Review: Technics SL-1200Mk2 Turntable
If you’re reading this, you’re likely wondering one of two things. Why would a lowly DJ deck be evaluated alongside “serious” analog gear? Or, number two: Is the recent positive buzz on Audiogon and the web about this venerable disk spinner merited?
The first question is easiest to answer. That’s because the Technics SL-1200Mk2 wasn’t originally intended as a DJ machine. It was unveiled in 1972, years before the arrival of hip-hop and disco. At that time, the Sugarhill Gang was still in junior high and Ian Schrager was selling steaks on Long Island. No, the original Wheel of Steel was billed as a premium turntable for home use that combined the performance of Technics’ pioneering (armless) SP-10 broadcast ‘table with the convenience of an integrated tonearm.
The second question – whether the SL-1200Mk2 deserves to stand alongside the likes of Rega, Pro-Ject, Music Hall and other ‘audiophile’ designs – is a bit trickier. But I’ll do my best.
WHERE’S THE BELT?
True…the SL-1200Mk2 is a direct drive design. For many people, that means it can’t possibly be any good. And those people would have a point. Most Japanese mass-market direct drive ‘tables were pretty lousy. But for the most part, the direct vs. belt drive argument is tiresome, mainly because there are good and bad examples of both designs. Technics, Kenwood and Denon produced a number of prized direct drive units that command respect to this day. Denon in particular continues to build highly competitive direct drive ‘tables – beautiful, gorgeous-sounding machines like the new DP-500M.
Also true is that direct drive ‘tables can sound a bit bright compared with belt drive models. Those who care to analyze the phenomenon attribute this to the fact that, in the case of Quartz-controlled models like the SL-1200Mk2, the circuit is constantly hunting for the perfect speed without success. The resulting jerky micro-variations in speed impart an edgy character to the sound. Then there are the motor vibrations that are inevitably transmitted through the spindle and to the platter.
Of course, belt drive on a budget has drawbacks of its own. Speed variations are sloooower, but manifest themselves as audible and annoying warbles in pitch. Also, critics claim certain ‘tables (Regas in particular) tend to run about 1% fast – enough to audibly alter timbre, if not pitch. And don’t forget, belts transmit variation too. There’s really no way to completely decouple a motor from the plinth and platter (unless you use an air drive or something) though clever design – as on the Music Hall MMF-7 – can help minimize any undesirable effects.
I suppose turntables are like cars: some people love rear wheel drive, others prefer front wheel. I wouldn’t choose a car based solely on which end the tranny is connected to. Likewise, I wouldn’t discount a turntable based on how it gets the platter spinning. So on to the next issue…
The Technics SL-1200Mk2 is built like a bank vault, weighing in at over 26 pounds. Heavy gear isn’t necessarily better sounding, and lightweight gear isn’t necessarily garbage. One thing’s for sure: the SL-1200Mk2 is the only $550 turntable on the market today that stands a chance of being handed down to my grandchildren. Mine may even outlast the format entirely. This is an heirloom product, the only one in its class as far as I’m concerned. Parts are widely available and affordable, so the SL-1200Mk2 could well be a lifetime investment.
The reason Technics can afford to offer such a well-constructed piece of gear for such a reasonable tariff is simple: the tooling is paid for. Just as Rega wouldn’t likely be able to create a cost-effective tonearm in the digital age, Technics surely couldn’t design and build the SL-1200Mk2 for $550 per copy in 2004. (You’ll find a more involved thesis on this at www.kabusa.com which, though laced with salesmanship, is mostly right on the money.)
The Music Hall MMF-2.1 (which I owned) and the MMF-5 (which I auditioned) can’t hold a candle to the SL-1200Mk2 in terms of quality. Neither can the lower-end Thorens turntables: the TD170, TD 185 (which I also owned) and TD190. My beloved Rega P2 is a higher-quality unit than any of the Music Hall or Thorens models, but next to the Technics, it feels like origami. Plus, the P2 arrived with a few minor quality control gaffes (broken dustcover hinges, etc.) that I had to correct or replace. The Technics, which is mostly hand built in Japan to this day, was 100% perfect out of the box save for a tiny scuff near the pitch slider. Impressive.
Here’s where the Technics stands head-and-shoulders above, well, everything else. Virtually every control has a positive, very expensive feel (except the pitch slider, which feels a little ‘scratchy’ as it moves). Tap the ‘start’ button and in 0.7 seconds, the platter is up to speed. Tap it again and it stops just as quickly. Adjustable electronic braking can bring the platter to an even quicker halt if for some reason one second isn’t fast enough.
The platter weighs five pounds and is damped with hard rubber on the bottom. Whack it with a baseball bat and it still won’t ring. (The rubber record mat adds another 17 ounces.) Give the platter a spin with your hand, and it whirls like a greased roulette wheel. I wondered if it would ever stop spinning! It has great flywheel action, and judging by the smoothness of rotation, the bearing must be pretty well machined.
