Reviewer: Jeff Day
Listening Panel: Terry Cain, Stephæn Harrell, Pete Riggle and Bill Van Winkle
Technical Advisors: Terry Cain, Jonathan Halpern and Pete Riggle
Analog Source: Garrard 301, of course!
Digital Sources: Meridian 508.20 CD player both in stand-alone mode and used as a transport with the mighty Audio Logic 2400 vacuum tube DAC
Preamplifier: Tom Evans Audio Design Vibe
Integrated Amplifiers: Almarro A205A EL84 single-ended pentode; Sonic Impact Class T digital [in for review]
Amplifiers: Fi 2A3 single-ended triode monoblocks; Yamamoto A-08 45 stereo [in for review]
Speakers: Avantgarde Duo 2.0; Omega Super 3 [in for review]
Cables: Nirvana S-X interconnects between DAC and preamplifier; Nirvana S-L interconnects between preamplifier and amplifiers; Nirvana S-L speaker cables between amplifiers and speakers; a custom Nirvana wiring harness to connect the Duos midrange and tweeter horns and woofer module; Cardas Neutral Reference digital cable; Nirvana digital cable [in for review]; Yamamoto prototype interconnect [in for evaluation]
Stands: Atlantis Video Reference equipment rack, Billy Bags 2 shelf rack
Power line conditioning: none
Sundry accessories: TJ mesh plate 45 tubes [in for review]
Room size: 15' x 25' x 8', short-wall setup
Review Component Retail: not applicable - see article for details

This is the first of a series of how-to 6moons articles about buying, restoring and hot-rodding a vintage Garrard 301 transcription turntable. All around nice guy and fellow moonie Jules Coleman has already called this project "unprecedented" in audio journalism. That took me a bit aback. Unprecedented? Me? Cool! However, not everyone's hip like Jules as to why a multi-part discourse about a 50-year old Garrard 301 would be unprecedented. More than one person including manufacturers -- after a perplexed moment of silence -- have asked the obvious: "Why?"

A Deep Dark Secret
In the deep recesses of the audio underground where single-ended amplifiers, horn-loaded loudspeakers and single & field-coil drivers dance in the shadows of the audio illuminati's imagination, there is a secret whispered among the faithful: "A fully restored and hot-rodded vintage Garrard 301 transcription turntable is the ultimate analog musical device."

If you've read my Fi 2A3 review, you may have noticed that Don Garber owns the vintage Garrard 301 which the famed Julius Futterman used in his studio while alive. Perhaps Don knows something that you and I don't? Apparently Julius did too - not to mention Jules. Did you know that Japanese audiophiles have been quietly seeking out vintage Garrard 301s and been involved in a long evolution of perfecting them? Me neither. Did you know that certain European audiophiles have been up to the same patient and secretive business? Me neither. What do these extremeophile practitioners of the arcane audio arts know that we more mainstream folks don't? More importantly, why for so long have they been diligently keeping it a secret from the rest of us audio enthusiasts?

There are whispers that a fully restored and hot-rodded 301 betters today's super decks at playing music - even ones costing over twenty-thousand dollars. It's almost unimaginable that such a thing could be true. After all, the Garrard surely represents antiquated and outdated technology. How could a 50-year old turntable possibly perform on a level that equals -- let alone exceeds -- the engineering masterpieces of today? Then again, people also said single-ended amplifiers, single drivers and horns were antiquated and outdated technology not too long ago. Then they listened to the old fossils properly implemented and exclaimed: "Wowza! There is something to this after all!"

It is said that the solidity, presence, body, speed, dynamics, soundstaging, noise floor and low-level detail retrieval of a fully restored and properly hot-rodded vintage Garrard 301 transcription turntable is equal to or above what the super tables of today can muster. It is also said that the aforementioned performance elements are icing on the platter so to speak, but not the primary reason for the Garrard 301's legendary status. The primary reason why Garrard 301s are so sought after is the overall musical involvement conveyed which is said to be way above anything else available today.

