Linn Sondek LP12

Linn LP12The story of this legendary record player starts with it emerging from the Castlemilk factory, blinking into the Glasgow sunlight, way back in 1972. That’s a long time gone, and indeed in more recent years the Sondek has been lambasted for being “old hat”. It certainly lacks the acres of shiny Perspex and fancy gold plated fineries that seem so trendy nowadays, but in truth it wasn’t exactly at the forefront of fashion back when it was launched either – and unapologetically so. Instead of eye-catching design flourishes, it was all about getting the very best out of a conventional three-point sprung subchassis design, as seen in the original Acoustic Research white paper. Belt drive was chosen because it was quieter than idler (considerably so), while direct drive had barely been invented back then! Rather than the appliance of new science, the LP12 was all about precisely engineered component parts, meticulously assembled to work well together…

Work it did. The LP12, in original guise, was a beautiful sounding device. If you’ve never heard an early deck, then you’ll be amazed how sumptuous it is. It was a thousand miles away from being neutral, but the stock Sondek was mightily enjoyable to listen to. Bass was vast, voluptuous and a tad overblown, the midband smooth as silk and treble was sweet as builders’ tea. Much as many loved the deck’s tonality however, it was the way it pieced the musical picture together that set it apart from rival decks of the day such as the Heybrook TT2 and Ariston RD11. The LP12 simply had a groove to it that its rivals lacked, making music fantastic fun – almost artificially so, some might say.

By 1981, the Sondek had changed its sound somewhat. The modified main bearing in 1974 (serial number 2000) and Nirvana spring and motor mod kit (from 32,826) made for an altogether tighter and more grippy sound, with the LP12 losing some of its bass bloom and midband warmth. Then came the first major mod, the Valhalla crystal-driven power supply board (38,794), which really tightened up the sound. Indeed, I’d say this was the transition point from the romance of the original LP12 to an altogether more incisive and searching design; its ‘second age’ if you see what I mean?

Suddenly the LP12 seemed critical of pressings, beginning to really tell you what was in the groove, rather than providing a larger-than-life thumbnail of it. The deck was still great to listen to, but it was certainly different. Strictly speaking it was far more correct; you could hear the spaces between notes better, instruments stopping and starting with far greater alacrity. Dynamics were better too, the LP12 becoming a more intense and profound experience.

The nineteen eighties saw more mods to the LP12 which took it ever further away from that fat, sumptuous sounding original. For example, the plinth was braced more stiffly (53,000), the sub-chassis strengthened (54,101) and the suspension springs stiffened. A better bearing arrived in 1987 (70,000), along with a superior armboard (79,160), but it wasn’t until 1990 that the third age of the LP12 was entered, with the arrival of the Lingo power supply and soon after, in 1992, the Cirkus mod package (90,582)…

Once again, the deck moved away from euphony to accuracy. The Lingo was a dramatic improvement to the LP12 in my view, once again giving a far more explicit sense of the spaces between the notes. But not everyone thought it was positive; the old Valhalla Linn (and even more so in the case of the pre-Valhalla) slurred them somewhat, giving a more mellifluous, albeit more indistinct, quality. The Lingo seemed to go in there with a scalpel and cut out all the fat, making the Sondek a drier sounding device altogether, and quite a distance now from the first generation of the seventies Sondek.

If the Lingo worked on the timing of the deck, then the Cirkus worked on its detail retrieval, adding a whole new extra layer of information. Suddenly, you could hear through to the back of the recorded acoustic, rather than focusing on the centre and forward images in the mix. The soundstaging dramatically improved too; hitherto the LP12 was a little closer to dual-channel mono than it might ideally have been, with instruments hanging either left or right with not much in the middle (as if every LP had been remixed by George Martin at Abbey Road, circa Sgt. Pepper). The Cirkus changed this, bringing a more realistic rendition of the recorded acoustic.

In my view, the Cirkus/Lingo LP12 was still right on the pace in the early nineties. It was only when Michell’s Orbe arrived in 1995 that you could start to really call it lacking – the latter had a more expansive soundstage, stronger and more solid bass, and superior treble detail too. But still, the LP12 had the funk and the Orbe did not, the Michell providing a more matter-of-fact rendition of the musical event.

Back in the early eighties this was a deck that many reviewers would confidently recommend as being ‘the best’, but by twenty years later it was found wanting in speed stability against the Roksan, soundstaging against the Michell and bass grip against the Pink. We’d now reached a point where you bought the Linn for its musicality, rather than its overall across-the-board competence. Still, what it did, it did brilliantly; cue up Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Wooden Ships and the Linn was the only deck in town. It had a lovely, lilting musicality that somehow seemed to perfectly capture the essence of the song, whereas others simply told you how bad the original recording quality was.