Want to adjust VTA on the fly? Give the VTA adjustment ring a careful turn. Above the VTA ring is a cueing lever that feels fine, except the damping isn’t nearly as creamy as on the Rega RB250. About the only problem on the tonearm end of things is the lift itself. The part that contacts the arm is coated with a sticky, rubbery material. As such, when you move the arm towards the record it moves in bumpy steps, making it difficult to cue exactly. No big deal, as this corrects itself in a few weeks as the part wears in.
Being able to switch from 33 to 45 at the touch of a button is a joy. I sold most of my 45rpm LPs because it just didn’t seem worth the bother to play them with my previous turntables. Now, no more lifting the platter to change speeds. (Also, if you use a dry brush, you can really speed up your pre-play record dusting by simply tapping the 45 button!)
Finally, my favorite feature: the pop-up cueing lamp. At the touch of a button, a tiny bulb sheathed in swanky brushed aluminum glides skyward to light the way. If you like to listen to LPs late at night with the lights dimmed and don’t feel like clamping a reading lamp to your equipment rack, you’ll surely love this bonus extra.
If the SL-1200Mk2 has a weak point, at first glance this would seem to be it. The Rega RB250 feels like a surgical instrument; in contrast, the Technics tonearm feels precise but a bit less elegant. I’d say that, in use, it’s on par with the mid-end Pro-Ject arms, though it looks and feels more expensive. It’s not, though: a replacement tonearm assembly for the Technics costs about $70 sans cable – a fraction of the Rega RB250’s price.
Of course, the Technics arm offers flexibility the RB250 can’t match. As previously mentioned, VTA is fully adjustable. The removable headshell, though compromising the arm’s rigidity somewhat, makes installing/swapping cartridges a snap. It’s a boon for those who own both mono and stereo cartridges. Should you ever accidentally yank too hard on a wire or snap off a clip, simply replace the entire headshell for about $30 – much cheaper and easier than having your arm professionally rewired (or having to break out the miserable soldering iron.)
Speaking of wires, the Technics tonearm cabling is pitiful. Then again, it’s pitiful on most turntables in this price range, too. I’ve never been cable-crazy, but I’d like to see something a bit more substantial. A do-it-yourselfer might want to take a crack at rewiring it; after all, if you screw it up, a new arm costs just $70.
Technics provides a blast-from-the-past, Thorens-style overhang gauge that, if it actually worked, would be a treat to use: slide it over the headshell, align the stylus with the correct point, be sure the cartridge is parallel in the headshell, and you’re done. Or so you’d think, until you double-checked the geometry with a proper two-point gauge. The Technics device placed my Shure M97xE about a half-inch from where it should have been. My advice: throw the gauge in the garbage immediately.
Origin Live offers a slick-looking conversion kit for the SL-1200Mk2 that allows you to mount a Rega arm like the RB250 (or their modified DJ version of the RB250). The collar is just £39 (plus shipping and import duty), so adding an RB250 can be accomplished for around $300 provided you get a good deal on the arm. But before you go rewiring things or swapping arms, it’s probably best to listen to the stock SL-1200Mk2 first. So here we go…
THE DOCTOR IS IN
Stethoscopes are like tennis courts…if you have one, you use it. I never thought to give my turntables the “breathe deep and cough” treatment, but now that I own a stehoscope I find it’s actually pretty useful…especially if you like to experiment with damping materials. (You know who you are.)
My Rega P2 is mostly free from motor rumble where it counts: on the platter. The plinth is also relatively quiet. I couldn’t find a flat enough place on the tonearm to give that part a listen, but I’d guess it’s fairly well damped. Obviously, you’d like to hear nothing at all when examining your patient, but I don’t think that’s possible in this price range.
Surprisingly, the Technics is also commendably quiet, especially considering the powerful drive system. Chalk it up to the expensive brushless DC motor and top-flight bearing that there’s also little audible vibration on either the platter or the deck. I’m sure the 20 pounds of chassis don’t hurt, either. (Using the ExtremePhono None Felt mat in place of the standard Technics rubber mat reduced the noise even further, but in use, I preferred the static resistance of the stock rubber mat.)
LISTENING…TO OTHER TECHNICS OWNERS
The Technics SL-1200Mk2 is the first turntable I considered after getting back into vinyl. Of course, everyone said not to do this. That’s why I ended up buying a (used) Linn Axis, a Denon DP-47F and a Music Hall MMF-2.1 before finally settling on a Rega P2. (Oh, and a used Thorens TD115 and Luxman PD284 just for fun.)
