Garrard 401 revived

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Garrard 401 revived
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from Hi-Fi World, April 1993






Spurred by growing interest in the Garrard 401 turntable, Noel Keywood dusts the cobwebs off his own and brings it up to date.


I once bought a gorgeous new hi-fi turntable, the best there was - and it rumbled. I remember the disappointment now and I never quite accepted that this wonderfully built machine, a Garrard 401, could really rumble so badly. It had an excellent reputation even then, back in the early Seventies, and boy did I ever want to own one. The massive cast platter with its machined-in strobe markings was incomparable and it has never really been bettered even now. 


I collected a 'solid wood' plinth from a company in Peterborough. This, I was told, would cure the rumble. It didn't. That massive motor and the huge rubber idler wheel looked far too purposeful to be compromised in their activities by a few bits of real wood, I remember thinking - and so it was. All that was back in prehistory, when, in the naivety of youth, I thought that life had just started when I got a job on Hi-Fi Answers magazine.I could not bring myself to give up on that Garrard; it really was so beautifully engineered. Only years earlier I had been crawling around the spectacular frame of Concorde, immersed in the finest engineering anyone could hope to see, and even with that as a contrast the 401 didn't look like the duffer it turned out to be.


For some reason, I never did contact Garrard to tell them my 401 rumbled like an express train. I'm not sure I wanted to believe it myself so hoping that one I might learn how to suppress the huge 25Hz tone it produced, I carefully put it up into the loft.It only just survived. Reaching the loft is preparatory to life in another world. When, after a few years, something has sat there unwanted and unused, it eventually goes to the great tip in the sky. Then another item takes its place. Even in my most brutal and heartless of moments, the Garrard survived, sitting there quietly gathering dust - wanted, but only just. One day, I thought, I'll find time to fix that turntable, then it'll take pride of place.It didn't quite turn out like that.


As Hi-Fi World got underway I began to find others who thought the 301 and 401 were under-rated. Then I saw a  warehouse full of them awaiting export to Japan; then I heard that Loricraft restored and built plinths for these turntables; then I was told that if I phoned a number a man called Martin Bastin would be able to help me with a new, even heavier plinth for my 401 and - amazingly - an improved main bearing. Together, they might just cure the rumble. Would that be possible? I doubted it; mine was too badly afflicted. All the same, I decided I was prepared to spend quite a lot of money on the off-chance that my 401 would at least become useable. No one, I noted, actually made any firm promises about this, but then it isn't something that you can promise. Off went the 401 for major surgery, on a prayer that it would return in full health .



During our visit to the SME factory some months ago I spotted an awesome looking 12in arm. It wasn't the lightweight classic 3012 used by jocks at radio stations, but a new 312 with tapered arm tube and solid headshell. But surely, I thought to myself, no one is interested in vinyl any more, so it'll never see the light of day. People wouldn't even know why you might want a 12in arm these days. Even SME seemed a little non- committal about this fine looking piece of engineering.


Rather than let it get passed over by progress, I thought the 312 would be in a perfect setting if paired with the upgraded Garrard before being exposed in a review.After all, both are part of an old technology, yet both also incorporate modern ideas in an effort to advance that technology. Neither unit has turned its back on development; neither is an anachronism, nor a worthy veteran. Together, I suspected, these two components, made for each other a long time ago, might show just how well they can perform together today.

A massive drawback of the 12in SME always was that - it's massive! Awesome it may well appear to be, but then so is any plinth big enough to accommodate an arm so long. Martin Bastin had to make a specially large plinth and he brought the arm forward (clockwise around the Garrard in effect) in order to limit front-rear depth. This means the arm sits at an angle when in its rest and the plinth is wider than it might be, but it is more likely to fit onto a shelf or wall bracket. I have a bay window, with a firm and wide sill. It just manages to accommodate this 52lb plinth, offering a firm, vibration- free horizontal location for it.


Did the 401 work after being tuned by Martin Bastin and mounted on a heavy weight plinth? Yes - and better than I dared imagine. I admit to fitting a Goldring 1042 cartridge in some haste, bothering little with fine alignment, just to test for rumble. I thought it unlikely that the mods that had been performed would be adequate. It seemed more likely that the motor or idler wheel of my unit were at fault, meaning a new main bearing and plinth might have precious little effect.


