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KAB/Technics SL1200 Mk2SE direct drive turntable, KAB/Ortofon S30 cartridge and Creek OBH18 phono preamp

Uh oh, I think I upset the apple-cart!

[KAB/Technics SL1200 Mk2 turntable]

[Creek OBH18 front] [Creek OBH18 rear]

[Italian version]

Turntable
Manufacturer: Technics
Modified by: KAB Electro-acoustics
Price: $758 USD (as tested)

Cartridge
Manufacturer: Ortofon
Modified by: KAB Electro-acoustics
Price: $239 USD

Phono pre-amp
Manufacturer: Creek Audio
Price: $225 USD

Package price, as tested: $1,172 USD

Reviewer: Arvind Kohli - TNT USA
Reviewed: Nov 2006
Revised: March 2007

Manufacturer's Published data - KAB/Technic SL1200 Mk2SE
Speeds 33 1/3 and 45 rpm
Rumble -79 db
Wow & Flutter <.025%
Speed inaccuracy, +/- % n/a
Anti-Skating force 0-6 g
Tracking force 0-4 g
Dimensions (W x D x H) 17 x 15 x 6
Weight 35 lbs

Manufacturer's Published data Creek OBH18
Input Sensitivity 3.5 mV
Input Impedance 47 kohm
Output Impedance 100 ohms
Output 250 mV
THD < 0.03%
S/N Ratio > -83 dB
Dimensions (W x D x H) 4" x 6.125 x 2.25"
Weight 13 oz

UPDATE - Jan 2007: Shortly after the original article was printed, I was contacted by Michael Fremer of Stereophile. He kindly educated me on a couple of items in the LISTENING section. Our own Geoff Husband also helped this newbie out with a few topics that were not so easy for me to grasp. I have clarified or amended a few items below based on their inputs.

I thank Geoff and Michael for taking the time to help make this article that much more useful to the reader.

INTRODUCTION

So far, in my vinyl saga I have spent time with an entry level package (MusicHall mmf2.1SE/Bellari VP129), and one from a more pedigreed background (MusicHall mmf9/Creek OBH15).

I wanted to test at least one more package in this series, preferably one with a very different approach to the game. In speaking with several folks who are knowledgable on all things vinyl (and reading the excellent article by our own Werner), I was convinced that I would be remiss to not include a direct-drive model. I do not wish to opine or delve into the differences between belt-drive and direct-drive technologies for two good reasons. Primarily, to not show my ignorance of either technology; and I also do not care to start or be engaged in a debate on which is better and why. There are plenty of folks who have pitched their tents in either camp, and often engage each other in heated disputes on which technology is better. The 'Vinyl forum' at Audio Asylum has hosted many of these battles. I have included some links on the two technologies at the bottom of this article, for those of you who are interested in learning more.

KAB was founded in 1992, by the namesake Kevin A Barrett. Around 1990 a friend of his was into 78's, and played them with a regular LP needle. Kevin found the results to be sonically unbearable, and did some research into better reproduction of that format. One thing led to several, and he ended up with a business that initially started out serving vintage record collectors with a range of turntables featuring 3 or 4 speeds (assembled either from stock or modifed to meet the demands of record collectors). A range of preservation accessories were also offered. As time passed, the need arose for a profesional quality turntable that could replace the ageing Technics SP10's and 15's in radio stations. 1994 was their first encounter with the Technics SL-1200 MKII. Impressed by its reputation for robustness and reliability, he engineered a mod to add 78 RPM speed and began offering it to radio stations and the hi-end market. Working with the table and using it in his own reference system gave him an appreciation and a keen insight into its capabilities, he was convinced that audiophiles needed to hear this turntable. In 2000 he offered the tonearm damping mod and began promoting the '1200 as a hi-end deck, more mods have followed since. In my conversations with Kevin, I come away with the impression of a man who has spent a lot of time and energy trying to solve many of the nuances of sound reproduction (especially regarding vinyl), and has gained a body of knowledge that (in my limited experience in this field) garners him expert status.

