Inside Track: The Second Coming of the Technics SL-1200
David Price talks to Tetsuya Itani, to get the full story of how Technics brought its iconic SL-1200 turntable back…
Dropping the SL-1200 from the Technics product portfolio in 2010 was – in hindsight – bad timing. The hi-fi world was just on the cusp of the vinyl revival, with other record player makers like Rega and Pro-Ject beginning to sense that the venerable microgroove LP was undergoing something of a renaissance.
But the company's Chief Technical Officer, Tetsuya Itani, tells me that there were good reasons for pulling the plug on the world's most iconic turntable. “Up to that point, demand was down due to the global recession, and most of the original SL-1200 mouldings and tools were either worn out, badly damaged or no longer available. At that time, keeping the production line running would have meant that we would have to re-design almost all the parts from scratch…”
There was understandable dismay at Panasonic's decision to kill off its premium audio brand's most coveted product. Lest we forget, Technics launched the first version of the SL-1200 in October 1972, and production ran for nearly forty years. It started as a general purpose middle-market record player, with a direct drive motor that was extremely quiet in operation and super speed-stable. The system first appeared in 1969 on the SP-10 broadcast motor unit, having been invented by Shuichi Obata at Matsushita, Panasonic/Technics' parent company. The manufacturer quoted -78dB rumble and 0.025% WRMS wow and flutter, specs that shamed every other competitor on sale.
In 1979, the Technics morphed into the icon that the world knows today. The SL-1200 mk2 boasted quartz-locked servo motor control, and the original's fine speed adjustment was changed from two knobs to a slider giving linear control of the deck's pitch. And so began the transition from a mainstream hi-fi product to the world's most beloved DJ deck. What then followed was a number of updates – 1989's SL-1200 mk3, 1995's mk4, 2002's mk5 and 2007's mk6 – all of which were minor improvements, such as better sockets and improved OFC tonearm wiring. In 2010 production ended, with many commentators more than a little bemused…
“It is fair to say that the SL-1200 was a very special product”, says Itani san. “It actually made the DJ culture, and that's why we kept on making it when most other turntables were discontinued. But by the end of the last decade, its sales had become very small because many DJs had gone to digital sources. There was also a company policy of bringing the Technics brand into Panasonic, at that time. But when we finally discontinued the turntable, we began to receive many requests from DJs to begin production again. By the time that we announced the rebirth of the Technics brand at IFA in 2014, the number of requests to reintroduce the SL-1200 was huge, and they came from all over the world. We also knew the vinyl market was growing, so we thought it was the perfect time to finally bring the deck back.”
Back to Black
The decision to discontinue the SL-1200 was taken after Tetsuya Itani asked his engineers to work out how the company could continue to manufacture the deck. “They judged that it was simply impossible,” he remembers, “because the dies and other tooling to make it had gone. Yet the Technics brand relaunch at IFA created so much interest – along with the worldwide petition to reintroduce the turntable – that our company director Ogawa san gathered us all together and asked us how we could bring it back.”
What followed was a painstaking process of putting all the pieces back together. “We began to make contact with former Technics employees who had worked on our turntables and tonearms, especially the latter – because these are very difficult to manufacture. We had some historic archived paper drawings left over from that period, but mostly had to rely on the knowledge of our 'old boys' to get the project going again. It was very lucky for us to have them because we now do everything on CAD, and so in design terms we had to start afresh.”
It was a voyage of discovery for Itani. He himself is a veteran at Panasonic/Technics, having joined in 1980, but the people responsible for the design of the original SL-1200 predated him at the company by many years. “Our 'old boys' – now long since retired – came back and told us how proud they were of their designs – and that the Technics name was based on the use of new technology. I thought about this and considered that although we could just bring the old technology back, that is not our company's way. So instead I asked my engineers to develop the new deck from scratch, utilising modern technology instead.”
The original SL-1200 was, of course, all-analogue in its design, so Itani san saw a chance to bring its motor control system right up to date with a digitally controlled servo. “We had a good start in this as we already have some cutting-edge technology from the field of Blu-ray. We now have some very sophisticated servo systems so can control the speed more precisely. Turntables are traditionally measured only by signal-to-noise ratio and wow and flutter, but these don't tell the whole story. In order to measure the accuracy of the platter's speed rotation, our current method is much more accurate than the old type of measurements. We now look at the deck's performance in 'dynamic', real-world conditions. We have done a lot of measurement and listening, and explored the relationship between the two.”
As an engineer, this fascinates Tetsuya Itani. “Measurement is only a rough guide,” he says. “For example, the wow and flutter figure doesn't tell us about a deck's performance under load, playing a record groove with music, but only with a test tone. It's like a two-dimensional photograph when you're working in three dimensions. Our engineers have been on a learning curve. For example, when we developed the new flagship SP-10R, we found that when we get more sophisticated in our approach, the sound quality becomes much better…”
Itani took the decision to launch the next-generation SL-1200 with a brand new motor design – this was surprising because the motor was arguably the best part of the old version. “Direct drive has many advantages over belt drive or rim drive technology,” explains Itani, “but there is an issue with the sound quality due to 'cogging'. This causes tiny vibrations during rotation that can potentially affect the sound. Although the old SL-1200 delivered a good performance, we wanted to develop a completely new system that achieved the best ever direct drive performance.”
The result is an entirely new coreless, twin-rotor design. “To improve the precision of the servo system, we integrated a 'hybrid encoder' at the bottom of the motor housing. A microcontroller detects the rotor position with the precision of 0.7 degrees (540 points in 360 degrees) and generates appropriate drive current for stator coils. That gives us smoother rotation control, resulting in superior sound.” In the new SL-1200, the result is 3.3kg/cm of torque, compared to the old SL-1200 mk5's 1.5kg/cm – this is more than Technics old broadcast-quality direct drives.
Along with the new motor and control system, the SL-1200G has a new 3.6kg platter. This is a mass loaded version of the older design with a brass disc added to the previous aluminium diecasting, The underside is damped with rubber, and the whole assembly is – as you would expect – balanced. The deck retains its diecast aluminium upper chassis, and under this is a Bulk Moulding Compound section and rubber base to absorb vibration. The tonearm retains its traditional gimbal suspension construction, with the horizontal rotation axis and the vertical rotation axis intersecting at a single central point. Precision bearings are fitted using a cut-processed housing, and the result is that it feels lovely to hand cue. The arm tube is matt-finished aluminium, with oxygen-free crystal internal wire.
The result is a turntable of exceptional quality, one that both measures and performs superbly, and – given the longevity and robustness of existing SL-1200s – is likely to do so for a very long time indeed. It's something that Itani san is very proud of, but more than a little surprised to have been developing. He tells me that since spring 1980 when he joined Panasonic as a graduate trainee, he has seen enormous changes in the audio world and so never thought he would see the rebirth of vinyl. “Thirty years ago I thought I was working to change the world by making digital audio better,” he says, “so we were very surprised to suddenly be making turntables again!”
Technics was re-launched in Australia in November 2019 and you can read that story here.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.