First Sounds: booplinth
ew products have enjoyed the longevity and evolutionary transit that mark the Linn Sondek LP12s life span. Originally introduced in 1972, first as a motor unit and subsequently built into its own conventional rectangular wooden plinth, it was joined by the Ittok tonearm in 1979 and underwent the first round of serious revisions (the Nirvana suspension components) in 1981, followed by the Valhalla crystal-referenced power supply in 1983. Those upgrade kits were the shape of things to come, and since then theres been a steady stream of factory upgrades, many of them far from inexpensive, leading cynics to suggest that every time Linn Products gets short of money, they simply launch another LP12 upgrade.
However, despite significant changes to virtually every single component except the top plate and outer platter, the fact remains that an LP12 of almost any vintage doesnt just look almost identical to current models, it can be upgraded to current spec. And if that isnt surprising enough, given that the beast is over forty years old, consider this: The vast majority of those upgrades are Linn designed, Linn supplied, and installed through the Linn dealer network. This is not just an object lesson in building a business; its a startling example of end-user brand loyalty.
However, despite that astonishing history of almost dogmatic adherence to the Church of Glasgow, cracks have finally started to appear in the façade. Dont say it too loud, but third-party modifications for the LP12 have finally started to not just appear but actually gain some traction. Over the years, various people have presented their own offerings, but until recently theyve fallen on stony ground. But these days, there are a number of companies turning a profit from LP12 add-ons, mainly power supplies and replacement plinths, but with subchassis and top plates coming up fast on the outside. There are even plinths designed to accept 12" tonearms.
Latest addition to the ranks of heretics and usurpers is the booplinth, yet another aftermarket LP12 upgrade, but one with a difference. Like other parts of the LP12, the plinth has remained virtually identical in appearance since its launch. Still the same hardwood "picture frame" it has always been, the popular, fluted "afro" of the early days has given way -- at least in the fashion stakes -- to the more recent, smooth-sided maple that has joined the black, walnut and rosewood options. Otherwise, little has apparently changed. Internally it has sprouted large corner braces, reinforcing blocks and more secure fixing points for the top plate.
A Linn Sondek LP12 with booplinth.
Despite those internal changes, theres no escaping the fact that both it and the various aftermarket options all remain a variation on the well-tried recipe that originated with the Acoustic Research XA. Which is the first thing that sets the booplinth apart: its a one-piece construction, carved from a single slab of laminated bamboo, a radical departure from previous practice. In place of the front, back and end pieces, four separate corner braces and two large supporting shoulder blocks, the booplinth offers an identical form factor (less three of the corner braces rendered unnecessary by its superior mechanical integrity), accepts all of the LP12s standard fixings and mounting hardware but does so in a structurally superior form -- CNC machined from a superior material. That might seem like an ambitious claim, but examine the facts and youll find that its well supported by the evidence. Bamboo has made quite a splash in the audio industry, used as shelving in racks by Atacama and Quadraspire or as an affordable but incredibly effective supporting platform bought from IKEA. It is also starting to appear in loudspeaker cabinets as well as furniture, thanks to its fast growing and carbon-positive qualities. This stuff actually absorbs more greenhouse gases as it grows than are produced by harvesting, transporting and processing it, allowing you to improve the sound of your system and save the planet at the same time!
But why does it sound so much better than MDF or solid wooden structures? Its all down to its nature. Bamboo is actually a grass, formed from long, lightweight fibers bound together by natural resin and growing in its familiar tubular form. To turn it into sheets that you can actually make stuff out of, you cut slices out of the tube walls and then laminate them together. The resulting slab is constructed out of multiple random strips that are themselves of random construction. It is exceptionally strong and very stiff -- almost like natures alternative to carbon fiber. Its also extremely hard, making it resilient but difficult and time-consuming to machine, which brings us back to the booplinth -- and the second thing that makes it unusual.
This is one LP12 upgrade that if it cant claim semi-official status, then at least has one foot firmly in the Linn tent, even if the company doesnt necessarily see it that way. Its the brainchild of Brian Morris and Trevor Liddle, proprietors of Manchester's Brian and Trevors House of Linn, ex-employees of Linn Products and now the brand's most dedicated retail outlet. They are an LP12 service center and leading exponents of combining Linns various products and technologies both within the companys range and with products from other manufacturers. In fact, it was experience with Quadraspires bamboo-shelf upgrade that got them thinking about an LP12 plinth cut from the same material and ultimately led them to a deal with Quadraspire to create just that.
Not that it was quite that simple. It wasnt just a case of machining an open rectangle the right size. The CNC program had to include all the internal profiling of the standard plinth as well as the extra parts that are added after the fact. The solution was to create a two-stage process that effectively sculpts the finished plinth from above and then below -- a process that limits production to six plinths a day and which helps explain the booplinths not-inconsiderable £1650 asking price (about three times the cost of a standard Linn plinth), although that should include having your existing deck rebuilt into its new home. As any true LP12 aficionado will tell you, that needs to be done by somebody with the requisite knowledge or the decks performance will suffer -- which is why Brian and Trevor have included that operation in the price. But they cant control what happens to plinths supplied through third parties, so if you are thinking of taking the booplinth plunge, its worth checking with your supplier first to determine just what your hard-earned cash is buying.
