The automatic turntable, absent from audio dealers’ offerings for years, is definitely making a comeback. The first unit I reviewed was the Andover Audio SpinDeck Max ($599, all prices USD). There are at least three more automatic turntables coming to me for review, and many more I haven’t reviewed or arranged to review. In this article, I’m looking at the Thorens TD 102 A ($1099), a fully automatic unit from the renowned Swiss/German company.
An automatic turntable, as the name implies, operates the tonearm automatically. With the TD 102 A, the platter begins to revolve once you press the Start button. Then the arm lifts, moves into its drop zone for either a 7″ or 12″ record, gently descends, and the music begins. At the end of the side, the arm rises, returns to its resting position, and the motor shuts off. All very neat and tidy. Back in the so-called Golden Age of Stereo (the 1970s and early ’80s), many if not most stereo systems included an automatic turntable.
Purists always derided automatics, claiming the auto mechanism created drag, which smeared the sound. In my considered opinion, that may have been the case in the early 1960s, but the appearance of units like the Dual 1219, Garrard Zero 100, and Miracord 770H demonstrated that automatics had few real-world shortcomings.
But as vinyl began to die out and the CD rose to the fore, only purists retained their turntables and LPs. As they stayed largely with manual or, at most, semi-automatic tables, the automatic soon became a thing of the past. Until recently.
If there’s one thing Thorens knows, it’s how to style its turntables to show both purpose and class. The TD 102 A’s fit and finish are absolutely first-rate. The review sample came with the Black High Gloss base (Walnut High Gloss is also available). Its top panel is a dark gray, while the controls, arm, and platter mat are black, and the platter is brushed aluminum.
The controls are arrayed across the front of the top panel. At the lower left is the speed control for 33 or 45 rpm. To the right side are two buttons, Stop and Start, separated by a selector. Kudos to Thorens for giving users a choice between 7″ and 12″—some automatics are set so that any record played back at 45 rpm is assumed to be 7″, while any played back at 33 rpm is assumed to be 12″. This can create a problem if you’re trying to play a 12″ 45.
The arm Thorens designates the TP 72 is a carbon-fiber design and it’s very light. It’s a static-balance type, meaning that, in order to set the tracking force, you need to balance the arm (a task that’s not always easy with these very light arms). The arm itself is 214.5mm (8.44″) and it’s a straight design with an offset headshell. The head is not interchangeable.
The platter is an aluminum casting that’s not quite 12″ (300mm) in diameter. It is fairly light, so it doesn’t offer much speed-stabilizing inertia.
Across the back, from left to right, are the RCA stereo output jacks and the ground/earth wire terminal, the switch that allows you the option of using the internal phono stage or going straight through to an external phono stage, the input jack for power, and the On/Standby button, which applies primary power to the turntable.
The supplied cartridge is Audio-Technica’s relatively new AT-VM95E, successor to the almost universally acclaimed AT-95E. It retails for $69 on its own and features a bonded 0.3mil × 0.7mil elliptical stylus. It tracks at 2 grams (20mN) in the TD 102 A.
The unit’s feet cushion the turntable from outside vibrations but are not adjustable, so your stand should be very level for best sound. The turntable comes with a heavy plastic dust cover with hinges, a wall-wart power supply with an array of plug inserts to handle power nearly anywhere, a set of okay-but-nothing-special interconnects, and a 45 adapter for the little records with the holes. The warranty covers parts and labor for two years. The TD 102 A is designed in Germany and made for Thorens in Taiwan.
The turntable is 16.5″ × 14″ × 5.4″ and weighs a relatively light 11 pounds.
The turntable comes double boxed, and setup is aided by a very logical packing scheme. The full setup—including fiddling with the arm that didn’t want to balance—took no more than 40 minutes, even with my marking every bag and packaging nook to record what it contained prior to unboxing.
When the box is first opened, you’ll find the owner’s manual—a five-language work—followed by the dust cover. Once that’s removed, there’s the rubber platter mat to retrieve, then it’s time to lift the turntable and its Styrofoam carriers from the box. Nooks in the carriers contain the hinges, the arm counterweight, and the 45-rpm adapter. The power supply and plugs are taped to a protective covering. The platter is lodged in the very bottom of the box.
Of course, the first step after removing the protective materials is to install the platter and drive belt. The belt comes wrapped around the inner ring of the platter. Holes in the platter allow the user to insert a thumb into one in order to loop the belt over the drive pulley. Once that’s in place, you add the rubber mat.
