Thorens • TD 309 Turntable

by Eric hetherington | May 13, 2011

www.theaudiobeat.com

I gave up on audio. Not music, mind you, but audio equipment and the constant search for some elusive better sound. As I drifted from my interest in esoteric and expensive equipment, I also became lazy with music. Fill up a large-capacity hard drive with good-enough digital files, stream them wirelessly to my Logitech Squeezebox and Benchmark DAC1 and get on with all the other things -- kids, cycling and teaching -- that fill my day. My turntable -- once the main source of my audiophilia -- sat collecting dust.

A little over two years ago, however, I noticed the truth about this seemingly more practical approach to music. My listening had become easier, but not better. I had lost what I loved about music: the immersion in its mathematical patterns, the losing of self in sound, and the emotional triggers that allowed me to experience music like no other art. I dusted off my turntable and let the needle drop, and I found something in my records that encouraged attentiveness -- a way of listening that was absent from my streamlined digital life. Maybe it was the full-size album graphics and legible liner notes instead of a lack of accompanying material; maybe it was the physicality of the record, instead of the invisibility of computer files; maybe records just sounded better.

I had the same turntable for years -- a Pro-Ject 1.1 fitted with a Sumiko Blue Point cartridge that worked and sounded good if not superb. For the past year, as my love of vinyl has resurged, I’ve looked to improve the analog part of my stereo. I was interested in more budget-minded equipment (kids and cycling aren't cheap) in comparison to most equipment featured on The Audio Beat. I could not have been happier, therefore, when I received a Thorens turntable for review. I had reviewed one of Thorens' truly budget models years ago and couldn’t wait to get the TD 309 in my system. Indeed, it was one of the turntables I had my eye on.

The TD 309 is a beautifully designed object. In place of the usual black or woodgrain rectangular platform, the TD 309 resembles a heraldic shield laid upon three stout black bases. Along with the unusual shape, the 'table is also available in a deep red finish more reminiscent of a sports car than audio equipment (there is also black for those wishing to play it safe). The glass platter (called "fused silica"), aluminum tonearm and shiny silver balance weight complete a visual package that wouldn’t look out of place in a mid-century interior. The form is clean and elegant, and it suggests the quality manufacturing appropriate for a more than one-hundred-year-old company.

Far from being visually striking for the sake of it, the TD 309 adheres to the modernist design principle of form following function. The subchassis rests on three bases, a configuration that Thorens calls its Tri-Balance system. This allows the weight of the 'table to be equally distributed, which happens naturally for three points but not four. The suspension system is located in the 'table’s three feet. This allows the plinth of the TD 309, which is made of a single piece of MDF, to be thinner than it would be otherwise. The manufacturing qualities of MDF allow it to be machined with very tight tolerances, allowing for more precise placement of the tonearm and motor. The DC motor, located off-center and under the platter, is decoupled from the plinth and uses a flat belt to drive the subplatter. Light tapping on the turntable resulted in no movement, and while forceful tapping could get the 'table to move, the suspension system stopped any motion quickly. The motor was dead quiet: I was never aware of any noise from it -- either from my listening position or when I was up close. It took getting down so my head was level with the 'table to hear any motor noise.

Along with admiration for the physical beauty of the 'table, I was impressed with the easy setup and well-organized manual. The first step in unpacking the TD 309 is to remove transit screws that are placed in the bottom of each footer. The suspension in each footer is adjustable with a simple turn of a screw, but it is set at the factory and shouldn’t need to be readjusted. A visual cue on each footer can be used to determine if or when the suspension needs to be adjusted. Adjusting the footers could be necessary if a user chooses a record clamp or other aftermarket accessory that would add weight and thus alter the balance of the 'table.

Having put the turntable in position, I placed the small guide sleeve on the motor’s spindle and placed the belt around the motor and subplatter. The belt tension has been set at the factory, but as with the suspension, this is also user-adjustable (perhaps, for example, if the belt stretches over time). Adjusting the tension will also require adjusting the motor speed. The manual has easy-to-follow and -carry-out directions for this as well.

The platter is slipped over the subplatter and the included felt mat is placed on top. The TD 309 also comes with a "balance weight," which looks like a slightly thicker and smaller silver hockey puck. This weight normally rests above the left front footer, though it just sits on the 'table and could be moved about. The function of the weight is to offset the weight of the tonearm, which sits across the 'table from where the weight is placed. If a user chooses to use a different tonearm, then, with a little trial and error, the location of the weight may be moved to compensate for the difference in tonearm weight.

