Is it still a Linn?

[Italian version here]

Product: Turntable Spoke Modification service
Manufacturer: Audiofiles, Crowthorne, Berkshire, UK
Price: £399 as reviewed but contact and ask; YMMV depending on what you want from spoke only to full subchassis
Reviewer: Mark Wheeler - TNT UK
Reviewed: July, 2019
Published: October, 2019

Audio Files Spoke Turntable Modification Programme

In part 1 of this epic we considered the history of the Linn Sondek's suspension design, and the heresy of presuming to improve upon it. Read Part 1 first then come back. The boingy approach to turntable design runs from Edgar Vilchur's AR, via the Thorens TD150 and the Ariston RD11 to the Linn Sondek LP12. The latter trio of models have such similarities that many parts are interchangeable. This is testament to the basic soundness of the design. Both Thorens and Ariston revised their subchassis design in successor models (TD160 and RD80 respectively) to equalise loads on each spring and hence to improve ease of suspension set up and arm versatility. Linn chose an equally valid retrofittable back compatible approach to their improvements on the LP12 turntable. Any of these could be altered by the Audiofiles Spoke approach.

Audio Files Linn Sondek Spoke Modification effects

Because the full (is that Stage 2 or Stage 3?) Spoke subchassis orientation (like the Thorens TD160 and Ariston RD80 now supports the arm board near the arm base, the arm board no longer acts as a Linn system symbiotic energy sink for the tail end of the arm. The flexible rear section of the Linn armboard (especially the MDF version) is part of the Linn Sondek synergy with their own Ittok and Ekos arms. Hence the pick-up arm is more exposed by the Spoke so the Linn synergy goes AWOL & Ittok becomes the Tictok.

This means that arms that resolve less of the energy vertically, like SME and Rega (and variants thereof) now work better with the Spoked Linn LP12 than with stock Sondeks. The changed spring orientation also makes set up possible with heavier arms like the SME IV and SME V, which previously caused premature and permanent sag in the rear spring.

Now that there is less vertical energy sink, the cartridge vertical relationship with the LP surface is likely to be firmer, or more secure. We might predict that the soundstage will widen out compared to a standard Linn Sondek LP12. Linn, like Naim, never prioritised soundstage scale and correctly used to refute the concept of stereo image too. Try closing your eyes at a live unsimplified concert and after turning the head side-to-side, try to locate instruments as one would a pan-pot stereo recording. Linn and Naim did have a point.

The Linn Sondek LP12 has never been noted for the depth and breadth of the soundstage. Resolving the vectors of the record groove, it is clear that spatial information may be imagined as primarily vertical, while musical data tends to swing laterally like a mono groove. The Linn closed system of energy control had long relied on a vertically floppy subchassis, from which floppily hangs a relatively longitudinally flexible arm board to manage arm & cartridge energy from the lively Ittok/Ekos family.

This armboard-subchassis flexibility militates against full resolution of those spatial vertical elements of groove information. Pre-Cirkus Linn evolution included a shift from the original plywood arm board to an even softer MDF sandwich, and glue replacing spot-welding on the subchassis. The glued subchassis has shorter resonant decay but the subchassis system was still floppy, essentially to terminate arm base energy effectively. Good for the Linn arms but not so much for arms designed differently; the Linn Sondek LP12/Ittok/Asak and its successors was a prime example of the whole performing better than the sum of its parts. Changes in motor power supply and suspension also did nothing to enable most non-Linn arms from performing well on what was quickly establishing itself as a global reference standard for turntables.

In theory a freshly set up Linn with good springs and grommets, clean pulleys and a new belt and correctly dressed arm lead should therefore sound similar to the Spoke. The Spoke certainly sounds more similar to a fresh Linn than a Linn that has drifted away from optimum. When a Linn Sondek LP12 has just begun to 'go out of tune' as Linnies say, the difference a set up makes is similar in character to the difference the Spoke adds to an already correctly set up Linn Sondek. The best way to describe the Spoke effect on PRaT is that it is like to a tune-up plus.

