The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CVIII: The New Technics SL-1200 Turntable
I have heard the new Technics SL-1200 turntable and it is very, very good.
I should provide some context for that statement, but I'm reluctant to stir the hornet's nest once again. I have a long history with the 1200, the best-selling turntable of all time with around three million put into production between 1972 and 2010. I've made my opinions known in several articles over the years, both here and in a few other places. I think that in its stock form, the Technics SL-1200 is built like a rock, offers exceptional speed stability and is also respectable in the deep bass department. But to my ears it has a dark, claustrophobic sound as well as a slight loss of focus. Music just sounds smaller and less exciting whenever the Technics is involved.
I don't like it, period. And I had one for over a year.
My negative comments drew the ire of what I called "The 1200 Army," Technics owners who loved their ‘tables wrote me some of the angriest, ugliest emails I'd ever received--and I've been married and divorced twice. To this day, I still get angry emails from people more than a decade after the original articles appeared. I've tried to stay out of the discussion for the last few years because it just wasn't worth the hassle anymore. It left a bad taste in my mouth.
In fact, let's stop here. The past is the past- a notion a vinyl lover should appreciate. I never want to describe anything as "dull and lifeless" again.
Anyway, Technics discontinued the SL-1200 back in 2010 and everyone seemed to go mad overnight. The price of unopened backstock skyrocketed so that people were paying $1000 to $1500 for what was basically still a $500 turntable--and a mediocre one at that, in my humble opinion. Less than a year after the announcement, I was already hearing rumors that a new version of the 1200 was being designed. A couple of years ago we started seeing computer renderings of new Technics turntables that were swoopy and futuristic and looked nothing like the old 1200s. Even I thought, "That could be really interesting if they pull it off."
That brings me to the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, or maybe it was the 2014 CES. I was exhibiting on the 29th floor of The Venetian, and I noticed that Technics had a room just down the hall from us. I went to visit just to see if they had any prototypes of the new 1200. Instead, I found an entire room filled with new Technics amplifiers and new Technics digital players and even new Technics speakers. All of the gear was sleek and beautiful, combining that classic stainless steel and glass look from the ‘70's with an imposing, hefty and overbuilt countenance that's more common in today's high-end audio products. The price tags confirmed that Technics was on the move and ready to go after genuine audiophiles.
It's not exactly a groundbreaking development in our industry--other classic hi-fi giants from the past such as Marantz, Sony and Pioneer have made inroads into the high-end industry with upscale products in recent years (TAD, a coveted brand that features world-class and very expensive loudspeakers, is a division of Pioneer). It made perfect sense for Panasonic/Technics to make the same move. It's been working out for them--their new bookshelf coaxial speaker, the Premium Class SB-C700 ($1699/pair) just made the cover of Stereophile magazine and received a very high recommendation.
Just a few months ago, I started seeing a confusing image, mostly on social media. Technics was ready to announce the arrival of the new 1200. But here's the problem--the image next to the link looked like a photo of an old 1200. It had to be a mistake, or perhaps just bullshit clickbait where the creators--and I use that term loosely--didn't even bother to use an actual photograph of the thing they were talking about. Of course I had to click on the link and find out for myself.
From the article, it looked like the 1200 was coming back with very little changed. The photo made it look a little more shiny and sparkly than the old SL-1200. The article mentioned that Technics had made a few improvements, and my first response was that of course they were going to make a few improvements since their original product created a huge cottage industry for tweaks, mods and radical conversions. In other words, it seemed to me that Technics had merely decided to bring the venerable 1200 back to the market after all those people wrote angry letters to the good folks at the Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. in Osaka, Japan. "We have made a grave mistake," someone might have said in some Osaka conference room.
Jumping forward to January of this year, just a few weeks ago as I write this, and again I'm exhibiting at the 2016 Consumer Electronic Show in the same exact room as I've been in for the last couple of years. As I'm in my room setting up gear for the show, I notice that Technics is now in the room directly across from me. "I wonder if they're going to be showing this new 1200," I thought. "I need to go and check it out."
Soon after that, I was checking in on Facebook, and I noticed that all of my audio pals had started to talk about the new 1200. Press releases from Technics had already been making the rounds the day before the show started, so everyone knew that the new 1200, dubbed the SL-1200GAE (for Grand Class Anniversary Edition) was radically re-designed on the inside despite the familiar look on the outside. The question everyone was asking, of course, was "How much?"
The next morning, the first day of the show, I made a point to venture across the hallway as soon as I knew my room was covered by my colleagues. I walked in and there it was, front and center in a static display--the new Technics SL-1200GAE direct-drive turntable. Indeed, it looked shiny and polished and made from much finer materials than before. The tonearm, once a rickety and cheap affair that I always felt was one of the 1200's biggest flaws, was very different--the same basic S-shaped arm tube was intact, but it was clear that the materials were of a much higher quality. Darn it if I didn't look like a real ‘spensive tonearm. Other than that, the GAE looked pretty much like a 1200--albeit a super-duper Grand Class Anniversary Edition one.
