Stereo Amplifier

Review: Linn Sondek LP12 Turntable

In its short life the Linn Sondek LP12 has run into considerable litigation in patent circles and, as has been thoroughly documented elsewhere, the present proprietors, Linn Products Ltd. have emerged victorious. They are a precision engineering company, extensively contracted to the aircraft industry and therefore equipped with a wealth of precision machinery which few other turntable manufacturers could command. Linn is owned and run by the Tiefenbrun family and their high-fidelity products are the especial province of Ivor Tiefenbrun, a droll, outgoing character who has already succeeded in becoming something of a legend. He manages to combine disbelief that so few apart from himself have realized how turntables affect what you hear with an attractive modest y now that significant numbers o f record users have demonstrated their conviction that he was right. That change of thinking alone is a not inconsiderable achievement and it is instructive to examine why the LP12 has gained this distinction.

It soon becomes obvious that the Linn thought-train began with a decision that the belt-drive concept pursued by AR and Thorens was the way to go and then proceeded with a detailed consideration of every facet in order to eradicate all possible compromises or sources of disturbance which might detract from the one true aim; that aim was to enable the stylus to extract the maximum of information from the record groove with a minimum of interference. To this end a regime was adopted which to some people still seems unwarrantable extremism-right down to a final adjustment at the time of installation-and yet it is firmly based in simplicity.

The LP12 has but a single control, an illuminated on/off switch on the left front of the stainless steel motor plate. There is no speed adjustment; operation is only possible at 33-1/3 rpm (although there have been recent rumours of a 45rpm conversion). Power source is a slow-speed (250rpm) multi-pole synchronous motor of Philips manufacture but fitted with bearing suspensions by Linn who also press fit their own 20mm drive pulley on to the shaft. The pulley shape is exclusive and has a narrow section guarded by a lip so that, on start up, the sudden tension on the drive belt pulls it to the narrow section where it is both slacker and more highly 'geared'. It is therefore better able to bring the heavy turntable up to speed and, as it does so, it rises naturally to the widest diameter of the pulley where there is an accurately ground running surface. A small point perhaps but illustrative of attention to detail, both pulley and turntable are turned from the same material so that the ratio of their diameters remains constant with temperature.

The drive belt is a 5mm wide flat section made from hard rubber and ground true in all dimensions. Because of the single-speed working and the ingenious starting arrangement described above, it need have less stretch than other makers provide and this significantly reduces 'hunting' of the turntable around the correct speed. The turntable platter itself is in two parts and the belt runs around a deep lip on the 165mm inner section; the outer section fits - and believe me fits is the operative word - over a recess and the whole platter, complete with its hardened steel shaft, is then balanced by machining. I recall asking why there were no drilling marks, which are the usual outward signs of a balancing operation, only to be told politely that the accuracy of their machining completely outdates this rough technique. Foolishly I persisted, enquiring how they could allow for voids in the casting? Politeness changed to pity; Linn castings were apparently made of a zinc aluminium alloy material which, apart from its desirable 'dead' (non-ringing) characteristic was not subject to such defects; I wisely let it rest.

One of the patent disputes centred around the turntable bearing itself and, apart from its obvious adequacy of size (the spindle is 10mm in diameter and 55mm long ), it has a number of clever details which are major contributors to the final excellence. At the bottom of the shaft is a specially contoured and mirror finished single point bearing surface running in a bath of oil. At the upper end there is a sleeve of PTFE (a very hard, low-friction plastics material) and the machining of the intervening length of shaft is arranged to transport a thin film of oil which is permanently interposed between metal and plastic surfaces. Remember the design aim is to couple the stylus to the turntable via the disc so tightly and well that the groove's minute deflections are the only variable; they and they alone constitute the wanted signal. So the outer case of the bearing is bolted to the main frame which is a kite-shaped one-piece steel pressing, folded and ribbed: to this is screwed the chosen pickup mounting board. Boards are available either blank or pre-drilled for all the well known arms and are of a sandwich construction. The main frame is suspended from the motor plate by three graded tapered springs in rubber cups and the eventual performance is dependent on the care with which each is adjusted. It is also necessary to ensure that no unwanted energy components are transferred via leads etc., and anchor points to limit this possibility are provided. Even so the rather stiff and thick, low capacity leads now commonly fitted to some arms pose problems as they are effectively in parallel with the springing and disturb its symmetry. The SME 3009 Series III is a case in point and substituting more flexible phono leads is worth considering.

The LP 12 is normally supplied in a solid wood plinth with friction-hinged plastics cover and, although a chassis version is available for fitting in your own motor board, this can easily lead to an inferior performance; if at all possible it is preferable to put the complete plinth-mounted assembly in your cabinet. All Linn dealers are committed to fit arms and properly set up every turntable for their customers, and the latter process takes at least half an hour. Buyers 'out in the wilds' can obtain full and detailed instructions from the makers but they should be prepared to spend a couple of hours getting things optimized.

As I keep stressing, the concept of noninterference is essential to this design's success so the weight distribution and compliances at all points have been balanced out to be as nonreactive as possible. The benefits include a refreshing freedom from acoustic feedback, even if the turn table is opera ted alongside a loudspeaker, and the resistance to groove jumping if the supporting table or floor is less than solid. However, if one of the very heavyweight arms now on the market were to be contemplated, this balance would be disturbed beyond normal correction.

It is typical of the maker's philosophy that no specifications for the LP12 turntable are published or figures quoted and their only claim is that, if you just listen, theirs will sound better than the competition. Making the usual tests for speed accuracy, wow, flutter, rumble, eccentricity or warp, would seem to be an insult to their skills but I dutifully went through the motions and found myself wondering if it might not be possible to devise more revealing test procedures because mine just did not meet the challenge. Having used a number of LP12 decks over the years, fitted with a variety of arms and cartridges, I needed no further listening tests to add to what I already know about this turntable; with one proviso, that this is an engineer's design and setting it up needs every bit of skill and patience that one can muster, I repeat my previous statement that I know of no better way of playing records. More convenient possibly, more expensive certainly, but better? No. The LP12 itself is quite highly priced at £250 plus an arm and cartridge but perhaps my description or some of the work that has gone into it will serve in explanation. By ensuring that the very few remanent departures from perfection can occur only at very low frequencies, where the ear is relatively insensitive, this Linn design offers an audible improvement over most other turntables. The improvement is difficult to describe because it does not fit our standard technical language and words alone can only hint at the sound experience. Listen for precise stereo imagery and sense of depth, an increase in detectable ambience and unexpected detail, a more natural feel to the sound. I think that you will decide you are one step nearer the music.