Ancient Garrard Turntables: Still Relevant Today?

Ancient Garrard Turntables: Still Relevant Today?

Written by Adrian Wu

When I first got into this hobby in the early 1980s in the UK, Linn ruled the land of turntables, and British audiophiles hung on to every word uttered by Ivor Tiefenbrun, Linn’s charismatic founder. Tiefenbrun preached the importance of the source component (no consumer digital equipment was available at the time, so that meant the record player, unless you were one of the real geeks listening to open reel tapes), and reputedly once quipped that a Linn Sondek played through a transistor radio would sound better than a lesser turntable (everything else) played through a hi-fi system. At that time, the paradigm for a high-end turntable in the UK meant that it must be belt-driven, with a lightweight suspended subchassis and frictionless main bearing. To prevent transmission of motor noise to the lightweight subchassis, low-torque motors were often used.

Linn did not invent this form factor, but simply borrowed the design of the Ariston RD11 (Ariston contracted out the manufacturing of its turntables to Castle Precision Engineering, Tiefenbrun’s father’s company), which in turn was “inspired” by the Thorens TD150 and the original AR turntable. This type of turntable has a readily identifiable sound, which is rather colored by today’s standard, but in a euphonic sort of way, due to the resonances introduced by the suspended subchassis. During the same period, the Japanese went the other way, with unsuspended turntables on massive plinths, opting to sink the vibrations into the mass rather than to dissipate them with springs or rubber mounts.

Looking back, it is rather amazing how the Garrard transcription turntables, so dominant for almost two decades, had been completely erased from the collective memory of British audiophiles less than a decade after production ended. Ask any young British audiophile in the early 1980s about the Garrards and you would most likely be rewarded with a quizzical stare. Ask any seasoned audiophile and you would invariably hear the word “rumble” mentioned. The only audio rag that wrote about “classic audio” at the time, Hi-Fi World magazine, had a brief entry about the Garrard 301; the only recollection I have from this write up is something about a “veiled treble.”

While these classics were being relegated to the scrap heap in good ol’ Blighty, the Japanese were buying them up hand over fist and shipping containerfuls of them back to Japan, where they were sold at multiples of their original cost. More model 301s (and 401s to a lesser extent) now reside in Asia than in their home country. Were the Japanese just a nostalgic lot, or did they know something that the British audio establishment did not?

Before the advent of the AR turntable, serious turntables usually had idler wheel drive. The Rek-O-Kut, Thorens TD124, various Lenco models, and the EMT 927 and 930 are other famous examples. The Garrard 301 was introduced in 1953, and the moniker referred to the fact that it could play in three speeds; 78, 45 and 33-1/3 RPM. The 33-1/3 RPM long-playing record had just been introduced. The first units were in a gray hammertone color, and had a main bearing lubricated by grease. The bearing came with a reservoir filled with grease, and a knob, accessible through a hole on the motor plate, can be turned to squeeze more grease into the bearing when necessary. This early version was labeled as “Schedule 1” on the name plate.

When first introduced, the 301 was immediately heralded as a major advancement in turntable design. It was widely adopted by music studios, radio stations and serious audio enthusiasts, with tens of thousands sold. The paint work was changed to a cream color in 1957 to make it look more contemporary and less industrial, and the bearing was “upgraded” to an oil version later that year. The version with oil bearing is labeled as “Schedule 2” on the name plate. The grease bearing model now commands a higher price, probably more to do with rarity than with any performance advantage. I have owned both versions, and I have not noticed any difference. Considering how old these turntables are now, the condition of the bearing probably matters more than the type of lubrication it employs.

In 1964, the 401 was introduced with a completely redesigned chassis. In my opinion, while the look of the 301 is timeless (the Volkswagen Beetle is another example of a timeless design), the 401 looks more at home with bell bottoms, wide lapels and bushy sideburns. The 401 brought some refinements, including better shielding for the motor to reduce hum, a stronger eddy current brake that allows for a wider speed adjustment, and a lamp for viewing the strobe platter. Garrard continued to produce the 301 until 1966, and the 401 was discontinued in 1976, succumbing to the competition from Japanese imports.

