Product: Technics SL-1200 turntable series
Manufacturer: Matsushita - Japan
Price: from 460 euro
Reviewer: Werner Ogiers - TNT Belgium
Reviewed: February, 2006
It is not often you get to review an audio component that has its very own page on the wikipedia.
Or one that has been around for almost 35 years.
One that sold over three million units in that time.
One with a bad reputation among us.
I've always wanted to test-drive the SL-1200, in an evil "Let's tell the world how bad it really is" kind of way. Then I got a Technics SL-D2 to refurbish for an acquaintance: a consumer low-end direct drive turntable, now old enough to have a driver's license and insurance bonus points. After the usual cleaning (yuk), tightening, and re-adjusting I dropped in a DL-103 and got ... quite enjoyable sounds. Enough to make its owner rediscover his LP collection. Enough to rekindle my interest in the chieftain of the DD clan.
The direct-drive principle has often been met with disdain and contempt from the audiophool quarter. This was probably and rightfully fueled by the tens of nasty cheap turntables Japan Inc made in the eigthies. But the other, less correct, cornerstone of this disdain was the notion that a quartz-locked DD would always be hunting for the correct speed, as opposed to the much safer and cleaner belt drive. The champions of this theory then blissfully ignored a number of belt-drive basics, namely that 1) a motor with an elastic belt driving an inert platter constitutes an underdamped mass-spring system, and thus resonates and 2) that the more sophisticated belt drive motor control units out there are remarkably similar to the 'hunting' controllers of good DDs and thus suffer the same 'faults'. But as usual, self-deception works wonders in this business and in the western hemisphere the direct-drive was effectively banned from the audiotype's world, in firm favour of a solution that entailed cheap motors on cheap plinths driving cheap platters on cheap bearings with cheap rubber belts.
The actual reason for the massive adoption of belt drive, of course, is that it allowed low-key cottage-industry types to enter the turntable market without investing in the research and tooling required to make a really good direct drive: had any of the presently-established European and American high-end turntable manufacturers tried to design a top-end DD model in the late seventies or early eighties they would have gone belly up in no time through lack of funding. No, they settled for belt drive, and flaunted it with the aid of the local audio press.
At the same time the advent of CD caused the Japanese to withdraw almost immediately from the analogue front, which subsequently killed off all further development of the direct-drive species.
One DD turntable survived this massacre. In 1972 Matsushita brand Technics released the SL-1200, a model sitting in the midst of its consumer range, but still at the right side of the quality/cheapness divide. With its rich functionality and relative sturdiness the Ur-1200 got adopted by the DJ-crowd, and later generations of the SL-1200, from the 1979s MkII on, shed some of their domesticality and grew more pro/DJ-oriented. As such they got somewhat separated from Technics' main product line, which put them into a position to be preserved throughout the ages: despite numerous new iterations, the MkII never ceased production.
So we should be grateful to those disco knights of yore. They kept Technics' order books filled. What started as a fairly upmarket example of seventies engineering is now, after all tooling has been written-off at least a hundred times, a marvel of cheap but high-quality mass production: a Technics SL-1200 MkII costs today, with careful shopping, about 450 euros. This is what I paid for my Dual CS-5000 back in 1987. This is less than what one pays for a Rega P2 clone today. Compare the engineering contents. Compare to the cost evolution of that contemporary of the SL-1200: the Linn LP-12. The SL-1200 outright beat inflation, and that is a small wonder.
Reasons enough for a closer look, not?
The SL-1200 is based on a heavy plinth, sited on four height-adjustable compliant feet. The plinth has a nice aluminium top, and a rather ugly and utilitarian-looking bottom made from a fairly dead compound. The aesthetically-challenged plinth and the four high feet make this turntable look sligly awkward, something that you'd want to hide in a console (as in studios!) rather than exhibit in public. With the exception of a rather flimsy and insubstantial dust cover the overall impression of quality is decent, which given the low selling price is quite an achievement. The deck is sturdy, very heavy, and confidence-inspiring.
