Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviewers' ChoiceWhen I became obsessed with high-quality audio -- in the 1960s, when woolly mammoths roamed the earth -- there were two serious choices for playing records. There was the automatic turntable, which could play as many as a half-dozen LPs in sequence. (Back then, the six sides of, say, an opera recorded on three LPs would be numbered like so: disc one, sides 1 and 6; disc two, sides 2 and 5; disc three, sides 3 and 4. Stack the discs on the spindle, sides 1 through 3 in order, bottom to top; when all three discs have been played, flip the entire stack upside-down, load it on the spindle. All six sides will have been played in numerical order.) This new development was a more precise and respectable version of the common record changer, which often damaged the LPs stacked on their spindles. Entering this market were models from the famous British company Garrard, joined by German newcomers (to North America) Dual, Elac Miracord, and Pereptuum Ebner. These first-generation autotables had all the conveniences of a changer but were gentler with one’s vinyl, and were better designed as turntables proper, producing less wow and flutter, and working with cartridges that could track records while exerting less damaging pressure on delicate grooves.

The other option was the purist approach: the single-play, often entirely manually operated turntable. Manual ’tables were, overwhelmingly, the most popular choice of budding audiophiles of the 1960s. Models from AR, Bogen/Lenco, and Empire were among the objects of my lust -- but none so much as a Thorens.

Thorens began in Switzerland as a maker of music boxes, which they still make today. The Thorens decks of the 1950s and early ’60s were conservatively designed, solidly constructed, and represented the best turntables of the era. Until about 1968, their platters were rotated by an idler drive similar to those used in most automatic turntables of the day but much heavier-duty, to accept punishing use in radio stations. With their first all-in-one record player comprising turntable, tonearm, and plinth -- the TD 150, of 1965 -- Thorens began to shift to belt drive.

One of the key qualities of Thorens turntables was reliability. Google “Thorens TD 150 reviews” to see how many users rave about their ’tables, many of those units now more than 50 years old. You won’t find many other just-above-entry-level turntables that still run, let alone elicit such excitement from their owners.

Thorens

In vinyl’s Death Valley Days of the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, Thorens kept its hand in, continuing to make turntables, though they were often difficult to find in North America. Today Thorens offers a broad range of ’tables, including several fully automatic models that look quite similar to those offered by Dual overseas and in Canada, and ranging in price from around $450 (TD 170) to over $14,000 (TD 907) (all prices USD). The subject of this review, the TD 206, is priced at an accessible $1499.99. One might consider the TD 206 their entry-level “serious” turntable.

Description

The TD 206 presents a fairly normal visage for a turntable, if you can ignore the fire-engine-red gloss finish of its plinth (it’s also available in Black, White, Macassar, or Mahogany). The Red is complemented by a chrome Thorens logo, an Off/33⅓/45rpm lever, and Thorens’s TP 90 tonearm. The TD 206 is fairly large, with overall dimensions of 18.7”W x 4.9”H x 14.6”D, and a weight of 12.35 pounds. Its heavy-duty plastic dustcover is attached to the plinth with sturdy hinges.

The 12” platter of machined aluminum and acrylic sits atop a smaller subplatter, around which the drive belt is wrapped. The platter is topped with a layer of thick paper that also serves as a cartridge-alignment protractor, should you ever replace the pre-mounted cartridge. Atop the protractor is the record mat: an acrylic disc that looks much like a grooveless LP. Thorens offers optional mats made of felt, cork, or a compound of cork and natural rubber.

Thorens

The TP 90 is a 9” tonearm with an effective length of 9.165” (232.8mm) and an effective mass of 11gm. Its armtube of rolled aluminum is damped using reduced modal resonance (RMR) to keep the arm from ringing at its resonant frequencies. The arm’s stainless-steel counterweight is double-decoupled, to eliminate any resonances it might cause. The TP 90’s height, azimuth, and overhang can all be adjusted by the user, but that won’t be necessary unless you install a different cartridge.

Speaking of which, the TD 206 comes bundled with a pre-installed Audio-Technica AT95E moving-magnet cartridge, here rebranded as the Thorens TAS 267. The AT95E, which retails for $49 when bought separately, is a favorite just-above-entry-level audiophile cartridge, but a bit less than might be expected to accompany a turntable in this price range.

The Thorens tech team told me that the TP 90 is “a TP 92 with a modified base” that, while not specifically designed for the AT95E cartridge, is a “highly optimized arm in several areas.” They said that the black ring around the armtube strongly damps resonances, that the pivot bearings are very precise, and that the headshell “was chosen because it’s almost dead regarding resonances and uncontrolled movements while holding the cartridge. . . . This means even a quite cheap cartridge such as the AT95E finds almost the best conditions for work and therefore, it sounds really good.”