Then it’s time to set up the arm. Install the counterweight and follow the usual procedure to balance the arm. This can be a little tricky due to the arm’s very low mass. Next, Thorens says to return the arm to its resting position and lock it in place. Then turn the ring with the stylus force levels until 0 is straight up. Finally, turn both the counterweight and force ring to the recommended tracking force of 2 grams (20mN). This can be tricky as the print is gray on dark gray. I had to use a strong light source to illuminate the print. Anti-skating is built into the turntable.
Now comes the time to hook up the interconnects and ground/earth wire, and insert one end of the power cord into the receptacle on the back of the TD 102 A and the other in an AC outlet. Once that’s done, you’re set.
During setup of the particular unit I was sent, I noticed the arm set down about 1/8″ into the playing area of a record. As it turns out, there’s a small screw on the chassis, reachable through one of the holes in the platter, that allows you to adjust this aspect of the turntable’s function. With a couple of clicks, the turntable was ready for business.
Once the turntable is set up, operation is easy. As mentioned above, you simply place a record on the platter and press the Start button. The arm will lift from its rest point and set down on the disc at whichever spot, 7″ or 12″, you’ve chosen with the size control. At the end of the side, the arm will lift, return to its rest point, and the turntable will shut off. You can also stop play by hitting Stop before the end of the side or by using the cue lever to lift the arm off the record and manually return it to its resting position. Of course, you’ll need to make certain the main power switch on the back of the turntable is depressed or nothing happens. The cue lever itself operates smoothly and accurately, although it’s only damped on its way down. Lifting it too quickly can cause it to jump, which presents the possibility of damaging the record.
Using the RPM app on my phone, I measured the rotation speed with the turntable set at 33.3 rpm. The TD 102 A that I reviewed ran about 1% fast at an average of 33.6 rpm. Estimated wow was 0.32%—not exemplary, but low enough that I never noticed it affect the sound. For my listening tests, I used my APT Holman preamplifier’s phono stage, not the one internal to the Thorens, except as noted.
In 1970, just after “Your Song” became his first Top 10 hit in the US, Elton John embarked on his first North American tour. One stop was the famed A&R Studios in New York, where he and his bandmates played a live concert on WABC-FM, a performance that was later released as the album 11-17-70 (UNI 93105, it’s also called 17-11-70 in the UK). The show started with “Take Me to The Pilot,” which features John pounding the daylights out of his piano. Playing it on the TD 102 A made me pull out my air piano—it was that involving. John’s voice was centered on the soundstage, with drums on the right and bass spread across the stage. All the energy produced by the piano came through loud and clear. A couple of drum rolls practically shook my speakers, they were so crisp and strong. This review was off to a good start.
When Rickie Lee Jones’s “Chuck E.’s in Love” first broke onto the charts, a lot of people didn’t know quite where to slot the song. Was it pop? Was it jazz? No matter what you called it, it became a hit, and when you read the credits on the eponymous album (Warner Bros. BSK 3296), you’re talking a cast of thousands: five drummers, six keyboard players (including Dr. John), and so on. My favorite cut on the album is “Night Train,” which features Jones’s unique voice backed by both nylon- and steel-stringed guitars, various and sundry percussion, a bass that digs really deep, and several singers, all joined by a string section halfway through. On the TD 102 A, the soundstage was broad but not especially deep. However, with all that’s going on around her, Jones’s voice was never overpowered by the accompaniment. The Thorens produced very crisp sound, and the exceptional musicianship on the album made this a real listening treat.
Think what you will of disco, some of the hits of that era were technical and arrangement recording masterpieces. Case in point: “The Hustle” by Van McCoy & The Soul City Symphony, from the album Disco Baby (AVCO AV 69006-698). The sound is lush and all-enveloping with a lot going on in the background—a synth here, a group of strings there, all anchored by a solid drum line and nicely syncopated bass line. The lead instrument through most of it is a piccolo—not your usual lead. The soundstage was again quite broad over the Thorens, but there was more depth on this cut than I’d previously heard from the TD 102 A. The sound me made want to get out my dancing shoes.
It’s been a while since I’ve played any Mel Tormé during a review. My choice this time was “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” from George Shearing and Mel Tormé’s Top Drawer (Concord Jazz CJ-219). Tormé was a saloon singer like Frank Sinatra but with more jazz in his soul. George Shearing was a British-born pianist who was very popular back in the 1950s due to his truly smooth jazz style. Mel had an almost five-octave vocal range (compared to the three most singers are capable of), and he was adept at scat singing. On this cut, Mel and George take the song uptempo but stretch out the meter for a truly different sound. It’s just Mel, George, and bass player Don Thompson. Over the Thorens, Shearing’s deft piano played beautifully off Mel’s vocal gymnastics. Thompson’s bass was meaty, with plenty of slam. Tormé was placed to the right of center, while Shearing was dead center, just as it should be. Having heard Tormé any number of times live, this recording captures his incredible talent, and the TD 102 A beautifully reproduced the recording.