The power-supply connection and cable connections are located along the back of the base of the turntable. As the plinth hangs over this base by a considerable amount, it is not the easiest connection to make either by feel or once the unit is in place on a rack. This became somewhat problematic when the first set of interconnects I tried to use, a long pair of AudioQuest Sidewinders, resulted in a persistent and loud hum. In fiddling with these wires and trying to diagnose the problem, I became acutely aware of how annoying the placement of the connectors is. In the end, I moved the turntable closer to the phono preamp and used a pair of Analysis Plus Silver Oval-In interconnects. With these new cables there was never even a hint of hum and the connection has remained dead silent.

With the 'table set, I took a closer look at the supplied Thorens TD 92 tonearm and Audio-Technica AT95B moving-magnet cartridge. Thorens makes the tonearm especially for this turntable; it is made of rolled aluminum augmented by what Thorens calls "random-mass dampening." In addition to tracking force and overhang, the tonearm allows for the adjustment of anti-skating, azimuth and vertical tracking angle, and the cueing device can also be adjusted as needed. About halfway along the tonearm's length is a round weight that is designed to reduce vibration; it is one of the few things that is not user-adjustable. Once the tonearm counterweight was put in place, I had the correct tracking force dialed in within a minute or two using a stylus balance. The power switch, located on the front base below the plinth and on the left, allows the user to choose between 45 and 33rpm speeds. A small matter for some, but changing speed on my Pro-Ject turntable requires lifting the platter and fiddling with the belt. The simple switch on the front of the TD 309 was a welcome change.

I was out of practice when it comes to mounting cartridges, but I did undertake the mounting of my usual Sumiko Blue Point cartridge onto the TD 309. The process was less finicky than I feared and, much like the adjustments on other parts of the 'table, the tonearm was easy to work with -- it was easier getting the cartridge on and off the Thorens 'table than the Pro-Ject.

Alas, it all seemed for naught as I found that I preferred the sound of the supplied Audio-Technica cartridge, and I used that for the bulk of my evaluation. The AT95B offered a much better "sit up and listen" presentation. Everything was more forward, and this tended to heighten macrodynamic shifts, which made the music significantly more enjoyable. The Sumiko cartridge may have a more refined, smoother sound, but that very fact made it seem as if I had to try to pay attention.

My concerns with the TD 309's design are minimal. Practically speaking, the lack of a dust cover leaves the 'table subject to dust buildup more quickly than I’d like. It is easy enough to wipe off the 'table itself, but dust on the felt mat and cartridge is another story. The placement of the connectors is not the most convenient, although understandable given the overall design, and once the 'table is set in place, this inconvenience disappears. I was also put off at first by the balance weight placed on the front left of the 'table, as I feared it might move too easily or be less stable than it proved to be.

On the whole, the package as delivered is very well done. Adjustments are easy to make and a quick-start setup could take just a few minutes from unboxing to playing music. The minor issues are dwarfed by the aesthetic qualities of the TD 309. Before even hearing the music the 'table can help produce, I was smitten with it. The lines, colors and shape are clean and attractive. I know that for many people interested in audio equipment it is only the sound that matters. And while it would be hard to argue with this, visual aesthetics are not inconsequential. If, like me, you will be enjoying your turntable for hours at a time for years to come, you'll want something that not only sounds good but looks good, too.

I started my listening with two records I know intimately well: Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Music, from the Analog Productions set Thelonious Monk: The Riverside Tenor Sessions [Analog Productions AJP037], and Pierre Boulez’s recording of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring [Nonesuch H-71093]. I’ve owned the Monk album in various formats; it has been one of my most-listened-to albums of the last several years. The Stravinsky record I’ve had since I was a teenager. Yes, as odd as it may seem, I was into Stravinsky even then.

With the TD 309, the first martial entrance of the strings on the Stravinsky record presented itself as especially well delineated, with individual instruments set in place and contributing to an overall lively presentation. The instruments never suffered from smearing, even at the height of the most cacophonic passages. The bottom end tended to be leaner than I expected and the tone through the midrange was uncolored. The various aspects of the soundstage were well placed in space, and the diminution of an instrument on the right was noticeable even when instruments both around it and far away played on at full strength. While the soundstage was spread from left to right nicely, there was a lack of soundstage depth. I was not, as some might say, "transported" to some phantom seat in the concert hall, but I was given an extremely articulate presentation of the music.

