PAST MASTERS: Linn Sondek LP 12 Turntable
To get an idea of how niche hi-fi has become these days, probably the most controversial thing that audiophiles are currently arguing about is TIDAL’s decision to offer MQA as part of its hi-res package. Yet forty or so years ago – in the early nineteen eighties – the battle was drawn on a far grander scale, and at the forefront was the turntable you see here…
In those dark days of the Cold War, the hi-fi world was having its own stand-off between the venerable vinyl LP and the new-fangled Compact Disc format. The Linn Sondek LP12 was one of the capital ships on the analogue side, a powerful symbol of what was possible using the tried-and-trusted microgroove LP – first launched in 1948. On the opposing team were a plethora of Japanese and European CD players, claiming “pure, perfect sound forever”, with flashy displays, handy remote controls and vast marketing budgets behind them.
Things weren’t quite as simple as that, however, because Team Analogue was divided over which turntable was the best – and here, the rather innocuous and conservative looking LP12 absolutely polarised opinion. It wasn’t just the people who thought direct drive was better than belt drive who had entrenched positions, but also many who agreed that belt drive sounded better – and either loved or hated the Linn.
Some of us old soldiers and sailors – metaphorically speaking – remember that time well. From around 1978 to about 1988, the LP12 became so popular that some even described its devotees as cultists. In the UK and beyond, the Sondek was a ‘Marmite’ product that you loved or loathed. Many writers in the British hi-fi press seemed entranced – here was apparently the only “musical” turntable that money could buy, they said, and nothing else around could match its “magic”. Its detractors said the “magic” was working in a different way, and that it wasn’t much better than a mid-market Technics SL-150 if you didn’t believe the hype.
All the squabbling in the hi-fi press generated more heat than light, while the LP12 continued to sell in surprisingly large numbers for a high-end deck. This was at least in part due to Linn’s charismatic founder, Ivor Tiefenbrun. A smart and erudite guy who wasn’t exactly lacking in self-belief, he made many friends and enemies along the way. I would suggest that some of the latter were jealous of his obvious flair for communication – although it’s fair to say that subtlety was not his strong point, and he did rile some people. Still, Ivor was a warrior for the analogue cause just when vinylistas such as myself needed him most. Our beloved LP record was facing extinction from a new-fangled digital format that – at the time – we thought sounded inferior, so we were happy to have him beside us in the trenches.
That’s why the Linn LP12 became more than just a turntable. It was a kind of hi-fi version of a naval flagship, embodying everything about a particular approach to playing recorded music. It was, of course, flawed like everything else, and its detractors loved to dwell on its foibles. Yet when properly set up and with the right ancillaries, it was capable of truly excellent sound.
Many British hi-fi writers of that era seemed to think the Sondek was beyond criticism, but it did have downsides. Early versions were criticised for their rather fat, pendulous bass and overly warm tonality. Yet even then, these decks were highly enjoyable to listen to, with a romantic and beguiling sound. Also, earlier LP12s were not famous for their stereo imaging prowess, although this has been steadily improved over the years to the point where it’s now very good indeed.
Sondek critics always argued that there was nothing new about its design when it came out in 1973, pointing out its close visual similarity to other decks around at the time. In truth, there were a number of products that it had much in common with, particularly the Thorens TD150 launched back in 1965. Like other decks of its day, the original Linn was clearly a variation on this theme, but you could go even further back and reference the original 1961 Acoustic Research X1 too. All had their internals hidden inside a wooden plinth, a sprung subchassis and an AC motor driving an alloy inner platter by a flat rubber belt.
The LP12’s ‘special sauce’ was its patented single-point bearing. Ivor Tiefenbrun’s father ran a precision engineering company, which was entrusted to make it. Compared to many of its rivals, this was a super-sturdy and finely finished thing. In other respects, the deck wasn’t profoundly different aside from the fact that everything was so well made and fitted together perfectly. Instead of reinventing the wheel completely, metaphorically speaking, Linn attempted to make it better than anyone else. Build and finish were always top-notch.
The other factor that guaranteed the Sondek’s success was Linn’s commitment to improving the design. Rather like the iconic Porsche 911 sports car, the LP12 just kept on evolving. So much so that there was a big difference in sound between a 1973 vintage deck and a 1979 one, for example. We’ll look at those changes in a moment, but even the company’s most staunch critics have to accept that Linn was deadly serious about making the best turntable it knew how to.
Ivor Tiefenbrun was also a stickler for service and aftercare, a culture that he spent a lot of time and effort inculcating in his dealers. It became the norm for owners to periodically take their decks in to be serviced, a process which specially trained technicians did. These people went to the Linn factory regularly for what some cynics called ‘Linn-doctrination’, but this commitment to dealer training by the company was and still is important. After you’d bought your LP12, aftercare became an important part of the ownership experience and added value. Punters could get better sound from their prized record collections as updates arrived, and of course, dealers would get the chance to demonstrate better tonearms and cartridges.
