Gramophone Dreams #11 Page 2

Listening: The world's best record-players all exhibit an eerie silence coupled to a precise, palpable, and captivating spatiality—which is what we pay so much extra for. By comparison, my stoop-sale Technics SL-1200 Mk.2 is conspicuously noisy and spatially vague. The reconceived 1200, the new Grand Class SL-1200GAE, with its new motor-drive system, went a surprisingly long way toward correcting these problems.

I used four cartridges with the Technics: an Ortofon 2M Black MM, a Hana by Excel EL low-output MC, my Zu Denon DL-103 MC, and a mono-wired Shure M44 MM with 78rpm stylus. My listening notes look like this: "SILENCE, PRECISION, SILENCE, mucho dynamics, easy by nature, expansive, SPATIAL CORRECTNESS, tiny info/detail, jump & jive, quieter and FIRMER than the old 1200! BOOGIE oogie WOOGIE and Smoooooth!"

Quiet, lively, and precise accurately describe how the Technics SL-1200GAE played records. With every cartridge, the 'GAE's octave-to-octave energy balance felt even and authentic.

Energy-wise, the SL-1200GAE made my newly beloved Linn LP12 with Valhalla power supply feel uneven, a bit out of control (especially in the lower octaves), and possibly a tad vapid. (Linn's Lingo power supply and Cirkus platter-bearing and subchassis upgrades would likely cancel those disparities.) To my surprise, rhythm, melody, and bass lines were more easily noticed and enjoyable to follow with the Technics. As I trolled through my Mango, Island, and Studio One records, I realized that the SL-1200GAE was beating my Linn Sondek LP12 at its own game: It had major force factor and foot-stomping momentum—perhaps the best I've ever experienced. The 'GAE captured the urgency of Miles Davis, the potency of Junior Wells, and the inspired delirium of Roy Acuff singing Hank Williams's "I Saw the Light," from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken (3 LPs, United Artists UAS-9801).

Music played on the Technics was better organized, easier to comprehend. The SL-1200GAE did an especially good job of describing full orchestras. Because it reproduced, without blurring, the dynamic spreads of notes and instruments, from silence to full-on drive and swing, it made piano concertos seem less confused and overwrought than they sometimes do.

The one important trait the Technics SL-1200GAE lacked was the Linn Sondek LP12's enjoyable suppleness and sensual elasticity. No matter which cartridge or phono stage I tried, my No.1 complaint about the new Technics was its tendency toward lowered viscosity. I wouldn't quite call it stiff, but no one could characterize the 'GAE as sounding liquid or licentious. Many, however, might call it accurate, because it made LPs sound a lot like good hi-rez digital: crisp, highly controlled, and dynamically uncompressed. (Could I have been hearing the 'GAE's digital speed control?) Meanwhile . . .

The Technics SL-1200GAE must be an audiophile turntable. Why? Because it placed images in space with more certainty and bas-relief than any 'table I've used in my home. Soundstages appeared fully developed in a way similar to what the most expensive audiophile turntables can do. Of course, it wasn't as deathly quiet or as low-level informative as a three-motor Dr. Feickert Analogue Firebird ($12,500) or a Döhmann Helix I ($40,000), but the musicians reproduced on the SL-1200GAE's soundstages were present and tangible in ways the old SL-1200 couldn't even hint at. Compared to the best turntables at any price, the 'GAE was weak on sustain, truncated note decays, and lacked psychedelic color—but it made my old SL-1200 Mk.2 and my ancient Thorens TD 124 sound hollow, unspecific, and noisy.

Mes trois conclusions: I'll be writing a Follow-Up about the Technics Grand Class SL-1200GAE 50th Anniversary Limited Edition in which I'll delve more deeply into the musical vicissitudes of this shiny new machine. For now, I'll answer three questions about it:

Is the SL-1200GAE better than its legendary predecessors? The SL-1200GAE was so quiet, precise, and forceful that it made my old SL-1200 Mk.2 feel and sound almost like a toy. It played with substantially more detail, dynamics, and musical authority than either the SL-1200 Mk.2 or Pioneer's PLX-1000 ($699).

Is the SL-1200GAE an audiophile-quality turntable that can compete in a high-end audio marketplace filled with scores of quality contenders costing less than $5000? I believe that it is. It did all the audiophile tricks—especially low noise, precise imaging, midrange clarity, bass punch, and openness of the high frequencies—and it out-boogied them all.