The location of the three springs of the Linn Sondek LP12 is very similar to the Thorens TD150 (indeed a Linn subchassis may be retrofitted to a TD150). The choice of spring rate and position limits the mass of arms that will successfully work on this turntable. Heavy arms will require the rear spring to be compressed so hard that it becomes impossible to achieve the essential bounce characteristics necessary for the Sondek to function as designed, and aftermarket tuners like Vinyl Passion offer spring sets with different rates for each spring as another approach to the problem. Audio Files solution is to relocate the spring positions such that the virtual centre of their combined operation is closer to the vertical moment of the centre of gravity of the platter-subchassis-arm system, as Thorens did in the changes from TD150 to TD160 and Ariston did in the changes from RD11 to RD80. .

The Spoke modification begins by tying the rotational forces to a reference point. A horizontal tie wire is connected between subchassis and top plate. This is aligned with the primary torque reaction to the motor-pulley/belt/sub-platter system. This is precisely why the P-clip and cable dressing is so important to Linn Sondek LP12 set up. Dressing the arm cable correctly, and forming its slight kink using (heat gun) heat, performs a similar function to a single spoke.

The full fat Audiofiles Spoke subchassis modification begins by relocating the suspension springs to maintain effective bounce with modern heavier (read that as SME or even Kuzma) arms. This effectively rotates the suspension system by approximately 30° providing more support at the arm end. Immediately we might anticipate that the fundamental character of the Linn Sondek LP12 would be lost. The floppy nature of the original Linn subchassis is overcome by an aerolam sandwich. Aerolam is an aerospace honeycomb, light but stiff, However, the Spoked Linn is still very much a Linn, with the sense of musical architecture intact. The materials also chosen by Pink Triangle for their subchassis, an aerolam subchassis, work effectively for the Audio Files. The use of aerolam may be reminiscent of the Pink Triangle Philosophy, but here it is combined with folded steel to provide a constrained layer system. The Spoke subchassis is turned anti-clockwise through about 30°, further nodding to the axis of the Ariston or Roksan compliance alignment, even if not consciously so.

The stock Linn Sondek LP12 won't bounce a Series IV, V or 309 SME but this test was performed entirely with one in tow. The SME 309 has less of the bombast of a Series IV or Series V but some find it more neutral or more tuneful. The SME 309 has less vertical transfer of high energy than an Ittok or Ekos and is therefore more tolerant of its armboard termination qualities. However, some have argued, that gimbal arms with the modern SME sled base (not the 3000 series base) and Rega arm types, resolve the high mechanical energy of moving coil cartridges into horizontal vectors whereas Linn arms resolve this energy into vertical vectors. Hence the Ittok and Ekos do not make a good match with Gyrodecs and Orbes (and their ilk) but work as a system with the vertically floppy Linn armboard/subchassis system, while Roksan seemed successfully to walk a middle path with their early not-quite-a-subchassis Xerxes. The AudioFiles Spoke subchassis is much more rigid, and non-resonant, than the steel Linn subchasses and perhaps offers a nod to the Roksan non-twisty vinyl replay solution.

What does it sound like? ask Plebs, stage left, their patience fast running out

Sound Quality

With the Audio Files Spoke in place, the soundstage opens up broadly, further beyond the loudspeakers than before. If the vectors of each groove wall are resolved into horizontal and vertical axes, the horizontal might be considered (mono) musical information, while the vertical is describing an analogue of the difference between the two channels and therefore the soundstage width. While lacking breadth. The Linn Sondek always managed a degree of depth of image and the Spoke simply adds depth and delineation to this.

Compared to stock glued or spot-welded subchassis, there's less upper bass bloom and better low frequency pitch accuracy. Delayed resonances in the Linn steel subchassis cause additive and subtractive effects at different frequencies, affecting timbre and perceived pitch, as well as the Spoke designed intention to keep the subchassis in a more stable position. There's also better pitch accuracy than an LP12, especially during heavily modulated passages due to the spoke horizontal ties.

Indeed, except when newly and perfectly set up, few Linns achieve continuously accurate pitch despite their legendary tune-following capabilities. As a long-standing user of an expertly set up hardwood plinth Linn Sondek LP12 Valhalla your Old Scribe could live with its ill temper for its engaging qualities. That example evolved from spotwelded subchassis with plywood armboard to glued subchassis with MDF armboard, with new springs, new arm cable (and P-clip), new motor bolts, rejuvenated thrust pad etc etc etc. How one low tech engineering product can engender so much loyalty, excite so much controversy and such religiously held articles of faith remains as much a mystery of twentieth century psychology as any of the polo-necked philosophical debates raging in the left bank cafés of Paris.