THE PRODUCTS

Most of the information in this section is taken directly from the manufacturers. I tend to read their "literature" with a healthy dose of skepticism, and prefer to let my ears tell me what is what. I strongly encourage you to do the same. But occasionally, I come across manufacturer information that rings true and does not smell like the standard manure, and I feel such is the case here.

Back in the 1960s and 70's when vinyl was the defacto standard for consumer audio playback, several Japanese electronics manufacturers launched an all out assault to build state of the art turntables. Technics was one of these ambitious lot, and this effort resulted in their hallmark SP (Special Products) series of 'tables.

These 'tables allegedly pioneered the use of a linear frequency generator to monitor and control platter rotation. It is this drive and control system that attempted to eliminate the effects of both static and dynamic stylus drag on speed stability. The SP series also strived for a non-resonant body design, by using cast metals, resins and rubber.

The Technics SL-1200 MKII is the step child of the SP series, utilizing the engineering and designs from the SP 'tables. Still hand-made by a dedicated production staff in Osaka, Japan. The 1200 series was developed 24 years ago for broadcast and professional use, and to-date sales volume exceeds over 3 million units. Here is a list of key features;

A 3-layer body construction (a.k.a. a constrained layer design). It consists of a proprietary non-resonant composite material sandwiched between a cast aluminium top and a molded rubber base. The goal being to eliminate the transmission of resonances.

The motor drive system is a damped, direct-drive system using a 3-phase, 12-pole motor with zero crossing drive. It also features a self validating frequency generator right on the platter. As the integral platter magnet rotates past the frequency generator coil, a sine wave is produced representing the exact movement of the platter. This ensures tightly controlled rotation reflected by a wow and flutter spec of 0.01% . The spindle bearing , anchored to the cast aluminum base, is a 1/4" polished stainless steel shaft machined through a 1" long bronze bearing.

This servo drive is intended to respond "just in time" to both static and dynamic stylus drag, so there are no audible changes in speed. It is claimed that the pitch of a loud crescendo stays constant as it fades away. Supposedly, it can cost $100,000 USD or more to develop a single Application Specific Integrated Circuit like those found in the 1200. There are 2 LSI ASIC circuits and 1 MSI PLL in the Technics 1200 drive system.

The reason offered for the claimed low rumble in the 1200 is fourfold.
1. Rotation occurs at exact platter speed.
2. The power to the motor is infinitely controllable, and is very low in normal use.
3. The power is applied at the most rigid part of the platter system: the spindle.
4. Unlike a belt drive system that tugs on the spindle bearing, direct drive systems have equal forces acting on the bearing resulting in longer life and much quieter bearing noise.

The platter is itself a non-resonant, 5lbs, cast-aluminum affair with a hard rubber layer on the bottom. A built in strobe display indicates the speed at a glance (KAB offer a modificiation to disable the strobe). The top mat is upgraded by KAB to a Technics super heavy unit.

The tonearm is an example of the Gimbal Bearing system, the rotational center of which is precisely defined at one point. Designed in the late '70's when the demands were 3/4 gram tracking forces and the requirement to trace groove modulations to 45 Khz. The 1200 tonearm has an arm with a mass of 12g, the bearing is polished to a finish of 0.5 microns, featuring 0.007 gram friction. The arm base utilizes a machined brass ring featuring a 3-step, deep, hi speed thread machined into it. Just like a camera lens focus ring, this produces a high precision VTA adjustment. The threads are sealed with a damping grease to give a nice feel to the adjustment. Interconnect cable features a very flexible foamed polyethylene dielectric to minimize the passage of vibration up to the tonearm. Cables are a major pathway for vibration to enter the tonearm and color the sound. The Counterweight is calibrated in grams, properly decoupled. Anti-Skate uses the progressive spring tension method, to allow adjustments, even when the record is playing.

The 'table under review also came with two of the several aftermarket modifications offered by KAB. The first included a spindle mounted threaded clamp, and the second a silicone-based tonearm damping system. See their website for more details on these and other available mods.

