Please Note: With TTWeights Audio exiting the industry and the unavailability of their extraordinary periphery rings, the feasibility of recreating the maximum results of this project is nil. There is still something to be learned from my experience with this project that may interest readers, but you should be cautioned to "take what you like, but leave the rest." The good news is that I am closer to embarking on Stage 2 of this project which will include more permanent and sometimes irreversible modifications. Stage 2 will simplify the "ritual" of playing records and most likely take the LP12 to yet a higher level of performance.
We are all tweakers. Some of
us are macro-tweakers, swapping components in and out of our rigs on what has
been called an endless merry-go-round. Others get down into the nuts and bolts
of it with capacitors and soldering iron. All of us are seeking "that mighty,
evasive stone" of music that moves us. The analog pathway is a trail many of us
have traveled, and to which many of us are now returning. Back in the 1990's I
was captivated by Corey Greenberg's LP rants in Stereophile and amassed more
garage sale records than I will ever listen to in my lifetime. I also bartered a
king size mattress for a Linn LP12, serial no. 0409xx, circa 1984 with a
Valhalla power supply and Sumiko MMT tonearm. It has served me well for more
than two decades as my system improved. The record collection moves slowly like
a tide from bookcases full of un-washed and unheard LPs to bookcases full of
those I've cleaned and enjoyed.
The problem came when I discovered I could bypass
the vendors at the flea market and buy directly from the source at garage sales
for ten cents or a quarter. Soon I was collecting records faster than I could
wash them, bringing home 20 to 40 a week. Each one was carefully removed from
the jacket and inspected before purchasing. A pocket-size loose-leaf notebook
carefully cataloged the cancerous collection so I wouldn't duplicate my
acquisitions unintentionally, at least. With stacks of records leaning
against the walls of nearly every room in the house, it became apparent that I
needed a record cleaning machine to keep up with the influx. The VPI 16.5
machine did a much better job than hand washing but the real benefit was the
miracle of random access to my
collection. The kitchen sink routine was only efficient if I blocked off time to
wash a large batch of LPs. The VPI allowed me to clean a single LP right
before I played it. As a side benefit, I could now organize my
records without washing them. This led to the bookcases which I purchased
shortly after Linda and I moved from our townhouse to a nearby tract home. It
had a generous listening room for me and a dream kitchen for her. Yes, contrary
to the flow of our generation, we upsized.
With a dedicated listening room came the
opportunity to expand my role from covering the Montreal audio show to reviewing
actual products. At Montreal I witnessed a demonstration of Symposium Acoustic's
roller ball type footers which planted a seed of curiosity about the effects of
vibration absorbing technology on audio equipment. And as Dorothy Parker
"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no
cure for curiosity".
But I urge a modicum of caution as animal studies
indicate that curiosity has also killed the cat.
Platters, Footers and Plates
Early on I also reviewed the Symposium
Rollerballs and while they were not a prime candidate for footers under the
LP12, the original Stillpoints and later, the Boston Audio Designs TuneBlocks
proved much more stable. Both did a superb job of draining vibrations out of the
chassis of the LP12 when placed beneath the Masonite board on the bottom. Care
was required to not push or lean on the wood frame of the Linn as it would slide
across the balls that contacted the Masonite. The benefit, quite simply, was
greater focus across the audible spectrum and it was easily recognizable.
Not long after the Mat 1 review I got wind of another mat from England from a company whose name sounded like a punk rock band, Sound Dead Steel. The heavy metal end of their business is in sound abatement making sound deadening enclosures for noisy industrial machines and processes. They also do a fair amount of work for the military, I suspect. They manufacture and use a special material comprised of two dissimilar thicknesses of metal separated by a layer of visco-elastic polymer. The head man there, Les Thompson, happens to be an audiophile at heart and he developed a turntable mat, the Isoplatmat, as well as a large plate on which to set a component. The Isoplatmat was very successful at improving the focus of the music and lowering background and surface noise. The original one was aluminum with a black paint which worked marginally well on the Linn but its weight threw the platter somewhat out of balance. A second version using stainless steel rather than aluminum was even heavier and it really rocked the boat. On a non-suspended turntable this would not be an issue, but on the Linn it was problematic. Problems, naturally, are food for curiosity. The Boston Audio Mat 1 had the advantage of being lighter weight and sounding a little warmer than the Sound Dead Steel mats, so the Mat 1 became my reference.
