The Rest of the Picture
The remaining influencer on a playback setup’s sound is of course the tonearm. The ’arm on the Technics is integral. In principle, it can be removed and replaced, but this is not the easy task it is on turntables with an ’arm board cut to accommodate almost any tonearm in the usual way.
My main issue with the ’arm on the SL-1200G was bass performance. With no damping and conventional moment-of-inertia pattern, the tonearm allowed a certain lower-octave “bloom” followed by deepest bass roll-out from undamped ’arm/cartridge resonance. This was not a huge problem musically for most material, but once one has become accustomed to hearing correct low end, one does notice the difference. To help with bass correction one is “spoiled,” as it were, by Townshend trough damping, or the Well Tempered tonearm, or especially the “anisotropic” Moerch DP-8 ’arm (which has much larger horizontal than vertical moment of inertia). However, one also gets used to the aformentioned bloom, which is after all a feature of most vinyl playback systems, and a characteristic that sits well with music—it sounds something like a warm hall. But it is really not quite right here.
In any case, the built-in ’arm does separate the overall performance from the state of the artsiest art, at least in my impression. Installing a Townshend front-end trough would be tempting, and this could be done without undertaking to modify the turntable structurally. The trough appears to be a little tricky to fit it in, but I think it could be done, albeit at some sacrifice of the turntable’s elegant appearance. The trough pretty much bypasses the character of an ’arm itself and makes the bass excellent, besides improving the rest of the audible frequencies. And one can hope that Technics might offer a version of the turntable sans ’arm.
On the plus side, the Technics tonearm is easy to set up, and its adjustments are completely stable. My experience is that the correct amount of anti-skating force was less than the built-in setting dialed up based on tracking force. Running the Shure for instance at 0.5 grams, what I considered to be correct anti-skating involved setting that dial to 0.8. But of course you can choose for yourself since this is user-selectable and independent of the tracking force. As noted earlier, I suggest not messing with the factory-set operating modes (though you could change these with a screwdriver through holes in the turntable).
The Technics runs at a rock-solid and precise 33 1/3rpm, but it also allows speed adjustment. A surprising number of vinyl aficionados do not seem to care about playback speed. (I think of a popular turntable from a few years back that ran something like 0.6% fast—A 440 became 442.6, easily heard to be higher. And this is not the worst instance ever.) If you do care about the real pitch of what you are listening to, surely it’s of interest to be able to adjust speed because a surprising number of older recordings and their reissues are not on the right pitch if played at standard 33 1/3rpm.
This is surprising, perhaps, because pitch is of course completely fundamental to music, and getting it right is clearly important. But old tape machines were not very predictable in speed, and today it can be hard to know what the speed ought to be unless one has a definite idea of what the original pitch of the music was. (It was quite startling to listen to a reissue from a few years ago where a certain violin concerto in A minor was actually in B flat minor as put on the record.) Of course CDs made from old mastertapes can have this sort of problem, too. But with the Technics you can tune up (or, more usually, down) your music—and you need to do so surprisingly often.
Heifetz liked to play sharp—according to reports he had his home piano tuned to A 443 instead of 440. But he did not play as sharp as RCA often cut his records. As with all records, getting them on correct pitch matters. I really liked this turntable’s “tuning” pitch adjustment feature! Once one becomes used to it, it’s hard to go back. Fixed speed turntables seem to lack a dimension of musical control. The SL-1200G is a real musician’s turntable for this reason. If you want to practice by playing with a recorded performance, you really need this. But even for just listening, it is good to be able to do so at the correct pitch. (There is research suggesting that people know what the pitch of familiar material ought to be, even if they do not have “absolute pitch” in the overt conscious sense.)
The Technics poses to my mind a real challenge to the ultra-high-priced turntables. This challenge would be even greater, I think, if one could use other tonearms easily. But as it stands, it is a truly superb playback system. On a technical basis, the Technics turntable is absolutely in the upper echelons but without an upper-echelon price. For listening, this again holds true for the turntable itself—to the extent one can determine without being able to use other ’arms. Other turntables will sound slightly different no doubt, but clear superiority over the Technics would be hard to claim when the SL-1200G is properly isolated, perhaps re-matted, and provided with an excellent cartridge.
But if the Technics is challenging the higher-priced turntables (and it is), it is not alone in this, and one wonders what will happen, given what happened before. For instance, for a long time, various Well Tempered models have been similarly offering top-level performance at modest prices. (Quick sonic comparison with the Technics: The Well Tempered turntable offers comparable silence and speed stability with a slightly less analytical sound that is somehow a little smoother, mostly because, I would guess, of the Well Tempered’s damped, bearing-less tonearm. But there is no pitch adjustment.) The Townshend turntables with their trough-damped tonearms also stormed the sonic heights at plausible prices. But somehow, because these were not expensive, people found it hard to accept how good they were and are.
This underlying feeling that to be really expensive puts a product in a higher sonic class is often unjustified. Money is not the main issue in engineering, above a certain minimum. Skill in design and quality in manufacturing dominate the situation. Not everyone who sets out to build a would-be state-of-the-art turntable has the individual genius of William Firebaugh of Well Tempered or the combined talents of Max Townshend and Jack Dinsdale of Townshend. And for the Technics SL-1200G, I would keep in mind that a company like Panasonic/Technics has enormous technical resources and a staff of experience and dedication, in addition to having potential economies of scale in manufacturing. There are technical developments here in motor design and vibration control that are really extraordinary and very effective, too. (These are described in detail on the Technics website.)
In actuality, Technics is rather apologetic about charging what they see as a high price for the SL-1200G! No doubt they are too polite to say what they really think about turntables that have the asking prices typical of the ultra-high end. But I cannot help recalling the old saw that good engineering is doing for a dime what other people can only do for a dollar.
People ought to be ready for the idea that a really great example of turntable design need not cost as much as a luxury car if enough engineering expertise is directed at the problems. As always, it is a good idea to keep an open mind and open ears. And if you do, I think the Technics SL-1200G will be on your short list no matter how much money you can afford to spend. It honors music in a truly profound way.
Specs & Pricing
Speeds: Three, with defeatable speed adjustment
Wow and flutter: <0.025 % (WRMS JIS C5521)
Rumble: –78dB (IEC 98 A-weighted)
Weight: 40 lbs.
Dimensions: 17.9” x 6.8” x 14.7”
Panasonic Consumer Electronics Company
Two Riverfront Plaza
Newark, NJ 07102