World Premiere Review!
It's no secret the Linn LP12 is one of the most iconic components in all of high-end audio. It's reasonable to expect there are more than 100,000 sold since introduced in 1972. With its backward compatible upgrade path there is good reason to assume there are still plenty in active use, if not sitting idle in attics all over Great Britain and the USA. While the backward compatibility has led to its continued popularity, it has also left the design vulnerable to aftermarket modifications since such mods would be applicable to virtually any LP12, not just the ones between say 1979 and 1981. So, just as there are legions of people who hot-rod old cars (which were made in even larger numbers), so there is a cult following of the LP12. You're probably one of them if you're reading this now... or about to become one once you've finished reading here.
I came to own my LP12 by way of barter in the early 1990's when it was already about a decade old. It was fitted with a Sumiko tonearm made by Jelco in Japan and had the Valhalla power supply and pre-Cirkus bearing. Old, but not ancient, it required a determined twist to the record clamp to bring it up to speed. My inquisitive nature and fascination with tweaks led me to the application of a number of significant modifications that were documented in my Tripping the Linn LP12 Fantastic article in January, 2013.
All of those modifications were, at the time, off the shelf products that were easily reversed for relatively instant comparison. In the back of my mind, and on the back burner of my life, I envisioned other products that would take the LP12 to an even higher level, most of them not easily reversible.
In my exuberance of completing Stage One of Tripping the Linn LP12 Fantastic I sent a link to Sir Ivor Tiefenbrun, the founder of Linn and was honored with his reply, "Oh my, where do I begin?" With due respect to one of the founding fathers of high-end audio, I refrained from suggesting to him "Well, just about anywhere, Sir." You really have to love a man who has done so much for this industry and been so successful. But the LP12 today has become a blueprint for a very fine turntable at a much lower cost than Linn offers with their own brand. It is possible to assemble a virtual LP12 almost completely from aftermarket products from main bearing outward to plinth. Only the springs and their bushings (which Linn calls "grommets") are not easily sourced off the shelf from somewhere else... and I could be wrong about that, too... which brings me around to the review at hand.
I don't recall how Theo Stack and I became acquainted over a year ago. I might have contacted him after seeing his products on eBay, or he might have seen my article. We hit it off immediately and he was eager to have me review some of his mods. Parts were sent last summer, but I became embroiled in the sale and closing down of the retail furniture business that had been in my family for over seventy years. Health issues ensued, and then updated parts were sent with better finishing. Then we realized the armboard would not work with my Sumiko arm, but figured one for a Rega 3 would probably work. Theo graciously made one up for me but I had to have it drilled locally because the Sumiko collar was drilled differently than the Rega 3. Then the Salon Audio Montreal / Audio Fest 2019 and AXPONA 2019 (Chicago) audio shows landed on my plate, causing further delays. Life happens and sometimes gets in its own way. Perseverance has paid off with glorious results as you shall soon read.
All the while, Theo was working on additional products as well as refining his marketing efforts. He has chosen to focus on front ends with the Linn mods on the analog side and with his ambitious LINK, a USB music streamer on the digital side. He does the prototyping himself, but production work is subcontracted out to UK companies that do a lot of work for military and aerospace industries. This allows him to keep his overhead low without compromising on quality. From how I've seen him progress over the past year, he is off to a great start.
The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.
Of course, that was back in 1933 before the invention of the Linn turntable. The mystique about the Linn has it that it is difficult to tune properly and gets out of tune easily. That's enough to intimidate me in spite of the fact that I can take my 1975 vintage Raleigh bicycle down to the spokes and ball bearings and build it up again. But create that perfect Linn "bounce" in the platter? Well, I can sort of dribble a basketball. Consequently, I decided to forge ahead with the Serene Base Board while the new armboard was being fabricated. It was clearly the easiest part to swap out and doing so would not screw up the reasonable bounce of my suspension. Surely, a success here would instill some momentum on the project.
Four screws will remove the brittle hard rubber feet and another two on the front and back edge of the original fiberboard will permit its removal. I wasn't expecting a huge gain here because I was already by-passing the stock feet, using custom footers that had made a substantial improvement. Yet I knew from my experience with SoundDampedSteel, now known as Soundeck, that the two layers of aluminum separated by what Stack calls Advanced Vibration Dissipation Composite (AVDC) had serious potential for improving the sound of the Linn. Soundeck uses a viscoelastic polymer between the metal layers, but Theo says they use something different. In this age of materials science I can easily imagine there are numerous alternatives. In the Kingdom of Audiophiles we see this constrained layer damping from one end of the reproduction chain to the other, in one form or another.
