There are different types of audiophiles. There are those who believe a stereo component should, in the reproduction of music, stir the emotions, passions, and sound beautiful and cause delight. Then there are those who do not understand the concept of “musicality” as defined by the Oxford dictionary, and see a stereo system only as a means of retrieving “information” accurately, though the notion of “accuracy” is not well understood: does this include timing, which is a form of information, and coherence, which one assumes was in the recording studio or live venue, along with beauty and, indeed, sentiment? In fact, these information uber alles types often mistake a cold, analytical and musically-uninvolving presentation, lacking in coherence and rhythm – which has gained in pervasiveness since the introduction of digital technologies – as “accurate”, simply because this type of sound mistakenly recalls a sense of laboratories and men in white coats, dispassionate and analytical. Of course, it is this type of sound system which can more rightly be said to be seriously coloured, and not the “musical”, as defined by Oxford, systems which DO manage to capture the musicality which should also be in those tiny grooves.
Let’s remember that music should be musical , a system – or source – which fails at this leads to an ultimately unfulfilled audiophile. My work is appreciated by those who believe in timing, beauty and coherence – i.e. musicality – but over the years many of my customers are those who “suddenly” decide that their audio experience is not satisfactory, are ready for a profound change, and so contact me.
Let’s remember that music should be musical , a system – or source – which fails at this leads to an ultimately unfulfilled audiophile.
Several years ago, back in the dark pre-internet days of near-total belt-drive dominance, in a land far far away (Helsinki), I discovered idler-wheel drives – never having seen one before, that I knew of (I grew up with a record-changer) – and heard vastly superior bass slam, overall slam and timing abilities to any high-end belt-drive I had ever owned or heard (Linn LP-12 included). That machine was a humble Garrard SP-25 record changer which, not functioning, I stripped down to the drive system and to which I added a decent cartridge and phono cable . The sound not only had amazing timing and SLAM, but was also quite gifted in terms of information-retrieval. I found myself, back in 1993, touring the high-end shops of Helsinki with the little modded machine under my arm, and demonstrating my results. In one case, at the location of a well-known Scandinavian high-end chain, a salesman hooked up the little machine to an extremely high-end system – full-range speakers, high-end amplification – and a boardroom door upstairs opened up and a host of executives poured out to hear what they thought was the latest high-end CD player, and when the salesman pointed to the little SP-25, they simply stared and without a word shuffled back into the board room and shut the door. The salesman himself asked me to modify his Reference Thorens for idler-wheel drive operation. Not burdened with a completely rebuilt high-quality machine but instead a low-quality mass-market machine, I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that the only explanation for what I – and others – was hearing was the drive system, since there could be no other explanation. So began my search for a better example of the breed, and not able to find a Garrard 301 or 401 locally in those pre-internet days, which I could see advertised at the backs of British audio magazines, I eventually stumbled upon a very heavy machine which I recognized as a much more serious proposition: a Lenco L75. I mounted a Rega tonearm and decent cartridge to it, and was greeted by the most glorious, coherent, refined and dramatic sound I had ever heard. I found myself suddenly very angry that a superior drive system had been abandoned in favour of a lesser, and wondered what I could do about it.
A boardroom door upstairs opened up and a host of executives poured out to hear what they thought was the latest high-end CD player.
Ten years passed, the internet happened, I eventually returned to Canada, and I stumbled upon Audiogon and the whole notion of a “forum,” and still the belt-drive almost totally dominated the vinyl landscape: serious audiophiles only used belt-drives, the rest – idlerers and DDers alike – kept to their darkened basements and were dismissed as eccentrics, including the famed Sugano, whose Koetsu cartridges were voiced on a Garrard 401 rim-drive (kept hush-hush and to this day not a well-known fact even by experienced vinyl spinners). Though Garrards have long had a following, the followers did not see this as a drive system issue, but were simply Garrard appreciaters who believed in the inherent superiority – in some ways – of the Garrard, same as Linn LP-12 followers believe strictly in the Linn LP-12, and not in it as representative of either belt-drive’s superiority or the superiority of the three-point suspension (and why not think so in a world almost utterly dominated by the belt-drive?). In fact, when I set out, via the forums, to prove the musical superiority of the idler-wheel-drive system using the Lenco, I faced almost as much bitter opposition from Garrard followers – vintage 301s and 401s being out of reach then as now of budget-conscious DIYers – as I did from belt-drivers in general.
