Today my turntable is a beautiful Thorens TD-160 from the 70, which I purchased in 2015 at a ridiculous price to upgrade from my old TD-165. As of now, I’ve only dampened the bottom board with tar sheets and installed larger feet. I replaced the original rubber mat with a Funk Firm Achromat and installed a Grado 8MX cartridge with a Gold1 stylus. Lately I’ve also replaced the original RCA cables with low capacity Van Damme OFC cables, also rewiring the ground connection. Here’s how I resumed playing vinyl records.
How I went back to vinyl
By the mid 80s, my analogue source was just a cassette deck, first the old Technics M7, then an Aiwa, finally a Teac V1050, nothing special but good enough. My old turntable had some aging issues. I didn’t scrap all my record collection but I no longer played LPs. Eventually, even I ended up buying a basic CD player and started creating my digital collection. Like many, I was dumbfounded when I heard and read about how the music industry and CD manufacturers had tricked all of us by selling us the CD superiority story just to revive the market. But it happens everywhere.
The same friend of mine who bought my JVC CD player and the Onkyo amp, still had his late father’s old turntable. Ready to embrace any new technology, this friend of mine soon put away an old Thorens TD-165, a 1972 project I kept asking a price for. When one day I saw the poor Thorens thrown away in a locker I told the guy it would have been better if I used it. So, first time in my life, I had some free High Fidelity. Many years after, having learned a lot about those historical turntables, I thought about buying some more used for refurbishing, tuning and reselling them. In May 2015 I stumbled upon a very good bargain and I fell into temptation: I bought a TD-160 in very good conditions…
Thorens exists since right after Edison invented his phonograph machine. Herman Thorens founded the company in 1883 in St. Croix, Switzerland, manufacturing “musical boxes” and “sound motion” machines. In 1928, they had 1200 employees, diminished to 800 with the great depression, and they started designing electrical motors for gramophones. Record pressing machines started in 1940 and the first turntable was out by 1943. In 1957, the first mythical Thorens turntable was born: the TD-124. It featured a heavy rigid plinth and a massive metal platter. The built quality was superb – the state of art of the time. It was an instant success. Thorens already manufactured also much cheaper turntable than its top-of-line. Later, in 1959, the stereo sound was born and all Thorens model where upgraded to play stereo. In 1963, the production was moved to Lahr, Germany, in the middle of the Black Forest. In 1965, Thorens produced their first belt-driven, floating chassis turntable, the TD-150. Thorens started an intens collaboration with the nearby EMT that was building professional turntables. The result was the TD-124 evolution, the Thorens TD-125 in 1968. It featured an electronic in stead of magnetic motor control and still it was a belt-driven, floating chassis deck. This technology allowed for a very good acoustic and mechanical insulation, while less complex and bulky plinths could be used. This favored a mass success of Thorens turntables – headed by the revolutionary TD-150 – that were more easily accepted in average homes for their ease of placement among normal furniture. The TD-150 MKII was born in 1969; in 1973 the TD-160 was offered, with the TD-165 as its basic version, while the TD-125 MKII was out right after.
Comparing the TD-160 and the TD-165 – technical characteristics of old Thorens decks
Comparison between the two Thorens decks I have had: TD-165 vs. TD-160
Typical floating chassis turntables, the Thorens use a 3 spring suspension system to isolate the chassis from ambient vibrations and motor noise. Main compatitors of the time were Linn, ERA, Garrard and AR. The basic Thorens TD-165 was equipped with a TP-11 tonearm and TP-60 headshell. The more refined TD-160 featured a metal subchassis with a 10 mm bearing shaft (the TD-165 has a resin subplatter with a 7 mm bearing, thogu many, like mine, had a 10 mm one); the tonearm was the TP-16, more advanced according to many, more problematic because its higher complexity according to others. The TP-16 had a different counterweight and a magnetic antiskating mechanism, while the TD-165’s TP-11 used an elegant threaded weight system – for the rest the two turntables are identical.
On the outside, the TD-160 had a black band under the command side, making it easily recognizable. The knobs were metallic, while the TD-165’s were black plastic. The TD160’s plastic motorpulley had a clutch system allowing a more rapid start and stop; the TD-165’s pulley is still plastic but with no clutch, so the platter rotates until frictions sops it or you have to do it by hand. The higher weight of the TD-160’s metal subchassis (nearly 500 g) needed maybe (?) stronger suspension springs. In summary, the two turntables are very similar and are both very good looking. According to some, the TD-160 is far superior from the sonic point of view; other say the differences are minimal, perceivable but not fundamental, lke a better sens of rhythm and bass control. The best Thorens of the time are deemed the TD-124/125 and the TD-160 itself, having a simpler plinth and less electronics than the TD-125, although the same platter, tonearm an motor. Both TD-160 and TD-165 are directly derived from the TD-150. In 1976, the TD-165 was replaced by the TD-166 that added just the clutched motor pulley; the TD-160 was revisited as TD-160 MKII.
