The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LIII: Truth, Justice, and the Technics SL-1200
The old vinyl vs. digital debate is dead.
Even the most ardent digital believer has pretty much accepted that the LP is not obsolete, nor will it be any time in the near future. I've been preaching about this for the better part of a decade now, and it seems unbelievable to say, but I can't think of the last time someone questioned my preference for all things analog. Vinyl is not only accepted, but it is downright cool again. It's what I've been hoping for all these years, this mainstream acceptance.
Of course, this doesn't mean that the arguing has stopped. We audiophiles are a quirky, confrontational, obsessive bunch, and we seem to always crave a reason to quarrel among ourselves. We survived the endless in-fighting over the promising, but ultimately rejected, newer digital formats such as SACD and DVD-A. We finally reached a somewhat shaky consensus that multi-channel music systems, while very fun to listen to, were gimmicky and not true to the music. And we finally wore our Luddite badges with honor when we proclaimed that sometimes a mono pressing does sound better than a stereo one, especially when it's The Beatles or Bob Dylan or even Miles Davis. But this new debate has me pretty concerned, because it involves ego and pride and, much worse, our wallets. I'm not sure if this one's going to be resolved anytime soon, even though I'm utterly convinced that the other side is terribly, terribly wrong.
"What direct-drive means is that the motor which spins the platter is directly coupled to the spindle. The advantages to such a design is that speed variation is reduced dramatically, which is a good thing. The disadvantage is that the motor vibrates, and the vibrations go right up the spindle, onto the platter, through the record itself, and right to the stylus. No one really makes direct-drive turntables anymore because we all know they suck. All of you who still think records are noisy, and that they pop and click too much ... you were probably listening on a direct-drive turntable."
I said the above back in June of 1998, and for the most part that statement stood, unchallenged, for a very long time. In the last year or so, however, I've found myself in the middle of some very heated arguments concerning direct-drive vs. belt-drive turntables. And, with very few exceptions, my opponents have one very specific thing in common. They all own Technics SL-1200 turntables.
For those unfamiliar with the Technics, it may or may not be the best-selling turntable of all time. I've always thought that the Rega Planar 3 held that distinction, but lately I tend to believe that it is, indeed, the SL-1200. It is truly ubiquitous these days, appearing in movies, TV shows, and of course in every dance club in the world. In fact, Jason Gross, editor of PSF, chose to include a picture of an SL-1200 to accompany every one of my fifty-three installments of this column- I never said anything, because I loved the irony. (ED NOTE: Now he tells me...)
But these days, the popularity of the Technics SL-1200 turntable seems to be growing in leaps and bounds, despite the fact that it is a direct-drive design and, in my opinion, sounds like shit. DJs have long considered it to be the benchmark in turntable design, mostly because it is well-built and stands up to abuse. And while I can respect those qualities, I can never say that I would choose them over ultimate sound quality, which has always been the point of "The Vinyl Anachronist." So I bristle at the fact that while I may have been able to convince a handful of people to rediscover the joys of vinyl, people still seem to resist the idea that it's all about having the music sound like music, as opposed to having it sound like a dance hall approximation of music.
I think the problem goes back a couple of years ago, when a couple of the audio magazines reported that Rega turntables tend to run a little fast, as much as one percent. Now I know that in these days of 0.00001% total harmonic distortion, ONE PERCENT sounds like a lot. And perhaps it is, underlining just how primitive a turntable really is when compared to a compact disc player. But the truth is, most people would not notice such a speed variation unless they were told it existed. In fact, this one percent variance contributed to what many called the Rega Sound, which was lively and snappy and exciting when compared to other turntables.
But most people asked themselves, why would Rega do this? Roy Gandy, the founder of Rega, has had some unique and controversial views about LP playback over the years, including his insistence that record cleaning machines are not necessary because the stylus will push all the dirt aside on its own. But it seems like a cynical thing for a turntable manufacturer to artificially goose the sound in order to set it apart from other turntables. It is the very antithesis, after all, of "high-fidelity."
Of course, audiophiles everywhere starting discussing the flaws of the Rega Sound, saying that they never liked it and that they could hear the wow and the flutter and the speed variations. Pianos suddenly sounded wobbly and unstable. Voices suddenly wavered into flatness. And if you really wanted to prove it to yourself that these speed variations existed, you could always listen to some pink noise. In fact, you could invite all your friends over to listen with you. Sounds like a hell of a party to me.
