Review: Thorens TD-185 Turntable

Category: Analog

Awhile back, I owned a Denon DP-47F, a beautiful, $650 automatic turntable. Ever since, I’ve sometimes missed the automatic functions -- for late-night listening, it’s great to know you won’t fall asleep and wake up to find that your stylus has been scraping against the record label for ten hours. Still, I wasn’t ready to give up my Rega P2, so I looked for a cheap alternative to the Denon for occasional use.

I found the Thorens line at J&R Music World. The TD170, TD185 and TD190 are all available at good prices. J&R shipped me the middle of the range, the TD185, for $329 plus about $12 shipping. It arrived in two days. Not bad, considering it includes the wonderful Ortofon OMB-10 moving magnet cartridge, a $100 value all by itself.

That’s the good part. Here’s the bad part: I’ve never seen a piece of junk quite like this. I had no idea Thorens had sunk so low. I’m glad to hear that a new owner has taken over, and their new $1000+ tables are outstanding. (They’re designed by the same man who did the Acoustic Signature line, and they use Rega arms, so you know they’ve got to be good.) But I’m sad that garbage like this remains in their lineup. It’s a blight on an otherwise highly desirable range of turntables.

First, the tonearm on the TD185 is a disgrace. It’s a flimsy, imprecise thing that looks like what you’d find on a BSR changer from 1975. The plinth is equally sad: it’s made of the cheapest plastic, with a nasty black finish ugly texture. The platter rings like a church bell. The rubber mat is, well, hard rubber. The speed change switch feels like it may break off at any second, and the detents are awfully vague. And the dustcover is clear plastic, doing nothing to hide the misery underneath. Not encouraging.

The good part is, setup is easy. The belt comes already installed. Of course, there was oil leaking from under the platter onto the plinth, but I had no patience to investigate that. I just wiped it off with a damp cloth. A pitiful wall-wart power supply is included, which connects to the ‘table with a barrel-type jack that, incidentally, slips out of the socket very easily. I guess this option was chosen over an onboard power supply and hardwired cord to accommodate multiple voltages, as I assume this table sells in Europe and the US.

Once you get past all that, just screw the counterweight on, balance the sad excuse for a tonearm, dial up 1.5gm, and you’re done. To the Thorens’ credit, the actual tracking force was close to what the markings on the counterweight said. When I checked it with my Shure stylus pressure gauge, it read 1.6 grams. (This is not easily accomplished, because as soon as you move the arm from the armrest, the platter starts spinning. I had to stop it with my hand and disconnect the power supply, then drop the arm onto the scale.) The cartridge alignment seemed to be about right, but because the Ortofon doesn’t have square sides, you’ll have to use the cantilever’s position relative to the lines on your alignment gauge as a guide.

I put a record on the platter and hit play. The Thorens shuddered to life, clicking, clacking and ticking as the tonearm jolted up from its rest, cranked jerkily to the left and set down ungracefully on the intro groove. Its return action was equally uninspiring.

I played three records, which was all I could stand. These were Peter Gabriel’s “So,” Randy Newman’s “Land of Dreams” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love.” Surprisingly, they sounded like music. I give most of the credit to the Ortofon cartridge. On a good arm and table, this is probably all the cartridge most people will ever need. (Thorens using the Ortofon reminds me of when Ford used to put really expensive tires on the old Mustang GT -- it stuck to the pavement very well, but the tires were doing about 70% of the work, not the suspension.)

It’s somewhat unfair to evaluate an unbroken-in cartridge on a junkheap of a table, but here’s what I heard: vocals were okay, instruments generally sounded natural, but the timing was totally screwed up. The more complicated the musical passage, the worse things got. Any sense of perspective disappeared, along with all sense of rhythm and pace. Whatever sound quality there was came from the quality of the recording and the Ortofon’s easygoing nature.

I can’t imagine who this ‘table was aimed at. Audiophiles? Nope, we have the Music Hall and Pro-Ject entry level decks to choose from, and they are excellent, if flawed, performers. The casual listener? No again, as they’d probably be more attracted to a P-mount setup from Sony, Denon or Technics in the $150 range. So who’s supposed to buy this thing? Fools like me, I guess.

