For the first many years of my involvement in audio, you had but two sources – FM radio and vinyl or records. I continue to prefer vinyl and have had numerous turntables, tonearms, and cartridges. One of the first turntables I had was a Garrard 301. I forget what tonearm I had with it, but think it was a SME 309 with a Shure moving magnet cartridge. I also remember one of my early turntables was a Technics SP-10 with the original Obsidian Base. It is ironic that both tables have regained favor with vinyl lovers, but with many updates and modifications.
Ken Shindo created Shindo Labs in 1977 with a strong commitment to tube amplification and a love for New Old Stock tubes and the best parts he could find, whether new or old. The equipment has a classic look to it, thanks to tube cages and the Altec green paint. He makes preamps, amplifiers, speakers, and a turntable, tonearm, and cartridge combination that really have to be used together. Tone Imports, the U.S. importer, captures what you get with Shindo Labs:
“It featured the best parts of yesterday and today including all NOS tubes from the 50’s and 60’s manufactured in Europe and America (Mullard, Tungsram, Telefunken, GE, Amperex, RCA, Philips etc.), oil capacitors, hand wired transformers etc. combined to create the Shindo sound. What is the Shindo sound? Pure emotion, startling dynamics, high resolution, pitch black backgrounds with a complete naturalness and emotional feel which will keep you up all night listening to your favorite music. These components are carefully built one at a time, just like in the old days.”
This is a review of how I ended up with the Shindo Labs/Garrard 301 turntable, the Shindo Labs arm, and their cartridge. The last two items are loosely based on an Ortofon 12-inch arm and the Ortofon SPU cartridge, both of which are no longer available (the arm is now made by Shindo Labs with many changes discussed below). There are extensive changes from the original Garrard 301s and Ortofon cartridge. It should be noted that a 12-inch tonearm has substantially less angular error and distortion than the more typical 9-inch tone arm (SME says their 12-inch arm has 27 percent less error than their 9-inch arm (HiFi News, May, 2006)). This is probably one of the strength of the Shindo Labs unit.
First, I shall focus on the Garrard 301 turntable.
The Shindo platter is 20mm larger than the stock unit, and about 3lb heavier. On this is a damped integral mat. The Shindo bearing is higher mass, has a larger diameter and is machined to much tighter tolerances than the stock unit. It also uses special oil. The Shindo plinth system uses layers of laminated hardwood glued together and lacquered by 6th generation master carpenters. It has a typical Japanese, high gloss and rich wood appearance. There are no voids left under the table and literally the plinth fits the Garrard like a glove. The table comes with a special record weight that is specially designed for it. Also included are excellent isolation feet.
Shindo takes the Ortofon SPU and does some proprietary modifications to the damper, coil, suspension and cantilever. According to Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports, Shindo’s U.S. distributor, the Shindo Mersault RF-773 12-inch Tonearm bears only aesthetic homage to the legendary Ortofon/EMT RF-297, with completely different bearing system and materials. It looks like the old Ortofon arm but uses modern high precision ball bearings for superior tracking ability. Shindo says this is the best arm for the Garrard 301. This arm in its substantial mounting puck fits securely into a mounting hole in the plinth. The signal wires terminate into a ceramic block and the silver RCA cables must be connected using this block before the arm-mounting puck is inserted. There is neither cueing mechanism nor any anti-skate provisions with this tonearm.
Set-up is quite easy as the overhang is intended exactly for the SPU derived cartridge. The arm is a dynamic spring-loaded arm so one balances it and then dials on the prescribed 2.80 gram tracking force. The VTA needs to have the arm somewhat up in back or at a positive angle. In my experience, thicker and thinner records do require adjustment of the VTA to get the best performance. The US importer, however, discourages this as unnecessary. There are two setscrews that, if loosened, allow raising or lowering, but there is no scale to assure replication of a setting.
Finally, the table must be perfectly leveled. I have found this somewhat difficult to achieve. A Mana bubble level on the center spindle, I thought, would give a good measure of the table being level. However, a level on a record on the platter showed a different indication of it being level. Ultimately, I decided that the last measure is truer to what the cartridge sees. You have to be able to level the shelf under the Shindo, as there are no adjustments on the table. With these adjustments, one is ready to play. One of the great virtues of the Shindo is the relative ease of setting it up. It is basically plug and play. The Garrard 301 has provisions for speed adjustment for its three speeds. Again, proper settings of these are needed for best performance. Not surprisingly, my unit needs a different correction for 45 and 33.3 rpm.