The well documented uneven frequency emphasis of the pre-Keel Linn Sondek is shifted by the spoke-subchassis conversion as well as being somewhat mitigated. Compared to a stock pre-cirkus Linn, the prominent bloom is less prominent and over a slightly higher frequency band. Compared with a Michell Orbe SE, the Spoke Linn's emphasis is lower and narrower. It begins to sound like "You pays yer money, and you takes yer choice".

Running the Spoked Linn through its designer's preferred Trichord Dino (with uprated PSU) and the Orbe SE through your Old Scribe's preferred Canor TP306 VR+ Phono stage, there are as many differences between this first, vital and challenging, chunk of gain as there is between turntable, arm and cartridge. Linn based Flat-Earth systems were once notoriously finely tuned to balance each components' idiosyncrasies such that they mitigated one-another. Both these front end combinations are seductive and could be lived with for years. However, there are too many variables to make descriptions useful.

The best vinyl replay systems have converged in recent years, as each designer-manufacturer systematically reduces colourations and timing inaccuracies while improving information retrieval. Back in the day (1979 for example) differences tended to be more obvious, and yet in blind tests, groups of very experienced listeners (turntable designers and audio journalists) could not reliably identify a Linn or other bouncing on springs belt drive turntable, from dangling from springs belt drive turntables (like Michell or Logic DM101) nor even from direct drive. Such tests might indicate that either our ears were less finely attuned, or systems were less transparent than imagined, or perhaps that it just isn't as big a deal as we audio scribes like to believe.

The Audiofiles Spoke moves the Linn nearer to the centre ground of tighter drive, but the platter is still a mass on a spring, the belt. That system is no longer referenced to such a rotational sprung system (the sprung subchassis) as the 'spokes' restrain the subchassis tendency to permanent prescience. Hooke's Law applies as much to rotational masses (turntable platters or motor pulleys) swinging back and forth against a rubber band as it applies to a mass dangling from the same rubber band. Add the complexity of the subchassis reaction on its own set of springs, and it is only designer and set up perseverance that enables an approximation to pitch stability under load.

What is gained, as well as pitch stability, is improved neutrality so that the system downstream does not have to be optimised for one analogue front end. Bass becomes much more even handed and less dependent on lean amplification and loudspeakers to achieve speed (start and stop) and pace. Experiments with the Gold Note PH10 and the QHW The Vinyl demonstrated that the Audio Files Spoke & Subchassis modification is consistently effective regardless of phono pre-amplifier. No longer does the pre Keel all Linn, Linn Sondek LP12 need to drive a Linn optimised amplification system to deliver the goods, nor to carry a Naim Aro.

Techno, and it's numerous sub-genres, sound characteristically less 1980's LP12, with the Spoke, and more 1980's SL1200 but with much better information retrieval and downward dynamic range than the S-shaped SL1200 tone-arm could ever aspire to. With the Spoke Linn, Kraftwerk's seminal Autobahn offers its analogue electronica like a well assembled constructivist aural sculpture solidly positioned in the room. In this respect, Linn were in the avant garde of turntables, among the few that could reproduce the architectural qualities of album or orchestra, which might be anticipated from mid audiophool market upwards now. The Spoke equipped Linn adds to this quality, if anything. The presence of the SME 309 could be responsible for this, but as it simply won't achieve a sustained effective bounce on a stock LP12, it is impossible to isolate its contribution.

The qualities of the phono pre-amplifiers are revealed and exploited. It was easier to hear the explicit qualities of the Golgnote PH10 in comparison to the Trichord Dino, the Canor TP306 VR+ and the QHW The Vinyl phono pre-amplifiers. Each received coherent information, in the form of microvolts of electricity, analogous to the hills and dales of the groove walls, sufficient to demonstrate what each does with it.