The funny thing was, absolutely no one talked about any of this before the audio press reported it, which tells me that all of these belt-drive critics were unequivocally full of shit. I've spent thousands of hours listening to Rega turntables, having owned two of them over the course of a decade, and I have never been bothered by any of these so-called problems. And I've heard Technics turntables on several occasions, and I think they sound flat, lifeless, and downright boring compared to a decent belt-drive turntable. And I'm in the majority here.
I've told this story before, but my late friend Steve Zipser used to have an audio dealership in South Florida. In his front window, he had a Rega Planar 3 and a Technics SL-1200 sitting next to each other, with a sign asking people to come in and hear the differences for themselves. And Steve told me that not one person over the years preferred the Technics over the Rega, and that the vast majority of people felt that there was a drastic difference between the two 'tables. And every time I relay this story to a direct-drive proponent, I have to field an onslaught of desperate criticism, that his salemanship somehow came into play, that the whole comparison was somehow rigged, that proper A/B testing procedures were not employed. But I absolutely believe that Steve was telling me the truth, because I have heard the differences myself, and they are not subtle!
So, a few months ago, I decided to put my money where my mouth is, and I offered, on Steve Hoffman's music and audio forums, to host a comparison between a Technics SL-1200 and one of the very last Rega P2s (they were sadly discontinued last year). I picked the P2 because I had one on hand that I bought for a second system, and I was very pleased with the overall sound. I also picked the P2 because, at $500, it costs roughly the same as a 1200. (The P3 retails for $750, so Steve Zipser's comparison might not have been entirely fair.) And, after a flurry of discussion, and a revival of the passionate yet annoying argument in favor of direct-drive, no one took me up on my offer. I might have discouraged a few of the hard-core objectivists by saying that I didn't want to conduct a rigid A/B blind comparison, that I wanted the whole shoot-out to remain relaxed, casual, yet unbiased. But as of this writing, the offer still stands, unanswered. In fact, I came close to just buying an SL-1200 myself, just to put the matter to rest. I may have to do just that, which proves just how crazy I really am about these things.
Recently, I talked to my dealer, friend, and audio guru, Gene Rubin, about the whole speed variation issue, and whether or not it was affecting sales. It seems to me that the whole Rega backlash has tarnished their image somewhat, and I was hoping that I was wrong. Gene told me that he randomly picked three Rega P3s from his inventory and tested the speed using a strobe disc. All three P3s ran at a perfect 33 1/3 RPM, which means one of two things. Either Roy Gandy decided that having his 'tables run fast was the wrong thing to do, or, and this is my guess, that the whole problem never existed in the first place. Nevertheless, an entire cottage industry of "electronic speed controls" has sprung up recently for use with the more modest belt-drive designs such as Rega, Music Hall, and Pro-Ject.
I've heard some of these 'tables lately, these heavily tweaked Regas, with their acrylic platters and speed boxes and heavy counterweights and rewired tonearms, and many of them sound really, really nice (check out http://www.groovetracer.com/ for a fine example of these tweaks done right). But I've also heard Regas tweaked until they no longer sound like Regas, which raises the question: if you wanted your Rega to sound like a different turntable, then why didn't you buy a different turntable to start with? I think stock Regas sound pretty spectacular, especially when you consider how affordable they really are, and reliable, and trouble-free.
I guess it does come back to the original analog vs. digital debate, and how I've always stressed how important it is to listen for yourself and have your own opinions about sound. I did that twenty years ago and decided that LPs sound better than CDs, which was not a popular opinion at the time. But now things have changed. More and more people are coming around. Check out this article if you're still a skeptic: http://www.upi.com/NewsTrack/view.php?StoryID=20060420-081148-3696r
But a vinyl anachronist's job is never done. One of the things I noticed about the SL-1200 fans is that they rarely had the chance, or the nerve, to put their 'tables up against a nice belt-drive design, and listen for themselves. It was all, "I love my Technics, and it's all the 'table I'll ever need" and "I'm very sensitive to changes in pitch, so I know I'll never like a Rega." Conversely, almost every belt-drive lover had said that they used to own a direct-drive design until they heard a good belt-drive 'table, and then there was no going back. So it sounds like the direct-drive guys are doing nothing more than justifying their expenditure by hiding behind measurements. It's the same wrong-headedness that permeates audio on every level.
That's why I no longer consider myself an audiophile. I'm a music lover. That's why I've chosen a stereo system that doesn't measure well, that isn't accurate, and that is chock full of distortion. I just don't care, because it sounds so unbelievable good. And you shouldn't care, either. You should always listen for yourself. They're your ears, after all.
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