Welcome to something new we’re going to try here on PTA thanks to our friend Wynn Wong of Wynn Audio in Richmond Hill, Ontario. I’m going to be curating a new list every month featuring different categories of gear that I think you – our readers – have to hear under any circumstances you can arrange: beg, borrow, steal, drive for hours, hop a train, take a plane… you get what I’m saying. Price will not be a factor, with individual pieces on each list reflecting a spectrum of what I feel is the best. This new feature will be called… The List, and it will be my attempt to share some of the gear opinions I’ve managed to accrue spending as much time as I do (apologies to my family, and friends) with high fidelity equipment. Items featured will include at least one piece of gear that I’ve personally spent time with, so it’s not some random list put together without context. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy putting them together.
–Rafe Arnott, Instagram: @audiophile.gentleman
I’m delving into the much beloved, fiercely-loyal patronage of turntables for this month’s The List.
You, the erudite reading public of the audiophile Internet world, responded en masse to what many perceived as the heresy of my previous list of Five of the best CD Players on the Planet. I hope this list will cause less outrage, and perhaps more appreciation for the designs I’ve chosen to highlight. Where does one start when it comes to curating five of the top turntables in the world? Well, I’m only including ‘tables that are currently in production – you have to be able buy one new from a dealer – but other than that, the field is wide open. There will be many of you who question my choices, and wonder aloud at what I didn’t choose, but please bear in mind this is a list with room for five choices, so it’s inherently designed to thrill some, and disappoint many.
Turntables – phonographs – or as they’re more commonly referred to by most of my non-audiophile friends, record players, have taken up a warm, cozy corner of many music lovers hearts over the intervening century since their introduction in 1877 courtesy of that stalwart inventor Thomas Edison. While modern mechanical audio playback devices utilize the big, black discs we know, and love, they initially played wax-coated, and tinfoil sheets wrapped around a cylinder. Obvious improvements were made over the decades resulting in – by the mid ’40s – what most would recognize as the basic form of a turntable as we know it today.
With improving technology came flatter, more accurately-recorded, longer-playing albums (the LP or Long Play record), quieter, more stable turntable motors to turn ever more precise bearings inserted into, larger, heavier platters (or specially shaped ones featuring inertial-flywheel designs) with which to better support LPs for the equally improved tonearms, and cartridge/stylus assemblies with which the delicate audio waveforms were transferred from micro grooves via electro-acoustic means. All of this to bring us that warm, and fuzzy feeling when we drop the needle into the track, and kick back with the vinyl record jacket to pour over lyrics, and photographs of our favourite musical artists. During these heady analog decades it became the de facto measuring stick with which all other forms of recorded playback were measured against. Even when writing up my previous CD list, I always compare CD or digital-audio playback devices against analog references like turntables or reel-to-reel players. Why? because they really are the bar with which to make such comparisons in my opinion – and I don’t think I’m alone.
What you use to amplify the signals from your cartridge, tonearm, and turntable is also key, with several variations possible. For my personal listening I prefer to use a properly-matched SUT (Step-Up Transformer) with a LOMC (Low Output Moving Coil) cartridge into an MM (Moving Magnet) valve phono stage. Many prefer solid state gain/capacitance loading of LOMC carts – or Moving Magnet carts – it’s all personal preference, and really comes down to careful component matching, and system synergy in my experience. I flavour my system to what my ear likes, yours may very well differ, so let’s all just listen, and let listen.
So without further ado, here is my just-curated list (in no particular order) featuring Five of the Best Turntables in the World.
Thales TTT-Slim II
The Thales TTT Slim-II is a ‘table I’m extremely happy to have in my home at the moment. I’ve been lusting after the Slim since hearing one for the first time more than a year ago at a demo event here in Vancouver at Element Acoustics which was co-sponsored by Wynn Audio, and being blown away by its bass extension, pitch stability, and musicality. Now in its MK II form, this Swiss-made (think wristwatch-like precision) turntable is packed with features I love: A 100W (max) battery-powered, short-belt drive system that literally gives around 20 hours of playback free from AC tethering (I play a lot of LPs, and the Slim went for five days before needing a charge – which happens in four hours). Backgrounds are inky black, operation of the motor is completely silent, it’s got a compact footprint thanks to the beautifully-finished anthracite aluminum chassis, and platter (smaller than my daughter’s Crosley). The sound seems to spring from the blackness of deep space with incredible bottom-end extension, and absolutely flawless timing to my ears with a tight, fluid sound full of true tone, and timbre – especially horns, drums, piano, and wood-bodied instruments in particular (Carey Domb’s cello playing on ‘Apollo” from the Adagio label is a stunning example). This little ‘table offers up varying spatial depth – recording to recording – musical weight, and passionate reproduction on par with some of the best, high-mass platter designs I’ve heard (and had in my home), is 10 times easier to set up (big ‘tables require a lot of work to place, and assemble in my personal experience), and with the Easy tonearm, and EMT JSD VM cartridge being offered as a combo package at MSRP $14,300 USD/$18,000 CAN it competes with designs 2x its price. Check back for upcoming review.
The Linn Sondek LP12 transcription turntable is an iconic design that really – in the audiophile world in particular – needs no introduction. Made by hand in Scotland for more than four decades with almost no real changes to it’s initial design other than improvements in machining, tolerances, and materials as technology evolved, the LP12 (designed by Ivor Tiefenbrun) was the ‘table to beat for many manufacturers, for many years. Having owned a Majik-spec’d version of the Sondek (fitted with a Koetsu Rosewood Standard for some time), I can wholeheartedly gush over this deck as one of the most enjoyable, and musical record players I’ve heard. Because of it’s legendary three-point suspension/sub-chassis assembly system it’s not the easiest to properly set-up – you need an authorized Linn technician to do it for you, as the ‘table comes in many pieces from the factory – but when the needle hits the groove on this deck you’ll be floored at how quickly you simply forget about everything but what you’re listening to on the platter. While it can be slightly rich in its tone, and rosy in it’s timbre if not mated to a leaner (read; more accurate) cartridge, it’s impossible not to be captivated by what some describe as the “pipe, and slippers” sound. MSRP $3,980 USD/$4,970 CAN in Majik guise with Pro-Ject tonearm, and Linn Adikt Moving-Magnet cartridge.