Is the SL-1200GAE worth $4000? Unquestionably. Its materials and build quality are superb, and, to my taste and experience, it played records as well as or better than any turntable listed in Class B of Stereophile's "Recommended Components."

Hana by Excel EL moving-coil cartridge
Your secrets are safe with me: I forget them the moment I hear them. Because of this quasi-willful amnesia, it has been my fate to be admitted to some expensive hotel rooms in which I have witnessed groups of smirking high-end audio gangsters actually making up the prices of their ultra-expensive gear. I can hear you thinking: Well . . . don't they just multiply the costs of design, manufacturing, and marketing by a factor of six or seven? I'm sure they don't, but I forget why . . .

Trust me: With all commercial goods, the first and most important design consideration is price. This is especially true with high-end phono cartridges, which typically are little more than bunches of tiny OEM parts assembled on a workbench by a third-party manufacturer with a microscope and an exotic-sounding name. Never forget: The value (in dollars and sense) of any person, place, or thing is determined mainly by the mythology surrounding it.

Imagine that you're an OEM manufacturer of styli, cantilevers, magnets, wire, etc., and you're selling thousands upon thousands of tiny bits of wire, stone, and iron that end up in cartridges selling for zillions of dollars. One day, you might wake up and think, Hmmmm . . . maybe I'm in the wrong part of the cartridge racket. Maybe I should put some workbenches in the corner of my factory and cut out those gangsters and their overpriced mythologies. I already have all the bits—I could make a genuine high-end cartridge, sell it at a reasonable price, and make a lot of audiophiles on modest budgets very happy. This type of thinking is probably what inspired Hiroshi Ishihara, of Japan's Sibatech, Inc., to commission from Excel Sound Corporation a new line of moderately priced cartridges called Hana by Excel.

Excel Sound Corporation is a Tokyo company that, since the 1970s, has made high-quality moving-coil cartridges, both OEM and under its own name. Excel is highly regarded for the quality of its engineering and the precision of its manufacturing.

Aside from minor variances in their performance specs, the four Hana by Excel MC cartridges differ only in their stylus profiles and output voltages. The EH and EL models ($475 each) have elliptical styli, the SH and SL ($750 each) have Shibata styli. The EH and SH have an output voltage of 2mV, the EL and SL 0.5mV.

All four Hanas have aluminum cantilevers and alnico magnets. I love alnico because I feel that the material yields a uniquely relaxed, colorful, and naturally textured sound. For me, there's something very natural and non–hi-fi about the character of music made with alnico-magnet transducers. Of course, I can't prove it's the alnico, but the Hana EL presented music with an alnico-like feeling of homespun organic rightness. The EL's basic sonic character was highly musical and exceptionally nonmechanical.

The Hana EL's compliance of 10 x 10–6cm/dyne appeared to perfectly match the effective mass of my SME M2-9 tonearm ($1099), the combination exhibiting a moderate resonance at 9.5Hz. The EL tracked everything on Shure's Era IV Audio Obstacle Course test LP and never seemed to overstimulate the arm or bearings.

I listened mostly through the MC phono section of Rogue Audio's new RP-1 preamplifier ($1695). Using the RP-1's internal jumpers, I loaded the 30-ohm Hana EL at 300 ohms. The combination demonstrated Technicolor mids, liquid (but not overly extended) highs, and a delightful way with plucked double bass. Records were effortlessly engaging and well sorted. The only things I wished for were a tad more slam and some dewdrop sparkle.

With the Dynavector P75 phono stage ($895) set to 470 ohms, I experienced sharper transient attacks and a more hypertextured midrange. Bells, gongs, and cymbals sounded enjoyably real. Drums picked up some power. The soundstage became more tightly formed and densely layered. Recording venues increased in air and volume.

I bought a new Moondog album, Snaketime Series (LP, Moondog 1), and could not stop playing it. Snaketime Series played with Moondog-enhancing clarity. Car sounds and ambient street noises sounded satisfyingly real. Both the Rogue RP-1 and the Dynavector P75 phono stages made the Hana feel like a more expensive cartridge than it is, but I was curious to see just how much, if anything, I would lose by switching to Schiit Audio's humble but always-overachieving Mani phono stage ($129).

