Lenco Idler Wheel Drive MK2 by Jean Nantais

Collaboration of passion between Jean Nantais and Matej Isak


There is no secrecy, that I'm a turntable fan if you're been following my venture for past few years. It's my topmost guilty pleasure to introduce another exclusive passionate collaboration between Matej Isak of Mono & Stereo and this time Jean Nantais's www.idler-wheel-drive.com. 

Eyes (and ears) wide open

Keep an eyes open for upcoming revelations. We'll document what will happen along the way of creational process and as with final lab-audio revelations in my setup. These all comes as desert for analog turntable fans.

Future retro?

It's funny how so called "vintage" drives can give a run for both performance and money, when done right, to some of the contemporary giants. This refreshed machines often bring much more sense of music, then modern refined siblings. 

Why Jean Nantais and why Lenco Idler Wheel Drive?

This is THE Turntable and MAN behinds it, that started quite a (r)evolution. Sadly an Audiogon thread about phenomena is down, but you can download and read it here, if you want to dig deeper. Salvatore made quite a stir with his impressions of Jean masterpiece and flames spread all over. There were no turning back as it seems.

So, to our mutual point ... Jean is bringing in 2012 a new updated Mk2 version. For this exclusive collaboration he tracked down very special, rare and unique wood to beautify the exterior. It's extremely rare Yellow Birch Burl, harvested from stumps high in the mountains of British Columbia in the west of Canada only in summer. To label this piece of wood as impressive would be an understatement. It's striking!

Scroll down at the bottom of page for more shots
What's new in Lenco Idler Wheel Drive MK2 version?

The MKII version of Jean work is the result of a series of new pieces, processes and techniques aimed at further improving the Lenco's already amazing torque, speed stability and further dropping the noise floor, and also at imprroving ease of use and repeatability/accuracy. The better the speed stability, the greater the information-retrieval across the frequency spectrum; dropping the noise floor has the same effect. Add in the great torque of vintage idler-wheel drives, further perfected, and so increase the sense of coherence, speed, dynamics micro and macro, the infamous PRaT and, seemingly in opposition, delicacy. The totality of all this - especially the dynamic freedom and amazing PRaT - are symbolized by the leaping dolphin, an iconic representative of freedom and joy, in this case a freeing of the music, and its power. On each plinth Jean will be insetting a small dolphin, somewhere, as a further signature of his work.

How everything started for Jean?

Let him do the talk:

Several years ago, back in the dark pre-internet days of near-total belt-drive dominance, in a land far far away (Helsinki), I discovered idler-wheel drives – never having seen one before, that I knew of (I grew up with a record-changer) – and heard vastly superior bass slam, overall slam and timing abilities to any high-end belt-drive I had ever owned or heard (Linn LP-12 included). That machine was a humble Garrard SP-25 record changer which, not functioning, I stripped down to the drive system and to which I added a decent cartridge and phono cable . The sound not only had amazing timing and SLAM, but was also quite gifted in terms of information-retrieval. I found myself, back in 1993, touring the high-end shops of Helsinki with the little modded machine under my arm, and demonstrating my results. In one case, at the location of a well-known Scandinavian high-end chain, a salesman hooked up the little machine to an extremely high-end system – full-range speakers, high-end amplification – and a boardroom door upstairs opened up and a host of executives poured out to hear what they thought was the latest high-end CD player, and when the salesman pointed to the little SP-25, they simply stared and without a word shuffled back into the board room and shut the door. The salesman himself asked me to modify his Reference Thorens for idler-wheel drive operation. Not burdened with a completely rebuilt high-quality machine but instead a low-quality mass-market machine, I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that the only explanation for what I – and others – was hearing was the drive system, since there could be no other explanation. So began my search for a better example of the breed, and not able to find a Garrard 301 or 401 locally in those pre-internet days, which I could see advertised at the backs of British audio magazines, I eventually stumbled upon a very heavy machine which I recognized as a much more serious proposition: a Lenco L75. I mounted a Rega tonearm and decent cartridge to it, and was greeted by the most glorious, coherent, refined and dramatic sound I had ever heard. I found myself suddenly very angry that a superior drive system had been abandoned in favour of a lesser, and wondered what I could do about it.


Ten years passed, the internet happened, I eventually returned to Canada, and I stumbled upon Audiogon and the whole notion of a “forum,” and still the belt-drive almost totally dominated the vinyl landscape: serious audiophiles only used belt-drives, the rest – idlerers and DDers alike – kept to their darkened basements and were dismissed as eccentrics, including the famed Sugano, whose Koetsu cartridges were voiced on a Garrard 401 rim-drive (kept hush-hush and to this day not a well-known fact even by experienced vinyl spinners). Though Garrards have long had a following, the followers did not see this as a drive system issue, but were simply Garrard appreciaters who believed in the inherent superiority – in some ways – of the Garrard, same as Linn LP-12 followers believe strictly in the Linn LP-12, and not in it as representative of either belt-drive’s superiority or the superiority of the three-point suspension (and why not think so in a world almost utterly dominated by the belt-drive?). In fact, when I set out, via the forums, to prove the musical superiority of the idler-wheel-drive system using the Lenco, I faced almost as much bitter opposition from Garrard followers – vintage 301s and 401s being out of reach then as now of budget-conscious DIYers – as I did from belt-drivers in general.

