Like my original Naim to Vitus writings, the LP12SE to Brinkmann Bardo upgrade path has become so commonplace here at Lotus that I felt it was finally time to sit down and explain it all in detail.
Many LP12 owners with the Keel and Radikal have been stuck at an upgrade dead end for some years now. Whilst having fun with small additions like the various third party top plates, counterweights and bearing modifications does bring about additional worthy improvements within the performance sphere of the Linn, the truth is that moving into the very cheapest deck we sell here at Lotus, the Brinkmann Bardo, transports you into a whole new world of performance and one which I believe is out of reach of the existing LP12 topology.
Speed control counts for so much in turntable design and until the LP12 gets a completely redesigned motor and motor drive system, a rethink of overall resonance and noise control and indeed, the tonearms improve up to current highend levels, the Linn will always exist in a distinctly lower category of ability compared to the likes of the cheaper Brinkmann decks.
What is the cost of all this you are probably wondering ? Well the Bardo with its natural partner the 10.5 tonearm retails for under £10,000 so significantly cheaper than an LP12SE with all the bells and whistles but without a fancy top plate. In some cases the switch is at a neutral or small cost to change such is the high inherent worth of a good secondhand Linn Sondek. The Bardo can also be fitted with the £1500 cheaper 10″ tonearm though to make for a £8390 package and although the 10 cannot perform as high as the 10.5 arm, overall this combination still represents a large upgrade for the SE owner.
At the time of writing we are only in Easter and this year alone I have completed 4 Bardo sales/installs and all save one were upgrades from LP12’s. On the last one just a week ago I thought it was a good opportunity to document the process and really describe in detail the sonic improvements that occur when you make the switch.
Let’s take a look at the customer’s overall system. This is a setup we have worked on for 4 years or so now, each year bringing about another steady and surefooted round of upgrades. At one point Martin logans were changed out to the very natural and open Avalon Idea floorstander, HFC cabling was added throughout and just last year, the phono stage was upgraded to the big Allnic H3000. We didn’t supply the amp but the Jeff Rowland Continuum is a decent performer and helps give this system a very natural and open feel with lots of resolution, a big open soundstage and plenty of life and vitality.
Before anything then three of us sat down to listen to the LP12. This is an ARO deck with the Keel and Radikal, Harban plinth, Khan top plate and all looked after one of the best setup guys in the business so as good as a Linn can be really with the Naim Tonearm config. We started with Edgar Meyer’s unfolding, a track I use for setup quite a lot. Overall the sound was open, wide, present in the room, very much out of the speakers and a good sort of sound overall. The tune was carried well and the deck sounded nimble with decent speed and forward propulsion. We then moved onto some music by bassist John Pattituci and then a bit of Grace Jones.
What bothered me immediately compared to how I normally hear these tracks were three things:
1. There was too much bass and a general congestion and bloat or bloom in the lower mids/upper bass. Some of this could be the room but I suspected the deck as well at least in part.
2. The tracks all sounded forced as if all the performers/instruments were being pushed forward and also amplified to a similar volume or degree of importance. The overall impression was of an unnaturally forward wall of sound with very little spatial or back to front differentiation and not enough subtelty of energy or prominence/submission of various parts of the music. Very much like what a Naim preamp does if truth be told.
3. The top end was really rather poor for this sort of level of system/cartridge. The treble seemed very “one note” with very little fine delineation of the high frequencies. High notes and percussion could come over quite coarse and splashy as if a lot of the information has been truncated away from the final sound. I know the Kleos to be way better than this and it should be almost as good as you are ever going to hear it through the H3000 phonostage.
Now being honest with you I expected 1. and I expected 2. These are standard Lp12 traits and basically what the deck sounds like and lord knows i’ve listened to enough of them. Point 3. though surprised me a little though probably because it’s been a while since I heard an ARO deck and the simple fact is whilst the ARO flows quite nicely it’s basically a little soft and really quite limited in bandwidth and extension at either end. I just hadn’t imagined that that top end would sound quite so ‘low res’. The Ekos SE would most definitely be a little better in this resepct but of course at the expense of some of the ARO’s famed liquidity.