With the Mani, punch, detail, and drive were all noticeably reduced, but the Hana EL's easygoing musical magic decreased not at all. Midrange colors were still enjoyable. I listened to five Miles Davis records in a row with the Schiit Mani and Hana EL. I found them, in musical terms, a damn-near unbeatable budget combination. With every disc, Miles's trumpet—and the reverberating air around it—sounded inexorably real,

When I mounted the Hana EL in the tonearm of Technics' new Grand Class SL-1200GAE 50th Anniversary Limited Edition turntable, it retained its unpretentious charm but suddenly picked up energy and began dancing like a Gypsy, sounding more dynamic, spontaneous, and tuneful. I played this combo for some old-timer audiophiles. At first they were skeptical, but in short order their heads were bobbing and they were pounding their knees like bongos. All of them said they liked the Hana EL better than the Denon DL-103. So did I.

All through this review period I listened to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1972 masterpiece, Will the Circle Be Unbroken (3 LPs, United Artists UAS 9801), produced by William McEuen (who also plays banjo and mandolin) and featuring Vassar Clements, Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff, Doc Watson, Mother Maybelle Carter, and a score of other old-school country-music wizards. I played Acuff singing the Hank Williams classic "I Saw the Light" on every possible combination of Hana EL, tonearm, turntable, and phono stage, and—please don't laugh or get angry—I most liked the Hana EL's boogie, excitement, and instrumental tone with the Technics SL-1200GAE turntable and tonearm ($4000) driving the Dynavector SUP-200 MC step-up transformer ($2500) driving Dynavector's P75 phono stage ($895) in MM mode. I know, I know—these are some expensive backing singers—but the exceedingly natural-sounding Hana EL by Excel was totally worthy of such support. I love it.


Anton's picture

I am happy to see an old hobby horse start rocking again!

Next up....(Requests, I have a hunch there is a Class A turntable lurking in there.)

Comparison with the Achromat platter.

Upgraded phono cables.

Perhaps cartridge 'upgrades' to see how they compare!

Maybe a trial with a record weight, as well.

This table seems to cry out for doing fun things with it and seeing who does what to who!

Thanks again!

Is that speed chart good, or not good? Would an outboard speed control device change the data? (VPI, Clearaudio, Music Hall, etc...)

Herb Reichert's picture

is better than good, it has a very nice green line :-) compare it to others published in this magazine

Anton's picture


volvic's picture

For most of us this will be all the turntable we will ever need.

I would try the Oyaide BR-12 rubber platter mat, loved the changes it brought to my 1200, the MJ-12 would be overkill as the new Technics platter is heavier and has enough of that flywheel effect from the added mass. The other weakness of the older 1200 was the bearing, I am pretty sure Technics have improved on that so as to hold the heavier platter but they make no mention of it.

Dave Cawley of Sound Hi-Fi in the UK now offers the Technics GAE with an SME IV and external power supply. Probably does improve it, but why would you buy an anniversary model of a limited run and transform it?

I am almost certain that at some point Technics will offer the option of purchasing the 1200G without an arm, then I believe with a Graham or SME arm this table will be a Class A contender. It does so many things right that I immediately sold my TD-124.

Saint0's picture

I'm using the good old Shure V15 Type IV.

A. Hourst's picture

There’s only one way to know if Art Dudley really heard what he heard: do an ABX on both power cord.
But it’s probably too conclusive for the kind of cultists that buy 1000$/m audio cables. Many insecure audiophiles share the same fear of empirical science than alternative medicine sellers. C’mon Art, does this thousand dollar cable performs better than the placebo?

Anton's picture

What I would love to see: Do the speed measurements with each AC cord and compare the data.

Easy to do, would be very interesting.

30 minute project!

Herb Reichert's picture

Dear Anton, I do platter speed measurements on every table that passes through the bunker. Power cords and power conditioners can absolutely change the sound of electronics (therefore, I never use power conditioners or special cords on equipment I am reviewing) . . . . But, so far, neither has ever changed a speed measurement.

zimmer74's picture

As Herb mentioned, upgrading the headshell is worthwhile. I have the deck, and have replaced the stock headshell with the Ortofon LH-9000. With two different cartridges so far, there is much improved solidity of image and more sophisticated tonality and musical nuance.

vinylguy's picture

Mr. Reichert, you wrote:
"No matter which cartridge or phono stage I tried, my No.1 complaint about the new Technics was its tendency toward lowered viscosity. I wouldn't quite call it stiff, but no one could characterize the 'GAE as sounding liquid or licentious."