The Ortofon ProS30 Moving Magnet cartridge is an integrated design requiring no headshell, wires or alignment. It simply docks into the tonearm. Normally supplied with DJ styli, KAB offers it instead with a Ortofon Hi Fi STY30 fine line stylus and identifies it as the ProS30. The Creek OBH18 phono stage seems to be essentially the same as the same as the OBH15 included in the previously reviewed package. The major difference between the two is that the OBH18 only handles MM cartridges, whereas the OBH15 can accomodate MC as well; the OBH15 also costs $200USD more.

LISTENING

The listening tests were done by comparing the package under review to the previously reviewed MusicHall mmf9/Creek OBH15 combo($2,150). I have to caution you on the limitations of the tests I am about to discuss below, since they were only level matched by ear as best I could, I apologize for not being able to do any better.

"Cartridge/arm resonance test"(Analogue test LP; Hi-fi news)
The arm+cartridge in the SL1200 based system had peak resonance at about 9hz and seemed to be of a slightly lower magnitude relative to the MusicHall mmf9 system, whose resonance peaked around 11hz. [This business of arm+cartridge resonance has context and complexity that is way beyond my current grasp and the scope of this article. Thus, my initial appraoch was to only mention my observations and not comment any further. Michael Fremer of Stereophile has suggested, that at a minimum, it is vital to also mention that both frequencies fall with the desirable range of 8hz to 15hz. it would be wrong to assume that one is better than the other. Of course, that should be considered seperate from the fact that the SL1200 based system was observed with a lower magnitude of resonance, and that is more desirable].

I subsequently performed the same test on the SL12000 with the Tonearm damper activated (by adding the provided silicone to the tray). Even though I only had one try to evaluate any changes, I can confidently say there was an immense improvement in two ways. First, the resonance of the arm+cartridge was dramatically reduced, this was evident both visibly and audibly. Second, I only remember hearing the 1khz tone when listening to this track on all three setups in this series, but now for the first time I clearly heard the added bass tones (which decrease fom 25hz to 5hz as the track progresses) [I intially drew a conclusion that the SL1200 based system with damper had a higher effective resolution, because I could hear bass tones that I had not hear on any other setup. I assigned the conclusion of higher resolution because I had also observed lower background noises on this setup (on a seperate test mentioned below). But Michael Fremer has wisely cautioned me against using test tracks to draw conclusions that the track was specifically not designed for. I agree that this is a wise policy and shall adhere to it hence; since there can be many uncontrolled variables that would leave such conclusions weak. It is better to use a seperate test specifically designed for whatever suspicion an unintended observation may trigger.]

"Residual system noise"(Analogue test LP; Hi-fi news)
This was a very revealing test. The MusicHall mmf9/Creek OBH15 package had a higher background noise that seems centered in the bass region, I suspected I was hearing the motor. The package under review here was much quieter in comparison.

I repeated the test with the output from the OBH15 fed directly into the (recently reviewed) Practical Devices XM3
headphone amp, which in turn was fed into a Sennheiser HD650 headphone (review upcoming). It was now very obvious, that the background noise I had noticed earlier on the MusicHall mmf9/Creek OBH15 combo, was motor noise indeed (I could hear the pitch of the noise change as I switched the speed between 33 and 45 rpm). This was quite audible at moderate to high volumes. In comparison, the package under review had a lower noise floor by a magnitude and no motor noise that I could hear, even at a very high volume setting.

While playing this track on the MusicHall mmf9/Creek OBH15 combo; I could easily hear resonances through the headphones as I gently tapped on my gear rack or the plinth of the MusicHall mmf9, or if I stomped my foot on my suspended wooden floor (with a force approximating a footstep). Based on what I heard, I would peg the plinth of the MusicHall unit to have a resonant frequency in the mid-bass region. In contrast, the KAB/Technics 'table did not transmit any sound at all when I performed the same tests. In my review of the MusicHall mmf9/Creek OBH15 combo I did notice this transmission of energy, but had no point of reference and incorrectly assumed that perhaps this was the standard to expect of all 'tables, atleast in this price range since the mmf9 and other MusicHall tables are often considered in high-regard (I myself was quite impressed in my own recent review of that system). But after comparing to the Technics unit here, I am glad to report that my assumptions todate were woefully wrong and there is a much higher standard of performance available (and at a lower price point, to boot).