About 40mins to an hour later and we had the LP12 out of the way and the Bardo setup. The Brinkmann install is really very easy, no bearing oil, no internal adjustment, just set the chassis down, level it up, set the arm in the correct position measuring the pivot to spindle, drop the platter onto the bearing and then setup the cart in the regular way (azimuth, overhang, alignment, tracking force, VTA).
The LP12 had a dedicated isolation plinth so we elected to install the Bardo on a PAB SE suspended platform which I sell as a good support and upgrade for most record decks. These start from only £595 and come in various sizes and materials.
With the Bardo running the same Lyra Kleos and freshly installed we proceeded to play all the same music that we’d played on the Linn. First the obvious stuff and the elements my customer expected. The Bardo is direct drive so it has exemplary speed stability. This is immediately apparent from the the first notes. The music has a fantastic precision and order to it and a high dynamic ability. On Grace Jones “Private Life”, sounds started instantaneously with no float or blur and they stopped just as quickly as well. The result was a rhythmical delivery which sounded so articulate, dextrous and accurate that it made the Sondek seem half hearted and a little imprecise. The timing and structure of the music felt a lot more complete and intelligible, everything just seemed very well ordered and assembled. With the LP12 you can almost sense that a black disc is spinning round but the Bardo is like the worlds best CD player except with the slight warmth and extra dynamics of vinyl. Like the best digital, there was also a new stability in the soundfield, a locked in anchoring of the music to physical 3d space, something that is only really ever heard with the world’s best belt drive decks which have speed stability close to a good direct drive design.
Along with this increased precision, timing and structure the Bardo immediately sounded just significantly more dynamic and resolving and with greater refinement too. Gone were the noisy curtailed highs and in it’s place just so much more treble information and microdetail. The cymbals on John Pattitucci’s “Our Family” had a lot more headroom, fine texture and air and ambience around them. Down at the other end the fast bass on Edgar Meyer’s “Unfolding” was so much more nimble, more tuneful, with more pitch and physical shape. On the Sondek it was a lot more ‘one note’ and bloated and with no dimension or actual palpability. In fact across the whole spectrum the Bardo just sounded as if it had quite a lot more dynamic range. The difference between a sound at 0% and 100% was a lot wider so the energy of notes seemingly bigger when they were present but then when not present, greater blackness ensued. It was as if the amplifier itself had been upgraded to one with more power and less noise. Whilst the deck would undoubtedly play a role in this I would imagine that a very large part of these improvements would be down to the Brinkmann arm as well.
A small caveat though and one that is perhaps more difficult to describe. Although the Bardo was clearly the more dynamic and alive sounding deck, it’s rest position or it’s overall fingerprint was of something quite a bit calmer and composed than the seemingly ‘jumped up’ Linn. But then you would expect when you remove more noise from the system and you would expect that from a neutral highend piece of equipment which would not have been created with “added energy or excitement” built into its design. Volume swings and the eruption and creation of sounds were bigger and more dramatic on the Bardo but all the tracks we played also sounded simpler, more at ease and crucially, a lot less forced. Whereas the Linn was throwing everything forward and slightly enlarging all the sounds out towards your face, the music on the Bardo was just kind of there in the room, almost as if it hadn’t actually been recreated at all. This is a key component that makes a system sound natural and it’s a very important part of what we do here and the sort of sound I believe in and will make for you.
I want to refer back to this natural presentational style again though because the other very big difference with the Bardo was that instead of all the components of a track being forward and all at a similar and seemingly heigthened volume level, there was instead a huge amount of differentiation in terms of volume, weight, size and 3d position. Gone was the “loudness button” and in it’s place the real musical shadings present in the grooves. Now we could hear the various parts of “Private Life” were firmly anchored to very different points in 3d space both left to right and more importantly front to back. There was a lot more variation in the volume or importance of different instruments as well and they had different physical shapes and sizes too. A more global way of describing all this is that the Bardo just sounded so much more balanced and nuanced, revealing subtle musical interrelationships between different bits of the music that were completely lost on the Sondek. The songs we played just sounded like they were underpinned by far greater artistry and creative ability. Instead of a cruder and more artifical wall of sound, we now had a delicate, expressive and deeply insightful rendition of the music that existed in an unforced 3d hologram in the room. Music on the Bardo just sounded a lot more real and profound and if anyone ever tells you that a Linn somehow holds all the aces when it comes to “musicality” simply reread this paragraph because all this sort of stuff is the actual definition of “musicality”.