I agree with you, I own this table along with a highly modified Technics SP10 Mk3 and I have compared them extensively. The GAE is an awesome table and can be made much better by using a better mat and non-springy feet such as Track Audio's turntable feet.

I understand that when reviewing a product one usually reviews it stock so here is my point :) place the GAE in M (manual mode) for the Torque setting instead of Auto. Then set the potentiometer to about 1/5 maximum. You will lose nada as it relates to dynamics, slam and bass but you will gain the world in sustain, decay and if I took your meaning correctly "elasticity"..,etc.

I was quite shocked as it makes the Auto mode sound quite tight in direct comparison. Hope you try this, I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how the table is transformed to be even better than out of the box.

Happy Listening.

Herb Reichert's picture

and I was foolish and remiss not to think of Manual Mode!!! The GAE is gone now, but perhaps I will get the new SL-1200G to do a follow up on. I beg forgiveness.

peace and Fall cheer,

vinylguy's picture

Mr. Reichert, I was happy to see your response. Hopefully you will get to do a follow up with the G model. I'd love to read your thoughts after placing the unit in manual mode and lowering the torque setting.

Best regards,


Herb Reichert's picture

"You will lose nada as it relates to dynamics, slam and bass but you will gain the world in sustain, decay and if I took your meaning correctly "elasticity"..,etc." nice !

vinylguy's picture

I''m flattered, thank you!!!

Best regards,


Marc210's picture

" I love alnico because I feel that the material yields a uniquely relaxed, colorful, and naturally textured sound."

Doctor Fine's picture

Good review with wealth of information. However---
You can't compare the new model to an ancient model MK2. By the time of its demise the table was in its SIXTH iteration. MK6.
I have the Fifth iteration---the model SL1210M5G which has audiophile grade low capacitance wiring included. What wires does the new, very expensive unit have?
You didn't like the light weight aluminum arms on the older units? There is an easy fix for the older tables.
I added an extra head shell weight PLUS extra heavy counter weights to compensate on the counter weight end and VOILA!---my old aluminum arm now is HEAVY and LOVES low compliance carts like the super stiff DL103.
The same 103 which by the way would not even WORK using various super high end crazy expensive belt drive tables because it DRAGGED a belt drive table pitch speed crazy by biting into the vinyl of the record and SLOWING down the speed! The DL103 tracks at THREE grams!
THIS is one of the big reasons to go with high torque Direct Drive in the first place!
It, much like the ancient idler drive Thorens that Art Dudley is such a fan of---it has enough sheer POWER to drag a low compliance antique cart through the grooves with ease. BELT DRIVES DO NOT LIKE THESE CARTS and people should be warned how flimsy belt drive tables are by comparison to direct drive.
Meanwhile thanks again for the information you provided. The new model is on my list for my next project and if I think of it I will probably race the two tables to see what the new one does that a MK5 can't do. I'm not sure I asked for an upgrade at a higher price but even an old curmudgeon like myself can not deny audible progress when it happens.

Doctor Fine's picture

It occurs to me that what this table (the Technics SL1200 line) represents is Direct Drive technology in an advanced format which can be used by an audiophile without paying over $30,000 for the VPI Classic Direct which came out recently.
Even at the new price of $4,200 the Technics still seems reasonably priced.
But is there ANY competition for the new Technics Direct Drive table from ANY of the other major manufacturers, like in the old days?
Hmmmm. Currently it seems there are a lot of cheap Chinese CLONES of the OLD 1200 on the market from Numark, Pioneer and others.
These all cost under $600.
These clones are styled very much like a Technics SL1200 and are Direct Drive BUT they are cheaply made and the arms etc etc are typically made with cheap bearings and assembled in a shoddy manner.
And then there is the brand new DENON VL12 Prime.
It is coming out next month!
This ALL NEW SL1200 lookalike from Denon is actually made in house by Denon, not China. It looks pretty well made.
It MAY replace the OLD Technics MK5 at a price CLOSE to the old price!
It will be $900 which is close to the OLD price for a Technics table.
Stay tuned.