When I bought my first turntable, I completely believed in the dogma that turntables should have a belt and suspension. My first turntable was a second-hand Dunlop Systemdek, another Scottish creation and a descendent of the Ariston (Peter Dunlop bought the Ariston company after the latter’s relationship with Castle Precision Engineering ended.). I eventually moved on to the Roksan Xerxes, a design that purportedly addressed the shortcomings of suspended subchassis designs. The main bearing and tonearm are mounted on a lightweight MDF board, which is isolated from the bottom board by rubber mounts. The motor is mounted on the bottom board, suspended by springs.  Touraj Moghaddam, Roksan’s founder, claimed that he was inspired to design his own turntable when he noticed that music coming from his television sounded more satisfying than his Linn/Naim high-end system. Talk about turning the table on Ivor! Indeed, my Roksan had more solid, stable imaging and was less colored than the Linn Sondek. Unfortunately, it did not survive the Hong Kong humidity for long and the top board warped, which was the most problematic weakness of this product.

My next turntable was a Michell Orbe, the big brother of the famous Gyrodec. So, back to a three- point suspension system with a belt drive. However, the subchassis in the Orbe is hung from the suspension, and the low center of gravity means much better stability.

I don’t remember exactly where I first laid eyes (ears?) on the Garrard 301. It was probably in a friend’s friend’s system. Although I had heard about the revered status of this turntable in Japan, I was nevertheless quite skeptical, having been biased by all the negative views expressed by the British hi-fi brigade. However, just one audition was enough to clear away all my skepticism. Far from perfect (it was an original, unmodified machine), there was nevertheless a musicality that had been missing from all the other turntables I had heard up until then.

It is difficult to put a finger on that je ne sais quoi, but a piano sounded like a piano (and I knew what a piano should sound like, having struggled with it daily for more than 20 years at that point), which is usually not the case with record players. In fact, piano music was the only genre I preferred to listen to in digital. Everything just sounded more alive and the sound was more palpable, for lack of a better description. So off I went to look for a good clean example for purchase. I just happened to come across one at a hi-fi shop in London. It had been refurbished (clumsily, as it turned out) and was on a slate plinth, a feature I will come back to later. It also came with an SME 3012/II tonearm (the version with a plastic knife edge bearing, sadly).

First, how does one reconcile the chorus of criticisms coming from the British audio hacks to the praises sung by the Japanese audiomaniacs? I soon learned that it all comes down to implementation. Both the 301 and the 401 were sold as motor units without plinth. In the 1950s and ’60s, console music systems were common, and many consoles came with cut outs that fitted these motor units. Consumers therefore just bolted the motor unit to the console. Third-party plinths were also available, usually just boxes made from six pieces of plywood with a cutout on one surface. The Garrards have a brute of a motor that makes all other turntable motors look like toys. Many of these decks were used in radio stations and studios, where instant startup was a requirement. A 301 gets up to speed within two to three revolutions, whereas some belt drive turntables with a heavy platter and a weedy motor can take minutes. This powerful motor is the reason for the unit’s outstanding performance, but also a potential cause for its downfall. Even though the motor is suspended by springs, it still transmits a significant amount of vibrational energy to the chassis. Mounting the unit in a hollow box or a console has the same effect as a guitar or a cello with a hollow body; the resonances of the guitar and the cello give the instruments their distinct tonal character, whereas the resonances of the plinth muddy the sound of the record player and introduce rumble. To make matters worse, Garrard recommended users to isolate the chassis with springs, just to add another set of resonances! The Japanese had this figured out a long time ago. One of the earliest products to address this issue was the Shindo plinth, made from layers of solid cherry wood to “tune” the resonances. There are now many other options available, from using heavyweight materials (slate, marble) to constrained layer damping using layers of grain-oriented wood, sometimes interleaved with resin.

Illustration from the owner's manual showing the top view of the Garrard 301 motor unit. Illustration from the owner's manual showing the top view of the Garrard 301 motor unit.

The second weakness of the Garrards is the main bearing. While it was state-of-the-art at the time, it was nevertheless a mass-produced part at a time before CNC machining was available. Moreover, most units on the market nowadays have substantial mileage and the bearings are most likely worn. The bearing can be easily removed, taken apart and examined. If it has been allowed to run without sufficient lubrication for a period of time, the housing will likely be worn, and the only remedy is a new housing. The bottom of the shaft directly abuts the thrust pad, which also gets worn out. There are third-party mods on the market that replace the thrust pad and add a hardened steel or ceramic ball bearing. These types of mods often increase bearing noise and bore a concavity on the bottom of the shaft. A loose bearing will result in the “veiled treble” described by the Hi-Fi World reviewer.