This last point was a big surprise for my customer. I think that us Brits have had the Linn’s famed “musicality” drummed into us for so many decades now that it’s actually a real shocker when a cheaper record player is just flat out more resolving, more involving and makes the Sondek sound abbreviated, one dimensional and flat.
Was the Bardo over articulate or analytical as some direct drive turntables can be ? No, absolutely not and in fact I would hasten to add that the Bardo is as satisfying with Jazz and Acoustic as it is with Rock and Pop and music that is structured with drums and rhythm. Brinkmann have clearly done a super job in isolating the motor noise from the stylus/groove interface because the Bardo is fluid, delicate, fleshy and has no shortage of richness. It never sounds aggressive and never sounds skeletal or bleached. That it firmly outstaged the belt drive LP12 when it came to the middle of the note – reproducing the texture, fabric and harmonics of the music – is testament to the fact that it’s direct drive credentials are largely irrelevant. It’s just a damm fine performer no matter what the material and regardless of what type of turntable you are historically used to using.
Did the considerable bass lift of the system change ? Yes it did a fair bit but it soon became apparent that quite a lot of this was in the room acoustics as well. Overall though, the Bardo seemed very neutral next to the Linn. The composition of any track sounded balanced and even handed and whilst different instruments were far better separated with a lot more air and ambience between them and hence easier to follow, the total cohesion of the deck was greater as well so you were encouraged more to listen to the music in its entirety rather than sit there and pick it apart.
“Had a hour to listen last night and just put it on again tonight, yeah great sounding deck!!
What surprised me the most I guess despite it being a faster more dynamic deck is just the extra subtlety and extra nuances present, you can really hear into the mix with much greater clarity and each individual instrument or part of the mix is much more audible, yet without sounding pulled apart. The track has a really strong sense of integration and oneness and is rock solid in its pitch, everything just emerges from a blackier background.”
“My LP12 was not quite SE level but pretty close – keel, radikal, ekos 2, akiva, skale, trampolin. With the Bardo every note is much sharper and more focused right across the bandwidth. It was like lifting several veils off the Linn. The Linn has plenty of detail but it’s presented with a kind of soft focus. Building on the crispness and clarity, the Bardo is also hugely dynamic. Whilst you can hear every note clearly, the quiet ones are quiet and subtle, the loud ones are up front. Everything is presented in the correct perspective. The sound has depth and realism. You start to get a proper soundstage with the Bardo. It is a very accurate deck. There is no colouration. It just reproduces what’s on the record. And when I say that I don’t just mean the notes. It captures the presentation as it was intended. To me this is proper musicality. When you hear it you begin to understand.”
I used to own an LP12. It’s a legend in its own right and carries high pride of ownership but the cost of upgrades is disproportionately high and it still falls short of Linn’s supposed wish to evolve it into something truly highend. I haven’t minced my words here and regular customers will know that I don’t patronise or bullshit people when I sit down to write something or give advice. The Bardo is just something very very special, as is the superb Brinkmann tonearm which was originally developed from the legendary Breuer arm. It’s an extremely difficult combination to go up against.
I am in the business of helping people improve their systems and furnishing them with value for money and the means to reproduce music in the home for days, months and years on end without fatigue and wihout the incessant need to fix or upgrade things. I work very hard to deeply understand all the products I sell and there are many that I investigate very thoroughly as well but choose not too sell. The behind the scenes selection process here at Lotus is extensive, labour intensive and never ending. It’s this same care and conscientiousness that means that I went to all the trouble and investment to bring you amazing brands like Tidal and Vimberg to UK shores. If there is one thing I can safely say then, it’s that we are very good at providing customer satisfaction and after 7 years of trading I can boast quite a large club of very happy customers.
This is of course extremely gratifying to me and brings with it much pride but it really is stellar pieces like the Bardo which can claim much of the accolade. I have moved many high spec LP12 owners into one over the years and it’s a migration that has been proven to me over and over again so excuse me if I may have sounded a little emphatic and direct when I was describing the upgrade differences between these two decks. This is how it is and it’s exactly what you will discover for yourself if you come and do the demo, either here or in your own home. Of course the Linn is an emotional object and many folk don’t wish to part with it but it’s good to have the choice and if you do indeed wish to explore a whole new world then I am here to help and guide you.