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Sondek LP 12 - The One And Only (Part 1)

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We look back at what are surely one of the most significant turntables releases ever and one that changed our thinking – Linn’s loved and loathed Sondek LP12

In the great scheme of belt drive turntables, the Sondek was an elegant evolution of thinking first seen in the original AR deck, and crystallized in the Thorens TD150 – offering a precision of construction and attention to detail that few have matched since its launch back in 1973. Devoid of fripperies or gimmickry, the straight-laced LP12 introduced little that was radical in design terms. Rather, it was simply engineering ‘best practice’ of the day done to painstakingly high standards, with a patented ‘single-point’ bearing. Despite this, it went on to forge out an entirely new role for the hi-fi turntable in general, thanks to its own and its creator’s special endeavors.

By the late seventies the Sondek had already become the personification of the belt drive ‘super deck’, and by the early nineties it was surely the most famous hi-fi turntable in the world.

By modern standards the Sondek’s overall tonal character was very warm

By modern standards the Sondek’s overall tonal character was very warm

At the time of its inception, lest we forget, almost no one in the hi-fi firmament took seriously the idea that the source was the most important link in the hi-fi chain. And so it fell to a young Ivor Tiefenbrun to drive the point home, but it wasn’t just his obvious erudition that popularized the idea of ‘garbage in, garbage out’, it was because he was absolutely correct in what he said.

You spin me round...

Earlier generations of Hi-Fi writers had assumed that turntables needed to do nothing apart from revolve at the right speed in a quiet and stable way. Linn showed that more was needed, not least to be able to present a high precision closed loop between the turntable and tonearm in order for the cartridge to do its job.

This done, the deck would provide a high-quality signal with which the subsequent links in the system chain would work to make a great sound. If the source wasn’t up to scratch, Ivor would constantly tell anyone who’d listen, the speakers couldn’t make up for it later. This reasoning now seems such a ‘no-brainer’ that it’s hard to appreciate that 40 years ago it was heresy to a great many people – especially loudspeaker manufacturers!

The above is the latest addition to my music playback system – a 30 years old Linn Sondek LP12 turntable bearing serial number 35xxx fitted with Rega RB700 tonearm

The above is the latest addition to my music playback system – a 30 years old Linn Sondek LP12 turntable bearing serial number 35xxx fitted with Rega RB700 tonearm

Interestingly and importantly, however, Tiefenbrun didn’t abandon his prized LP12 while building up his company’s product portfolio; the deck received a series of upgrades which showed that Linn took the sonics of the deck extremely seriously. It was this rolling improvement programmer which was to make the deck so enduring. An original early seventies sample sounds different to the latest build – yet curiously somehow similar. As such, many myths and legends have grown up around the LP12.

The Sondek is an independently sprung sub-chassis design, originally with an AC synchronous motor driving a heavy mazak (alloy) platter, sitting atop a machined inner platter which in turn rests on a custom, high-quality bearing. The bearing is set into a sub-chassis, which rests on three springs that can be adjusted for height and bounce. The sub-chassis also hold the arm board, which Linn supplies in a variety of guises; the original boards were painted MDF. Around all this is a veneered wood plinth; earlier Sondeks for many years came in Afromosia – a type of African rosewood although Black Ash was available.

In its original 1973 guise complete with smoked dustcover – the Sondek was a sumptuous-sounding device with a big, fat bass and sugary sweet mid-band. Treble was silky and soft, which meant the deck’s overall tonal character was very warm by modern standards – and indeed those of the current production LP12. What really impressed was the sense of rhythms that the turntable served up; it seemed better able to extract the ‘groove’ from music than practically any other deck on the market back then. This made it wonderfully entertaining to listen to and its superiority over rivals made some believe it had a magic quality to it.

The Sondek was a sumptuous sounding device with a big, fat bass and sugary sweet mid-band

The Sondek was a sumptuous sounding device with a big, fat bass and sugary sweet midband

The Sondek was a sumptuous sounding device with a big, fat bass and sugary sweet mid-band

Over the course of the decade a few changes were made – mostly in 1974 (from serial number 2000), with new main bearing liner material, a strengthened sub-chassis, a modified motor control printed circuit board and a different mains switch fitted. Then in 1979 the deck got more elegant spring-loaded lid hinges, but it wasn’t until 1981 (at 27,000) that the deck really got its first major mod – one which Linn decided to give a name. The much-acclaimed Nirvana spring and motor mod kit (from 32,826) gave a tighter and gripper sound, which stripped the deck of a lot of its bass overhang and syrupy warmth. Then Linn announced the Valhalla crystal-driven power supply board (38,794), which gave a profound improvement to the overall clarity and detail of the sound, again making it sound leaner although it was still miles away from the (then) new Compact Disc.

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