10 June, 2016

Direct Drive Turntables

Brief Overview: Direct Drive Turntables (with budget emphasis)

UNDESERVED BAD REPUTATION Audiophile Aversions Among audiophiles, direct drive turntables as a genre has a reputation of being hard-hitting, lean sounding, even crude or only for DJ's. Some of this is because the average audiophile only knows the cheaper Direct Drives or the ones intended for DJ use. Fact is, there were many esoteric hi-end turntables (except for EMT, majority Japanese) that are classics and coveted by connoisseurs. Another factor is due to the Linn-led suspended table, belt drive crusade (for it was really that) - any other methodology (including my favorite, Idler Wheel Drives) were deemed heretical and adherents burned at the stakes (spectacles even now staged on the internet). Motor Noise One of the important turntable design parameters is how to isolate the motor noise for a supposedly clear midband. Belt drives do this with relative ease (though a lot depends on how you mount the motor), but all the great direct drives have Herculean engineering to minimize this. It is all in the implementation. Why I like them While I'd not deny belt drives do have their own set of virtues, I have always liked Direct Drives for their speed, transients (much as you would for panel speakers) and slam. As noted above, I appreciate all kinds of design. Maybe a Direct Drive should not be your only turntable, but it should be one of several. The Direct Drive's Rhythm and Pace is different from the Belt Drive (or even the Idler Wheel), a little more insistent (even take-no-prisoner), less subtle, but undeniably exciting if you can tame its "undesirable" aspects. Another reason I like Direct Drives is because they are less cluttered, usually more compact and, though suspension-less, heavy for size. Also, Classic Direct-Drives are Screaming Bargains, because a High-Torque Direct Drive Motor is very expensive to develop and produce. Take the Technics SL-1200, its price (then and even now) is so reasonable only because it sold in huge numbers. By comparison, a second-hand Linn LP-12, with a cheap low-torque motor, is NOT innovative, and NOT a good buy!

Current Revival Fashion recycles; styles that have gone out of fashion all of a sudden make a comeback. This is no less true for audio. While belt drive still rules the analog hi-end (albeit in suspensionless designs mostly), tides are certainly turning for the Direct Drive, as in recent years quite a few new direct drive designs have emerged (Read the informative article by Roy Gregory in theaudiobeat). Many of those mentioned in the article have reviews on the net, and it is fun reading them, just google the manufacturer's name and direct drive. No doubt more is to come. Also, in Stereophile, Herb Reichert gave a rave review of the Pioneer PLX-1000, a clone of the Technics SL-1200.

