Linn Sondek LP12

Part 1: 1973 – 2013

The LP12 is to hi-fi what the 911 is to sports cars or the Oyster to watchmaking: a product with such performance that it not only becomes unavoidable, but acquires the status of an icon “in its lifetime”. This enviable position is not the result of a misunderstanding or deception, but based on tangible and measurable facts. These three objects are all the more exceptional because they are the best in their category, and because they have been in uninterrupted production for several decades, having been regularly improved by their respective progenitors, to stay on top. Today we are looking at the case of the Sondek, because it is as much an object of desire and pleasure as it is a subject of controversy. In short, we are passionate about it…

Officially launched in 1973 by Ivor Tiefenbrun, the Sondek LP12 turntable uses a suspended platter and a patented bearing. The LP12 has evolved considerably since its introduction, but its basic design has remained since then. This philosophy was implemented in the Thorens TD150, itself influenced by the Acoustic Research XA introduced in 1961 by the famous audio pioneer Edgar Villchur. The XA’s three-point suspended counter-platter used a compression spring system, which was improved and popularized by the LP12. But where all suspended counterplates sought to combat vibration pollution, the Linn was a radical departure from that, seeking to emancipate itself from acoustic pollution, resulting in a very different suspension optimization. Indeed, at the time, the prevailing theory was that the crucial link in the hi-fi system was the speakers. Ivor had already conducted a series of successful tests in which he took the turntable out of the listening room and found that the room was no longer polluted by the sound pressure from the speakers. His goal was to develop a turntable that was immune to this inconvenience and sufficiently modular to support all the innovations that he would not fail to develop later. This was a major challenge for Linn, who claimed that the source was the most important part of the system, contrary to the generally accepted idea.

In February 1973, Ivor formed Linn Products Ltd. to market the turntables manufactured by Castle Precision Engineering, the company of Jack Tiefenbrun, his father. Castle provided Ivor with the logistics to develop his turntable.

“Linn did not invent the turntable. We were simply the first to understand that there was infinitely more information on a black disc than was previously available. So we applied our engineering expertise to extract it.”

The first versions were just a platform for mounting other brands of arms. They had only a basic power system and played only LPs. As Linn developed its research and development department, the LP12 benefited from numerous improvements to the bearing, the feet, the base, the frame, the suspension springs, the screws, the motor power supplies… In short, everything was improved!

At the same time, Linn started to develop its own tonearms and cartridges, in order to fully control its ecosystem.

In 1978, Linn launched its first moving coil cartridge, the Asak, followed by the Ittok LVII arm and its first moving magnet, the Basik. A continuous series of innovations and upgrades for the LP12 turntable were released over the years, including its first electronic power supply, the Valhalla and a metal-bodied cartridge called the Karma. In 1986, Linn modified its Ittok arm to directly support a new metal-body cartridge with a three-point mounting, the Troika. With the additional strength and rigidity provided to the cartridge by this mounting system, Linn sought to eliminate signal distortion caused by unwanted mechanical movement and vibration. In 1988 Linn introduced the Ekos, its first arm built entirely in situ. In 1990, Linn introduced an external power supply for the LP12 called Lingo, providing more accurate motor speed control and eliminating the distortion effects of placing a power supply in the turntable body.

The different evolutions between 1973 and 2013

1973: introduction of the LP12.

1974: the bearing cover was changed. The counterplate was reinforced by adding a bar welded at several points. The motor control circuit was changed from a terminal block to a small printed circuit board. The main switch was changed from two buttons to a single one with an indicator light. 

1978: the top plate was modified adding two holes for 6 x 0.5 self-drilling screws in the wood block. 

1979: removal of the lid hinges changed to springs. 

1981: Nirvana mechanical components. 

1982: Valhalla electronic power supply controlled by quartz as standard. 

1984: reinforcement of the corners of the base. Reinforcement of the counterplate bar glued with epoxy instead of spot welding.

1985: hollow head screw on the bearing housing. Modification of the diode of the Valhalla board. Reinforcement of the blocks on the corners of the base.

1986: new transparent cover. Improved suspension springs.

1987: new bearing housing. New arm plate in formica and MDF. New springs. Improved bearing with better coating material and tighter tolerances. Switch to black oil. Suspension springs brought to a tighter tolerance. Improved arm plate composition. 

1989: change of the motor thrust pad. Modification of the Valhalla surge protection. PCB power cable (UK). 

1989: new arm plate in MDF, laminated top and bottom. 

