Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Dreaded Return of the Technics SL-1200



If you've read my columns in Perfect Sound Forever, AudioENZ and TONEAudio over the years, you probably know that I'm not a big fan of the Technics SL1200 turntable. But the flood gates really opened when I wrote a 2006 article for PSF that picked apart the best-selling turntable of all time and criticized direct-drive TTs in general. (You can read the original article at http://www.furious.com/perfect/vinyl53.html.)

Well, that prompted a legion of Technics owners and fans (which I later called the 1200 Army) to grab their pitchforks and take to the streets in protest. It seems like I spent the next three or four years defending myself before I realized that for every 1200 owner I offended, there were three or four engineers and honest-to-goodness audio industry guys telling me that I was right on the mark. So I stuck to my guns.

In fact, I did better than that. I bought a Technics SL1200 and spent the next two years trying every tweak offered by the 1200 Army. If they said the 1200 really shined with a certain cartridge, I tried that cartridge. I put everything from a $59 Shure to a $2500 Koetsu on the 1200. I heard a variety of tweaked 1200s from the likes of KAB USA and others. Someone told me that the arm of the 1200 was the weakest link, so I heard 1200s with tonearms from Rega and even SME. I heard that 1200s sounded their best with an outboard power supply, so I tried one of those. I tried damping troughs and rubber feet. I tried it all.



I reported my findings over the course of two years in all three of the aforementioned publications as well as audio discussion forums such as the Steve Hoffman Forum. My conclusions on the 1200 are as follows:

1. Replace the arm, armboard and power supply and the 1200 sounds decent. Not great, but decent.
2. A high-quality cartridges does wonders. I heard a Technics SL-1210 with a $1200 Ortofon cartridge at audio reviewer Danny Kaey's house, and it was at least as good as my old Rega P3 with Exact cartridge...at twice the price. I also found that the $199 Ortofon 2M Blue did a pretty good job of erasing some of the inherent darkness of the 1200 sound.
3. Throw a lot of money at a 1200, and you'll still hear a reduction in soundstage size and, specifically, soundstage depth. And it will always sound dark.
4. On the good side, the low bass quality is outstanding, as is pitch stability.
5. It's built like a tank and will last forever.



After I sold the 1200, I was done talking about it. I never wanted to talk about it again. But you know the Internet.

Just a couple of days ago, I received an invitation to check out an audio discussion forum in England where my original 2006 article was once again being dismembered by "engineering" types who attempted to impugn everything from my technical knowledge to my cocksmanship (apologies to Bill Holden in Network). Well, those of you who know me well also know that I don't shrink from a flame war, and I immediately started digging trenches.

But after going back and forth with the site administrator (a guy named Marco who was all sweet in our email exchanges yet insulting on the forum), I decided not to fall into that trap again. The responses to my emails (which Marco posted on the forum without permission) were filled with so much false bravado, misinformation and downright poor reading comprehension skills that I realized I don't have enough time in the day to deal with it all. So I declined Marco's invitation to join his forum and hash it out with the regulars.



For the record, if you have a 1200 then enjoy it. I will continue to believe that a good belt-drive design will always sound less dark and dull than the Technics. But who am I to say what accurate sound is? I love the lush, romantic and somewhat colored sound of both Koetsu cartridges and single-ended triode amps.

So the next time someone wants to discuss the 1200 with me, I will politely decline. I will suggest that you do your homework and read ALL of the articles I wrote about my journey with the 1200 and NOT just judge me from that five-year old article. (By the way, I still stand behind every word.)

Just listen to LPs in the 21st century, and you'll be aces with me.

28 comments:

  1. Fantastic fun, Marc. Thanks for the enjoyable article. Stick with your guns, man. Stick with your guns.

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  2. Marc, I couldn't agree more.

    The seemingly inexorable rise in popularity of the SL-1200 among audiophiles continues to baffle me.

    Apart from its durability, I'm not sure why this table has such staunch defenders. It seems to me you need to spend a lot of time and money making the SL-1200 into something it's not or never was intended to be to make it even remotely competitive with entry-level belt drive tables - and even then you can't escape its fundamental limitations.

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  3. If you're a member of the so-called 1200 Army, these comments are fighting words. I've been battling these guys steadily since 2006. And I had one on hand for two years and tweaked the heck out of it and I'm still baffled as to why people think 1200s are superior to a good belt drive table. Diff'rent strokes...