The heart of the SL-1200 is of course the tried and trusted direct drive motor, with its stator bolted to the plinth and its rotor part of the platter. This latter is of thin aluminium, damped with a layer of rubber. Even then it still is rather ringy and really requires the included thick and heavy rubber mat to quiet down. This mat is rather massive, but appeared to be not perfectly flat, causing a wobble of about 0.5 mm.
The drive is controlled with a large start/stop button and a pitch slider with center-detent for nominal speed. A stroboscope light is, distractingly, always on. A nice touch is the hidden stylus light that pops up at the push of a bottom, making cueing in dark rooms a tad easier.
Despised as the SL-1200 is in some circles, its tonearm has an even worse reputation. I'm not sure why. Yes, it is old-fashioned. Yes it is not a single casting and thus structurally less rigid than often desired. Yes it has an outmoded detachable headshell. But these are all vices that can be sidestepped by a proper choice of cartridge. The arm's medium-high 12 g effective mass (including headshell) precludes the use of high-compliance MMs (i.e. most MMs fall out). If an MC is preferred, then its (assumed) imperfect integrity dictates a well-behaved cartridge, as opposed to one with an undampled, resonant treble. But even with these restrictions there is still plenty of choice.
The less-dogmatic music lover or record collector will find this arm a charm to work with. The arm's height, and thus VTA/SRA, can be set easily with a large rotating collar that travels over a range of 6 millimeters, and then can be locked in place with a lever. Advocates of the SL-1200 claim that VTA can be set safely while playing a record, but on my sample the silicone fluid damping the collar motion was so thickly applied as to result in uneven and jerky travel. More: the access to the collar is partly blocked by various bits and pieces of the arm that you don't want to touch while tracing a rare record, so my advice still is only to set VTA with the arm firmly locked in its rest position.
The presence of a separate headshell (no-name spares are available for a low 20 euro!) mean that several cartridges can be hold in store. The VTF, VTA, and anti-skating dials all are clearly marked, so all one has to do is write down the settings for each cartridge. In the course of this test I repeatedly swapped between three cartridges, each time in less than two minutes, each time with entirely consistent results.
In use the arm feels remarkably light, lighter than my own RB-300 or SME IV, and this despite the Technics being the heaviest of the three. This is testament to the SL-1200 having very low bearing friction, perhaps even lower than the IV does! The arm's cable is attached and of the standard commercial variety, terminated in nickle (?) RCA plugs. The cable loom is configured for a floating cartridge connection: contrary to e.g. the standard Rega wiring, the deck's ground wire is not attached to any cartridge wire. This allows using the arm with balanced-input phonostages such as the AQVOX Phono 2 Ci (to be reviewed soon).
The SL-1200 comes with one headshell and assorted cartridge screws. There is also a screw-on weight for the tonearm, to balance heavy cartridges, as well as a metal plate for the headshell, to increase the arm's effective mass somewhat. Then there is an overhang alignment gauge that clips over the headshell, but I found this to be too crude to be of any value: perhaps fine for mounting a Stanton 500 in a dark club, for my more subtle groovetracers I opted for the Schon template.
The SL-1200 feels very solid in use. Despite its weight it is fairly compact. Setup consists of dropping it onto any sturdy and flat platform (I used the gorgeous Tabula Rasa Basis racks) and leveling it with its four adjustable and easily-accessible feet.
Listening started in earnest with my old Benz Micro MC Scheu cartridge. This is a 1.6mV moving coil, designed as a superior variant of the well-known Benz Glider (today a 0.35mV silver coil version of the MC Scheu is still available at 775 euro). Phonostage was the Trichord Dino+, set for 48dB of gain and 1k input impedance. (This Dino has been modified by me, resulting in a somewhat sweeter sound). The Scheu's long cantilever allowed an easy alignment to my favoured distortion-reducing null points (not always possible, also see my review of the Schon template), and VTA was set with the arm a whisker tail-down.
