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Technics’ SL-1200GAE is for audiophiles, not DJs

  • munich_2016The most iconic direct-drive turntable of all time? The answer will depend on who you ask.

    For baby boomers, it might be Technics’ SP-10, the world’s first direct drive turntable. Released in 1970, the SP-10 would see significant uptake in a market previously dominated by belt-drive and idler designs. It reportedly helped Technics gain a 30% share of the turntable market.

    The audible advantage for audiophiles largely stemmed from the SP-10’s greater speed stability which translated to lower levels of wow and flutter. This also didn’t go unnoticed by radio stations looking to rid themselves of the low frequency rumble that plagued their idlers. Even the venerable BBC adopted the MKII iteration of the SP10 as their studio reference.

    Generation Y-ers are possibly too young to remember Technics’ 1970s direct drive (ahem) revolution. Their misty-eyed reverence for direct drive probably stems from Technics’ SL-1200 introduced in 1972. In between, the more home-market-focussed SL-1100.

    The SL-1200 wouldn’t be refreshed with a MKII until 1979 – it’s this table that kickstarted many a DJ’s love affair with Technics.

    The SL-1200’s many subsequent iterations, including the black SL-1210, would go on to become the defacto standard for vinyl playback in the DJ world, largely thanks to broad adoption by hip-hop DJs. The SL-1200’s high torque motor and pitch control made it ideal for scratching.

    Furthermore, the Technics turntable’s robustness meant it could handle the rough and tumble of DJ life, both to and from – and inside – the DJ booth.

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    When Beck wrote Where It’s At (“Two turntables and a microphone”), he wasn’t thinking about Dual or Denon. Every bedroom DJ serious about their craft in the back end of the 20th century scrimped and saved for a pair of Technics SL-1200 and a mixer.

    Technics reportedly sold 3 million units before marking the SL-1200 as EOL in 2010 with the following official statement:

    Panasonic has confirmed that it ceased the production of its Technics-branded analogue turntables this autumn.

    After more than 35 years as a leading manufacturer of analogue turntables, Panasonic has regretfully taken the decision to leave this market. However, Panasonic will continue to sell headphones under the Technics brand.

    We are sure that retailers and consumers will understand that our product range has to reflect the accelerating transformation of the entire audio market from analogue to digital.

    In addition, the number of component suppliers serving the analogue market has dwindled in recent years and we brought forward the decision to leave the market rather than risk being unable to fulfil future orders because of a lack of parts.”

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    Alas, hindsight can be a harsh mistress bitch: 2010 was also the year that vinyl sales began to climb upward after almost two decades in the doldrums.

    Overhearing a Panasonic representative at CES 2016, apparently the Japanese mothership had anticipated calls for an SL-1200 reboot soon after bringing Technics back to life in 2014 with a new range of electronics and loudspeakers.

    Put yourself in Panasonic’s shoes for a moment and ask: which market segment would shout loudest in 2014 for resumed production of the SL-1200?

    Would it be the DJ sector, long since converted to a new digital standard in the Pioneer CDJ 2000 and, later, Serato and/or Traktor software? Bear in mind that only the most hardcore of vinyl DJs would find use for a re-issued SL-1200 – how many of those in the world? Almost certainly insufficient numbers to justify a resurrection.

    Besides, the last five years has clearly demonstrated that it’s the home listener (and not DJs) that are the dominant force driving the resurgent vinyl market. It’s classic albums and not remix 12”s that top end of year vinyl sales charts.

    And there is no more outspoken vinyl listener than the audiophile. Given the right audience, s/he will spill on the whys and wherefores of vinyl’s alleged superiority at almost every turn.

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    Panasonic in 2015 might have spied the audiophile as the most ardent proponent of the Technics SL-1200. And it’s not hard to see why. I ran the (above) MKII version for six months in 2013 and found it not the most exciting listen – a little dull even with a Zu-modded DL-103r cart – but it easily bested entry-level units from Rega and Pro-Ject, especially on build quality. With the Technics, speed switching came at the click of a button; no need to lift the platter and move the belt in order to spin a 45.

    Moreover, many high-end turntables look and feel like zany home science projects (hello Well Tempered); finicky fragility seems almost built into their design and of stark contrast to the SL-1200’s bullet-proof sturdiness. Encouraging one to touch it, the Technics deck functions more like an appliance, allows the user to get more (quite literally) hands on with playback and without fear of breaking anything. After all, isn’t being hands on with vinyl one of the format’s main draw cards?

    Similar appliance-like ergonomics and robustness can also be found, to varying degrees, in the many the Technics clones coming to market since the SL-1200’s 2010 termination.

    Taiwan’s Hanpin will re-badge and tweak a ‘Super OEM’ version of the SL-1200 to any manufacturer that comes a-knockin’. Reload RP600, Stanton ST-150, American Audio HTD4.5 – to name three.