Like that aforementioned Porsche, pretty much everything about the LP12 has been changed over the years to the point that – while it may look very similar – under the skin, virtually all is different. This really improved the residual value of the deck, as you didn’t have to throw your old one away and start again if you wanted better sound. The approach is so central to the Sondek story that even now if I meet an LP12 owner, I always ask them what vintage and/or spec theirs is. There’s a lot to talk about because from 1973 to 2021, the plinth, dustcover, springs, mounting hardware, armboard, subchassis, main bearing, power supply, switch and motor have all been changed, sometimes several times. Here’s a list of the main changes, referenced to year and serial number:
|1973||Linn Sondek LP12 launched|
|1974||2,000||new main bearing, subchassis, motor control PCB, mains switch|
|1981||32,826||Nirvana spring and motor mount kit|
|1982||38,794||Valhalla crystal-driven power supply board|
|plinth bracing improved
subchassis and suspension springs strengthened
|1988||70,000||main bearing improved|
|1990||Lingo power supply launched|
|1991||Trampolin baseboard option|
|1993||90,582||Cirkus main bearing and subchassis package|
|2008||Keel subchassis option|
|2009||Radikal DC motor and power supply option|
|2020||150,317||Karousel main bearing|
There’s nothing unusual about using the LP12. Being a turntable, it responds very directly to placement, so it needs to be on a good, rigid light support that doesn’t store energy. It must be dead level, and of course, a good distance from the loudspeakers. In my opinion, as a long-time owner, it sounds quite a bit better with the dust cover removed. If the suspension doesn’t bounce cleanly on the vertical axis when you push the platter down halfway between the spindle centre and the pivot point of the tonearm bearing, then it’s out of tune. Indeed side-to-side excursions are a sure sign of poor suspension alignment. The famous P-clip that holds the tonearm lead to the plinth must be set right too, lest external vibration be fed into the arm.
Properly set up, positioned and levelled, a Linn LP12 is a very nice thing to operate. Press the power on, and the motor hauls the heavy platter assembly up to speed within a couple of seconds, at which point it stabilises, and you’re ready. Hand cueing is easy enough for people such as myself who prefer not to use lift lower devices, as you’ve got the right side of the plinth top to rest your hand on. The deck should be silent in operation, and for optimum performance, you need to make sure that the belt is the correct Linn item, and that its path is clean with no gummy residue. This has a surprisingly profound effect on the sound quality, as with all good belt drive decks.
Naturally, Linn offers a wide choice of armboards for the LP12, although the company naturally recommends its own tonearms. There’s no denying that Linn Ittok LVII and LVIII, and the Ekos derivatives that sprang from these, are excellent choices; I’ve had all on my Linn over the years and got excellent results. They have a strong, commanding and open sound, with fine bass and treble allied to a very detailed midband. Obviously, the latest Ekos SE is the best of the bunch, and a great sonic match to the Sondek, especially with a Kandid moving coil cartridge.
That’s not to say other arms don’t work. The Naim ARO is a fabulous choice, with a more mellifluous sound than the Linn arms, especially in the midband – but it’s less accurate at frequency extremes. The Rega RB300 and its derivatives can be fitted – providing you don’t mind some light surgery on the rear right plinth cross-brace. Sonically these arms are a surprisingly good match but aren’t approved by Linn, of course. Vintage SME arms work nicely but limit the sound too much to my ears, whereas the modern ones are a tad too heavy for the LP12’s suspension and the combination always seems to underwhelm. The Audio Origami PU7 is a very nice match, sonically and visually, as is the Audiomods Series Six. Linn’s cheaper arms work well on the Sondek, but don’t hold a candle to the latest Ekos SE. Overall, in my experience, providing the installation and set-up is done right, this classic turntable isn’t as fussy about tonearms as some people seem to think.
Whenever you talk about the sound of an LP12, you first need to define its generation. Like our Porsche sports car analogy, we’re talking about quite different things here, depending on the age and spec of the deck. Painting in broad brush strokes, so to speak, the early – circa 1975 – vintage Sondek was a very sumptuous sounding device. It had a full, soft and plummy bass that was nevertheless highly tuneful – when correctly sited – and a warm, almost sepia-tinged midband that made rock music sound big and rich. At the top end, it was a little vague, but sugary sweet – hi hat cymbals, for example, were silky. The downsides were many; it lacked out-and-out dynamics, it was tonally coloured and the stereo imaging was poor; you got a decent wall of sound, but image placement wasn’t very precise.
