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.
But what about the sound? In my first listen to the Technics I had been quite impressed with the way it sailed through complex orchestral passages. It seemed to deliver an enviable transparency coupled with a suave presentation of a variety of music, ranging from jazz to rock to classical. In listening to the finished version, I couldn’t detect any noticeable differences between it and the prototype, which didn’t really come as a surprise. My understanding was that Technics had not performed any radical surgery to the design. Indeed, if you take a look at the designs for the ’table, which Technics was generous enough to share with me, it’s hard not to be bowled over by the level of attention the company paid to the creation of the SL-1000R. I make no pretenses to any expertise in mechanical or electrical engineering, but even I could see that this product was executed at a very high level indeed.
The care and thought that went into the ’table were evident to me when I returned to an album that Voss had originally brought along during his first visit and that I subsequently acquired off eBay. It was a stereo Capitol recording of Tennessee Ernie Ford called Country Hits…Feelin’ Blue (now reissued by Analogue Productions on 200g vinyl). It’s extremely well recorded and makes for enjoyable, if not particularly challenging, listening. On cuts like “No Letter Today,” the Technics plunged deep into the nether regions as Ford deploys his bass-baritone voice to croon away. If anything, I would say that the phenomenal speed stability of the SL-1000R allowed it to poke into digital-like regions of black backgrounds and low noise floors. In this regard, it seems to me that LP playback has benefitted from the rise of digital, forcing analog to try and match some of the strengths of its rival format. At the same time, the native qualities of analog playback have been reinforced—a sense of continuity, warmth, and palpability.
Another album that I’ve come to cherish over the years is Jimmy Rushing’s Five Feet of Soul, which has been rereleased by Chad Kasssem’s Analogue Productions. Rushing, who sang with inimitable flair and lustiness, really belts it out on this album, with the backing jazz players more than keeping pace. On the song “’Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” for instance, the Technics delivered crushing dynamics on the sizzling brass sections, making it almost seem as though the players were about to overshadow Rushing. On this album, the SL-1000R also provided excellent clarity on drums, which emerged with a satisfying whack.
If there was one trait that was abundantly clear from extended listening, it was that the almost supernatural speed stability allowed complicated passages to resound in full glory without any of the attendant muddiness or blurriness that can sometimes plague vinyl playback. It is here, in many senses, that digital has over the years ruled the roost, but the newer generation of ’tables and cartridges has largely effaced this divide. Consider an album that I’ve come to listen to more frequently, a recording by the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3. I must confess that I am not really a Tchaikovsky man, or at least not overly enamored of his later symphonies. But the earlier ones are less bathetic, and the Philips recording of Bernard Haitink conducting the Concertgebouw is really quite exceptional. The Technics could disentangle the more bombastic passages with ease; particularly impressive was the fidelity of the woodwinds and doublebasses. The ’table had no difficulty at all setting up an immense soundstage, conveying an impressively natural sense of the original acoustic in which the symphony was recorded.
The only caveat I would offer is that the Technics errs on the pristine side, which is to say that it is very uncolored and precise. Careful cartridge matching is a must with a ’table of this quality. Some listeners may gravitate to a fuller-sounding cartridge like a Koetsu with the SL-1000R. But the overall performance of the Technics is so compelling, particularly at its price point, that it represents a superlative accomplishment. As Itani put it in his concluding remarks to my questions, “Please check the sound quality of the SL-1000R. You will find it has very high S/N and produces every micro-dynamic of the music, without any hint of `transmission noise.’” How right he was.
Specs & Pricing
Motor: Brushless DC, direct drive
Speeds: 33 1/3, 45, 78rpm
Speed adjustment range: ±16%
Dimensions: 531 x 188 x 399mm (turntable); 110 x 84 x 350mm (control unit)
Weight: 88.7 lbs (turntable); 4.7 lbs. (control unit)
PANASONIC CORPORATION OF AMERICA
Two Riverfront Plaza
Newark, NJ 07102
By Jacob Heilbrunn
The trumpet has influenced my approach to high-end audio. Like not a few audiophiles, I want it all—coherence, definition, transparency, dynamics, and fine detail.More articles from this editor
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