    The build quality of each SL-1200 clone isn’t consistent. The more ubiquitous Audio Technica AT-LP240 I find more than a little cheap and nasty. You don’t get what you don’t pay for.

    My personal favourite is the (above) Pioneer PLX-1000. Not only does the Pioneer feel as sturdy as the original, it looks the most like an SL-1200, and Pioneer’s US$699 sticker price is less than the cost of sourcing an original Technics on the used market (whose condition remains unknown until it lands at your door).

    Purists might bristle at Pioneer’s circular stop/start button – the original was square – but the arm and chassis are lined with rubber for better vibration dampening. And you knows who pays attention to these kinds of things? Audiophiles.

    The trick then is not to see the Pioneer as DJ turntable but one that would rival – and best – similarly-priced offerings from Rega and Pro-Ject. All things considered and with the right cartridge properly fitted – in my case a NOS Ortofon M20FL – I prefer the sound of the PLX-1000 to the Rega RP6/Exact combo that it replaced; a combo that costs twice as much as the PLX-1000 (without cart).

    Rega like to play up their turntables’ rhythmic vitality but the PLX-1000 makes music sound more grounded whilst simultaneously serving up more forward momentum, more drive. A ensures the Pioneer matches the Rega on qualities such as nuance and flair.

    What I’m direct-driving at here is the Pioneer clone reminds us that DJ and home audio performance don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I’m stopping short of claiming the PLX-1000 to match the performance of the Technics SL-1200 but I’m sure it’d be a close run thing.

    If you want the look, feel and majority performance of the Technics SL-1200 in 2016, go audition the Pioneer PLX-1000 at your local DJ equipment store – doubtful that you’d come away disappointed. Put a decent cartridge on it, preferably fitted to a better headshell that comes as standard in the Pioneer box, and feel confident of owning a giant killer.

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    As we now know, Panasonic re-introduced the Technics SL-1200 to the world five months ago at CES 2016 and in the form of the SL-1200GAE (US$4000). And I was there. So too were a contingent from Panasonic’s Osaka headquarters (seen above).

    However, stopping DAR coverage dead in its tracks was the US importer’s refusal to furnish yours truly with an explanatory breakdown of the new SL-1200GAE’s feature set, the same detailing given to my good friend and Stereophile staffer Herb Reichert not five minutes before.

    “He’s a reviewer,” came our American host’s botched reasoning. Could it be that Panasonic’s Stateside representative was operating a two-tier attendee system? (I glanced down to see my press badge had turned inward but I just didn’t have the inclination to clarify my own press credentials). My consolation prize, a lifted mat, after which polite farewells all ’round and an immediate shelving of any photos and video taken…

    …until now.

    Thankfully, Panasonic’s European Product Manager for Technics, one Frank Balzuweit, could not have been more helpful in explaining the new Technics SL-1200GAE’s feature set on the ground at Munich High-End 2016 show.

    The SL-1200GAE (AE = anniversary edition) is limited to 1200 units worldwide but causing much consternation in the tech press is its asking price: US$4000.

    Never mind the quad-layer chassis (aluminium, cast aluminium, BMC, rubber) or the triple-layer platter (3.3kg of brass, rubber, aluminium) or the gimbal bearing-d magnesium tonearm or the core-less direct-drive motor (designed to eliminate the minute speed perturbations known as ‘cogging’) or the motor control tech borrowed from Panasonic’s Blu-ray players (for speed stability and high torque) or that the ‘table weighs 18kg.

    To the uninitiated, the price alone tells us that the SL-1200G/AE isn’t a turntable aimed at the wallet-conscious DJ. (That’s what the Pioneer is for). You could DJ with the new SL-1200GAE but two turntables and microphone here will cost you the best part of US$10K. Ouch.

    Panasonic’s genius is to wrap an audiophile-aimed turntable design in an SL-1200 shell. How else would Technics separate themselves from clones now that the design patents on the original SL-1200 have expired and the old factory’s tooling MIA?

    Instead, the nostalgic pull of yesteryear’s iconic design wraps all that will sonically separate the luxury newcomer from the old fella (and the Pioneer PLX-1000).

    Not that the Japanese market needed convincing. They bought sight unseen. The 300 units allocated to Panasonic’s domestic market sold out within 30 minutes of going on pre/sale.

    And as Balzuweit said to me in Munich, “Good luck getting one of the remaining 900!” which presumably have been divvied up among resellers in the USA, Europe and (the rest of) Asia.

    Thankfully, a non-limited run of the standard SL-1200G (also US$4000) will be released later this year. It swaps out the Anniversary Edition’s magnesium tonearm for aluminium and will feature different feet.

    Perhaps we might best frame the edition as a combination of the SP-10, built for audiophiles, and the SL-1200, taken to so readily by the DJ community. A wolf in sheep’s clothing and therefore the best of both worlds. One that will satisfy the baby boomers and Gen X/Y.

    Further information: Technics (Global)

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    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

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