Ancient Garrard Turntables: Still Relevant Today? Part Two

Ancient Garrard Turntables: Still Relevant Today? Part Two

Written by Adrian Wu

In Part One (Issue 139), Adrian Wu outlined a history of Garrard 301, 401 and other turntables, and provided an in-depth examination of their advantages and foibles. Part Two concludes with a look at some modern upgrades, and the SME re-issue of the legendary model 301.

The Garrard company was founded in 1735 as a jewelry maker, and it remains a high-end jeweler by appointment to the Queen to this day. The company founded a subsidiary, Garrard Engineering and Manufacturing Company, in 1915 to produce motors as part of the War effort. After World War I ended, it needed to reinvent its business and entered the nascent gramophone manufacturing sector. Decades later, after losing market share to Japanese competitors, the parent company sold the business to a Brazilian investor in 1979, who ended its business activities. Loricraft, an English company specializing in record cleaning machines, licensed the Garrard name in the 1990s and provided servicing for the Garrard turntables. They also re-manufactured many parts, designed new plinths, and eventually produced a Garrard 501 turntable of their own design. This turntable was regarded as an oddity at a time when belt drive ruled the roost, and the mainstream British audio press never took much interest in it.

In Japan, Ken Shindo had been working on the 301 since the 1960s and had come up with a new main bearing, idler and platter. Together with his plinth, a 12-inch tonearm modeled after the classic Ortofon RF-297 and a highly modified SPU cartridge, the record player was sold as a complete package. This record player was and still is taken very seriously indeed by the Japanese audio community. Loricraft and Shindo remained the only game in town, if you didn’t want to get your hands dirty and work on refurbishing turntables yourself, until the early 2000s. With a revival of interest in these classic turntables outside Japan, many companies have sprung up in the last 15 years to provide servicing and modifications as well as plinths.

Slate Audio (now defunct) was one of the early players, and they claimed slate has a natural structure well suited to damping the vibrations of the Garrard motor. The first 301 I bought had a new paint job and zinc plating of the links that operate the idler wheel mechanism (the originals were plated in cadmium, a toxic metal), but everything else was original. The color of the paint did not quite match the original, and the zinc plating started to peel off after a while. I also discovered that the power cable to the motor was not rewired in a safe fashion. The slate plinth had a faux marble outer finish that looked good enough, but the finish of the edges was rather rough. Nevertheless, it was cheap, at 1,000 pounds (in 2003) for the whole lot including tonearm and a slightly used Clearaudio cartridge. It had some wow until I bought a new idler wheel and a set of springs from Loricraft, which fixed the problem.

After a couple of years, I came across a cream-colored grease bearing unit, which I bought to replace the oil bearing unit while keeping the same plinth. There was not a lot of difference sonically between the two units, but I believed the design was capable of a whole lot more. The sound was lively, impactful, with solid imaging, but the pitch was still not as stable as it should be, and the frequency extension could have been better.

I then came across a new main bearing that was receiving a lot of rave reviews on the bulletin boards. The company was called Red Beard Audio, and it was basically a one man operation. The guy owned a machine shop and produced every bearing himself by hand. It has an oversized shaft and housing with very tight tolerances, and does not rely on bushes, ball bearings or thrust pads. It uses a highly viscous synthetic lubricant that has a consistency between oil and grease. It was a major improvement over the original bearing, with vastly improved frequency extension and a tighter impact. He was very successful initially by all accounts, with a large backlog of orders.  Sadly, he had some quality control issues once he started to scale up production, and some unhappy customers demanded replacements, which he was not able to fulfill in a timely manner. Some of these irate customers became very vocal online, which led to the collapse of his business. Being an early customer, I have had no issue with the part, which is still working perfectly with no sign of wear after more than a decade.

During this time, I also upgraded the knife-edge bearing of the SME 3012/II tonearm and rewired it. With the new main bearing, the turntable has finally reached a satisfactory level of musicality. However, I was still in constant search for perfection, and two obvious areas for improvement were the plinth and the chassis.