Like me, you've probably never heard those kinds of comments about a Garrard 301. Plus, I'm not so sure that the faithful really want the message to get out. After all, there are only so many 50-year old Garrard 301s floating around the nether regions. However, this audio journalist knows a good story when he hears one and in the avant-garde and fun-loving spirit of 6moons, I'm going to spill the beans. The coolest part about this is that you and I will be exploring together the outrageous claims made by the aforementioned audiophiles and find out if they are truth or bull poop. So let's roll!

The Beginning of the Odyssey
My analog odyssey dedicated to investigating the Garrard 301 underground scene started when Jules Coleman sent me a photograph of a classic 1950/60s vintage Garrard 301 transcription turntable motor assembly housed in an absolutely gorgeous cherry Shindo plinth partnered with a Shindo tonearm, cartridge, and platter which Jonathan Halpern of Shindo USA had imported from the Shindo Masters of Japan.

When I saw the Shindo/Garrard player system and heard the underground vibe about the 301s, my heart did a flip-flop and said, "I have to have one!" When Jonathan explained what a complete Shindo/Garrard 301 system of an overhauled cream-colored 301 sold for -- $20,000 US -- my heart did another flip-flop because this 'audio everyman' couldn't afford one - it retails for more than thrice the current value of my car for crying out loud!

Jonathan Halpern to the Rescue
What to do? Jonathan Halpern is an analog buff and Garrard 301 enthusiast first, Shindo's US importer second. Besides being a tremendously nice guy, Jonathan is a HiFi nut just like you and me. He wants people to enjoy the charms of the Garrard 301 even if the cost-no-object Shindo/Garrard player system is out of reach. Jonathan said there was another way to acquire a Garrard 301 that was cost-effective. It's how he got started with 301s way back when:

"Over my many years of being an avid analog fan, I have listened to and owned many of the turntables, cartridges and arms available. At the pressure of one of my friends, I bought a Garrard 301 one day ... I was floored to say the least. How could a 50-year old turntable best the new acrylic, high-dollar, 100-pound wonders? Well, it did so in many important ways such as solidity, presence, body, speed, dynamics and overall involvement. It did let me down in the areas of soundstaging, noise floor and low-level detail retrieval but what if we could improve on those shortcomings?"

Jonathan's path to answering the criticisms of the stock Garrard 301 led him to the House of Shindo. The Shindo upgrades include the plinth -- a plinth is the wooden base the Garrard sits in -- with a machined steel arm board cut for an Ortofon 12" or Shindo arm ($3800); the Shindo RF-773 12" transcription tonearm ($4200); a Shindo Super SPU cartridge ($2800); and a Shindo spindle/bearing/platter/mat system ($2800). The good news is that you can buy a vintage 301, fit it with Shindo upgrades and work towards the full Shindo/Garrard system in steps and for considerably less than what the fully assembled and tricked-out Shindo/Garrard sells for from the nice folks in Japan. The bad news? Even upgrading a
Garrard 301 with the Shindo improvements over time and in stages isn't cheap and probably out of reach for a lot of folks like me. But what if one could play in the rarefied Garrard 301 league for around $2000 or less? Maybe even significantly less? There's hope. To get started, Jonathan suggested I buy a vintage Garrard 301 on eBay, then build a plinth, mount an inexpensive arm and cartridge and give it a listen. Jonathan's proposal is what provided me with the seed idea for this series of articles. I e-mailed 6moons publisher Srajan and wrote:

"I want to do a series of articles for the 6moons readers about buying a classic Garrard 301 transcription turntable and progressively upgrading it to super-deck status. I want the article to represent the sort of approach that an 'audio everyman' on a budget -- like me -- could envision himself involved with over a period of time. I think a lot of folks would find it interesting, intoxicating and enticing – at least I do! My first step is finding a Garrard 301 transcription motor and platter assembly on eBay. I want to narrate the process of buying a 301 off eBay, report on how the original works and sounds without updates or minimal prep necessary to get it up and running, then describe adding the cost-effective upgrades that Jonathan recommends and how they sound. I want to see how close I can come to the performance of the ultimate Shindo/Garrard player system on a budget. Then finally, I will describe the results of a step-by-step progression to the full Shindo/Garrard player setup. I also believe this would be a nice complement to Jules' upcoming review of the full-boat Shindo/ Garrard 301 player system in his series of 6moons reviews on the super tables."