The resurgence of interest in vinyl has seen the emergence of some wacky LP-spinners, and thrown a welcome lifeline to a number of formerly endangered turntable manufacturers.
Thorens falls perfectly into this category, having had a near-death experience in 2000, but now finding itself in rude health.
The Swiss/German company has been making mechanical music devices since before the dawn of sound recording and, while there has been some diversification of late into audio electronics, turntables still feature prominently in the company's catalogue.
Indeed, the TD850 is just one model among eleven in the current line-up, with prices varying from a hundred to several thousand pounds.
All are once again available in the UK thanks, this time round, to UKD. Features and appearance vary quite widely across the range, with the 800 series models being pretty much the 'bare bones' players in most ways. They share basic construction, though this one is, at 21kg, the heaviest of the series and a substantial bit of machinery.
Most of that weight is accounted for by the thick plate of steel at the heart of the main chassis member. It is sandwiched between two pieces of MDF, which are bonded to it with elastic glue.
This is known as 'constrained layer damping' and is a remarkably effective way of reducing resonance. Thorens suggests that in this case resonance is completely banished, though to be pedantic we'd have to disagree as there's still a little in evidence if one taps the chassis with a knuckle.
There's quite a lot of resonance in the platter, too. It's a thick aluminium affair that weighs over 4kg, and the felt mat does little to damp it.
On the other hand its sheer weight will do a fair bit to minimise any speed variations. It's driven by a square section belt, which is not quite as good in principle as a high quality flat belt, but surely preferable to round section types which love to 'wander' up and down drive pulleys and surfaces.
The belt is, in turn, propelled by an AC motor mounted at the rear. As is near-invariable practice these days, the supply to that motor is not pure mains but a freshly generated sinewave produced in an outboard box.
This is powered by yet another box, which at least ensures hum fields can be kept remote. Speed selection is just a matter of flicking a switch to change the sinewave frequency, but we were slightly surprised to find that the reference source is not a crystal oscillator but an 'RC' circuit that is considerably less stable. On the other hand, it is trimmable should you choose to take the lid off the case.
Because turntables 'read' vibration in the stylus, they are unavoidably sensitive to vibrations in the structure - hence the fuss about resonance. So, isolation from the outside world is critical.
Thorens has addressed this by fitting polymer-damped spiked feet to the TD850: the weight is enough to make these leave a mark in a wooden shelf, but matching cups are also supplied.
With or without cups, though, the feet offer relatively little isolation and some kind of suspended isolating platform would seem to be an obvious upgrade for this particular model.
The arm fitted to our sample was a Thorens TP300, a badge-engineered version of the Rega RB300. This old favourite, certainly one of hi-fi's most famous products and an all-time reference for budget arms, is a straightforward and reliable design.
It features simple, yet very accurate adjustment of the downforce, supplied by spring rather than gravity, which greatly improves tracking of warped discs. This is a standard fitment, though the cheaper TP250 and dearer SME309 are also available.
A cartridge is not supplied with the deck, though our review sample came with a Goldring Elite (pictured) which we were happy enough to use for most of the time. Strangely, there's no lid available - we strongly recommend buying a universal one or arranging some sort of protection. Dust and LPs are sworn enemies!
We found a lot to like about this turntable's performance. Most of all, we like it because it produces a very immediate, upfront sound with good rhythmic drive and clear articulation. It also has some limitations though, particularly with the way it handles detail, but we'll come back to that in a minute.
It's often said that one can tell a fair amount about a turntable just from the noise the run-in groove makes. We wouldn't like to put too much faith in that theory, but we definitely got a strong impression of the TD850 from the first few bars of music we heard from it.
In a fit of analogue nostalgia, the first disc to grace its platter was Pink Floyd's The Wall, an album that starts with a short whimper followed by a very pronouned bang. The former may not tell anyone very much about anything, but the latter, well played, has the ability to make one jump after any number of hearings, and on the TD850 it certainly did that.
One aspect of the deck's performance that seems remarkably consistent is the impact and sheer scale. Even changing cartridges leaves these aspects untouched: Goldring's Elite is always generally lively, but even when replaced by a super-laid-back Shure moving-magnet cartridge, the sound remains energetic.
This would make the deck a natural, one might think, for rockers, but plenty of musical styles benefit from that natural exuberance, not least opera and large symphonic works. Shostakovich, for instance: a man never afraid to use plenty of brass percussion, his music came up in full mock-martial brilliance with all the thrills, spills and terrors of Stalin's Russia easy to imagine.
In a sense, that sums up probably the most admirable and attractive musical virtue of this turntable: its evocative way with music. Indeed, it's more evocative than most CD (and indeed DVD-A/SACD) players and, while it's utterly pedantic, this may be due in some part to imperfections rather than any arcane secret to higher fidelity. We're inclined to say that something that feels as good as this surely can't be all bad.
Not quite everything about the TD850 has us in such admiring mood, though. We have to admit to niggling doubts about whether in the end it's all it might be. The sound gets your attention - great. It doesn't seem to have much trouble holding your attention for long spans - even better.
But we found that attempts to analyse exactly what in the music is grabbing our attention were obstructed by vagueness at a level somewhere below the bright and clearly etched surface. This makes it hard to hear deep into the music and work out what's going on.
You might think that only a musician trying to nick a riff, or a musicologist researching orchestration, would want delve that far into the music: but in a way we all do it to some extent, subconsciously, on repeated hearings of a piece.
First time through the overall shape and sound make an impression, but on second and subsequent hearings the brain looks for more detail to enhance the novelty, since the outline is now familiar, and this is where we felt some disappointment. In a way there's just a little too much of the TD850's own sound in evidence.
There's definitely mileage in good isolation, and our custom-made turntable support of many years' standing (40kg of concrete and lead on an air bellows) reduced the effect, but it didn't eliminate it. Indeed, it couldn't, because acoustic feedback is only part of the problem.
Playing LPs is all about mechanical action and reaction, and the small (but not vanishing) residual amount of resonance in the turntable's structure is inevitably excited by the process and just slightly muddies the sound, masking the finest detail.
It's a shame because in many ways this is a very right-sounding product. It's good-looking and practical (even with a missing lid!) but in the end we find ourselves thinking that it's a good turntable but not, perhaps, a great one.