This is the reason people still buy the LP12. It’s not – contrary to what the company’s detractors would claim – smoke and mirrors marketing, pushy dealers or anything else. Linn buyers are not stupid, they know what they like and why. The deck sings with jazz; to my ears it’s still one of the finest hi-fi moments with a good classic BlueNote pressing; and really makes sense of rock. Everything from the densely textured washes of sound from The Pixies to some smooth Rickie Lee Jones comes over unfathomably well via the Sondek. But cue up some classic electronica like Kraftwerk’s Tour de France Soundtracks for example, and the likes of Avid’s Acutus gets so much further into it. So this is where we’re left today, a deck that’s brilliant in parts, but not quite the all round slayer of superdecks it once was…

The new Radikal DC motor upgrade of course professes to change all this. Now, I am not going to get drawn into the ‘DC is better than AC’ debate (or vice versa), because I’m no longer young and stupid enough to believe that theories are more important than practice. Just as a 500BHP sports car sounds great on paper, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to deliver its great promise in practice to give pure, unadulterated driving pleasure. Suffice to say that Linn’s Ivor Tiefenbrun was once a DC motor refusenik, and has now obviously changed his mind. This is not a sign of hypocracy or cynicism on his part, but expedience. In his view, if they can make a DC motor work better, then Linn should offer one.

Just to recap. The basic (if you can call it that) Linn LP12SE Lingo is a very impressive sounding device. Whilst it’s not quite up with Avid’s Acutus in its ability to retrieve vast amounts of detail off the disc, there’s no denying that it’s no less enjoyable a listen – especially with jazz or rock music. The Linn is a Linn, and sounds like a Linn, so Avid, SME and even middle-of-the-road Michell buyers won’t naturally gravitate towards it. But if you like that Linn thing, then the LP12SE Lingo represented the best of a pure and noble breed. As that Chic song once so eloquently put it, “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”, and this might as well be the theme tune to the Linn Sondek LP12…

The ability of the Sondek (Lingo) to chew through even the most woefully recorded LP and turn it into sweet, pleasant, easy listening is unmatched. Recordings that would have me hiding behind the sofa on the Avid Acutus barely caused me to raise an eyebrow, Roger Moore-style. Eyelids remained unbatted and jaws hung resolutely at the correct angle. The stock LP12 just seems to be able to magically filter out all the recording’s nasties, as a dog-eared copy of The Box Tops’ The Letter proved. A low-fi sixties song delivered via an LP record that had gone to one too many of my teenage parties, and which was then left to fend for itself in the vinyl teenage torture chamber that was my younger brother’s record collection, this wouldn’t be my first choice to test any turntable with. But lo and behold, out came the music, soaring with passion, brimming with emotion and full of joy, via the LP12 Lingo…

Moving to the latest LP12 Radikal, and you’re struck by the drop in surface noise, and the wider space between the notes. Suddenly, the music is less euphonic but more purposeful. Where it had been hazy, lazy and laconic, the production effects come over with greater precision, the snare drum pierces into the middle distance, those vocals sounding curiously closer miked. The song goes from sounding ‘lovely’ to sounding real. And therein lies the change from Lingo to Radikal, as far as the LP12 is concerned.

These days it’s a very expensive turntable; buy a fully loaded one and you can easily drop £10,000 on it. At that price, you pay for the superlative build, finish and its still-distinctive sound that just gets in there and gets the musical job done. It’s not a universal panacea, but for those craving that unique LP12 sound – and many understandably do – this is still the original and best. Long may it run…

6 comments

  1. Pingback: Linn Basik LV X |

  2. Mario Recchia

    I have had many Linn LP12’s in my time and yes its a good turntable but I have to disagree on its subjective properties it really does not sound that close to master tape like some other turntables so if you want a coloured sound yes its good but if you want a turntable that sounds more like the original sound you should look some where else . I now listen to an Alphason Sonata with Zeta tonearm and for me this is a much better sounding turntable as is the Roksan Xerxes, Elite Rock, Voyd and I could go on and on. .

  3. Peter Taylor

    I saved this article some time back and just stumbled across it again today. Your comments on those features of the LP12 that I have experienced are spot on. So, reading about the things I haven’t implemented, such as the Cirkus bearing upgrade, I am grateful for your information and trust it is just as I would experience it. Very helpful thank you.

    My very first comment when an LP12 was demoed in my system was, “Wow, it swings!” Just as you observe. I am so pleased to have lived so many years with an audio component that conveys the musical whole so well. I really don’t care if an alternative turntable offers more detail; if it doesn’t “get” the music, it is not a starter.

    • Thanks Peter. The LP12 isn’t the trendiest turntable anymore, but remains a highly enjoyable way to listen to music by any standards. It can sound superb when working properly, with the right arm and cartridge. Enjoy yours!

  4. STEPHEN JENNEY

    I’ve had an LP12 now since 1983.Currently on my second incarnation and had it fully serviced and a cirkus bearing upgrade fitted two years ago.With my Naim Aro and Dynavector MC it’s a lovely combination.I’ve always found the Linn to be so easy to listen to.It never leaves me with a headache! I can just relax into the music.Your comments about it’s ability to relay jazz such as classic Blue Note/Prestige recordings are spot on.Sheer bliss.

    • Hi
      I had a linn lp12 from about 1982 to 1994 but when I compared to a few other turntables I realised it had lost its edge compared to turntables like the Nottingham spacedeck or the Alphason Sonata which I now have fitted with a Zeta and milltek aurora cartridge.

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