While I'm not an expert on the LP12, my understanding is the LP12 was designed to isolate the various sources of vibration from each other and from whatever it is placed upon. Tom O'Keefe at Overture Audio in Ann Arbor, Michigan, tells me Ivor designed the LP12 after being frustrated that his turntable would not play well when placed on a piece of furniture in one room of his home, but would in another. He wanted a turntable that would play well in any room. As good as the LP12 was, mechanical isolation only reduces vibrations. It doesn't eliminate them completely. Towards that goal, the components from Stack Audio are designed to absorb vibrations and dissipate them by converting them to heat. Of course with micro-vibrations, you will only be creating tiny amounts of heat. What we have here is a subtle shift from mechanical engineering to materials science. But let's not get bogged down with distinctions that are best left to departments of universities. The proof is ultimately in the listening.
Installing The Base Plate
It was relatively easy to remove my original base board which was a brown fibrous Masonite material that would cost less than $3 today. I used a seat-less chair as a jig to gain access to the underside. (With a little ingenuity, you can replace the Base Plate without the use of a jig.) With the base unscrewed, I simply lifted the LP12 off the jig and placed it atop the Serene Base Board on a nearby countertop. Since the three feet of the Serene Base Board keep the aluminum sheets raised off the countertop, it is easy to slide your fingers beneath the plates and carefully wiggle the plinth and base board until the base board seats into the bottom of the plinth. It is a very precise fit. Make sure you have all the screws holding the original base board removed or the new one will not slide up into position.
Once the Serene was in place, I lifted the plinth back onto the chair and screwed the Serene Base Board into place. If you're using a jig specifically designed for the LP12, the old baseboard may simply drop out when you remove the feet and side screws. The Serene may simply be inserted and affixed while the plinth remains anchored in the jig. The baseboard is notched for three screws on each side, so this will take some time. Since I didn't have access to a proper Linn jig, I improvised, which required a bit more care, I suspect.
The Serene Base Board has three adjustable feet made of aluminum and Sorbothane. There are also holes in the plate for gaining access to the tonearm, armboard and suspension screws and nuts for adjustment. Two of the feet are in the front corners and the third is in the middle of the back side of the plinth. The three points of contact with the shelf make it much easier to level the LP12 than the original four feet which typically called for shims in my experience. The large diameter of the feet and the reasonably smooth threads make it easy to spin the feet for adjustment.
The Sorbothane pads are tacky enough to keep the turntable from sliding around on my wall mounted wood shelf. The upgrade Ultimate Base Board from Stack is made from high mass Solid Surface material and uses feet comprised of six layers of different materials, including the AVDC mentioned earlier. I have no reason to doubt the Ultimate model outperforms the standard Serene, but you will have to decide how much you wish to spend.
The Listening (Serene Base Board)
I love it when I'm wrong. The impact of the Serene Base Board was both immediately perceived and substantial two to three times more impressive than I thought it might be. The music tightened up with improved pace rhythm and timing. The attack of notes was more pronounced and the notes were more distinct with less blurring or smear. The bass was noticeably clearer and commanded more attention, though did not become any stronger. The baseboard subtracts vibrations, after all. It does not add energy to the signal like an amplifier. Cognitive recognition of lyrics buried in the music or sung with an affect improved noticeably, but didn't eliminate all the mysteries. It put a grin on my face and a tap in my toe. It was an obvious keeper, but raised the question as to how much better, and how much less cost-effective the remaining pieces might be. There is always the law of diminishing returns at play.
I used the Linn both on my wall mounted shelf and on my excellent Codia Acoustics Diagon rack, a nearly $6,000 4-shelf unit that made a very significant contribution to my tube electronics and solid state digital front end. Acoustically, the Codia rack was superior to the wall shelf but when I stepped down hard onto the sunken joisted floor of the listening room, the footfall would cause the stylus to skip a groove. Since we often listen to LPs when we have guests who may be prone to moving about or even breaking into dance, the Linn went back up on the wall shelf. The shelf has the added advantage of being closer to shoulder height, making it easier to cue up LPs, so it was an easy compromise.