I’ve owned at least four versions of Monk’s Music in various formats, but the combination of the Analog Productions vinyl and this Thorens 'table gave me my favorite presentation of the work. The horns on the opening of "Abide With Me" were, so to speak, right there -- the size was right, the tone was right, and these things made me smile. On later tracks, the distinct tones of Art Blakey’s drums and their percussive snap were palpable -- when played loud, I could feel the drums in my chest, just as when in the presence of real drums. Monk’s yell of "Coltrane, Coltrane" on "Well You Needn’t" was delivered with the most lifelike voice I’ve heard from this recording. On other systems, I’ve heard Monk’s call as barely present, while here it was clear and immediately located in space. Perhaps the TD 309 is best suited to jazz, or perhaps an upgrade in cartridge would enhance the presentation's spatial characteristics, depth in particular.

To see how the Thorens TD 309 would deal with rock, I played Throwing Muses' self-titled debut [4AD CAD607]. As with Blakey’s drums on the Monk album, the percussion on this album was crisp. I used to think of this record as crowded and murky, but the presentation with the TD 309 was anything but that. The instruments were individuated and there was a stability of the aural image that I was not prepared for. Kristin Hersh’s vocals were as clear as I’ve ever heard them, and, on tracks like "Hate My Way," they were less shrill than I recall hearing them. On other tracks, I was able to pick out elements of the music that I’m sure I haven’t heard before: a short rhythm guitar line in one song, a small percussive element in another. I haven’t bought many rock records in recent years, but after listening to the Throwing Muses LP, I did go dig out more of my collection. Almost universally I found that I enjoyed them significantly more on the TD 309 than on any turntable -- or CD player -- I’ve owned.

The Thorens TD 309 excelled at providing a musical picture that I could listen to for hours at a time. There were no excessively harsh or bright highs that can make music fatiguing, but if you listen to test tones and not music, you might note a softness or rolling off in the very upper end. Through the midrange the instruments and voices were beautifully rendered, with a clarity not only of tone but in terms of placement, which seemed better along the soundstage, as opposed to front to back. Instruments were not piled on top of one another by any means, but nor was the placement holographic. The bottom end seemed lean at times, but I prefer that to bass that is boomy and bloated. Again, a different cartridge could change this entirely.

A straightforward comparison between my Pro-Ject 1.1 turntable (around $500 when new) and the TD 309 produced little in the way of surprises. While the entry-level Pro-Ject 'table has served me well, the Thorens surpassed it in every meaningful way. When the instruments enter to accompany the voices on "Elijah" from Donald Byrd's A New Perspective [Blue Note BLP 84124], the Thorens 'table presented everything as clear and distinct -- almost with hyper realism; the Pro-Ject offered a much softer focus. Kenny Burrell's guitar and Lex Humphries' cymbals were less lively, even dull, on the Pro-Ject 'table. The Thorens added snap and clarity.

While it's true that my time with the Thoren TD 309 was extremely enjoyable, more than that it reshaped how I enjoy music. My Logitech Squeezebox isn’t connected anymore, and I’ve bought more records since the TD 309 arrived than in the previous year and a half. I bought a new record-cleaning system to spiff up all of the old jazz records that have been sitting unplayed -- in many cases, I hadn’t played them since acquiring them. I’ve enjoyed music more -- and especially more kinds of music -- over the past couple of months than in any time since my musically over-saturated college years, and the TD 309 is the reason.

The TD 309 has many virtues, and its vices were few and of little consequence. It is a beautiful object and a breeze to set up. The ease of setup comes not at the expense of those who wish to tinker: the 'table and tonearm allow for all the many adjustments one might want. The sound is infectious. It delivers music with space, as well as honest tone and instrumental size, and all voices were beautifully presented. Even with less-than-ideal recordings, the music did not become shrill or muddy. And it's a worthy platform for upgrading. I have no doubt that as I experiment with better cartridges and phono stages, the TD 309 will reveal what they have to offer.

The features, performance and price of the Thorens TD 309 hit my sweet spot. I don’t want to part with it. Anyone bringing it home will likely have the same reaction.

Price: $1900
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

WS Distributing, LLC
3427 Kraft SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49512
(616) 885-9809
www.wsdistributing.com

Associated Equipment

Analog: Pro-Ject 1.1 turntable, Sumiko Blue Point cartridge, Cambridge Audio Azur 640P phono stage.

Digital: Oppo Digital BDP-83 universal disc player, Logitech Squeezebox, Benchmark DAC1 digital-to-analog converter.

Integrated amplifier: Rogue Audio Tempest II Magnum.

Speakers: Quad 21L.

Interconnects: Analysis Plus Silver Oval-In.

Speaker cables: Analysis Plus Big Silver Oval.

www.theaudiobeat.com