I remember little about my early Garrard 301 except that I moved on, probably to my first Linn LP12 turntable with a Keith Monk’s tone arm or the Technics SP-10 with the Technics 501 arm. But doubtlessly, the Shindo far surpasses stock units. My wandering through the various turntables has passed through many exceptional turntables including most recently the Walker Proscenium and the Loricraft/Garrard 501 with a Schroeder tonearm made specifically for Loricraft. I used the J. Allaerts MC 2 Finish cartridge on both. These turntables were exceptional but both needed much tweaking, especially the tonearms. Overhang and azimuth on the Walker are adjusted together by loosening the tonearm’s connection with the air bearing tube. Twisting the tube allows azimuth adjustment, and pulling or pushing the tube in or out accomplishes overhang. Care must be taken to get both right before tightening. Also the VTA adjustment affects the dampening paddle.
The Schroeder arm on the Loricraft 501 must have the gap between the magnets on the string bearing set correctly as this is how the cartridge is dampened. The J. Allaerts MC 2 Finish was no problem, but the Decca Jubilee was very, very critical. There are no adjustments for azimuth on the Shindo Labs, but fortunately, a carefully done cartridge seems to need none.
The Walker has excellent isolation, but not the Loricraft which really has none. The Shindo Labs comes with special feet that were used initially. They work quite well, but I have a Halcyonics active isolation base, actually three of them. It provides the best isolation I have heard, including with the Shindo. My evaluation is based on using the Shindo on the Halcyonic base.
One is definitely buying into a system with the Shindo. It is very awkward to use any other cartridge on this arm, even though it is a removable headshell tonearm. There is no adjustment for overhang and the SPU cartridge is quite short, meaning that it is virtually impossible to use any other cartridge. Tone Imports, however, has commissioned several EMT cartridges that have the same overhang as the Shindo cartridge.
Evaluating turntables accurately borders on impossible, even more so than speakers. Coarse differences are easily heard, but choosing between two exceptional turntables entails a perfect setup for both, as well as a reasonably quick ability to switch from one to the other. In my case, I am not really doing a comparison, but rather my reference turntable is that which I am evaluating. Furthermore, my decision to purchase the Shindo Labs was made some time ago, and it was to buy a vinyl playback system while my previous turntables allowed use of a full range of cartridges. One of the important factors was the certainty that I would get the same results that I heard elsewhere with the Shindo. This was not true for the Walker or the Loricraft. Lloyd Walker is fabled for his capacity to extract peak performance from his turntable, and this is now included in the price.
When I got my Shindo set up, I was immediately struck by its ease and soundstage. The tracking force is quite critical. The arm needs to be up very slightly in the back, which is also critical. Also, this is a low output cartridge so you need either a high-gain phono stage or a prior step-up transformer. I have tried both and prefer a high-gain phono stage, namely the H-Cat phono stage, which I am certain few have ever heard. It is without grain and is quite low noise.
Once the cartridge is warmed up, you hear a quite extended top-end. Bass is also exemplary, which may be the impact of the 12-inch arm and reduced tracking error. With the Shindo on a Halcyonics active isolation base, both the top-end extension and the bass further improved, as did dynamics. This combination has the pace and dynamics of a live performance. This is true for symphonic works at realistic volumes, for quiet jazz, and for rock and roll. As set up, the Shindo is unsurpassed in involving one in the music. Its image is strikingly realistic, capturing the ambience of the recording venue. Of course, I have no other turntable with which to compare it now.
I use three records in evaluations of vinyl equipment. The Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall, a 200-gram reissue by Classic Records, presents a great live recording with much location information. I mainly used the first two cuts, “Jump Down Spin Around” and :Suzanne” and the applause around them, but the noises outside Carnegie Hall are quite evident with the Shindo, in particular, several approaching and departing subways. The second album is the Sheffield Labs The Missing Link II, which is a direct disk with no tape used. It is very dynamic but also very flat in its soundstage. It was once the standard album used by dealers to awe customers with the lifelike music presented by a system. The Shindo achieves the dynamics and reveals the absence of depth in the recording, which I am sure, was closely miked. Finally, This One’s For Blanton with Duke Ellington and Ray Brown on 45-rpm dual disk, reissue by AcousTech, is clean, dynamic, and a closely miked recording. The piano is key here. It has a honky-tonk sound which adds to the realism of this music.
Obviously, I have had two of these recordings for some time (initially I had the Belafonte album as originally released). There have been improvements in my system over this time apart from the Shindo Labs turntable, but I hear information on the Sheffield Labs record that I had not heard from other turntables and the Belafonte album, even the original release is just more involving and realistic than I have heard with other turntables.
Shindo Labs prefers to sell their entire system with the turntable, tone arm, and cartridge being one of the vital parts. I have never heard the entire system, but I know several who have. All were struck by its realism with one buying the entire system. In my experience, the turntable is certainly not a weak link in the system. This turntable stays as my vinyl source.
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