In the photo above I tried the excellent adjustable copper footers with constrained silicone damping from Todd Kubon of AmCan Audio in Chicago along with the Serene Base Board on the Codia rack, but the footers barely improved the sound, if at all. On regular supports with both tube and solid-state gear, the AmCans usually make a substantial contribution, so they will be rotated to my CD transport which also benefits from precise leveling. (Note in the photo that the Linn armboard is riding high because the periphery ring and heavy record clamp are not in place to balance the sub-chassis out with the modified Soundeck platter.)
The Armboard Glitch
I was able to simply slide the collar into the hole and use the collar as a template for drilling new holes in the Rega 3 version of the Serene Arm Board. (The diameter of the circle defined by the three mounting holes on the Sumiko collar was slightly smaller than the circle defined by the mounting holes of the Rega 3, so the collar was simply rotated a few degrees to identify a position for the new holes to be drilled.)
With the armboard ready to go, there was nothing to hold me back once the Linn had been unplugged for a couple of hours to be sure the capacitors on the Valhalla board were fully discharged. As my horoscope said today, "Fear looks, faith leaps." With a mental note that there are a lot more parts to a 10-speed bicycle than an LP12, I leapt. After removing the Serene Base Board I pulled out the inner platter/spindle and capped the bearing with plastic film and a tightly wound rubber band. This allowed me to set the LP on the left side of the plinth and freely access the underside to disconnect the cable clamps and structural parts. (I can hear the gasps of Linnies clear across the ocean.) It made sense to remove the armboard and tonearm together after unclamping the captive tonearm cable. Be sure and remove your cartridge first and keep it in a safe place.
I had watched numerous YouTube videos so I wasn't doing this completely blind, but I wasn't using a dedicated Linn jig either. (Theo now markets a very nice jig with adjustable feet for about 130 pounds that would make this process a lot safer.) The one part that puzzled me awhile was the bolts that held the top plate to the plinth. While it had what looked like a buggered-up Philips heads on top from the previous owner, I finally found the concealed nuts below the top plate that had to be removed first from the bottom. Pay attention to the sequencing as you do this. Make notes if necessary to facilitate reversing the process when installing the new parts.
I had also been sent a cross-brace for the Valhalla board which has since been discontinued. (A new cross brace suitable for use with the Lingo 4 will be available shortly.) I suspect it was not cost effective and probably contributed little improvement. Nonetheless, I went to significant effort to pull my Valhalla power supply board from the stock wood brace and install it on the new brace comprised of two layers of stainless steel with AVCD as constrained layer damping with lots of holes in all the appropriate places. It looked expensive and is probably unnecessary if someone is ultimately going to install a Linn Lingo power supply or an aftermarket Mober motor with external power supply. At least, I think I'd rather put my money toward a new motor. I was able to squeeze the prongs of the little white plastic star clips with a spare pair of surgical forceps to remove the Valhalla board. (I do brain surgery as a second hobby.) I detached the motor and the switch from the top plate so I could leave them attached to the Valhalla board, but the connection for the switch readily fell loose from the board.
I re-attached the Valhalla board to the new cross brace and set it aside. Next, as I recall, I unscrewed the armboard from the sub-chassis and set it aside. I couldn't believe how unsubstantial that connection was with three small wood screws going into the armboard composed of chipboard. Here's a photo of the CNC machined Serene armboard for a Linn tonearm with threaded brass inserts for the screws to connect it to the Serene Sub-chassis. You can attach and detach this armboard to change tonearms for the rest of your life without fear of destroying the threads or the armboard itself.
Next, the Linn stamped metal sub-chassis was removed and the bearing transferred over to the Serene Sub-chassis. The metal sub-chassis rang like... well, like metal, when struck with the plastic handle of a screw driver. The Serene Solid Surface version had a higher pitch sound like plastic when similarly struck. Note the honeycomb ridges to retain rigidity while material was removed to optimize overall weight. Metal inserts come fully assembled, and an alternate plate drilled for a Cirkus bearing is included should you need it at some point. The scratches near the bearing were my fault. The pieces all arrived in excellent condition. Theo readily admits to his compulsive perfectionism.
