Linn Sondek Majik LP12 Turntable Review
Michael Evans reviews the latest and most affordable evolution of this iconic vinyl spinner…
Sondek Majik LP12 Turntable
Much water has gone under the bridge since Linn Products Ltd. launched the Sondek LP12 turntable back in the early nineteen seventies. Plenty of controversy followed and, from the latter part of that decade onwards, it became many people’s idea of the ultimate vinyl source. Despite an explosion in the number of rival decks since then, it still is for many people.
Although the fuss has died down in recent years, people still have strong opinions on the LP12 – as a glance at any one of many hi-fi forums will attest. Yet if you look at secondhand prices of this turntable on eBay and beyond, they’re still stronger than pretty much any of the Sondek’s rivals. Of course, people can opine all they like, but the market speaks volumes. The Linn is still loved, and as soon as you’re under the spell, the question is how best to get your fix…
That’s where the £3,480 Majik LP12 comes in. I suspect it will cater to two types of prospective purchaser. First is the newcomer to the world of Linn Sondeks, someone who wants a (near) ‘plug and play’ solution that they can simply spin records on. The second is the upgrader, possibly an LP12 owner whose deck hasn’t been updated since the early nineties. Sure, he or she could do all the tweaks to get theirs up to today’s standard, but it’s easier – and possibly even cheaper – simply to get a brand new deck.
This is where it all gets a bit involved. Linn now sells its turntables in so-called ‘curated collections’, and the Majik LP12 is the starter bundle. It comes with the new Karousel bearing, Krane tonearm and bundled Adikt moving magnet cartridge; together, this little lot comes in at a smidge under £3,500. If you break this down into component parts, the Karousel costs £750, the Krane £900 and the Adikt £430. This leaves almost £1,500 for the deck itself, saving about £280 for buying the bundle. If you want the striking lacquered turquoise special finish, you’ll need an additional £300.
There’s strength in depth to the Majik LP12, as it includes goodies that owners of older Sondeks will be interested in reading about. The Karousel main bearing is the headline item; it was launched last year as a £750 upgrade, but since the end of March 2020, all LP12s have had it fitted as standard. It’s an uprated version of the already upgraded Cirkus main bearing that’s been fitted to all new Sondeks since 1993. It also includes a new inner platter with bearing spindle and all the required fixings.
Then there’s the Majik aluminium subchassis, which replaces a weaker and more resonant pressed steel part that was fitted to the LP12 for many years. Although a significant upgrade in itself, it isn’t quite as important as the new bearing – which is mounted to it at one end, with the armboard at the other.
The Majik LP12 power supply is also fitted and costs £380 by itself. This is a rudimentary affair compared to most and basically a ‘get you started’ design. It’s said to filter extraneous mains noise but is not a frequency-generating type like the old entry-level Valhalla was. If you want a fancy power supply, you’ve got to pay a cool £1,450 extra for the new Lingo. Even the baseboard has changed; instead of a cheap plywood affair, it is now aluminium - a stiffer, lower resonance solution.
I think this new version of the deck is a great value package, especially when you look at the other two more expensive ‘curated collections’. For example, Linn’s next step up is the Linn Akurate LP12 which retails at over £7,000 and has a different subchassis, tonearm, armboard, moving coil cartridge and offboard power supply. Then there’s the Klimax package, an £18,870 system utilising every top component that the company produces, including an Epos SE tonearm and Krystal moving coil cartridge, plus an unusual digital signal processing phono stage fitted inside the plinth.
To long-time LP12 owners like me, all this makes the classical Linn upgrade ladder a little hazy. I remember when there was only one LP12, which you could upgrade via the power supply, tonearm or cartridge (in that order). However, three complete systems now tend to err the prospective purchaser towards one of several endpoints. This isn’t to say that you can’t upgrade the Majik LP12 separately, of course, but it’s interesting how the company has subtly evolved the way it sells the deck. Linn seems to have gravitated a bit more to high-end sportscar-style packs, where you get one lot of features, but some other things are deleted.
All this talk of options and upgrades makes one thing clear – the Majik LP12 is a (relatively) inexpensive way of getting a box-fresh latest spec Sondek with that all-important new bearing, plus a lot of goodies like a modern aluminium subchassis and baseboard thrown in. This is why the Majik LP12 will attract many people. The thinking is that the latest spec LP12 will always sound better, and you can worry about power supplies, arms and cartridges later. So much to consider, so little time!
INTO THE GROOVE
The LP12 was always a suspended subchassis belt-drive turntable, in the mould of the Thorens TD150 of sixty or more years ago. To be fair, Linn never claimed that its design was revolutionary – something its critics might do well to remember. Instead, its selling point was its bespoke single-point bearing, which was said to be manufactured to extremely high tolerances. This was what Linn stated was unique about the Sondek, and back in the early nineteen seventies, I doubt many turntables matched its quality.
The drive system was, and still is, via a flat square-section belt, with a specially machined pulley running off a 24-pole AC synchronous motor at one end and the Sondek’s machined inner platter at the other. However, unlike later designs such as the Michell GyroDec, its belt is short and stocky, and doesn’t run around the circumference of the platter. It’s interesting to note that fifteen or so years ago, every new belt-drive turntable that came along had a Michell-style peripheral belt arrangement – but it’s now fallen out of fashion and Linn’s way of doing it is back in!
Linn doesn’t publish technical specifications for the LP12, but I know that the deck has fared very well in magazine reviews over the years when it’s been measured for wow and flutter, and rumble too. So this deck has always been highly accomplished in a technical sense, and the company’s decision not to publish lab measurements was never about hiding anything – rather, it was a philosophical choice. It’s quite right to say that you simply cannot predict how good a turntable will sound by measurements, although you can often predict how bad it will sound.