The large SDS Isoplate was useless as an isolation platform since the feet of most components are relatively ineffective as absorbers or drains of vibrations from within the chassis. The material itself worked, but the large plate didn't. I urged Les to develop 3" squares of the material and he sent me a bunch of hastily cut prototypes to play with. I had to file the edges by hand to prevent scratching the bottoms of my components but that was a small price to pay for the adventure. Adding the SDS squares between the ball bearing of the Boston Audio TuneBlocks and the bottom of the Linn chassis made an even greater improvement. By this time (September, 2006) I had learned and expounded my findings that using footers under all the components in a system had a synergistic effect. And so it was with the Linn, too. It was a little nerve wracking at first, as the squares provided a smooth surface that would allow the turntable to slide more easily than when the balls contacted the textured Masonite directly. With the Linn just below shoulder height on the wall mounted rack it was easy to accidentally lean into the chassis when I was cleaning the cartridge, for example. I suspect with the turntable at a lower height this would be less of a problem, though perhaps more difficult to clean the cartridge. Life has its trade-offs and I soon learned to be cautious because the payoff was large. There was no arguing with the improvements brought about by the Boston Audio Mat 1 and the combination of the Boston Audio TuneBlocks and SDS squares.
As an historical aside, I also reviewed the
Boston Audio Designs Mat 2 and found it to be quieter than the Mat 1, but the
additional weight lent a greater tilt to the platter/armboard structure so I
stayed with the Mat 1. I had also been talking with Austin Jackson of Boston
Audio Design about the 3" squares since Les Thompson did not seem to be taking
up the ball and running with it. (That's what they do in rugby, isn't it?) Well,
Austin whipped them into production quite readily, though I found the two plates
seemed to creep out of square over time when used under speaker spikes
another very effective use for
them if you have a joisted floor. This isn't an issue under a component where
the plate is out of sight up against the bottom of the chassis, but under the
spikes of a loudspeaker it is a little untidy. The squares from SDS do not do
this since the material is made under high pressure with large sheets of metal
and then cut down to size.
Shortly after Boston Audio Design came out with
their stainless steel TunePlates, I received a package from England, out of the
blue, with the official new SDS IsoFeet. Not only were the edges smoother, but a
thin foam layer was glued to one side to protect a floor or shelf. They were
handsomely finished in a textured black paint. For my purposes the foam was only
a slight hindrance since the ball bearing of the footers quickly squished it out
of contention. The metal side was used against the bottom of the chassis being
careful that it was flat on the bottom and not riding up on any screw heads.
Somewhere along the way I had upgraded to a
Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood moving magnet cartridge, feeding it to the phonostage
of a pre-owned CAT Signature Mk 3 preamp that had replaced the EAR 834 Line and
Phono stages. While the cartridge and preamp upgrades were significant, it was
the addition of the Mat 1, the TuneBlocks and the SDS IsoFeet that raised the
playback quality much higher than you would have expected. The HRS Analog Disk I
reviewed also made a contribution to lowering the noise floor commensurate with
its affordable price. It also helped to level slightly warped LPs a bit. All
these gains were happening at the cost of hundreds,
not thousands of dollars, and it
Seed Is Planted
It was probably on a Sunday night in winter. I
might or might not have been sipping a scotch, but I was certainly staring at my
Linn LP12 intently. There was music in the air, but maybe or maybe not from an
LP. It might have been a CD or Hearts of
Space on National Public Radio. I was staring at the Linn, but
thinking of the elegant design of the Simon Yorke S7 turntable which Michael
Fremer had praised in 1998. It was a perfect setting for an "Ah-ha" moment. What
if I removed the donut of the LP12 platter? I've often said that
nothing ever changes until you get your butt out of the listening chair (aside
from tubes and transistors warming up). So I got up, removed the Boston Audio
Mat 1, removed the outer alloy ring of the Linn, gave it a rap with my knuckles
(It rang loudly.) and put the Mat 1 back on the inner belt-driven hub of the
platter. Without the weight of the outer platter the Mat 1listed heavily toward
the West Coast. Not even the additional weight of the HRS Analog Disk helped
very much. I played a record anyway.
Batman, Dorothy, Elvis LIVES!!!!!