 Drive Turntables - My Experience
  • Price/Performance Ratio Current vs Classics I'd be interested in comparing the current crop (pretty expensive, understandably) against the classics, say the cheapest and ubiquitous Technics SL-1200! Someday I hope... Classics vs Classics This gets more interesting. Disclamer: I don't own the most expensive ones, but since EMT's and classic Japanese turntables are popular in HK, I have heard a lot. If you stick to Technics, It is definitely true the more expensive SP-10 is better than the SL-1200. BUT, imho they are the bargains among quality Direct-Drives, maybe even "giant-killers". Some classic Direct Drives, like Micro Seiki, Pioneer P3(a), not to mention EMT's, command a very high price, but should you spend so much? Here is an anecdote: my friend Edward once asked Walt Bender, godfather of vintage gears, about EMT, and he said he thought the Technics SL-1200 is just as good, and totally under-valued. Well, take it with a grain of salt - aside from mechanics, they do sound quite different. Point is, for a modest outlay, one can get a very good direct drive design.
  • Technics SL-1200 General The most famous of direct drives is without a doubt the Technics SL-1200 and variants, in constant production for decades and a DJ staple. I need not further elaborate as there is a huge amount of info on the internet. Literally, millions have been sold (unique among "hifi" gears), and as a result, obtaining one is not difficult (though still escalating in value). Also, many parts are available, so refurbication is not a problem. Mods Given the underground cult (deserving imho) there are many hifi mods dedicated to them, chief among them KAB. But I think the most significant mod would be to replace the tonearm, a somewhat laborious project (guides available on the net). Re-Birth! The SL-1200 has been discontinued for a few years, but a completely updated anniversary edition, and maybe more, are coming the summer of 2016. It has just received a rave review from HiFi News (not yet on the net). This one is immortal! My Experience This is the one of two turntables that I have in both NYC and HK (the other is Thorens TD-124). For my own general experience see here, also here for matching with the incomparable Decca cartridge. Currently, in NYC I use it with my mono Denon DL-102 (here). All those combo's - how's that for versatility? The Technics SL-1200 is not as good as the SP-10, but it is mighty good! I have never heard a modified one, but I'd be curious. One day, I'd hope to go that route too, although I have to say, given my variety of experience, I don't think the stock arm is that bad!
  • SL-120 This is a curiosity, more for home use than DJ purposes. Unlike the SL-1200, it is not quartz-locked and the motor is an enclosed type (which some say is better). It has an armboard, which allows mating with any tonearm, an advantage over the SL-1200. If you see one with a suitable arm board for you, buy it! An after-market armboard costs a bit, and if you subtract that sum from your cost, the turntable really costs very little. I just acquired one in HK (SME board) and you shall hear more from me.
  • Technics SP-10 (top pic; info here) This is Technics at its pinnacle, and my personal favorite. The sound has bite, but is smoother than the SL-1200 - everything is just a little better. For my experience, see here and here (which includes a link to the Revox direct-drive). It is commonly said that the plinth is undesirable, but I personally have never heard feedback or unwanted noises emanating from that. That said, recently at my friend seng's place, putting Vibrapods under the feet dramatically improved the fluency of the sound. In HK, a noted audiophile, limage, has stuck with this TT for decades, and he gets good sound from it. This is worth all you can throw at it (if you are convinced your measures will work). Unfortunately, it is getting more expensive.
  • Audio-Technica AT-PL120/AT-LP120USB These are basically the same thing, with the current version sporting USB ADC for digitizing purposes (and reversing PL for LP). This is a blatant clone of Technics SL-1200. Although still massive at 27 lbs, it is made in China and not as sturdy as the Technics (one knock at the plinth's surface and you'd know; a hollow sound vs the Technics' dull thud - plastic vs metal). Perhaps it is too cheap (in street price) for its own good. For some reason, I have never formally "reviewed it", but my satisfaction can be gleamed from my experience with the Empire Cartridges (here) and Shure SC35C (here). Note here that for the last month, partly fueled on by Andy, I had been playing with MM's using this turntable. I cannot say things were as refined as my other more expensive turntables sporting MC's, but I can say I really did not feel much was wanting. I'd think there's no better testament to its value. Also, its built in phonoamp (MM) is not bad at all, making it a screaming bargain.
  • Taiwanese "Super OEM" Hanpin While researching, I read this: "...As vinyl began to wane as a mainstream format, Chinese (editor: Taiwan) company Hanpin produced the ‘Super OEM’ turntable, the most well-known model of which is the Stanton STR8-150, but which has been adapted and re-badged by numerous companies. What the Super OEM had in it’s favour, besides good build quality, was that it was the first deck to take advantage of the expiration of the Technics motor patent. So, finally, there was a Technics ‘clone’ on the market with truly similar performance.
    The beauty of the Hanpin design is that, working from a solid base with that motor, manufacturers are free to then innovate around that. So bell & whistle features like line-level output, reverse play, pitch correction, and digital pitch readouts have all appeared on Super OEM decks, reaching a zenith with the Reloop RP-8000 and it’s built in midi controls..."
    So, there it is. The Audio Technica AT-LP120(USB) is made by Hanpin. The aforementioned Pioneer PLX-1000 too (see Stereophile link above). Somehow, I doubt the more than twice as expensive Pioneer is built much better. I'd be most curious to hear the Pioneer though. I also would love to hear Hanpin's own copy (official link here). I wonder if Hanpin is one of the reasons why Technics ceased production of the 1200? If so, that is a bad thing!
  • EMT (950/948/938) I have never owned one, but they are popular among Asian vintage collectors. Hence, in both NYC and HK I have heard many (including the non-direct-drive ones, like the 927 and 930). EMT is well documented on the internet (try the wiki entry; stefanopassini, emt-profi.de and febtech.de). Most of the EMT's are not direct-drives and imho they are now way over-priced. However, the direct-drive 950 does have a fair claim to be the best direct-drive turntable. Although the price is sky-high one should keep in mind it was very expensive originally. As for the sound, it is hard to assess the turntable individually, as they are usually used with their own 12" arms and EMT cartridges, which like Ortofon's SPU's, have a full midrange sound that is noticeably not modern (which is what many prefer, but I have my reservations). In NYC, my friend Andy has a good 950 setup, and in HK I have heard the related 948 (here) to good effect. I have never heard the 938.
  • Goldmund Studio As mentioned in theaudiobeat, this is a classic, and a curiosity. The most interesting thing about it is that it is built by Audiomeca, with a suspended direct drive! I have heard one in my friend Andy's place to good effect.
  • Revox (790/791/795) These look very elegant. I owe the 791 (with a Shure cartridge) and the sound was lean and certainly take-no-prisoner! Unfortunately, it broke down (an often occurence) and I have yet to service it.
  • Micro Seiki Here is a very interesting article, with valuable links. Again, the brand is very popular in Asia. Micro Seiki made all sorts of turntables but the ones I have heard tend to be hi-end models, including direct drives. Somehow, most of them sound kind of mechanical to me. Not one of my favorite brand.
  • Pioneer I have heard several times (like here) the expensive and iconic P3, usually to good effect. However, I never got the feeling that it is much better than its much cheaper Technics brethens. That said, I have never used one myself.
  • Rockport Sirius III This is yet another all-out effort. I have heard it previously in HK to good effect. Anyone interested in direct drives should read this huge article in IAR. Note that Rockport is notorious for not supporting their old products. Thumbs down.
p.s. This article is not meant to be exhaustive, concentrating on my own experience mostly.