"The Old Scribe's gone bonkers" assert plebs, stage left, "This overly long review has petered out into wild rambling"

The comparison between two effective and optimised analogue front ends (one a Linn LP12) with various system combinations is less unusual now than in the pages of The Flat Response or even the old Haymarket UK titles. The immediately obvious differences are system differences, but the differences that matter are those that make the listener repeatedly put on a fresh disc and forget the equipment. The stock Linn achieves this very effectively in an optimised for LP12 system. What the Spoke does differently is offer a similar level of confident performance without the need for optimised amplification or loudspeakers downstream.

The differences between the various front-end analogue combinations were, however, only clearly apparent when the rest of the replay chain was optimised. With the Audio Research Reference 3 pre-amplifier (somewhat more fluid than later models, but not as comfy as the Reference 2 MkI) driving active loudspeakers (active crossover driven by 6X200W class D) both front ends show their strengths. With high-sensitivity, high-resolution loudspeakers driven by highly modified single-ended triode (running Western Electric 300B valves), again the differences are there but both get forgotten as the music is enjoyed. A contrasting, balanced input high current Class AB push-pull transistor amplifier, heavily biased into Class A, Driving the Kerr K320 ribbon/transmission lines also illustrates the differences while proving enjoyable downstream of the Spoke Linn. The "Front End First" Flat Earth philosophy seems to be undermined when two sources of equal information retrieval, but dissimilar presentation are available and prove equally engaging.

It seems ironic that Dave Clarke's (2016) Charcoal Eyes is pressed on red vinyl, when it is one of the few colour themed album titles that would be released on charcoal black vinyl even if all others were released on red vinyl. Dave Clarke Charcoal Eyes side 2 ends with a track sampling the John Foxx track Underpass, which was last heard by your Old Scribe on a 12inch single in 1979 on a Transcriptor Saturn and Hadcock GH Unipoise; It is a driven, brilliant intelligent techno fuelled, jazz inspired different take on electronic production. Deep bass can often seem hidden on Linn LP12 based systems, possibly hinted at behind dominating upper bass. Some listeners criticise earlier Linncarnations as having no low bass which gets concealed by that 100-150Hz bloom. The full Spoke and aerolam subchassis enables the arm-cartridge combination to extract the lowest octaves without overwhelming.

Whether midrange clarity can be preserved in the presence of high energy low bass is a key attribute of a good vinyl front end. The OMR pressing of Bob Marley's wonderful album Exodus impresses from Natural Mystic onwards. The title track Exodus can be sapped of all its life by lesser turntables, being end-of-side deep bass on the smallest groove radius, but remains intact on the Spoke Linn. The Flat Response favourite test for this was Long Distance Love from The Last Record Album by Little Feat, which the Spoke Linn achieves with surprisingly similar lack of intermodulation as an all Linn front end but with fewer stylus drag artefacts from the heaviest notes.

Unscrambling the density of the mix of Black Sabbath's debut album, Master of Realitywhile preserving the audible mass such density implies, is a challenge the Valhalla Linns (with Ittok and Asak or Karma) could manage when rivals were muddy & blurred. The Spoked Linn manages to achieve this with different emphases than an early LP12/Naim Aro but a similar overall balance. Sometimes the lighter, tighter subchassis veers towards Pink sounding, but without the more neutral Pink platter stripping away the comparatively heavy metal Linn platter beneath Black Sabbath's first recorded heavy metal exposure. There was none of that reviewer b*llsh*t: "I heard new stuff and it was a revelation that made my plums ripen, and a new understanding grow between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples while the Syrian conflict seemed to resolve itself while people queued to buy vinyl."
Master of Reality by Black Sabbath merely sounded as good as this old heavy metal encapsulation of seventies Birmingham reality can do. No more and no less.

Soundstage is consistently wider, equally stable and equally deep to the standard Linn Sondek. The extra width will come from greater subchassis vertical rigidity and the other two parameters indicate similar high frequency phase performance. Soundstage scale can be affected by turntable mats, and this is the case with the Spoke Linn.

"What about support?" challenge plebs, stage left, "The standard LP12 is the most sensitive soul when it comes to furniture."

Discussions about support below decks and below discs will have to wait for part 3.

"Part 3? PART THREE???quot; challenge plebs, stage left, "The old Scribe is writing THREE parts for a review of a simple modification to an old turntable. How can that all that bandwidth be justified?