With the Tonearm Damper activated on the KAB/Technics 'table, I am fairly certain that I did hear a lot less backgound noise; but I cannot say that with absolute certainty since I only had one try to discern any differences. I should have asked KAB to also provide a control system and test disc to really be able to piece the differences apart...maybe I'll tackle that another day.

"Tracking ability Bands 1,4,8 Side B" (Analogue test LP; Hi-fi news)
Both players passed on the first two tracks and did begin to display some warble on the third and toughest test. The performance was about even, with the MusicHall displaying perhaps just a little better control. This test was done without engaging the Tonearm Damper ($150 upgrade)on the KAB/Technic 'table.

With the Tonearm Damper engaged, I could not be sure of a difference. I would suspect that there likely was an improvement, but it was so small that I could not reliably discern it in one try. In my experience the smaller the difference, the more trials it takes to reliably identify them.

"Walking on the moon" (The Police; Reggatta de blanc; A&M; SP-4792)
The KAB/Technics/Ortofon/Creek system definitely upped the MusicHall mmf9/Creek OBH15 package in terms of bass depth and slam. It also seemed a bit better in terms of detail and openness.

"Walking on the moon" (The Police; Reggatta de blanc; A&M; SP-4792)
With the Tonearm Damper engaged in the KAB/Technics unit, I could not notice a reliable difference. I want to say that the bass response seemed tighter and deeper, but I cannot say that reliably. Again, a control setup and many trials would have helped nail that down as well. I can only apologise for inconclusive results.

"Aria and Corrente" (Andres Segovia - Girolamo Frescobaldi; An evening with Andres Segovia; Decca; DL9733)
The KAB/Technics/Ortofon/Creek system seemed a slight bit better in both micro and macro dynamics, but more so on the macro. Doing the same test, but listening with the Practical Devices XM3 and Sennheiser HD650 combo, I also noticed that this system fully rendered the depth and detail of the guitar's bass notes; only in direct comparison did the MusicHall mmf9/Creek OBH15 seem light. The KAB/Technics/Ortofon/Creek system was also slightly better in detail of the mid and high frequencies.

With the Tonearm Damper activated on the KAB/Technics unit, there was an amazing improvement in it's cueing ability. Till now, it was very difficult from me to cue this first track on this well worn LP, on all of the setups used so far(evidently a common phenomena). The needle would skip over a few grooves whenever I'd try to cue up the first track, this happened at least 75% of the time. After adding the silicone to the damper, I could not get the track to mis-cue even once.

The differences I heard between the two packages seemed larger and were much easier to spot using the test record and headphones, than when listening to music and using loudspeakers. There are two important lessons to be learn here.
Lesson one; whatever difference you may hear using test tones, would matter a lot less when you listen to music (a contributing factor in this specific instance, is also the fact, that the test record I used is a pristine copy pressed on 180g vinyl; whereas the music albums listed above are old and some were well worn).
Lesson two; good headphones are a great tool for picking apart differences in upstream components.

Another thing I had noticed with the three setups I have reviewed so far, when playing a record with the amplifier off I heard varying amounts of music emanating right from the needle itself. With the MusicHall mmf2.1SE/Bellari VP129 system it was fairly loud and very lucid, to the point I could often make out the lyrics. With the MusicHall mmf9/Creek OBH15 setup I could clearly hear sound, but it was at a much lower level the previous setup. With the system under review here, I cannot hear anything at all unless my ears was inches away from the cartridge. All it took was a phone call to Kevin, for get a detailed explanation of the cause. According to him, this is commonly referred to as "needle noise" and is caused by an overly stiff suspension (low compliance). As with everything else there are pros/cons and compatibility issues to consider with low or high compliance cartridges. I would only add that if the cartridge is of considerably low compliance, then needle noise may be of a magnitude that it becomes a source of unintended sound in the room.

While I was considerable impressed with the Tonearm Damper on the KAB/Technics system, I could not make a determination with the Threaded Clamp. I would guess, that there may be very small improvements that would need a control setup to investigate. Again, I may pursue that at some future date.