Using these “forums” to conduct a publicity campaign, I set out to prove to the world, via the then-unknown and so cheap Lenco, which at that time sold for $25-$50 (being considered pretty well the worst record player in the world due to the “vertical rumble theory” proposed by a reviewer who had forgotten to undo the motor transport bolts), that the vintage idler-wheel drive system was the best of the three systems: idler, belt and DD. I did this not because of any superiority I perceived in the retrieving of detail and information – which I did indeed hear – but precisely because this system is best suited to reproducing music, due to its superior timing, dynamics, and coherence, or to put it another way, beauty and excitement.
The best way to accumulate the necessary evidence without it being dismissed as anecdotal and so meaningless, was to accumulate a large enough number of reports to overwhelm any such usual tactics, of the results of comparisons between a properly set-up idler-wheel drive and top belt-drives, which in almost all cases favoured the idler (the reason to repeat experiments is to eliminate any factors – sloppy rebuilding for instance – which might mitigate accurate results). And the best way to do this was to start a DIY project on a major forum, with good visibility to appeal to the masses, and hope for the best. So started the Audiogon “Building high-end ‘tables cheap at Home Despot” thread.
The best happened, the thread became, at that time, the longest-running thread in audio history at the time the plug was pulled by Audiogon (over 4000 posts), and conversion by those who tried and matched it against various high-end belt-drives was close to 100%, a very rare event in audio (the very reason that thread went on so long and with such high numbers). So at one stroke I proved both the viability of the idler-wheel drive (proving its overall superiority is much more complicated and difficult, it turns out) and the superior abilities of the Lenco. The thread spawned dedicated Lenco forums and converts spread the word to other forums where I also worked to spread the word, and similar threads sprung up in audio forums around the world. After years of snowballing increasing awareness and exposure, not to mention lost sales, the industry took note, and now idler-wheel drive in various forms is reappearing on the market.
The idler-wheel-drive system’s superiority, I explained from the beginning, was due to the torque of the massive motors these vintage machines are equipped with, along with their drive system: a wheel which neither stretches nor contracts nor slips, transferring that massive torque to the platter. Torque, an important amount of torque (and variants of idler-wheel drive today do not provide the amount of torque the vintage machines do via their massive motors), adequately transmitted (and a belt of any sort – so far – is not adequate, even if the motors have sufficient torque), is THE most important element in the design of an effective record player, easily demonstrable: more effective torque (not simple inertia), better sound, simple and elegant as an idler-wheel drive. In fact, in equipping and comparing two identical Lencos with different motors, one weak and one strong (one must know which motors are good), one can clearly hear not only greater dynamics as one would expect of the stronger motor, but also a great deal more detail and transparency. In a similar experiment, simply substituting a stiffer spring to increase the friction between wheel and motor/platter resulted in an easy doubling of the sound quality, according to Salvatore who witnessed this (it was his Reference Lenco). Idler-wheel-drive torque is pure analogue, relying on pure torque and inertia, unlike quartz-locking/computerized direct drives, which never really open up dynamically and sound overly dry. This is the best torque, being an incredibly effective means of transferring power while minimizing noise, provided the plinth – and coupling – is good enough to control the machine. Information-retrieval, I’ve always maintained, means nothing if the music is compromised: music – timing, coherence, beauty – and a lack of detail is still music; tons of detail with no music is not music.
My work, evidently from the beginning, is focused on preserving music’s timing, coherence and beauty, and to preserving or enhancing the ability of each machine – and this means idler-wheel drive of course – to retrieve these. These can, indeed, be damaged, either by poor choice of materials, or combinations of materials, or by various poor techniques. Once these items attended to, then state of the art information-retrieval serves the music, and enhances it, but this is a very difficult, and rare, balancing act, only achievable, I believe, by a properly-restored and rebuilt vintage idler-wheel drive, to date, in the world of record players.
My arguments about idler-wheel drives and musicality caught the interest of audiophiles around the world, and I began to receive requests from these to build them such a machine, which they would pay for, in spite of my making my recipes and techniques available to DIYers. I accepted so as to continue to spread the word and so affect the industry. Over years of constant development – spurred by various criticism for which I and my clients are now grateful – I personally restored and rebuilt into various plinths more than 100 classic record players, both idler-wheel and DD (to verify my beliefs/test my theory). I rebuilt Thorens TD-124s, Garrard 301s and 401s, of course Lencos, Technics SP-10s and Sony 2250s – which I tested and evaluated against the world’s top belt-drives, direct drives and idler-wheel drives in various experiments. Over years of continuous development I experimented with materials and techniques and cast aside those which damaged musicality (yes certain materials can reduce or even fracture timing and coherence); and those I identified which preserved and enhanced it I incorporated into my record players, simple as that. In other words I have searched for – and found – ways of increasing the already-excellent information-retrieval abilities of idler-wheel drives, but only accept those which preserve and enhance musicality. As they say, there is no substitute for experience. And let’s not forget understanding.