The Linn Sondek LP12 invites more controversy than any other single audio component. Merely to write anything at all about the Linn is to invite flames and opprobrium on the message boards. To suggest modifying the Linn is to invite the Castlemilk Inquisition and no one expects the Castlemilk Inquisition, whose chief weapon is surprise.

Surprise, and an almost fanatical devotion to a turntable.

Whose two chief weapons are surprise, and an almost fanatical devotion to a turntable developed from another Scottish turntable, that was developed from yet another, found during a 1966 walk from the Black Forest.

Music enjoyed while writing this review

Reference system

on vinyl of course

  • Dave Clarke: Charcoal Eyes
  • Dave Clarke: Archive One
  • Aphex Twin: Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Part 2
  • Miles davis: Bitches Brew
  • Keith Jarrett: The Koln Concert
  • Richard Strauss: Vier Letzte Lieder, Jessye Norman
  • Little Feat: Last Record Album
  • Bob Marley: Exodus; Original Master Recording
  • Kraftwerk: Autobahn; remastered
  • Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run

Test discs were used to set up, somewhat less enjoyably:

  • Hi-Fi News: Analogue test LP: The Producer's Cut, Len Gregory's essential bias setting tracks

  • Shure: TTR110 Audio Obstacle Course, still the standard by which all test discs are judged

Equipment used in this review:

  • Turntable: Spoked Linn Sondek LP12 Valhalla with full Audio Files aerolam subchassis & Spoke modifications

  • Pick-up arm: SME 309

  • Turntable support: Origin Live Ultra wall support, chrome plated, nylon cord replaced by chains

  • Turntable shelf: 10mm laminated glass

  • Turntable shelf vibration control: PolyCrystal Point Discs sadly now obsolete but absolutely superb and superior to RDC cups and Michel Tendercups

  • Turntable shelf wall isolation: RCD Cups (larger surface area than Polycrystal Point Discs reduces wall plaster deformation)

  • Turntable shelf support: Rawlbolts embedded in hard plaster

  • Turntable: Miche;; Orbe SE

  • Pick-up arm 1: Hadcock GH242 SE with all silver wiring from cartridge to silver Eichmann Bullet plugs

  • Turntable shelf alternative tried: ERaudio Large SpaceHarmoniser (Mark)

  • Tuning: Yamamoto Sound Craft and BrightStar extra large IsoNodes (Mark)##

  • Initial trial cartridges: Audio Technica VM500 range and VM95 range

  • Phono pre-amplifier: Canor TP306 VR+ phono-preamplifier ((Mark)

  • Integrated amplifier: Canor TP106 VR+

  • Line Pre-amplifier: Audio Research Corporation Reference 3 (Mark)

  • Tuning planks: ERaudio Large SpaceHarmoniser (Mark)

  • Loudspeakers: TQWP/Transmission-line hybrid passive loudspeakers (18mm & 25mm birch-plywood cabinets; long fibre natural wool stuffing; Deflex panel lined) loading the late the late John Wyckoff 's Hammer Dynamics bass-mid driver

  • Passive (yuk) crossover (with litz-wired inductors & couture capacitors) and B&C DT400N & B&C DE-35-8 tweeters.

  • Loudspekers 2: Active Yamaha NS1000M

  • Loudspeaker 3: Kerr K320 floorstanding 2-way with ribbon tweeters

Some wire is used to join these components together. No interconnects cost more than 10% of the device at each end, much of it made by the Old Scribe from high quality components. Mark's amplifier-to-loudspeaker wire is ultra-low impedance Black Rhodium S900, a low-Z variation on the Black Rhodium S600 cable that came out well in Ben Duncan's objective and subjective correlation tests, selected primarily to match the OPT/driver damping factor, not for any magical qualities.

DISCLAIMER. TNT-Audio is a 100% independent magazine that neither accepts advertising from companies nor requires readers to register or pay for subscriptions. After publication of reviews, the authors do not retain samples other than on long-term loan for further evaluation or comparison with later-received gear. Hence, all contents are written free of any “editorial” or “advertising” influence, and all reviews in this publication, positive or negative, reflect the independent opinions of their respective authors. TNT-Audio will publish all manufacturer responses, subject to the reviewer's right to reply in turn.

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