Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Thorens is an old company given new life by CEO Gunter Kürten, once with Denon and a former CEO of Elac. Founded in 1883, Thorens made its first record player in 1903, its first electrically driven turntable in 1928, and its iconic TD 124 turntable in 1957. The TD 124 became a standard in its time as a result of its many innovations. First, it used an unusual belt/idler drive: the motor drove the belt, which drove the idler, which caused the platter to spin; this system reduced rumble. An unusual suspension system made it nearly impervious to shock, and it had a built-in stroboscope, which, in conjunction with a ±6% pitch control, gave it outstanding speed control. It also came with a spirit level on its top plate that made leveling easier. And it had a unique clutch assembly that provided nearly instantaneous start and stop, which made the TD 124 popular with radio stations, where tight cueing was critical.

Over the years, Thorens continued to build many different turntables and even electronics. But, as with nearly all turntable manufacturers, the CD craze hurt Thorens, and distribution and production were spotty from the 1990s until recently.

Thorens

That changed when Kürten became CEO. He moved the firm to Germany and embarked on a plan to rebuild its business. In recent years, Thorens has released a number of new designs, one of which is the Thorens TD 402 DD, which comes from the factory with an Audio-Technica AT-VMS95E fixed-coil/moving-magnet cartridge and a built-in phono stage for $1199 (all prices in USD).

Description

The TD 402 DD mimics the classic Thorens look but with timely updates. First, and possibly most important, the platter is driven directly by the motor; there is no belt or idler to deal with. The plinth, available in Black High Gloss or Walnut High Gloss (my sample was Black High Gloss), sits atop four rubber feet that offer some isolation from shock and external vibration, but it isn’t hard to induce microphonics. The feet are not adjustable for height, which slightly complicates leveling the turntable. The turntable itself does sit level (my cabinet, however, does not—thus, the problem). The top plate is brushed aluminum, a look that pays tribute to Thorens ’tables of the 1960s and 1970s. The only controls on the plate are switches on the lower left, for speed selection (33 and 45), and the lower right (marked simply Start and Stop).

Thorens

The turntable’s dimensions are 16.5″ × 14″ × 5.5″. The 8.8″ straight tonearm uses a carbon-fiber tube, making it very low mass. It’s fitted with an interchangeable, offset headshell matching the SME standard connections. As mentioned, the TD 402 DD contains a pre-mounted Audio-Technica AT-VM95E cartridge ($69 retail). Thorens admitted their choice of a $70 cartridge was a cost consideration but noted that styli within the VM-series are totally interchangeable. The user may simply want to move up to a stylus like the AT-VM95EN (a nude-mounted, elliptical stylus), the AT-VM95ML (a Micro-Line stylus similar to that of the Shure V-15 Type 5), or the AT-VM95SH (a Shibata complex elliptical originally developed for 1970s four-channel LPs) to improve the sound. This certainly is the simplest, most logical upgrade route.

Initially, I was not impressed with the sound produced by the AT-VM95E, so I wanted to try one of my other cartridges: the Grado Gold, Black 1, or my new Ortofon 2M Red. However, I ran into a slight problem in that Thorens specifies a range for cartridge weight of 3.5 to 6.2 grams, which limits choice. Of my alternative cartridges, the Grado falls within the guidelines at 6 grams, but the Ortofon 2M Red is a full gram above the limit. I asked the folks at Thorens about this, and they responded that their published figures were, in effect, advisory and that cartridges that weigh in a little above the upper limit should be fine.

Thorens

And I tried all three alternative cartridges thanks to the spare headshell Focal Naim America kindly supplied me. All in all, the performance of the Grado was decent—smooth, sonorous, and similar to that of the Audio-Technica, while the 2M Red was livelier and provided more detail.

