Which Thorens turntable is your favorite? The idler-driven TD-124, a sixty-year-old design that can compete with today’s finest? The TD-125 for its superb mechanical design and its extraordinary reliability? The TD-160 for bringing this exquisite engineering to a model that almost anyone could afford? How about the Thorens TD-1601? I really like that one, but more on that in a minute.
I’ve considered a TD-124 over the last few years, one of those amazing and meticulous restorations with a gorgeous heavy plinth made from exotic wood and a $5000 SME arm stuck on top. I once had dinner with a couple of audio engineers and I asked them about the TD-124. They told me to buy a TD-125 mk.II instead. “Get it to original specs, put a good arm and cartridge on it, and spend the rest of your life happy.” Dave Archambault of Vinyl Nirvana, one of the most famous restorers of vintage Thorens in the US, really loves the TD-125—he even builds a long-base version of the TD-125 to accommodate 12” arms. He calls that Thorens “The Master.”
I’m sure I’d be happy with any of those vintage Thorens turntables. They’ve always been on my wish list. But this Thorens TD-1601? The one that was based on the suspended design of the TD-160? The one that’s brand new and not vintage at all? Could it be the Thorens that makes me the happiest? It’s certainly in the running.
Back to the Future, Dorky Audiophile Edition
I know what you’re thinking. How dare I compare any contemporary Thorens table with a TD-124 or a TD-125 mk. II or a TD-160 Super! Those were perfection, or at least far closer to perfection than we knew at the time. Thorens should just re-release those models in special Anniversary Editions that start in the five-figure range because OMG, it’s a brand new TD-124! How much would you pay for a sealed in-box TD-124? Millions? Zillions?
The semi-automatic Thorens TD-1601, along with its manual twin the TD-1600, are updates of the TD-160. But instead of comparing the new 1600-Series with any of those vintage models, maybe we should look at the bigger picture, that contentious place where everyone argues about suspended turntable/sprung sub-chassis designs. Linn stole from Ariston. The AR-XA came long before those. Oh wait, did we forget about the Thorens TD-160? I’m not about to weigh in here, not until I’ve done a little more reading on the subject. Every year the story seems to change. That happens a lot in high-end audio.
Anyway, I thought about the Suspended Turntable Wars when I first posted pics of the Thorens TD-1601 on Facebook. Someone chirped in: “Looks like a Linn to me.” Anthony Chiarella, who reps Thorens in the US and has obtained a TD-1601 for himself, replied “Sounds like one, too.” That was designed to be provocative—a fully-loaded Linn Sondek LP-12 Klimax will set you back about $20,000 right now.
The price of the Thorens TD-1601? Try $3499 with arm. The manual TD-1600 is just $2999. That brings up the question of whether semi-automatic operation is worth an extra $500—if it was my credit card, I’d buy the 1600 since I’ve been using manual turntables since 1981. (The TD-1601 has balanced XLRs if you need ’em, so there’s that.)
Anthony called me just after the Thorens TD-1601 arrived at my house. It was one of those calls where you discuss major design points, innovations, or any other detail that could be useful for the reviewer. That discussion, where Anthony brought up two major design points, quickly evolved into something more fun—two long-time vinyl lovers discussing our favorite suspended turntable designs. (I still think about that AR ES-1 I had back in 1981. All the time.)
But those two aforementioned design innovations clarify the argument about the first/finest/bestest suspended TT—it isn’t about which company came up with the design, but which company took it to another level into modern times. There’s certainly a good argument for Linn and those daunting upgrade paths, but let’s talk about going back to the heart of a suspended design. We’re talking, of course, about movement.
The Thorens TD-1601 is different from all those other suspended turntables, even that original TD-160, by the way it addresses lateral or horizontal movements. (The TD-160 had a “hung” chassis, attached to the top plate, while the TD-1601 sits on top of its three springs.) Turns out that a spinning motor, among other outside forces, can create that side to side movement. Hopefully you see why that can muddy up the sound. The TD-1600 series turntables feature an aluminum plate embedded in the plinth that connects to both the main bearing and the tonearm. (You’ve probably noticed this on newer Regas, but those aren’t suspended ‘tables so it’s not quite the same thing.)
That leads directly to the second major design innovation on the Thorens TD-1601, and that’s what I call “The Chain.” When Anthony first mentioned this braided wire that winds through various points inside the plinth, it sounded a little crazy. Anthony clarified: “Actually, the steel wire is connected from the subchassis, at a point near the bearing/platter axle, to a brass rod anchored to the base of the ‘table,” Anthony explained. “This prevents the ‘Porch Swing Effect’ of lateral motion.” Together, these two ideas effectively address lateral movement. That alone makes the TD-1601 far more than just a spruced-up TD-160.
Do you know what this sounds like, by the way? It sounds like Thorens is doing more than just trying to resurrect its designs for modern audiophiles. It sounds like Thorens has a plan for the future, something that might be the result of a new guy, Gunther Kurten, at the helm of this legendary company. That should capture the attention of every classic Thorens fan in the room. I can almost hear excited mumbling sounds and fingers rubbing on chins.
If you’ve read my review of the Goldring Ethos phono cartridge, you’ll know that it was pre-mounted on the Thorens TD-1601. Anthony told me that “everyone” liked the combo, and I should listen to it first. The combo was so strong, in fact, that I chose to review the cartridge on its own. That meant I had to swap both the Goldring and Thorens with another comparable ‘table—in this case, my Technics SL-1200G with a ZYX Bloom 3 cartridge—in order to isolate what the Thorens and the Goldring each brought to the shindig. As I mention in that review there were differences, but I found each combo rewarding in its own way.
