With a legacy of artistic inspiration spanning five decades, its build quality, authentic sound and ability to facilitate beat-mixing helped birth rap, hip hop, the modern disc jockey and directly influenced how techno, house and electro music was generated, mixed and produced. One can also add-in turntablism and the global propagation of dance and club culture to its list of accomplishments.
The curious dismissal of the 1200 by audiophiles over the years due to its DJ connection proved a boon to acquiring affordable examples on the secondhand market, further contributing not only to the exponential growth of rap and hip hop in North America, but to the rise of numerous other genres in South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Hyped collectors drive prices up, just ask anyone on Discogs or eBay bidding for LPs or vintage gear that received a hifi-approved bump. In a way, it could be interpreted that this snub helped enrich the cultural tapestry of global music production by allowing so many 1200s to change hands over the years.
Created by a team of Japanese engineers led by Shuichi Obata at Matsushita Electric in 1971, the SL-1200 started production a year later. Built to broadcast-industry standards, yet marketed for the home, it was quickly adopted by recording studios, radio stations and club DJs thanks to its high torque, direct-drive motor, which was ideal for instantaneous startup and track cueing. The initial 1200 design precis was quality, durability, diminished resonance, and extremely low measured wow and flutter. Traits which established the ‘table as a workhorse and contributed to millions of decks being sold until 2010, when parent company Panasonic stopped production. This decision was met with consumer disappointment, and in 2016 Panasonic introduced redesigned, higher-price category “Grand Class” models targeted at audiophiles. By 2017 this new lineup was comprised of the SL-1200GAE collector edition (limited to 1,200 units worldwide), and the souped-up SL-1200G and SL-1200GR, which when in black livery, like previous 1200 iterations, is designated as 1210 and is the focus of this review. Technics now also produces the SL-1200 MK7 which has a different feature set and is marketed for DJ use.
While a casual observer would find the SL-1200G and 1200GR almost indistinguishable from the MK5 introduced in 2000, they are redesigned from the ground up. Constructed with new alloy and composite sandwich technologies, their complex, multi-chambered chassis benefit from improved damping via Bulk Molding Compound (BMC), silicon rubber and die-cast aluminium in the vertical plane, and microcell polymer cylindrical tubes for damping in the horizontal plane. The two-layer platter weighs in at a not-insubstantial 2.5 kg and gains increased vibration rejection, rigidity and inertial mass through the addition of structural ribbing to the die-cast platter section. This in turn increases the underside’s surface area for the application of deadening compound, helping the GR platter double its dampening capability from the previous-generation MK5.
"While there are many turntables that are as capable, few would be considered as ubiquitous, or culturally impactful. It’s difficult to imagine what the terrain of music would be like today without the 1200."
Further tolerance refinements of the already exemplary static-balanced, gimbal-suspension, aluminium S-shaped tonearm assembly – with cut-processed housing employing high-precision bearings – makes an already capable arm even more resolution-oriented when compared from memory to older 1200s. The completely redesigned motor and electronic control system, and newfound option of a detachable AC/mains input and gold-plated phono analogue outputs continue this refinement theme. The ‘table comes supplied with an AC cord and phono cables, which while acceptable, revealed their limitations when swapped for higher-quality ones. The ability to now use aftermarket RCA cables and AC cords without enlisting a stereo tech to rewire/solder replacements – which was your only option on older iterations as the mains and phono were hard-wired – is a welcome prospect for obvious reasons of SQ.
The tireless direct-drive motor that has been spinning 1200 platters for more than 40 years now features a twin-rotor, surface-facing, coreless configuration with 180-degree placement of rotor magnets to eliminate minute rotation fluctuations of the motor, a phenomenon engineers labeled "cogging” (twin-rotor array on the 1200G only, the GR is single-rotor). According to Technics, rotational speed accuracy is achieved through an electronic system utilising sine waves “stored in ROM for control waveforms at constant speed, which achieves smoother and more stable rotation compared to using the simple sine-wave generation with an external coil as in the conventional SL-1200MK5.” Nomenclature aside, this translates to notable pitch control, massive torque, and a 0.7-second startup time. As with every 1200 (or 1210), the GR comes with large, chunky, adjustable alloy/plastic/rubber feet that have always done a commendable job of adding an extra layer of vibration isolation to the deck. There’s a a demonstrative muscularity to the baseline sound from a 1200 in my experience, and the considerable revamping/upgrading by Technics has not altered this fundamental.
