The LP12 that I’m About to Dismember

It’s just about time to start on my big LP12 overhaul. I’ve got a bunch of parts in hand and some more in the mail. I’ve put a post up on Pinkfishmedia describing my project and soliciting advice on the order in which to proceed (naturally enough, this quickly devolved into a debate about the merits of unsullied 1980s LP12s versus their too-slick, “too-hifi” modern counterparts.) After much reflection and a bit of discussion, it looks like I’ll be proceeding in an order something like this:

  • Swap Cirkus subchassis + Rega armboard for Mober one-piece Rega-spaced aluminum subchassis
  • Install Tiger Paw Khan top plate
  • Replace Adikt MM cartridge with Linn Troika MC cartridge
  • Replace Troika with Dynavector XX-2 mkII
  • Swap out Mober + Nima tonearm for Linn Kore subchassis and Linn Ekos 2 tonearm (experiment with various cartridges)
  • Swap out Kore + Ekos for Greenstreet “Klone” subchassis and Naim Aro tonearm (experiment with various cartridges)

Then I’ll want to play around with power supplies, and probably build a second deck with the leftover parts, or sell then leftovers, etc.

But before starting on that or getting too ahead of myself, time to tell the story of how I ended up with the LP12 I currently have — the one that’s about be systematically disassembled.

Buying my first LP12

It was the fall of 2005. The previous year, I’d moved to Toronto for my Master’s degree. I had a scholarship that paid me $1500 per month, which in those days was exactly enough to pay for rent, food, a few records, and the odd night our (these days, with rents way out of control, it might cover your rent). Things would be a little different this year. I got a much better scholarship for my PhD that paid me exactly twice as much. I was in the same apartment with the same relatively frugal lifestyle. This meant I had a bit of money to spend, for the first time in my life.

My first thought, naturally, was that I needed an LP12. I had a decent turntable, a Pro-Ject Model 2 that now belongs to a close friend of mine, but as a British hi-fi enthusiast I obviously wanted to try an LP12. That fall, I discovered Canuckaudiomart, and I remember spending a lot of time browsing it when I should have been reading Keats. Eventually, I came across a 1986 LP12 with Basik arm and Valhalla board for (I believe) $1000CDN. The seller was in St. Catharines and was hesitant to ship it, so I took a bus down there with a wallet full of cash. He picked me up at the bus station, took me to his house (thank God he wasn’t sketchy), and showed me the LP12. He had it hooked up to a Naim Nait 1 powering Quad ESL-57 speakers, which is one of the coolest-looking (and, as I recall, coolest-sounding) setups I’ve ever encountered. I wanted to buy the whole lot but only had cash for the LP12.

I remember being a little disappointed with it when I got it home. It sounded fine, but no better than the Pro-Ject. Then, after a few weeks, things started sounding all wobbly — like every song was from My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. After some Googling, I realized I had a faulty Valhalla board. I took it to some snake oil salesman on Queen East for recapping (it cost me a painful amount of money, though I don’t remember the amount), but it ended up no better, still wobbly.

More internet searching pointed me to the Mose Hercules II system from Edmund of Mober, in Hong Kong. I was apparently one of the first 10 customers for the new device (he told me so when I bought my Mober subchassis a few weeks ago). I believe it cost me something like $300, about the same I’d paid the snake oil salesman. When I got it, I hooked it up, and it sounded great right away. But the 45rpm mode still played 33.3rpm. I opened up the case and had a look at the board, and noticed that both the crystal oscillators were printed “33.3rpm” — I had a dual 33.3 PSU! I told Edmund about the problem and he promptly shipped me a replacement board and his own expense. Growing pains for a new produce, but Edmund was great to work with and talk to, and some fifteen years later, that replacement board is still going strong — and I still have my pristine dual 33.3 board ready to step in if needed.

At some point around this time, I decided I wanted to try an MC cart. I blew what was then to me a ridiculous sum of $600 on a Dynavector P75, which I found used on Canuckaudiomart (new cost: $1000). Then I bought a Denon DL-103 on eBay for about $150, and a used Rega RB251, which I’d read was the most economical MC-capable tonearm. That was my setup for years. It definitely sounded better than my digital setup (the analog output out of an Apple Airport Express — so not saying much!), and I remember some good times listening to the Rolling Stones’s “Love in Vain.” But I always felt it could sound a little better.

Enter Gary Dilliott

I wasn’t particularly focused on my audio setup from about 2007 to 2017. I was busy finishing my dissertation, writing two books, and getting a job. Then I moved to San Diego. I promised my partner that we wouldn’t be staying there forever, and to keep myself honest, I left my records and record player behind in Toronto. They were powerful carrots.

When we moved back and started looking for houses, I was of course already thinking of finding one with a perfect “listening room” (if anyone asked, it was my “office”). That’s not what I ended up with. My room, described in detail in this post, is tiny and boxy (except for the slanted ceiling) — hardly ideal for loudspeaker listening. But it has one nice advantage: a brick rear wall, the perfect surface into which a dedicated turntable shelf can be mounted. Before we moved in, I’d ordered by Tiger Paw VulKan.