On the turntable itself, there is a tonearm lift lever to control the arm on set-down and pick-up. The unit includes a wall-wart power supply, a set of decent interconnects with built-in earth/ground connector (suggestion: make certain you ground the turntable to your amp or preamp. I didn’t at first and was greeted with unholy hum), an adapter for 7″ records, and a very nice dust cover. It also offers an onboard phono stage for folks who don’t have one, to boost the minimal output of the cartridge to a line-level signal the amp can use. The TD 402 DD is covered by a two-year limited warranty on parts and labor. Despite its German/Swiss heritage, the TD 402 DD is manufactured in Taiwan.

Setup

It’s pleasing to me that most turntable manufacturers have adopted packaging that assures safe transport of their units but eliminates most of the “What do I do with this little gizmo?” questions that made setting up a turntable such a chore in the past. The complete, multi-language owner’s manual (or in German, the bedienungsanleitung for the plattenspieler) begins with a detailed drawing of the top of the unit that lists all the important parts. That’s followed by each part’s name and function and another detailed drawing of the back panel. The setup instructions are fairly detailed but would benefit from some illustrations of the individual steps.

Thorens

As usual with a turntable, setting up the arm’s tracking and anti-skate forces are the most complicated steps, but in terms of simplicity, this new Thorens is a massive improvement over the TD 206 I reviewed previously. The arm itself is the common static-balance type: to set it up, you balance it, then set the vertical tracking force by rotating the counterweight. One difference lies in how light the carbon-fiber arm is and how it takes a very deft touch on the counterweight to balance it. Setting the tracking force is complicated by the grey print of the force scale on the black counterweight. I had to use a flashlight to throw enough light on it so that I could accomplish the task. Anti-skate (a force that counteracts the arm’s tendency to go toward the spindle) is set by a small thumb wheel on the side of the arm mount, but this, too, is shown with grey markings on a black control.

From opening the box to putting on a record, the process took less than 30 minutes, and that was due to my marking the location of every part on the packing material, which helps me when I repack the turntable for return. Had I not taken time to do that, setting up the turntable would have taken 15 minutes, tops.

Operation

It couldn’t be much simpler. Place a record on the platter, select the proper speed with the switch on the left, turn the switch on the right to Start, engage the arm lift, and position the arm over the lead-in groove. As you do, the platter will start to spin. When the arm is in the right position, use the lift lever to lower the arm into place.

Thorens

At the end of the side, the platter will stop on its own—a nice feature. Note the arm does not lift off the disc. But at least one is not compelled to immediately get up and turn off the turntable. And it saves the stylus. It’s a welcome feature but I found that on a few LPs, the lead-out groove ended before the motor had a chance to switch off, so I had to stop the platter manually.

One caution, though: raising the arm off the record with the lift requires some gentleness. It’s very easy to get the arm bouncing around if you raise it too quickly because it’s so light. Using cue to lower the stylus to the disc, though, occurs at a steady and gentle rate. Be careful.

Changes to my system

I recently jumped at the chance to pick up an Apt Holman preamplifier, a late 1970s creation that, to this day, gets good reviews and garners high resale prices on the vintage equipment market. It has replaced my long-term, trusty Linn Majik-1P, and I was amazed at the difference in sound. The Linn was good; I’d used it for 25 years and always thought it had an exceptional phono stage. But the Apt just thoroughly blew me away. First, the phono stage is dead quiet. The preamp has an incredible frequency range and sounds very natural on piano works—my sign of a good design. This is my new reference preamplifier.

Thorens

When I finally finished setting up the Thorens, I put one of my favorite Billy Joel cuts, “Uptown Girl,” from An Innocent Man (LP, Columbia QC 38837), on the Thorens. To this point, I had been a bit disappointed in the Thorens’ performance through the Linn phono stage—the bass was often mushy and without definition and the highs were masked. Not so much with the Apt in the system.

So I immediately discarded all my previous listening notes and started anew, with a different attitude toward the TD 402 DD and its Audio-Technica cartridge.

