By the time that Compact Disc arrived in 1983, Britain had a surfeit of fine belt drive turntables on sale. From the Rega Planar 3 and Ariston RD80 to the Strathclyde 305, Dunlop Systemdek and Linn Sondek LP12, there were models to match every budget. Another name that surfaced around then was CJ Walker, a small British company based in Frodsham, Cheshire. It specialised in the manufacture of high quality mid-priced decks that, when carefully fettled, could perform almost as well as premium priced designs. There was nothing particularly special about this brand, aside from the fact that it used smart engineering in an attractive package at a price that was lower than the performance warranted. CJ Walker was the very embodiment of what we came to call “cottage industry” back in the nineteen eighties. It was a family company; the ‘C’ in the name was for Colin, and ‘J’ stood for his wife Janet. The turntable model numbers came from the birth years of the Walker children!
The essence of the Walker CJ58 turnable was simplicity – this turntable has no particular frills, yet is cleverly conceived, designed and manufactured. This formula proved popular abroad, with thirty-five percent of all product going for export at the time. In the UK, competition was fierce, but the turntable sounded far better than it had a right to at its £115 retail price and this allowed the company to build up not inconsiderable commercial success. One cannot help be impressed with its lack of gimmickry; lest we forget, this was a febrile time for British hi-fi with the hype surrounding the Linn LP12 turntable reaching almost epidemic proportions. CJ Walker did not advertise in the UK press heavily and was not the darling of trendy journalists, yet still sold well enough. The company produced three models – the CJ55, CJ58 and CJ61; the former two were close variations on the same theme, whereas the latter was a more radical skeletal design that was sadly too short lived; the company folded soon after its launch.
On the face of it, the CJ58 is a lightly reworked Thorens TD150. Perhaps this is a little unkind, because you could say the same thing about practically all British turntables on sale at the time, including the Linn! Actually there was a twist, because Colin Walker’s philosophy was to control resonances by using organic materials to reduce coloration. That’s why the deck is pretty much entirely made of wood; it has a veneered timber and particleboard plinth sitting on cork feet, and inside this is a wooden subchassis. This is actually rather a good idea, because wood can be very stiff yet it is far less resonant than steel, for example. A 16-pole AC synchronous motor turned the weighty 300mm diameter platter made from Tufnol – a proprietary brand of dense, resin-bonded laminate plastic. With low resonance and great strength, it was an interesting choice where most rivals were using less inert Mazak platters that could ring like a bell if you tapped them. A belt was used to drive the Tufnol inner platter, with manual speed change by shifting it on the motor pulley.
The Walker had an elegant coil spring system with easy provision for adjustment – making it possible to get a nice, floaty bounce when the turntable is fully loaded with tonearm and cartridge without recourse to special tools. No platter mat was supplied, thanks to the properties of the Tufnol. When every deck of its day came with a variation of either rubber or felt mats, this was pretty radical stuff! The main bearing is a good quality affair with a thrust ball at its core. The motor is fairly low torque type, giving a start up time of nearly five seconds which wasn’t good by the standards of the time. Nevertheless this did impact rumble measurements in a positive way; the quoted figure was an excellent 77dB DIN B weighted.
Back in the day, measurements were taken very seriously and the CJ58 did pretty well all round, especially considering its price. The company quoted a DIN peak weighted wow and flutter figure of 0.06%, which was impressive for its price. Speed accuracy was said to be within 0.2%. As with every deck of that period, the deck came as standard with an SME armboard; the CJ58 was also sold new fitted with a Mission 774LC [pictured] for the princely sum of £180. It was of fairly large size for a deck of its price, at 478x368x150mm, a high quality acrylic dustcover completing the picture and conferring a feel of quality.