Cartridges I used
A Thorens from the 70s is maybe the first step in the world of true HiFi you can make with vinyl. If well tuned they all sound wonderfully. The Thorens TD-165 was the Swiss company’s entry level in the mid 70s; in Italy it used to cost around 95 thousand Lire. The TD-165 makes simplicity its strength: a few things but done well. The TD-160 is universally renown as a turntable still worth of modern top-level HiFi system.
When I took the TD-165 away from that friend of mine, as first thing I bought a new moving magnet (MM) cartridge. I asked advice to a HiFi shop that sold me a Golding Elan for 80 thousand Lire. He claimed that was all that “deck” deserved. Later I swapped the thin phono cables with simple low capacity, coaxial microphone cables; I also scrapped the original power chord.
A few years later I found out on the Internet that that “deck” would be worth of much more. In 2005, after advice from TNT-Audio’s ever helpful Lucio Cadeddu, I purchased a Grado Prestige Gold cartridge, still operating today on the TD-160. In 2010 I had to renew the stylus with a Gold1 replacement and in 2015 I upgraded to the Grado 8MZ Signature stylus – an incredible quality advancement: some claim it is comparable to the sound of top Grado carts, for just 100 euros! Unfortunately, I dropped the stylus while attempting to move it on another cartridge and the damage appears to be limited to an evident drop of the signal level.
In 2016, I purchased a used 1986 Grado Signature 8MX body, which I mounted on a spare TP60 headshell. As of now, I’m using it with the Gold1 stylus with excellent results on my new TD-160. I equipped the turntable with Van Damme Silver Plated OFC cables and gold plated Neutrik hooked to an excellent Lehman Black Cube phono stage, and of course using the Funk Firm Achromat. Each one of these upgrades, in time order Achromat, Black Cube, Van Damme cables, I obtained a notable improvement of the Thorens TD-160’s performances.
In 2018 I stumbled upon an old discarded turntable, not working but with a Shure cartridge with a broken needle. It is a Me97HE, the Mexican re-edition of the M97HE, a cartridge revered in its most recent edition, the “Era IV”, just below the V15 IV in the Shure 70s catalog. The HE ending stands for hyperelliptical (the diamond cut of the reading tip), in contrast to the elliptical one designated as ED in the Shure house. The “lightened” version, called Encore, is considered identical to the M97, but actually has the same electrical measurements as the M97xE and therefore a similar design attenuation of high frequencies. Even with the cheap Nagaoka N97ED stylus I was still amazed when I heard it on my Thorens TD-160, in operation after several months in a drawer! This series of Shure cartridges (M97, V15IV, V15IV) is considered by many to be a reference for extremely flat response between 20 and 20k Hz. In the end I was convinced and found a very good M97HE Era IV.
The Grado 8MX can be further upgraded with an 8MZ stylus but it is now damaged and plays ar a lower level. A good upgrade could be an MCZ stylus (that needs to be loaded differently through a capable phono pre or with a series of resistors). Then, I can only imagine what sound could come out of my turntable if I installed a classy tonearm it deserves (some agree the TP-16 tonearm of stock Thorens TD-160/145s is a good one but you can have better solutions). A classic is the SME 3009 tonearm in the “improved” version II would be a great upgrade for my Thorens TD-160.
Maybe, even higher sound quality would be achievable buying a Rega tonearm modified by Origin Live from England or, even better, a more affordable Audiomods kit (above, again a Rega modification).The cheaper version would already give extraordinary results, maybe even higher than my good Thorens TD-160 would allow. The problem with Rega tonearms and derivatives seems to be their thicker base: you supposedly need to permanently modify your Thorens’ plinth by filing away some wood so the Rega tonearm can be mounted at the correct height. Maybe the ideal pairing would be Thorens/SME with the current Grado Signature 8MX plus 8MZ or MCZ stylus. Alternately, Grace or Mayware tonearms would be great, too. I think I will stay with MM cartridges since their stilii are interchangeable. MC cartridges are more expensive on average and their stilii cannot be changed. This makes them less desirable to me, considering the very good level the MM carts have reached today.
