Positive Feedback ISSUE 62
july/august 2012

 

The following submissions are for the 'Readers Who Want to be Writers' Contest. The authors are not Staff members of Positive Feedback.

 

Technics SL-1600 Gives "Ear Opening" Experience
by John Carlson

 

I never expected that I'd ever use my Technics SL-1600 as my main turntable. But I recently had a "turntable crisis," and I was left with a choice of either the Technics, or a low end Garrard record changer I have as a conversation piece. I didn't have to think long to come to a conclusion which was more likely to make me happy.

The SL-1600 is a 1970s automatic, direct drive turntable. My specimen was a thrift shop find that I got to play with a few years ago.

So far, I have not done any sort of major upgrading on the SL-1600. The only work I've done has been oiling the motor with approved oil, cleaning the connections, and cleaning the pitch control. (The pitch control seems to be a problem area. If dirty, the speed stability suffers.) Some might point out that the SL-1600 won't perform its absolute best stock. I'd agree with that. But I think there is an advantage of knowing what the SL-1600 is like stock. This allows better choices for upgrading, and gives me a chance to get a sense of how much the SL-1600 improves when I do get around to upgrades. Plus, of course, some people might be interested in using it stock.

Since getting the SL-1600, I've used it off and on as a secondary turntable. I've tried it with a wide range of equipment. More equipment than I can either remember, or count.

Currently, I'm using the Technics with a pair of Linn Index II speakers (made around 1990), which are bi-wired with Linn wire. The amplification is provided by either a Linn Intek (also from around 1990), or a Nakamichi SR-3a receiver. I have also used Grado SR-60 headphones in place of the speakers. The current cartridges are either a Shure M97xE, or a Grado Reference Platinum.

I currently don't have another turntable to compare with the SL-1600. But I once had a Rega Planar 2. I compared it with the Technics many, many times before the Rega went to the Ikea Lack table in the sky. I have heard some cartridges on both turntables. Past this, I've had a chance to hear my speakers with many, many other turntables over the years, ranging from a cheap Dual CS-431, to a Linn LP12 (pre-Cirkus, Valhalla, original Linn Akito, and the Linn K9).

Finally, the records I play vary wildly. There is everything imaginable: baroque, jazz, and more. Almost all my records are regular pressings. For auditioning, I tend to choose something that is recorded live, unamplified with acoustic instruments.

Listening to the SL-1600

The first thing I always notice with the Technics is the excellent speed stability. I have heard some say that the speed stability of the SL-1600 was not as good as the SL-1600 MK II.  But the original SL-1600 seemed vastly superior to my Rega Planar 2. The SL-1600 has much better security with long, sustained notes. Rhythm and timing both seem solid and precise. In comparison, the Rega actually sounded imprecise with rhythm and timing. Ironic, given Rega's reputation. (I think the Planar 2 partly suffered from the way the motor was a suspended design.)

The Technics also has a cleaner, more open sound than the Rega ever did.

But the SL-1600 is not perfect. Despite the strengths vs the Planar 2, I found myself using the Rega most of the time. The Rega was also far from perfect. But it seemed like overall was more musically enjoyable. Even if it had flaws. I could listen for long periods, and I never felt compelled to analyze the Rega's sound. (Something I regret now that I'm faced with writing a review!) Not feeling a need to analyze is, to my mind, a good sign. I am reminded of the movie reviewer for a local newspaper who said he had a check list of things to think about when reviewing movies. Then, he added that if he started going through that list while watching the movie, there was something seriously wrong with that movie, list or no list. This is probably true of most things in general.

I do remember feeling that the SL-1600 had a colder, more intellectual sound than the Rega. Which is one reason I preferred the Rega.

As I critically listen to the SL-1600 now, I get a sense that it does an excellent job getting the big details right. But often fails to get the smaller things right. A little bit of richness of tone gets lost here. Small, quieter details might get lost or covered up (like a quiet triangle in the background) there. The loss of these small things does reduce the enjoyment of listening. I listen to records I'm familiar with, and while I still enjoy them, I find myself missing how they used to sound at times. (I am sure the Rega had similar issues. It was, after all, a budget turntable. But for whatever reason, I was less conscious of problems there.)

I also find the dynamics limited. There is also not the sense of power that I've heard from any of the older Linn LP12s I've heard.

Despite all my talk about limitations and flaws, I find the SL-1600 more than acceptable. My feeling, after all this listening, is that I'd consider it competitive with lower end turntables in many areas. But it has more than a taste of high end turntable speed stability.

I am certain the SL-1600's performance could be improved with some tweaking and upgrading. Which is something I'll be doing. As a minimum, I plan to upgrade the, ah, limited interconnect cable. The SL-1600 could be a nice choice for those on a budget who like to upgrade and tweak. Although those looking for something to tweak might be better served by a Technics SL-1200, which has so many options. Then, again, good luck finding an SL-1200 at a reasonable price these days.

Other Considerations

Past sound quality, the SL-1600 has a few practical selling points. For one thing, it is extremely well made. There is something impressive about a 30 year old turntable that still works with nothing needed past some contact cleaner. Some of today's budget turntables apparently can't even emerge new from the shipping box without needing some bigger repair!

I also have really come to like the replaceable headshells. Yes, they probably do limit performance. But it's nice being able to swap cartridges easily. I am not the first to note this, but I never appreciated how nice a feature fast cartridge changes are until I had it for a while.

Finally, the SL-1600 is fully automatic, which might be a selling point for some. It even has a dial to allow one to replay a record 0 to 6 times, or lock on infinite replay. (This setting gives me a picture of the SL-1600 being used for an all night party in a college dorm!) For those who need or want automation, the SL-1600 could strike a nice balance between decent sound quality, durability, and automated features.

Conclusion

I have really enjoyed my time with the Technics SL-1600. I came of "audiophile age" in an era that considered Japanese turntables to be nothing but junk. Hearing the Technics was an ear opening experience.

I doubt that the SL-1600 will be my last primary turntable, but, at the same time, I'm not in a huge rush to replace it. Of course that may change if I go to my favorite thrift shop and find a Goldmund Reference....

 

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