Jean Nantais - Reference Lenco MKIII interview part two

Here is the part two interview with Jean Nantais, where we touch the topics of Reference Lenco MKIII, vinyl revival and high-end audio industry in general. In the photos across the interview you can see the latest Reference Lenco MKIII, delivered to the client who owns the $100,000 Audio Note M10 preamplifier. Photos also include the making of the veneer from a local stump of maple burl complete with moss, through to the finished product and two enormous power supply chassis in black cases, one each for each channel of the M10. You can see the brut from the stump au naturel through the process to veneer and finally the finished table. Enjoy…

You're bringing the updates to your Reference line. What are the upgrades and what do they address?

The Reference Lenco MKIII is a result of my ongoing development for my "Ultimate Lenco" (which will have a different name, platter and chassis).  As part of what I do, I evaluate the sounds of materials, including metals, which had to be sized to work in a known context to allow comparison and evaluation, which was a Reference Lenco MKII.  Consequently, the prototype chassis was a drop-in replacement for the original chassis, but with the new work and materials.  The bottom plate was made of one metal, while the separate decorative upper part (the rectangle of the Lenco chassis, which also carries the speed positions) was made of simple aluminum.  A system was designed to align the two parts so the speed position lever geometry would be correct and both parts would preserve the stock chassis’ geometry.  Separating the two parts reduces the noise fed back into the system from the upper chassis, now only connected via the contact at the speed lever, and made of a solid material which vibrates less than the original chassis, which is stamped metal filled in with epoxy-resin to damp vibration. The new chassis was a great success sonically, being both stiffer than the original chassis and made of a sonically-superior alloy, leading to greater clarity, detail, definition and naturalness.  I had also designed a new main bearing, to deal with the different dimensions and stresses which will come with the platter for the “Ultimate Lenco” and to reduce the noise floor.  It, too, in isolation (i.e. tested in a Reference Lenco MKII), was sonically superior to the Reference main bearing: the noise floor dropped and the speed stability increased, which ALWAYS leads to across-the-board sonic improvements.  

Both together, on a  Reference Lenco plinth, proved to be far greater than the sum of their parts.  And so, since all the extensive work was done and repeatable, I made it official as a new upgrade/model, many customers opting to upgrade their MKIIs, and many another commissioning the MKIII from new.

There is no stopping of vinyl releases. This seems to be way over the trend labeling. How do you see it?

Vinyl is now a social phenomenon: an underground thing on campuses and in high schools; and for the past several years it is featured in many Hollywood movies, television shows and even commercials.  The news regularly features the vinyl revival, which feeds the phenomenon further, and so the larger labels are now back into the game.

What tonearms would you recommend for your turntables and why?

I build everything from “Beer Budget” ‘tables on up to my “Ultimate Lencos”, and so I get to experience a large diversity of tonearms and cartridges.  Matching the tonearm to the cartridge and both to the associated system (phono stage, cables, system as a whole) is more important than any single tonearm.  However, combinations I have found to be superb are the Ikeda tonearms with Ikeda MCs, the Kuzma 4-point with Koetsus,  Dynavector tonearms with Dynavector cartridges and Clearaudios, and so on.  At the lower end of the spectrum, Rega tonearms are especially synergistic with my rebuilt Lencos and sound excellent (i.e. PRaT, coherence) with pretty well any MC.  There are of course all sorts of excellent matches possible.
Any special take on the cartridges?

As with the tonearms it’s the match that matters more.  I personally prefer cartridges with great energy, having started a conversation on Decca cartridge, and a conversation on MMs vs MCs, at roughly the same time I started the Lenco/Idler discussion.  So, for day to day listening I am currently greatly enjoying the Clearaudio Talismann - which is tipped up and so requires some work to balance out tonally - which is incredibly entertaining in terms of rhythm and liveliness.  But, again, it’s the match that counts: I consider every cartridge and every tonearm as simply waiting for the right match.

We discussed before, but once again your turntables are still marching proudly and bold among the new comings. How so?