The Walker CJ58 is an interesting thing to listen to, and you might say there’s nothing quite like it around now. Since the turn of the nineteen eighties when it first went on sale, the likes of Linn’s LP12 and Michell’s GyroDec have been refined so much that they’re not really the same decks anymore. The sound of both has only gone in one direction; it’s got tighter, tauter, crisper and more tonally neutral. Yet here’s the CJ58, which died a natural death decades ago, sounding positively ‘old school’. Because the company folded before the company could substantially develop it, it’s rather like a ‘freeze-frame’ snapshot of the turntable market back in its day.
‘Warm and sweet’ is the best way to describe the sound of the Walker; it’s just like the good old days when rich vinyl sources made music sound so colourful and tonally vibrant – if not strictly accurate. How dramatic the contrast must have been with Compact Disc, to a CJ58 owner back in 1983! This deck is certainly quite euphonic, but interestingly it’s not horribly syrupy and slow and fat; indeed it plays a tune very well and seems surprisingly fast on its feet. It’s just that everything you play goes through what seems like an effects pedal that makes music larger than life, and infused with a fair sprinkling of saccharine! Cue up The Clash’s London Calling and it sounds big and blustery; fast and fun yet wonderfully full bodied. A Rega Planar 3 of the day by comparison is an altogether thinner listen, almost as if you’ve switched from a colour TV to black and white.
The one downside of the CJ58 is speed stability. It’s not ‘bad’ in any obvious way, it’s just that the deck doesn’t have the metronomic precision of modern turntables with their DC motors and quartz-referenced power supplies. This reminds me a bit of the pre-Valhalla Linn LP12s; the middling speed stability actually gave a nice sound in its way – one that was bigger, looser and a bit more woolly yet still in no way unpleasant. It’s only when you compare it to a modern direct-drive like the Technics SL-1200G that you hear all the instruments suddenly snap into focus within the soundstage. The Walker doesn’t ‘wow’ in a bad way then, but it doesn’t have the precision of good high end modern designs now.
Fit a serious period tonearm – think SME Series 3 or Mission 774 – and the Walker CJ58 sounds truly beguiling. It’s just ‘nice’ in the sort of way that you rarely hear these days; a little loose, and little compressed and rather coloured, yet the deck is still highly musical and seems so sweet. Modern equivalents seem really rather sterile and matter-of-fact, by comparison – much more like all the things we didn’t like about Compact Disc! In most respects, the Walker is better than a Thorens TD160 of its day, head and shoulders about a Rega, and gnawing at the ankles of a poorly set-up LP12. Considering that it was only a third more expensive than a Rega Planar 3 on launch, that’s quite some achievement.
The great thing about the CJ58 – and its CJ55 sibling – is that Walker was never a trendy company, so there aren’t thousands of men of a certain age trying to relive their long-lost youth by buying it as their dream deck of that period. Rather, the turntable sold to people wanting no-nonsense, fuss-free sound – and performed the job admirably. As such, this classic vinyl spinner is cracking value secondhand, and a blast from LP’s classic past. If you’re looking for an affordable, easy-to-use belt drive from this era, you can do worse.
Because it has never been trendy, you can pick up a good example of either the Walker CJ55 or CJ58 for less than you would have to pay for a fine specimen of an Ariston RD40 for example, or any other such mid-price design. Expect to pay between £100 and £200 depending on condition; maybe a little more if it contains a well preserved SME tonearm, which carries some value in the second-hand vinyl market. Walkers aren’t exactly plentiful on the used market, but neither are they achingly rare either; keep your eyes peeled for a few months and something nice should come up.
Once you’ve got your new machine home, you might want to treat it to a new belt (eBay is your friend), and a full clean of the drive system, plus new oil in the main bearing (Mobil One 0W40 is a superior replacement to the supplied dinosaur-derived black stuff). When you’ve fitted your ideal arm and cartridge then it’s a simple expedient of placing it level and adjusting the suspension for a good bounce. This done, the Walker should give years of reliable service, making a very nice analogue sound indeed. Who’d have thought that this generation of turntables would still be spinning, nearly forty years later?