SAVING YOUR SONDEK: Origin Live’s Affordable Upgrades for the Linn Sondek LP12 by Paul Szabady
SAVING YOUR SONDEK
If there is any turntable that truly warrants the term “iconic” it would have to be the Linn Sondek LP12. Remembering that an Icon is literally a sacred object of veneration coming from the Christian Eastern Orthodox devotional tradition, the cult-like enthusiasm that swirled around the Sondek had quasi-religious overtones, developing its own orthodoxy, dogma, and rituals. Particularly in the UK, the Sondek LP12 ruled the roost as the Best Turntable in the World and held that status for at least two and a half decades. Now almost 50 years on from its original launch, the LP12 is still available new in a variety of guises and price ranges.
The original Sondek LP12 wasn’t particularly revolutionary (the triumph of clever development over genius inspiration perhaps) in its design concept: the Acoustic Research XA and XB had pioneered the3 spring-suspended subchassis with synchronous-motor belt-drive format in the early 1960s. Linn’s very early history (particularly its platter bearing design) was also closely intertwined with that of Ariston. What was unique about the Linn was the revolutionary articulation of its reason for being – a reason that informed its development and production, and ultimately, its evaluation. At a time when audio consumers bought products based largely on specifications and test measurements, Linn honcho Ivor Tiefenbrun revolted against this simple-minded criterion. What made one product better than another was not its superiority in test-bench measurements made with abstracted and artificial electrical test signals, but how well it communicated the performance of music.
The Linn Sondek LP12’s claim to fame was its superior portrayal of rhythm, timing, melody, and flow: it made more musical sense. Tiefenbrun went on a crusade to demonstrate the Sondek’s musical superiority compared to other competitors at local hi-fi and international audio trade-shows.
The original LP12 was a high-strung and extremely tempermental device. Its performance changed drastically based on the mass, height, and rigidity of the stand upon which it was placed, and the effectiveness of its suspension was defeated by footfalls on sagging, suspended wood floors.
The Sondek depended on precise and exact set-up. So much so that Linn insisted that LP12’s only be set-up by professional Linn dealers and that they follow Linn’s demands for set-up fastidiously and to the letter.
Slight mistuning resulted in the loss of the table’s superior rhythmic and musical communication. Linn also abhorred any customer-originated attempts to tweak the table, arguing that most tweaks and modifications changed the sound but destroyed the music. And if a tweak truly improved the LP12, Linn claimed they would have already incorporated it from the factory.
This mindset led to Linn periodically offering upgrades to the Sondek that could also be retrofitted to previous generation LP12’s. A few were relatively affordable: the early Nirvana spring/grommet kit which allowed the LP12 to hold its set-up longer, an acrylic sandwich arm board, and the Trampolin base were easy and affordable upgrades. With the incorporation of the Valhalla motor power supply and then onward through time, the upgrades became more and more expensive until the latest ones raised the price to where keeping one’s Linn up-to-date becomes a financially daunting proposition.
The Sondek was also very picky about tonearms and cartridges used, often working most harmoniously with Linn’s own LP12 bespoke products. One of the ironies of Linn’s history is that their paradigm-altering and iconoclastic exhortation to place musical performance as the first desideratum in judging turntable performance would evolve into an Iconology and a new orthodoxy espoused by the overly zealous. Still, the LP12 forever altered the perception of the role that the turntable plays in analogue playback, and every subsequent turntable designer worth their salt had to take into account the musical performance of their designs.
Linn was extremely successful in the UK, where it dominated the UK market, becoming a sacred aspiration for all music lovers. Due to it only being offered in a few key US cities and the US market’s notorious reluctance at the time to invest in high-quality fully-manual turntables (instead succumbing to the superficial flash of the Direct-Drive turntables hyped by Japan, Inc.,) the LP 12 was less dominant. It’s fair to say, however, that no truly Audiophile/Musicophile turntable was as successful in reputation and in total sales around the world during its 2 and ½ decade reign as the King of the Hill.
But what if you have an older Sondek or have a chance to buy a used one for a fair price? Many find the standard Linn upgrade path far too expensive and too difficult to implement. Origin Live offers a range of simple-to-install and almost pocket-change cheap upgrades that will save your Sondek from sulking in a corner, rueing the passing of better days.
Primary to optimizing the Sondek’s performance is Origin Live’s bearing oil and drive belt.
Since this is a routine maintenance necessity anyway, replacing them is simple common sense. See (here)
Origin Live then offers a simple 3-stage upgrade that is almost a give-away – 77 UK Pounds or roughly US $ 75 total. Stage One is OL’s replacement platter mat at 33 UK Pounds, or US$ 33.26. Next is a simple 30-seconds-to-install modification to the LP12’s inner/outer platter: OL’s platter gasket kit at 25 UK Pounds, or US$ 25. Here a thin round mat covers the top of the inner platter with another laid upon its ledge below. The outer platter is then replaced. Stage Three is installing OL’s Cartridge Enabler – a wafer-thin insert that fits between the phono cartridge top and the tonearm headshell- at 19 UK Pounds or US$ 19.15. All 3 items in this 3-Stage upgrade utilize OL’s proprietary damping material originally developed for their platter mat. Each carries a money-back guarantee.
The accumulative effect of this 3-Stage upgrade is so overwhelmingly sonically positive and musically significant that one suspects application of the Magicke Arts. What is actually revealed is Origin Live’s mastery of resonance control. “God is in the details,” claims a well-known architectural maxim and OL’s head Mark Baker again reveals his ability to think down to first principles and causes. Who would have thought that simple and inexpensive application of effective damping and isolation at key strategic points could have such intensely positive musical and sonic effects? Well, obviously, Mark Baker, that’s who.
