For our special analog-focus issue, I asked our staff and senior writers to name and rank the ten turntables that have had the greatest impact on high-end audio. This isn’t a list of the best-sounding turntables, but those that introduced new techniques, influenced other designs, achieved wide commercial success, or represented a performance breakthrough at the time. I then tallied the votes from each writer to arrive at the final list and ranking of the Ten Most Significant Turntables of All Time. Each contributor’s own list appears at the end of this article. Harry Pearson’s list, along with extended commentary on his choices, appears in this issue’s HP’s Workshop. Let the controversy begin!
Like its three predecessors, the latest and greatest version of the Walker ’table, the Black Diamond III, is in many ways the summation of a lot of brilliant thinking on the part of previous turntable and tonearm designers. Its air-bearing, viscous-damped, diamond-hard, straight-line-tracking ceramic tonearm, its massive air-bearing platter (which effectively isolates the platter from airborne and structure-borne resonance), and its air-bearing feet borrow bits and pieces from the ’tables and arms of SLT pioneers like Mapleknoll, ET, and Forsell. But the Walker isn’t a mere grab bag of other people’s great ideas; it is a beautifully engineered playback system in which each element has been rigorously tested to work superlatively well as part of that system. The apotheosis of the long line of tangential-tracking record players that preceded it. —Jonathan Valin
William Firebaugh’s stroke of genius wasn’t so much the ingenious “four-point” bearing used in this belt-driven turntable as it was the extraordinary arm that came with it. Firebaugh’s Well-Tempered Tonearm managed to solve the universal problem of bearings “chattering” in their races (and thereby feeding vibration back down the armtube to the stylus) by simply eliminating the bearings. The arm (an aluminum or carbon-fiber tube filled with sand and suspended, via monofilament rigging, on a mount whose disc-like foot was submerged in a cup of viscous silicone) is one of the truly original ideas in latter-day high-end design. Half swingset, half trapeze, the Well-Tempered worked purely by means of torsion and damping. There had been nothing like it before, and, frankly, there has been nothing like it since. A sui generis masterpiece. —Jonathan Valin
“As I saw it,” said the Oracle’s designer Marcel Riendeau back in 1979, “the key [to vinyl playback] was not for the stylus to play the record; it was for the stylus to play the groove!” To accomplish this, Riendeau had to find a way to keep the stylus in the groove. Thus, anything that might disturb its composure as it traveled down that long and winding road to end-of-side silence was engineered (beautifully) out of the Delphi. While a few items have been improved on the latest Mk VI version of this still-in-production classic, Riendeau’s core philosophy of “groove isolation” and the core mechanisms he used to implement this philosophy remain the same. These include the use of three, tunable, bell-shaped springs to suspend the subchassis, platter, and arm, and an acrylic platter and plinth that are still eye-catchers (as well as resonance-stoppers). —Jonathan Valin
Newbies may not know this but there was once a battle between proponents of turntables with belt-driven platters and proponents of turntables with directly-driven platters. For the most part, belt-drive ’tables won out (although there are to this day notable exceptions), but when the issue was still very much in doubt, this massive, beautifully made turntable from Panasonic (one or two of which could be found in just about every radio station and recording studio in the country) was the very model of direct-drive excellence. Its durability, imperturbability, precise speed accuracy, deep bass response, and low wow and flutter put many of the flimsier belt-drives to shame—and it came with a tunable arm that was itself novel and not-bad-sounding.The best of the many other direct-drives that preceded and followed it and the great-grandfather of some of today’s remaining handful of direct-drive ’tables (like the Grand Prix Audio Monaco). —Jonathan Valin