I was sufficiently intrigued by the notion of not just a one-piece plinth, but one carved from bamboo that I made the trip to Manchester to hear the booplinth in action. Given Linns role in the development of comparative demonstrations, it came as no surprise to discover that Brian and Trevor have set up a genuinely meaningful demonstration of their babys capabilities. Not only do they have two decks equipped with identical Akito tonearms and carrying Adikt moving-magnet cartridges with similar running times, both tables have internals of similar vintage. For listening, each deck is shifted in turn onto the same wall shelf and hooked up using exactly the same power supply and tonearm cable. With just about every variable eliminated, it really was possible to hear the influence of the two different plinths, leaving me in no doubt at all as to just how profound the improvement wrought by the booplinth really is.
I spent the best part of an afternoon listening to booplinthed LP12s in a couple of different systems, but in truth, the gaping chasm between the performance of the decks with the bamboo plinths and standard versions was apparent about five seconds after that first switch was made and the stylus hit the groove. With the familiar "Left Us To Burn" (from the Martin Stephenson album Salutation Road [Kitchenware LP 828198.1]), the improvements in midbass clarity, definition, drive and texture were remarkable, bass notes gaining shape and impetus, while the lack of clogging unveiled the rhythmic nuances and hesitations in both the playing and vocals, opening out the midband, revealing new levels of musical expression and allowing the performance to step away from the speakers. This wasnt a difference -- it was a transformation, allowing the music room to breathe, allowing me to hear more of the performance and less of the system. The result was a better recording of a better song, played by a much better band. Not subtle!
Everything we played reinforced the experience, good recording or bad. In fact, if anything the more congested and problematic the mix, the greater the benefits of the increased clarity, rhythmic articulation and broader tonal palette, a point underlined by the Beat track "Mirror in the Bathroom" (from the album I Just Cant Stop It [Go Feet BEAT 1]). With the standard LP12, the sound was dominated by the heaving rumble of the congested bass, submerging melody, vocals and percussion alike. The sax line managed to stand clear, but only at the price of swamping the vocal still further. The result was a thick, muddled and turgid mess that promised to defeat even the efforts of the booplinth to bring musical order from the chaos -- but I neednt have worried. Salvation was indeed at hand. The booplinthed deck delivered a rhythm section that didnt just go deeper but did so with considerably greater urgency, texture and definition. I could hear just how many instruments were in play -- and how much energy was going into playing them. Now the track had pace and attack, a drive that helped add an insistent sense and sense of purpose to the clearly delineated vocals. The sax was now properly mournful, panned back deep into the soundstage and wrapped in its own separate cloak of reverb. Now I could understand why this song was both a huge hit as a single and hugely influential when it was first released, not just because of its then-fashionable ska style, but also because of the uncanny way it captured and bound together the drab economic desolation of the early-'80s UK with the more familiar themes of teenage angst. If the mark of a better system is that it gets closer to the performance and sense of the music, then the booplinth elevated this system onto a completely different musical and communicative plane.
Around about now, Linn acolytes might well be clutching at charms (or favorite recordings) and muttering deep words of doom and the other three horsemen of the apocalypse. Few systems offer such a proscribed path to aural glory as the Linn approach, a strategy that dictates each step you should take along the upgrade path. So how does a product like the booplinth fit into the Linn philosophy with its front-end-first logic? Actually -- and perhaps not surprisingly, given the people behind it -- it fits like a glove. If Linns thinking places the record player first in line when it comes to system priorities and declares the turntable as first priority within the record player itself, the plinth is actually the mechanical foundation on which the turntables mechanical elements rest. If you make that plinth more stable and better able to disperse spurious energy rather than feeding it back to the record/stylus interface, then guess what? You get significantly greater clarity, organization and timing integrity. Thats exactly what you hear when you listen to the booplinth -- better hi-fi, but way better music too. This isnt just an LP12 upgrade; its quite possibly the LP12 upgrade, first call on available funds, no matter what level your Sondek has already reached.
But were not done yet. Theres yet another factor in favor of the booplinth, one that isnt immediately obvious. The LP12 is a deck with a history thats totally enveloped in myth and legend, so its no surprise that theres an ongoing debate about which plinths sound best that has raged without resolution, each color and each vintage seemingly attracting its advocates. The answer is that theyre all different (yes, even within age and finish groups), which is hardly surprising, given what theyre made from and how theyre made. The one-piece structure and random laminations of the bamboo booplinth offer both greater precision and mechanical stability, but also much greater material consistency through the structure as a whole -- and that in turn offers far greater consistency of performance, not just across different musical genres but also on a sample-to-sample basis, meaning that with the booplinth youll definitely get all of the performance youve paid for, from the plinth itself and the deck that lives in it.
Which brings us to the last potential objection, aesthetics. The picture tells the story -- but not the whole story. Speaking personally, I really like the stratified appearance of the natural bamboo version in the photographs, but the booplinth can also be purchased with a cherry, natural ebony or black stain, of which the last looks particularly attractive. Best of all was a prototype in dark-gray Nextel. No decision has been taken on that finish as yet, but even if its a special order, thats the one Id go for.
Which brings us to a final, rather surprising point -- at least it will be a surprise for anybody who knows me well. Ive been wondering for a while whether it might be fun to revisit the LP12, reinstating it to the first team of tables I have at home, especially given its ready availability secondhand. Hearing the booplinth in action has turned that from idle musing into serious consideration. Thirty years after I last owned an LP12, it might just be forcing its way back through my front door.
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