Gramophone Dreams #9 Page 2

To me, the original Technics SL-1200 tonearm was the "stretchy elastic" that sabotaged the stylus's efforts at "measuring" the groove. At its price—as part of a reasonably priced player—the stock Technics arm is very good, but not even close to the upmarket Technics EPA-100 arm it was modeled on. It does liveliness well, but mostly when partnered with DJ cartridges that overstate dynamics; with non-DJ, audiophile-approved Shure cartridges such as the V-15 Type III or V-15 Type V, it sounds kind of sleepy and lifeless. I attribute the stock arm's dullness to wiring, material construction, and bearing quality. Often, the stock 1200 arm let me hear what I call "groove noise"—a kind of low-level, buzzy, chattering sound that usually (on better arms) goes away when I get the SRA precisely dialed in. The SL-1200's stock arm doesn't steer low-compliance cartridges (eg, the Denon DL-103) as well as it should, and it never seems able to properly position the rock in the slot, or keep it there—especially with exotic line-contact stylus profiles at lower vertical tracking forces (VTFs).

Abis SA-1.2 tonearm
The new Abis SA-1.2 tonearm ($1775), made in Japan, appears to be an extrapolation from and refinement of Dynavector's classic DV-505 and DV-707 arms. The Abis folks have taken away all the more questionable features of the DV-707, such as the eddy-current damper and the movable sub-arm, and boiled it down to an extremely effective high-mass design. Unlike most other tonearms, which have a continuous armtube, the Abis SA-1.2's arm wand comprises several separate milled-aluminum pieces, in a design intended to reduce and disperse arm resonances. The SA-1.2's wide cross section adds rigidity, and that rigidity may even reduce colorations with mono cartridges.

I was told that the SA-1.2 had been engineered especially for use with classic low-compliance cartridges like the Ortofon SPUs, the EMTs, the Neumann DSTs, the Denon DL-103 and DL-102, and—surprise!—the variable-reluctance G.E. VR, VR II, and RPX-046 from the 1960s. This is the kind of tonearm I've always wished for. I didn't know about the Abis until I read Art Dudley's review of it in his March 2014 Listening" column and learned that the Japanese export company Sibatech had commissioned it. Sibatech's president, M. Shibazaki, is an old and beloved friend from my days as the American distributor of Audio Note Japan (now Kondo).

A 9.4" tonearm with high effective mass is a rare bird, and it immediately grabbed my attention. Unlike most of my audio peers, I prefer 9" (approximately) tonearms with all of my cartridges. I believe that, across the board, 9" arms reproduce the full dynamic life of music recorded on vinyl better than do 12" arms. Theoretically, a longer arm reduces tracing distortion, but using a longer arm just to add mass for a low-compliance cartridge seems like a poor audiophile decision.

When I contacted Abis's American importer, Phillip Holmes, aka Mockingbird Distribution, we became instant friends. We now constantly engage in mad debates about turntables, cartridges, and tonearms. (It was Holmes who turned me on to the shocking virtues of Shure "wide-body" cartridges like the M-35 X and the V-15 Type III.)

I have used the 755gm SA-1.2 on my Thorens TD 124 for almost a year now. During that time, it allowed my Zu Denon DL-103, Shure M-35 X, and Ortofon CG 25 Di cartridges to sound more refined and elegant. It replaced dynamic overstatement with dramatic understatement. It showed me that each of these cartridges is more sophisticated than I had imagined. It did this, I presume, by improving tracking and keeping the stylus in its proper place in the groove (think bias, azimuth, SRA). The Abis arm seemed to drag every stylus through the groove in a more easy-sliding, balanced, and continuous fashion, thereby reducing groove noise and grain, and excavating new heaps of micro-information. It turned the Denon DL-103 from a highly enjoyable but slightly brusque and generalized cartridge into a slick, smirking sophisticate: "Hello, my name is Bond—James Bond."

Unlike the SME M2-9, the Abis SA-1.2 required almost no cutting or drilling of the SL-1200's underside. The completed installation gave me a fully made-in-Japan, Zen temple idol—which immediately elevated my status among the Smoky Basement monks. I used it first with the Shure M-35 X cartridge. This combination of arm, 'table, and cartridge is surely wayward—I know that. Nevertheless, I have an open mind, and somehow it was on my path to try this.

I played some 7" 45rpm singles: the Kinks' "A Well Respected Man" (Reprise 0402), the Rolling Stones' "As Tears Go By" (London 45 LON 9008), Ace Cannon's "Alley Cat" (Hi 45-2148). Each sounded solid, quiet, and authentically toned in a way that reminded me of the Miyajima cartridges I wish for but can't afford to keep. "Alley Cat" caused me to walk back and forth, bobbing my head in a very silly way. Solo piano was joyously clangy and honky-tonk. Mick Jagger sounded extremely young in "As Tears Go By." Why? Simply because the air between him and the microphone had become more clear. While playing the Kinks, I decided to get more wayward, and called German Jasmine (the garden nymph) to invite her over to hear more records her father liked. Sadly, she couldn't come. She was spending the night with her boyfriend.

