In a previous instalment of the Retro Review series, we took a look at the Technics SL-J300R turntable. One of their last consumer turntables from the mid 90s, the J300R featured a quartz-controlled direct drive motor and a linear tracking tonearm, with a programmable system allowing it to automatically locate and play tracks on a record in a user-specified order.
The Realistic LAB-2100 also features a linear tracking tonearm, though with a mechanism that differs significantly from that of the Technics, not least in that it is affixed to the base of the turntable as opposed to residing within the lid. This results in an effective arm length of 165MM (slightly longer than the Technics), though it still uses the T4P P Mount cartridge system. Tracking force is preset to 1.5 grams, 0.25 grams higher than the P mount specification but the recommended force for the rebadged AT102P cartridge supplied with the deck. The tracking force can be adjusted via an adjustment at the rear of the arm, accessible when the top shell is removed.
The LAB-2100 features a servo controlled brushless DC direct drive motor, spinning a 295MM, 0.6KG die-cast aluminium platter. Unlike the Technics which surrounds a magnet fixed to the underside of the rotating platter with a set of coils to form a functioning motor, the LAB-2100s self-contained motor spins in short bursts at a controlled frequency and speed, relying on the inertia of the platter to rotate the record at a constant speed of 33 or 45 RPM. Despite this and its lack of quartz control, not to mention the lightweight platter, the LAB-2100 manages the same 0.025% wow/flutter measurement as the Technics, with a signal to noise ratio of 75DB. 33.3 RPM and 45RPM speeds are selectable via the front panel, and a strobe and pitch control with a range of +/-4% allow further fine-tuning of the platter speed.
Unlike many similar linear tracking turntables, the speed and record size are independently controlled. A control on the front panel switches between 12” and 7” record sizes while 10” records must be manually cued. This is a welcome addition, allowing 12” singles to be played at 45RPM and the occasional 7” to be spun at 33.3 without confusing the turntable’s logic.
Further front panel controls include play/cut, repeat, cue and controls to move the arm back and forth over the surface of the record. There’s also a hard power switch and LED indicators for speed, record size and repeat.
Build quality is excellent, with thick plastics forming both the lid and top shell and the base of the turntable to which everything is mounted being pressed from a thick steel plate. This makes servicing the turntable extremely simple. As found, my example required a complete overhaul and re-adjustment of the linear tonearm mechanism involving some trial and error as I have yet to find a service manual for this model.
As you can see from the below pictures, the linear mechanism of the LAB-2100 slides along a pair of guide rails, pulled by a steal cable wound around a motor-driven drum. The tonearm motor drives a pulley via a small belt, which in turn drives the drum and the arm itself via a couple of small gears.
As found, the arm on this unit refused to traverse the record due to a mixture of hardened grease on the guide rails and gears, and a loose tonearm belt. With the mechanism entirely disassembled, the guide rails, steel cable, gears and pulleys were cleaned with isopropyl alcohol. With the mechanism re-assembled, a thick layer of lithium grease was applied to the 2 guide rails, and some light oil to the motor drive gears, the steel cable and the motor bearing. While inside, I also lubricated the main turntable motor by lifting the top magnet from the motor exposing its main bearing and applying some SRM-Tech turntable oil after thoroughly cleaning both the bearing housing and the base of the spindle.
With the turntable reassembled, the next step in its restoration was to find a suitable cartridge. Since manufacturers ceased production of T4P-compatible turntables in the late 90s, cartridge choices for them have dwindled to the point where new cartridges are becoming scarce. To my knowledge Audio-Technica are the only manufacturer who still offer a P Mount option since Ortofon dropped support for the system with the discontinuation of the OMP line.
The lifespan of the AUdio-Technica line is questionable too. A few years ago, AT92E cartridges were plentiful and cheap. However it would seem that they’ve either been discontinued or that demand is low, as there was a lengthy period where they were simply unobtainable. Happily new stock has recently emerged online (mostly from the US), and I was able to obtain an AT92E from Amazon to install on the LAB-2100. The AT92 is by far one of the best cartridges ever manufactured for the P mount system, featuring a 0.3 X 0.7MM elliptical stylus and impressive channel separation, channel balance and frequency response specifications.
Of course, a new cartridge isn’t the only option. The turntable was supplied with its original Realistic cartridge (though the stylus was damaged in shipping). Not a huge loss, as an original stylus should always be replaced regardless of visual condition to prevent unnecessary record wear. Being a rebadged AT102, any of the styli from the current 100 series AT cartridges can be used with it, right up to the microline styli from the AT440 and AT150MLX. This is an avenue I may explore in the future, though it’s worth noting that use of such a stylus will require that either the integral stylus guard be removed or the tracking force adjusted. T4P Ortofon cartridges show up sometimes on the used market, as do those from the likes of Technics which are excellent and for which stylus replacements and upgrades are readily available.
Once reassembled and with a fresh cartridge installed, operation of the LAB-2100 is simple. Upon powering up the unit, the arm will return to its rest ready for playback, at which point a record can be placed on the platter and the speed and size selected. It’s worth noting that the LAB-2100 offers no protection against dropping the stylus onto the rubber mat when the incorrect record size is selected, and it’s also perfectly happy to play with no record on the platter. It’s therefore worth checking the size selection before pressing start, which moves the arm to a preset landing position for the chosen record size and drops it via an oil-damped lifter onto the surface of the record.
Once the side is finished, the arm will rise and return to the rest. The arm will also rise if the power is cut, if the cue button is pressed or if the forward or reverse buttons are pressed during playback. It’s also possible to manually cue the arm; pressing the forward control while the arm is in its rest will allow it to move out across the record and also cause the platter to begin rotating. Both the set down and return positions for the arm are fully adjustable, with adjustment screws accessible even when the top shell is installed by removing the small rubber plugs located at the bass of the arm while it sits in its rest.
Once adjusted with the aid of an iPhone app and the pitch control, the speed was spot on 33.3 RPM. Switching to 45RPM did require a small degree of re-adjustment which could be achieved with the pitch control, though I suspect an internal adjustment could solve that problem and negate the use of the pitch control.
Sound wise the LAB-2100 displays the common characteristics of a linear tracker. That is to say it’s sound is largely distortion free across the surface of the disc, with perfect channel balance due to there being no requirement for bias compensation. That said it’s a rather muddled sound with inarticulate highs and a lacklustre bass response that fails to demonstrate the true capabilities of the AT92E cartridge.
Many ageing linear trackers which use a motorised servo system such as this one typically suffer from an issue whereby the sound of the mechanism nudging the arm across the record is audible through the speakers. That wasn’t the case here. The arm traveled in near silence as should be the case with any properly serviced example. In reality this supposed ‘disadvantage’ of servo-assisted linear tracking turntables is something of a myth, as providing the mechanism is properly maintained and of a reasonable quality design with decent components it’s not going to produce enough noise or vibration to be transmitted by the cartridge.
In summary, the LAB-2100 is a well engineered turntable with few gimmicks and a carefully considered compliment of features. Sound wise however it doesn’t match its closest competitors, falling short of the later offerings from the likes of Technics and paling in comparison to the models from their heyday. That said it’s still a fine piece of engineering, an interesting conversation piece, and it’s ideal for those who prefer convenience over sound quality.