Anyway, I called J&R for a return authorization number. Even they didn’t seem to want it back: they asked if I’d keep it providing they took some money off the price tag. I politely declined. Hopefully, they’ve credited my charge card by now. If they have, then I have no complaints about J&R: fast service, gruff but friendly reps (hey, it’s NYC) and easy returns. Provided you know exactly what you want and don’t need advice, you’ll do fine. (By the way, they sell the Ortofon OM-10 by itself for $49 with free shipping –that’s about $50 less than you’ll find it anyplace else. I’d recommend stealing one before they either realize their mistake or come to their senses. The Ortofon seems promising; I wish I could’ve sent the ‘table back and kept the OM-10 for my troubles.)

In fairness, I was recently at Audio Classics in Vestal, NY and they had a Thorens TD190 on display. It still looked junky next to secondhand Rega, Linns and VPIs, especially considering you could get a brand new Music Hall MMF-5 or Rega P2 for the same $500, or a used Rega for less then $300. But the TD190 was more solid and better built than the TD185. That isn’t saying much, I guess.

My advice: avoid the Thorens TD185 like the plague. Even as a second ‘table for your office or den, it’s not up to snuff. I wouldn’t buy it for the kids either, as they’ll probably manage to beat it into submission within a few days. I certainly wouldn’t trust my treasured LPs to its awful tonearm. Music lovers have no business messing with this pitiful contraption. This was the worst, most depressing audio experience I’ve ever had in my life. Weeks later, I’m still recovering.

Associated gear
Rega P2 turntable
Denon DL-160 moving coil cartridge
Rotel RC-980 preamplifier with MM/MC phono stage
Rotel RA-970 amplifier
Sony SCD-CE775 SACD player
ProAc Tablette 2000 loudspeakers
Paradigm speaker stands
Kimber 4PR speaker cables
Various Audioquest/VampireWire/Kimber/Monster interconnects
Monster Power HTS 2500 Power Center
Record Doctor II record cleaning machine/Disc Doctor record brushes
StudioTech HF series racks
Audioquest MC cartridge demagnetizer
Sennheiser HD580 headphones

Similar products
Rega P2
Linn Axis
Dual CS505
Denon DP-47F
Music Hall MMF-2.1
Music Hall MMF-5
Wow! I've never read such a bad review. Refreshing! Thanks for your time and thoughts. I used to own a Thorens about 15 yrs ago, with a lovely Rosewood base and decent tonearm and Grace Ruby cartridge, and it was first-class all the way. I later gave it to my brother, who still uses it, even the Grace is still good. I don't remember the model no., it certainly wasn't that piece of crap. I think J&R is a great online dealer, however, and very honorable about returns. I've bought tons of stuff from them in the computer and video depts, never the audio dept.
Thanks for the review, I may buy a budget TT in the not so far off, this new model from Thorens had been of interest because I have owned their TT in the past.

Well... we've a long way since the TD 160! Interesting review.
Just a follow-up: I got my credit card statement yesterday and J&R promptly credited my account as promised for returning the Throens. Good service.
That looks like a re-badged Dual 400 series to me - the arm is certainly a dead ringer.

This just makes me sad. Ah well.

Nice to get such an honest review, glad to see you got the refund.
The best Thorens is an old one that has been brought back to factory specs., with some modifications using modern materials. The 160, 166 and 126 are excellent when modified.
They will rival anything currently on the market.
Excellent review. I also tried one of these Thorens tables; in my case, it was the TD-170: one step down from yours. I agree with everything you say about the quality. To your BSR reference, the slider controls for the auto functions look and feel like the ones on old BSR changers, too. My main problem with the table, though, was that it ran too fast, so much so that the music was notably sharp. I don't know if you had the same experience, but I couldn't live with that. Thanks for the review.
I own a TD190 which is a better unit. It sits next to my
MMF5 Music Hall and I keep it for the same late at nite
reason mentioned in the review. It has a set down adjustment
where you can stick a screw driver though the hole and turn
for different set downs if you change cartridges. It is a
clone of the CS455 Dual which I also previously owned but
has a 78 rpm option. I've had good luck with it over a couple of years, even having a Bluepoint special on it which
was not compromised by the turntable. Currently running a
Clearaudio classic wood. If discounted to the $399 range,
it can be a decent value in an automatic and certainly a
notch up from the $200 type automatic units out there.
Glad to see a negative review, for the sake of balanced and true opinion. Frankly I would have liked to see the inexpensive alternative do well. However if its not up to snuff its good to know. I am looking for a second table. I already own an MMF-5 which suits me well but was hoping for a miraculously inexpensive table that performs well. Everything else gets very expensive quickly (never loved the Rega tables good arms though.) I guess its vintage time!