It probably wouldn’t be one of my reviews without Manhattan Transfer. This time, I chose “Jeannine,” a jazz standard written by pianist Duke Pearson, from Man Tran’s Bop Doo-Wopp release (Atlantic 81233-1). This track was recorded during a 1983 concert in Tokyo, but it sounds better than most live sides. The voices are centered two across and two deep, with the band arrayed nicely behind them. The staccato notes from the singers were reproduced just as they should be. There’s lots of scatting in the middle, and the Thorens placed each singer very precisely—a very nicely rendered soundstage by the TD 102 A.
At this point I’ll note that when I used this same cartridge with the Thorens TD 402 DD, I found it a bit underwhelming. Not so here—in this application, its sound was clear, clean, fairly extended, able to boogie when called for, but also comfortable with soft jazz or even classical works. I don’t know what the difference was, but on the TD 102 A, the Audio-Technica cartridge was in its element.
Inboard phono stage vs. APT Holman
I next switched from using the APT Holman to the one built into the Thorens. For this segment of the review, I chose some pretty obscure music for organ: “Dialogue” by French composer Charles Piroye, from an album called French Organ Masterpieces of the 17th and 18th Centuries (Nonesuch H-71020). The organist is Pierre Froidebise playing the organ of the Sint-Laurenskerk church in Alkmaar, The Netherlands. The organ is about the only instrument that has a broader frequency range than a piano, and in some cases, pedal notes can shake your windows. I was immediately struck by the inboard phono stage’s coherence—everything that came through the speakers was how it should be. Obviously, since the recording was live, there was a lot of echo and decay. The subtleties of that echo made themselves known, but they were in balance. The pedal notes dug deep. The highs also came through more than adequately. I was impressed with the Thorens’ built-in phono stage.
Then I removed the inboard stage from the line and reconnected the turntable to the phono input of my APT Holman and played the work again. As good as the TD 102 A’s stage was, the APT’s was just a bit better. The highs were airier and the bass dug deeper. There was slightly more air on the soundstage. The APT and the inboard both excelled in the upper bass, midrange, and mid-highs, but the APT offered perhaps another half octave of bandwidth at either end.
If your system doesn’t have an inboard phono stage or money is tight, in nearly all instances, the one in the TD 102 A will serve your purposes well.
Thorens TD 102 A vs. Dual CS 5000
It seemed like a decent idea to use “September” from The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1 for this comparison (Columbia/American Recording Company FC 35647) due to its strong rhythmic content and the wide variety of voices and instruments represented.
The Thorens presented the music rather well—there was lots of great timing, good placement of all concerned across the soundstage, and reasonable depth to the performance. The kick drum didn’t quite have the oomph I expected, however. In all, the sound was quite adequate.
The Dual and its Sumiko Oyster Moonstone cartridge showed the difference between a $70-retail cartridge in the Thorens and a $300-retail cartridge in the Dual. The bass dug much deeper and stronger; the trumpets were slightly more noticeable; the drum beats were more palpable. The singers’ voices were slightly more prominent.
Bottom line: the Thorens performed well, but the Dual was better. Would a cartridge upgrade on the Thorens change the result?
As I mentioned in my review of the TD 402 DD, I’ve always wanted a Thorens turntable for my system. I love their looks and the way they’ve sounded when I’ve heard them at dealerships and in a friend’s system. And the TD 102 A is a solid unit. It looks gorgeous, it’s easy to set up, and its overall performance is quite satisfying. If I were to buy a TD 102 A, I would probably upgrade the stylus to one of the better A-T choices—probably the AT-VM95ML or the Microlinear model. But that’s me being picky. Although it is expensive, without a doubt, the Thorens TD 102 A is the most accomplished automatic turntable I’ve yet reviewed.
. . . Thom Moon
- Analog source: Dual CS 5000 turntable with Sumiko Oyster Moonstone cartridge.
- Preamplifier: APT Corporation Holman.
- Power amplifier: NAD C 275BEE.
- Speakers: Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer.
- Interconnects: Dual (captive with CS 5000 turntable), Thorens, Wireworld Luna 8.
- Speaker cables: Acoustic Research 14-gauge terminated in banana plugs.
Thorens TD 102 A Turntable with Audio-Technica AT-VM95E Cartridge
Warranty: Two-year limited warranty.
51427 Bergisch Gladbach
North American distributor:
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Phone: (800) 663-9352