The top side of the sub-chassis is nicely polished. Because it is made from Solid Surface, it will not achieve as fine a gloss finish from polishing as wood or metal will take from a Piano Gloss finish with multiple applications of paint and polishing. Nonetheless, it is far shinier than the standard mat finish of Linn arm boards. While the effort is really wasted on the Serene Sub-chassis which is ultimately concealed, it looks very classy on the Serene Arm Board. You will lose the Linn logo, but this presents the opportunity to boast about your upgrading prowess when friends inquire about your "new" turntable.
The Serene Top Plate
The machining was very precise and the top plate dropped right into the wood plinth. Had I thought ahead, I would have ordered new rubber bushings and possibly new springs as I know the composition of the bushings has changed since this turntable was built, presumably for the better. The hole at the near corner in the photo (which becomes the left rear corner by the motor) is for a bolt that fastens through the corner brace, which I don't have on my vintage plinth. Theo tells me current production uses a concealed attachment point on the underside of the top plate for that corner bolt. He will also send you a set of corner braces with your order at no charge if you request at the time of your order.
Everything went back together as it should with minimal effort, slowed only by the fact that this was my first time through a Linn tear-down. You know how some smart-ass always jumps in with the obvious warning: "Don't try this at home, kids!"? I came to the realization why Theo wanted a neophyte hell, make that a "never-phyte" like me to do this review. He wanted me to prove that it can be done at home. Well, the Moment of Truth comes in balancing the springs. While my seat-less chair sufficed for ordinary disassembly and assembly purposes, achieving proper "bounce" required a level surface. So I went to the garage and dug up some cedar shakes that were destined for firewood and leveled the seat of the chair on the kitchen island. Here again, having a proper jig with adjustable feet for leveling would have been safer and a lot easier.
Fortunately, I had taken photos of the springs before I disassembled everything, so I could judge about how far to tighten them down. Had I been more wary, I would have labeled and isolated each set of spring and rubber bushings for exact replication. One of the YouTube videos showed me where and how to tap on the platter. I did the best I could. Did I replicate the original bounce? Like I said earlier, I can kinda dribble a basketball. It needs more fine-tuning, but I think I'm going to opt for new rubber bushings and springs from what I've read recently on the web. And I'm also thinking about a new motor that would enable me to play 45 rpm re-issues. Let's just say it goes up and down. (I can hear the Linnies snickering on the far side of the pond again.)
The result didn't jump out at me right away like the improvement made by the Serene Base Board. Perhaps it needs time to settle in, I thought, given the suspension had been disrupted by the installation. Or maybe my bounce wasn't bouncy enough? Within a couple of minutes, I began to recognize significant improvements. The Serene parts are designed to absorb vibrations and the effect was subtractive, not additive. The noise floor had dropped. The attack of notes became more precise and the decay extended longer in time and was more evident on notes that were deeper in frequency. More room tone or ambient information became evident on recordings that had captured it especially on live recordings.
The clapping of the audience became more distinct, as if you could almost count the number of people applauding. The improved resolution also brought with it the expected improvement in the soundscape with musicians more specifically placed within it, yet not being so pinpointed, or isolated in a bubble that it sounded synthetic. There was a natural continuity of space. Sustained treble notes from a Hammond B3 organ had a purity and smoothness that cut painlessly into my chest and grabbed my soul. The shimmer of cymbals was a lot more defined and realistic sounding while the decay became more extended on the blacker background of the recordings. Massed and individual violins likewise became more resolved exhibiting much more air at the top end.
In the bass, there was also improved clarity and timbral accuracy more tasting of the drum skins, but not as prominent as the treble because of the system choices I have made. My Kharma speakers go down to about 33Hz, but with 89dB/W/m sensitivity and driving them with only 18 Watts from a SET tube amplifier in a large room, you cannot expect them to be as powerful or tight in the lower bass as you would with a powerful solid-state amp. The damping factor is just not there. So I've made a conscious decision to sacrifice some deep tight bass for the liquid transparency and holographic presentation of parallel 300B tubes. In my opinion, it is wise decision. Powerful tube amps with a lot of bass slam can get outrageously expensive (and hot). Furthermore, most LPs do not have a lot of really deep bass content. Deep bass eats up a lot of groove width and it is often compressed in mastering. Deep bass coming from the speakers can also create a feedback loop with the tonearm and cartridge.