People argue endlessly about the overall merit of a slate or marble plinth versus a wooden plinth with constrained layer damping. The former aims to sink the vibrations into the mass, whereas the latter is supposed to spread the energy over a wide range of frequencies. Advocates of wooden plinths claim the slate deadens the sound, whereas the other camp claims that the “tuned” plinths color the sound. As for the chassis, the original 301 chassis was made of cast aluminum. It is only supported around the edge where it sits on the plinth, and it is possible to flex the center of the chassis if one pushes down on the bearing. This lack of rigidity means vibrations from the bearing gets reflected back to the platter, record and stylus. The 401 chassis addressed this issue with bracing underneath to make it more rigid, but the 301 chassis looks way cooler.

I found a company in the UK called Classic Turntable Company that machines new 301 chassis out of blocks of aluminum twice as thick as the original. Every detail of the appearance is the same except for the four bolt holes. Instead of inserting the bolts through the chassis, the bolts are screwed into the bottom of the chassis like the 401. The company also produces platters with perfect balance, made from machined aluminum or brass, as well as an improved idler wheel and main bearing. I therefore packed up my motor unit and shipped it to them. They stripped and rebuilt the motor, stripped and chrome plated the links, replaced the springs, idler, spark suppressor and chassis, and replaced all the wiring. I also bought a new aluminum platter. I did not replace the bearing, as the Red Beard remained in perfect working order.

In essence, I got a new turntable unit except for the bearing, links and motor. The company also recommended a cabinetmaker who had been making plinths for their customers for many years. I bought a solid cherry wood plinth with a natural finish. This new round of upgrades cost around 2,500 pounds, a bargain in high-end terms.

The whole thing came together nicely and the record player has ascended to the next level of excellence. With well-mastered LPs, the performance approaches that of tapes played on the Nagra T Audio open reel deck. I can still identify some deficiencies, such as a slightly emphasized mid-bass, but I suspect this might be due to the tonearm. The tapes still have a bit more of that eerie see-through quality, and the soundstage is wider and deeper still. However, this record player is now competitive with some serious high-end turntables.

Adrian Wu's completed Garrard 301 with solid cherry wood plinth, Tenuto gunmetal turntable mat, modified SME 3012 Series II tonearm and Ikeda 9TT cartridge. Adrian Wu's completed Garrard 301 with solid cherry wood plinth, Tenuto gunmetal turntable mat, modified SME 3012 Series II tonearm and Ikeda 9TT cartridge.

In 2018, SME announced that they had bought the Garrard trademark, as well as the Loricraft company. The following year, they showed a “new” original 301 built with New Old Stock (NOS) as well as remanufactured components. The plinth follows the Loricraft design, which has a top plate supported by four rubber mounts, similar to the Roksan. The machine is only sold with a 12-inch tonearm, a descendent of the 3012. I have not seen an official price yet, but have heard various estimates from £12.5K to £20K.

[Note: as of press time, there is a website with an official-looking web address for Garrard, but when attempting to log on, a warning message comes up that the connection is not private and the site may be trying to steal information. No information about the new turntable is available on the SME website. We will attempt to find out more. – Ed.]

While I am happy that these classic machines have again re-entered the mainstream consciousness, I cannot help but wonder if SME got it wrong. Re-creating the machine exactly as it was might appeal to vintage audio enthusiasts, and there is certainly a market for that, but most audiophiles are interested in this design for its potential to achieve state-of-the-art performance using modern manufacturing technology. That is why so many people have worked on improving the parts. SME, being a top precision engineering company, should be perfectly placed to make significant advancements. Will serious audiophiles pay £12.5K for something manufactured with 1950s technology? Of note, Thorens went so far as to “update” their classic TD124 with direct drive. I feel this might be going a bit too far, since the idler wheel drive of that machine is the soul of the design. They should perhaps offer two choices, idler wheel or direct drive. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I look forward to the chance to audition the “new” 301 in its original glory, and would love to be proven wrong.

Here are links to a few other vintage Garrard restoration specialists and parts companies:

Layers of Beauty: a specialist antique furniture restorer, cabinet maker and plinth maker for vintage turntables.

Artisan Fidelity: this US-based company is a restorer of vintage turntables and plinths, offers upgraded parts, and is also a retailer for a number of high-end brands.

Perfect Sound: the largest spare parts manufacturer for Garrard turntables, and an authorized Loricraft parts supplier.

Woodsong Audio: the company offers Garrard, Thorens and Linn Sondek LP12 restoration, plinths and parts, as well as a variety of cartridges, tonearms and other products.

TJN Analog/ Turntables by Jean Nantais: he restores Garrard, Lenco and other turntables.

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