REVIEW: 77 Mfg Co Starmap – Small details, big difference

The Linn LP12 is an iconic turntable that seems to have been around forever. Not only that, but it’s become synonymous with numerous upgrades, both official and independent. Now a South African company has joined the update fray …

By Deon Schoeman

Few turntables are as universally famous as the Linn LP12. Produced by Linn in Scotland since 1972, one of its hallmarks has been the availability of a long list of upgrades, allowing the owner of a basic LP12 to progress to a top-end version over time.

Of course, it was also a clever marketing move by Linn founder Ivor Tiefenbrun, because it kept LP12 owners in the Linn fold, and opened up a steady revenue stream – especially since the upgrades weren’t particularly cheap.

That fact created an opportunity for independent companies to develop and produce LP12 upgrades of their own. Like Linn’s proprietary upgrades, most of these have focussed on areas such as the power supply, the bearing, the motor, the suspension, armboards, the subchassis and the plinth.

Conducting a search on Google will reveal a vast repository of information regarding Linn’s own upgrades, and those on offer from the likes of The Funk Firm, Origin, Audio Origami, and many others.

I’ve owned an afromosia-plinth LP12 with an Ittok tonearm for more than three decades now. It was a well looked after, pre-owned example back then, and it’s seen a lot of use – and a lot changes – since then.

Linn-original updates fitted to my LP12 include the Cirkus (improved sub-platter, better bearing, new springs, new armboard), the Trampolin base board, and the Lingo off-board power supply.

More recently, I opted for a Funk Firm Funk Link, with a new carbon fibre top plate being the most obvious aspect, as well as a Cardas tonearm cable.

Now, there’s a new boy on the LP12 upgrade block – and it’s a South African outfit, trading under the 77 Manufacturing Company moniker. One of the founders is Dewald Visser, whose DewAudio projects are well-known in audio circles – but while the images still show the DewAudio logo, the upgrades will be marketed solely under the 77 Manufacturing Co brand going forward.

For now, the upgrade products on offer by 77MfgCo comprise the Starmap, which replaces the standard top and bottom plates, and the Startrail, which is a subchassis replacement similar in some ways to Linn’s Keel.

I had the Starmap upgrade kit fitted by Wayne Roux at HFX Systems a few months ago, before its official introduction to the market, so I’ve had ample time to assess the impact of the kit.

AT FACE VALUE

First things first: this is no backyard, Heath Robinson upgrade. The Starmap kit comes professionally packaged, complete with instructions, and is meticulously CNC-milled and powder coated for a high-quality look.

The kit consists of a new top plate, offered in either black or silver, and a new base plate. The top plate has been designed to offer enhanced stiffness, and to address inherent resonance, both of which can impact negatively on sonic performance.

The partnering base plate continues that theme by both strengthening the plinth and further improving overall stiffness. It also makes provision for replacing the standard feet with coupling spikes or specialist isolating feet.

UNDER THE COVERS

Clearly, a lot of thought has gone into the Starmap kit. The top plate has a dual-layer construction designed according to constraint-layer damping principles.

What that means is that two dissimilar plates are chemically and mechanically bonded together, creating an inherently damped structure that is also extremely rigid.

The plate is said to be able to effectively dissipate spurious energy, and because of the way it’s fixed to the plinth, the overall turntable construction is much more stable and rigid than before.

The bottom plate further contributes to this enhanced stiffness. It features a 6mm thick construction comprising a laminate of aluminium plates, and is fixed to the plinth via 10 screws that firmly couple it to the plinth.

The base plate offers a quartet of M6-threaded holes that will accept specialist aftermarket isolating feet, or generic spikes.

SETTING UP

My LP12 lives on a heavy, spiked metal stand with decoupled MDF shelves. The top shelf is home to an Avid Hi-Fi Platform, an isolating base resting on sorbothane feet.

I fitted the newly Starmap-upgraded turntable with a set of M6 stainless steel spikes. These are usually an accessory offered by Bowers & Wilkins as loudspeaker supports, and come with ceramic pucks to protect wooden floors and other sensitive surfaces.

Apart from any sonic benefits, the spikes allow precise levelling of the turntable, which already makes fitting them worthwhile.

The LP12’s Ittok arm was equipped with an Ortofon MC Quintet Black S cartridge for initial before/after listening, but much of the subsequent listening was conducted in the company of a Van den Hul The Crimson moving-coil cartridge.