If you’ve been into vinyl for any amount of time, chances are that you’ve purchased one of Roy Gandy’s much-imitated, and elegantly simplistic Rega turntable designs – new or used – or known somebody who had one. I’ve owned a number over the years, climbing up the line slowly when I first started collecting LPs, and ending up at a hot-rodded RP6 before the Linn bug bit me. I’ve spent time with Gandy’s work from the original solid-plinth Planar 3 to the ceramic-platter RP10 with foam-core skeletal plinth, and just about every model in between. Known for their “PRaT” – Pace, Rhythm, and Timing – the Rega lineup has mostly adhered to the original tried-and true Planar design specifications that Gandy surprised the world with in 1977. Improvements were implemented over time (much like Linn) as manufacturing, materials, and technology became more advanced. The current iteration of the Rega Planar 3 boasts a laminated plinth with gloss-acrylic finish, thicker, more rigid ‘stressed-beam’ bracing between the bearing housing, and the tonearm mount, a radically-improved ‘arm in the RB330, a float-glass platter, an optional factory-fitted Elys 2 Moving Magnet cartridge, and 24V outboard motor-control unit. If you’re somehow not familiar with the Rega sound, it does indeed possess loads of PRaT, and something else too: emotional engagement. While not the last word in bottom end, or speed-locked pitch stability (they always seem to run slightly fast, hence the Timing aspect of PRaT), the P3 scores high points for texture retrieval, creamy mids, and smooth, extended upper registers. This is not the be-all, end-all of ‘tables, but for roughly $1,000 USD for the ‘table, tonearm, and cart (which when equipped with a factory-fitted cartridge can be set-up in literally five minutes), I’d be a fool to fault it or say that it’s anything but a world-class spinner. MSRP $1,150 USD/$1,460 CAN.
VPI Industries has been in the turntable manufacturing business since 1978 when Sheila and Harry Weisfeld started up the New Jersey based, audiophile-centric company. Being helmed now by their son Mat Weisfeld, VPI is churning out more turntable models than ever, and the Avenger is one of my favourite designs that they currently produce. It’s a big ‘table, and when combined with multiple outboard tonearm mounts can start to take on the look of a Kraken from the ocean deep. Coming factory-equipped with a massive 20-pound aluminum platter, three-layer bonded acrylic/aluminum/acrylic plinth, VPI’s JMW 3D-printed tonearm in a 12-inch guise, built-in tonearm VTA adjustment-on-the-fly, an outboard multi-speed motor-control, (which can be upgraded to the reference magnetic-drive unit) large stabilized feet, and a stainless-steel record weight, the Avenger is a serious ‘table for vinyl lovers to explore just what their cartridges are capable of pulling from their record collection’s grooves. Whenever I’ve spent time listening to an Avenger – regardless of cartridge, or the two-channel system that it’s fronting at too-numerous audio shows where the design has become almost ubiquitous as the analog go-to source – the sonic signature that is most apparent is a vice-like grip on the lowest registers, black backgrounds, and explosive midrange punch, and clarity. Now, this isn’t a sound for everybody – the vinyl whisperer it’s not – as I said, it can be forward, but if you value insight into the music, an extended top end, and crave deep, accurate bass, then the Avenger is a ‘table that you must audition. MSRP $10,000 USD/$12,700 CAN.
Shindo 301 Vinyl System
There are some turntables that I have literally waited years to hear, and experience, the Shindo Laboratory 301 Vinyl System is one of them. I’d found about it initially from online forums several years ago – there really wasn’t much information out there – it was more mythical beast than a piece of hardware based in reality. But I guess, like many things that involve an emotional response to music, certain aspects of the analog audio-playback chain can take on an aura of mysticism. The Shindo 301 is to me, one of those mythical pieces of gear. There’s not a lot of them on the ground, nor many dealers in North America (I’d wager fewer than perhaps a few hundred 301s have been produced in the bespoke fashion that Shindo Labs is obsessively admired for – but no hard numbers are available), so knowing someone who had one was a prerequisite to ever hearing one. In the intervening years I became acquainted with both Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports (North American Shindo distributor), and Matthew Rotunda of Pitch Perfect Audio in Los Angeles (Shindo dealer), and finally this November was able to spend several hours with the Shindo 301 while visiting these gentlemen in California. Based upon a Garrard 301 assembly, the Shindo 301 features a custom 60-pound, laminated cherry-wood plinth that has been painstakingly designed based on critical listening over a number of years by the late Ken Shindo himself. A Shindo-customized Mersault RF-773 12-inch tonearm is employed, as is a Shindo-modified Ortofon SPU-A cartridge, Shindo-designed, and built platter, and bespoke bearing. This is a curated turntable of sorts, but it is holistically designed to be a self-contained transcription system. hence its inclusion here. This is LP playback as time travel, this is about a visceral presence to the recorded event, with a flesh-and-blood inference that belies the spectral nature of analog music reproduction. Less about the parts, and more about the cohesive sum of disparate descriptors like treble, midrange, and bass, the Shindo 301 (in the case of my listening sessions, mated to an entire Shindo system) brought an entirely new meaning to being there. MSRP $30,000 USD/$38,100 CAN.