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Garrard 501 Turntable Reviewed

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HTR Product Rating

Performance
3.5 Stars
Value
3 Stars
Overall
3.5 Stars

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OK, OK, so we didn't make the World Cup Final. OK, OK, so Rolls-Royce is now German. OK, OK, so we're gonna lose the Pound Sterling, as we did those wonderful hardbound blue passports, to the evil bureaucracy of Brussels. But who's to blame? The British - no, make that the - are so willing to flog the family silver to the lowest bidder that none of this is surprising. But, as the end of the century in which this country flushed its empire down the toilet grows nigh, there's a teensy flicker of nationalism for those who are still proud to share a birthplace with Shakespeare, Ringo and Stirling Moss. Sorely-needed nationalism. Flag-waving, two-fingers-to-Johnny-Foreigner nationalism which should warm the cockles of every audiophile's heart.

Garrard is back.

Additional Resources:
Read more turntable reviews at AudiophileReview.com.
Check out top level audiophile source component reviews like Linn LP12 turntable reviews. 

I know, I know: it's still a division of Gradiente in Brazil (which manage to make it to the final), but the proprietors have been generous to the company's birth-country by allowing Loricraft to license the name. So when you first gaze upon the Garrard 501, the use of that famous script is absolutely legit. And it's so utterly evocative of pre-EC England that I understand why I moved here over a quarter-century ago. Hell, you can almost see the ghosts of Will Hay, Terry-Thomas and Alistair Sim hovering overhead. And if you didn't know better, you'd swear there was never a gap between the 401 and this, the first new transcriptor-grade, upscale Garrard turntable for 25 years.

We've been told that Loricraft is working on a proper, official history of the firm, which will explain its lost-in-the-mists-of-time links to the jewellers of the same name. Suffice to say, Garrard was once the most English of firms, right down to making the bomb releases for Wellingtons and Lancasters (and even some B25s) in WWII. As was pointed out to me by one of Loricraft's more John Bullish staff, soldiers could even see the 'G/Swindon' mark on hand-grenades just as they were about to be blown back to Tokyo or Berlin in bits.

But more relevant to this saga, though still during their 'Finest Hour', was the wartime Garrard 201, which the War Dept deemed the only turntable rugged enough and worthy enough to entertain the troops in the war zones. And when the Yanks joined in, production doubled. In case the idiots who think that Vic Morrow rather than Monty beat Rommel, Garrard 201s - not Rek-O-Cuts, not Seeburgs - played those V-Discs in the European Theatre.

Following negotiations between Gradiente and Loricraft Audio, best known for the restoration of Garrard 301 and 401 turntables, the latter now has sole rights to the Garrard name and trademark. And to keep it kosher, Loricraft sought out and consulted with a number of former Garrard employees during the design stage. Among them was Brian Mortimer, head of quality control at the Swindon factory. And Brian's father, the late Edmund (Monty) Mortimer, was the head of research at Garrard so this creates an unbroken link with pre-Gradiente, pukka Garrard.

Loricraft's interpretation of what would have been the successor to the 401 is a 'classic' idler-wheel turntable continuing the precise design philosophy of the original firm and the original decks we know, love and covet. What the 501 adds to the 301/401 are the obvious advances in technology occurring in the three decades since the 401 ceased production, including new motor and a more sophisticated bearing. As you'd expect, Loricraft's own expertise in revamping elderly Garrards means that the recipe also includes the Loricraft Audio Plinth and improved power supply as integral parts of the new deck. (And as retro-fits to 401s...)

While it's easy to suggest that the 501 is merely a tarted-up 401, it goes beyond the plinth, bearing and power supply. The new chassis and platter are turned from solid aluminium billets, while the basis for the bearing is per the original design, only of a much better finish. Loricraft points out, though, that the originals were of such 'exceptional trueness with respect to round and square dimensions' that improving on it was the main challenge.

Because no commercial motor met Loricraft's standards or requirements, the company made its own. Similar enough to a 401's to be viable as an upgrade for defunct 401 motors, if features 'a better torque/vibration relationship', it's larger and it employs a unique air bearing instead of the thrust type found in the 401. A patent is pending, so the design is currently 'indescribable'.