I’ve been a Sondek owner for over 30 years (I actually own 2, both bought used.) and have found that the only truly successful replacement mats for Linn’s stock felt mat have been Funk Firm’s Achromat and the RingMat, especially when the latter is incorporated into their complete LP Support System (see here). Most others either over-loaded the Linn’s soft-ish spring suspension or killed the table’s signature rhythmic abilities and Boogie Factor. The Origin Live platter mat does neither. The OL gasket kit should be considered an integral part of the platter mat for the Sondek, as the jump in performance was so drastic and dramatic that I began to re-consider the Linn’s ultimate capabilities.
The classic signature sound of the Sondek was one of a slightly fat mid-bass coupled to only a so-so rendition of stereo imaging and soundstage depth, with a very slightly ‘soft’ presentation (this last largely due to its stock felt mat.) One of my LP12’s had already had the OL DC-motor conversion done more than 15 years ago, which ironed out the Classic Linn Bass Bump while also solidifying instrument placement and any other AC motor absolute speed vagaries. The signature timing and rhythm of the LP12 were also substantially improved. OL’s drive belt and bearing oil, an OL-modded Rega RB250 sporting a Nagaoka MP500 cartridge with OL’s Cartridge Enabler installed, had moved this Sondek to the point where it was immensely musically satisfying, if not quite an’ ultimate’ reference. I was not prepared for the improvement that OL’s Gasket Kit produced.
Adding the Gasket Kit brought an avalanche of fine detail and low-level resolution. Imaging and stereoscopy moved from “Good enough for Rock’ n’ Roll” to “WOW!” – now fully capable of reproducing the natural-ness and accuracy of acoustic instruments playing in a real venue. No more relegating the Linn to Rock and Jazz LP’s only: its strong musical performance could now also handle Classical Music’s increased demand for complex sonority, multiple instrumentation, literal soundstage reproduction, instrument placement, and recording venue ambiance. The Sondek was now capable of extending the soundstage beyond the speaker’s position and far outside the boundaries of the room.
The depth of the soundstage became accurately literal, something a stock Sondek couldn’t do. The Linn became a contender now for all kinds of music.
OL’s Mark Baker considers the Gasket Kit as essential for all Sondeks. I heartily agree.
I also tried the 3 Stage OL kit on my other Linn -an older Classic original LP 12 manufactured even before the Linn Nirvana spring kit was incorporated into stock LP12’s, though my sample had had it retrofitted. The increase in fine detail and the big jump in resolution was the same, though the Linn Bass Bump remained. Most importantly, the signature Sondek traits of rhythm and timing were strongly improved on both LP12’s. The OL Upgrade kits actually produced more “Linn-iness” – a sine qua non for any Linn modification.
Special attention should be given to the Origin Live Cartridge Enabler. Designed to break up the resonance path generated by the stylus tracking the record – a path that leads directly up into the tonearm’s own inherent resonant signature, and then back down again into the stylus/record interface. – the Cartridge Enabler is the most iconoclastic and heretical challenge to Linn Orthodoxy. The OL Cartridge Enabler has been widely praised as the biggest improvement one can make to a cartridge/tonearm’s performance for the least amount of money.
I would agree with that assessment.
Use and installation of this 3-Stage Upgrade Kit will require raising tonearm height by 2 mm total, one mm for the change in height of the gasket kit, and one mm to compensate the Enabler’s thickness. Given that the OL Platter Mat is very thin and will probably replace a thicker mat, it’s possible that in a few fortuitous applications, tonearm-height might not need to be changed at all.
The Origin Live 3-Stage Linn Upgrade Kit is crazily cheap and crazily effective. It raised the performance of my 2 LP12’s from slightly compromised to a level of high-resolution performance that I never suspected they were capable of achieving.
Finally, one can top-up the Sondek’s performance and extract even more accurate and ultimate musical and sonic information by using the OL Record Weight. See (here)
But Wait! There’s More …
Those impressed and inspired by these easy and affordable Sondek Origin Live upgrades might want to try OL’s other stellar upgrade to the LP 12: the OL DC-motor conversion kit. It’s no secret that Linn’s top current LP 12 model now (finally) incorporates a DC motor to drive its belt, ending 5 decades of trying to deal with the difficulties in performance of AC synchronous motors. Origin Live has been offering DC motor conversion kits for 25 years and has evolved, developed, and improved their performance so much that Linn seems like an upstart over-priced interloper.
Origin Live offers a range of DC-motor kits to fit a range of budgets. They are easy enough to install for anyone that can operate a screwdriver, offer 33 and 45 RPM operation at the flick of a switch, and raise the Sondek’s rotational performance to the state-of-the-art. I first installed a DC-motor conversion to my Valhalla power-supplied LP 12 more than 15 years ago. It’s stunningly great performance, coupled to my experience with OL’s Rega RB 250 and RB 300 tonearm modifications quickly clued me into the realization that Origin Live was a company to watch. I have tried to follow the company’s expansive line of products over the years with eager interest and have tried to review as many of their products as I can.
Those brave enough to counter the orthodoxies of the Linn cult might also try the Origin Live range of tonearms to replace the stock Linn arms, especially if one’s Sondek is fitted with one of Linn’s entry level arms -the various Basiks and Akitos – but also extending to the Ittoks and above. The OL-modded Rega RB250 would be the budget choice, though the Origin Live Silver and Zephyr tonearms and up would be far better matches to the Linn’s ultimate resolution capabilities.
Incorporating the OL upgrades does not preclude also applying the standard Linn-sourced upgrades to their platter bearing (Cirkus) or to the Sondek subchassis (Kore and Keel) to one’s LP 12 if desired. Though I strongly suspect that the musical satisfaction resulting from these Origin Live upgrades would more likely move one to spend the substantial investment required on more and more records.
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