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  4. Me personally, I love the Technics 1200/1210 turntable! I purchased 2 1200MK2's in 1992 a Third in 1998 and I just purchased 2 1210MK5's and a used MK2 in 2011!!!!! I have listened to music, made music, Performed music and played music using my 1200's! I'm currently shopping for a set of Technics 1210M5G's and I think I will be done with it! I can't even imagen my life without my 1200 turntables! So I don't know much about extremely high end audiophile but I know a good quality sound sistem and a 1200

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  5. Different strokes for different folks I reckon.
    I HAD an audiophile turntable, belt driven massive platter with a Micro Sieki CF2 arm.

    No doubt the sound was good BUT - I needed to remove the platter to play 45's (yes I play 45's) - not convenient. I live in house with wooden floors and so the sensitive suspension meant the TT would mis-track from a heavy footstep (OK these issues could have been addressed). However the SL1200 more suits my life style. It's indestructable (virtually) so I can trust friends to use it. Depends what you want. MFW

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  6. I've had my sl-1200 since 1974 and have used it a lot. I never had it repaired and I have always been satisfied with the sound. Now you cannot discuss sound, because not two ears hear the exact same.
    I've tried to find a Cd-player which could match the sound, but that is difficult. Now I have the Marantz 6004, which is good, but still the 1200 has, for my taste, a more natural sound.
    I have, from day one, used a Ortofon pickup, and are now using the 2M blue.
    For me the sl-1200 is a lifelong companion, and a nice one.

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    1. Unfortunately, this is the argument for much of the 1200 Army. It's never "I compared the SL-1200 to a variety of good belt-drive designs and preferred the sound quality of the Technics." It's always "I like the 1200...it's good enough for me." You CAN talk about sound, because most people who compare the sound of a 1200 to something like a Rega P3 do not pick the Technics. If you don't have these comparisons under your belt, you don't bring anything to the discussion.

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  7. The Technics SP-10 mk II is a LOT better... you can put your own arm and it has a separate power supply... but it's not the same price either... Thank you for writing this article... I was looking for a cartridge for a friend who is «stuck» with a SL 1210...

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    1. I totally agree...the SP10 is awesome and I could happily live with the sound forever. The SP15 is almost as good. Just goes to show that my beef isn't against direct drive or Technics--just the SL-1200.

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  8. My two cents.

    The Technics SL-1200 series are good turntables. You certainly can do a whole lot worse. That said, I don't get the high prices that they sell for aside from the vanity of owning this turntable. It's tangible qualities, IMO, do not warrant the $500-$750 that these tend to go for in the used market.

    They are definitely durable workhorses and have impressive wow and flutter measures. But the sound, at times, seems a little closed compared to what I'm about to say next:

    I had recently purchased a near-mint Thorens TD-280 mark II for about $10 at a thrift store. The TD-280 series is among the lowest end turntables from Thorens and it's a very simple belt drive unit. Coupled with a Ortofon VMS-20E calibrated to Baerwald, this turntable led to two questions:

    1. How could anyone donate something like that to a thrift store?

    2. The sound is nice, airy, and more open than the SL-1200 with a Ortofon Concorde DJ cartridge.

    Now, perhaps a big aspect of the difference would be the pickups: a VMS-20E with a nude elliptical stylus versus a Concorde DJ with a spherical bonded shank stylus. One is meant for relatively critical music listening at light tracking forces while the other is meant for disc jockeying at heavy tracking forces.

    The SL-1200 would also not sound quite as good as my Sony PS-X600 Biotracer with an Ortofon X5-MC calibrated to Stevensen, though the Thorens holds its own, if not slightly exceeds it, compared to the Sony.

    But, for no-holds barred ruggedness, the SL-1200 will easily outlast my Sony, my Thorens, and probably even my Technics SL-7, not to mention my plasticky Denon DP-7F.

    Would I hesitate to use an SL-1200? They still sound quite good, so why not? There are better turntables, but you could do far worse.

    For instance: I will *NEVER* play any of my records on a BSR.

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  9. I appreciate that you took the time to actually use the 1200 and even tweak it. That is more than most SL 1200 critics do. The 1200 has been subject to audiophile snobery and dogma to a dgree that many 'philes immediately dismiss it as inferior based on that alone....they never even used one. I have compared the 1200 to Rega belt drives....the planars 3 and 5 mainly. Keep in mind that the old price of the 1200 before they went out of production is more in line with the planar 1 or 2, not the 3 or 5. The 1200 is deeper sound stage than Rega but not as wide or high. On 1200 The bass is fuller and a bit fat, mid range also fuller and smoother, treble detail not as good as Rega. The speed stability is better than Rega. The 1200 is a shade "dark" as you say, and overall more relaxed and less foward than the Rega, but yet the has a "boogie" quality, a rhythmic drive that is grounded. The music while being less wide and not quite as detailed, has a more solid tonal quality relative to the Rega. That's what I found. It's a matter of what you prefer, for myself, I'm keeping both the 1200 and the Rega. The 1200 was originally designed for home audio use and it does a pretty good job of it IMO.