Resonance frequency of the tonearm-headshell system
The tonearm/cartridge pairing should be taken into account; this is done by calculating the resonance frequency of th cantilever, the thin segment the needle is attached to. The calculation includes the tonearm’s effective mass (Me), the cartridge’s weight (Mc) and its compliance (C), which is a measure of its resistance to the imposed weight; the weight of mounting screws, shims, etc. (Mf) is also to be input in the following formula:
The formula yields the resonance frequency in hertz; it should stay within the 8 – 15 range (8 – 12 according to some), away from typical rotating platter resonance (around 4 hz) and from the bottom end of the audible range (20 hz). The ideal value is around 10 hz. My current system includes the TP-16 MKI with a 16.5 g effective mass; I saved nearly half gram by removing the Metal logo plate and another plastic piece from the shell. My Grado Gold weighs 5.5 g (although declared at 6 g) and has a 20×10^6 cm/dyne compliance. Taking into account about 0.7 g of screws and shims, I obtain a 7.5 hz resonance frequency, unfortunately out of the suggested range. Nevertheless, I do not experience any problems. Actually, I later purchased the HiFi News test record HFN 003: the resonance frequency check track gives a result of 13 Hz. Far better! Some believe the HiFi news record has the wrong frequencies; that would mean my result is actually 11 Hz – perfect! The more so since the infamous torture track n. 9, where the best cartridges are said to be spat out of the record, has been tracked with almost no hassle! I’m really satisfied. Even the 8MX cart has performed well on the test record. The resonance frequency has been tested at around 9-10 Hz, therefore it should be around 8 Hz, actually, near the lower limit. This is maybe because I’m using the cart on the unmodified headshell.
According to math, should I look for a lower compliance cartridge. It appears the formula is not really reliable, but there is people who believe the Grado stylii’s compliance is far lower than declared: calculating C with a 11 Hz resonance frequency, it would give 9.5 versus the 20 x10^6 cm/dyne declared compliance! I could mount a lighter arm like the 6.5 g SME 3009 Improved (or somehow lighten up mine), but it seems, against popular beliefs, that Grado carts get along very well on Thorens arms. Eventually, my good old Thorens could deserve a better tonearm one day but it will have to battle against the flattering performance of the TP-16 MKI…
The quality of vinyl records playback would increase so much I could even thing about a newer turntable. I seriously doubt I could be satisfied with modern cheap rigid plinth decks from Rega or Project. Thir looks are not comparable to the Thorens’, but it wouldn’t be important -as many claim – if it wasn’t for the incomparable sound character of a suspended Thorens from the 70s. I’ll probably keep playing the old fashionable TD-160 rather than spending money on a Rega RP2 oer Pro-Ject Debut, although in theory they should be superior deck just for the fact they are modern technology. I’d like to make a test, I’m not convinced. I’ll hold on to my old Thorens that, remember, is still considered worth of top-level systems. If I’d want to swap it it would only be worth for dream turntables such as an Origin Live Aurora (top left), a mythical Michell Gyro or the very good Clearaudio Concept.
Many do not even imagine how superior the sound of a turntable can be if well tuned (though badly recorded vinyl records and very good CDs do exist). The general idea is that vinyl’s surface noise would penalize it from the start. Actually, digital recordings are penalized from the start by a number of intrinsic issues such as the quantization noise. Even if you don’t hear it at low volume or during the gap between tracks, it degrades the general quality of the sound – isn’t it worse? Sure, there are well recorded CDs that better the relevant vinyl recordings; in this cases one should opt for the digital format. But if both recordings are of comparable quality, the reproduction capabilities of a turntable/tonearm/cartridge analog system is far superior to that of an even expensive CD player, both in terms of sound quality and soundstage reconstruction (unless they ask you more money than the CD just because vinyl is cool).
Maybe one day digital technology will overcome its current issues, but I doubt that the analog human ear won’t easily part from the joys of analog music playback. Today I seldom listen to music while calmly seated in my listening room. More often I put a CD on and let the music feel the air while I’m doing other stuff. This is what a father of a small kid can afford, among other duties at work, in aikido, etc. But as soon as I can, I strongly prefer listening to a good vinyl record…
How to recognize various SME 3009 tenearms on analogue-classics.com
Audiomods modified Rega arm on tnt-audio.com
Origin Live modified Rega arm on tnt-audio.com
Grado Prestige Gold1 on tnt-audio.com
Grado Prestige Gold on needledoctor.com, on HiFi Choice and on stereophile.com
Interview to John Grado on head-fi.org
Goldring G 1042 MM on tnt-audio.com
Denon DL-103 on tnt-audio.com