The Garrard 301 is among the most famous and, in its time, most popular turntables ever produced. The first 301s left the Garrard production facilities in 1954, the last sometime in the 1970s. During that time, roughly 100,000 or so tables were sold, many of which remain in use (or in the attics of collectors). Others in various conditions show up on eBay. Always a favorite among Japanese audiophiles (along with the EMT 927 and 930, which, like the Garrards, are idler driven), the 301 and the 401 has seen a resurgence of interest among audiophiles worldwide.
So how does a 50 year-old turntable design survive, let alone secure a prominent place among audiophiles? The short answer is pretty simple. It was well designed to begin with, requires very little in the way of maintenance, and, oh yes, it sounds great. The basic 301 sounds so good that if you find one in good repair, outfit it with a suitable arm – the SME 3012 is a common partner – and cartridge – the Denon 103 or any appropriate Ortofon SPU will do just fine – and fix it to virtually any plinth that does not take the life out of it or unduly transfer motor vibrations, you will have an analog front end that is in most musically important ways the equal of many a high-tech modern table at a fraction of the cost.
In fact, there is very little you can do to undermine a 301, but making it sing is another story altogether. And making it sing is precisely what the Shindo/Garrard 301 does. And it not only sings in a way no other 301 I have heard does; it is the most musically compelling audio component that I have owned – without exception.
In my experience, two turntables can teach you all need to know about analog – the Garrard 301 and the Well Tempered Classic (or preferably, the Reference). A turntable that does not get the pitch right cannot reproduce music. Most tables don’t and can’t. The Well Tempered does. It is the king of tone and pitch accuracy. The question for the Well Tempered is whether you can get it to exhibit a little air on top and some drive through the midbass. In my experience, you can; fit it with a modified EMT – I have used both the Brinkmann EMT and the Roksan Shiraz – and run it through an Auditorium 23 step-up transformer designed for the Denon 103.
If you take this tack you will have one hell of an analog front end, comparable to many of the $20k+ tables in most respects at less than half that price. This is one reason why I have long held the view that the Well Tempered tables define the baseline for high performance analog. If you can’t best the Well Tempered at anything near its price point, don’t bother. Just do something else for fun or for a living.
No matter how you outfit a Well Tempered (or just about any other turntable in my experience) reproduction will still fall short of the dynamic realism of live music. And that is one reason why you need to hear a Garrard 301: dynamic realism. Play LPs on any 301 setup that has not been undermined by an inappropriate plinth and you will find yourself struck by its dynamic realism and unforced nature. The music simply jumps off the grooves and lands right there in front of you without fanfare and with no need for further explanation. The issue with a Garrard 301 is whether it can be as revealing, nuanced and refined as it is lively and present. That is the question audiophiles, DIY-ers and designers have been trying to answer for the last 50 years.
The fully furnished Shindo-Garrard 301 answers this question with a resounding ‘yes.’
Most novices who hear any 301 for the first time are struck by how good such an old table can sound. They are so accustomed to the restrained and proper character of most modern tables that they are simply unaccustomed to the life and energy of the 301. But even seasoned 301 veterans often conclude that it is a fun, lively and energetic table, lacking the nuance, resolution, harmonic development, and refinement of the best contemporary designs including, for example, the Walker, Verdier La Platine, Brinkmann Balance and the Simon Yorke.
They are mistaken.
All the nuance, refinement and sophistication – as well as the life and dynamic realism that everyone acknowledges is the hallmark of the design is there for the taking. But if you want it, then you are going to want the fully outfitted Shindo/Garrard 301. If there is another version of the 301 that can give you all this, I haven’t heard it; and I have heard my share.
And I wanted it all: the pitch definition and tone of the Well Tempered; the refinement and resolution of the Brinkmann Balance, the dynamic realism of the basic 301 and the reliability of the SME. I couldn’t buy them all, certainly not on a professor’s salary – not even a law professor’s salary. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to. I just bought the Shindo Garrard 301 instead.
A reviewer at another magazine, who, as it happens had never heard a Shindo/Garrard 301 front end, once told me that the view among his analog cronies was that all Shindo had done was to take some of the many tweaks that the Brits have been making to the 301 for years packaged them and then overcharged for them.
The fact is that Ken Shindo bought his first Garrard 301 in the 1960s and has been working on modifications and plinths for them ever since.
No one said that insight or accuracy is a requirement for being a reviewer.
Shindo would be the first to tell you that he had the great good fortune of starting out with a pretty good product. So let’s take a look at the basic table with the arms and cartridges usually mated with it, starting with the table itself.
In the beginning there was ….
The first Garrard 301s that left the production facility in 1954 were painted in a hammertone gray finish and fitted with a grease bearing. Around 1957 or so the color changed to cream with either black or silver nameplates but retained the grease bearing- it did have some minor differences in the chassis. In 1959 or so Garrard changed to an oil bearing. Production went into the early 1970's with no additional changes. Mine is cream colored and has the oil, not grease bearing. Garrard aficionados are split between oil and grease bearing models. Shindo uses oil bearing models and he can provide one for you if you don’t have one of your own, but will do so only if you are purchasing the Shindo 301. I provided him with my own which I had purchased on eBay. It came in the original box and showed no signs of anything but the most minimal use.
The platter is driven by a large, powerful motor suspended on springs using an idler drive system. The motor shaft has a stepped pulley mounted on it in three sizes- one for 33.3, one for 45 and one for 78rpm. (Thus the name 301 – three speeds on one table). The speed control lever has a linkage which shifts the idler wheel up or down to align with the chosen pulley step.
The pulley has friction against the idler wheel (round hard rubber disc) when the on lever is selected which in turn has friction against the inside rim of the platter. Essentially this provides a direct connection from motor to platter via the idler wheel giving high torque using the large, powerful motor without the compliant belt found on most modern tables.
Belt drive designs are ubiquitous and that fact may lull one into thinking that belt drive technology has won out largely because it resolves the problems associated with vinyl playback.
There are a number of non-trivial problems associated with the belt drive technology, some of which are not so easy to overcome. In fact, difficulty in overcoming them is among the factors that have contributed to the interest in so-called ‘direct drive’ tables – which have problems of their own. The most urgent problem with a belt drive is slack on the return side of the pulley and tautness on the receiving side- this compliance will keep the platter in a constant state of speed change. Inertia goes a considerable way in overcoming the problem, but you can hear the problem constant speed change causes as a warble on reproduced piano.
You may not hear the warble or experience it as a problem until you listen to the same piano reproduced with an idler driven 301. Once you live with a Garrard 301, you can pick up the pitch differences in piano playback, and you may never be able to return to a belt drive table again.