Thorens TD-160 turntable
Today my turntable is a beautiful Thorens TD-160 from the 70, which I purchased in 2015 at a ridiculous price as an upgrade from my old TD-165. As of now, I’ve only dampened the bottom board with tar sheets and installed larger feet. I replaced the belt and put a Funk Firm Achromat in place of the stock rubber mat. Later I installed a Grado Signature 8MX cartridge with an 8MZ stylus. I’ve even replaced the original RCA cables with low capacity Van Damme OFC cables and rewired the ground connection. After I damaged the 8MZ stylus I mounted an Audiotechnica AT95HE cartridge and I went back to the original rubber mat, as the Achromat appeared to be rather warped. But here’s how it all began.
How I went back to vinyl
By the mid 80s, my analogue source was just a cassette deck, first the old Technics M7, then an Aiwa, finally a Teac V1050, nothing special but good enough. My old Mitsubishi Dp-5 turntable had some aging issues. I didn’t scrap all my record collection but I no longer played LPs. Eventually, even I ended up buying a basic CD player and started creating my digital collection. Like many, I was dumbfounded when I heard and read about how the music industry and CD manufacturers had tricked all of us by selling us the CD superiority story just to revive the market. But it happens everywhere.
The same friend of mine who bought my JVC CD player and the Onkyo amp, still had his late father’s old turntable. Ready to embrace any new technology, this friend of mine soon dismissed his old Thorens TD-165, a 1972 project I kept asking a price for. When one day I saw the poor Thorens thrown away in a locker I told the guy it would have been better if I used it. So, first time in my life, I had some free High Fidelity. Many years after, having learned a lot about those historical turntables, I bought some used Thorens decks in order to play with them. I refurbished them, tuned them and finally sold them, but I couldn’t help but keep one: in May 2015 I had stumbled upon a very good bargain and I did not resist to the temptation of buying a TD-160 in excellent conditions at an incredible €150 price…
Thorens exists since right after Edison invented his phonograph machine. Herman Thorens founded the company in 1883 in St. Croix, Switzerland, manufacturing “musical boxes” and “sound motion” machines. In 1928, they had 1200 employees, diminished to 800 with the great depression, and they started designing electrical motors for gramophones. Record pressing machines started in 1940 and the first turntable was out by 1943. In 1957, the first mythical Thorens turntable was born: the TD-124. It featured a heavy rigid plinth and a massive metal platter. The built quality was superb – the state of art of the time. It was an instant success. Thorens already manufactured also much cheaper turntable than its top-of-line. Later, in 1959, the stereo sound was born and all Thorens model where upgraded to play stereo. In 1963, the production was moved to Lahr, Germany, in the middle of the Black Forest. In 1965, Thorens produced their first belt-driven, floating chassis turntable, the TD-150. Thorens started an intense collaboration with the nearby EMT that was building professional turntables. The result was en evolution of the TD-124, the Thorens TD-125 of 1968. It featured an electronic, rather than magnetic, motor control and still it was a belt-driven, floating chassis deck. This technology allowed for a very good acoustic and mechanical insulation, while less complex and bulky plinths could be used. This favored a mass success of Thorens turntables – headed by the revolutionary TD-150 – that were more easily accepted in average homes for their ease of placement among normal furniture. The TD-150 MKII was born in 1969; in 1973 the TD-160 was offered, with the TD-165 as its more basic version, while the TD-125 MKII was out right after.
Comparing the TD-160 and the TD-165 – technical characteristics of old Thorens decks
Comparison between the two Thorens decks I have had: TD-165 vs. TD-160
Typical floating chassis turntables, the Thorens use a 3 spring suspension system to isolate the chassis from ambient vibrations and motor noise. Main competitors of the time were Linn, ERA, Garrard and AR. The basic Thorens TD-165 was equipped with a TP-11 tonearm and TP-60 headshell. The more refined TD-160 featured a metal subchassis with a 10 mm bearing shaft (the same as in the TD125, while the TD-165 has a resin subplatter with a 7 mm bearing, though many, like mine, had a 10 mm one); the tonearm was the TP-16, the same mounted on the TD125, more advanced according to many, more problematic because its higher complexity according to others. The TP-16 had a different counterweight and a magnetic antiskating mechanism, while the TD-165’s TP-11 used an elegant threaded weight system; the TD160’s motor was also slightly more advanced – for the rest the two turntables are identical.
