The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LXXX: Of Lipstick and Pigs
Is everyone making analog too complicated?
That's normally a question I reserve for digital and computer audio, where competing formats and endless approaches have made 21st century audio reproduction confusing, confrontational and expensive. There have always been people who resist buying a turntable because of LP care, cartridge mounting/alignment and a host of sometimes strange tweaks are designed to extract that last bit of information from the grooves. For the most part, the technology behind analog playback is simple, mechanical and straightforward. That's why many audiophiles are happy with well-engineered vintage turntables such as the Garrard 301, the Thorens TD-124, the AR ES-1 and the Dual 1219. If you get the basics right, you'll really dig the sound, and the basics were nailed down a good forty years ago.
Recently, I've spotted a few products, centered mostly around the venerable and infamous Technics SL-1200 turntable, that seem to go a tad overboard when it comes to making this particular design compete with the standard-bearers of high-end analog playback. I'm very reluctant to wade into the SL1200 waters these days, but I was once again challenged by members of the so-called 1200 Army, in this case, members of an audio forum called The Art of Sound. Residing somewhat behind the learning curve, these gentlemen found that 2007 Vinyl Anachronist column where I trash the Technics SL1200 in particular and direct drive turntables in general. I was even invited by the site administrator to join the group and defend myself.
Frankly, I had no desire to join the flame war, and for good reason. Since 2006, I've thoroughly investigated the 1200. I owned a 1200 for a couple of years. I tried a bunch of tweaks. I mounted a couple of dozen cartridges. I did everything the 1200 Army suggested I do. I still came away unfulfilled. I moved on. The members of this forum however, did not know any of this. They still wanted to attack me for my original comments (which, as it turned out, were mostly accurate). I told them to do their homework and I declined their invitation.
But something caught my attention. The site administrator, someone named Marco (who refused to tell me his true identity, but maintained that he was an Important Audio Person), had his equipment listed as his post signature. Here is a description of his analog rig:
"Modified MK5G Technics SL-1210 with Mike New high-precision bearing and Copper Composite Platter/Blue Horizon T/T mat and Paul Hynes SR5-21 PSU/Jelco SA-750D (with Jelco heavy counterweight) Oyaide PA-2075-DR tonearm cable/Ortofon SPU Classic GM MKII (Shure M3D and Denon DL-103 also used with high-mass vintage headshells) and Bruil record weight."
Okay, I may have been a little grumpy when I described this individual's analog rig as "putting lipstick on a pig." As I've said many times before while dealing with the Technics, people don't like it when you criticize buying decisions they have already made. In addition, I have not heard Marco's rig and cannot comment upon the overall sound quality. This may be the 1200 that has eluded me thus far, the one where the heavens part and the angels sing every time the stylus is lowered into the grooves. But I have to ask Marco a question: "How much time and money did you spend before you were happy with the sound of your 1200? Was it worth it? Would you have been happier with something that sounds great right out of the box?"
I decided to leave Marco alone with these questions. Again, I moved on. First of all, I didn't want to be a hypocrite. After all, I own a Rega P3-24 with the TT-PSU power supply, the GrooveTracer machined subplatter and sapphire bearing and a Funk Firm Achroplat platter. I'm about to pull the trigger on the Rega upgrade belt, the white one that everyone tells me is the best tweak $59 can buy. Even my cartridge, the Zu Audio DL-103, is a modded Denon DL-103. But there are two subtle differences here. First, the Rega P3-24 sounds great right out of its box in its stock version. When you listen to the stripped-down version, the first thing that crosses your mind isn't "once I add about ten tweaks, this will finally be listenable." Instead, you think "this turntable sounds great for the money." You don't quite have the same reaction to a stock SL1200. Heck, even the 1200 Army admits that.
Second, if I had it to do all over again, I'd rather just own something like a Rega P9 in its stock form. Plug and play, right out of the box, this TT sounds great. So do other turntables from the likes of Clearaudio, Funk Firm and many others. That's because the designers got it right the first time. Like a truly beautiful woman getting out of bed first thing in the morning, these analog designs always look and sound great without all the doodads and accessories. Besides, the only reason my Rega P3-24 is so tricked out is because I'm writing about these improvements and deciding which ones are worthwhile. I'm taking one for the team.
I was ready to let this whole 1200 die yet another slow, agonizing death when I checked out the Zu Audio website a couple of days ago. In addition to companies such as KAB and Sound Hifi who have taken 1200 tweaking to the extreme by offering radically reworked designs that multiply the original cost of this TT several times, Zu has decided to throw their hat into the ring and offer their own tricked out version for $4500. Here's what the guys at Zu do to a stock 1200 in order to make it sound great:
* Stock tonearm assembly is removed and replaced with Zu/SL-1200 Armboard/ Rega.
* Deck core is machined and taped to accept new armboard.
* Top plinth is reworked and encased in composite damping.
* Encapsulated top plinth is primed, painted, hand cut and polished. (Option)
* 1.5" (3.8cm) thick billet aluminum armboard installed (machined to accept all Rega arms).
* New armboard sandwiches top aluminum/composite plinth with composite core.
* Platter is damped with clear ester based epoxy of medium durometer. Customer can spec color preference, though it is the bottom side that has the art...
* Upon request, pitch control is removed from circuit and deck.
* Upon request, popup light assembly is removed from deck.
* Ringly-jingly bits and pieces are removed or secured in plinth.
* Platter/top-half of motor is balanced.
* Transformer is removed from deck (with KAB PS-1200GX outboard power supply option).
* Zu umbilical cabled.
Again, wow. But I must add some disclaimers before I move on. First of all, Zu Audio is in my opinion a great audio company, and I'm sure they wouldn't market something like this if I didn't sound spectacular. If their reworking of the 1200 is anything like their reworking of the Denon DL-103 cartridge, then this may be the greatest Technics to ever walk the earth, and that includes the awesome Technics SP-10 turntable that actually does sound amazing in its stock form. Second, Zu includes the excellent Rega RB1000 arm, which retails for $2000 on its own. So this Zu 1200 is really only about $2500, about the cost of one of those top-of-the-line KAB 1200 tweaktables. (I once went on the KAB website and ordered a 1200 with all the bells and whistles and it totaled up to something like $2327.91, not counting shipping).
I haven't heard the Zu 1200, so I can't make any definite statements, except for this: for that kind of money, I'd rather go back to that stunningly simple Rega P9. It has the Rega RB1000 as well. It's also a Rega, which means it's simple, reliable and built to last forever. When you start tweaking a turntable to death like Marco did, with a plethora of tweaks from a half-dozen little companies, what do you do when the whole thing breaks down? Send it back to Panasonic so they can laugh at your folly? You're stuck. If something goes wrong with your P9, your Rega dealer will bend over backward to make it right (to be fair, I'm sure Zu offers a warranty).
It all comes down to the fact that there are two types of audiophiles. One group wants to tweak and modify until the cows come home. They're constantly scouring the Internet for tips from other tweakers. The other group, however, wants to buy something that works right out of the box. They want quality, durability and performance. You just have to decide which group you belong to.
Think about these approaches as it relates to the automobile industry. Would you rather own a Hyundai Excel that has been tuned to the hilt using $20,000 worth of parts from a dozen different companies from all over the world? Or would you rather just own a Porsche Cayman S? I'll take the Porsche... and the P9, please.
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