With the shelf in the mail, my next step was to contact Gary Dilliott of Better Music, the famous LP12-tamer (well, famous to everyone but me — I wish I’d known about him back in 2005, when I was prey to snake oil salesmen!). He lived only a few minutes from my mother in Niagara, so it would be easy to drop my table off with him on a visit. I’d always been obsessed with Naim Aro tonearms, and I still couldn’t afford one of those, but a new budget alternative, the Roksan Nima, had come on the market, and I tracked one down for about $500 on Audiogon from a seller named grgaudio. Gary said he could install it for me, but also strongly recommended I install the Cirkus kit. I could afford it, so we planned on a double, Nima + Cirkus.

I brought my turntable to my mom’s place in the fall of 2017, then drove to Gary’s to drop off the turntable. From the second I met him, I could see what all the hype was about. He was friendly, smart, and honest. I gave him my table, my Mose Hercules PSU, and my Nima tonearm. “The Nima looks a little funky,” he said, “but I’ll do my best.” I’d had my doubts. In the few weeks it had been sitting in my office, I’d identified what appeared to my inexperienced eyes to be problems. But I thought I’d leave it to the expert.

He did his best, but it didn’t go smoothly. A few hours later, I got this text from Gary:

I couldn’t help but laugh. He continued:

He did repair it, but it was a big job. He had to rewire the arm, reground the arm tube, rebuild the connector terminal, and find a new tonearm wire for me (a nice Jelco). It would have been about $500 in extra labour, but Gary only charged me $150, only because he’s such a nice guy. I tried my best to get some money back from grgaudio via Audiogon, but their customer support system totally toothless and the people helping me, despite their best intentions, could do nothing. Gary did write this to Audiogon, when I asked if he wouldn’t mind helping me out:

No worries, if this was a borderline case I’d say drop it, but the arm was sold to you as a working good condition arm and as it arrived it was not useable. Let me know if this is adequate. 
The first problem encountered was that there wasn’t a grub screw holding the connector in the bottom of the arm. The result was that when you tried to connect the arm lead, it simply pushed the connector up inside the arm collar. Once apart, the right + lead was broken off and the left channel was shorted out, you would not have gotten any sound out of this arm the way it was. A photo is attached showing the connections at the bottom of the inside of the arm the way the arm arrived. The arm tube was not grounded despite a previous attempt at it. It’s fussy work and takes time to do it right. It took over 2 hrs. to bring the arm to a reliable working condition. 

Anyway.

When he was fixing the arm and installing the Cirkus, he also discovered that my Denon DL-103 was totally worn out. I wasn’t anticipating this — and if I had been, I would have bought a cartridge of my own, definitely some kind of Dynavector, which I’d been wanting for a while. But now it was a situation where the cartridge needed to be installed and aligned or I’d leave Niagara with a poorly set up table. He suggested he install the cheapest cartridge he had on hand, a Linn Adikt, which was something like $600. Ouch. Paying that much for something I hadn’t researched or specifically wanted — and an MM cartridge, not an MC! — really upset me. I am extraordinarily picky, here I was paying something like $2000 for a broken tonearm, an upgrade I didn’t understand (Cirkus), and an MM cartridge I didn’t want.

When I went to pick up the table, I spent a good hour chatting with Gary, and he showed me everything he’d done, and also hooked my table up into his ridiculously fancy Linn system. It sounded good. He was as flustered as me, but was relived that the table at least sounded right.

I remained flustered. When I got the deck home, I initiated my big dispute with grgaudio on Audiogon, and it went nowhere. My Tiger Paw VulKan arrived and I got it installed, but the LP12 just didn’t sound that great on my system at home.

This is when I started getting interested in digital. A setup with no tonearms, no cartridges, no bearing upgrades, no $2000 spent for no clear improvements. My attention shifted to Hugo 2s and Gungnir Multibits and before I knew it I had a digital system that sounded way better than my accursed LP12, which remained sitting on its fancy, perfectly level shelf.

There is a tragic addendum to this story that puts things into perspective. A few weeks after writing that note to Audiogon, Gary suffered a stroke and passed away. My table was one of the last (possibly the last) he ever worked on.

Returning to the LP12

I’ve already told the next part of the story. Sometime in August, I decided to try some more A/B testing on my LP12 and digital setup, thinking I may as well just sell all my vinyl if it didn’t sound better than Tidal (and since vinyl is selling for so much right now). But I found something really surprising. It sounded great. Maybe my cartridge had finally worn in in the few listening sessions I’d had over the previous two years. Maybe my new headphones (Hifiman HE1000s vs. Audeze LCD-3Fs) brought out the LP12’s better side. The more likely thing: I’d been doing a lot of A/B testing with The Smith’s Strangeways Here We Come LP, a recent Rhino reissue. I’ve since realized that that record sounds awful. It just so happened that I did my fateful A/B test this time with a first pressing of Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, which sounds amazing.

Since then, I’ve listened to a lot of records. A lot of them sound terrible (for instance, a 1970s pressing of the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man that I really wanted to sound good) but a lot of them sounded incredible. Besides Yo La Tengo, a late 70s pressing of Joni Mitchell’s Blue and a borrowed 1959 first pressing of Charles Mingus’s Ah Um convinced me that my heaps of vinyl actually might sound better than my Tidal collection.

But who can leave well enough alone? If a pretty good LP12 could sound this good, how good could a really good LP12 sound?

That is the question I will be working to answer in the next few months.