Over years of constant development – spurred by various criticism for which I and my clients are now grateful – I personally restored and rebuilt into various plinths more than 100 classic record players.
The most recent example of my work and most developed, the Reference Lenco, has recently been judged world-class, Upper Class A, by Arthur Salvatore on his well-known website, High-end Audio. The least of my current work has been judged sonically superior, by an objective audience, to the King of rim-drive Idlers and vintage ‘tables in general, the mighty EMT 927, 150 pounds of Swiss studio precision, fetching 50,000 euros in top condition, as that one was. Those who have heard the astonishing sonic abilities of EMT idler-wheel drives, which are absolutely shocking and a true life experience, know what this means. The Lenco’s amazing sonic abilities, as with that small Garrard SP-25 years ago, are due to its drive system (though it’s implementation is special), and the EMTs are the Kings of Idlers as well as of vintage ‘tables in general.
Elsewhere on this website I explain more completely – reserving certain secrets of construction and materials to myself for the benefit of my customers who thereby can gain the pride of owning a sonic original – how I rebuild these machines. But those who commission from me know they are buying not from some follower, however gifted many of these are – who follow various recipes without fully understanding the sonic, mechanical and scientific issues, are often insensitive to the musical issues and are indeed ignorant of the historical and performance contexts – but instead from the man who was there quite literally from the beginning, and who was first to recognize, research, promote and fight for a superior drive system (not that even idler-wheel drive aficionados agree with me on this point, to this day). Even my earliest amateur woodwork – still viewable on Audiogon – was still built with a deep understanding of the musical, sonic and mechanical issues, and so even these rudimentary designs still command respectable prices on the used market.
In my fight to have this system brought back to serious consideration I have recognized the Public Relations value of having my work commissioned by well-heeled audiophiles – and thereby source comparison with truly state-of-the-art machines – and also various well-known audio figures, manufacturers, dealers, distributors, such as, for instance, Roger Hebert of Wyetech Labs, who recently upgraded from his “Classic” Lenco to my current Reference Lenco . To achieve this I was forced to hire a professional cabinet-maker of some local note (hired to work on our Parliament buildings among other commissions) to achieve the level of construction and finish acceptable to this higher tier of customer. To put it more plainly, my work would not be taken seriously among the top tier of components – or be compared to them to increase my knowledge, understanding and development – until it looked the part, and so I would not gain access to the world’s best systems until this was achieved. I worked for several months with the cabinet maker until I was ready to set up my own workshop and strike out on my own. This was in fact economically necessary as while I provided rebuilt machines to this upper tier of customer, it was often at a personal loss. To this day my prices are largely based on the actual cost of having a cabinet maker build for me, an accurate reflection of the hourly rate.
Instead of a machine rebuilt by a cabinet-maker who does not understand the sonic issues – tantamount to having an instrument, say a guitar, built by a cabinet-maker instead of a luthier – I personally rebuild these machines – plinth, drive system, chassis, modifications – with full and total understanding of the musical and mechanical issues and goals. The fabrication of various metal pieces such as both my modified and completely-rebuilt bearings (only keeping those elements without which the sound is compromised) – is done under my guidance by a gifted European machinist. The recoating, with a tough polyurethane finish, of the chassis and platter – after I have done the body-work, sonically-important, personally – is done by a professional outfit. Other than these elements, I personally build, rebuild, modify, substitute and do the final assembly of each machine, and submit each one to a lengthy test in my own system – assembled to focus especially on dynamics, timing and coherence as well as detail, imaging and bandwidth – to ensure it has all its musical potential realized, as well as strict sonic performance.
Each machine is a true Jean Nantais original, done by my hand in my workshop to my standards and with my full understanding, custom-made to the customer’s chosen tonearm and aesthetic preferences, within the constraints imposed by sonic considerations (i.e. size, mass, etc.). I intend to build each of my machines by hand due to the instrument-building approach necessary to achieve my results, and so yearly numbers will always be low, each machine’s particular abilities both musically and in terms of information-retrieval my own sonic signature, true accuracy which includes coherence, timing and dynamics and beauty as well as tonal accuracy, detail, imaging, bandwidth.