It didn't look very pretty, but the focus improved significantly and the noise floor fell right off the shelf. Somewhat like the Wright Brothers, who didn't make it out of North Carolina on their first flight, clearly, I was on to something here. I tried the much heavier SDS stainless steel IsoPlatMat which improved the tilt of the platter somewhat, but the suspended platter/armboard was still out of kilter. The donut of the Linn platter weighs over five pounds, after all. So I added the Mat 1 on top of the Isoplatmat which brought it back into the ballpark, but still not properly level, even with the HRS Analog Disk in place. In fact, with the two mats and an LP on the inner hub there was barely enough spindle showing to seat the Analog Disk. With shims under the TuneBlocks I was able to level the armboard/platter surface to keep the tonearm tracking properly, but the suspension was still not properly balanced. Luckily, the MMT tonearm has adjustment for VTA to compensate for the additional height of the two mats.
What I really needed was a heavier record clamp
and one of the newly introduced Outer Record Clamp rings from TTW Audio. Larry's
ring had evolved from a precisely machined single layer of metal to a precisely
machined flat ring with additional brass weights mounted on the underside of the
overhanging part of the ring. More mass at the periphery would certainly help
compensate for the loss of the outer Linn platter. I contacted Larry again, but
to no avail. I sensed he was obsessed with his new turntable designs and the
rings and clamps were not cost-effective for him to produce any longer. The Linn
project sat idle for another year.
September, 2011, was the premier TAVES show in
Toronto, nurtured by some of the folks who run the Montreal Salon Son-Image.
Being just a short paddle across Lake Ontario, it was natural for me to cover
it. I was really impressed by the organization of the show and the venue at the
King Edward Hotel. Not only was there a large turnout of manufacturers,
distributors and dealers, but the annual Nuit
Blanche multi-media outdoor arts festival that ran from dusk until
dawn on Saturday night was icing on the enchilada. Among the participants at
TAVES was Larry Denham premiering his turntables in a large room with large
prototype carbon fiber speakers provided by another Canadian entrepreneur. After
Larry gave me a knob-by-knob tour of his magnificent turntables which can be
either belt or rim driven, I finally had a chance to sit down with him and have
a face-to-face talk about this Linn project. I came away feeling like we were at
least on the same page.
(Outer Record Clamping System)
Functionally, the periphery ring made three major contributions. First, it added mass to help balance out the suspended platter/armboard combination and bring them into the same plane as the plinth. Second, it flattened records with minor warps and forced the bottom surface of the LP into complete contact with the record mat. And third, it added rotational mass at the periphery of the mat to reduce wow and flutter. Even better, with this ring being about 7/8" wide with the center of mass about ฝ" beyond the outer edge of the LP, the mass it contributes is even more effective than the mass it replaces on the outer Linn platter. As I understand the physics, the farther from the spindle the mass is located, the more effective it is in reducing wow and flutter and in reducing the noise floor. This is at least part of the rationale for having platters larger in diameter than LPs as are seen on turntables in the ultra-High End, as well as vintage turntables from the 70s and 80s.
Not having a ring for all these years, I didn't
really know what I was missing until this point. The noise floor of the music
and the surface noise of the record both diminished. Pace, rhythm and timing
picked up much of what was lost when the Linn outer platter was removed. How
much, you ask? Well, how can I answer that? The music simply flowed with greater
ease which probably means my brain was working less hard to correct the flaws.
Given that my collection is largely garage sale gems, most of these LPs benefit
from the removal of minor warps and the greater contact now being made with the
Mat 1 and Isoplatmat.
Trouble ahead, trouble behind (Casey Jones, you'd better watch your speed) -- Grateful Dead
But the ring brought to light another problem. From the earliest days of owning this particular LP12 I had to give the outer edge of the LP a 1/8 turn nudge to bring the platter up to speed. This is not uncommon for Linn owners, I'm told and I merely accepted the task as part of the ritual. But with the periphery ring in place, I couldn't exercise that nudge as it would have dislodged the ring. Instead, I learned to push straight down very slightly on the HRS weight and give my wrist a slight twist. It worked, but I was worried about the long-term effects on the bearing. Then I noticed that the belt was slightly contacting the belt guide attached to the plinth near the motor pulley. I talked to some people and did some reading on the web. Since I was using the original belt that came with the table 20 years ago I decided to order an inexpensive belt from TurntableNeedles.com to see if a fresh belt would bring it up to speed and hold alignment properly. The correct size didn't help, so I ordered a second one, a size smaller, also to no avail. Maybe I needed new bearing oil? More reading. There is certainly lots of advice out there. I asked my audio buddy's wife about sewing machine oil and eventually purchased an $8 vial of Bernina oil containing 12ml. It is specifically formulated for metal/plastic interfaces of sewing machine balls. If that seems expensive, consider the top of the line Bernina sewing machines from Switzerland go for about $30,000. Way more than what I need to repair my jeans, but the oil might be great in the Linn.