Thorens

The TD 206’s motor is supplied power by a fairly typical wall wart. Other accessories include a heavy-duty, 1m-long, Thorens-branded phono cable (RCA) with captive ground wire, a separate ground wire if you prefer that, a heavy-duty aluminum 45rpm adapter, a basic gauge for setting the vertical tracking force (VTF), a spirit level, and a heavy-duty Allen wrench. The TD 206 is warranted for one year for parts and labor.

Setup and operation

The TD 206’s very thorough user manual contains all the information you need to set it up. The first step, of course, is to unpack its various parts: the plinth-motor-tonearm-cartridge assembly, dustcover, platter, power supply, and accessories. That done, slip the flat drive belt around the subplatter and then around the motor pulley in the rear left corner of the plinth. Next, lower over the record spindle, in this order, the platter, the paper alignment protractor, and the acrylic record mat.

The TD 206 has only three feet, all adjustable for easy leveling of the plinth -- crucial if you’re to get the best sound, and easily done with the included Allen wrench. This took me only about two minutes, using the supplied spirit level. The feet also absorb outside resonances, and did that quite well. Only when all of the above is completed does Thorens recommend connecting the TD 206’s phono cable and power cord.

Thorens

The only difficult part of setup was balancing the tonearm and setting the VTF. The setup process is virtually identical to that for the Thorens TD 309 ($1849.95), which Ron Doering reviewed in July 2011 for GoodSound!, the predecessor of SoundStage! Access:

Setting up the TD 309 was indeed easy, that is until I had to adjust the vertical tracking force (VTF). Like many tonearms, the TP 92 (which is unique to the TD 309) uses a counterweight that is screwed onto a threaded post on the back of the arm. So far, so good, and quite easy to do. However, unlike other arms -- my AudioQuest PT in particular -- the Thorens TP 92 lacks a graduated dial on its counterweight that would allow you to visually dial in the correct VTF once the arm is balanced on its bearings. Instead, you get one of those little plastic seesaw balance scales that Ortofon would throw in with their cartridges for free. This all works well, assuming that a) the scale is accurate, and that the user b) has hands steady enough to position the stylus over the correct spot on the scale, and c) is able to do this repeatedly until the correct VTF is set. Needless to say, the excitement factor goes up exponentially with the cost of the cartridge.

My experienced mirrored Ron’s: The Thorens folks told me that the supplied VTF gauge is “the most precise way of setting the force.” However, the gauge is so short (4.75”) that I found it extremely difficult to coordinate everything well enough to set the force. And when you adjust the counterweight, the arm moves, and you have to fiddle around getting everything properly lined up again on the gauge. I ended up using my time-tested Shure VTF gauge, which works on the same principle but is easier to manipulate.

Thorens

A final complaint: There’s nothing wrong with Thorens’s longtime antiskating system -- it’s magnetic, not spring based, and so can be extremely accurate. However, the knob used to set the antiskate force, like the counterweight, is ungraduated. Antiskating is set at the factory, but I had the misfortune of needing to adjust it to keep the arm from swinging as I set the VTF, and had to guess at where to reset the knob. The Thorens engineers: “If you want to set it as accurate [sic] as possible, you should use a test record but always check it using your ears. If there are distortions especially in the groove near the label on one channel, you should adjust it [anti-skate] until both channels sound as similar [as] possible and the distortions disappear.” That’s fine if you have a suitable test disc, such as Hi-Fi News & Record Review’s Test Record (LP, Hi-Fi News HFN 001), which costs $50; or CBS Laboratories’ classic STR 100 and STR 112, which run about $55 apiece -- when you can find them. Not something the typical user, let alone the vinyl tyro, is likely to have on hand.

But its finicky nature aside, the TP 90 tonearm is a work of art. I find it a joy to gaze at.

The last setting to be made is of the vertical tracking angle (VTA). Most phono cartridges are designed to work best when the cantilever -- the little rod to which the stylus is attached -- is at a 25° angle from the horizontal. Most cartridges are designed so that if the bottom of the cartridge is parallel with the record surface, the cantilever is at the correct angle. Thorens supplies a number of spacers to achieve that angle.

Finally, another nice try, but not quite: Along with the VTF and antiskate controls, the TD 206 provides individual speed adjustments for 33⅓ and 45rpm, should the platter not be turning at the exact speed. However, unlike the top-mounted pitch controls found on many 1980s decks, these are on the bottom of the turntable. To adjust the speed, you need to: 1) Check the speed with a strobe disc, noting if it’s too fast or too slow; 2) Secure the tonearm, then turn the turntable over; 3) Guess how much adjustment is needed, and turn the appropriate knob accordingly; 4) Turn the turntable right-side up; 5) Check speed with strobe disc; 6) Repeat until satisfied; 7) Repeat all steps above for the remaining speed.

