Virtual Vinyl Day - Top of the Record Playing Pops
In honour of the venerable vinyl format, David Price lists his favourite record playing paraphernalia…
With so much of the world currently on lockdown, what better time to celebrate one of hi-fi's finest ever formats – the vinyl record? Cyrus Audio is playing its part with a Virtual Vinyl Day livestream on Saturday, April 18th from 11am onwards, on its very own YouTube channel.
The festivities include several audio professionals talking about their appreciation of vinyl and music, including audio engineers Stuart Hawkes (Amy Winehouse, Ed Sheeran) and David Baron (Lenny Kravitz, Jade Bird). Also appearing is Peter Thomas (co-founder, PMC Loudspeakers), Bob Surgeoner (founder, Neat Acoustics), and Conrad Mas (founder, Avid HiFi). As part of this, I was also asked to take part, with Cyrus MD Simon Freethy asking me all about my favourite vinyl hardware. StereoNET UK's esteemed editor Jay Garrett also makes an appearance too, so catch it if you can!
My video interview was prerecorded, and due to the amount of information I wanted to cram in, I had to rush through it a bit – I don't usually speak as fast as an auctioneer. But it was fun to do all the same, not least because I had to give a ranking of my top five turntables of all time, plus my fave tonearm, moving magnet cartridge and moving coil. My final choices could have included any number of obvious classic products, but I decided to mention some designs that StereoNET's knowledgeable and discerning readers might be surprised by, to keep you on your toes! See what you think of my list, and let me know yours.
TURNTABLE TOP FIVE
 1978 JBE SERIES 3
One of the vinyl world's best-kept secrets, you simply don't see many JBE turntables around these days. In its day, however, it was a popular rival to the mighty Linn LP12. Unlike every other British superdeck of its time – the aforementioned Sondek, the Ariston RD11S, Dunlop Systemdek and STD305M, etc. – it didn't have an independently sprung subchassis and nor was it belt-driven. Instead, the JBE was basically a slab of slate taken from North Wales, into which a Technics direct-drive motor was fitted, along with Micro Seiki Microsorber feet underneath. It sported a crazy nineteen seventies style 'podule' platter that was if I'm honest, less than ideal at its job of supporting the record – plus a cutout for an SME tonearm.
Retailing for over £250 in 1978, it was not cheap – and nor did it sound it. This deck has a controlled, stable and confident sound, with plenty of rhythmic push and decent dynamics. It was way better than most people expected at the time because the UK press, in particular, had been railing against direct drives for several years by the time the JBE arrived on the market. Sadly by the early eighties, John Bryant Electronics, formed in 1976, had folded and this turntable with it. I have one fitted with an SME Series III tonearm, and still enjoy it even today.
 1979 TECHNICS SL-1200 MKII
From one of the hi-fi world's best-kept secrets to one of the world's best known. The SL-1200 was first launched in 1972, but my favourite is the second series that came out in 1979 – it added a very precise quartz-locked servo control to its excellent direct-drive motor, plus a pitch slider, to make it the iconic deck we know so well today. It started life as a hi-fi deck, but because it was so robust it soon found itself in DJ booths in nightclubs, and the rest – as they say – was history…
If you've ever stripped one of these decks down, you'll know just how well made it is. Build quality is sublime, but the tonearm does let the show down a little. Some Technics purists think it's foolhardy to replace the supplied arm, but I'd say, on the contrary, you're wasting a great deck if you don't. I've had various tuned-up variants of Rega's classic RB300 tonearm on mine, and even an SME Series V once! It gives a super-clean and detailed sound, with brilliant bass and vast amounts of energy and brio. Its soundstage is ever so slightly constrained, and its upper midband is a little 'brightly lit' tonally – but this wipes the floor with many modern high-end decks even now in terms of fun.
 1981 MICHELL GYRODEC
Many people love the GyroDec for its looks but don't take it seriously as a functional turntable. Actually, it's more than that – I still think it's pretty much the best all-round record deck you can buy for the money. It's not perfect at any particular task but is very good at most and particularly strong in the soundstaging department. You get a wonderfully wide, cathedral-like recorded acoustic that makes the latest Technics SL-1200G, for example, seem positively closed-in. I also love the Gyro's tonality too; it's one of the few turntables that neither colours the sound particularly nor strip it of its natural warmth. It's a class act.
It also has a great backstory. Launched in 1981, it was one of the first 'skeletal' decks, along with the Oracle which came out just months later. Virtually all turntables at that time had a Linn-like plinth enclosing their subchassis, but not this; instead, its spring suspension was cleverly concealed inside little brass covers. Its main chassis was styled after the spaceship in the film 2001 A Space Odyssey, which designer John Michell made a number of props for. It has continuously been refined over its thirty nine year lifespan and now sounds vastly better than the original version, which itself was pretty impressive. I've had one since the early nineties, and it's been a great listening and reviewing companion.
 1979 KENWOOD L-07D
It's hard to know where to start with this 31kg Japanese battleship. It's such a complex and multi-layered design that I could write a book on it. Suffice to say that it hailed from what I regard to be 'the golden age of analogue', where there was sufficient demand around the world for the Japanese consumer electronics giants to produce genuinely high-end designs that took vast amounts of time and money to develop.
