Celebrating the Linn Sondek LP12 Turntable, Part Two

Celebrating the Linn Sondek LP12 Turntable, Part Two

Written by Ken Kessler

Ken Kessler recounts anecdotes from the LP12’s heyday to create an impressionistic picture of the scene in the 1980s.

For those who “weren’t there” – that is, living in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s – tales of the effects, influence and, ultimately, damage incurred by the Linn/Naim-led “Flat Earth Society” on the British hi-fi scene must seem as fanciful as Harry and Meghan’s exposé of the Royal Family. Why does it even matter? you might ask. Or: are you exaggerating this recollection because of personal issues, i.e., sour grapes?

There’s a simple reply to the first of your possible queries: after the US, the UK was the most important manufacturing territory in the world of high-end audio. This is a claim based not least because of the longevity and pioneering nature of the industry (Tannoy, Wharfedale, Quad, Garrard, et al, were founded pre-World War II) and the benefits of operating in the English language. Whatever happened there had as much impact in many territories as what went on at Sea Cliff under the aegis of Harry Pearson.

While Japan, Germany and, much later, Italy would figure in the Top Five of high-end hardware manufacturing countries, they were less prolific, regardless of any language barriers. Germany’s main contributions were electromechanical – turntables and tape decks, not so much speakers and amplifiers – while Japan ran the extremes of multi-nationals with high-end divisions, e.g., Sony, or minuscule boutique brands, their main contributions being tone-arms and moving-coil cartridges. The UK, like the US, covered every area in audio.

Then there was the audio press, which was the main culprit/accomplice in this tale, to ensure that no audiophile functioning in the 1980s would have been unaware of the Linn Sondek LP12 turntable. Due to the aforementioned universality of the English language, and the remnants of the Empire in the form of the Commonwealth, British magazines had a unique audience which yielded massive impact in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and other once-related, still fond-of-the-British territories. As evidence of the worth of the British hi-fi community, in addition to boasting a disproportionate number of manufacturers, the UK would provide the US with the long-serving editor of one of its most important magazines: John Atkinson taking over command of Stereophile in 1986.

While there is no doubt that The Absolute Sound was – globally – the heaviest hitter in the world of high-end hi-fi from its inception in 1973 until Atkinson revitalized Stereophile, the extant British titles reached the parts US magazines didn’t, especially Hi-Fi Choice, Hi-Fi News & Record Review and (for the budget sector only) What Hi-Fi?. Another dozen or so titles padded out the newsstands, including Practical Hi-Fi, Hi-Fi Answers and Hi-Fi for Pleasure. All of them, to a man (there were no distaff hi-scribes in the UK back then, so woke readers, don’t get your panties in a bunch), were LP12 users.

But back to the deck’s first half-century. It is not for me to write the company’s actual history given the enmity between Linn and me, but I am happy to provide in this year of the LP12’s 50th anniversary some snapshots from its heyday. These anecdotes might be challenged by some – again, the late Queen Elizabeth II’s observation that “recollections may vary” is apt – but for me they remain vivid. My direct relationship with Linn started at a now-forgotten hi-fi show in Brighton, circa 1984 – 1985.

By that time, I had made enough of a name for myself to enjoy some notoriety as the only Yankee in the British press pack, and to the dismay of this virtually closed shop, one whose horizons were not limited by weedy, sh*tty-sounding solid-state amps nor 2-way bookshelf speakers. Although I had left the US in 1972 – 1974, I was weaned on real high-end gear, having worked in a store that sold ESS Heil AMT4s and Marantz Model 250 power amps and Empire turntables up in Bangor, Maine. While I had acclimatized my ears to the BBC sound, and grown to adore LS3/5A loudspeakers and Radford tube amps, I did not buy into the Linn/Naim ethos. For Flat Earthers, then, I was the equivalent of the Antichrist.

It was in the bar one evening that a short, stocky barrel of a man came up to me, clearly lubricated on Scotch. As my ears hadn't quite acclimatized as well to accents, I could barely understand his thick Glaswegian accent. This individual was Ivor Tiefenbrun, who I had not met at that point. Decades later, after we became fast friends, not least because we’re lantzmen, Members of the Tribe, Fellow Red Sea Pedestrians, ad infinitum, Ivor would deny this, but what happened was that he said he was gonna meet me on the beach and beat the sh*t out of me.

Ivor Tiefenbrun. Courtesy of Ken Kessler.

Ivor Tiefenbrun. Courtesy of Ken Kessler.

As Ivor’s voice was never sotto voce, a crowd soon gathered. Whether or not there was any basis for the rumor that Ivor was once an amateur boxer, and despite me being 5' 8" to his 5' 6" or so, I am the least-athletic human being God has placed on this planet. As I didn't drink at the time – my wine fixation came a decade later – the assembled throng swiftly divided into those who were part of the Flat Earth Society, praying for my physical demise, and all those from other brands which were not part of the Linn/Naim clique.

Although sober and terrified, I was still able to read the room. Bets were being made. Ivor’s nose was inches from my chin. His fists were balled. I had only been around the press for a year, but the room also contained reps and retailers I knew from before. They were wondering, save for my old buddy Simon Spears (now of the Audio Gear Group, once with Widescreen Review but then with AR in the UK), how long it would take before my bladder emptied.

If I remember correctly, Ivor’s fury was based on a perfect storm of 1) me not using an LP12, 2) my having written somewhere that it was nothing more than “a Thorens TD 150 on steroids” and 3) me being a “loudmouthed Yank” who didn't know what he was talking about. Guilty of all three, I could do nothing but stand up to him, a Marty McFly vs Biff (but with the heights reversed) scenario.

I never did find out how much was wagered, but Simon was among those who backed me, so I like to think he pocketed a few pounds. My Fruit of the Looms remained unsoiled. Simon and Naim’s Julian Vereker – whom I also became friends with years later – separated the two of us and in seconds my stature had gone up immeasurably in the UK hi-fi community. There were even cheers. Ivor snorted something and walked off.

Which brings us to the second question you might have pondered, about the degree of negative impact the Linn/Naim Axis might have inflicted on the industry. Alas, one might say it’s unquantifiable. But it’s 38 years later, and my rear-guard action must have worked because, like the LP12, I am still here, but not one of the Linn acolytes or useful idiots is still writing for anything of what remains of the British press.

Some have died; others were deservedly weeded out because of their intransigence, dishonesty or other malfeasances. As of 2023, the Linn LP12 is just another decent turntable, the world having embraced decks from TechDAS, Continuum, Clearaudio, VPI, Avid, Thorens, E.A.T., Pro-Ject, and too many others to namecheck.

But for me there’s a synecdoche, a coda which says all there is to know about how the Flat Earth Society operated, a precursor of cancel culture with the kind of tactics favored by despots: It was 30 years later when I learned that one of my superiors at Hi-Fi News, a poster child for the Flat Earthers, wanted me fired because of my refusal to use a Linn. Last time I checked, I was still writing for them.

Next time, the best Linn anecdotes!

Cover of a Linn Sondek LP-12 setup manual from the 1980s, comprising 28 pages of instructions. Yes, manuals that looked this quaint were not uncommon back in the day. Courtesy of Frank Doris.
Cover of a Linn Sondek LP-12 setup manual from the 1980s, comprising 28 pages of instructions, crooked type and all. Yes, manuals that looked this quaint were not uncommon back in the day. Courtesy of Frank Doris.
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