Tweaking a Technics 1200 starts easily and most noticeably by swapping-out headshells/cartridges. This is done quickly thanks to the SME-style, four-pin bayonet mount of the tonearm. Substituting an EMT HSD 006 low output moving-coil cartridge ($1,595 USD) for a vintage Shure M44G moving-magnet cartridge ($100 USD, CAM) took all of two minutes including tracking weight adjustment. Those with a selection of carts need only invest in headshells, of which there are many aftermarket options ranging from standard-issue to exotic. Available in varying weights, material composition and priced from $30~$200 USD and beyond, choice is only limited by preference and budget. The HSD was mounted on a Sorane headshell (approx. $100 USD) which required a heavier aftermarket secondary counterweight (screw-in) for proper mass balance. Listening was split between the EMT and Shure. The latter, while not as resolution-oriented or accomplished at taming sibilance as the former, proved an addictive combination mounted on the GR, and brought back fond memories of big sound from a 1200 MKII fitted with a Shure M44-7 many years ago.
Further research led to ordering a Herbie’s Audio Lab Way Excellent II Mat to swap for the stock rubber Technics one, which revealed improvements in detail retrieval, tonal and timbral bloom, sound stage focus, treble air/extension and bass depth/tightness. Experimentation with an aftermarket record weight on loan offered further promising results, so a heavier 870-gram machined-alloy record weight was procured off Craigslist. This brought appreciable expansion of the aforementioned traits wrought by the Herbie’s Mat. There are many styles/materials of weights available online which range from 300 grams to more than 1 kg, varying in price from $30~$4,800 (!!!) USD, so again the only limit here is your preferred style and budget. While some turntables, particularly sprung-chassis designs, do not benefit from, or lend themselves to using record weights, the 1210 GR achieved not insignificant sonic gains with one. As with all tweaks in hi-fi, YMMV. All this discussion of tweaking must be qualified. To be clear, the 1210 GR in stock form is a formidable, capable turntable that flirts with reference-level sound. With a little online research and a few reasonable, simple-to-implement tweaks it puts a ring on reference level.
The signal path consisted of either the Shure or EMT routed through Audio Note AN-V silver RCA cables out the GR’s external phono jacks – additionally through an Auditorium 23 EMT step-up transformer (SUT) for the EMT – and into an Audio Note Oto Phono SE Signature all-valve integrated amplifier (ECC83 & 6DJ8 phono stage), Audio Note Lexus bi-wired copper speaker cables and finally Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE two-way loudspeakers. AC/mains cables on both the amp and turntable were Audio Note ISIS copper 1.5m. AC power came through a non-limiting SuperWiremold power bar. I sited the ‘table on both a heavy-duty spiked maple component stand and a midcentury modern credenza and while, ultimately, it seemed to benefit most from the maple stand, overall it was unfussy with placement. Final listening notes were written using the M44G. Its flat frequency response through 20Hz~20KHz places it in the class of a modern, higher-priced MM design and its modest vintage tint to playback was preferred over the EMT in the context of this system.
Abbey Road is an LP of astonishing artistic breadth, perfectly halved with Side A and Side B offering up a defined musical journey in, and of themselves. Each side is a sublime unification of musical epiphanies challenged by few other albums. Much has been written of its opener “Come Together,” which saw John Lennon at what could be the height of his form within the context of The Beatles. It sets the stage for a freeform musical exploration that infers a gestalt, or ultimate distillation of every idea utlised in the writing and production of the record and that the 1210 GR translates effortlessly. This is unassuming listening, where one gets lost in the songwriting and thoughts of upper mid-bass emphasis on Paul McCartney’s pounding piano, or George Harrison’s Fender VI bass are pushed to the side because you’re caught up in the music. This is an LP imbued with powerful dynamic swings, delicate, ethereal arrangements by George Martin, and exquisite stereo imaging. Core instrumentation is spread equally between the loudspeakers, with vocal harmonies and solos often projecting dead centre, well in front on the sound stage. Details like the overdub addition of Harrison’s newly-acquired Moog synthesizer on “Because” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” are ripe with tonal depth and colour. But. it’s the subtle sustained Moog inflections on “Here Comes the Sun” shining through Martin’s string arrangements that is brought to your attention, as it was not an instrument previously recognized as a Moog, but the 1210 GR/M44G combo allow it to shimmer through, theremin-like to the surface unambiguously on the 1980 Mo-Fi remaster.
