Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part LVIII: The Turntable Wars
(April 2007)

"Still no love for the Technics SL1200..."

I promised myself I wasn't going to bring up the Technics SL1200 again in this column. I am so sick of this turntable. It's been a year since I made a challenge on the Steve Hoffman Forum for someone to support the claim that the Direct-Drive SL1200, probably the best-selling turntable in the history of the world, sounds as good as a good belt-drive design. I wanted someone to bring his beloved '1200 over to my house and compare it side-by-side against a Rega P2 turntable in front of a hopefully unbiased crowd. I was even going to supply the fruit punch, the Fritos, and the bean dip.

No one took me up on my challenge. But boy, did they bitch on the various Internet audio forums (see the quote above). Every time I mentioned my distaste for the sound quality of the “1200 in this column,” I waited for the fallout on those forums. I did it three or four times. The last time, after 2006: Year of Implosion appeared, I registered on one of those forums a day or so before the latest issue of PSF hit the web. I waited. And I addressed each complaint, one by one. Some ran away. Some thanked me for coming and sticking up for myself. And at the end of the day, no one changed his or her minds. Then, on the one-year anniversary of my challenge, the thread was resurrected on the Steve Hoffman Forum. The debate continued anew, with an unmatched fervor. And then someone said something to me that I'll never forget. This person told me I was "alienating" my readers by bashing the Technics SL1200. That stopped me in my tracks.

You see, the problem is that for years, I've been getting thousands of e-mails from people asking me advice about all things LP-related, based upon what I say in the very column you're reading right now. That's right, thousands. I've been doing this now for nine years, and I get at least one e-mail a day (many more And for years, I've tried to answer every one of these e-mails. The majority of these e-mails come from people wanting to know what kind of turntable or cartridge to buy. I usually tell them. I try to be as honest as I can. I ask all the important questions beforehand, such as what kind of music they listen to, what other stereo components they own, and what kind of budget do they have. Then I try to tell them what I think is the best turntable for them. In other words, I give my opinion, based upon the fact that I've heard many different turntables over the years, and I know what most of them sound like to me. Some are better than others, in my opinion. What I try to tell them, however, is that it's important for them to listen for themselves before they type their credit card number in some online ordering form.

In other words, I may be wrong.

It's scary to tell someone that you like a $2500 turntable, and have the person run out and buy one based solely upon your recommendation. There are at least a dozen people I can think of that have purchased expensive turntables just because I told them to. Thankfully, not a single one wrote me back to tell me that I was wrong. But that brings me back to my original point. I've always been able to tell people, via e-mail, that belt-drive turntables generally sound better than direct-drive turntables, and that they will probably prefer the sound of something like a Rega P3 turntable much more than something like a Technics SL1200. And for many years, under the protective cover of private e-mails, I felt as if I was doing the right thing. Not one person ever wrote me back saying that he or she compared belt-drive turntables with direct-drive turntables and found the latter to sound better. Not one. But the minute I said this publicly, the minute I picked on the Technics SL1200 in public, in this very column, the shit hit the fan. I instantly became a Big Internet Asshole. It took me a while, but I finally figured out what I did wrong. I trashed people's buying decisions. And that's a bad thing.

I remember years ago, when a friend of mine asked me to come over and see his new car. He bought a Hyundai. Well, this was back when Hyundais were considered disposable cars, which meant that they had almost no resale value by the time you made your last payment(for the record, Hyundai has really come a long way since then.) Well, I told him this, and I saw the enthusiasm drain from his face. He spent all day in some Hyundai dealership, signing his life away, and everything was fine until I came along. Our friendship was never the same after that, because I was a Big Asshole to him. And I guess I'm a Big Asshole to every person who has plunked down his or her hard-earned money on a Technics SL1200 too.

It took more than my year-long wade through the Technics quagmire to come to this conclusion. I also ran afoul of the VPI contingency. VPI, if you don't know, is a well-respected manufacturer of turntables and record cleaning machines. For years they made the only real rival to the Rega Planar 3 for the title of ‘Best Turntable for Under $1000,’ the HW-19 Jr. Personally, I always easily preferred the sound of the Rega, which is very different from the sound of the VPI. But I always respected the people who liked the VPI better.

Well, a few years ago, VPI came out with the Scout, which originally sold for $1500 (it's a little more now). The Scout was a fantastic “table for the money.” They started selling like crazy. In fact, at this rate, they'll probably surpass the Technics SL1200 as the best-selling turntable of all time in just a few years. And the Scout was the first VPI I heard that I really liked. I liked it even more than their more expensive models, which can run as much as $10,000. I even picked the Scout as my ‘Turntable of the Year’ a couple of years ago.

The problem is that everyone started buying them. But they weren't buying them because they took the time to listen carefully, and then compare the Scout with other turntables in its price class. They were buying them because everyone else was buying them, and all the reviews were excellent. One reviewer even said something to the effect that when it comes to buying turntables, you should just buy whatever VPI you could afford, period. That, of course, is a really stupid thing to say. Well, on one of those aforementioned audio forums, I caught someone repeating that advice. And I objected, saying that VPI Scouts were not as universally loved as this guy was trying to say. I'd heard a couple of honest-to-goodness engineers complain about VPI’s from a design standpoint, and I knew from my own experience that the VPI sound was not for everyone. I never said that VPI’s sounded like shit (you know, like I said about the Technics SL1200), and I never said that you shouldn't buy one. I just said that they weren't universally liked (for my money, the excellent J.A. Michell Tecnodec turntable sounds much better than a VPI Scout, and in a perfect world they'd be selling at least as well).

Well, the Technics guys suddenly formed a blood pact with the VPI guys, and they came after me in droves. I stood my ground, but at the same time I told myself to never, ever to open my mouth again about this stuff. I learned my lesson.

So I'm not going to tell anyone that I recently was able to compare a Technics SL1200 to a Rega Planar 2, and that I have some very interesting opinions, and not the ones everyone is thinking. I'm not going to tell anyone about the Rega ‘table I heard recently and absolutely hated. I'm not going to tell anyone about the Technics 'table some guy is going to send me when he goes to Iraq for six months. I'm not going to tell anyone about the SL1200 I'm actually going to review in a formal capacity for an audio magazine. I'm not.

You'll just have to e-mail me.

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