Herman Thorens first registered the company in 1883, in St Croix, Switzerland. It started as a manufacturer of musical boxes and associated equipment, and then in 1903 produced its first Edison type phonograph, then focussed on horn gramophones for the new shellac records. Right up to 1964, the company was making cigarette lighters, and only stopped selling harmonicas in 1952 – but its core business had become hi-fi by the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century. Indeed, it was a powerful innovating force, having developed the first electric phono pickup that employed a magnet principle in 1929, the Omnix.
By 1940 Thorens was producting professional disc cutting lathes and other pickup cartridges, then introduced the seminal TD124 in 1957. This belt drive design had a slipper clutch to decouple the top platter from the lower platter to enable records to start up with the stylus already in the groove, and an illuminated stroboscope to complement the variable speed adjustment. The TD150 followed in 1965, and crystallised the design with something that is recognisably modern; indeed you might argue that all belt-drive turntables are based on it. A belt-driven, suspended subchassis deck, it was beautifully screwed together and a great many are still in regular use now.
In 1969, the TD125 arrived – again a a three-point suspended subchassis design, it sported a huge AC synchronous motor and belt drive, strobe and varispeed – but this was now under electronic control. It made it quieter and more consistent than any of its rivals, including the Garrard 401 with its eddy current brake arrangement. The TD125 mark 2 arrived quickly in 1972, and this came fitted with the TP16 tonearm, refinements to the oscillator control circuitry and improved main bearing. It continued right through to 1983 in various guises, superseded by the TD126 mark 3. Interestingly, there was a professional version of the ‘125 made by EMT – the 928. This had a revised control panel, bigger strobe and a unipivot tonearm.
Sonically, a well set-up TD125 is capable of excellent sound – up there with greats such as the Garrard 401 in overall ability, although that certainly doesn’t mean they sound alike. Where the British deck is something of a bruiser – something of a monster truck in hi-fi terms, with massive power and a very commanding view of the musical picture – the Thorens is an altogether more finessed performer. No to put too fine a point on it, but it is audibly superior in the treble region than the Garrard, which sounds rather coarse and unextended. The TD125’s midband is a little sweeter and more silky too, lacking the more stark ‘etched into space’ quality of the 401, making it a nicer, easier listen with more soul and jazz-based programme material. However, in the bass the Thorens falls behind; it’s not bad but you sense it’s a little softer around the edges and less propulsive than the mighty Garrard. Overall, both decks sound great, but very different.
These days, these classics are crazily cheap – both for the sound quality they offer and the superlative built. There’s very little to go wrong, and fitted with a period SME tonearm you’ll end up with a lovely retro record player that’s really classy to look at and use, yet costs a fraction of more trendy turntables. You can get an excellent one for £500 or so, or a fixer-upper for half that – and this represents amazing value for money.