CONCLUSION

I do not think there is any thing left to say here. Better performance for about half the money...I'm sold. I am sure my ears and I are about to be flamed by the belt-drive'rs for preferring a direct-drive based system. But that simply is what I heard.

Strictly speaking, all I can conclude here is that the system under review is preferable to the MusicHall mmf9/Creek OBH15 combo. But I am very comfortable in assigning most of that performance improvement to the 'table itself for the following reasons. The phono stage likely had no impact whatsoever, since the only difference between the two models from Creek was the one could handle MM and MC cartridges, while the other was MM only. The cartridges could have contributed to differences, but not in the areas of motor noise or isolation. Hence, my inclination to assign most or all the performance improvement to the 'table itself.

I am a firm believer that in audio, as in all else, it is not that one technology or school of thought is better than another. It is how well either is applied in a given product that really makes the difference in the end. I would not be surprised if someone is able to execute the belt-drive technology to perform better than what Technics has done with direct-drives. I would love to do that comparison, if such a contender exists.

Allegedy (and unverified by me), Technics had made a huge investment in refining the direct-drive technology back in the 70's. That investment was likely written off over the inital SP series, and the benefit trickled down to the 1200 series which has sold over 3 million units since 1972. Here are some data points to establish a sense of unit volumes in the turntable industry. The folks at ELP were ecstatic when they sold 1,000 units in one year, that of course is an extreme example (due to the high price point), but still provides us with a reference. An unconfirmed report on one of the larger audiophile brands pegs at about 2,000 units per year and likely no more than 7,000 for all brands in North America; I would further extapolate that to no more than 15,000 units worldwide. Now compare that to the 88,000 annual units the 1200 series has been averaging. If anyone has contrary, conclusive and specific information I would love to hear about it.

If the sales volumes mentioned above are roughly true, then I can see where Technics can deliver a product for about $500 USD, that otherwise may cost four maybe even five figures. In a strange and twisted way, those audiophiles who acquire a Technics 1200 'table owe a large debt of gratitude to the DJ crowd for helping lower the cost by multiples.

If this is not one of the best deals in hi-end audio, I do not know what is. I am putting my money where my mouth is, and I am buying the review samples of the table and tonearm damper.

Outstanding!

REFERENCE GEAR
Gear Manufacturer and Model
Speakers Jupiter Audio Europa
Dynaudio Contour 1.3 MkII
Triangle Electroacoustique Titus 202
NHT Superzero
Integrated Amplifiers Cayin 265Ai
NAD 317
Headphone Amplifier Practical Devices XM3

Subwoofers

ACI Force
Velodyne F1500R
Disc Player Denon DVD-3910 with Underwood mods (level2 + masterclock)
Pioneer 414
Sony DVP-NS755V
Connectors Home-grown

RELATED LINKS

Articles on turntable drive types:
Turntable basics.com
Soundstage
Wikipedia - Turntables
Wikipedia - Technics SL1200

© Copyright 2005 Arvind Kohli - www.tnt-audio.com

Manufacturer's response

Thankyou for this, the first review of one of our turntable packages. I found it informative and interesting.

The only thing I would add relates to turntable history and why the '1200 is what it is. The short lived quadraphonic era 1972- 1976. The requirements for discrete CD-4 quadraphonic records pushed Panasonic and JVC both to develop sophisticated direct drive motors, first for disc cutting and then playback. The requirement to trace 45Khz (for the rear channel information) influenced the plinth and tonearm designs. Though the public never fully accepted Quad; At the time, it was approached as the next big consumer medium. Half speed mastering was developed first, for Quad discs. you cannot cut 45Khz at full speed!

As for what KAB does I would like to make 2 clarifications. This is a complete Technics turntable and we do not re badge it or try to take away anything from Tehnics. Without them, I could not offer the 'table. Ditto for Ortofon. Many years ago Ortofon offered the Concorde design with hi fi styli, but later decided to stop doing it. Anyone with a Concorde cartridge can put a Ortofon hi fi stylus into it and have exactly the same as reviewed here. We do not rebadge the cartridge or try to take away anything from Ortofon. Without them, I could not offer the cartridge.

Kevin A Barrett
President
Oct 25, 2006

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