This then is a turntable/cartridge combination of about 1200 euro. It surprised at once with stable and solid images rooted in an inky-black background. Stereo width was confined to the boundaries of the loudspeakers, but depth was outright impressive, the soundstage being rectangular in shape and very well defined. Tonality was very fine too, a tad warm and round, with a nicely-detailed and sweet treble. Dynamics were fine, though not exceptional. (This combination of a warm and lush sound with somewhat muted dynamics is something I feel that comes with the use of a heavy rubber mat. I remember a similar character in my late Dual CS-5000 and my TD-160-with-Michell-GyroMat. I am planning to test three alternative mats on the Technics soon: Funk Firm Achromat, a felt mat, and the SRM Tech thin silicone mat.) Rhythm and drive were present in abundance, and the result was one of a certain fundamental 'rightness' to the sound.
In absolute terms the sound could be critised for the slighly-narrowed imaging (and I mean slightly!) and a little bit of emphasis in the 100Hz region. But none of these annoyed me, and I spent many happy hours just listening to this combination. If you allow me to extrapolate, then I'd gather that an SL-1200 Mk2 plus one of Benz's second-generation ACE L, M or H cartridges yields an unbeatable 1000 euro record playing system!
Looking for a less-costly combination it would be a sin to ignore the Denon DL-103, the more so given the heavyish Technics arm. I only had a modified Denon, with my additional mass/thickness plate glued to it. This was configured for 2.5g VTF, and the Technics' VTA collar reading at 3 mm (meaning that a non-modded DL-103 would require the arm at its lowest or 0 position, something to think about!).
Dramatically lower in total cost, less than 600 euro for the combo, the sound quality expectedly scaled down too, but not much, really. Overall there was a fundamental similarity to the excellent results obtained with the Benz: a slightly narrowed soundstage of still fine depth, the propulsive drive, and the inky-black background. But the images were somewhat less solid, the reproduction a bit less natural and more synthetic. The slight bass hump now started to cloud the lower reaches somewhat. But once I had solved a problem with excessive sibilance (the 1k cartridge load initially chosen had to give way for 100 Ohms) I could settle down and truly enjoy some music (re)played well. The extra-weighted DL-103 indeed mated very well with this arm, and despite my previous list of faults the result was still very musical and competent, with that calm air of a professional doing what he's good at.
The final cartridge to try then was Grado's Statement Platinum. This is a curious beast in that architecturally it is a moving magnet (or more correct: moving iron), while its output voltage is a mere 0.5mV, just as with a normal moving coil. It requires a gain of 60dB (MC-like), combined with a recommended load of 47kOhms (MM-like). However, I found it to work well at loads of 1kOhms and above, while even 100 Ohms do not really cause problems. Compliance is typically-MM, at the high side of things.
The Grado costs three times more than the Denon, and yet its sonic results did not even come close. Oh yes, the Grado showed a rounded and slightly deeper bass than the DL-103. But against that stood a rather vague and confused sound stage, and a somewhat obvious and spitty treble. A couple of record sides was enough to make me run away from this experience, mounting the Denon back.
Now I do respect the more expensive Grados of the Statement series a lot, but this cheaper sibling really did not cut it in the Technics arm (and I have similar feelings about it when combined with the Rega). I can only suppose that a lower-mass tonearm like a Hadcock, Morch, or 1980s Thorens would be a better choice.
I can't help but like this turntable a lot. With the Benz MC Scheu and the Denon DL-103 it performed outright impressively and inspiring at these combinations' respective price points (even when the marriage with the Grado was less lucky, and the result rather ordinary). This, together with its ridiculously low price of 450 euro (internet shopping), makes it a no-brainer for quality of sound alone. Factoring in its battlecruiser build and then its easy-going functionality makes the SL-1200 a massive bargain which should be especially attractive to record collectors using many different cartridges. You don't have to take my word for it, but if you are shopping in the sub-1000 euro price bracket then you'd better not ignore the Technics. Whatever the experts say.
© Copyright 2006 Werner Ogiers - www.tnt-audio.com