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  10. Thank you for writing your impressions of the 1200. I certainly am not in the same league as you, but one thing I notice is speed variations. I had a Technics 1100, a Marantz 6300, then I got a Dual 701. My wife, without knowing of the change, exclaimed that the speed was steadier! I then got a Thorens TD318 and enjoyed that until I went with CD's. Recently I noticed boxes of vinyl in the basement and decided to listen to some of my old music again. The Thorens sounded pretty good, but I decided to try a Technics SL-Q2. It is quartz locked and it's arm has the same dimensions as the 1200. Using a Shure 97Xe and a Ortofon 2M Red I compared them. I changed cartridges between them. I found the speed stability on the Technics noticeable, and the Thorens was not as distinct to my ear. Could my Thorens need a new belt? Maybe. In the DJ world (which I am not part of) There were some music clips from some DJ turntables and the 1200 was part of it. I didn't get to see which TT's were associated with the various clips until later. I could pick out the Technics because the other 2 TT's speed varied slightly. This might have something to do with taking up playing bass and the need to identify notes and tuning quickly.
    Anyway, this is my take on MY turntables and experience. The number of people who differ indicates the differences in what is important to us and how we hear our music.
    Thanks
    John H

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  11. It is possible that your Thorens may require a new belt; the lifespan of belts tend to be around 5-10 years. (As an aside, it's about time for the belt in my TD-280 to be replaced, as well.)

    Old belts will have been stretched out to the degree that they can't maintain proper tension between the motor and the platter.

    The right amount of tension is necessary for the belt to accurately transmit kinetic energy from the drive motor to the platter at virtually all times. Too much or too little tension will cause problems. Therefore, belt condition and sizing are fairly critical when it comes to wow and flutter characteristics. Besides, a belt that's been stretched too loose will have a greater chance of slipping off, especially when spinning the turntable up to speed.

    That's definitely a benefit to a direct drive system, especially one that's actually as solidly designed as the Technics system.

    Many aspects of the SL-1200 design have been used in other Technics direct drive models, including the SL-Q2 you've mentioned.

    One aspect of the Technics approach to direct drive is that the platter is a functional part of the motor as opposed to just having a platter that is seated onto the motor itself.

    And, I do agree that there are people who will have different preferences and that there's nothing wrong with that so long as you can enjoy your choice; live and let live.

    But, it's funny how people take up their opinion as Live and Let Die.

    (cue the music)

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  12. I've owned a Rega Planar 3 and a Linn Basik turntable. I prefer the Technics and it's a great deck if you're on a budget as it offers a cost effective upgrade path to follow. I've added a rewired Rega RB251 and the Isonoe isolation feet and it has really opened up the grey sound into something much more open and alive. My dad owns a Linn Sondek and for me that's the benchmark for any turntable comparison. I would say the Sondek is far superior but the Technics is a great performer and cost me about £1500 less. If you're looking for something that gives you 'bang for your buck' the Technics is a contender.

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  13. Your comprehensive multiple year "try everything" analysis of the 1200 should put "the best selling turntable of all time" in total perspective. It doesn't as you know only too well. Adherents are still trying to contest your findings (at best) or cling to cherished beliefs (more likely). I have owned two Technics tables the SL-110A and an SP-10 MK2A both of which are better tables for critical listening than the 1200. The 1200 is an outstanding DJ table. If you needed a DJ table they should have been on your short list. As a table to be modded for critical listening it is not a particularly good choice. There is a lot to like about big DD tables; some listeners may find they prefer there sound to belt drive tables. Someone in this position would be better off buying one of the many great DD tables from Technics SL-110A, SP-10 MK1, MK2, MK2A, MK3 or the SP-15, SP-25 most of which are sold without tonearm.
    Many other great DD's far better suited to critical listening than the 1200 were produced by Denon, JVC, Sony, Kenwood among others. I would strongly advise a person to buy any one of these ahead of the 1200 unless they require a table that travels well or for DJ use. You will spend less overall as you can acquire many of these for less than a 1200. You will have a top ranked table in cases where the table is a bit more than the average used 1200 ie SP-10 SP-15. Despite a recent resurgence in vinyl popularity it has never been cheaper to own 1st class turntables and audio equipment.

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  14. I seem to remember one selling point of the original 1200 was that it could get up to speed in a quarter of a revolution (or something like that), making it a great TT for radio stations and, later, club DJs. Technics was known for making affordable, reliable mid-fi turntables, and though the 1200 was one of their best, it was made in that mold.