That brought me to the tonearm on the Thorens TD-1601, a Thorens model known as the TP 92 that has been used on other models. It’s chunky and compact around the pivot point, reminding me of those futuristic arms you’d find on a Denon. One interesting feature is a damping ring positioned roughly halfway up the tube. It seems to spin free within its pre-ordained orbit, otherwise it could easily be moved up and down. But don’t. It’s at the right spot to control resonance on the arm. The TP 92, I found, was a sophisticated arm that was easy to use.
That, of course, brings up the semi-automatic operation of the Thorens TD-1601. I’m rusty with this idea, so much so that I felt some initial stress when I went to cue up for the first time. Um, where’s the cueing lever?
It’s a cueing BUTTON. You push it, it goes up and done with precision. When the stylus is touching the record surface, the ring around the button is red. No touchee! When the stylus is clear of the groove, the ring turns green. Go ahead and get your fingerprints all over the place. You’re safe. Then, when the record is over, the arm lifts up on its own. Initially I had problems with the needle lifting before the side was over, but I fixed that by moving the tonearm so it was exactly parallel to the side of the plinth—it might have shifted slightly during shipping.
It took me a while to get the hang of a semi-automatic turntable. But that’s just me, being an old analog dude stuck in his ways.
I can’t summarize the sound of the Thorens TD-1601 in a single word, but I can with a single feeling. This may sound weird, but it has to do with the suspended design. That feeling is bouncy, energetic, pliant and flexible. It’s the feeling of being young and small and still having enough energy to run and bounce and fly all day long without getting that tired.
That, of course, is very different from the sound of the large, high-mass turntables I’ve championed over the last couple of years. Those turntables are about providing a strong foundation for the music, one that focuses on control. This is the land of solid deep bass and natural imaging and low noise, the place where the silences are important. That doesn’t mean that the Thorens is lean and energetic and exciting like a Rega or any other suspension-less turntable, either. (That includes those with fancy feet, by the way.) When we’re discussing the differences in sound common to the various types of turntable designs, maybe it’s not a spectrum between those two choices. Maybe it’s more of an equilateral triangle—or even some polygon or another.
The Thorens TD-1601 has that same naturally agile sound as many other suspended turntables—it’s been too long since I’ve heard a Linn Sondek LP-12, so I’ll leave that comparison for others to perform. But let’s go back to my AR turntable of yore, and how it really helped me to understand why analog sounds so much better to these ears. This is the sound I grew up with, the sound or record-spinning memories, of how things used to sound back in the good old days, but with one exception.
The Thorens TD-1601 turntable and arm combo, with its attention to vibration control, takes all those reasons for wanting a TD-124 or a TD-125 mk. II or a TD-160 and adds an important one—silence. (Let’s not forget about the contributions of the external 16V linear power supply, fed to a 12V synchronous motor, to the noise reduction effort.) Yes, the TD-1601 moves along one side of that equilateral triangle until it reaches a point about halfway to that rock-solid demeanor of those high-mass turntables. That wasn’t expected—my first impression of the Thorens TD-1601 was its lightness as I pulled it out of the packing box. At the same time, I feel remotely disinterested in my triangular analogy since the TD-1601 has oodles of energy. Bouncy, remember? That equilateral triangle is starting to look like a dodecahedron.
I’ll mention one more very interesting thing about the Thorens TD-1601 turntable. Dave Archambault of Vinyl Nirvana also has one in for evaluation, same time as me. He offered to give me a few tips on set-up, but as I mentioned it had already been done for me. For me, the interesting part came in the form of a question—why would one of the top vintage Thorens guys want to play with the TD-1601?
I’m eager to hear Dave’s conclusions.
Do I really want to conclude by saying the Thorens TD-1601 is a great turntable and arm combination for an extremely affordable price? Because that’s not doing it for me. It’s not enough. I want to talk about something deeper and not so focused on its value quotient, whatever that is. But that price is important since it lowers a threshold. It’s a $3500 turntable and arm combination that will allow the listener to hear great analog sound, one that’s a mixture of many different tastes because all of those tastes have their merits. No zero-sum game here, no having to give up low noise for a more vibrant presentation.
The Thorens TD-1601 can offer this level of performance for a very simple reason—it’s a very simple design from the start, one that’s always sounded good. We’ve figured this one out fifty, sixty years ago or more and then we sped off into the sunset toward direct drive, linear tracking tonearms and ultimately the compact disc. That’s why some of us have returned to old idler-drives and competent belt-drives from companies such as Thorens, Garrard, Lenco and EMT. That’s a fascinating little feature on the analog horizon, and Thorens knows it.
Someone—perhaps it was Gunther Kurten—suddenly figured out the ways in which the classic Thorens turntables got things right, added a few modern tricks and came up with something that returns to the fundamentals of making music while introducing new features that make it sound better than ever. We’ve been so busy speeding toward those uncertain technologies that we drove right past that lookout, the one off that dirt road, the one that really impressed us when we were young, the one we’ve always wanted to see again.
So you stomp on the brakes, put the car in reverse and head back toward that lookout, the one where you’ll find the Thorens TD-1601. The view is even better than you remember.