When I recently visited Command Performance AV in Virginia for an evening event featuring Magico loudspeakers and Doshi amplifiers, I was struck not only by the superlative sound of the two systems playing that night, but also by the sheer abundance of vinyl for sale on the store’s main wall. The albums looked to be reissues from Mobile Fidelity and Acoustic Sounds, ranging from Simon and Garfunkel to Count Basie. Their pride of place offered a reassuring reminder that the revival of vinyl isn’t a flash in the pan, but continues to go on strong. The truth is that even as CDs head toward the rubbish heap of history, no format has benefitted more from the increasing sophistication of audio playback equipment than cartridges and turntables. More often than not, it seems as though a limitless amount of information is locked in those black grooves, just waiting to be extracted from increasingly rarefied equipment.
One company that has returned to the fray, after several decades of quiescence on the vinyl front, is Technics, the Japanese firm that was once an omnipresent force in turntable design and widely viewed as the progenitor of direct drive. Now, under the stewardship of its parent company Panasonic, it’s once more offering a number of turntables at different price points, with the direct-drive SL-1000R at the top of its lineup, what Technics calls its “Reference Class.” The ’table features a separate motor controller, and can be customized to accept up to three tonearms.
About year ago, I had a chance to audition the prototype, which I found quite winning. Then William Voss, the gregarious American representative for Technics, showed up on my doorstep with the finished product, the 87-pound SL-1000R, which we hefted into my basement listening room. Absence truly did make the heart grow fonder: Listening to the SL-1000R provided a fresh reminder of the sonic precision and lucidity that a stellar direct-drive can provide.
Over the past decade or so, there has been a real efflorescence of different drive systems for turntables. At one end of the hobby, audiophiles have restored a variety of older ’tables that employ idler drives or direct drive. At another, manufacturers such as VPI have begun to offer new versions of ’tables employing idler and direct-drive systems. For its part, Technics has always been an unwavering proponent of direct drive. At the heart of the SL-1000R, perforce, is its legendary direct-drive system, but completely overhauled from that of older versions, including the use of a coreless low-vibration motor. Wow and flutter are said to come in at 0.015%. The motor is driven by an external power supply that attaches to the turntable with a cable and allows you to run at 33⅓, 45, and 78rpm.
Since something resembling the War of the Roses is regularly conducted by turntable aficionados about different technological approaches to motor design, I grabbed the opportunity to ask Tetsuya Itani, the legendary chief engineer of Technics, about the possible plusses and minuses of direct drives that rely upon a servo system. Itani, who began working for Technics in the 1980s, exuded confidence about the SL-1000R, even manifesting a certain bemused impatience with the skeptics.
I asked him, for example, whether noise transmission from the motor wasn’t an insuperable problem. He was having none of it. According to Itani, “the transmission of noise is not a problem with direct drive. It’s only a false rumor from the unreasoned negative campaign of the ‘belt lovers.’ The electro-magnetics from the circuit are very low and attenuated in the plinth. There is no effect upon the cartridge or phono cables. If you have some doubt about the transmission of the motor, please show me the proof.” For good measure, he added that there is no way to match the rotational precision of direct drive: “No one in the industry has ever achieved such a sophisticated servo system for a turntable.”
Apart from upping the ante with the new motor drive system, Technics also went to extensive lengths to dampen resonances in its plinth. It added a balance weight at the bottom of the ’table to ensure that the torque center and the weight center were matched. Technics also lengthened the tonearm from 9" to 10" to reduce tracking error—if you wish, however, it’s easy enough to substitute a different tonearm of your own. The tonearm is based on the ’arm supplied with the SL-1200G, but longer. Then there is the heavyweight platter, which accounts for much of the ’table’s mass. It is constructed from brass, die-cast aluminum, and rubber, coupled with twelve tungsten weights that are embedded in the platter perimeter. For all the technical wizardry, I have to say that the ’table looks quite sleek and handsome and is as easy-as-pie to use. Every time I hit the start button, the platter moved with lightning rapidity. For ease of use, you would have to score the Technics at the top of the scale.