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  15. That's what impressed me most about the 1200 I had, the way the platter seemed to be instantly spinning at 33rpm as soon as you pressed the power button. It did so silently as well, which showed me that the engineering behind the 1200 was actually pretty solid.

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  16. Just wondering what about the SL1200 makes it sound DARK with the same cart as the other tables you were comparing it to. (Im am impartial to the 1200, just curious)

    Also wondering what you think about the old B&O 4004, 8002s with a mmc1 or mmc2 cartridge. They don't have a belt or a DD motor. The 8002 uses Eddy Currents (magnetic fields to move the platter) No moving parts are all.

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    1. Not a big fan of the old B&Os--they sounded so-so and they weren't that reliable. I have no idea why the 1200 sounds so dark--perhaps an overdamped plinth?

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  17. Just a question, what is the best styuls/cartridge (keeping the original arm) set around at a decent price for the 1200? Maybe the Ortofon 2M blue with the original cart?

    I agree that the 1200 sound darkish no matter what.

    Regards

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    1. If I was stuck with a 1200, I'd put an Ortofon 2M Red or Blue on it. Great carts at great prices.

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  18. It may be fair to point out that your average admirer of the Techics 1200 and direct drive TTs in general is usually the kind that denies that turntables impart any sound of their own and argue that paper specs and acceleration to speed are the be all and end all of turntables.
    These are the same folks that missed the boat during the Linn phenomenon in the late 70s when everyone took notice that a well set up Linn was blowing the snot out of Japanese direct drives at audio trade shows. Unfortunately it also spawned the Linn cult where hyperbole and snake oil went totally over the top. Hyperbole aside we do have Linn to thank for bringing to the attention of your average audiophile that TTs actually have a sound.
    This is not to say that there are no good direct drives, the later Technics SP series and certain Denon models series mounted on custom bases like the Cotter B-1 are formidable performers. Even some integrated models could sound excellent like the Dual 701 or my first direct drive, the Marantz 6300 which was delicately detailed and holographic in a way my first Rega was not. I've not compared the 1200 but I have heard and owned other models like the 1300 and 1700 and while okay I was never blown away by what I heard. Regarding whether the 1200 is a great TT or dreck as some say the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

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  19. The 1200 was aimed very squarely at the dj market- heavy to avoid feedback, engineered to last in a club environment etc etc. Its seems somewhat unfair to judge it as an audiophile turntable. A lot of the 1200 mods are more worth doing if you were to be actually using them for playing in a nightclub. I use a pair for DJing modified with Rega arms and Grado carts and it improves the sound on a large PA considerably. I wouldn't consider it super"hi fi" though, but of course I enjoy the improvement..Just my 2 cents :)

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  20. Marc,

    I own DD, Idler, and Belt Drive turntables and have alternated between drive systems. That said, the Technics SP 10 Mk II and III, SP-15, and SP-25 outperform the SL-1200 Mk II (but also cost more as a system). That said I enjoyed mine within it's limitations). I like the SP-25/Audio-Technica ATP 16-T/Ortofon OM 10 better. I am presently enjoying a Pioneer PL 12-D in my living room and have a Pioneer PL 530 (I like the PL-12D better performance wise) and a Technics SL-D1. I find the SL-D1 is also inferior to my PL-12D (yes I do like some belt drives very well). And also own a under restoration Lenco L70 and a McMartin/QRK broadcast idler which also is under restoration. I respect the fact that you listened to the SL-1200 under as upgraded and tweaked versions and gave it a lot of audition. And careful listening. A major sign of an honest reviewer who listens with his ears. I like this approach.

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  21. Not an audiophile TT but by far the best DJ turntable ever made. It will always have its place in history. I have my linn sondek lp 12 and my 1200 with Ortofon blue next to each other in my setup as I tend to use the 1200 when dinner parties get a bit loose.

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  22. Not an audiophile TT but by far the best DJ turntable ever made. It will always have its place in history. I have my linn sondek lp 12 and my 1200 with Ortofon blue next to each other in my setup as I tend to use the 1200 when dinner parties get a bit loose.

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  23. I had an LP12 for a number of years, to this day I still don't know what all the fuss was about, a very average sounding turntable at best with an annoying tendency to become muddled and congested when the going got tough, still you live and learn.

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  24. As long as people continue to buy and discover music new and old that's the key... and beauty is in the ear of the beholder and is a personal taste. I'm an ex-DJ so will always love the Technics, but now I have my vinyl back from storage it's good to get advice on a Hi-Fi cart I can swap to when listening to my Bowie, Floyd etc Thanks :)

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