Exclusive interview with Jean Nantais of Idler Wheel Drive

First interview instalment with Jean Nantais of Idler Wheel Drive/Jean Nantais turntables. Interesting and intriguing reading for any vinyl/analog/turntable enthusiast…

How did all start for Jean Nantais? When you’re ‘hooked’ to turntables?   

Back in the ‘80s, when I was a student, a friend bought one of the first generation CD players on the market.  To my ear there was something cold and unnatural about the resulting sound, and so I did some research into better record players, having a cheap Akai belt-drive at the time.  I ended up buying a Rega Planar 3 turntable, did not have enough money for an accompanying new cartridge, so I simply transplanted the old cartridge (an Accutex MM as I recall) to the new ‘table, and without changing a single other thing in my system.  I heard things on LPs I thought knew by heart which I had never heard before: background instrumental lines, bass lines, bells, etc.

Do you consider yourself an audiophile? 

I used to say music lovers were different from audiophiles, who are more interested in the equipment and the information and detail extracted than in the music itself.  But the fact is, a true music lover who is not aware there is something better than MP-3 does not buy equipment for quality.  Any music lover who is aware of better quality buys audio equipment to enhance the experience of music, but it is still audio equipment.  So both types are buying audio equipment, which makes them both audiophiles.  I buy equipment which conveys the excitement, power, emotion, rhythm embedded into those tiny grooves, so yes, I am an audiophile, and have great fun discovering and acquiring equipment which conveys the music with power.

Who would you say were your inspirations or still are?

I started as an audiophile in the 80s, and my career as an experimenter/DIYer came about by reading the British magazine Hi Fi Answers, which I loved, which was a mix of honest subjective reporting, technical reporting, and experimentation.  I loved the designers who approached the problem of vinyl replay with originality and a certain economy of logic and resources, like William Firebaugh, Roy Gandy and Touraj Moghaddam, and the series of people involved in the creation of the Maplenoll air-bearing ‘table.  Apart from that, my inspiration is more on the general scientific side, where a theory is proven or disproven by testing and experiment, by gathering evidence for or against.  So, my “hero” is Daniel R. von Recklinghausen, former Chief Research Engineer, H.H. Scott who said: “If it measures good and sounds bad, it is bad; if it measures bad and sounds good, you have measured the wrong thing.”

How do you see the present high end audio turntable industry and high end audio in general?

There is a lot of contamination of the high end by various elements which does not serve the music or the cause of audio: “price is the product” type pieces which cynically tap into a certain market; too much of aesthetics and not enough of substance; manufacturers and buyers who equate the difficult, expensive, complicated and rare with sound quality regardless of actual results; and so on.  These distort the marketplace and all of audio: not only do sonically sub-par products get out there, they are then lauded, imitated, as far as they can be, right down to the DIY level, where the aim for some becomes not achieving great sound quality, but achieving the expensive on the cheap.  This is not to say there are no good products and no good advice.  I believe that in terms of choice the high end - both in turntables and in audio in general – is better than it has ever been, thanks in part to the internet which allows small business a chance and provides DIYers with material.  There are many very good products by honest and creative manufacturers of all sizes, at all price points.  The buyer must simply research carefully, trust his or her own hearing, and not give in to marketing and peer pressure.  Trust those moments when you walk into a room and immediately think “That sounds good!”

You’re dealing with what would many consider an ancient technology, that is refurbished and put to life. What is your take on this?

Yes, it is an ancient technology, and this is precisely its strength: it was developed at a time when tracking force was something along the lines of 10 grams, so the braking action of the stylus in the groove was enormous, and required powerful motors and the non-deforming idler-wheel to drive it.  For decades it was thought that, once tracking force dropped to 2 grams and below, a belt and a small motor was enough for the job of overcoming this great friction of stylus in groove.  Furthermore, it eliminated the “inescapable” problem of idler rumble.  On the assumption belt-drive was the superior system (DD was also still fringe at that point), the “modern” machine, at the time I started my campaign to have the idler recognized as superior, was the belt-drive, and enormous resources went into further developing it. Actual comparison demonstrates better timing, greater transient speed and tighter, more powerful bass from the idler-wheel drive system – one could say in these respects more digital-like and so more modern - which means that friction remains a problem even at 2 grams and below.  Rumble was simply a lack of development.  There is still no adequate substitute for the original motors, which were designed specifically for record players in a time when vinyl was big business with tremendous R&D, and so for best results, these old machines are still the only source. Then there is the environmental angle I had hoped to achieve: prove their potential, save them from the landfills!