Likewise, the midrange didn't stand out as being much improved at first, but as I listened more, I realized the cognitive recognition of lyrics improved. Lyrics that were undecipherable before, became recognizable. Quite simply, there was a lot more inner detail to the music. Since I listen to a lot of music with lyrics rock, pop and however you dare to categorize Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen this became very significant for me. The phrasing of the singers became more nuanced and I could hear them take breaths. Over time, listening became a lot more relaxing, regardless of the genre. My brain wasn't working as hard to figure out the music. Moreover, I was listening to the music rather than listening to the system. I began to reach for one album after another and I began to more quickly discard the ones I realized had no interest for me. This can become a huge saver of precious time. And time becomes more precious the older you become.
To some extent this happens whenever you upgrade a component or a cable. But as Ivor Tiefenbrun argued back in the Good Olde Days (and probably to this very day), the front end is critical. If the front end lacks high fidelity, you can't get the resolution back that's stamped into the vinyl further downstream. Of course the cartridge and the cleanliness of the LP come before the turntable and tonearm in determining ultimate fidelity which brings up another revelation. My Charisma 103 cartridge, a hot-rodded derivative of the very affordable Denon 103R low output mc cartridge, used in conjunction with the Audiomachina V8 broad-spectrum cartridge/tonearm vibration absorber proved to be even more transparent as a result of these upgrades to the Linn.
The Serene components reviewed here deal with the micro vibrations occurring in the plinth, motor, bearing, tonearm and the platform on which the Linn rests. They are not going to correct 100% of the deficiencies in these parts, but together they make a huge contribution. They don't deal with the platter, or the springs or the grommets. A better tonearm would likely make a significant contribution, as would an upgrade of the motor. Possibly some corner braces added to the plinth would help. Clearly, there is much left for me to improve on my Linn. I find that very exciting. That's part of the fun of this hobby. Likewise, Stack Audio has an upgrade path for some of their components as well as variations to accommodate other mods you care to make. The top plate, for example, can be configured to place the motor at the 7 o'clock position if you wish. And who knows what other opportunities for improvement might come to light? This is a young company driven by a young man with a thirst for knowledge and achievement, and an obsession with perfection. It's very definitely a company to keep on your radar.
The rest get trickier as installation requires more or less of a tear-down. If you can do it yourself and write it off as fun, the value of the product goes up. If you have a mentor, you will build a stronger bond. And if you have to pay the bloke at the shop, it gets more expensive. As the marauding Vikings say, "What's in your wallet?" Relative to comparable parts from Linn, these range from a very good value to an incredible value. With everything installed from this review and my previous mods, my Linn now gives me comparable listening value to a $28,000 turntable I reviewed a few years ago and it's better in some areas, less so in others.
Being an older LP12 worth maybe $1000 on eBay, with a couple of thousand dollars in mods, makes it a terrific return on investment. The full Serene kit at 575 GBP is only about $650, but I also have a Soundeck platter, a periphery ring, Stillpoints record clamp and Audiomachina V8 broad spectrum cartridge/tonearm vibration absorber that make significant contributions. But that is all just looking at the money. As the Beatles sang, "Can't buy me love."
The real value of the Serene mods is in the listening experience. The increase in resolution has led to such a relaxing experience that not only do the speakers disappear (as they did previously), but the entire system disappears and I connect directly with the music. If my imagination didn't run wild thinking of the next big mod, I could easily call this an end game. All this is said in the context of a very fine, but not outrageously priced rig. Let me throw cold water on my own parade here and caution that you will not likely experience such outstanding results with entry level gear. Yet that is exactly where I started with my Linn back in 1991. I wish I had come across such mods back then. I've played thousands of LPs on the old girl and with the addition of the Serene mods, she's never sung better. In another couple of years we'll hit our 30th anniversary together. We'll have to throw a party maybe even sooner!
The Serene Ultimate FF Top Plate and Ultimate Base Board presumably offer even higher performance than what I have experienced in this review. For those with DIY experience, or even just a "can-do" attitude, installation of these parts will take your vinyl listening experience to such a height that improvements to the supporting components may be necessary to realize the full potential of your newly modified LP12. On the other hand, you may become so enthralled with enjoying your music that it will feel like an end game. Either way, these parts are very high-value winners.