1989: Stronger suspension mounts. 

1990: Lingo external power supply available as an option.

1991: Engine thrust pad cap added to Lingo models. 

1991: Engine thrust pad cap added to Valhalla models. 

1991: Rigid base plate replaces the isorel base panel. 

1991: Trampolin base plate with optional insulated feet available.

1992: 4th bolt added near the engine on the top plate, fitted as standard.

1993: Cirkus upgrade kit (larger and better machined inner counterplate and new bearing, new springs, armplate, belt) fitted as standard.

1997: A commemorative limited edition LP12 was created to mark the 25th anniversary of the LP12. Among other features, it bears an engraved plate with the signature of founder Linn Ivor Tiefenbrun. 

2001: New engine used (first new engine since the original in 1972).

2002: maple baseboard introduced to complement existing black, walnut, rosewood options. Afromosia finish discontinued.

2013: limited edition (40 in all) 40th anniversary LP12, base made from Highland Park Distillery oak barrels, priced at £25,000. 

2014: introduction of the three new “finished” models, Majik LP12, Akurate LP12 and Klimax LP12.

The LP12 is popular with many audiophiles around the world for its excellent ability to reproduce music with rhythm, and timing. It is often used by hi-fi critics as a reference turntable. It was particularly popular from the 1970s to the 1990s. The British magazine Hi-Fi Review embodied the quintessential national audio promotion based on Linn/Naim combinations, but also the brands Ion, Arcam, Heybrook, Roksan, Exposure, Rega, Royd, Mission, Cyrus, Onix…

The LP12 is a turntable with an assertive character that has its requirements. It hates heavy audiophile supports, hates mains filters, does not support pucks or exotic tunings, in short everything that does not come from Glasgow, except the Aro and the Armageddon.

During its heyday, the LP12 had almost no competitors, first because it offered an enviable level of musicality, but also because its aficionados were totally committed to its cause. Among the historical challengers, we can mention the Michell Gyrodec, the Pink Triangle PT Too, but especially the Roksan Xerxes. Outside of “Britannia”, it is with Thorens, VPI and the American manufacturers that we must look for competitors. That said, for a long time, high-end analog playback in the UK was essentially dominated by the LP12, and to a lesser extent by the Xerxes.

As the excellent American magazine Stereophile aptly put it, the LP12 quickly became a classic. This is evidenced by the fact that it is the number one audio product in the UK and the second best turntable of all time in the USA. Excellent marketing and the strong personality of Ivor Tiefenbrun did the rest.

The LP12 and me…

My first encounter with the LP12 was in 1988, at Audio Synthèse, rue du Cherche-midi. It was associated for the occasion with a Naim Nait amp and a pair of tiny Linn Kan speakers. The sound that emanated from this system left a lasting impression on me by its velocity, its amplitude and the incredible physical sensation that it was capable of generating. It was at that moment that I understood that an excellent system must have an excellent source. As a student, I couldn’t afford to covet this beautiful turntable, so I was content to attend all the Linn demonstrations I could imagine! At that time I was using a Thorens TD 320 mk2 with a Denon DL160 cartridge, a very musical turntable, but not of the same caliber. Time passed, the TD 320 gave way to a TD 321 mk2 with a very nice Helius Scorpio Black arm and a Coral MC82, a very nice combination that I liked a lot, and certainly was wrong to sell… Then came, according to the more or less intense periods in terms of analog consumption, a Rega Planar 3, then a 9, a Nottingham Spacedeck, and a Fletcher Omega Point One, all of them excellent decks.

And by a curious parable of fate, almost 30 years later, the LP12 caught up with me! A few months ago, I inherited a very old Linn. I bring it to Audio Synthèse for a check-up. Frédéric and Vincent confirm me that there will be a big work of restoration, but that the base is healthy, and that it is worth it. One week later, it is ready. The old original arm has been replaced by an Akito of almost the last generation in perfect condition, on which my Dynavector DV20 X2 L is placed. On the plate, Vincent changed the screws, the springs, the arm plate, the switch, the belt, the felt, many things… Mine is from 1978, but it looks brand new. It was a first hand, so I am the second and last owner. Needless to say, it will never leave me. I had the great privilege to listen to dozens of different turntables in excellent conditions. Many go much less than a Linn on some parameters, it is obvious. But few make as much music, or more precisely give as much desire to listen to music with it. In fact, since she’s been here, I haven’t stopped buying records. A sign that does not deceive…