Austrian duo Peter Kruder and Richard Dorfmeister have been enlightening minds, teasing bodies onto dance floors and causing DJs to puzzle over rare-groove samples with a unique brand of downtempo trip-hop since the release of their first EP G-Stoned in 1993. Magnum Opus of their ongoing thirty-year career, 1998’s compilation The K&D Sessions is an unparalleled 5xLP trifold achievement with few peers in the annals of impossibly deep beat-driven tunes. Described as “the most blissfully blunted music the world has ever heard,” the 2015 reissue which Bernie Grundman remastered betters the original in most every aspect, especially with its lack of groove noise (which is saying something as the original is a pressing of superb quality, possessed of exemplary production value). British duo Lamb’s live performance of “Trans Fatty Acid” is the basis for the K&D remix. Dreamily fuelled by Louise Rhodes seductive, drawn-out vocals and producer Andy Barlow’s combustible percussion, the GR easily lays down the deep bassline supporting the cut and perfectly captures the spatial cues of the recording venue space. Rhodes’ lyrics create an rhythmic, untethered unease accompanied with many subtle electronic cohorts revealed within the heavily-layered mix. Here, the Technics/Shure combination pull the dense, complex diaspora of instrumentation from the grooves without a hint of dispassionate analysis. Despite synth-heavy, electronic affectations that help create this ambience, all remains demonstrably analog with even a casual listener able to clearly define unique instrumental threads within the track’s larger weave. The hours-long session which five LPs entails sets up what could be described as “a tonal frequency of engagement” within the listener, supported unfailingly by the 1210’s foundational bass control and timbral resolution.
A classical pianist trained at Juilliard, Nina Simone became something more in the early sixties. Her gigs in Greenwich Village and the political awakening that ensued, started what could be described as a shift in her cultural identity. When she signed with Philips Records in 1964, that shift was still under way and its impact was reflected in the binary of the first LPs she laid down for the label. Recorded simultaneously, I Put a Spell on You and Pastel Blues would define the start of a new era for the virago who took up civil rights causes with a passion. Spell, with its punchy orchestral arrangements by Hal Mooney and Horace Ott, was released in June, 1965 and the moody, stripped-down quartet accompaniment of Blues hit store shelves that October. Blues skeletal arrangements convey an unsettling dramatic tenor – a good example being the album’s opener, “Be My Husband,” written by Simone’s abusive spouse Andy Stroud. Simone’s A cappella reaches its vocal limit, breaking over and over as her hands and feet tirelessly keep pace to Bobby Hamilton’s stark, singularly percussive hi-hat. What seems to be simple mic arranging on these sessions captures minute details such as Simone’s feet working the pedals, subtle intakes of breath from the quartet, and Rudy Stevenson’s ethereal touch on flute throughout “End Of The Line.” Heard through the GR/Shure these cues present the listener with unadorned performances which stand out in high dynamic contrast with the space of the studio. On the Acoustic Sounds 180g repress from 2020 treble/midband/bass is rendered forcefully – like a ‘hot’ pressing – there’s aching detail to Stevenson’s guitar picking as he accompanies Simone on “Ain’t No Use.” Expressed with emotional texture and tonal colour, often creating the illusion that one is sitting in on the recording, Pastel Blues is an essential addition to any serious Simone discography.
A high fidelity component, especially one as complex as a turntable, the manufacture of which requires a deep understanding of engineering principles involving rotational force, harmonic resonance, mechanical isolation, speed control (to name but a few), and employs sub-millimetric levels of machining precision is no small undertaking. Add-in the ability to meet global sales numbering in the millions, and it remains to be seen if any company other than Matsushita Electric (Panasonic) could have scaled production to meet such demand. While there are many turntables that are as capable, few would be considered as ubiquitous, or culturally impactful. It’s difficult to imagine what the terrain of music would be like today without the 1200. That this turntable has not been resoundingly embraced by the audiophile community for the build and sound quality it so assuredly possesses – and instead enjoys popularity in only a niche pocket of the hobby – remains unusual. This latest iteration SL-1210 GR, like 1200s built before it, is a turntable built to broadcast standards, yet intended for home use. While utilitarian in appearance, it produces vinyl playback on par with far more artisanal, esoteric and costly designs. Its direct, present, dynamic and muscular sound is balanced with a light touch to detail and musical nuance, all while providing a transparent foundation to cartridge choice and tweaks to fine-tune the sound to one’s tastes.