Technics SL1200 - a short review (Part - The second)
OK: The Ortofon 2M Bronze has been delivered, installed and running for a week – So, What do I think? Go to Part OneWhy the 2M from Ortofon.
I would like to recap why I selected the Ortofon over all of the other possibilities. First up I wanted a user replaceable stylus so Moving coil cartridges are automatically eliminated. Now days auditioning cartridges at a dealer is pretty much impossible so selecting by ear and audition is not going to happen. In this aspect you are pretty much left to your own devices as well as being reliant on reviews, recommendations and past experience with a manufacturer’s previous reputation. Ortofon are pretty consistent with their product, and they tend to keep a product line going for a reasonable period of time. I do not wish to purchase an excellent sounding cartridge only to find that in 4 years time I can’t get a factory approved replaceable stylus with the same performance specifications and the same stylus profile. In Australia the Ortofon distribution network is wide and well serviced, a replacement tip is never more than a phone call and a 10 minute drive away and the pricing is always reasonable.
The Ortofon 2M series cartridges use a similar coil assembly to the Older OM series but built around a newer (and hopefully better) housing. The 2 higher end 2M models, the Bronze and the Black also use an improved coil assembly that includes silver plated copper wire, improved pole pieces in the coils and a lower inductance should translate into better high frequency characteristics. The Bronze and the Black both use a more refined fine line type profile in their stylus geometry rather than the traditional elliptical type tips; this should mean better high frequency tracking on the inner grooves of the record where the grooves become a little more cramped and the tacking ability of a cartridge can be a little more challenged. Also if I want to purchase a cruder and cheaper stylus assembly for use with older and less pristine records the 2M Red stylus assembly can be easily swapped over on the 2M Body for less than 90 Dollars Australian.
The general press reviews of the entire 2M series suggest a “family” sound that is generally detailed, reasonably neutral and a good subjective overall balance. The technical reviews I have read would also suggest a flat response with the Black and The Bronze also getting a good high frequency extension with a slight high frequency rise. The distortion and tracking measurements all seem to reflect a well engineered product and a manufacturing process that would suggest a consistency across multiple samples. So; it seems to me an almost no brainer, Ortofon – here I come.
Also before I continue, I must add something that I was reminded of during the installation of the Ortofon. Supplied with the SL1200 is a cartridge setting gauge that is an absolute bonus for those that use multiple head shells and cartridges with their technics decks. You just connect and then bolt the cartridge into the head shell while leaving the screws just loose enough to slide the cartridge back and forth. You then slip the head shell in the gauge, move the cartridge till the stylus tip lines up with the end of the gauge while keeping the body inline with the head shell, tighten up the mounting bolts and the jobs done. There is no setting up with protractors or the associated risk of damaging delicate cantilevers when eyeing up and man-handling the cartridge into position. I set up both the AT95E and the 2M Bronze using the gauge and then checked the alignment with my Ortofon (Baerwald null point) gauge and both occasions setting up with the Technics gauge was spot on. It’s just so quick, painless and oh so easy.
After fitting, balancing and resetting the VTA for the Ortofon 2M Bronze I went through some basic tests to check the arm / cartridge compatibility. I then set the tracking force at 1.7 grams with the anti skate at about 1.5. The main thing I was looking for was the ability of the Ortofon / Technics arm combination to track warps without any undamped oscillations or uncontrolled bouncing over record warps which would cause cone flapping or excessive subsonic noise to enter the audio chain. My Phono preamp has a response that goes well below 15 Hz and any subsonic rubbish can easily trigger the DC protection circuitry in my power amplifiers. The Ortofon / Technics arm combination exhibited no undue subsonic resonances or inabilities to track badly warped records, At a Technical level the arm and cartridge appears well matched.But how does the SL1200 and Ortofon 2M Bronze sound?
