By the time this hugely popular record player was first launched in 1967, Garrard had been a turntable specialist for nearly half a century. The provenance goes way back in 1721, when Garrard and Company was appointed Crown Jewellers of London, tasked to take care of the British Crown Jewels and Royal Crown. Because of its unsurpassed reputation for craftsmanship, the company found itself making precision rangefinders for the British Army at the start of World War 1, and this took it into pastures new. The end of the Great War saw the start of production of lathes and tools, and then spring-wound motors for the (then) new-fangled gramophones.
From this point, the marque never looked back. The premises were switched from London to Swindon, because of a surfeit of skilled engineering apprentices from the Great Western Railway Company, and the motor was refined. Some say its “Super” Gramophone motor was one of the best spring motors ever made. In 1928, electrical motors began to be developed, and by 1930 the company had its first record player. The 201 was Garrard’s first premium turntable and used a bespoke direct drive motor; it duly found a home at the BBC and other professional installations. Just like the SP25 that followed over thirty five years later, it had four speeds; 16, 331/3, 45 and 78RPM.
After the end of the Second World War in 1945, the connection with the jewellery division was lost, and Garrard pushed ever harder into turntables – with the 301 surfacing in 1954 and laying claim to the mantle of the best turntable in the world. At the more affordable end of the market, the Autoslim series began in 1959. This was after a major fire which forced the company to borrow factory space from nearby Plessey Company Ltd. Garrard became part of the Plessey Group soon after, and this was really the beginning of the ‘modern’ age, as we know it, for the company.
The mid-nineteen sixties was a prolific time for the company. After its second greatest ever design – the 401 – arrived in 1965 the first SP25 surfaced. Like the flagship Garrard it too was idler drive, but sadly a little too much of the 16W motor’s torque was transmitted into the LP record itself via the mazak platter topped by a thin rubber mat with metal trim ring, making it sound agricultural by modern standards, but there was no denying it was a solid machine that could withstand serious abuse. It was the first rung on the hi-fi ladder; although humble it was not regarded as a toy. It sported what was regarded as essential at the time for a product of its type – semi-automatic operation.
Despite having automatic stop which invariably sullies the sound of a tonearm, Garrard did attempt to do a decent pickup on the SP25. Its straight-pipe, aluminium tubed tonearm was better than many price rivals of the day, and was adjustable for both tracking weight and bias. The company had obviously thought about its design because it even had an underslung counterweight, an idea that resurfaced on the SME Series V two decades later! The arm’s friction was such that it wasn’t particularly happy tracking at less than around 2.5g, which precluded it from the generation of high compliance moving magnets – such as the Shure M75 ED2 – which were to arrive a few years later.
The deck was refined over the years, but in truth, all the SP25s from the first to the fourth (which surfaced in 1974) were largely the same. The mk1 and mk2 were semi-automatic designs, whereas from the mk3 fully automatic operation was standard. There were various minor stylistic changes too, and the tonearm received some revisions; the first two incarnations of the SP25 had detachable headshells whereas after this Garrard used a fixed shell with a detachable slider. This was designed with convenience in mind, and certainly wasn’t as good from a sound quality point of view as the SME types that many rivals began to adopt. From the mk5, launched in 1975, it got a J-shaped armtube and rounded underslung counterweight, presumably in a bid to make it look more contemporaneous with the then mighty Pioneer PL-12D and its ilk. In truth, this arm was less impressively made than the earlier variants.
The other key change to the SP25 was the drive system. Let’s not forget that Garrard was highly accomplished at making motors, and all SP25s up to and including the mk4 got idler drive. When new and working properly this was decently speed-stable and gave a gutsy, powerful sound that wasn’t too dissimilar to the new generation of direct drives, aside from being a little less slick and quiet in operation. The mk5, again following the PL-12D, acquired belt drive, and like its tonearm it wasn’t a runaway success. It was a little quieter and more refined in operation, but for many the mk4 sounded better. From the SP25/IV onwards the plinth was more swish with the then obligatory smoked dustcover, whereas earlier variants had been clear.
In a bid to keep up with the times, by 1977 Garrard knew that it needed a range of hi-fi turntables that placed more emphasis on sound and style, and less on convenience. Whilst the rest of the turntable world was betting either on direct drive or belt drive, its new range offered a choice of both! The GT20, 25 and 35 offered belt drive in a choice of fully manual, semi auto or fully automatic guises; the DD130, 131 and 132 was the same but with direct drive. Although good, neither range could match the onslaught from the Japanese, and the company began to fall into financial trouble. The SP25/V was summarily dropped, and then Garrard was sold to Gradiente Electronica of Brazil in 1979. At the time it came as a shock that a brand as strong as Garrard could fail, just years after having some of the best selling products in the market. Such was the pace of change in the nineteen seventies hi-fi market.
Garrard SP25s are not great sounding decks, but they are cheap and have real period charm. If you can find a well preserved one, especially with the rubber tipped idler wheel in good original condition, then you’ll be able to enjoy the gutsy, upfront sound that they offer. So much about the SP25 is down to the cartridge fitted; the arm isn’t good enough for a finely balanced, high compliance elliptical design, so you’re best using the pickup that was so often supplied when new – a Goldring G800 or G850. With tracking weights of 3 grammes they’re not going to be put off by the highish friction (in modern terms) of those massy pickup arms. Other good matches include the Shure M75/6, and the Arcam C77 if you’re really feeling adventurous.
Some people modify the SP25, usually removing the automation; indeed Garrard itself did this with the Disco Driver 80, a rather oddball offshoot of the SP25/VI. It will sound better, but make sure you don’t allow the deck to lie dormant with the idler gear engaged (i.e. ensure you don’t turn it off from the mains whilst still in play mode) because you could flat-spot the idler wheel. Carefully set-up in a decent plinth and correctly lubed and fitted with a decent – but mechanically compatible – cartridge, the deck will sound powerful, musical and full of energy and drive. Poorly preserved and/or stored, it will have chronic wow and flutter problems, and lots of rumble too – so choose carefully!