Listening #108

I set out on a fishing trip but returned less than an hour later, empty-handed. You asked me, reasonably enough, "What happened?"

"I spent a half-hour digging in the garden for worms, but couldn't find any."

"You could have driven to Mr. Zetterstrum's farm, knocked on his door, asked his permission, and spent a few hours overturning the cowflops in his pasture. I'm sure you would have found one or two worms that way."

"You're right. I guess I didn't want to go fishing that badly."

So it goes today, as I take my first, tentative look at the world of direct-drive turntables. Like virtually everything else in domestic audio, this little tributary has a history—and a following. I'm respectful of both, but not to the point of adulation; letters of complaint, the likes of which followed my adventures in The Land of the (Advent) Large—eg, "You should have consulted ServoMan1949, DirectDick, and LardVader before writing this column!"—will be discarded unread.

Now then . . .

Direct driving
Generally speaking, one needs a transmission of some sort in order to mate the qualities of an engine with the requirements of its application. The mismatch between an automobile's need for torque at low speeds and a gasoline engine's abundance of same at only higher speeds is the classic example, and the overlapping worlds of record players and electric motors provide another: Electric motors have been with us for a while, but not so the ability to use them at the slow and steady speeds required for record playback. Thus, from the early part of the last century to the late 1960s, the audio industry crept from noisy gearboxes to clunky idler wheels to torque-sapping belts and pulleys . . .

The idea of motorizing a platter directly had long appealed to professional users, for whom quick starts were and are an obvious boon. And while the sonic advantages of sudden acceleration appear not to exist in this life, the performance advantages of the high torque required to move a heavy platter from 0 to 33.33rpm in less than one turn are considerable. In that sense, it would seem that the audiophile stood to gain as much as the DJ from a player in which record spindle and motor spindle are one and the same.

The thing was finally done in 1969, when the Technics division of Panasonic introduced their SP-10, considered by many to be the first commercial direct-drive turntable of the modern hi-fi era (footnote 1). Like the Garrard 301 and the Thorens TD 124 before it, the SP-10 was a plinthless, armless, and altogether serious piece of gear. Unlike those other landmark products, the Technics SP-10 incorporated a servo.

The word sounds inscrutable, but like other such hi-fi terms—jitter and baffle come to mind—the thing itself is straightforward: A servo is, quite simply, any secondary mechanism that's used to correct and control the performance of a primary mechanism. Servos can be mechanical or electrical in nature, or virtually any combination thereof, and can respond to a variety of error inputs. The mule driver who whips his mount at the first sign of slowing is a biomechanical servo (implying, correctly, that the former is slave to the latter: a comforting thought for mules everywhere). The tachometer-based system used to correct and control platter speed in the first SP-10 is an electronic servo. And so it goes.

As so often happens, more than one manufacturer was busy developing the same thing at the same time. Thus, it wasn't long before a direct-drive turntable was brought to market by a different firm: Nippon Denki Onkyo Kabushikigaisha, otherwise known as Den-On—or, simpler still, Denon. Early in 1970, Denon completed work on a high-torque AC motor made specifically for low-speed use, then designed for it a speed-control system in which magnetic markers on the platter's perimeter were read by a stationary tape head: their patented Pulse Magnetic Field Detection system. Denon's first direct-drive turntable was released to the broadcast industry later that year; their first domestic unit followed in 1971.

In the years after, Denon designed and manufactured scads of other direct-drive turntable models. Throughout the 1980s the company added to their line a number of relatively affordable models with integral tonearms, but before that, Denon's domestic players were typified by the DP-2000 and DP-80: high-quality motor units available without tonearm or plinth, if the customer so desired. (Interestingly, a spring-loaded isolation base for Denon's top-end models was among the very first products made by the contemporary American turntable company VPI.) Denon's professional models reached their pinnacle with the self-standing DP-100M, the motor of which was taken from the company's line of disc-cutting lathes. (The 100M went on to influence the development of another iconic player, the professional-grade EMT 950 of 1976 . . . but that's another story for another day.)

Throughout that time, Denon did more than just crank out turntables. Given their long association with the Japan Broadcasting Company (NHK), most of Denon's landmark products have been made for the professional audio field: Japan's first disc-cutting lathes (1939), the world's first practical pro-audio PCM recorder (1972), and—lest we forget—the world's first pro-audio CD player (1981). Of course, we all know what happened to turntable sales after the first consumer CD players came into existence—and Denon's case was no exception. It seemed there would be no more DP-80s from the now-sizable company, let alone DP-100Ms. And while Denon never altogether ceased making turntables, that segment of their product line took a back seat, with a far greater emphasis on cheap record players than ever before in the company's history.

Forever changes
Like the people we love, the companies that supply our audio gear sometimes change into things we no longer recognize. The loudspeakers designed and manufactured by Snell Acoustics have little in common with the ones they made in their early years, when founder Peter Snell was still alive. The audio consumers of 1983 who bought Conrad-Johnson Design's PV3 preamp for just $399 ($299 in kit form!) have to look elsewhere for such a thing in 2011. Today, Linn makes more digital products than analog, Naim no longer makes tonearms, and the majority of goods manufactured by Revolver are loudspeakers.

Some companies remain more or less as they were. Kimber Kable still manufactures their classic PBJ interconnects. Quicksilver Audio never stopped making small, high-quality tube amplifiers. Magnepan still sells Magneplanars, which are still among the highest-value speakers in high-end audio.

And sometimes they come back—like Denon, which at one time virtually owned the domestic market for high-end direct-drive turntables. For most of the past five years, Denon's US turntable line topped out at $329, with a strong emphasis on USB-ready models designed less for enjoying music than for archiving it. But in 2010, in recognition of their 100th anniversary, the Japanese firm introduced a new analog product that claims the same perfectionist heritage as its first direct-drive models: the DP-A100, in which turntable, plinth, tonearm, and cartridge are sold as one for $2499 (footnote 2).



Footnote 1: Thorens made some turntables in the 1950s that were billed as direct-drive. And I suppose they were, inasmuch as their platters were driven without belts or idlers. (Should we call them rubberless platters?) But in every instance of which I'm aware, the motors used in those products drove their platters through gear boxes—in much the same sense that the deliberately low-speed, high-torque record cleaners manufactured by VPI and others use geared motors—and so their platter spindles were not coincident with their motor spindles.

Footnote 2: Denon Electronics (USA) LLC, D&M Holdings, 100 Corporate Drive, Mahwah, NJ 07430-2041. Tel: (201) 762-6500. Fax: (201) 762-6670. Web: usa.denon.com.

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COMMENTS
Doctor Fine's picture

Once you solve the headshell issue please continue investigating direct drive for us Art.  I would have loved to hear your take on the Denon table in direct comparison to your Thorens and Garrard.

I find belt drive tables in general to have insuficcient torque to pull the stiff old fashioned stylus suspension of the 1960s based Denon cartridges without in some cases actually slowing down the record as it is spinning!  Unlike belt drive, direct drive with its massive motor power seems to be unshakable when dragging around such beasties.

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