Fitting the Ortofon brought about immediate improvements in the area of clarity and detail. I went back to the Earl Wild / Rachmaninoff recording and found more air and space around the instruments. The Bass, which is already a strong point with the Technics deck was even more controlled and better defined. The Double bass still had the richness and gravitas but they were more easily identified and positioned in the mix. Speaking of position, the stereo image was also markedly improved. The sound stage seemed to extend further back behind the speakers and fill out the back corners of the stage. Instruments could be more easily placed and subtle nuances were more easily discerned. However the whole image still failed to break free of the space between the speakers like it can sometimes do with my Linn / Ittok combo.
The main criticism levelled by most audio scribes against the Technics is that it can sound dark or shut in, well the Ortofon 2M Bronze went a long way to lessening this effect but it was never able to cure it completely. With the Ortofon 2M, subtle spatial details were more easily depicted and recording studio acoustics could be more easily discerned. On the John Lee hooker / Bonnie Raitt Duet with John’s foot tapping you become more aware of changes in his foot’s position by the changes in the sound of the foot scuffing, you became more conscious of the guitarist fingers sliding on the guitar strings and you just get more of that being their awareness that comes with higher resolution equipment. Again, despite the improvement the SL1200 / Ortofon combo only just fell short of my reference.At the End of the Day
The final conclusion I can draw from this exercise is that the Technics SL1200 MkII deck has the potential to work with and benefit from the use of a high quality cartridge. As to selecting other possible cartridges that may yield better results, a popular cartridge combo with this deck seems to be the Audio technica AT440MLa or the lesser AT120E. Both of these cartridges have a reputation as sounding a bit fierce in the upper octaves, perhaps these cartridges may be tempered by the Technics own slightly dark character and end up in a very synergistic partnership. I have also seen other people using this deck with moving coil cartridges. Many Low output moving coil cartridges have a rising treble response; again this could be a path worth perusing to overcome the slightly “shut in” character of the SL1200. Personally I would caution against using mega expensive Moving coils in this deck from a purely cost effectiveness perspective. I would also keep the cost below 400 Dollars Aus or roughly 200 pounds UK. The Ortofon Salsa or Samba seems to fit this price bracket quite nicely; these Budget Ortofon MC’s are also very capable moving coil cartridges. Audio-Technica also do a AT-OC9 moving coil which looks good on paper though I have no direct experience with any of the Audio-Technica Moving coils.
Does all this mean I can’t live with the Technics … Well I’m not selling it Just yet. As a budget to mid priced deck I think it fairs exceptionally well on both build quality and sonic performance. In the area of bass performance and pitch stability the Rega and Project decks (and even my Linn) have a thing or two to learn from the SL1200. It’s sturdy and solid cast aluminium / composite plinth is an absolute bargain at the price and if you want a deck that is truly set and forget you won’t find any equivalent for sale as a brand new item today. All of the above criticisms I have outlined should be viewed in context of the asking price. If you are mindful with the matching of cartridges you should get some very pleasant results.
I originally purchased the unit for transferring selected LPs to CD and MP3 so as to feed my IPod, for that purpose I needed a fuss free set and forget deck. In this area alone the technics is an excellent choice since it is not particularly sensitive to the surface it sits on, its lack of springy suspension components other than the basic rubber feet mean that it is not going to go out of tune. The direct drive mechanism means it’s never going to need a new belt or other consumables and there is virtually nothing that is going to wear out with normal usage. For me, the technics is a keeper and an Ideal second, no fuss deck.
The SL1200 is a deck that has been and still is spurned by many High end audio cognoscenti, I feal that the derision is decidedly undeserved and these detractors are denying them selves (and possibly others as well) the opportunity to listen to a good mid priced deck. The Technics is not the ultimate audiophile, cost is no object deck, and if you are seeking the absolute Vinyl statement then you had best look else where. If however you are in the market for a mid-priced sensible turntable that requires no maintenance and zero fuss then you should at least take a second look at the Technics SL1200 MkII, it’s not just a DJ deck - it can be quite happy in a domestic setting as well.