The first time Linn sold an entry-level tonearm as a sort of ‘get you going’ product to match the LP12, it was a Japanese-sourced S-shaped design called the Basik LV V. It cost £46 back in 1981 and came with a free Linn Basik moving magnet cartridge (a very lightly tweaked Audio-Technica AT-93, by all accounts). Now, forty years later, it’s the £900 Krane that fills this role; based on a straight, stainless-steel tubed Clearaudio design, it has a polished tungsten and sapphire vertical bearing and a dual ceramic horizontal bearing assembly. This arm is light years better to my ears than the old LV V and LV X era starter arms from the early eighties. Furthermore, I found it an interesting device, being pretty well made, handsome looking and sporting clever geometry. Oh, and don’t forget the cool magnetic anti-skating mechanism!
Topping all this off is the £430 Adikt moving magnet cartridge, said to be made by Armour Home Electronics to Linn’s specification; it has a plastic body and Gyger II replaceable stylus. I found it capable and easy to use and liked the detachable stylus, which is a must at this end of the market. The output level is strong and seemed to work happily with my various phono stages and preamps that I tried it with.
Still, things aren’t perfect. There are some quirks, such as the dust cover not being able to close when the lowering device is in the up position. In addition, should you wish to play 45RPM singles, you’ll need to fit the 45RPM adaptor ring over the motor pulley, just like I did with my old pre-Lingo LP12 back in the eighties! In 2021, really?
Without giving too much away, the Majik LP12 sounds much like Sondeks always did. This might seem like stating the bleeding obvious, but cynics often say that the latest decks have lost the magical ‘romance’ of the earlier versions. Instead, I found it conspicuously ‘musical’; it’s not the most detailed or forensic of designs, but it certainly got my feet tapping, regardless of what type of music I played. That’s why I bought my own LP12 back in the late eighties, and things haven’t changed. I can still detect a very subtle warmth to the upper bass and midband, and a certain silkiness to the treble – especially compared to price rivals like the Technics SL-1200G, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
There are certain genres of music which it loves to play. Jazz, MOR, AOR are all handled beautifully and are so easy to listen to. There are no nasties at all when it comes to chilling you out with a nice bottle of wine. For me, it has meant that records have become rediscovered; LPs that have not seen the light of day for decades have had the dust blown off. You might think that seventies bands like Bread and The Eagles are a bit old hat these days, but the Linn sounds so great playing this type of music – just like it always did.
One can get lost in the delivery of the Majik, or is it the magic of the delivery? I am not sure. The deck isn’t super precise like the aforementioned Technics, but it does have a certain louche, laid back charm, whatever you care to play. Even more analytical recordings, which can be hard work listening to on some turntables, come over really well. For example, Badman’s Song by Tears For Fears, The Trees by Rush, Little Fluffy Clouds by The Orb and Dissidents by Thomas Dolby were all great fun.
I could detect some detail missing in absolute terms, there’s a touch of artificial warmth, and the soundstage can get a little lost – but things were always fun. So what is the weakest link in the package? Having experimented with LP12s for nearly four decades, my sense is that the motor unit itself is superb. It gives a strong, solid, sturdy and powerful sound, but this is flattened a little by the Krane tonearm, which sits on dynamics slightly. For example, I found Roxy Music’s Avalon a little less impactful at high volumes than it should have been, even if it was still very enjoyable. The Krane is still excellent value, of course, but the deck itself deserves better.
Swapping out the Adikt moving magnet cartridge, and fitting an Audio-Technica AT-33 PTG/II moving coil, brought a far more polished sound with superior fine detailing and a wider soundstage. It was a night and day difference with electronic music; Kraftwerk’s The Robots had me charmed with the more expensive cartridge fitted. The sound was immersive and hypnotic. From this, I can conclude that the bundled cartridge is the weakest link in the chain; it’s perfectly decent for what it does, but that would be my first upgrade before I began investigating Lingo power supplies and the like.
All in all, this is a really nice way to play records for the money. No excuses need to be made; it just makes your prized LPs sound great. I’m sure that that was the remit that Linn designers had in mind for the Majik LP12. But no turntable is an island, and there are two extraneous factors at play…
First is how the deck compares to its rivals. The Technics SL-1200G and Origin Live Calypso Multilayer/Silver are both similarly priced and sound superb in their own different ways. Naturally, they give a different presentation; the former is crisper, tighter, tonally thinner and more propulsive than the Majik LP12, while the latter is more expansive and more tonally natural but fiddlier to use. I’d say that the Linn sits somewhere in the middle between these two, offering a more relaxed, beguiling sound that’s silkier and more sophisticated but still great fun.
Then there’s the question of upgrading. Linn’s modern tiered system provides two distinct upgrade paths that, in some ways, make the bewildering amount of choice easier to negotiate by simply making all the jumps in one step. Yet, it does take some thinking about. I’d say the entry-level Majik package is by far the best value, and my advice to you is not to listen to the Akurate and Climax options until you’re ready to upgrade. If you do listen to the next level up, you will notice the shortcomings of the level down – t’was always thus! It’s precisely why Porsche Boxster drivers are continually disappointed with what they have when they’ve test-driven the latest 911.
So, when all is said and done, the Linn Sondek Majik LP12 is a great value ‘affordable high-end’ turntable, one that’s totally competitive with the best of the rest at this price point right now – and has its own distinctively enjoyable musical sound. The downside is that properly upgrading from Majik spec takes quite a lot of money and launches you along an expensive upgrade path. Sometimes then, less can be more!
A music junkie who served his apprenticeship in UK hi-fi retail in the 1990s, Mike loves the simplicity of analogue and the complexity of digital. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject, he’s been on a life-long quest for great sound at a sensible price – and is still loving the journey…
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