As a long-time Technics fan, I could barely contain my excitement when parent company Panasonic reintroduced the brand and with it the legendary SL-1200 series at the January 2016 CES show. These were more than a simple reintroduction of the original design with a couple of fresh features, however. Technics’ engineers re-designed the SL-1200 from the ground up and produced the SL-1200G, a deck bearing more of a resemblance to the SP10 than the forbearer of its name. A range of models have followed since including the cheaper SL-1200 and SL-1210GR, the SL-1000R and SP-10R (replacements for the SP-10) and more recently the DJ-oriented SL-1200 MK7 and consumer-oriented SL-1500C, both unveiled at CES 2019. I’ve been trying to get my hands on the new range for years, but my attempts to liaise with Panasonic’s PR have sadly proven fruitless, and I have been unable to bring the brand onboard. Finally, however I have an opportunity to check out the SL-1200GR and do still hope to test the rest of the range in due course.
Though we will compare aspects of the SL-1200GR (hereafter the ‘GR’) to the older SL-1200 (in this case an MK2), it should first be noted that besides looks, these new decks bear very little resemblance to their predecessors. The SL-1200GR and SL-1210GR are also technically and functionally identical besides the colour. As is tradition, the 1200 is silver and the 1210 is black.
Due to the state of the worn tooling, which produced over 3 million of the original line before its discontinuation in 2010, the new SL-1200 range is a ground-up redesign sharing only the dust cover with the original. And though the aesthetic is instantly recognisable, there is plenty of thoroughly modernised tech beneath the familiar silver or black top plate.
Despite packing almost 4 decades worth of advancements, the GR doesn’t skimp on the features we’ve all come to know and love. There’s digital pitch control with a selectable range of ±8% or ±16%, and a pitch fader with a similar feel to that of the M3D and onwards; that is to say it lacks the centre detented ‘click’ of the MK2. Though pitch shifting is often sniffed at by audiophiles, it can come in useful when playing back 78s, some of which were recorded at anywhere from 60-100RPM. The GR gives you a range of 65.52-90.48RPM at 78RPM, though can be locked precisely to any of its three speeds with the press of a button regardless of the fader position.
The chassis is a dual layer construction of die-cast aluminium and BMC (Bulk Moulding Compound), which performs a similar function to the TNRC (technics non-resonant compound) found amid the triple layered chassis of the original SL-1200 and on the base of many of Technics’ hi-fi components. The material effectively dampens any ringing from the chassis. The result is a chassis with a solid, hefty feel and one that has clearly benefited from the advancements in modern production techniques, with cleaner lines and far greater precision in its assembly, fit and finish. I also much preferred the clean edges which have only a very slight bevel as opposed to the sharply angled bevel as on the original. The dust cover is identical, complete with the domed top section to accommodate the arm at its maximum VTA setting.
The feet too are new. The rubber and springs of old have been replaced by silicon rubber and microcell polymer tubes, ensuring high vibration damping characteristics and long term reliability. Older Technics feet did have a tendency to sag after years of use, which shouldn’t be an issue here. The feet are fully adjustable as before, allowing the deck to be perfectly levelled on its supporting surface. These do take a little getting used too as when fully tightened the feet have a tendency to wind like a spring and will spring back when the turntable is lifted. When levelling the GR is best to start with all four feet loosely tightened, and to raise the turntable up to achieve a level platter surface. This could at best see the turntable go out of level over time or when knocked, or at worst inhibit the performance of the isolators.
The platter is a revised design with similarities to the original. A deadening rubber layer – which feels more spongy than the original – covers the underside of a 332 mm die-cast aluminium platter in its entirety. The shape of the die-cast platter is optimised through simulation to increase the weight and provide greater inertial mass. The platter weight has been increased to 2.5KG (including the rubber mat), 0.8KG heavier than that of the SL-1200 MK5. Strengthening ribs beneath maximise contact between the platter and its deadening rubber layer, thereby achieving damping characteristics more than twice that of the MK5.
The platter retains the minimal lip around the end of its top surface, resulting in a slight profile to the otherwise flat rubber mat to match that on the edge of some LPs. The mat is thinner than the original 5 mm mat at approximately 3 mm in thickness, but otherwise mimics the design of the previous mat albeit in a slightly softer rubber material.
The Coreless Motor
Beneath the revised platter is a new single-rotor, surface facing coreless direct drive motor. Overlapping flat-wound coils are situated beneath the magnet, as opposed to the old arrangement of separate coils arranged around the magnet. This is a revision of the 9-pole, twin-rotor motor found in the 1200G which Technics claim to eliminate ‘cogging’; the rotation irregularity as the rotor is attracted by the stator, which can sometimes be felt as small bumps when slowly spinning the motor by hand.