Using these “forums” to conduct a publicity campaign, I set out to prove to the world, via the then-unknown and so cheap Lenco, which at that time sold for $25-$50 (being considered pretty well the worst record player in the world due to the “vertical rumble theory” proposed by a reviewer who had forgotten to undo the motor transport bolts), that the vintage idler-wheel drive system was the best of the three systems: idler, belt and DD. I did this not because of any superiority I perceived in the retrieving of detail and information – which I did indeed hear – but precisely because this system is best suited to reproducing music, due to its superior timing, dynamics, and coherence, or to put it another way, beauty and excitement.

The best way to accumulate the necessary evidence without it being dismissed as anecdotal and so meaningless, was to accumulate a large enough number of reports to overwhelm any such usual tactics, of the results of comparisons between a properly set-up idler-wheel drive and top belt-drives, which in almost all cases favoured the idler (the reason to repeat experiments is to eliminate any factors – sloppy rebuilding for instance – which might mitigate accurate results). And the best way to do this was to start a DIY project on a major forum, with good visibility to appeal to the masses, and hope for the best. So started the Audiogon “Building high-end ‘tables cheap at Home Despot” thread.
The best happened, the thread became, at that time, the longest-running thread in audio history at the time the plug was pulled by Audiogon (over 4000 posts), and conversion by those who tried and matched it against various high-end belt-drives was close to 100%, a very rare event in audio (the very reason that thread went on so long and with such high numbers). So at one stroke I proved both the viability of the idler-wheel drive (proving its overall superiority is much more complicated and difficult, it turns out) and the superior abilities of the Lenco. The thread spawned dedicated Lenco forums and converts spread the word to other forums where I also worked to spread the word, and similar threads sprung up in audio forums around the world. After years of snowballing increasing awareness and exposure, not to mention lost sales, the industry took note, and now idler-wheel drive in various forms is reappearing on the market.


The idler-wheel-drive system’s superiority, I explained from the beginning, was due to the torque of the massive motors these vintage machines are equipped with, along with their drive system: a wheel which neither stretches nor contracts nor slips, transferring that massive torque to the platter. Torque, an important amount of torque (and variants of idler-wheel drive today do not provide the amount of torque the vintage machines do via their massive motors), adequately transmitted (and a belt of any sort – so far - is not adequate, even if the motors have sufficient torque), is THE most important element in the design of an effective record player, easily demonstrable: more effective torque (not simple inertia), better sound, simple and elegant as an idler-wheel drive. In fact, in equipping and comparing two identical Lencos with different motors, one weak and one strong (one must know which motors are good), one can clearly hear not only greater dynamics as one would expect of the stronger motor, but also a great deal more detail and transparency. In a similar experiment, simply substituting a stiffer spring to increase the friction between wheel and motor/platter resulted in an easy doubling of the sound quality, according to Salvatore who witnessed this (it was his Reference Lenco). Idler-wheel-drive torque is pure analogue, relying on pure torque and inertia, unlike quartz-locking/computerized direct drives, which never really open up dynamically and sound overly dry. This is the best torque, being an incredibly effective means of transferring power while minimizing noise, provided the plinth – and coupling – is good enough to control the machine. Information-retrieval, I’ve always maintained, means nothing if the music is compromised: music – timing, coherence, beauty – and a lack of detail is still music; tons of detail with no music is not music.

My work, evidently from the beginning, is focused on preserving music’s timing, coherence and beauty, and to preserving or enhancing the ability of each machine – and this means idler-wheel drive of course – to retrieve these. These can, indeed, be damaged, either by poor choice of materials, or combinations of materials, or by various poor techniques. Once these items attended to, then state of the art information-retrieval serves the music, and enhances it, but this is a very difficult, and rare, balancing act, only achievable, I believe, by a properly-restored and rebuilt vintage idler-wheel drive, to date, in the world of record players.

My arguments about idler-wheel drives and musicality caught the interest of audiophiles around the world, and I began to receive requests from these to build them such a machine, which they would pay for, in spite of my making my recipes and techniques available to DIYers. I accepted so as to continue to spread the word and so affect the industry. Over years of constant development – spurred by various criticism for which I and my clients are now grateful – I personally restored and rebuilt into various plinths more than 100 classic record players, both idler-wheel and DD (to verify my beliefs/test my theory). I rebuilt Thorens TD-124s, Garrard 301s and 401s, of course Lencos, Technics SP-10s and Sony 2250s – which I tested and evaluated against the world’s top belt-drives, direct drives and idler-wheel drives in various experiments. Over years of continuous development I experimented with materials and techniques and cast aside those which damaged musicality (yes certain materials can reduce or even fracture timing and coherence); and those I identified which preserved and enhanced it I incorporated into my record players, simple as that. In other words I have searched for – and found - ways of increasing the already-excellent information-retrieval abilities of idler-wheel drives, but only accept those which preserve and enhance musicality. As they say, there is no substitute for experience. And let’s not forget understanding.

The most recent example of my work and most developed, the Reference Lenco, has recently been judged world-class, Upper Class A, by Arthur Salvatore on his well-known website, High-end Audio. The least of my current work has been judged sonically superior, by an objective audience, to the King of rim-drive Idlers and vintage ‘tables in general, the mighty EMT 927, 150 pounds of Swiss studio precision, fetching 50,000 euros in top condition, as that one was. Those who have heard the astonishing sonic abilities of EMT idler-wheel drives, which are absolutely shocking and a true life experience, know what this means. The Lenco’s amazing sonic abilities, as with that small Garrard SP-25 years ago, are due to its drive system (though it’s implementation is special), and the EMTs are the Kings of Idlers as well as of vintage ‘tables in general.

Until further updates kindly visit Jean Nantais site www.idler-wheel-drive.com.

Matej Isak

Mono and Stereo ultra high end audio magazine
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