When audiophiles hear the words "automatic turntable," they are quite likely to turn up their noses. Rightly or wrongly, most automatic turntables are associated with "mid-fi" gear. Yet, before the advent of CDs, I suspect many of us got hooked on this hobby using tables with some automated features, unless you were someone lucky enough to have a parent with a manual Acoustic Research (AR) or Thorens table. I first started with a Garrard changer in high school and moved up to a semi-automatic Philips GA-212 with its sexy control lights and auto-stop feature in college. Even when I later graduated to a manual Rega Planar 2, I installed an aftermarket auto-lift device just so I wouldn't have to jump up at the end of a record. There's no doubting the convenience of automatic turntables, but how much of a performance penalty does one pay for automated features?
Sonically, the $599 Thorens TD 190-1 automatic turntable, coupled with its supplied Ortofon OMB 10 cartridge, more than holds its own against other good entry-level manual 'tables such as the Music Hall MMF-2.1 LE I reviewed in AVguide Monthly issue 17. It has an engaging warmth and naturalness that many direct drive 'tables and CD players in this price range lack. As with a CD player, you can hit one switch and enjoy the music, so if you're looking for the convenience of CDs with the musicality of analog, the Thorens is one of the most cost-effective solutions around. The only thing missing is a remote.
Like many of the better analog reproducers, the Thorens serves the music in the important middle frequencies. Whether you're listening to Joan Sutherland, Joni Mitchell, Ella, or Maria Callas, voices have an attractive smoothness without any objectionable sibilance or shrillness. Saxes, cellos, and massed violins sound rich and full. In fact, the TD 190-1 has more of a classic tube-amplifier-like sound, with a dollop of syrup, and although it does not offer the last word in dynamics or inner detail, you can listen to it for hours on end without aural fatigue.
A couple of other sonic attributes of this automatic table are notable. I had expected the Thorens to be a bit noisier than its manual counterparts, but I found it to be quite competitive. Music emerges from a blacker background with the Thorens than from the manual Music Hall MMF-2.1 LE, and the TD 190-1 comes close to my standard in this class, the Rega P3, which costs a few hundred dollars more. The Thorens also has surprisingly good lateral imaging, with instruments arrayed nicely across the stage, but as with most 'tables in this class, soundstage depth is somewhat foreshortened. If you want a more holographic experience, you're going to have to spend more.
Comparing the Thorens/Ortofon combo to the $200 less expensive Music Hall MMF-2.1 LE 'table and cartridge package was enlightening. While the performance of the Music Hall is somewhat startling at its price, the Thorens not only gets the nod for blacker backgrounds, but also for lower surface noise, slightly more realistic and richer musical timbres, better speed stability, and wider extension at the frequency extremes. Listening to Paul Desmond's Summertime album [A&M Records], I noted that the sax on both tables sounded sweet and seductive, but with the Thorens, it sounded airier, with more breath over the reed. The sax seemed to float more in space. Also, the plucked strings on the guitar on "Samba With Some Barbeque" had more body while still preserving the leading edges of transients.
transients. As with the Music Hall, I prefer the sound of the Thorens to the NAD C542 CD player throughout the midrange, but the Thorens closes the performance gap with the NAD in terms of bass and treble extension, whereas the Music Hall does not. On Led Zeppelin II [Classic Records/Atlantic] John Paul Jones' bass is more articulate and richer on the Thorens than with the Music Hall and John Bonham's cymbals have more shimmer and the sound decays more naturally. Admittedly, neither table is as good as the NAD when it comes to pitch stability on sustained tones, but I find this is also true with many far more expensive tables.
The Thorens will also have strong appeal to music lovers for several other reasons. It is not fussy or tweaky at all. In fact, with its moving magnet cartridge already pre-mounted, it is easier to set up than any turntable I have used. After the transit screws are removed and the platter is put on the spindle, the counterweight is rotated on the back of the tonearm until the tonearm floats in space at the height of a record on the platter. Once that is accomplished, you simply move the tracking force dial to 1.5 grams and rotate the anti-skate dial counterclockwise so it, too, reads 1.5, and you're done. You can be up and running in a matter of minutes, but you might want to check the tracking force with a stylus force gauge. My initial set-up was slightly off, by one-tenth of a gram, when I checked it with the Expressimo Audio digital stylus force gauge. Not bad.
The TD 190-1 also has a number of specialized features that may be important to you. Not only does it enable easy switching between 33 1/3 and 45 RPM speeds, it also has a 78 RPM mode. To play 78s, you'll need a different stylus for the Ortofon which will cost you another 50 bucks. You can also play your old single 45s automatically by moving a switch to account for the change in the diameter of the records.
From the introduction of the first Edison-type phonograph in 1903 to the present, no other company in the world has a longer tradition of producing turntables than Thorens. However, those of you expecting the build quality of the classic Thorens 'tables like the TD 124s, TD 125s, TD 126s, TD 150s and TD160s will be disappointed. Unfortunately, those turntables would be cost prohibitive to produce today, yet the entire drive system of the TD 190-1, sans motor, is reportedly derived from the TD 125 and, as expected, is very reliable. At first glance, I was put off by what appeared to be some plastic parts on the Thorens, until I discovered many were in fact metal parts overlaid with plastic coverings. My test unit worked flawlessly, and I never had any problems with foot-falls as I did with a friend's vintage Thorens. I do wish Thorens' hard-wired phono cables were of higher quality, like the ones Music Hall provides, and that the manual cueing lever (yes, you can operate the table manually if you want to) worked like the ones on most tonearms. When you pull the cueing lever on the Thorens down, the arm is raised—not what I expected.
For those music lovers who have been nervous about taking the plunge into analog, the Thorens TD 190-1 strikes a nice balance, approaching the convenience of CDs but offering the musicality of analog. Better still, you don't pay a significant sonic penalty for what may be today's easiest turntable to set up and use.