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Reviewer: Ken Micallef
Financial Interests: click here
Digital Source: Raysonic CD 128
Analog Source: Kuzma Stabi/Stogi turntable/arm combo, Denon DL-103/Grado Platinum cartridges, Auditorium 23 Denon step-up transformer [on loan], Thorens TD550 turntable /Ortofon 12" 309S tonearm / EMT TSD115 cartridge [in for review)
Preamp: Shindo Allegro
Amp: Shindo Haut Brion
Speakers: DeVore Fidelity Nine, ProAc D Two
Cables: Auditorium A23 speaker cables, Shindo interconnects
Stands: Salamander rack, 2" Mapleshade platforms (8" x 15" x 2"), Blue Circle custom amp stand
Powerline conditioning: JPS Labs Kaptovator, Shunyata Black Mamba and Anaconda Vx Powersnakes, Hydra 4 [on loan]
Accessories: Mapleshade Surefoot and Heavyfoot brass points and IsoBlocks; (8) RPG ProFoam damping panels/ceiling treatment, Mapleshade Ionoclast for static cling
Room size: 24' x 12', short-wall setup
Review component retail price: Turntable/tonearm $11,900; cartridge $1,800

Can a primo turntable help evolve your attitude toward recorded music? Most certainly. After practically a lifetime of owning mid-fi tables, reviewing the Thorens TD550 raised my inner world audio ear to what's possible with an analog front end. The TD550 is Thorens' flagship table so of course you'd expect great sound. But while the Thorens brand has lost some of its luster in recent years, the TD550 should stride to the top of the analog heap regardless of the competition in my opinion. The 550 definitely deserves to be included when vaunted names like Brinkmann, Garrard, Verdier and SME enter the discussion. Of course, pairing the TD550 with equally competent ancillaries helped the table achieve its best performance. Using the Ortofon AS-309S 12-inch arm fitted with the oft-praised EMT TSD15SFL cartridge produced amazing music, its strengths generally falling into these categories:

Microdynamics: Particularly with classical music, the TD550/Ortofon/EMT combo drew me in with its tremendous presentation of microdynamics. As with a live performance, dynamic nuance was super present - hyper detailed and hyper sensitive. The opening tympani notes (side 3) for example of Mahler's Symphony #7 [Rafael Kubelik, Orchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Deutsche Grammophon] were extremely tactile, resonant and warm. It simply made you stop and listen. Critical listeners in my small warren were quickly stilled by the Mahler disc's dynamics via the Thorens / Ortofon / EMT combo. The music simply captured your soul, every subtle change in dynamics topped with blood, guts and intellect demanding an equal emotional response. It's hard to quantify the speed, tonality and effortlessness that accompanied the playback experience with a table of this caliber. Music jumps, stops, starts and flows with utter freedom and faith to the recorded event.

Bass response: The TD550 is a suspended design table. In the past, suspended tables could mean boomy bass and aggravating footfalls. Perhaps that designation was not as pertinent to higher-end tables but such was the conventional wisdom at least in my home. The TD550 accurately tracked the bass notes of every LP put to its massive platter. As with any great piece of hifi kit, the TD550 never highlighted one portion of the audio spectrum over another, thus, the bass was never in my face nor lacking in any degree of musicality. It was simply accurate to the recorded event. Naturalness reigned supreme. Even when I thought the 550 was perhaps tracking acoustic bass with an overly warm and gentle demeanor, it surprised me by carving out super-defined notes on, of all things, a Columbia 3-Eye '60s recording of Tony Bennett with the Ralph Sharon trio and an even more ancient 1950s Jo Jones Trio LP on Everest [Fresh Sounds reissue]. Faithful to the event!

Naturalness: The TD550 exposed every recording for its true sonic signature. Hank Mobley's Soul Station on Blue Note bopped my apartment silly. The Beatles' Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band on German Odeon (blue?) label "A Day in the Life" never sounded so eerie, Abbey Road studio spacious and intimate. The new Legacy reissue of Boston's debut LP? As bad as it ever was though supercharged. The TD550 didn't editorialize, it simply exposed. Wonderful recordings came into their own, the Thorens getting out of the way and releasing the notes with humble service to the sound. There was never one consistent sound to the Thorens. It simply bought the music to life to quote an advertising campaign.

Flow: When music flows, everything else works together to please the senses.

The TD 550 is easily recommended, highly regarded and just about perfect. It bowled me over. But in weighing all the components of the setup procedure, the manuals and price involved, all is not as it seems. First, let's delve into the Thorens/Ortofon/EMT rig, piece by piece, with a word of description from the manufacturers or company representatives.

EMT: History Worth Repeating
The EMT TSD15 has been in production for almost 40 years from this German company that regularly supplies OEM carts for Roksan and Brinkman among others. Starting in the mid '50s, EMT produced a series of now classic turntable designs including:
  • The EMT 927 Studio Turntable (1951) with a 12" arm and a total weight of 41kg, today extremely rare
  • The EMT 930, the broadcast record player which for decades was typically used 24/7 in professional installations
  • EMT 950, the first direct-driven EMT introduced in 1976
  • EMT 948 (1979) and EMT 938 Broadcast Disk Reproducer (1982) as well as all the various pick-ups

EMT (originally Electrical Measuring Technology or Elektromesstechnik) manufactures the TSD15 as their ultimate broadcast and studio mastering cart, with the JSD model ($3,295) above it as their flagship two-channel 'audiophile' cartridge. Particular perks for the prospective EMT consumer? Besides a healthy line that includes several different models including mono and 78RPM-specific cartridges, EMT is the only company that completely rebuilds the cart when sent in for retipping. Beyond simply glueing on a new cantilever, EMT recharges the magnet, winds a new coil, installs a new cantilever and new tip - in short, you receive a functionally new cart for 20% off retail.

Some have described the EMT TSD15 as having mucho jump, extreme dynamics and a lively, rich, warm and textured sound, i.e. anything but dry or crisp. Before dissecting the cart's qualities using it with my Kuzma table (read below), that description matches my experience with the Thorens. Recommended tracking force for the TSD15 is between 2.2 and 2.5 grams, output is 1mv. The EMT supplied for review by distributor Tone Imports was stripped of its body to allow swapping among various tone arms.