Listening

Many of you may be familiar with orchestrations of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, usually the one by Maurice Ravel. But I enjoy the piece in its initial form for solo piano more, and I have a recording of it by Lazar Berman (LP, Deutsche Grammophon 2351 09). First, I noticed a highly positive aspect of the Thorens/Audio-Technica pairing: they handled surface noise quite well. There are a few pops and clicks and one slight scratch on the record, and these were subdued in playback. The next thing that came to light was how well the Thorens/Audio-Technica handled both of the vigorous Promenade sections that repeat throughout and the delicacy of the many quiet passages. I felt the Thorens/A-T combination shone with this particular recording. So, for a classical music fan, the TD 402 DD would be a fabulous choice.

Audio-Technica

However, when I went to “One Fine Morning” by the Canadian group Lighthouse (from their 1971 album, One Fine Morning, LP, Evolution 3007), the sound was less satisfying. The bass drum and bass line had little form—I heard only muffled thumps down at the bottom. Mids and highs blared and sounded over driven, yet very high notes were veiled, almost missing. The soundstaging was the best part of the Thorens’ performance on this album, with good isolation of the contributors. Oh, and Lighthouse? You can think of them as a slightly heavier version of Blood, Sweat & Tears or Chicago—a rock band backed by a strong horn section. “One Fine Morning” was a top hit in Canada in 1971 and made it as high as 14 on US charts.

Frank Sinatra made a huge number of great albums over the years. He was known as a stickler for exemplary musicianship from the groups that backed him. This shows in “Bauble, Bangles and Beads,” from his album Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim (LP, Reprise FS-1021). Ol’ Blue Eyes was a bit past his vocal prime on this album, but no one—with the possible exception of Mel Tormé or Tony Bennett—could “sell” a song better. Here, he’s accompanied by strings plus guitar work by Jobim. Sinatra is perfectly centered on the recording, with Jobim just behind and to the right. The strings were lush and full over the Thorens. The few horns produced a silken accompaniment. The depth of the performance was extended—as it should be given an orchestra of 20 or more members. Overall, the Thorens did very well by the recording.

Thorens

Keeping up the bossa nova sound, I turned to Sergio Mendes and his group, Brazil 77, for his version of the Carpenters’ hit, “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” from Love Music (LP, Bell 1119). This cut features one of the group’s two female singers, Gracinha Leporace, who has a rather sultry voice, which came through nicely here. The backing is Mendes’s piano and the group is supplemented by strings and a couple of wind instruments. Interestingly, the singers are not quite centered on the recording; they’re just to the right. The Thorens/A-T’s sound was smooth and fairly full, but lacked some needed sparkle on the high end. The soundstage was broad but not deep, partially an aspect of the recording.

George Shearing and Marian McPartland were exceptionally fine British-born pianists who made their reputations in the US. Their one collaborative album, Alone Together (LP, Concord Jazz CJ-171), is just them—no backing arrangement. As usual with Concord Jazz, the recording quality is top-notch. The sound of the pianos was somewhat centered as if the pianists were facing each other, and the pianos sounded just as they should—full-bodied, with firm bass and a clear midrange. This album possesses some of the high-frequency sparkle that the Mendes album lacks. Still, the Thorens/A-T’s sound was a touch mellow.

Thorens

Pablo Cruise was a four-man group that had a brief stab at stardom in the late 1970s. Granted, this isn’t landmark music, but their records always sounded great—great studios, great engineering and production, and great mastering. I chose “Love Will Find a Way” from their recording Worlds Away (LP, A&M SP 4697). The lead singer was firmly centered on the stage with the reasonably solid bass and drums right behind. Backing vocals were spread distinctly from the left to the right, while the lead guitar was definitely arriving from the right channel. Again, the TD 402 DD/AT-VM95E offered good soundstaging and decent depth, but lacked clear reproduction of the highest octaves.

Comparisons

I’ll present two comparisons—one for the Thorens’ inboard phono stage versus that of the Apt Holman and another between the Thorens with the AT-VM95E versus the Thorens with my best-sounding cartridge, the Ortofon 2M Red.

For this first one, the Apt Holman vs. Thorens inboard, I used Wes Montgomery on guitar with a fabulous backing band led by Don Sebesky doing “California Dreaming,” from the Montgomery album of the same name (LP, Verve V6-8672). Montgomery was a self-taught guitarist (he couldn’t read music) who gained prominence in the mid-1960s with his unique style of finger-picking jazz. Since then, many guitarists have emulated his style.