It was great to be proved wrong. The Garrard had miraculously become very quiet. Even vinyl roar seemed in good check At enormous volume I could hear the speaker cones flapping, stimulated by record warps, but there was no sign of feedback into the plinth, from loudspeakers about six feet away. Only the spectrum analyser could tell whether a hint of that 25Hz rumble remained, but it did not.  I wasn't expecting miracles, and certainly not this degree of improvement. My 401 hasn't just been rejuvenated; it has been transformed, entering the mainstream of hi-fi life splendidly after twenty years of idleness. It is effectively new, having never been used in earnest before, of course. But from the moment I found it fully useable all this changed. The cartridge was installed, the arm carefully set up and LPs started to build up in little, vertical groups around the lounge as I set about enjoying them again.It's not that I haven't been able to enjoy them before, but solid-plinth turntables are very easy to use, especially if you hand-cue, like me; I just cannot use a lift/lower. With a rock-solid plinth offering a firm foundation, and with a beautifully machined, magic-wand of an arm from SME, the 401 finally proved what I had always suspected: it is a superb machine to own and use.



I'm not going to claim at this point that, with the improved bearing, it is unequivocally better in its sound than good, suspended sub-chassis turntables, although I believe it has firmer, more tuneful and better resolved bass than most of them. What I would say is that, when mounted properly and fitted with a good arm it is up amongst the best, with a good raft of strengths, some of which are quite a surprise, subjectively. The huge, high torque motor and no-slip idler drive give it some impressive advantages. There are also a few small blemishes, minor colourations we might say, that could usefully be expunged, but then this is always the case. A perfect hi-fi product hasn't been invented.Such a beautifully engineered turntable was built to have a use in this life, and now it has. Not only does it sound superb but it is a delight to use. The gorgeous new turntable I once bought has finally entered my hi-fi system after twenty years - and it was worth the wait.


With the Garrard 401 turntable revitalised and fitted with SME's most modern twelve-inch arm: how the combination sounded.A new turntable of this potential encourages a trawl through all the oldies. Like most of us, these days I buy CD in preference to LP, even though I still prefer the sound of a good LP-based system by quite a signifcant margin. This does mean that most of my LPs are from way back when, and with this deck I was spurred to dig out a whole range of old faves played so often that their sound - including blemishes - is imprinted indelibly upon my mind.


Memory wasn't all I worked from though. Most recently a Systemdek IIXE with SME 309 arm (from now on called IIXE/309) and Goldring 1042 have been in use quite a lot. Naturally, for validity I removed the very same cartridge from the 309 and installed it in the 312 arm.One of the most recent LPs in my collection is Tracey Chapman's 'Crossroads'. I also have the CD for comparison, although comparisons are not necessarily valid since LP cutting masters are usually equalised to make up for losses. However, the stronger apparent dynamics of the LP that I noticed with the IIXE/309 were further reinforced by the 401/312 combination.Tracey Chapman's voice had better centre stage focus and was possessed of greater dynamic contrast against the background, especially when compared to the CD. There was more detail within the acoustic guitar; the strings resonated richly on LP. Bass was lighter but more in balance from LP (in truth, it is overblown on CD due to deliberately applied EQ) and there was none of the treble sharpness and incisiveness of CD.I made this LP versus CD comparison for the sake of thoroughness as part of a listening test regime; I had already noticed from listening to various LPs on the 401/312 that, generally, there was stronger resolution of dynamic contrasts than I previously recall hearing from LP. Vocalists were better resolved in terms of image sharpness, but, especially, in terms of their dynamics. This applied to instruments too; their range from soft to loud sounded greater on the 401/312 combination and, by any standard - especially CD - it was very wide and exciting.


There were other particular strengths that I noticed though. Certain classically bad/strong/important bass lines were much clearer; in fact the whole bass end sounded cleaner and had more upper bass detail. Far less gloopy than usual was the bass line behind Van Morrison's gorgeous track Madame George, from Astral Weeks. It gained control, as well as string and body detail, making what I have generally heard as vague and over- blown sound reasonably normal. What the 401/312 brought to bass was control, inner detail and superb resolution of tempo as a result of these improvements. An album like Grace Jones' 'Nightclubbing', which relies on the considerable talents of Messrs Dunbar and Shakespeare, displayed drier, tighter and speedier bass; in fact the tracks snapped into focus generally, with Robbie Shakespeare's bass lines seeming to meld into the rest of the performance naturally. It isn't uncommon for his bass to sound a bit woolly in all senses on many decks.