don't recall the exact reason or sequence, but I ended up in conversation with
Tom O'Keefe at Overture Audio in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Overture is a big-time
Linn dealer and unbeknownst to me at the time, many of the posts I had been
reading on the web were Tom's. Upon hearing the age of my Linn he asked me to
email some photos of the electronics inside. Since the oil had already been
removed from the bearing, I was able to simply turn the Linn on its side and
remove the bottom Masonite panel. Upon seeing the photos Tom immediately
recognized that the caps in the power supply needed replacing with new ones used
in current production. It didn't take long to realize I was talking with a real
expert on Linn turntables. On a Tuesday night I drove to Ann Arbor with the Linn
coddled in memory foam in the back of the Tracker. On Wednesday Tom replaced the
caps, realigned the motor mount plate, installed a proper ground wire, put new
oil in the bearing, put on a new belt and got it properly aligned, running at
the proper speed. I considered upgrading the power cord while it was apart and
was surprised to learn that shielded power cords actually sound worse than the
unshielded zip cord on my unit. I opted to keep the cost down by not installing
a newer, beefier Linn power cord since mine was in good shape and Tom suggested
that the improvement would be very slight. I was so delighted with the work he
performed at what seemed like a very fair cost that I drove home along the
southern shore of Lake Erie and had my Linn blessed in the shadow of the Rock
& Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Back at home on Friday night I was a little dismayed that the platter still needed a slight twist on the HRS record weight to bring it up to speed. But it came to speed with a much lighter twist and settled in quickly. It was much more livable. The improvement in sound quality, however, totally blindsided me. Pace, rhythm and timing were stunning, as was the increase in transparency. The attack of notes was Here and Now. The clicks and pops on worn and abused records were greatly diminished and the background grew even more silent than I remembered it. It was so impressive I was compelled to return the table to stock form to confirm that my mods were still making the kind of contributions I originally heard. (They were, but it sure helps to have the turntable running properly, too) The bottom line here is that my trip to Ann Arbor was one of the best spent days of the entire project. I felt like I was pretty close to wrapping it up at this point.
"It ain't over til it's over." You know who.
LPI Record Weight
The Stillpoints LPI raised the bar but also presented another
challenge. The platter/armboard ensemble was now too
heavy and listed toward the East Coast. Another "Ah-ha"
moment struck me. What if I removed one of
the two record mats I was using? I tried the Boston Audio Mat 1, Mat
2 and the Sound Dead Steel separately along with the TTWeights ring and
Stillpoints LPI. I pulled out my pencil and attacked the math once again. The
combo with the Mat 1 was 29% lighter than with the Linn donut and stock felt
mat, but the music was right there! It
was warm and inviting, but also slightly more recessed and the soundscape was
deeply layered. Surprisingly, the resolution took a small step up over the
stacked platters without any detriment to the music. Using the Mat 2, the combo
was only 20% lighter and the noise floor fell even further. The music was even
more seductive with the Mat 2. The SDS Isoplatmat with the TTWeights ring and
the Stillpoints LPI, on the other hand, was more transparent with a more
brightly lit soundscape. Focus was a bit better and the image was more forward,
losing some of the depth that the Mat 1displayed. If your system is on the cool
side of neutral and your room is very lively, you might prefer the Mat 1or Mat
2. In my case the tube amplification is just a hair to the warm side of neutral
and the room is well damped. I also prefer to sit closer to the front of the
stage so I prefer the SDS mat but I could easily live happily with either. Each
of us has our own preferences, our own rigs, and our own rooms, so you will have
to make your own decision. If you already own one mat or another, I'd say stick
with it for starters. The cumulative effect of these mods is much greater than
the individual contribution of one mat over another. From an engineering
perspective, the combination of LPI, TTSuper Ring and SDS mat came in less than
3% lighter than with the Linn donut and felt mat pretty close to a bullseye.
