Turntables: Old vs New

Two vintage record players. One modern turntable. Three copies of the same record. And one answer to the question: How do vintage turntables compare to today’s models?

Everybody knows vinyl is white-hot these days. And everyone’s getting in on it. You’ve got 16 year-old kids looking for the next hip thing. You got 70 year-olds looking to recapture the sound of their youth. The question is, what turntable do they buy? The days when you could walk into your local electronics store and choose among 15 or 20 models are gone. It seems like there’s not a whole lot of choices these days except for $100 plastic junk or $1,000+ audiophile turntables. Except for one alternative most people never consider: vintage turntables.

The only turntables I remember from my teens in the 1970s are the cheap plastic ones I and my friends had. But when I visited Innovative Audio, a vintage audio dealer in Vancouver, BC, I realized I’d missed out on a glorious past. The turntables the store had on display – most from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s – were built far better than the $75 BSR I used to play Led Zeppelin II, Rush’s All the World’s a Stage and Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way. The best of the old tables had thick aluminum platters, massive bases, beautifully machined metal components, precision tonearms and high-quality phono cartridges.

I wondered, though. These vintage turntables looked and felt great, but how did they sound? More importantly, how would they compare to a decent modern turntable?

Fortunately, I got a chance to find out. Innovative Audio founder Gordon Sauck was more than happy to help me compare old ‘tables with the new. But while my own opinion of the sound was obviously important (to me, at least), I also wanted to find out what other audio enthusiasts thought. Luckily for me, a dedicated audio enthusiast walks through the front door of Innovative Audio every few minutes-and several of them were happy to donate their time and ears to sit through a blind turntable test.

Turning the ‘Tables

As I suggested before, I didn’t know the first thing about vintage turntables when I started, so I let Sauck be my guide. I asked for “something really good,” and another turntable that was more like the “average nice product” one might have bought in the 1970s for a reasonable price.

Technics SL-120

His first choice, without the slightest hesitation, was a Technics SL-120, a direct-drive turntable from the 1970s. “It’s built like a tank,” he said, insisting that I lift it. Wow! I was a little shocked at the rugged build quality of this 30-something-year-old turntable. No wonder one of the SL-120’s stablemates, the Technics SL-1200, is the industry-standard turntable for DJs. The SL-120 was originally sold without a tonearm, and this sample was fitted with an SME 3009 Series II arm, a design long revered by audiophiles. A Shure V15 Type III moving-magnet (MM) cartridge was installed on the SME arm.

Yamaha YP-701

The “average vintage” turntable Sauck chose was the direct-drive Yamaha YP-701, which looked even beefier than the Technics. The base was finished in a lightly stained veneer, which immediately sent me into a flashback to the glory days of 1960s Stereo Review, when hi-fi meant walnut-sided speakers, Dave Brubeck and Stan Kenton sides, and a pipe packed with rum-flavored tobacco. But as soon as I started messing with the YP-701, it was clear the Yamaha couldn’t touch the sturdiness and precision of the Technics. This YP-701 was fitted with an AudioTechnica MM cartridge, different than the Shure cartridge on the Technics but in the same price class.

Rega Planar 3

I didn’t need Sauck to choose the newer turntable for me, because I knew which one I’d use as soon as I saw it: the Rega Planar 3. The belt-drive Planar 3 has been legendary among audiophiles since its introduction in 1977. It has been upgraded and improved several times during its product life cycle, and it’s still available now as the RP3. The sample Sauck had on hand was thoroughly modern, from the early 2000s, and quite similar in construction to today’s affordable turntables from Rega, Pro-Ject and Music Hall. Although Rega tonearms are well-respected, this turntable happened to be equipped with an SME tonearm-a 3009 Series IIIS, an updated version of the arm we found on the Technics SL-120. And it, too, had a Shure V15 Type III cartridge.

So at least in the case of the Technics SL-120 and the Rega Planar 3, we were hearing almost entirely the sound of the turntables themselves, rather than sound of the tonearms and cartridges.

The Playing Field

With the turntables chosen, the next task was to assure that they’d all have an even chance of impressing us. Fortunately, we picked all three off the Innovative Audio retail shelves, so all had already been meticulously set up by the store’s technicians and were ready for use. Sauck also happened to have three identical Cambridge Audio Azur Model 640 phono preamps we could use to boost the signals from the cartridges. I didn’t want to do the usual audio reviewer thing of listening to a record on one turntable, stopping it, putting the record on another turntable, listening to that one, etc. Instead, I wanted the listeners to be able to switch instantly among the three turntables. And I wanted the test to be blind-I didn’t want them to see what they were listening to, or know the brands or the model numbers. So I placed the turntables behind black fabric on a long rack behind the listening couch in Innovative Audio’s second-floor demo room, then connected each of the phono preamps to my Krell S-300i integrated amplifier. I then connected the Krell to two Mirage OM-7 tower speakers.