6 comments:

  1. AnonymousJune 11, 2016

    Don't forget Kenwood's direct drive TT with marble stand that was also a hit back then! That said, I did own a Technics SP15/SME3009II/AT95 combo (actually my dad's ) and enjoyed tremendously!

    Also heard a combo of SP10/Linn Isobarik at an uncle's place which was vivid and exciting!
    Eric

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  2. Glad to see you write about this again, Dr. John. I've been inspired to work with the two SP10 mk IIa units I have and it has been fun and rewarding. Though they both need restoration, the sound they make is so compelling, powerful, and physical, I've listened to little else in the past few weeks. I haven't heard idler-drive in a long time, but these DD tables feel much more like master-tape immediacy than what I've been used to hearing from LPs.

    The TTs came to me without Technics plinths but with the Technics tonearms that allow interchangeable arm wands. Unfortunately, both base pillars were damaged. The best one was usable, and made a very good sound at low modulation. It partnered a Stanton 681EE with a NOS stylus - a surprisingly contemporary sound and quite enjoyable. But, to get reliable tracking, I needed something uncompromised by flaws. I find a Jelco 10" arm to work very nicely.

    I'm looking into options for restoration, from diy to the Krebs modification. Then the next step is toward a more sophisticated plinth. A friend, who is a woodworker/audiophile, and I have been considering bamboo, though it appears to be hard to work with. Results with a simple chip-board and Formica counter-top is itself very good, when given good support. The SP10 certainly lives up to its reputation, even with a simple implementation.

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    1. I am envious that you have TWO SP10's AND the space to house them! :-) Indeed they are remarkable. Mine was with an Michell modded Rega arm, excellent. Indeed, it deserves as good a plinth as one can get, THOUGH the sonic signature of a plinth is just that unpredictable thing!

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  3. Dr.John, did you ever get a chance to hear a Yamaha GT-2000 ? This seems to be a top design. I am contemplating either buying the Yamaha or a SP-10 mk2

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    1. Sorry, no, I have never heard this Yamaha! Japanese cost-no-object of this era usually sound good.

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  4. Yea. Since I am looking to add a direct drive to my system, I will have to choose between these 2

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