The L-07D was precisely this, a symphony of diecast aluminium, mahogany and 'ARCB' synthetic stone, onto which a massive bronze platter, stainless steel top disc, aluminium disc stabiliser and heavy bronze record clamp sat. A state-of-the-art, high torque quartz-locked direct-drive motor with switchable servo settings did the disc spinning, to a (claimed) accuracy of 0.02% wow and flutter – breathtaking stuff for 1979. Then there was the standard, fitted tonearm with its carbon fibre armtube and precision bearings. I've never owned one, but was fortunate enough to have one in my system for months, and loved its powerful, engaging sound, forensic detail and impressively low colouration. It cost a tremendous amount of money when new, and sounds suitably expensive now – only a handful of modern decks come close.
 1979 MARANTZ Tt1000
Along with the L-07D, there were a number of other ultra-high-end Japanese superdecks on sale in the late seventies and early eighties – including the Onkyo PX-100, Technics SP10, Micro Seiki DDX-1000 and Nakamichi TX-1000. Rarest of them all was probably Marantz's range-topping ESOTEC turntable, which when launched at the Japanese Audio Fair in October 1979, sold for four times the price of a Linn LP12. It features a 38mm-thick laminate of two 15mm glass plates, between which is an 8mm aluminium alloy interlayer. A high quality quartz-locked direct-drive motor spins the 3.4kg balanced aluminium platter, and the whole shebang sits on air-filled Micro Seiki MSB-100 impact-absorbing feet.
It's back-breakingly heavy, so you don't want to move it around often – but when set up with a high-quality arm and cartridge, the big Marantz sounds sublime. It has a hugely authoritative mastertape-like sound, with oodles of power and punch, masses of detail and great speed. My own example has had various tonearms fitted to it over the years, but it still never fails to amaze me – I often have to unplug it otherwise I'd never get any reviewing work done. The only other Tt1000 that I know of is in Marantz's Eindhoven HQ, where Ken Ishiwata (RIP) used it on a daily basis for demonstrating and/or voicing Marantz products.
FAVOURITE TONEARM: 1978 SME SERIES III
This could be the first time anyone has said anything nice about the SME III since it won a Design Council Award back in 1978, but in some ways, it's an extraordinary product! Although nowhere near the finest sounding tonearm I've heard, I love it for its innovative design and clever materials use. It's an ideal companion for the high compliance, low mass moving magnet cartridges that were just beginning to fall out of fashion when it was launched. Much maligned, even an SME insider (who shall remain anonymous) once told me that the company would rather gloss over this period in its history!
Its vanishingly low 5g effective mass is achieved by its nitrogen-hardened titanium armtube, which has a wall thickness claimed to be just twice the diameter of the human hair. Added to this is a clever sled system where additional lead weights can be added to the main arm assembly, to raise the effective mass when tracking lower compliance cartridges. There's also a fluid damper fitted, too. It's lovely to hand cue and feels way nicer to use than its 3009S2 predecessor. Sonically, this tonearm has a warm and sweet sound with a slightly soft bass and a gently rolled-off treble – but the midband is liquid and has an ease and coherence that many modern arms lack.
MOVING MAGNET CARTRIDGE: 1979 TECHNICS EPC-205CMK3
One of the most technologically interesting moving magnet cartridges I've come across, this Technics design was widely overlooked when on sale back in 1979. This was when Shure's V15 IV was king of the MM world, an iconic cartridge that was a badge of audiophile seriousness. Yet Technics came from nowhere with a boron pipe cantilever of spectacularly low effective mass; it weighed just 0.149mg, less than half of most rivals. This made for really precise tracking when partnered with a suitable tonearm. The result was a ruler-flat claimed frequency response from 20Hz to 15kHz (-0.5dB), and a total bandwidth of 5Hz to 80kHz – enough to bother hi-res digital. All this from a cartridge tracking at a trifling 1.25g…
It's a highly expressive sounding cartridge, one that absolutely maxes out its moving magnet design. It sounds lightning-fast yet wonderfully delicate, with a smooth, even and natural tonality. It's also got a super-wide soundstage and excellent stereo image location. Bass is fast, punchy and taut, while the midband is super-detailed and treble delicate and finessed. It's incredible to think it sold for just £70, back in the day.
MOVING COIL CARTRIDGE: 1979 SUPEX SD900 SUPER
It was tempting to nominate Lyra's gorgeous new Etna SL, but in the grand scheme of moving coil cartridge things, this Supex is arguably even better. I bought mine in 1988, as a new old stock item. I'd read about its legendary sound in late seventies hi-fi magazines, so when I nervously fitted it to my Linn LP12/Ittok, I had great expectations. Suffice to say; I wasn't disappointed. The Supex made a massive difference, conferring a beautifully rich tonality with liquid rhythms.
Anyone expecting this high-end Japanese beauty to sound like a modern-day Lyra will be bitterly disappointed. It lends a romantic, sepia-tinged feel to everything it plays, turning the music into a sort of an audio equivalent of an impressionist painting. Yet rhythmically it's captivating to listen to – the music ebbs and flows past you delightfully. Its biggest downside is the meagre 0.2mV output, but this is less of a problem now than it was at its 1979 launch, because modern phono stages have become quieter and more sensitive. You'll also need a sturdy battleship arm to track it properly – think Zeta, SME V, Linn Ekos, Origin Live Enterprise, Audio Origami PU7. This done, you'll be enchanted by the majesty of its sound.
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.
Posted in: Hi-Fi