EVERY turntable deserves a second chance in life. There was a time in my life when none of the vintage turntables armed with those crude looking tonearms appealed to me when I set out to get a turntable – I was totally captivated by the quasi-modern avant-garde turntables I often read about in glossy publications.
How I turned out to be today is a total opposite to what I was during my formative years. For this, I have Dr TL Wong (of Euphonic Research fame) to thank, as he carted a Garrard 401 complete with a SME 3009 S2 tonearm to my house one day and said, “You would never know what you are missing nor would you know what real grunt is if you are going to stick to your Rega P3”.
The compromised we made was to install the excellent RB300 tonearm onto the plinth and I have never looked back since.
The modernist-looking Garrard 401 was picked off eBay for pittance as almost everyone else was like the previous me, gunning for the contemporary catalogue at the turn of the millennium. The Garrard was painstakingly restored with an ample pool of parts sourced online. The crown jewel was the much sought-after custom bearing made by Martin Bastin in his backyard workshop in the UK. A vibration dispersion plinth made from marine plywood completed the job.
Listening to the Garrard 401 was a revelation. There is so much latent energy to support the musical foundation. This was my first idler drive experience. Initially, I found myself checking the speed from time to time with a strobe light as I thought it was running fast. That dissipated fairly quickly as I realised that the pace and timing were spectacular and the Garrard delivered the liveliness that was simply lacking in my previous installations. A Schroeder Model 2 tonearm was installed later in its life in an attempt to squeeze more out of the set-up.
A few good lads amongst my reviewer peers are in the same fold, keeping restored vintage turntables alive and well. The most common turntables amongst us are Thorens, Garrard and Lenco. It’s not surprising that they are all idler drive turntables. My guess is that it’s due to the mechanical robustness and simplicity, sonic grunt and maybe a bit of ego added for flavour.
Fast forward 20 years, and I find myself embarking on a similar journey all over again when a Thorens TD-124 landed at my doorstep for adoption. It was initially given to my friend Peter, but was in bits and pieces. Fellow reviewer and TD-124 enthusiast Lim Juan popped over almost immediately to help me with the initial assessment… seized knobs, quirky tonearm, crumbling plinth, squeaky bearing and other unimaginable mentions. It was junk to most but to the both of us, it was the quintessential turntable to be had and cherished.
Restoration conversation with the late BS Lee commenced soon after. The TD-124 was given a delicate spa treatment to strip off the accumulated grime and was once again sparkling without having the need to have it repainted. A bit of patina is always welcomed. Controls and levers were lubricated and are actuating as they should thereafter. The SME 3012 series II was rewired and totally rebuilt completely using original SME parts.
Parts were widely available as there is a plethora of options ranging from new old stock to specialist remanufacture. For the tonearm, I stuck to original parts from SME UK whilet for most other components, I went for remanufacture parts sold by Audiosilente.
Once the base mechanical gremlins were sorted, I needed a plinth and the options were between getting one from the Republic of Moldova or commission one locally. Given the Covid-19 lockdown, the path towards local expertise was clear. After all, SPH (Captain Sien) is known for building plinths for an assortment of turntables. After much deliberation on the choice of materials and design, I decided to use plywood instead of a combination of exotic materials as I wanted a lively sounding turntable (turned out to be the right decision).
Design-wise, it needed to be gargantuan to accommodate the arc of the 12-inch SME 3012 series II tonearm. I have never liked the TD-124 arm-board design as it leaves a gap between the board and plinth which makes it very difficult to clean. I opted for a custom brass arm-base mounted directly on the plinth. Apart from making it easy to keep tidy, this effectively decouples the tonearm from the TD-124. A custom acrylic board was cut to measure in place of an arm-board.
The entire installation was completed by SPH to perfection. Numerous suggestions made were adopted. Although I have purchased the Audiosilente parts for rejuvenating the squeaky bearing, I fitted a new SPH grease bearing into the TD-124. It was a complete ready unit that seemed to continue spinning forever after powering down.
The result was not only visually stunning but believe you me, audibly magnificent the moment I dropped the needle home for the first time. The pitch and timing have a commanding grip of the music when matched with a new Ortofon SPU Royal G MkII mounted to commemorate the occasion.
It has an extremely resolving resolution with so much detail materialising. I have never heard Ray Brown standing there grunting so pronouncedly in Mondscheinsonate (Moonlight Serenade album – Ray Brown & Laurindo Almeida). If you heard the weighty rumble of Brown’s double bass, you would have been forgiven thinking that the Guarneri Homage has 15-inch woofers. It was all smiles after having gone through a pile of records.
Its airy signature comes from largely from the plinth, with all things being equal, and I am really glad that I didn’t go for a much denser material which may have resulted in a much harder sound. I did learn a thing or two having previously owned a turntable with a factory African granite plinth. If I had the chance, I would have amalgamated a copper plate in between the layers of plywood but have gone down the easy path with a Micro Seiki Cu-180 copper mat instead.
Now that I have travelled down the less travelled path twice in the last 20 years, I have finally understood what C.P. Cavafy meant in his endearing poem Ithaka. For those of you thinking of going the path of restoring vintage turntables, it will be a marvellous endearing journey that is rich in experiences and discoveries. The wisdom that you gain will carry you through to make your analogue experience thoroughly engaging with countless hours of listening joy. Be brave and embrace it, every vintage turntable deserves a second chance.