Warp ahead to a 1985 deck, for example, and the standard version would now have a Valhalla power supply, better springs and plinth. This was an altogether less sumptuous sounding affair, with a tighter and drier bass but still more rounded than – for example – its Pink Triangle rival. The deck was more dynamic and imaged more convincingly. It had a less romantic sound but still had the LP12’s innate sense of musicality and swing. It was clearly less neutral than some rivals but trod a deft middle way between forensic sounding turntables and the old Sondek of yore.
By 1995, the Cirkus main bearing kit was fitted as standard and this made a big difference, as did the optional Lingo power supply. The deck came ‘out of itself’, being more dynamic and punchy, with better apparent detail and a cleaner tonality. The distinctive upper midband bump had gone and it was more even and neutral. Sonically the Linn was moving towards its rivals, such as the Roksan Xerxes and Pink Triangle PT TOO, but still retained its intricate and musically satisfying sound. It hadn’t completely eliminated its weaknesses, though, and stereo imaging remained so-so, despite being much improved by the Cirkus bearing. Depth perspective was very good now, and there was no denying its ability to tell you what was going on in the record groove.
All the options from then on – such as the Keel subchassis and Radikal DC motor have delivered an ever more transparent and tighter LP12 sound. Some say it has lost its charm over the old versions, although that’s highly debatable. It’s certainly less romantic, but then again, you can hear much more of what’s on the recording. The 2020 Karousel main bearing mod cements this further; the latest Sondek is a taut and crisp sounding thing, but it still has plenty of that charming character of yore. Arguably it’s more musical than ever, but doesn’t mask deficiencies in the recording in the way it used to.
NOW AND THEN
When the original Linn Sondek LP12 was launched thirty-eight years ago, it sounded a world away from its modern equivalent. Yet the charm of that original deck – and I speak from personal experience here – was that it made pretty much everything you played on it sound sweet. Also, it was impressive rhythmically even then; the high precision build of the Sondek meant it had far less wow and flutter than many belt drives of its day, even if it was no match for a Technics SP-10 in this respect.
Since then, it’s got better, to the extent that in some respects, it sounds more like the CD players that people like me used to rail against in the nineteen-eighties. Digital audio has evolved too, and now sounds closer to the LP12 than it used to – although they’re still very different beasts. My point is that the only way the Linn could go was towards neutrality, and so it has. The result is a really enjoyable and open sounding turntable that’s arguably as relevant today as it was in the eighties. I still think there’s some magic in it, even if it’s not as capable as some rivals in some respects. Then again, they can’t match the Sondek for what it does well. Audiophiles have argued the toss about this for decades and will doubtless continue to do so…
There’s a thriving secondhand scene now because there are so many LP12s around. Many people choose to modify them with aftermarket subchassis ‘upgrades’, different springs, DC motors and power supplies; companies such as Vinyl Passion do some highly affordable yet effective modifications. Other owners keep the faith and have all the official, approved Linn upgrades done. You can now pick up a used thirty-year-old LP12 for well under £1,000 (~AUD1800) and do with it what you will. Parts are plentiful and easy to come by – either via the manufacturer or the expanding number of specialist servicing companies. This is something you cannot say about – say – its nineteen seventies rivals like the Dunlop Systemdek or Strathclyde Transcription Developments 305. It’s a real part of a used Sondek’s appeal.
Or of course, you could buy a brand new one. Linn’s Managing Director Gilad Tiefenbrun – son of the Sondek’s creator – told me that the recent renewed interest in vinyl has been a real shot in the arm. “When I joined the company in 2003, Sondek sales were at the lowest since the company was founded, but around five years ago, the vinyl revival slowly kicked off and has been growing steadily ever since. We’ve had a few bumper months of late. In 2003 we were selling around 300 turntables a year, but we took orders for 150 in December 2020 alone, taking them from 5% of sales to 25%. We put this down to the effects of the pandemic, but we also launched our new Karousel bearing in March 2020 and that’s helped sustain us through this past year.”
Now that the politics of the nineteen seventies and eighties have died down, it’s easier to see the LP12 for what it’s always been – a very well-engineered and built turntable, with the emphasis on continuous improvement and skilled service and after-sales support. It’s still highly upgradable but even in standard tune sounds better than ever – if it’s the music rather than the turntable you like listening to. “The Sondek remains extremely significant for Linn,” adds Gilad. “It’s the product the company was founded on, and continues to provide its many fans around the world with a real emotional connection to their music. There’s still so much more we can do… we’ll carry on trying to extract more music from the record groove.”
The wild and polarising times of the Linn Sondek’s youth are long gone, yet it continues to sell well and is having something of a renaissance with its huge fanbase expanding still further. Long may it continue to revolve – and evolve!
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.