The original SL-1200 series all used a 12-pole motor which was extremely smooth running and proven in many tests to have exceptional speed accuracy. Cogging in these turntables was far overhyped by many, particularly those against the direct drive concept or indeed the Technics itself. Cogging is a well understood phenomenon, though objective proof as to its effects in turntables that cannot be attributed to other aspects of the design or components in the chain is remarkably thin on the ground. I am pleased to see Technics put an end to this decades-old claim and look forward with interest to seeing whether those who peddled it for so long can dream up a new claim to be the achilles heel of direct drive. Perhaps Technics will have finally appeased those responsible for pushing hi-fi product to the masses and we can finally agree that direct drive is in fact not only a viable, but a better alternative than the stretchy belts and low-torque motors that are so in favour.
Coreless motors do however bring substantial improvements in acceleration and deceleration, low torque ripple, low electrical inductance, lower noise, smoother rotation and minimal electromagnetic interference, which is especially desirable when the motor is placed directly beneath a phono cartridge. Coreless motors can also react much faster than a traditional motor and are more electrically efficient in operation. The new motors do not eliminate cogging entirely, but as before it is at such a low level that it is not an issue (not that it ever has been) especially given that the new platters of the 1200G and GR have far greater inertial mass.
The motor control is also similar to the 1200G and uses technology trickled down from the company’s Blu-Ray players albeit using a traditional feedback generator for speed sensing instead of the optical encoder of the GR’s bigger brother. Sine waves are stored in ROM (read only memory) and these waveforms are used to drive the motor, as opposed to using a simple sine wave generator with an external coil as in the previous generations. The circuitry has been tuned to maximise starting torque at 2.2KG/CM, which gives the same 0.7 second startup time to 33.3RPM as the 1200G.
The tonearm is strikingly similar in appearance to that of the old model, giving rise to claims that it is in fact identical; particularly by those who market arm upgrades for both the GR and 1200G. In reality the arm is similar in specification to the old model, but it too is a redesign with improved bearings, improved wiring (to arms pre M5G at least) and better materials used throughout. The gimballed bearing now features a cut-processed housing and is manually assembled and adjusted, achieving initial motion sensitivity of 5 grams or less, while having only fractional play that is imperceptible by feel. Such a tiny amount of play is desirable in a gimbal bearing, and indicates that the arms are as precisely set as is claimed by Technics before leaving the factory. The arm tube on the GR is a lightweight, static-balanced s-shaped aluminium pipe with an effective length of 230 mm when using the standard Technics alignment tool. Effective mass is approximately 9G, meaning the arm is well suited to cartridges of moderate to high compliance.
The excellent helicoidal VTA adjustment has been retained which was arguably one of the best features of the original arm. Continuously variable though calibrated in 1 mm steps, this mechanism provides up to 6 mm of adjustment. the arm still features anti-skate via a spring dial, hydraulically damped cuing and the ability to add an auxiliary weight in addition to the main counterweight, offering tremendous flexibility in the range of cartridges the arm can carry. The arm terminates in a pair of gold-plated phono sockets and ground terminal beneath the chassis, allowing any interconnect of your choice to be used – including the quality cable provided in the box.
The arm does feel different to that of the previous model (in a good way). It’s smoother in motion and more stable when balanced, with a silky smoothness to the VTA, anti-skate and counterweight dials. The counterweight is slightly smaller and has a revised design, though weighs 98 grams – only 2 grams less than the original, and up to 4 grams of tracking force can be applied.
The cue lever has been cheapened a little though the mechanism itself appears mostly similar, but improvements have been made across all other aspects of the arm. I wasn’t able to disassemble the arm to see whether the resonant ‘ping’ in the previous arm caused by the small copper retaining spring flange holding the auxiliary weight is still an issue, though I personally use the arm with the auxiliary weight or a KAB resonance cap where possible as I feel it gives a performance improvement, and the extra weight brings the counterweight closer to the arm pivot point.
I couldn’t help noticing that the proportions of the new arm base look identical to the old. Given that armboards cut for the old Technics’ will reportedly fit the 1200GR and 1200G, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this new arm could be made to fit an older model if one were to enlarge the hole in the rubber base. And to that end, there is no cutting required should you decide to replace the arm as was previously the case, though don’t be too quick to judge as the stock arm is a far more competent performer than some would like you to believe.