I assigned the turntables at random to three of the Krell’s inputs, and changed the order of the inputs a couple of times during the tests so no turntable could get an unfair advantage by always being first. Using the Krell’s input level trim controls and a test record with a 1 kHz tone, I matched the levels on the three turntables. The Krell allows only 1 dB adjustment steps, but after adjustment the three ‘tables output just happened to fall with 0.5 dB, so I got a little bit lucky in this case. With this setup, the panelists could easily set the volume at whatever level they liked, and they could switch among the three turntables at will without knowing the turntables’ identities.

Now the only challenge was finding three copies of the same record in pristine condition. But at Innovative Audio, this wasn’t a challenge-minutes after I asked, Sauck produced three mint copies of Armageddon, a 1979 album from Canadian power pop group Prism. As a lifelong U.S. resident, I’d only maybe-kinda-sorta heard of Prism, so I asked Sauck if he was sure everyone in the diverse group of listeners we planned for would be familiar with the record.

“Oh, they’ll know this one,” he replied.

When I lifted an eyebrow and looked at him with obvious doubt, he insisted, “Not only does everyone in Canada know this record, you’re not going to be able to stop singing the first tune by the time we’re done.”

He was right. Even our youngest panelist, a 19-year-old male, said “Of course!” when I asked if he was familiar with this album. And that damned tune “Armageddon” is still stuck in my head weeks later as I write this.

Sauck and I discussed other possibilities for test material, but after a practice run-through of the test it was obvious you could tell a hell of a lot about these turntables from just this one album. After giving the three copies of Armageddon a thorough wash in the store’s Nitty Gritty record cleaner, we were ready to spin some vinyl.

The Truth About the ‘Tables

Having compared current-model turntables in my home system, I expected the differences among the turntables tested here to be subtle-and frankly, I expected the Rega Planar 3 to beat the vintage turntables easily. After all, it’s belt-drive and the others are direct-drive, and audiophiles say belt-drive is better. Well, in this case, at least, the audiophiles are wrong.

Simply put, the Technics SL-120 walked all over the other two turntables. “It’s just better balanced in every way,” one panelist said. The SL-120’s best attribute was its bass, which was much fuller, more tuneful and more precise than the other turntables could muster. The difference wasn’t subtle; I could hear it even from behind the speakers. But it wasn’t just the bass-the SL-120 also had a warmer, more natural tonal balance than the other turntables. Of the six listeners, five picked the SL-120 as their clear favorite. However, one-the 19-year-old listener-tied it for second.

So how did the SL-120’s lesser contemporary, the Yamaha YP-701, fare? Not bad, even though it was clearly outclassed by the beefier Technics turntable. The listeners described its sound as a little bit bright and slightly thin, but overall pretty decent and enjoyable. Four of the six listeners ranked it in 2nd place; two others tied it with another turntable for 2nd.

To my shock and surprise, the Rega Planar 3 didn’t sound as tonally balanced as the other turntables. It reminded me of the sound of my Grado SR-225i headphones; they convey loads of detail and ambience but their bass-shy tonal balance makes them less enjoyable to listen to than a good set of mainstream headphones (in my opinion, at least). Same goes for the Planar 3. It had lots of sonic detail but the thinnest tonal balance overall. Our 19-year-old listener ranked it in 1st place, but everyone else ranked it last or tied for 2nd place.

One Last Check

I happened to have my audio measurement gear set up for the receiver comparison test Sauck and I had put together that same week, so I used it to make sure there wasn’t anything technically amiss with any of the turntables. I was particularly curious to see if there was a measurable bass boost in the Technics SL-120. So I ran some test records from Sauck’s extensive collection, then analyzed the results.

I didn’t find much. In fact, what little I found didn’t correspond well with the listening test results. The Rega Planar 3 produced, overall, the flattest frequency response; it was dead even down to 30 Hz. The Technics Sl-120 was down -1.64 dB at 30 Hz, while the Yamaha YP-701was down -1.91 dB. Obviously, none of this could explain the Technics’ superior bass.

The Rega also had a flatter treble response, and in fact it even showed a slight boost at very high frequencies: up +1.4 dB at 10 kHz, while the Technics was down -1.88 dB and the Yamaha was down -2.47 dB. I suppose the Rega’s superior treble response might have had the subjective effect of making the tonal balance sound thin. That still wouldn’t explain the Technics’ awesome bass, though.

Pitch/speed accuracy of all the turntables was very good, with the Rega 0.02% slow, the Technics 0.01% fast and the Yamaha 0.07% fast. I did find that the Technics had the least distortion with a -10 dBFS test tone: 3.7% THD vs. 9% for the Yamaha and 5% for the Rega.

The Final Spin

Of course, this was just two vintage turntables picked from a vast universe of vintage turntables, and one recent audiophile turntable picked from a vast universe of audiophile turntables. So while I’d certainly pick a Technics SL-120 over a Rega Planar 3, I can’t predict whether I’d prefer any other vintage turntable to any other new turntable. And of course, the sound of any turntable you buy is greatly affected by your choice of cartridge.

What our little test does prove, though, is that a good vintage turntable is a great way to get back into vinyl records. A high-quality vintage ‘table, equipped with a nice new cartridge and properly set up, can open up a whole new world of entertainment to you at a very reasonable price. And when you consider that it’s pretty easy to find used records for $1 a pop, vinyl starts to look like the best entertainment value going.