That's when a Japanese gentleman approached me and gestured favorably toward the GAE. "All new design!" he explained. I glanced at his name tag and he was indeed an employee of Matsushita of Osaka. Then he did something that I can't explain for fear of looking like I'm full of myself. He glanced down at my name tag and presumably read my name. The smile disappeared from his face. He immediately gestured toward a group of men on the other side of the room and told me to wait right there. He brought back another man, about the same age, but with a better command of English. They both looked at my name badge and talked to each other in rapid-fire Japanese before the first man introduced me to the second man and told me he could answer all my questions.
Of course, I started fantasizing about being known all over Panasonic headquarters as that American kook who hates their very popular turntables. I imagined my face on a dartboard in every single cubicle. I daydreamed about being the motivation for the GAE, that they finally listened to me and decided to make the 1200 something even I would love. Earth to Marc. Earth to Marc.
The second gentleman did answer all of my questions. He reiterated the "all new on the inside" theme and asked me to pick up the turntable to see how solid it was. The old 1200, as I mentioned, was a pretty substantial turntable that weighed around 25 pounds. The new GAE, however, was a lot heavier, at almost 40 pounds. "Better vibration control," I was told. He then removed the platter and started to show me the GAE's innards, and it was immediately clear that this was a precision machine with high-quality parts and low tolerances. The old 1200 has pretty impressive engineering inside it--for a $500 turntable, that is. But there was no way the GAE was going to sell for $500 or $1000 or even $1500. So I asked the big question.
"We aren't sure yet," he told me. "Maybe $4000? Does that seem like too much?"
Looking back at the partly disassembled GAE, I thought no, that I was witnessing some precision engineering there, something I would expect from a turntable at that price. But I kept thinking about all my audio buddies back on Facebook, and how for months, they had been hoping that the new 1200 wouldn't cost that much more than the old one. I knew everyone was going to be disappointed with that number, so I sat in the sweet spot on the big couch in front of the all-Technics demo system in the room, fronted by the GAE paired with a wonderful Ortofon Cadenza cartridge, and I auditioned the GAE in all its glory.
While I was listening, I checked into Facebook and broke the bad news. The consensus was "bummer." But then something happened. I started noticing how good the Technics system sounded. To put it succinctly, the GAE did all the things the old 1200s couldn't do. The GAE produced a big, stunning soundstage with focus and layered imaging. I heard no darkness closing in around my head. What I heard, in fact, was an extremely low noise floor that allowed me to hear all of the details in the music. The GAE was producing the sound quality I would expect for a turntable in this range. I immediately went back on Facebook and posted this lone reply: "Guys, it sounds like a $4000 turntable."
Here's a quick run-down of all the improvements you'll find in the GAE:
Most of the focus is on the re-design of the direct-drive motor and control circuitry--Technics is very aware of the 1200's reputation as a DJ ‘table instead of an audiophile ‘table and they want to change that with the GAE. As I've said before, I'm not against direct-drive turntables but I am against cheaper direct-drive TTs that don't spend a lot of time addressing vibration control. I've been in a few heated arguments on this point alone over the years, but it all comes down to motors creating noise--which they do, of course. Finer direct-drive designs spend a lot of time, engineering and money on isolating the motor from the rest of the turntable, something that is much easier to do with a belt-drive design.
- Twin-rotor surface-facing direct drive motor
- High-sensitivity magnesium tonearm
- Direct-drive motor controller
- Brass-top turntable platter
In its execution, the GAE resembles very expensive direct-drive turntable designs from the likes of Rockport, Grand Prix Audio, Brinkmann and VPI. While the actual designs are not necessarily similar, the effort and attention devoted to controlling vibration and noise inside the plinth is. So a $4000 MSRP is starting to look pretty reasonable.
Here's the bad news: Technics is only making 1200 GAEs. It's a limited edition, of course. It's right in the name. But the GAE will eventually be replaced with a SL-1200G version that will be pretty much the same turntable without the cachet and the pretty badges. At first, we heard that the G might be about half the price of the GAE, but now, we're hearing it will be around $4000 as well. So the GAE might be the one worth searching for, and now.
I'd buy it. Yeah, I said it.
By the time I finished in the Technics room and went back across the hall, social media was just starting to explode with news of the $4000 price tag for the GAE. Again, I started feeling a bloated sense of self-worth. Ten minutes before, the Technics rep wasn't sure about the $4000 price, but once the Vinyl Anachronist came in and gave his two cents' worth they started organizing the press conference. Or not.
I have to say that after all the forum bickering and ugly emails and Technics-bashing, I feel pretty good about this. The Technics SL-1200 debacle had become a real drag over the years. As I've said before, I don't care if you use a Close ‘N" Play as long as you're into vinyl. But now I can say honestly that the new Technics SL-1200 is a great turntable, and I would recommend it to anyone who isn't put off by the price. The GAE is the most pleasant audio surprise I've had in a very long time.
Contact the Vinyl Anachronist at firstname.lastname@example.org and see his Blog site
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