The Resurgence of Technics and Direct Drive Turntables
When it comes to turntables, the death of Direct Drive has been, like that of Mark Twain, much exaggerated. Recently, Technics has not just exhumed its legendary top models, it has enhanced them and reissued them to a public all too ready to soak them up.
And we’re not just talking about the SL-1200 Mk.7, beloved of DJs and perhaps mistakenly classified by audiophiles as just another iteration of a good times party machine. Jay Garrett covered the reissue of the Mk.7 at StereoNET UK just recently.
Having worked in the music and hi-fi industry from 1989 to 2014, and having an interest in it both before and since, the denigration of DD turntables has been something of a puzzle. But that is at least in part down to the nature of the vinyl world.
There are inviolable rules as long lasting as the format itself, and edicts of the more esoteric sort such as “with direct drive you are not drawn into the music so much as with belt drive”.
Some of the criticisms might be justified for the poorer quality DD turntables, most of which will have found their way into the garbage bins by now due to faults such as failure to spin at all, or to exhibiting wildly erratic speeds.
The principal complaint relates to “cogging”. To explain what cogging is we need to look briefly at the underlying mechanism or motor. In short, the platter is directly attached to the magnetic motor, so no link via belt or idler wheel is required. Electric motors apply force in an on/off manner, and the more poles you have, the smoother the transition should be.
Also, a heavier platter evens out inconsistencies in force application by virtue of the flywheel effect. This is also true with belt drives, which are not immune to cogging or to other drive irregularities. Hand on heart: heavy platters are always a good idea. But you knew that.
Here’s what Jay Garrett had to say about the new approach by Technics:
First up is a new coreless direct drive motor that promises to eliminate an effect called ‘cogging’ - when electric motors occasionally feel like they’re stuttering during slow rotations. Panasonic believes they've solved this issue by removing the 1200 MK7's iron core, and optimising the space between the magnets that make the MK7's platters spin. Furthermore, there's some other engineering refinement, the result being a turntable that always spins smoothly at any speed.
Brinkman Audio went a bit harder on cogging, saying that the jagged sound caused by “electronic control” instead of mechanical control was probably what brought about “failure of the direct-drive concept in the high-end market”.
'Failure' might be a bit strong. My usage of several direct drive models over some 30 years hasn’t been troubled at all by “jagged sound” - or anything else for that matter. Sure, some DD turntables were not as good as they should have been, but (news flash) the same is true of all types of turntables.
Here’s a little roll-call of “high-end” direct drives which have succeeded, not failed.
A famous model which still commands high prices on the secondhand market is the Technics SP-10. This was a broadcast stalwart and retains appeal for the vintage high-end user. Radio stations used them because of their rotational speed stability and low “rumble” or LF mechanical noise. These have been re-engineered and reissued too, see below.
There was the Goldmund ST4, Studio and Studietto models. Nakamichi made some excellent direct drive turntables, but you’d be lucky to find one these days due to their very limited production. Denon have been champions of DD with several very nice and still sought-after models. Then there was the Dual 701 which used a motor not unlike the Goldmunds, although the arm was nothing special.
Technics made some really nice heavyweight models in the late 1970s, the SL-1100 and the SL-110, the latter being the same minus arm. These are a bigger, heavier turntable (the platter weighs in at just under 2Kg) than the ubiquitous SL-1200, and I’ve owned two of them over the years, fitted with Dynavector arms. The SL-120 was also well built and is still a very viable unit.
Back to Technics today: you may have noticed that they are enthusiastically making high-end turntables again. Direct drive turntables. In 2016 they introduced the re-engineered and limited edition SL-1200GAE, at $US4000 apiece and weighing in at 18Kg. It sold out.
They moved on to an unlimited run of the SL-1200G, slightly downgraded but still at the same price. In addition to the work on motors, they have also apparently reduced resonances by moving to a two-layer construction method for platter and chassis.
The SP-10 has been redone as the SP-10R for $US10,000 - but that’s just the basic platter spinner, sans arm. The full rig (with plinth and arm) SP-1000R comes in at $US20,000. I think these qualify as high-end products and would be lining up to buy if I had the money to spare.
In the meantime, my vintage Technics SL-110/Dynavector 501 does a fine job - at the moment running with an old AT-F5 mc cartridge while the Supex SB 900 IV has a rest.
Stepping back from that higher priced interlude, I have converted my turntable fleet entirely to direct drives - some are just entry level.
My Gemini XL-1800Q IV was purchased secondhand for peanuts and sounds great as a second-string unit, running a Garrott K2 at present.
The most recent addition, in third place, is an Audio Technics AT-LP120-USB which has the added benefit of three speeds in case I want to get serious about my 78rpm collection. You can pick these up for around $450 new or $250 secondhand.
OK, so perhaps I’m not really an audiophile, and more of a music nut. I grew up with LP before those new-fangled cassettes came along! My entry into the music business was as a small retailer of LPs and CDs. I used to buy people’s LP collections and stocked a mixture of new and used, so I’ve cleaned, assessed and played a hell of a lot of LPs over the years. I still have about 2000 of them, and apart from the turntables mentioned above, I have a vintage Grundig radiogram with a Dual t/t, and a Bang & Olufsen Beocenter 2800 with a functioning t/t. I’m aware of the charms of LP and the associated gear, but not blind to the faults.
A good, heavily built turntable with a better than average arm and cartridge can be either belt drive or direct drive and do a proper job on your LPs. But the anti-DD thing has been overdone.
My main turntable does a brilliant job, and those old SL-1100/SL-110s can be set up to be way better than a lot of current belt-drive models costing quite a lot more. I wouldn’t swap my second or third string DD tables for any of the $500-600 entry level belt drives that are out there now.
It’s not that those belt-drives are no good. It’s just that the ease of use, speed stability and, yes, the excellent sound I get from my setups make it unlikely that I’ll go back to belts unless something particularly interesting comes along at a price I can’t refuse!
Geoff is a music lover and hi-fi enthusiast. Growing up with LP as the primary music format, his career started as a small music retailer of LPs and CDs, before later moving into retail sales with Sydney’s Len Wallis Audio in 2001 until 2014. His days now are spent primarily enjoying the music.