The 401/312 were able to resolve and deliver unusually well defined bass.I suspect there are two reasons for the superb bass performance. The deck and arm are verv high mass, rigid items well located on a heavy plinth. Vibration and consequent signal loss are reduced as a result. Additionally, the 401 does appear to have better timing than a belt drive turntable, probably as a result of its high-torque dnve system. It sounded to me as if dynamic slowing on transients was reduced, since there was a fine sense of timing generally, with unusually clean stops and starts to transients.


Although CD/LP comparisons aren't strictly valid, the 401/312 combination sounded so controlled, but dynamic, I couldn't resist trawling through a range of albums, making comparisons. Annie Lennox on the album Touch sounded more natural on LP, having a richer and fuller voice with more to it: more natural character. By contrast, she sounded a trifle thin and sterile on CD, like Tracey Chapman as I mentioned earlier. However, instruments were more emphatic at very high and very low frequencies.On 'Learning to Crawl' I again felt Chrissie Hynde sounded more natural on LP, but this time the band sounded a bit more diffuse on LP than CD, as if the stylus wasn't matching the groove modulation angle in fact. The CD had it for clarity, although it still sounded sharp and uneasy to listen to.


The situation was radically reversed on that all-time balls-up of a CD, Heaven 17's 'The Luxury Gap'. The LP has excellent sound quality; the CD is all treble. Something went very wrong! And finally I was surprised to hear The Lords of the New Church on their eponymous album sound better on CD than LP. Again, at full thrash the band sounded clearer on CD, like the Pretenders, yet LP still sounded easier on the ear and more amenable.


Comparing LP to CD is usually unenlightening. The differences are many and various, like their reasons for being so. However, the 401/312 did bring a stronger sense of control and timing to LP that usefully elevated it toward the sound of CD, provoking comparisons. It is still the case that LP breathes more easily, sounds less sterile and forced. However, with a high level complex signal it can also sound more muddled than CD. Whether another cartridge may have helped I do not know; the 1042 is actually clearer than most.


With vocals in particular, I feel LP wins quite easily. Here, the 401/312 showed what superb results are obtainable. Similarly, bass performances from LP were handled very well by these components, removing the blurring and imprecision that often colours results.So it is true, that when made to perform properly, and mounted in an appropriate plinth, the Garrard 401 doesn't rumble and can provide absolutely superb results. I believe Japanese audiophiles got it right a long time ago when they took to turntables like the 301, mounted on an enormous plinth, in preference to all else. Handled with due knowledge and placed in a suitable environment, the Garrard 401 is a superb turntable, every bit as good - possibly better - than more modern belt drives. We never knew what we had when we had it.


Eric Braithwaite Says . . .

When the refurbished 401 arrived at my flat it instantly sent me on a reflective trip down memory lane. The first touch of finger on the silky but firmly sprung control knobs had me practically purring with pleasure.The whole purpose of taking the Garrard home was not just to indulge in a time-warp fantasy, however, it was to compare it against a modem turntable. In this case, a Michell Gyrodec with SMEIV arm and Morch da Capo cartridge. Not having two da Capos, the Garrard's SME312 was fitted wth my Koetsu Black moving coil.The results were startling. Put on any vinyl with pace to it - and that meant anything from Roxy to Techno to Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances - and the Garrard's evident speed and dead-stop transients were astounding. So much so, that another listener kept getting up from his seat to check the strobe to convince himself it wasn't running fast. That's a good metaphor the 401 had an unparalleled ability to run with the rhythms at Olympic speed.Percussion stayed crisp and tight, not the least sign of flabbiness or uncertainty. The Koetsu tracked like a dream, riding warps that on my Gyrodec make a record clamp mandatory. One of the fundamental virtues of the solid plinth was a near-total lack of feedback I'd be surprised if the stylus would shift out of the groove even with a drop-kick from Will Carling.Where the Gyrodec did score was with a more expansive staging: wider and with more subtle depth.


Other subtleties were also evident, particularly in vocal presentation. While the Garrard could produce a remarkably three-dimensional portrayal, the Gyro came up trumps on Mary Black with much more detail in intonation. It's that subtle difference between following a score and being able to amend it according to the performer's interpretation. Instrumental textures were just that much less thick, too.Also noticeable was a trait which I (and someone else, who had also recently heard a 312) ascribed more to the arm than the cartridge or the turntable. There was a wiriness to the upper strings and a touch of sting to some guitar notes or higher vocal notes. None of this detracted from the liveliness or lucidity of the 401: if those are among the major criteria for a turntable, the old Garrard stands up well against the modern competition.



This feature was published in the April 1993 issue of Hi-Fi World. No material may be reproduced from this review without the written permission of the publisher. Copyright Audio Publishing Limited



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