Linn platter (donut only)
Linn felt mat
SoundDeadSteel IsoPlatMat 34.4 oz. (1004
gr.) (Brushed stainless steel version)
Stillpoints LPI Record Weight 23.70 oz. (672
TTWeights TTSuper Ring 24 oz.
2351 gr. (About 2.2 oz. / 64 gr. Or 2.65% light)
If you really wanted the weight to match the stock Linn
platter, you could take 18 pennies and glue them to the underside of the SDS
Isoplatmat at 20 degree intervals at the perimeter. Adding mass there would be
beneficial but this would take the project into the realm of modifying parts
rather than just applying off-the-shelf, reversible modifications. I may go
there in the future, but not for now. Using the Boston Audio Design Mat 1(13
oz., 369 gr.) would result in the platter being 29% lighter and using the Mat 2
(20.4 oz., 578gr.) would make the platter 20% lighter than the stock Linn
platter with felt matt. You get to choose.
Watch out for Lathrop's law of equipment modification. If you
modify your equipment it WILL
sound better to you, regardless of whether the sound changed or not, or in what
direction. The act of changing something will make you think that it sounds
better, even when it actually doesn't. It's REAL
easy to fool yourself with equipment mods, unless you are able to rigorously and
objectively compare your modified equipment with a good reference. I'm speaking
from experience. That's one reason why I lost interest in DIY audio 30+ years
ago. ...it is difficult to be objective about an equipment mod that was
your own idea.
I replied to Tom, who after 30 years in this hobby has
developed excellent listening skills:
Thanks for the warning, Tom. You certainly must come over for
a listen to the Linn. A big clue to improvements for me is that I'm able to
cognitively understand lyrics that used to fall into the "What's
that lyric?" category. Of course I also listen for spatial
dimensions, room tone, noise floor, PRAT, timbre, dynamics, etc. and pay close
attention to my emotional reaction and involvement with the music. Fortunately,
at the recent Salon Son-Image and TAVES shows I was able to hear my own LPs on a
small number of rigs with fine turntables that make useful benchmarks, though
they were not the same as my own reference rig, of course. Another factor is
that the manufacturers are adept at improving their own equipment. It is rare
for their newest creation to be a regression. I've shaken hands with many of
them at shows, so maybe some of their magic has worn off on me. 8~)
Actually, I can easily reverse these tweaks to get back to the
original LP12, so I have made the comparisons as this project has evolved. The
exception is the addition of the new capacitors and proper grounding of the
table on my trip to Ann Arbor that brought it up to current Linn standards. The
one tweak I endorse that does not
improve the sound is the little patch of white leather on the armboard that
helps me locate the tonearm lift lever when I'm listening by street light in the
middle of the night.
if you don't own a Linn LP12? Well, they are often available and affordable on
the used equipment market. Probably 100,000 have been manufactured by now. Check
your auntie's attic. Just be sure it is running in proper order, first. But you
could also try these off-the-shelf components in with your current turntable. (A
long-spindle version of the Stillpoints LPI will soon be available for VPI
owners.) But think it through, first. Does the motor have the torque necessary
to handle the extra weight? In most cases it will. If you can buy with a
money-back guarantee there is little risk. And if you end up in a worse-case
scenario like you become terminally addicted to video games, all these items
should be readily marketable through the proper channels.
Value Tweak In The High End?
ERS is available from Stillpoints in both a non-sticky 8" x 11"
sheet for $24.95 and a sheet with a pressure sensitive adhesive for $39.95.
Maybe they should bundle this with their LPI? You could cut out a little
rectangle for use under the headshell and lay the rest of the sheet inside the
Linn under the power supply. I haven't tried that, yet. Sooner or later I will
get around to it, but you can just about read the hand writing on the wall. If
it doesn't help inside the Linn, there are plenty of other places in a rig where
it will perform magic, so you won't be wasting it. If you've got a unipivot
tonearm you might want to cut out a small square from a business card and see
how it affects the azimuth. But aside from that caveat ERS rates right up there
with AVM (Anti-Vibration Magic, or Blue Tube Goop as I call it) as one of the
highest value tweaks in the hobby. Twenty five dollars applied right near the
source of the music could well save you a thousand or two which you might have
to spend on a new cartridge or a better phono stage to achieve comparable
results. Think about it. And don't forget to check the tracking force.
Boston Audio Design
Sound Dead Steel
Voice: +44 (0)191 250 0900
Voice: (905) 953 7772