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Turntables

German, British, Japanese or Scottish? Henry Jeffreys debates the decks sending audiophiles into a spin

July 08 2014
Henry Jeffreys

In July 2012, an online auction was held by Peaker Pattinson of the contents of Bush House, home of the BBC World Service for 71 years. Among the microphones, photos of famous broadcasters and a Steinway grand piano was a giant German turntable, the EMT 950. Weighing in at nearly 80kg, it sold to a private collector for £3,800 (rather a bargain considering that, in the same year, John Shaw of Shaw Sounds, the British decks expert, sold one for £6,382). Such BBC spring cleans are a boon for audiophiles left cold by the digital era. Turntables, says Toby Rogers, a City lawyer from London, are “an escape from digital slavery. When you settle down with your vinyl, you actually listen to the music.”  

EMT remains the ne plus ultra of turntables. Stefano Pasini, an ophthalmologist from Bologna, owns 12 and has become such a fan that he has written a book on the subject, Deutsche Perfektion, in which he waxes effusive: “The appeal of EMT, apart from their incredibly high quality in design, use and sound quality, is that they have always been the best. Broadcast studios and record companies were their only customers, because when a turntable cost as much as a new Golf GTI, there weren’t many private customers.” The most collectable is the 927, the deck that made EMT’s reputation when it was launched in 1951. Restorer Ing JP Hans van Vliet recently sold one – a former Swedish-radio EMT 927F with two EMT arms but no cartridge – for €31,500, and currently has the 930 for €9,275, complete with an EMT arm, cartridge and new amplifier.

The 927 and 930 models are powered by idler drive – a small wheel turning the heavy metal platter. These were superseded in 1977 by the 950, which was direct drive, whereby the motor attached directly to the platter. EMT not only made turntables, but also arms, cartridges and preamps. For collectors, it’s important that everything is original, says Pasini. “You can take for granted the quality of their ‘sound’ only if the machine is an all-EMT system. Any ‘tweak’ will unavoidably modify the balance of these wonderful machines and very probably impair their performance.” And performance is of paramount importance – definitely trumping pulchritude. Which is fortunate, as with their grey-painted metal, they look like lab technology.

While EMTs are brutally utilitarian, their British rival, the Garrard 301 (launched in 1954 and widely used by the BBC), has seductive 1950s curves. Like the early EMTs, it worked by idler drive, but unlike its German competitors, Garrard’s reputation subsequently fluctuated – to the benefit of canny collectors. “In the 1980s you could pick them up at jumble sales for £5,” says Terry O’Sullivan of Loricraft Audio, specialist in restoring Garrards. Today, however, a refurbished early model with grease bearings and a grey hammertone finish (the most sought after) can be found at the Classic Turntable Company for a not inconsiderable £2,250, while a refurbished 301 with oil bearings is available for £1,800 from Peak HiFi. Not quite the car-boot-sale bargain it once was.

More affordable is the 401 launched in 1965 – a rather flash design with cool chrome detailing. Rogers bought his model (complete with plinth) in 2003 for £300, but a restored 401 from Peak HiFi is now £975. A good hunting ground for unrestored 401s (at roughly half the restored price) is eBay, as are online forums such as Hifiwigwam.com, Thecrossovernetwork.co.uk and Vinylengine.com. But a motor will need a plinth, an arm and a cartridge – which together will cost from about £1,135 from a company like Loricraft.

IT analyst Graham Old, based in Surrey, bought an unrestored Garrard 401 for £500 from eBay four years ago. Loricraft refurbished it, fitted a plinth and attached an arm and cartridge – to the tune of about £2,500. “A Garrard is a lovely example of mechanical engineering that the British did so well in the post-war boom period of the 1950s and 1960s,” he says. “It’s like the Jaguar E-Type of turntables.”

“Audio types like myself aren’t clamouring to use the formats of the past because they are nostalgic or eccentric or charming,” says James Donahue, a lighting designer from Philadelphia who picked up a grey, grease-bearing 301 for $800 in 2001. “It’s because the older methods were based on sound quality.”

The BBC segued from Garrard 301 to 401 and eventually to the Technics SP-10 MKII (launched in 1977), examples of which were auctioned off in the late 1990s. Dave Cawley, of Devon dealer Sound Hi Fi, describes the SP-10 as “the pinnacle of record players; the last high-end production turntable in the world. Only the Japanese could make something this good. It is blindingly complex.” A brushed-chrome finish, soft-red lights and minimalist controls only add to its appeal. Cawley caught the SP-10 bug in 2007, when he bought a job lot from BBC Radio Leeds that worked out at £200 each, but because they’re so elaborate, they need careful and expensive servicing. A refurbished one with an arm and plinth from Sound Hi Fi costs from £3,000, while AudioScope in Germany recently sold a SP-10 model for €4,799.

With the advent of CDs the big companies stopped making high-quality record players. But while broadcasters switched systems, there remained a market for high-end turntables for domestic use. In the 1980s, the Scottish-designed-and-built Linn Sondek LP12, first launched in 1972, came into its own. Different from broadcast decks, it was handmade and finished in wood. Although it has been through a bewildering array of upgrades (all of which can be retrofitted), the classic is a 1982 model with a Valhalla power supply and an Ittok LVII arm (one was recently sold for about £1,250, without a cartridge, by Emporium Hifi).

The next wave of collector interest will focus on the Technics SL-1210, predicts Cawley: “They’re not as well built as an SP-10, but with a decent arm they’re nearly as good.” After Technics stopped making these stalwarts of the nightclub scene in late 2010, they cost as little as £300. A modified SL-1210 from Origin Live starts from £825 – but it is unlikely to be this low for long…

See also

Turntables