The Rega P2 is a very musical ‘table. But after moving my music room the second floor, I needed something a little more immune to footfalls and vibration because my neighbors aren’t exactly light on their feet. The only table I could think of was the SL…if it can withstand the force of 2,000 spring breakers jumping up and down in a Cancun disco, then it can surely slough off any vibrations from my heavy-footed neighbors next door.
I also know that many audiophiles are enthusiastic about this table. Europeans seem particularly keen on it, even though it costs significantly more overseas ($650-$700 is the prevailing discount price range for the U.K.). So I contacted every owner I could locate for advice. What I learned is that some people use the SL-1200Mk2 as their only table and are perfectly content; others have multiple tables (one fellow has the classic Thorens TD125 with an SME arm; another has a Pro-Ject RM9). In every case, they described the SL-1200Mk2 as a musical, un-fussy and high-quality analog playback device. Most swore they’d never part with it, regardless of how sophisticated their main ‘audiophile’ rigs become.
Then there’s resale. A 20-year old SL-1200Mk2 sells for around $300. But a two-year-old SL-1200Mk2 sells for…well, around $300. Why? Because apparently you can’t kill these things. They maintain a high level of precision for an extended service life, so it really doesn’t matter much (for DJs at least) if you buy an old one or a new one. Thus, plenty of pros are always in the market for these decks. That said, I would never buy a used SL unless I was damn sure it was never used for mixing or scratching. But should you decide to sell yours, rest assured you’ll quickly find a buyer, particularly if the headshell and dustcover are intact.
LISTENING…TO THE SL-1200Mk2 (FINALLY)
An SL-1200 owner from Europe promised I’d “damn soon overcome any perceived sound quality issues [I might have], especially with the [Shure] M97xE.” So that’s the cartridge I chose. True to his word, and despite some initial skepticism, I quickly came to appreciate my SL. (It should be noted that I had to track the Shure at a higher force on the Technics arm than I did on the Rega – 1.45g vs. 1.35g – to clear the first three bias tracks on the HiFi News Test Record.)
I hate to keep comparing the SL-1200Mk2 to the Rega P2. Ideally, live music should be my reference. But most people know what a British belt drive ‘table sounds like, though very few are likely familiar with the 1200. Besides, if you’re comparison shopping in the $500 range, the P2 is probably high on your list. So with that in mind, here we go.
First up was Peter Gabriel’s “So.” (Geffen; GHS 24088) Filled with punchy dynamic shifts and toe-tapping hooks, it’s a great piece with which to evaluate the SL-1200Mk2’s pace, rhythm, attack and timing.
Pleasant surprise #1: the SL-1200Mk2 has tremendous attack and crackerjack (though not perfect) timing. In fact, it handles dynamic contrasts with greater aplomb than the Rega or, for that matter, any ‘table I’ve ever owned including my departed Linn Axis. No wonder this deck sounds so good in clubs – if it could, it would grab you by the scruff of your neck and toss you onto the dance floor. Turns out the British aren’t the only purveyors of PRAT.
Pleasant surprise #2: the Technics SL-1200Mk2 has the quietest backgrounds I’ve ever heard on any table under $1000. I was shocked by the utter silence between notes. (Don’t sell your Lingo’d LP12…I’m talking relative quiet here.) There’s a tradeoff, though, and it’s this: typical of direct drive turntables, the SL-1200Mk2 isn’t great at minimizing the intrusiveness of imperfections. Tics, pops and scratches are definitely in the foreground at all times, a tendency exacerbated by the Shure cartridge. It’s a compromise I can easily live with. (A good low-output MC might help matters, provided you think the Technics arm is up to the job.)
Pleasant surprise #3: the Technics tonearm is far better than you’d suppose. It coaxes out a satisfying amount of detail, though the Rega RB250 ultimately squeezed more performance from the Shure cartridge. Nothing is missing, though hard-to-resolve passages can sometimes get muddy, and delicate instruments (tinkling chimes, high hats, gently shaken maracas, top-octave woodwind notes) are often relegated to the far end of the mix. However, the Technics exhibits much greater soundstage depth than my Rega P2. Another fair tradeoff.
Pleasant surprise #4: stable pitch makes a dramatic difference. Fellow audiophiles and dealers often downplay the importance of spot-on speed control in budget decks. And it’s true, there’s a lot more to vinyl playback than this. But once you hear proper decay, you wonder how you ever lived without Quartz lock. Plus, the Technics’ tenacious motor refuses to be slowed by needle drag or for that matter, decelerated by a Decca brush pressed firmly to a dusty LP. All the while, the speed remains spot-on.
Where the SL-1200Mk2 falls short is in providing that extra bit of insight you get from a good British belt drive. Mostly that’s the fault of the tonearm. This is still a high-resolution playback system, however. You give up nothing significant by going with this deck over a Rega or Music Hall – and you gain additional soundstage depth, greater attack and blacker backgrounds.