Jasmine Turtle
Then I remembered my other sexy Jasmine: the made-in-China Jasmine Audio Turtle moving-coil cartridge with the Fritz Geiger FG2 line-contact stylus and the most beautiful body—of blue and white porcelain—I have ever laid eyes on ($799). The Turtle was on my workbench, mounted in an Abis SA-1.2 headshell and ready to play; all I had to do was to swap-in that headshell and set the VTF. In less than 15 minutes I'd installed the Turtle, lit some temple incense, and was traveling back in time to A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky—an album of traditional music played by Goro Yamaguchi on the shakuhachi, a Japanese wooden flute (LP, Nonesuch H-72025). I never needed a full orchestra or a pipe organ in a cathedral to recognize the virtues of the Jasmine Turtle. Even before it was broken in—which took at least 150 hours—it revealed a very appealing precision. The sound of Yamaguchi's bamboo flute (of Chinese origin) felt to me as if it was expressing the whole of timeless nature. Its energy projected tangibly throughout my small room.

The Geiger stylus is very persnickety to set up, but I persisted in trying. I knew that if I got it right, it would recover massive information without smearing or generalizing. During this struggle, the Turtle sounded mostly bright, hard, and occasionally downright annoying. Mike Trei said he could hear the porcelain body. I thought I could, too. Laughing, we described what we heard as "the teacup coloration." I would move the tonearm pillar, say, 0.5mm, and it would switch from bright and brittle to fuzzy and grungy. I felt incompetent. I think the main causes of my difficulties were character flaws and my lack of a USB microscope. Then, one day, unexpectedly, the little China-blue beauty came together and settled down, like a good dog after a long walk: peace, quiet, and pure LSD detail. The Technics SL-1200 front end was suddenly making big, pristine, hyperclear, supersaturated images, and a soundstage that felt like the Matrix revealed. I had definitely discovered something.

Ever since the line-contact Geiger and Shibata styli appeared on the scene, I have been in awe of the amount of high-frequency information these boat-rudder diamonds can recover: They steer me deep and wide into the beauty of my black grooves. With its Geiger FG2 profile, the Jasmine Turtle sounds anything but slow, and it can carve out a recording venue better than any cartridge I've owned. Yamaguchi's shakuhachi was tangibly present: I could feel the room he was playing in, and my mind was far away, in the Floating World. I had found a new Jasmine to smile about.

At 14.5gm, the Jasmine Turtle is heavy, and it needed a heavier-than-standard counterweight with every tonearm I tried; fortunately, the Abis comes with a perfect auxiliary weight that attaches snugly to the rear of the armtube, behind the bearings. The Turtle's stylus is at the end of an aluminum cantilever, and the cartridge has an internal resistance of 24 ohms and outputs 0.6mV at 5cm/s. Did I mention that it reproduces hyperdetail without sounding etched or unnatural? I love the Denon DL-103's body, pace, tone, and energy—it can pump music into a room with the best rock-draggers of all times. Unfortunately, I'm often bothered by what I perceive to be its conical-stylus generalizations of minute distinctions. The Jasmine Turtle is my newly discovered, highly effective antidote: It presented me with all the information I'd been missing.

You see, I prefer extremely tiny bubbles in my champagne, and that is what the Jasmine Turtle served me. At $699, it delivered a giant portion of what those cartridges I can't afford might give me. I'm very happy I found what I was looking for. German Jasmine said that "the blue and white teacup" made her want to dance, make love, and "smoke i di ganja all night long."


spacehound's picture

Do you know WHY the SL 1200 sold so well? Because it sounds every bit as good as any of these $5,000-$20,000 plus turntables made by the small 'garden shed' outfits which most turntable manufacturers are.
BTW: I've never met a garden nymph with roses in her hair. Do you have a lot of them in the USA?

Belt drive? It's all these little outfits having neither the technical knowledge nor the engineering facilities to make a direct drive turntable. So they decry direct drive, which is far too complicated for their so-called 'expertise'.

'Subjective'? No. None of us, having no access to the studio when the recording was made, can know what it is supposed to sound like anyway.

"I like the sound my turntable makes". Since when has HiFi got anything to do with what you 'like'? The very phrase 'High Fidelity' means accuracy. If you don't lke the sound of YOUR recording of Handels Water Music or whatever, buy a different recording. I bet the SL 1200 imposes far less 'signature' or 'color' to the music than these garden shed turntables do.