Thorens notes that the speed, if inaccurate, should need adjusting only once, after which it will “remain stable for a long time.”

In short: The TD 206 could well be a fussbudget’s dream turntable.

Thorens

Operating the TD 206 is bog simple. Turn the switch to the desired speed; make sure the cueing lever is up and the stylus well above the record; move the arm to the left until the stylus is above the desired lead-in groove; use the cueing lever to lower the stylus into the groove. The TD 206 is entirely manual: at the end of the side, you’ll have to lift the arm, set it in its rest, and turn off the platter.

A note of caution: The cueing lever doesn’t raise the stylus very far above the record surface unless it’s pushed all the way back.

Listening

When I began listening seriously to the Thorens TD 206, I was taken aback at how delightful were the sounds emanating from the rebranded Audio-Technica AT95E cartridge. I’ve auditioned other ’tables using this cartridge, and none had sounded so completely together. All doubts I’d had were destroyed early on. The Thorens engineers have done a superb job of matching tonearm to cartridge. Kudos to them.

One of my favorite albums is Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, which I have in four forms: original LP, original CD, FLAC download, and my favorite: a two-disc set of 12”, 45rpm, 180gm LPs (Warner Bros./Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL2-441). The FLAC copy might have just a bit more overall range of sound but there’s something beguiling about the MoFi copy. The TD 206 did a phenomenal job with the beginning of “Money for Nothing,” drawing extra depth from Sting’s plaintive guest vocal (“I want my . . .”). Then, when the world’s widest drum kit enters, I heard good depth and width. The track unfolded a soundstage that was among the broadest and deepest I’ve heard with this track from any turntable.

Thorens

Beginning in 1962, a group founded by Ward Lemar Swingle specialized in singing arrangements of classical instrumental works, mostly by J.S. Bach, accompanied by jazz drum kit and double bass. In place of notes originally written for instruments, they scat-sang nonsense sounds and syllables: la-da, dub-uh-dub-uh, etc. The Swingle Singers were briefly popular, but I’ve always liked their music, and recently came across a well-preserved copy of their 1968 album Back to Bach (LP, Philips PHS 600-288). I chose as a demo track their arrangement of Bach’s Fugue in G Major for Organ, BWV 542. As was the case with most stereo recordings made in the 1960s, the singers were mostly grouped in the right and left channels, with a hole in the middle, though in this case the hole wasn’t huge. Philips pressings of the era were well known, and often criticized, for having a lot of high-frequency distortion that only became worse as the album grew more worn with repeated playings. It could be mitigated with a good cartridge with an elliptical stylus and a judiciously chosen antiskating setting. The Thorens TD 206 performed admirably on this test, producing just the slightest HF distortion from my used but cleaned pressing.

Another recent acquisition is Back Again, a 1979 album by the Hi-Lo’s, a vocal quartet named for the fact that two of the guys were tall and two were short (LP, Paula 7040). They found immediate popularity in the mid-1950s, just as rock’n’roll was about to steamroll big-band music into oblivion. The Hi-Lo’s weren’t a big band (even if sometimes, as on this album, they were accompanied by one), but role models for vocal groups as diverse as Manhattan Transfer and Take 6.

I chose the old standard “Come Rain or Come Shine,” in which they’re backed by a big band led by Canadian arranger and bandleader Rob McConnell. I was interested to learn that all the vocal tracks were recorded in Germany, all the instrumentals in Toronto -- the two groups never shared a studio. Nevertheless, the recording is so tight these guys must have been telepathic. The voices and instruments seem to play off each other, and the TD 206 just got out of the way and let them wail with excellent dynamic range, delineating each voice and instrument distinctly and individually without losing track of the whole. This was an amazing performance, by musicians and audio system alike.

Thorens

In my reviews I often turn to another vocal group of legend: Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Jon Hendricks’s words for “Cloudburst,” from their The Best (LP, Columbia SC 32911), go by so quickly that through many systems they come out as overtossed word salad. Only through better systems are they intelligible. I still didn’t understand every word Hendricks sings in the verses, but the TD 206’s fine midrange made him as intelligible as he’s been through any other inexpensive turntable I’ve heard -- I caught more than half the words. The overall sound was pretty terrific for an early-1960s recording.

Another treasured disc I often use in reviews is Art Garfunkel’s Fate for Breakfast, from 1979 (LP, Columbia JC 35780) -- his first flop, per Wikipedia. I find it brilliant, if only for “Finally Found a Reason,” in an arrangement for two acoustic guitars, bass, drums, and backing singers. The song is perfect for Garfunkel’s high, light tenor, and the backing voices are small augmentations to the whole. It’s a fabulous song, and on a good turntable it can sound glorious. The Thorens TD 206 is definitely in the upper echelon of the turntables I’ve auditioned. Its delightfully solid yet gentle midrange let me hear deep into the voices.

