Direct Drive vs. Belt Drive, Analog vs. Digital, and Other Nerdy Audiophile Stuff

Written by

turn-table images-2 images-1 Ivor-Tiefenbrun

A week ago I attended the Newport Audio show, where millions of dollars of hi-fi gear was on view, with some systems costing over $700,000.00.  I’ve never seen so much great gear, or have been surrounded by so many nerdy guys in my life: middle-aged men walking around in shorts way too high up on the leg, with white velcro tennis shoes, black socks, and Hawaiian shirts untucked so as to camouflage protruding bellies.  Although I was there for the same reasons as they were, I hope I didn’t resemble them.  On an a priori level, we were the same: we were all audiophiles.

I’m an audiophile and not ashamed to mention it (Henry Rollins feels the same way); don’t ask me how it started, but it was probably with my friend Pat Darrin, a fellow Chickens of the Sea surfing club member (yes, that really was the name of our high school surfing club), and his friend Alan Sides, who runs Ocean Way Recording Studios, one of the best recording studios in LA.  Ocean Way got its name from its first location, which was on a small street called Ocean Way in Santa Monica Canyon: in back of Pat’s house.  We used to go over to Alan Sides’ parents’ home in Brentwood to hear his amazing system: Marantz Model 9’s, AR belt-drive turntable RCA  Theater Speakers, Graphic Controller Pre-Amp, all tube of course.  We’d listen to Korngold’s Sea Wolf soundtrack on vinyl and be amazed.  Later I followed Alan’s advice and bought a bunch of audio components.  As I did this, I was tuning my ears to the high end and trying to get closer to this ineffable goal.

Around 1984 Gene Rubin, an audio dealer and distributor, hosted a turntable duel.  I brought my Kenwood KD-600 direct drive turntable with its fancy English Shure tonearm, fitted with the top of the line Microacoustics 830 cartridge.  This was about as good a direct-drive turntable you could get. Gene put it up against a Linn Sondek LP 12 turntable, fitted with a standard Ittok arm and a cheap bottom-rung Linn cartridge.  The Linn blew the Kenwood away, and I bought a Linn table, and still have the venerated Scottish player in my system.  The problem with direct drive is that the motor is right under the platter and motor hum and noise gets picked up by the cartridge above it.  With belt-drive the motor is away from the platter:  problem solved.  DJ’s on the radio and in club work use direct-drive, usually Technics SL-1200, because the motor is high torque with fast start up times.

Ivor Tiefenbrun, founder of Linn, had strong opinions about things audiophile, and built some of the best turntables around.  When cd’s started eclipsing vinyl lp’s, he continued to promote record albums.  Eventually he had to go with the flow and years later introduced the Linn cd player to rave reviews.  Whatever he did, he did it right.

Linn also produces records (and cd’s).  An early one was a KCRW favorite back in the day, the Blue Nile’s A Walk Across the Rooftops.  It was on constant rotation–especially the song “Tinseltown in the Rain”– in the 1980s on KCRW shows, and was a beautifully engineered and executed hunk of vinyl.  It still gets airplay on rainy days.  Quiet, no surface noise, fantastic sound.  As good as vinyl got.

Last night, I listened to the Glaswegian tenor saxophonist Tommy Smith on a Linn SACD called The Sound of Love:  The Ballads of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.  Smith is a great old-school sax player in the Chu Berry or Ben Webster style, with a touch of Dexter Gordon thrown in.

Thank goodness vinyl has made a resurgence, and that there are stores like Amoeba Music that have treasure troves of both lp’s and cd’s.  Now you just need a decent system to extract all that beauty out of the grooves and digits.

Here is a video of Alan Sides of Ocean Way Recording:

facebookJoin the musical orbit of Rhythm Planet on Facebook!