The supplied headshell weighs 7.6 grams and is virtually identical in appearance to the original, though with a rougher texture. I setup the arm using the Technics overhang tool, which if used correctly places the stylus tip 52 mm from the rubber washer at the rear of the headshell and set perfectly straight. This results in a 15 mm overhang with a 22 degree offset built into the arm, aligning to Technics’ inner and outer null points of 58.8 and 113.5MM. This gives a maximum tracking error of 2.13 degrees, peak distortion of 0.761% and average RMS distortion of 0.5%.
Many prefer to align to the Lofgren A standard with the IEC 1958 / RIAA 1963 standard null points of 66 and 120.9MM. This lengthens the overhang to 17.8 mm and necessitates a slight twist of the cartridge in the headshell. The figures are only slightly better; 1.86 degrees of maximum tracking error, 0.64% peak distortion and 0.417% RMS distortion. While these figures are lower, the difference is minimal. And in my experience, using a Technics arm with a Lofgren A alignment can inhibit the arm’s ability to track warps as well as it can, and usually increases surface noise to a degree. Both issues override any minimal gain that might be had from the minor differences in distortion figures, and I find it best to stick to the alignment Technics intend. I also recommend the overhang tool supplied in the box as it is more than good enough if used with care, and you can always check your work with a decent ruler or digital caliper to be sure.
Supplied with the GR is a decent quality phono interconnect, separate earth lead and IEC power cable. You also get a headshell, overhang tool, cartridge screws, auxiliary and main counterweights and a beautifully machined 45 adapter for jukebox singles. Documentation, a platter mat and a dust cover with preinstalled hinges round out the bits in the box, besides the deck itself and its platter of course. The deck is neatly presented in its packaging and really does inspire pride of ownership from the get-go.
Unpacking, assembling and operating the GR is like greeting an old friend, albeit one which has improved with age. Everything feels more solid than before, not that the original SL-1200 was under built by any means. The hundreds of thousands if not millions of them still in circulation is testament to the toughness of these turntables, and though the new range is in its infancy I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they prove to carry on the tradition. The controls have a satisfyingly solid and tactile feel to them, and the way the target light gently glides upwards when released is especially pleasing.
Controls are where you’d expect them to be with the only notable difference being that a simultaneous press of the two speed buttons switches to 78RPM. Everything is otherwise instantly familiar with plenty of blue LED illumination used to indicate the status of various functions, the popup target light and the strobe to verify speed accuracy, not that you’ll likely need the latter.
The GR offers 5 adjustable brake settings from fast (default) to slow and 3 startup torque settings – low, medium and high, with high being the default. Starting and breaking are near instantaneous on tapping the start button, which itself has a more premium feel than before, with a gentle ‘click’ and without the tendency to ‘bottom out’. The torque settings don’t affect running torque for which Technics doesn’t give a specification, and as such they are simply a matter of operator preference and won’t affect the sound or speed stability. They are likely superfluous to the average user unless you back-cue records, or for some reason have a desire to watch your turntable spin down slowly whenever you change sides.
Specs are exceptional for any turntable, let alone one at this price. They are in fact nearing the limits of my accurate but still rather basic test equipment, and are arguably nearing the limitations of the tests records themselves as all will have a marginal degree of speed error. Measured speed is accurate to within 0.04%, with wow and flutter also measuring a peak 0.04%. Through spindle rumble measures -73dB WTD (WIN-B). Through groove rumble is a fractionally higher yet still exceptional -70.7dB.
The Power Supply
One of the common claims surrounding the older model was that the power supply was noisy and that installing the power transformer in an external case or replacing the power supply entirely would significantly decrease the background noise levels. It has to be said that given that this is rarely, if ever an issue in live environments with large subwoofers operating at high sound pressure levels, it is unlikely to pose a significant problem in a domestic setting. In older 1200s the transformer noise can be heard by placing the stylus on a stationary record and raising the amplifier volume to extreme levels; far beyond that which most would actually listen and at a level where the idle noise of all but the quietest phono stages tends to cover the hum of the transformer anyway.
Here is an example of the transformer noise from my SL-1210 MK2, using a VM95SH moving magnet cartridge into a phono stage with a signal to noise specification of 89dB which is very quiet. The recording was taken into a line level interface, and normalised to enable you to hear the transformer noise. As you can hear, the noise is marginal against the comparative racket made by the phono stage and even the interface itself, which is a professional studio unit with ultra low noise circuitry.