Time for a good woman’s voice singing something with drive. Enter “Love Alive,” from Heart’s Little Queen (LP, Portrait JC 34799). Depending on the needs of the song, Ann Wilson’s voice can be that of an angel or a devil. Here it’s plaintive as she sings “Ever since I was a baby girl, / I wanted one thing most in this world: / It was to keep my love, keep my love alive,” and as acoustic guitars weave in and out at beginning and end. The slightly harder-rocking bridge lets a turntable and cartridge show off their chops a bit -- the TD 206 and TAS 267 sounded full yet edgy at once, just as required. I was impressed.

Comparison

My reference turntable is a Dual CS5000 semi-automatic of the late-’80s or early-’90s, and until this comparison I’ve generally used with it my prized Shure V15 Type V-MR cartridge. But this time when I put needle to groove, I realized that the Shure had had it. The V15 Type V-MR had a cantilever made of boron, which is no longer available for that use. OEM styli for this cartridge are made of unobtanium, and third-party replacement styli are well out of my price range.

However, I have a newer Shure, the M97xE -- though it, too, was recently discontinued (boo on Shure). I called it into service for this comparison, and it sounded far better than the V15. I used another favorite tune, “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” from Billy Joel’s Piano Man (LP, Columbia PC 32544), and first listened to it on the Dual CS5000 with Shure M97xE. I noticed how distinct the bass line was, and how front-and-center was Joel’s voice. The drum transients were first-rate, while the piano, expertly played by Joel, sounded all of a piece. And the strings in the closing, Copland-like section were nicely in there -- not out in front, but well placed and quite discernible.

Thorens

Through the Thorens TD 206 and TAS 267, the highs of the piano and strings were a bit more crisp, while Joel’s voice, amazingly, sounded somewhat more mellow -- on the face of it, a counterintuitive combination. The soundstage wasn’t quite as deep as with the Dual-Shure combo, but, the Thorenses had a bit better grasp of supporting instruments such as the fleeting electric guitar.

All in all, it was a near draw. The more-expensive turntable with the less-expensive cartridge and the less-expensive ’table with the (now) more-expensive cartridge differed in only minor ways. I’d be happy using either combo as my reference.

Conclusion

It was fun to review a turntable from a manufacturer whose goods I’d always wanted to hear, and I was impressed with the sound of the Thorens TD 206 and TAS 267. It handled well nearly any LP I offered it, and the sound of even those that it didn’t wasn’t far from the best. It’s a fine performer with a well-balanced sound that’s good with all sorts of music.

Although Thorens presents the TD 206 as an “entry-level” turntable, it’s definitely not for the vinyl neophyte who lacks a local Thorens dealer to handle its setup -- the setup procedure is, in my opinion, very fussy, and can strain one’s patience.

Thorens

But those are the sum of its bad points. In operation, the TD 206 was simplicity itself -- and as it’s a Thorens, I imagine its owner can look forward to many years of trouble-free operation. The design and construction of its tonearm are brilliant, and from its motor and platter I heard no wow, flutter, or rumble.

As for playing records and music, I have no hesitation in recommending the TD 206 and TAS 267. I never knew that a $49 cartridge could benefit so much from a tonearm matched to its capabilities. The sound the TAS 267 extracted from the grooves was nothing short of exceptional. I threw record after record at it, and, making allowances for record condition, the music always came out sounding full-bodied and strong, and delicate and detailed, as appropriate.

I was impressed by the TD 206. In fact, I love it. If it’s in your price range and you can buy it locally, it deserves a good, long listen.

. . . Thom Moon
thom@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Phono stage -- Simaudio Moon 110LP v2
  • Preamplifier -- Linn Majik-1P
  • Power amplifier -- NAD C 275BEE
  • Speakers -- Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer
  • Interconnects -- Dual captive; Straight Wire
  • Speaker cables -- Acoustic Research 14-gauge terminated with Dayton Audio banana plugs

Thorens TD 206 Turntable and TAS 267 Cartridge
Price: $1499.99 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.

Thorens GmbH
Giebenach, Switzerland

E-mail: info@thorens.com
Website: www.thorens.com

US distributor:
American Audio & Video
4325 Executive Drive, Suite 300
Southaven, MS 38672
Phone: (866) 916-4667
Fax: (877) 457-2588

Website: www.americanaudiovideo.com

Canadian distributor:
Erikson Consumer
A Division of JAM Industries, Ltd.
21000 Trans-Canada Highway
Baie D’Urfe, Quebec H9X 4B7
Phone: (514) 457-6674
Fax: (514) 457-0055

Website: www.eriksonconsumer.com