On the outside, the TD-160 had a black stripe under the controls side, making it easily recognizable. The knobs were metallic, while the TD-165’s were black plastic. The TD160’s plastic motor pulley had a clutch system allowing a more rapid start and stop; the TD-165’s pulley is still plastic but with no clutch, so the platter rotates until frictions sops it or you have to do it by hand. The higher weight of the TD-160’s metal subchassis (nearly 500 g) needed maybe (?) stronger suspension springs. In summary, the two turntables are very similar and are both very good looking. According to some, the TD-160 is far superior from the sonic point of view; other say the differences are minimal, perceivable but not fundamental, like a better sense of rhythm and bass control. The best Thorens of the time are deemed the TD-124/125 and the TD-160 itself, having a simpler plinth and less electronics than the TD-125, although the same platter, tonearm an motor. Both TD-160 and TD-165 are directly derived from the TD-150. In 1976, the TD-165 was replaced by the TD-166 that added just the clutched motor pulley; the TD-160 was revisited as TD-160 MKII.
A Thorens from the 70s is maybe the first step in the world of true HiFi you can make with vinyl. If still in good conditions and well tuned they all sound wonderfully. The Thorens TD-165 was the Swiss company’s entry level in the mid 70s; in Italy it used to cost around 95 thousand Lire. The TD-165 makes simplicity its strength: a few things but done well. The TD-160 is universally renown as a turntable still worth of modern top-level HiFi system.
The Grado 8MX cartridge can be further upgraded with an 8MZ stylus but it is now damaged and plays ar a lower level. A good upgrade could be an MCZ stylus (that needs to be loaded differently through a capable phono pre or with a series of resistors). Then, I can only imagine what sound could come out of my turntable if I installed a classy tonearm it deserves (some agree the TP-16 tonearm of stock Thorens TD-160/145s is a good one but you can have better solutions). A classic is the SME 3009 tonearm in the “improved” version II would be a great upgrade for my Thorens TD-160. Maybe, even higher sound quality would be achievable buying a Rega tonearm modified by Origin Live from England or, even better, a more affordable Audiomods kit (at left, again a Rega modification).The cheaper version would already give extraordinary results, maybe even higher than my good Thorens TD-160 would allow. The problem with Rega tonearms and derivatives seems to be their thicker base: you supposedly need to permanently modify your Thorens’ plinth by filing away some wood so the Rega tonearm can be mounted at the correct height. Maybe the ideal pairing would be Thorens/SME with the current Grado Signature 8MX plus 8MZ or MCZ stylus. Alternately, Grace or Mayware tonearms would be great, too. I think I will stay with MM cartridges since their stilii are interchangeable. MC cartridges are more expensive on average and their stilii cannot be changed. This makes them less desirable to me, considering the very good level the MM carts have reached today.
With a new tonearm, the quality of vinyl records playback would increase so much I could even think about a newer turntable. I seriously doubt I could be satisfied with modern cheap rigid plinth decks from Rega or Project. Their looks are not comparable to the Thorens’, but it wouldn’t be important -as many claim – if it wasn’t for the incomparable sound character of a suspended Thorens from the 70s. I’ll probably keep playing the old fashionable TD-160 rather than spending money on a Rega RP2 or Pro-Ject Debut, although in theory they should be superior deck just for the fact they are modern technology. I’d like to make a test, I’m not convinced. I’ll hold on to my old Thorens that, remember, is still considered worth of top-level systems. If I’d want to swap it it would only be worth for dream turntables such as an Origin Live Aurora (top left), a mythical Michell Gyro or the very good Clearaudio Concept.
Many do not even imagine how superior the sound of a turntable can be if well tuned (though badly recorded vinyl records and very good CDs do exist). The general idea is that vinyl’s surface noise would penalize it from the start. Actually, digital recordings are penalized from the start by a number of intrinsic issues such as the quantization noise. Even if you don’t hear it at low volume or during the gap between tracks, it degrades the general quality of the sound – isn’t it worse? Sure, there are well recorded CDs that better the relevant vinyl recordings; in this cases one should opt for the digital format. But if both recordings are of comparable quality, the reproduction capabilities of a turntable/tonearm/cartridge analog system is far superior to that of an even expensive CD player, both in terms of sound quality and soundstage reconstruction (unless they ask you more money than the CD just because vinyl is cool).
Maybe one day digital technology will overcome its current issues, but I doubt that the analog human ear won’t easily part from the joys of analog music playback. Today I seldom listen to music while calmly seated in my listening room. More often I put a CD on and let the music feel the air while I’m doing other stuff. This is what a father of a small kid can afford, among other duties at work, in aikido, etc. But as soon as I can, I strongly prefer listening to a good vinyl record…
How to recognize various SME 3009 tenearms on analogue-classics.com
Audiomods modified Rega arm on tnt-audio.com
Origin Live modified Rega arm on tnt-audio.com
Grado Prestige Gold1 on tnt-audio.com
Grado Prestige Gold on needledoctor.com, on HiFi Choice and on stereophile.com
Interview to John Grado on head-fi.org
Goldring G 1042 MM on tnt-audio.com
Denon DL-103 on tnt-audio.com