OK, to how I am doing this: I am very careful in my selection of materials, and arrangement and assembly of my materials.  Many favour exotic, rare and expensive materials (woods, metals, plastics,  even glues etc.), assuming that automatically means sonic superiority.   So many simply imitate the materials used in extremely expensive offerings.  This gives me an advantage:  though I don’t get the marketing advantage of use of these materials,  I do get results, which filters out there slowly but surely.  I also concentrate on optimizing torque and so speed stability, as I never had any doubt that this is why idlers can perform to such a high level.  Finally, as this is the great Achilles Heel, it is believed, of idler-wheel drive,  I constantly work on dropping the noise floor ever further to extremely low levels, even by top belt-drive standards.  The idler-wheel drive system – great speed, dynamics and excellent timing are inherent – does the rest and assures a very modern sound, but with the flesh – bass frequencies up into the midrange - that much modern equipment misses.

Do you think we should pay more respect to the past and heritage of high end audio?

I do, and get many of my ideas by paying attention to what the great minds wrought before I came, as SET designers and the high-efficiency crowd do as well.  There were several brilliant people involved in development in the past, and the internet fosters a newer-is-better mentality, so that today’s mediocrity, in some cases, is considered superior to yesterday’s genius, or great talent, simply because they are new and current.

Do you think that current high end audio movement lost its compass? 

Overall, there is a definite movement in the high end, encouraged also by the mainstream press, towards the “digital” sound, which is thin and bright, an endless emphasis of detail which is often achieved by stripping away the fundamentals.  Anything which goes the other way – big woofers, a rich sound, naturalness – is considered “retro”.  This is not to say there are not many companies who strive towards naturalness in sound and embrace the “retro” – i.e. natural - sound.

What's new at your workshop?

Currently I am building the first five “Ultimate Lencos”, already spoken for.  For the platter,  I had followed the same process of using the Reference Lenco MKII as a test-bed/context.  So, I tested both the alloy and the machining method by manufacturing a platter which was dimensionally identical to the stock Lenco platter.  This was also a great success, both first public demonstrations leading to on-the-spot sales, so making a new Reference Platter available to clients owning my ‘tables, which several of my clients have already upgraded to.

‎Why wood chassis make such a profound impact on the performance?

Wood is the perfect material (certain woods, that is) being not so “soft” it actively absorbs energy (i.e. sorbothane, lead shot, sand, oil baths etc., all of which have been tried in record player construction); and not so hard it reflects energy and causes brightness and various other sonic aberrations.  It also allows “Direct Coupling”: using screws sunk into the wood for maximum transference and dissipation of noise/vibration, rather than simply sandwiching a chassis to a plinth using bolts or worse, having the chassis balancing loosely on “decouplers.”  Finally, wood, depending on structure, carries a certain “energy” which can be tapped into to make music reproduction more potent, the secret to my Reference plinths.  The same holds true of metals and plastics.

Who are new owners of your turntables? What makes them specific?

For the most part, these are those tired of mass-market productions, and those who are searching for something better (i.e. more musical and exciting) and different (a different path).  So not surprising that many (but not all) are SET/high efficiency followers, for instance.

Where does hi-fi turntable stops and high end performance comes in?

Hi-Fi, which descended from “High Fidelity”, has unfortunately come to mean an aggressive sound intended to impress on first listening.  This usually means bright, the easiest way to make detail obvious.  This quickly becomes tiring, leaving an unhappy customer.  High end performance should lead to long-term satisfaction, meaning yes, the detail and information, but presented in context with all the body.

What still make idler turntables such an involving and potent machines? 

Their great advantage over other systems is their torque, and the fact their torque is pure analogue.  This leads to a combination of speed, dynamics timing and naturalness all at once which is supreme, in my view at putting the “music” back into music reproduction.  Which was the whole reason I decided to start an “Idler-Wheel War”.

What future brings with your venture?

Who knows long term?  But soon, the first “Ultimate Lenco,” my Statement on idler potential realized (even further), will be ready for delivery, Merry Christmas!

Any last thoughts for our readers? 

Don’t be fooled by obvious detail in sound reproduction, and always listen for that hard to identify something that puts a smile on your face, but you don’t know why. At some point the reason for the smile will become apparent, be it SET, Class A, high sensitivity, two-way, single-driver or idler.