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Christmas Gift Guide
Audio

A brilliant new turntable from a 100-plus-year-old company

As the vinyl sales boom soars, Thorens releases a new turntable, the TD 203.

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Thorens TD 203 Thorens

It's becoming an everyday event. I keep hearing from friends about new vinyl converts -- young people getting into the groove for the first time. And also about 40-somethings who just bought a new or used turntable to play their old LPs, and are now rediscovering the music of their youth.

The ongoing vinyl surge may have something to do with the release of Thorens' slick new TD 203 turntable; but the company has been making music playback machines since 1883 in Sainte-Croix, Switzerland. Back then, the company made music boxes and clock movements. Thorens started manufacturing Edison inspired phonographs in 1903!

At first glance, the TD 203 looks a bit like a Rega or Pro-Ject turntable, but closer inspection reveals key differences. The TD 203 is the first Thorens turntable to feature an ultra-low-friction unipivot tonearm; the bearing assembly sports a carbide tip resting in five ball bearings. The arm tube is made from rolled aluminum, and the tonearm comes fitted with a Thorens TAS 257 moving-magnet phono cartridge.

The TD 203 is a belt-drive design, and the drive motor is decoupled from the plinth by three small rubber belts to minimize vibration transfer from the motor to the plinth/base. Drive-belt tension can be easily adjusted and the platter's speed fine-tuned by turning a screw. The medium-density fiberboard plinth is impeccably decked out in high-gloss black, white, or red lacquer, though the well-finished ABS platter doesn't come with a mat. The look and feel of the TD 203 are a step up from entry-level Music Hall, Pro-Ject, and Rega turntables. According to the US distributor, the TD 203 was designed and made in Germany.

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The drive motor is decoupled from the plinth by three small rubber belts Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Setup details -- like fine-tuning cartridge stylus pressure with the included gauge and adjusting the tonearm's anti-skate weight -- may pose challenges to first-time turntable buyers. While the TD 203 owner's manual will help guide turntable newbies through the setup routine, I'd recommend seeking out the assistance of someone who has set up turntables before.

I listened first to the TD 203 with the Thorens TAS 257 cartridge, and the sound more than satisfied. That said, I imagine that anyone buying this turntable will probably splurge on a better cartridge, so I mounted an Ortofon 2M Blue moving-magnet cartridge. The sound was then cleaner, more full-bodied, and more refined overall.

The newly remastered 180-gram "Led Zeppelin II" LP kicked butt, big time. The TD 203 really shined when I played classical chamber music -- background groove noise, clicks and pops receded into the background. That level of quieting is one of the main attractions of high-end turntables. If you've only listened to cheap 'tables you might assume rumble, hiss, and pops are always part of LP playback. Not so with better turntables -- they can significantly reduce the noises, but of course record condition and wear contribute noise. Even so, I have lots of decades old, but well-cared for LPs, and they were pretty darn quiet on the TD 203. There's no overt added softening or warmth to the sound, clarity is the TD 203's big draw.

Bluesman Jimmy D. Lane's "Legacy" album had tremendous presence, mostly because his hard-hitting band's soft-to-loud contrasts were given free rein by the TD 203, I rarely hear sound as thrilling as that from digitally encoded music.

The Thorens TD 203 sells for $999 in the US and £550 in the UK, and when it arrives in Australia in June, it will run AU$1,390. The brand offers a broad range of less- and more-expensive turntables. Looking around the Thorens website, I was surprised to note the Thorens line also includes a few "fully automatic" turntables that, with the push of a button, automatically move the tonearm into place over the LP, then lower the stylus into the lead-in groove, and at the end of the LP lift the tonearm and return it to the arm rest. I'll try and review one of these auto turntables later this year.