The GR does away with the linear power supply entirely, instead implementing a switch mode power supply (SMPS). Not only is an SMPS mechanically silent, but there is no risk of electromagnetic interference from a power transformer beneath the platter impacting on the performance of the cartridge. Performing the stationary record test on a GR yields no power supply noise what-so-ever. Given the speed measurements above, which can likely be attributed at least in part to the power supply being more than capable of meeting the demands of the motor and its control circuitry, there is no need to replace the power supply in a 1200GR or the 1200G, despite fact that aftermarket linear power supplies are already on the market. I am of course open to alternative points of view on this, though as part of any argument I would like to see conclusive and repeatable scientific measurements which show the benefit that the external power supply brings and exactly why Technics’ design is inadequate, as some claim it to be.
Perhaps the only drawback to an SMPS is that they can emit a degree of interference which *can* affect other components in the system (mostly those that are poorly designed to begin with), though the Technics is better in most in this regard and a screened mains cable all but solves that problem. I can’t help but wonder if this accounts for the difference some claim to hear when changing the included power cable for something more audiophile approved, usually equalling or exceeding the price of the deck. The stock power cable is fine, and in the unlikely event that you encounter any issues with interference generated by the switch-mode supply a decent mains cable with a screen connected to earth at the plug end is relatively inexpensive. Chances are your phone charger, television or one of your kitchen appliances is dumping far more rubbish into your mains supply than the SL-1200GR will.
The Test Setup
I situated the SL-1200GR atop my rack on the same isolation platform used for my SL-1210 MK2, which is a mix of Corian solid surface material and sorbothane. The deck was levelled and my AT33PTG/II moving coil cartridge installed, tracking at exactly 2.04 grams. The anti-skate proved to be calibrated precisely from the factory and was set to match the tracking force. VTA was set such that the arm was parallel to the record. The included phono and ground cables were used and power was routed through a Tacima mains conditioner which is a very simple no frills device which does nothing more than help to minimise the effects of radio frequency interference.
The AT33 proved a great match for the GR tonearm. I had expected to hear an improvement over the old model, though I certainly didn’t expect the difference to be night and day. I most definitely didn’t expect the drop in background noise to be so obviously apparent. The effect is quite startling, magnified by the fact that the AT33 itself is especially quiet in the groove. Vinyl roar or surface noise simply disappeared into the background, and pops, clicks and crackles from vinyl imperfections and contaminants are greatly minimised, resulting in a surprisingly clean background that doesn’t obtrude on the music in any way. The difference is not subtle, even though the MK2 is no slouch when it comes to rumble figures and my particular MK2 has a low hours bearing which is in perfect order and performs as well as or better than it ever did from the factory.
Pitch stability is one of any Technics’ greatest strengths, more-so here than ever before. Sustained notes are rock solid and as on-pitch as the LP allows. I find that it is only on a Technics that the deficiencies in an improperly centred record are truly obvious, though even then the Technics maintains superb composure and impeccable timing. Bass is surefooted and fast, stopping and starting with a level of rhythmic aplomb that makes almost anything with a belt sound sluggish and dull in comparison. Mids are gloriously smooth and slightly forward, portraying the analogue warmth for which vinyl is so revered. And the highs are clean, crisp and clear with plenty of top end detail and an openness to the sound that gives each element of the music its own space to breathe and flourish. This is one musical turntable that will have you spinning disc after disc, grinning like an idiot.
When Technics commercialised the direct drive turntable in the ‘70s, they became known as class-leading products among the best available at any price. There is no doubt in my mind that Technics’ new products will follow suit and become legendary over the next 4 decades and beyond. Though it is my hope that this time we can overcome the snobbery of years gone by and instead embrace the real effort and advancements that the company has made to produce its finest products yet, and celebrate the efforts of a company who do truly care about not just maintaining a line of vinyl replay equipment, but advancing it further than ever before to maximise the capabilities of the vinyl format. These new Technics turntable set new technical standards which will pave the way for future evolution of vinyl and the equipment we use to play it.
At this price, the Technics SL-1200GR is an outstanding piece of engineering with performance that wouldn’t be embarrassed by alternatives at many times it moderate cost. In typical Japanese form it is built to a standard better than most, and feels every bit the piece of quality engineering that it is. It offers exemplary technical performance, has musicality in spades and offers simply outstanding value for money. If this were a boutique British-manufactured deck, it would sell for many times its asking price and by default be revered by the masses. As it is it is one of the few genuine bargains in hi-fi audio. My only hope is that it doesn’t slip under the radar, as it is a piece that deserves to be heard. And now, as I conclude this writing, I am off to do just that.