Thorens

Using the Apt’s phono stage, the soundstage was broad and right up front. Montgomery’s guitar was dead center; the band’s horns were off to the left and slightly behind; the drums were just to the right and the piano centered but well behind them. The high tones of the piano and muted trumpet came through nicely. The bass lines were firm and, as usual with a Sebesky band, the backing was presented very tightly. This was the best I heard the Thorens/A-T combo sound.

Through the Thorens’ built-in phono stage, the sound was very different and not that satisfying. The bass and drums were less conspicuous. The staging wasn’t quite as precise, and the whole performance lacked heft. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t up to the standard set by an external phono stage. I’d say the Thorens has an OK-but-not-exceptional phono stage.

For the cartridge challenge, I ran both cartridges through the Phono 1 input on the Apt Holman. I picked a cut from the original Blood, Sweat & Tears album, Child Is Father to the Man (LP, Columbia PC 9619): “I Can’t Quit Her,” an early example of the group’s merger of jazz with rock. The singer is Al Kooper, a co-founder of the group who hung around just long enough to record this album and then split. Kooper is not Frank Sinatra, but his voice fits the song.

Thorens

Right off the bat, the A-T sounded very midrangey, with a little hollowness to the vocal. The soundstage was fairly wide but not very deep, which admittedly, is at least partially the fault of the recording. The violins on their higher notes sounded slightly harsh, but they weren’t as recessed as they are on some other discs. The A-T brought out how incredibly in sync all the band members are. The bass had some real grunt to it. In all, a decent performance.

The Ortofon’s sound was more effusive. The violins lost their harshness but were quite forward, as was the electric guitar. Even after adjusting carefully for differences in cartridge output (the A-T’s output is rated at 4.0mV; the Ortofon’s at 5.5mV), there was just more substance to the Ortofon’s reproduction—more overall sound and more detail. One downside: some sibilance on Kooper’s vocals was unpleasant. Still, I liked the Ortofon better than the A-T. No shaming of the A-T: on a lot of recordings, it would produce some extremely pleasant sounds.

Conclusion

I have lusted after Thorens turntables since I was about 16. I swore I would own a Thorens someday, and I hoped the TD 402 DD would be the one. My initial experience with it was disappointing. While the turntable worked perfectly and was gorgeous to look at, the sound it produced with its installed cartridge was sadly rather lifeless when connected to my Linn Majik-1P—a preamp I’ve always felt was near the top of the game. It and the Thorens just didn’t mesh.

Thorens

The Apt Holman preamp, with a phono stage designed and manufactured when vinyl was close to the ultimate format for recorded music, along with the Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, lured both the beauty and the beat back into the beast. Once my system-matching issues were resolved and a better cartridge was installed, the performance of the Thorens improved dramatically.

The TD 402 DD is great to look at, easy to set up and operate, and under the right system conditions, it sounds quite good. It just needs a cartridge or stylus from the factory that is a better match to its many capabilities.

. . . Thom Moon
thom@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Analog source: Dual CS5000 turntable with Sumiko Oyster Moonstone cartridge.
  • Preamplifier: Linn Majik-1P, Apt Holman.
  • Power amplifier: NAD C 275BEE.
  • Speakers: Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer.
  • Interconnects: Dual (captive with CS5000 turntable), Thorens, Straight Wire Chorus.
  • Speaker cables: Acoustic Research 14-gauge terminated in banana plugs.

Thorens TD 402 DD Turntable with Audio-Technica AT-VMS95E Cartridge
Price: $1199.
Warranty: Two-year limited warranty.

Thorens GmbH
Lustheide 85
51427 Bergisch Gladbach
Germany

Website: www.thorens.com/en

North American distributor:
Focal Naim America
156 Lawrence Paquette Dr.
Champlain, NY 12919-4861
Phone: (800) 663-9352

Website: www.focalnaimamerica.com