recessed, small, and lacking any heft in the bottom end. I’d say compressed, limited, thin to sum it up: squeezed during EQ’ing, I don’t know. The mids have a real ‘cupped-hands’ quality with vocals/instruments usually lumped into a nebulous blob between the speakers, there’s decent separation, but it’s far from Masterphile in my humble opinion. But it’s such a kick-ass collection of anthems from my youth that I cannot, not listen to it. So I always pull it out with a sigh to play with every turntable, or arm/cart combo that comes through for review because some of them actually almost make it sound like I remember it: Big, ballsy, full of blood of guts, and tears, and sweat. The Linn, and Oracle both managed meet me halfway between reality, and memory, which I can live with. Both ‘tables managed to clearly define Daltry, Townshend, Entwistle, and Moon in the sound stage, with Roger well out in front of Keith, and Pete, and John roughly to either side, and halfway between. Incisive attack from notes on guitar plucks, finger work, and real clarity on fret maneuvering on Love ain’t for Keeping, and Bargain in particular stood out for me with clear definition. Entwistle wrung some fantastic blat from his trumpet on Wife, with true tone delineation between the braying, jockeying brass players, and the bassline never overpowered acoustic guitar accompaniment in Behind Blue Eyes.
The Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut was a turning point for me musically when I was young. It was raw, whiny, edgy, uncomfortable, and exuded disappointment: exactly like me, and 10 million other teenagers at the time. On the best ‘tables I’ve heard this 2003 Rhino remaster/reissue on, there is deep tonal color splashed throughout the instrumentation, and fantastic instrument/voice separation with Gordon Gano’s guitar literally popping out like cartoon eyeballs in the mix, and Brian Ritchie’s bass spasming between the speakers with every jangly strum, slap, and pluck. Ditto for the sadistic whacking that Victor DeLorenzo’s sparse drum kit endures. With the Linn, and Oracle, while there wasn’t the last nth-degree of startling technicolor clarity, and absolute in-your-face performance that I’ve experienced from the likes of the Avid Acutus, and a Koetsu Signature Platinum cart, these two spinners got close enough to that in sheer musicality, and fun that it consistently put a huge, lopsided smile on my stupid face. Please Do Not Go, and Add it Up made both ‘tables feel like a Greyhound after a rabbit on the heath; sweat-soaked speed, snarls, and bared teeth in the blood lust of the chase. The key takeaway on this LP was how alive the music sounded.
I enjoy music with complex harmonic structures (jazz, electronica, acoustic, smaller classical ensembles), and I love the interplay between musicians as each instrument vies for attention in the mix. The very best cartridge, tonearm, and turntable designs keep any one part of a song from sucking up too much air from another.
Why do I think this? To my ear this is because if one particular vocal, or instrument overpowers another it makes the listener focus in on those particular notes, that cello’s timbre, that guitar’s tone, and perhaps miss out on the other sonic complexities on offer. A balanced presentation allows more of everything from everyone, for everyone listening to come through, and reach our mind to be decoded into an emotional node we can relate to, understand, form a thought, or memory around. That’s what makes the playback of recorded music so amazing to me, that node we create in our minds to help bridge the reality between mechanical, or digital acoustic transference from what’s happening with the source in front of us, to an emotional response that we identify with.
Both these turntables, and their associated tonearms and cartridges, made that connection with me, and regardless of price that is the foremost quality I value in from my playback chain (and while suspended turntables may not be known for being the greatest when it comes to bottom-octave reproduction, I can forgive this sin when the sound is as balanced as it was on these ‘tables).
The Koetsu-equipped Linn was a little quieter in the groove than the Kiseki on the Oracle, but the Paris had more control on the lowest octaves, and both cart/arm/table combos portrayed fat splashes, and shimmer from high hat, and cymbals. Juicy, but clean overhang on decay, and in the bloom of piano notes was abundantly present in both combinations with delicacy, and immediacy to leading/trailing edges in the subtle velvet-antler strike of keys that separates good cartridges, from great cartridges. These are great cartridges, and both tonearms on these ‘tables did the best thing possible that a tonearm can do: get out of the way of the cartridge attached to it.
Soundstage from both ‘tables was substantial, with a bit more height from the Oracle, and bit more depth from the Linn. I could go on and on about the differences, and aural nuances offered forth from each (for example, I know the Koetsu would perform even better on a heavier tonearm, but I’ve got no complaints with it here on the Pro-Ject)… but which is better? It’s far too subjective for me to say, but what I can say is the strengths that both these turntables brought to the performance of my system kept me smiling, engaged, laughing out loud at moments, and stunned into silence at others.
You can’t go wrong with either, they are musical as all hell, and just buckets of fun to use, and won’t break the bank (like some front-end analog rigs I’ve reviewed would). I highly recommend both these for lovers of the vinyl playback experience (or tea ceremony as my good friend Don refers to it), and will offer years of absolute sonic bliss, and continue to surprise listeners with every LP played through them, because no two ever sound the same. There is no signature sound from either, just musicality.
Footnote 1: Borrowed from a conversation with Michael Lavorgna, Footnote2: Borrowed from Jonathan Valin, The Absolute Sound, 2010.
- Audio Note Oto Line SE integrated amplifier
- Audio Note Lexus interconnects
- Transparent audio AC cables
- Audio Note AN-E SPe/HE loudspeakers with dedicated Audio Note stands