The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
LXVIII: Not the Only Game in Town
Before the holidays, I found myself on an audio discussion forum, reading yet another thread about the debate between the Technics SL-1200 and the Rega P3. I tend to stay completely out of these discussions these days, mostly because I've already said everything I'm going to say on the subject. I replaced my words with actions over a year ago when I purchased my very own Technics SL-1200, and I've written about the results twice in TONEAudio magazine over the last several months. OK, maybe I haven't said everything I'm going to say about the '1200--I just refrain from doing so on Internet forum free-for-all's where knowledge and actual experience are often in short supply.
I know I've said that I'm done with the subject in these pages, but a lot has happened since then. When I bought my '1200, I was determined to complete three phases of experimentation that reflected the three schools of thought concerning the performance of the Technics. I've just finished exploring the first school of thought which states that the '1200 can be thrust into the realm of the supertables if you choose the right cartridge. Well, I've tried close to 20 cartridges on my '1200, ranging in price from $50 to $2500. I've used cartridges that are highly recommended by those who love '1200s, such as the Denon DL-160 and the Audio-Technica AT-440ml. I've tried cartridges that cost five to ten times as much as the Technics such as the Benz-Micro Ref 3, Dynavector XV-1 and my own reference Koetsu Rosewood. While these premium cartridges transformed the '1200 into something that could compete with decent belt drive turntables, I was still bothered by the signature sound of the Technics, which is somewhat dark and small and restricted.
I'm about to embark on the second phase of my '1200 experiment involving the replacing of the tonearm. As I've reported in the past, more than a few engineers feel that the biggest flaw of the Technics is not the drive system, but the flimsy tonearm. I've actually made arrangements to deal with a British company, Sound Hi Fi, to employ their armboard mods so that I can use tonearms from Rega and SME on my '1200 (you can check out the services of Sound Hi Fi at www.soundhifi.com). The third phase will be to use the mods from KAB, including tonearm cabling, a damping trough and isolation feet. These particular mods are highly recommended by the so-called SL-1200 Army.
While reading this thread on this particular audio forum however, an interesting thing happened. A guy I know chimed in, and he made a comment that's becoming more and more common in the world of analog. “I gotta tell you straight up,” he said. “I think they both suck. My point being that you may do well to expand your options between these two options.” I've seen this type of response fairly frequently over the last year or so, and it's a compelling argument. In most cases, it comes from an audiophile who has a pretty awesome vinyl rig to start with and knows how fantastic analog can sound. This gentleman, for instance, owns a Forsell Air Force One turntable that used to retail for about $20K. It's easy to be unimpressed with $500 Regas and Technics when you have this sort of reference.
It does bring up an interesting point however. Why do we talk about Rega and Technics as if they are the only game in town? If you read these forums regularly, you'll know that many analog fans also own 'tables from Music Hall and Pro-Ject, two companies that are also very competitive in the sub-$1000 turntable market. Yet the debate always becomes heated when you compare the virtues and sins of a particular Japanese mass-market direct-drive 'table with that of a particular English belt-drive turntable.
Yes, there are viable alternatives to Rega and Technics for under $1000. I haven't been entirely kind to Music Hall over the years because of their inconsistent build quality and slightly lackluster performance, but they have sold tens of thousands of turntables over the few years they've been in business and I often hear from owners who are very happy with their MMF-5s and MMF-7s. Pro-Ject is an even more interesting alternative. While this company makes their turntables in the same factory in the Czech Republic as Music Hall, they enjoy a much better reputation for build quality and reliability (Pro-Jects tend to sell well in areas where there are no Rega dealers). I've heard their top-of-the-line RM-10 turntable, which retails for $2500, and it's an exceptional player in its price class. They also have a wider range of models than Music Hall, so you'll have more options.
An even more intriguing option comes from SOTA. This American company made some of the finest turntables in the world throughout the '80s, but they mysteriously faded from the scene by the time CD's completely took over. I've heard various stories about financial difficulties and corporate takeovers that ruined this company over the years, but the good news is that they're back. They've actually been back for quite some time, but they're smaller and more low-profile than before, kind of like the whole vinyl market. They offer two excellent 'tables in the affordable range--the $700 Moonbeam and the $1050 Comet. I've heard the Comet over the last year or so, and it's at least the equal of a Rega P3-24. A few of my friends who have good taste in audio actually prefer it. More people should be considering and buying these two SOTA tables.
There are a few more 'tables that used to be more competitive with Rega and Technics, but the weak dollar has caused these European products to skyrocket in price (this makes the UK-built Regas look even more impressive, since their prices have pretty much held steady over the last decade). The Nottingham Horizon is among the first of these products that come to mind. This British 'table was introduced a few years ago at $1000, and I felt it was a steal. The availability of this turntable seems to be questionable however; I can only find the SE version, which is closer to $2000. Another interesting 'table in this range is the German-built Clearaudio Emotion, which comes with a arm and cartridge for around $1000. This is a strikingly beautiful acrylic 'table, although I'm not particularly fond of the sound of plexiglas 'tables since they can sound lean and lack the warmth of the best analog. I'd still choose a P3-24, but you may feel differently.
Finally, there's always the used market. I still find it amazing that some people balk at buying used audio gear, especially when it comes to something that can endure as long as a turntable. Audiophiles are a notably fussy bunch, and they usually take good care of their gear because they know they'll trade it in for something better every couple of years. For the price of a new Technics SL-1200 (about $500), you can find a used Thorens or Rega P25 or even a SOTA Star that will hurl you into analog bliss for the rest of your life. For the price of a new Rega P3-24 (about $850), you can find a used J.A. Michell Tecnodec or VPI Scout or Roksan Radius that will get you even closer to your favorite musical performances.
I've discussed the whole vintage turntable market in the past, and I still highly recommend it if you're able to set up and maintain an analog rig. I just received an old Thorens TD-165 to play with for a few weeks, and the owner only wanted $178 for it. It's in excellent condition, too. To my ears, it sounds much better than my SL-1200, more open and airy and dynamic. It drives me crazy to see people devote so much energy arguing about Regas and Technics. There are so many other choices, and so little time to hear them.
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