Garrard had been a turntable specialist for nearly half a century by the time this immensely successful record player was originally unveiled in 1967. The pedigree dates back to 1721, when Garrard and Company was designated Crown Jewellers of London, with the responsibility of looking after the British Crown Jewels and Royal Crown. The company found itself creating accurate rangefinders for the British Army at the commencement of World War 1 because of its unparalleled reputation for quality, and this led to new pastures. After the Great War, lathes and tools were produced, followed by spring-wound motors for the (then) new-fangled gramophones.
The marque never looked back after that. Because of a glut of competent engineering apprentices from the Great Western Railway Company, the headquarters were moved from London to Swindon, and the motor was developed. One of the best spring motors ever manufactured, according to some, was the “Super” Gramophone motor. Electrical motors were initially created in 1928, and the company produced its first record player in 1930. The 201 was Garrard’s first premium turntable, with a custom direct drive motor, and it was quickly adopted by the BBC and other professional installations. It had four speeds, just like the SP25 that followed it almost thirty-five years later: 16, 331/3, 45, and 78 RPM.
After the end of WWII in 1945, Garrard’s ties to the jewelry sector faded, and the company shifted its focus to turntables, with the 301 debuting in 1954 and claiming the title of best turntable in the world. The Autoslim series debuted in 1959 at the lower end of the market. Following a devastating fire, the company was compelled to lease industrial space from the neighboring Plessey Company Ltd. Soon after, Garrard was acquired by the Plessey Group, marking the start of the company’s ‘modern’ era.
The corporation had a productive period in the mid-1960s. In 1965, the first SP25 appeared, following the arrival of the company’s second greatest ever design, the 401. It was idler drive, just like the flagship Garrard, but unfortunately a little too much of the 16W motor’s torque was transmitted into the LP record itself via the mazak platter topped by a thin rubber mat with metal trim ring, making it sound agricultural by modern standards, but there was no denying it was a solid machine that could withstand serious abuse. It was the first rung on the hi-fi ladder, and despite its modesty, it was not considered a toy. It had semi-automatic operation, which was considered vital for a device of its type at the time.
Despite the automated stop, which always ruins the tonearm’s sound, Garrard tried to make a nice pickup on the SP25. Its straight-pipe, aluminum-tubed tonearm outperformed many of its price rivals of the time, and it could be adjusted for tracking weight and bias. The firm had clearly considered its design because it included an underslung counterbalance, a concept that would reemerge two decades later on the SME Series V! The arm’s friction was such that it couldn’t track at less than 2.5g, preventing it from being used in the development of high compliance moving magnets like the Shure M75 ED2, which would emerge a few years later.
The deck was improved over time, although all SP25s from the first through the fourth (released in 1974) were essentially the same. The mk1 and mk2 were semi-automated designs, however the mk3 came standard with completely automatic operation. There were also some small stylistic alterations, as well as adjustments to the tonearm; the first two versions of the SP25 featured removable headshells, whereas Garrard used a fixed shell with a detachable slider after that. This was created with convenience in mind, and it wasn’t quite as good in terms of sound quality as the SME types that many competitors began to adopt. It acquired a J-shaped armtube and rounded underslung counterweight with the mk5, which was released in 1975, apparently to make it look more contemporary with the then-mighty Pioneer PL-12D and its ilk. In actuality, this arm was not as well-made as the previous models.
The drive system was the other major change to the SP25. Don’t forget that Garrard was a master motor builder, and all SP25s up to and including the Mk4 used idler drive. This was reasonably speed-stable when new and delivered a gutsy, powerful sound that wasn’t too dissimilar to the new generation of direct drives, save from being slightly less smooth and quiet in operation. Following in the footsteps of the PL-12D, the mk5 added belt drive, but like its tonearm, it was a flop. Although it was quieter and more sophisticated in operation, many people preferred the sound of the mk4. The plinth became more swish with the then-mandatory smoked dustcover starting with the SP25/IV, although prior types were transparent.
In order to stay up with the times, Garrard realized in 1977 that it needed a new line of hi-fi turntables that focused more on sound and style than on convenience. While the rest of the turntable industry was betting on direct drive or belt drive, its new line offered both! The GT20, 25, and 35 had belt drive and could be entirely manual, semi-automatic, or fully automatic; the DD130, 131, and 132 had direct drive and could be fully manual, semi-automatic, or fully automatic. Despite their quality, neither variety could match the Japanese onslaught, and the company began to lose money. Garrard was sold to Gradiente Electronica of Brazil in 1979 when the SP25/V was cancelled. It was shocking at the time that a strong brand like Garrard could fail after years of having some of the best-selling products on the market. The hi-fi market of the 1970s changed at a breakneck speed.
Garrard SP25 decks don’t sound amazing, but they’re inexpensive and have a lot of character. You’ll be able to enjoy the gutsy, upfront sound that they produce if you can find one in good condition, especially with the rubber tipped idler wheel in fine original shape. The arm isn’t good enough for a finely balanced, high compliance elliptical design, so you’re better off using the pickup that came with the SP25 when it was new — a Goldring G800 or G850. They’re not going to be turned off by the high friction (by modern standards) of those massy pickup arms with tracking weights of 3 grams. Other good matches include the Shure M75/6 and, if you’re feeling particularly daring, the Arcam C77.
Some individuals alter the SP25, mainly by removing the automation; in fact, Garrard did so with the Disco Driver 80, a strange outgrowth of the SP25/VI. It will sound better, but make sure you don’t leave the deck idle with the idler gear engaged (i.e. don’t disconnect it from the mains while still in play mode) because the idler wheel could flat-spot. The deck will sound powerful, musical, and full of energy and drive if carefully set up in a solid plinth, well lubed, and fitted with a decent – but mechanically compatible – cartridge. It will have chronic wow and flutter difficulties, as well as a lot of rumbling, if it is not properly preserved and/or stored, so choose wisely!