Why do you think the vinyl and turntables are in such revival?

While audiophiles certainly play some role in the revival, I believe it is the teenagers and young adults who are the actual driving force to the revival in LPs, as only they provide the numbers in sales of vinyl, which in turn is fuelling the record player revival. The playing of a record is understandable, meaning you can look at how it works while it is working, and understand how it works: diamond is in groove, moves magnets, produces electrical signal.  No such luck with digital sources, which disconnects the listener from the process.  Hands-on experience and physical connection is something people need in day to day life, which I believe is why the teenagers and young adults, raised in an environment of digital downloadable music, are so fascinated by it.

What would you say puts you in front of competition? 

I trust my hearing and stand my ground.  I use what works, like idler-wheel drive, regardless of price or popularity.  If what I use is not popular or expensive, which would increase my sales, but improves the sound, then I use it; if something can only be achieved by expense and effort, then I do that.

What is the special Jean Nantais way?

I am very careful, I test every assumption: I don’t assume that newer is better, that this material is better than that material, that this part can be easily replaced.  In terms of Lencos, for instance, given the very high performance possible from this machine with stock parts, I respect each piece and each part, and learn from them before attempting improvement.

At a certain point we’re stepping into the luxury pricing market. Where is the borderline and what should be different at this price point?

Life is evolution: we are happy with something, say wine, until we experience something better.  The new better wine is almost always more expensive, but we can no longer tolerate the old, and the choice is either abandoning wine, or accepting the new price.  This is not a problem unique to audio, which gets better the higher/more expensive you go, if you choose carefully.  So the idea of “luxury” depends on where on the audio ladder you currently are, and what the piece considered costs.  The higher on the ladder you are the less luxurious $5000 seems to be, if at all.  Importance of aesthetics is also dependent on the individual, and as with sound quality, greater beauty normally costs more money, depending on tastes.  In my specific case, in the beginning I was utterly focused on proving the superiority of idler-wheel drive, and at that time the best way was via a DIY project with no money to be made, to gather reports of comparisons with various high-end ‘tables.  Looks did not matter much at this stage, we (the DIYers I gathered and me) were just having fun, and the name of the game was high performance on a budget.  I learned later on that in order to gain access to higher-end systems for comparisons against higher-end ‘tables, my ‘tables had to look the part, which cost money, or I simply would not be granted access to those listening rooms.  These were not DIYers, but potential clients looking for something new, which was visually something they could live with or be proud of.  Today I am grateful: though performance is still uppermost, I have come to love the creative external woodworking part of what I do, and many find fulfilment in pride of ownership.  I have come to be fascinated by the works of nature, the patterns in wood, which to me reflects the irrational power of music.

Digital vs analog?

I am utterly focused on analog, and more specifically on vinyl and the record player chain. I have never heard digital which affected me, emotionally, as vinyl does, and so resort to it only to play certain pieces not available on vinyl.

What is the high end turntable reproduction for you? What makes it special and worthy of such recognition?

Of course, since my discovery of the idler, my perception is “biased”: high-end record player performance must first provide the dynamics, excitement, and timing and coherence without which any amount of information is only that, information.  That attended to, then the information - intelligible detail, separation, realism, air and imaging - must reach a certain level, say the point where the mind no longer has to work to fill in the blanks, and the hours roll by unnoticed.

Your turntables managed to put to knees many high end, high performance expensive turntables. How is that possible?

I believe this is evidence the idler-wheel drive system is superior: this simple drive system, in a simpler and cheaper construction, produces results superior to the other drive systems in much more expensive and complicated constructions.  In other words, the idler-wheel wheel drive system is simply more efficient. The trick is in how to realize idler-wheel-drive’s potential.

How would you describe your customers? There must be something uniting them? 

They are all music lovers, looking to extract the most satisfaction from their LP collections.