By the time Compact Disc was introduced in 1983, the UK had an abundance of excellent belt drive turntables on the market. There were versions to suit every budget, from the Rega Planar 3 and Ariston RD80 to the Strathclyde 305, Dunlop Systemdek, and Linn Sondek LP12. CJ Walker, a tiny British corporation situated in Frodsham, Cheshire, was another name that came up around that time. It specialized in the production of high-quality mid-priced decks that, when fine-tuned, could perform virtually as well as higher-priced models. Apart from the fact that it utilized smart engineering in an appealing package at a price that was lower than the performance warranted, there was nothing special about this brand. Back in the 1980s, CJ Walker was the epitome of what we came to call the “cottage industry.” It was a family business; the ‘C’ in the name meant for Colin, and the ‘J’ stood for Janet, Colin’s wife. The turntable model numbers corresponded to the Walker children’s birth years!
The Walker CJ58 turntable was created with simplicity in mind; it has no frills but is skillfully conceived, engineered, and constructed. This formula was popular in other countries, with 35% of the product being exported at the time. Competition was tough in the UK, but the turntable sounded considerably better than it had any right to at its £115 retail price, allowing the firm to achieve not insignificant economic success. One can’t help but be impressed by its lack of gimmickry; remember, this was a feverish period for British hi-fi, with the Linn LP12 turntable’s hype reaching pandemic proportions. Despite the fact that CJ Walker did not promote significantly in the UK press and was not the darling of trendy journalists, he sold well enough. The CJ55, CJ58, and CJ61 were the business’s three models; the first two were similar variants on the same concept, while the third was a more radical skeleton design that was regrettably too short-lived; the company dissolved shortly after its launch.
The CJ58 appears to be a lightly revised Thorens TD150 on the surface. Perhaps this is being harsh, given you could say the same thing about almost every British turntable on the market at the time, including the Linn! Colin Walker’s theory was to manage resonances by employing organic materials to decrease coloring, therefore there was a twist. Because of this, the deck is almost entirely built of wood, with a veneered wood and particleboard plinth sitting on cork feet and a hardwood subchassis inside. This is a good idea since, while wood can be quite rigid, it is significantly less resonant than steel, for example. The platter, which was made of Tufnol, a proprietary kind of dense, resin-bonded laminate plastic, was spun by a 16-pole AC synchronous motor. With low resonance and great strength, it was an interesting choice where most rivals were using less inert Mazak platters that could ring like a bell if you tapped them. The Tufnol inner platter was driven by a belt, which was manually adjusted by shifting it on the motor pulley.
The Walker’s coil spring design was beautiful and easy to change, allowing for a pleasant, airy bounce even when the turntable was fully loaded with tonearm and cartridge without the use of special equipment. Due of the Tufnol’s characteristics, no platter mat was provided. When every deck of the time came with a choice of rubber or felt mats, this was rather revolutionary! The main bearing, which has a thrust ball in its core, is of good quality. The motor has a low torque rating and takes about five seconds to start up, which isn’t ideal by today’s standards. Nonetheless, this had a favorable impact on rumble measurements; the claimed value was an excellent 77dB DIN B weighted.
Measurements were taken extremely seriously back in the day, and the CJ58 performed admirably overall, especially considering its price. The DIN peak weighted wow and flutter number was 0.06 percent, which was outstanding considering the price. The accuracy of the speedometer was stated to be within 0.2 percent. The deck came standard with a SME armboard, as did every deck of that era; the CJ58 was also supplied new with a Mission 774LC for the princely price of £180. At 478x368x150mm, it was a quite substantial size for a deck of its price, with a high-quality acrylic dustcover completing the picture and imparting a sense of quality.
The Walker CJ58 is a fun thing to listen to, and there’s nothing else like it out there right now. Linn’s LP12 and Michell’s GyroDec, which first went on sale at the turn of the 1980s, have been polished to the point where they’re no longer the same decks. Both sounds have only progressed in one direction: tighter, tauter, crisper, and more tonally neutral. The CJ58, on the other hand, which died a natural death decades ago, sounds positively ‘old school.’ It’s like a ‘freeze-frame’ snapshot of the turntable market back in the day because the company folded before it could significantly grow it.
‘Warm and sweet’ is the best way to describe the Walker’s sound; it’s reminiscent of the good old days, when rich vinyl sources made music sound so vivid and tonally brilliant – if not precisely true. To a CJ58 owner in 1983, the contrast with Compact Disc must have been stark! This deck is definitely euphonic, but it’s not dreadfully syrupy, slow, or fat; in fact, it plays a tune pretty effectively and appears to be fairly quick on its feet. It’s simply that everything you play passes through what appears to be an effects pedal, resulting in music that is larger than life and laced with sweetness! When you play The Clash’s London Calling, it sounds huge and windy; it’s rapid and entertaining, but it’s also incredibly full-bodied. A Rega Planar 3 of the day, on the other hand, has a much thinner sound, almost as if you’ve gone from color to black and white television.
The CJ58’s only flaw is its lack of speed stability. It’s not that the deck is ‘poor,’ it’s just that it lacks the metronomic precision of modern turntables, which feature DC motors and quartz-referenced power supplies. This reminds me a little of the pre-Valhalla Linn LP12s; the mediocre speed stability produced a lovely sound in its own right — larger, looser, and woollier, but not disagreeable. Only when compared to a modern direct-drive system like the Technics SL-1200G can all the instruments within the soundstage suddenly spring into focus. The Walker didn’t ‘wow’ in a terrible way back then, but it lacks the precision of today’s high-end designs.
The Walker CJ58 sounds absolutely captivating when equipped with a serious vintage tonearm, such as the SME Series 3 or Mission 774. It’s just ‘lovely’ in a way that you don’t often hear these days; it’s a little loose, compressed, and coloured, yet the deck is still incredibly musical and seems so beautiful. By comparison, modern versions appear dry and matter-of-fact – much more like everything we disliked about Compact Disc! In most ways, the Walker is superior to a Thorens TD160 of the time, head and shoulders above a Rega, and nibbling at the ankles of an LP12 with inadequate setup. That’s quite an accomplishment considering it was only a third the price of a Rega Planar 3 at launch.
The beautiful thing about the CJ58 – and its CJ55 twin – is that Walker was never a hot brand, so there aren’t tens of thousands of guys of a certain age attempting to recapture their long-lost youth by purchasing it as their dream deck from that era. Rather, the turntable appealed to those who wanted simple, uncomplicated music — and it did so beautifully. As a result, this vintage vinyl spinner is a great buy secondhand and a throwback to LP’s glory days. You couldn’t ask for a more inexpensive and user-friendly belt drive from this era.
Because it has never been fashionable, you can get a decent example of either the Walker CJ55 or CJ58 for less than you would pay for a fine Ariston RD40, or any other similar mid-price design. Expect to pay between £100 and £200, depending on condition; perhaps a little more if it has a well-preserved SME tonearm, which has some secondary market value. On the used market, Walkers aren’t exactly ubiquitous, but they’re also not excruciatingly rare; keep your eyes peeled for a few months and something excellent should appear.
When you get your new machine home, give it a new belt (eBay is your buddy) and a thorough cleaning of the drive system, as well as new oil in the main bearing (Mobil One 0W40 is a superior replacement to the supplied dinosaur-derived black stuff). Once you’ve found your perfect arm and cartridge, it’s only a matter of levelling it and tweaking the suspension for a good bounce. After this, the Walker should provide years of dependable service while producing a really excellent analogue sound. Who’d have guessed that nearly four decades later, this generation of turntables would still be spinning?