The Garrards have an aluminum platter, which was pretty novel at the time. The platter was die cast, which could result in uneven thickness. In order to balance the platter, each one was examined by hand and holes were drilled in strategic locations underneath the outer rim in an attempt to improve the balance. The platter also rings like a bell when tapped. There are several ways to address this. The cheapest is to use rubber rings that fit tightly outside the outer rim to dampen the resonances.  Micro Seiki in Japan manufactured a brass (so called gunmetal) mat that also rings when tapped (sounds like a gong), but when placed on top of the platter, the Micro Seiki mat and the platter magically cancel out each other’s resonances. These are no longer manufactured, but Puresound, a company in the UK has started manufacturing something similar, the Tenuto Gunmetal Turntable Mat. Apparently, glass mats can achieve a similar effect, but these would have to be very thick, which could play havoc with the VTA. One also needs to somehow lengthen the spindle.

The author's Classic 301 motor unit with Micro Seiki gunmetal mat. The author's Classic 301 motor unit with Micro Seiki gunmetal mat.

Another point of contention is the eddy current brake. In the Garrard 301, an alloy disc on the motor shaft sits between two flat metal pole pieces attached to a magnet. The coverage of the disc by the pole pieces can be adjusted to increase or decrease the braking, or even be disengaged altogether. Some people think that the brake exerts unnecessary strain on the motor, which in turn can increase motor noise. However, when disengaged, the platter will run too fast. Therefore, some users opt to reduce the voltage supplied to the motor and lower the frequency of the power supply (using a regenerative power supply such as a PS Audio PowerPlant) to correct the speed. Personally, I think this is a bad idea. Most belt drive turntables have a low-friction bearing. Once the platter has gotten up to speed, the motor is only supplying enough force to overcome the friction of the bearing.

In tracking the record groove, the stylus also produces drag, and this force varies with the linear velocity of the groove (and hence decreases as the stylus tracks across the record) as well as the groove modulation. This means the drag can change suddenly as well as gradually. Imagine towing a truck across a frozen lake using a chain. You are all right as long as you are going at a constant speed or accelerating, but when you try to slow down, the truck will hit you from behind because there is no friction to slow it down. Therefore, the motor of a belt drive turntable has to prevent the platter from slowing down and speeding up by means of the belt. The belt can stretch as well as slip, and this is exacerbated by the length of the belt. The result is smeared transients and wobbly tone, which is especially noticeable with piano music. I discussed this with Tim de Paravicini after I found out that he had implemented sometime akin to the eddy current brake in his turntable (which employs a short, toothed belt between the motor and the sub-platter). He said the motor should always be working against resistance in order to respond to sudden changes in friction. In a typical turntable, when the drag suddenly diminishes (say after a loud chord played on a piano), the motor suddenly loses resistance to work against, and it will accelerate momentarily (even if there is servo control, which needs a finite amount of time to react). Once it corrects itself, it needs to slow down the accelerating platter, which is harder to do since the motor is supposed to apply force in one direction only via the belt (like trying to slow down the truck via the tow chain).

Illustration from the owner's manual showing the side and bottom views of the Garrard 301 motor unit. Illustration from the owner's manual showing the side and bottom views of the Garrard 301 motor unit.

There are ways to ameliorate this problem, such as using heavy platters, flywheels, multiple motors etc., but each solution brings its own set of problems. In the Garrard, the motor is coupled to the rim of the platter via an idler wheel. Unlike a belt, there is no stretching and minimal slippage, and the tight coupling makes it easier to slow down as well as speed up the platter. The eddy current brake applies a constant opposing force on the motor, which is orders of magnitude greater than the stylus drag. Any sudden change in stylus drag therefore only represents a small percentage of the overall resistance, and its importance is greatly attenuated. This accounts for the superior transient response and tonal stability of this turntable.

The idler wheel system can also be a source of trouble. The coupling of the idler to the motor pulley and the platter is regulated by springs. With age, the spring tension diminishes and speed stability suffers. The rubber rim of the idler wheel also hardens with age, losing grip and increasing the transmission of vibrations. If the idler wheel is left engaged with the power turned off, a flat spot on the rubber rim will develop, which will lead to speed fluctuations. Therefore, the turntable must always be turned off at the switch, not simply by cutting off power.

In Part Two, we will look at modern upgrades for Garrard turntables, and the SME re-issue of the legendary model 301.

Garrard owner's manual: the hard back and gold lettering meant business! Garrard owner's manual: the hard back and gold lettering meant business!
Header image: Garrard 301 turntable ad, 1958.
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