Two phono stages – a Valve Audio Whisper and an Ayre P-5xe – were used during the course of the review, both feeding an Electrocompaniet EC4.7 pre-amp, connected to my PS Audio M700 monoblocks driving Vivid Audio V1.5 speakers.

SOUNDS LIKE …

I’ve always enjoyed the Linn’s inherent musicality. There is something special to the way it treats music – an organic honesty that might not be the last word in accuracy, but unwaveringly captures the heart and emotion of the music.

It’s certainly inherently good enough to host top-end cartridges – in my system, it’s most often fitted with an Ortofon Cadenza Black – and while I’ve never been tempted to upgrade the Ittok arm, I’ve seen and heard many LP12s with much fancier arms.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of the Starmap kit: logic told me that the structural improvements promised would translate into less interference, mechanical and otherwise, and thus a better resolved audio signal.

Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the substantial improvements the Starmap modification achieved.

Perhaps most startling, and most obvious, is the bass performance: I’ve never heard my Linn resolve low frequencies as assertively. The bass sounded fast, powerful and punchy, but without losing any of that vital, organic texture and palpability that I’ve always associated with the LP12.

Those immaculately recorded drum slams on Dire Straits’ ‘Private Investigations’ (from Love Over Gold) have never sounded as powerful and majestic, and not only in terms of pure impact and pace, but also as far as precision and control were concerned.

The spacious ambience of the production seemed more generous and more dimensional, while the Linn also examined the finer details more closely.

Recordings that sounded a little flabby before became far better resolved, which in turn allowed microdetails and subtleties previously swamped by that bottom-end boominess to be revealed.

Thus, the LP12 now coped with the often overblown richness of ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ on the Stan Getz/Joao Gilberto collaboration, Getz/Gilberto, with far greater aplomb.

The music retained the tonal depth, viscosity and presence that makes it so compelling, but the Linn displayed a greater grip on the music, and was also able to reveal so much more, and with greater assurance.

The added low-frequency precision, control and urge allowed the overall sound picture to benefit from a more solid, better defined tonal platform. There was a stronger sense of overall poise – both in tonal and temporal terms – and a more bountiful harvest of detail.

That, in turn, brought a broader spread of musical information to the fore, which added to the realism and immediacy of the listening experience. Getz’s saxophone on ‘P’ra Machucar Meu Coracao’ was commanding and spellbinding, dominating the subtle guitar accompaniment and the liquid piano in a way that seemed imminently, almost startlingly real.

I also found that large-scale works gained greater spatial scope and authority: Beethoven’s seminal Symphony No. 7, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert Von Karajan, sounded majestic and moody, with the modded LP12 finding more space and depth, and also managing to create a more stirring sense of dynamics.

The strings were both rich and graceful, but never lacking in attack, while the kettle drums seemed more vividly presented than I remembered. The overall presentation was best described as panoramic, with a tremendous sense of dimension.

THE BOTTOM LINE

It’s easy to forget that the signal path from the phono cartridge tracking the grooves of an LP record to what you eventually hear is a tenuous one.

The signal levels are exceedingly low – around 0,5 mV in the case of your average moving coil cartridge. That makes it particularly prone to outside interference, be it mechanical or electrical: even the slightest bit of vibration or noise can smudge, smear or obscure.

In that context, anything that reduces the chances of interference has the potential to improve what you eventually hear.

For all its long-established magic, the fact that the LP12 is not perfect is widely acknowledged. The Starmap kit appears to succinctly address some of the Linn’s weaknesses, and the result is substantially improved performance.

Even better news is that the kit is not only meticulously manufactured, but also very affordable compared to Linn’s own upgrade kits. Which means it represents exceptional value for money.

In the very long time I’ve owned my LP12, this is the best money I’ve spent on it. Next stop? The Startrail replacement subchassis. Watch this space.

DESIGNED AND PRODUCED BY
77 Manufacturing Company
SUPPLIED AND FITTED BY
HFX Systems
PRICE
R8 000 excluding fitment

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
Van den Hul The Crimson MC cartridge
Ortofon MC Quintet Black S cartridge
Valve Audio Whisper phono stage
Ayre P-5xe phono stage
Electrocompaniet EC4.7 pre-amp
PS Audio M700 monoblocks
Vivid Audio V1.5 speakers

SOFTWARE
Stan Getz, Joao Gilberto – Getz/Gilberto (Verve/Mobile Fidelity)
Beethoven – Symphony no. 7 – Von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic (DG)
Dire Straits – Love Over Gold (Vertigo)