Where it gets confusing, and in a field of arcana which I care not to encourage, is in the anorakish pursuit of 'which is the Garrard to own' or emulate. There are slight variations in 301s and 401s, enough to keep Japanese collectors awake at night and contemplating hara-kiri when they find out theirs lacks the bearing type or chassis colour. But Loricraft goes so far as to say that a 301 fitted with the new bearing, motor and power supply is near enough to being a 501 as to save the 301 owner roughly half the cost of a new 501 through purchasing the upgrade elements.

Which brings us to one of those nice touches of Englishness which permeate the 501. The price is in guineas, 5000 of them. For those who remember not the currency before it was bastardised by decimalisation, that translates into £5250. And what that gets you is one of the nicest examples of updated retro since Beam Echo reappeared.

A full-blown 501 (sans arm) consists of three chassis. The main deck measures 540x460x120mm (WDH), up to the top plate. Add another couple of inches to accommodate platter and arm, but then most people leave the space above a turntable open. The power supply is housed in a hefty case measuring 180x430x110mm (WDH), and its front panel contains the on-off switch and a power-on lamp. Then there's the speed control box, which measures 172x220x65mm (WDH) and which sports four knobs: the selector to choose between 33/45/78 rpm and separate speed adjustment controls for each, the 78rpm control allowing you to cover just about every deviation from the norm.

Aaah - the styling! As I said before, this is successful retro, not kitsch. The link with the past skips back over the 401 to the cream finish of the 301, the colour appearing on the three circles of the stop-start rotary, the platter surround and the arm board. The wood is, I suppose, available in assorted finishes, while the top plate is a gorgeous wine-red. Apparently, the Japanese asked for British Racing Green and Navy Blue, both of which perfectly complement the cream parts - as any Morgan fancier will tell you regarding that company's two-tone paint schemes.

What was missing from the review sample was the mooted enamel badge of a bulldog smoking a cigar, wearing a Union Jack coat. I suppose the only message it lacks is a balloon bearing the text, 'Up Yours, Fritz/Tojo/Saddam/Paddy/Jock/Ivan' (delete as applicable). Fitted to it was an SME 3, but I played around with cartridges including a Decca, a wooden-bodied Grado and assorted modern MCs. Given that I have a nicely-restored 401 as well, I was able to determine the measure of the 501 with reasonable accuracy, but most of my response is from the gut. Quite clearly, the 501 - whether by design or simply because it's brand new - eliminates whatever artefacts might have kept you from buying into the idler-drive school of LP spinning.

Remember: we're whole planets away from the AR XA/Linn LP12/Thorens 150 belt-drive school of blessed isolation. We're not even in Thorens TD-124 territory, that deck combining idler- and belt-drive. Rather, a Garrard 301/401/501 has more in common with the suspension-less direct-drives which we're belatedly starting to appreciate. From the outset, you have to accommodate a turntable which doesn't accommodate you buy providing its own form of isolation. The cork-like mat appears to be the only non-rigid part of the loop. But what Loricraft has done to a far better degree than its Swindon-based antecedents is find a way to configure, assemble and mount the Garrard in such a way as to compensate for a rubber wheel turning against the inside of the platter.

Which is not to say that the Garrard 501 is as free of mechanically-borne noises as an LP-12, a properly installed Oracle or a big Basis. But what it does do is better the 401, and that's the goal. Meanwhile, it retains the stable, commanding, precise solidity of the Garrard 301/401 sound, which is what it was designed to recreate, but with greater refinement. And so it does, enough to ensure frozen-in-space images, exceptional thwack from the lower registers and - surprisingly - immunity from external aggravation. Of course, I did site the 501 on the most massive support I could find, and I wasn't exactly bopping around in front of it, so due care was paid. Still, it behaved much better than I expected.

What the 501 and other idler drives lose out to the Linn/Pink/Ariston approach is a lightness of touch and a sort of finesse. That's not to suggest crudity or a loss of detail; it just seems to my ears that the belt-driven alternatives offer greater airiness and transparency. But let's put it in context. If you look upon the great idler-drives as products of their time, then you're talking about systems with valve amplification and speakers (typically) lacking the bandwidth and clarity of modern designs. In which case, the failings are masked. Feed it into Krells driving WATT/Puppies and you will notice the odd trace of aberrant behaviour.

Read more about the Garrard 501 on Page 2.

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