One other area of concern is that some music lacks a bit of heft and presence on the SL-1200Mk2. It’s odd, because where it counts – particularly with large scale orchestral music – the SL-1200Mk2 has plenty of punch, slam and swagger. But overall, compared with the Rega P2, there’s something missing that’s hard to define. Unless, that is, the Rega is adding something that’s not supposed to be there – maybe some extra midbass? On this point, I have to concede that I can’t come to a definitive conclusion because it’s been nearly a year since I’ve been to a live indoor classical performance.
Generally speaking, bass is not quite as deep on the SL-1200Mk2 as it is on my P2, but it’s also tighter. The midrange sounds slightly recessed to me in comparison, and really high notes suffer a bit, too. That translates to a certain lack of air and space, but for $550, you can’t have everything. Overall, the SL-1200Mk2 strikes a pleasant balance.
Across a wide spectrum of music – from Muddy Waters’ “I’m Ready” (Blue Sky; PZ34928) to a direct to disc pressing of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” (Sheffield Lab 8) to Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense” (Sire; WI-25186) – the Technics did far more right than wrong. Moreover, it always felt like an active participant in the music making process. Like a good German car, it demands that you get involved without getting pushy about it. It’s not in your face, but at the same time, it won’t let you settle for background music. This deck has power that others in its price range don’t. It’s addicting.
BUYING AN SL-1200
I chose the Mk2 version over the newer Mk5 because it’s oriented more toward home use (in a black finish, which technically makes it an SL-1200Mk2PK). The Mk5 differs from the Mk2 in that it features a pitch reset button and auxiliary headshell carrier, both of which I found superfluous for my purposes. More annoyingly, the Mk5 doesn’t include hinges for the dust cover. That means you’ll need to buy a hinge kit and disassemble the turntable to mount it, because the hinges install on the inside of the cabinet.
Be careful out there…many of the low prices you see on 1200s are actually for gray market units with no warranty coverage. These units also often require adapters for use in the U.S. power outlets. That’s why it’s worth the extra $50 to buy from a reputable dealer.
I can’t think of a better source than KAB Electro Acoustics. I didn’t order from KAB, but that’s only because I found a local dealer and thus felt obligated to patronize my neighbors. Though KAB doesn’t stock the Mk2 (apparently preferring the Mk5), they will be happy to special order it for you. Judging by the company’s website and a few e-mail exchanges, Kevin at KAB is probably the most knowledgeable man in America when it comes to Technics SL setup for audiophiles. You’ll get a good price and the added assurance of a personal pre-ship quality control check free of charge. Plus, he’ll even install the dustcover hinges for you if you buy a Mk5. That alone will save you at least an hour. And the company offers a range of custom performance-enhancing accessories (including an SME-style fluid damper and an outboard power supply) that’ll have tweakers’ mouths watering.
In terms of quality, you can’t buy a better-built turntable than the SL-1200Mk2 anywhere near its $550 retail price (let alone the $500 street price). Yes, the tonearm leaves a bit to be desired, and the cabling really sucks rocks. But the 1200’s speed stability, quiet backgrounds and ease of operation more than make up for its shortcomings. Plus, this turntable is a blast to use – the most rewarding I’ve ever experienced in terms of silky-smooth operation. If Acura made a record player, this might be it.
In purely technical terms, sound reproduction is impressive at this price point – and I’ve owned or heard nearly everything you can buy for around $500. But as with all things analog, the CHARACTER of the sound must be considered. That is, after all, what makes the difference between a series of musical notes and actual music. If the Rega P2 is a warm hug from your significant other, then the SL-1200Mk2 is a firm handshake from your boss for a job well done. That’s neither a good nor a bad thing.
Minor caveats aside, I like the SL-1200Mk2 very much. Paired with the Shure M97xE or similarly warm-sounding cartridge (I hear the V15VxMR makes for a sublime synergistic match), it’s highly listenable and non-fatiguing, yet very involving. Once set up, it makes vinyl nearly as hassle free as CD. It even brings digital-like image and pitch stability to analog while preserving the magic of vinyl. And it promises rock-solid reliability for decades to come.
I still love the Rega P2…but I also love the Technics SL-1200Mk2.
NAD Monitor Series 3400 integrated amplifier with MM/MC phono section
NAD C521i CD player
Technics SL-1200Mk2 turntable system
Shure M97xE phono cartridge
ProAc Tablette 2000 loudspeakers
MonsterCable Z-Series 10’ speaker cable
Audioquest Diamondback interconnect
MonsterPower HTS2500 Power Center
AudioQuest MC cartridge demagnetizer
Record Doctor II record cleaning machine
Sennheiser HD580 Precision headphones
Sony ProAudio MDR-7506 studio monitor headphones
Linn Axis/Basik Plus
Music Hall MMF-2.1
Music Hall MMF-5