BTW: Strange you had to do all that work to fit the SME arm. I just purchased an arm board to suit any SME '9 inch' arm and my Series IV bolted straight in, except for cutting a small bit of the 'rubber' SL 1200 base away.

volvic's picture

After reading Herb's article I decided to (for now) not purchase the new 1200 but a used, mint 1200 mk5 and make some of the upgrades that are out there. I too will be putting an SMEIV so just curious as to how much cutting of the base is needed. Isn't that base quite fragile?

spacehound's picture

The turntable top is a solid casting (zinc I suspect, like car door handles, and zinc is a material that doesn't 'ring') with a recessed round hole about 5 inches diameter with the arm mount attached to it by 4 'knurled' hand tightenable plus a screwdriver slot bolts and separated by a soft 'rubber' gasket.

You just buy a 'SME' or whatever plate from an accessory dealer (and I think Technics may have made them too).

If you mean the 'rubber' base I mentioned, it's a thick with plenty of material, soft(ish) thing. I just cut a rather crude hole in it with a modelling knife as the SME underside is deep enough to need it.

Regarding other so-called 'upgrades', only obsessives buy them. It's perfectly well designed in the first place, by people with far more experience than any of these 'improvement' people. (Such gadget shops, but in a different field, won't improve your Mercedes or Ferrari either.) And the SL 1200 is built to a VERY high standard.

If you think it's worth it, you might remove the power transformer, extend its low voltage wires, and mount it in an box externally. Some think it is worth it for lower magnetic fields and less vibration. I think that is unlikely but it's just my opinion.

Even the provided arm is not bad. It's just too 'High Street' for many people is all and its 'S' shape is currently unfashionable. I fitted a SME arm because I wanted one as a teenager and could never had afforded it then. Pure nostalgia, I didn't have $20 dollars (yes 20 dollars!) for a new SME 3009. No other reason. I've got a Koetsu Black in it. I bought the IV rather than the V purely because it's silver colored and goes better with the rest of the turntable. (BTW: 'SME' stood for 'Scale Model Engineering'. They made very nice model cars for car manufacturers and things like scale 'scenes' of power stations for power utilities and the like. The cars certainly weren't toys.)

volvic's picture

I might go further and put the timestep or KAB PS which ostensibly invalidates the internal transformer for one outside. We'll see. Was seriously considering getting the new one at 4k but thought it over and decided to just get a used one for now and see what Technics offers in the future with newer mods; perhaps a 1200 without tonearm. But for now will buy the used one and mod that with another new SME IV as I already own another one on my VPI.

volvic's picture

I think I read it 3 times when my subscription came in.

deckeda's picture

I certainly enjoy mine, with Paradox Pulse body mod. Easier to do than taking a saw to the turntable, also. :)

Nice to see that configuration mentioned in print finally, since the SC35C isn't suited for much in the way of modern arms.

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yaka24's picture

So what were your final thoughts on the 1200 vs LP12 and TD124?
Sorry if I overlooked it.

Herb Reichert's picture

Stay tuned: I promise to not only compare those three classics to each other, but to every turntable I review after that. Thank you for reading my story.

grantray's picture

Glad to see a touch of elbow grease and hacker culture! I rebuilt a sad Garrard 301 that'd lived in a basement closet since the 60s and paired it with an early SME 3009 Series II I also rebuilt. The arm has custom brass weights for heavy carts and a beefy brass mounting plate, as well as a Stage 2 Zu Denon 103 MKII. The complete setup sounds 99.8% as good as the $25K rig my audio dealer runs in his shop. Hearing his rig and mine within an hour of each other (his shop is almost down the street), and with the same records, really slapped me out the vampire trance a couple of the ultra high-end ($$$) makers had on me... Also, I have that Nonesuch record, too, and it's one of my favorites.

krahbeknudsen's picture

Thank you for a very interesting article. I'm wondering whether the same procedure would be possible on the Pioneer PLX-1000? Is the arm mount the same?

Herb Reichert's picture

I hope some day to try other arms on the PLX-1000 - I am 90% sure the armboards are interchageble

peace and rat rods

Decibel's picture

Being a 16 year old budding audiophile back in 1983/84 and having lusted after an MKII version, I got a summer job in my dad's company in Curacao, Netherlands Antilles. After 6 weeks of sweating away stacking boxes in an unairconditioned warehouse and making deliveries I finally earned enough (650 Antillean Guilders, roughly the same as US Dollars) to buy one with an Audio Technica cartridge. I had it hooked up to a Technics SU V4A integrated amp, Radio Shack mixer, Sansui SPX8 speakers, Technics RSM85MKII cassette deck and another Technics DD Turntable and a few other components. The build was astounding. Used this combo to earn some money on the side DJing at house parties to feed my habit. Great article.