Originally posted on www.audiogon.com

Back into vinyl - part 1

About five years ago, while I was living nice, quiet, and boring vinyl-less life, I run across some very nice LPs while walking around my local flee market. I got rid of all my records years ago, almost immediately after Sony and Philips promised us all “Perfect Sound Forever”.
My music life was easy and simple, few hundred of my CDs were complemented by couple hundred cassettes and only sometimes I was wondering how come some of my cassettes sounded very obviously better than CDs. But I would not let these thoughts bother me – digital was better, period. Doesn’t every manufacturer of audio equipment say so for 20 years now? Anyway, the albums I run across were so dear to me and so impossible to find on CDs that I bought them, without even thinking about the fact that I had absolutely no idea how to use them. Did they even sell turntables anymore? Being a nerd I started searching the Net for information and to my surprise discovered that not only they still sell TTs, but there is a whole range of them, from 50 Presidents all the way to tens of thousands. I was considering getting me some of those 78s, so three-speed machine was needed. I quickly found a site of KAB Electro-Acoustics, and called the guy

. Kevin was very helpful and knowledgeable. After hearing my pathetic story he very kindly described me current situation on the marked and few days later I was a proud owner of KAB Broadcast Standard, equipped with Shure V15VxMR. The LPs that I bought sounded amazing. They were almost 40 years old, though in very good condition, but the sound was so real that no CD could even touch it. Bare in mind, my system was nothing to write home about – middle-of-the-road ES Sony CD player, amplifier and cassette deck and Mission speakers. And then I found audio forums.

OK, I have to admit – I am always questioning my knowledge. Even when I am 100% sure about something, there will always be a thought buried somewhere deep inside, saying “What If You Are Wrong?” So I started asking questions and in return heard condolences about my TT and really stupid explanations about why direct drive is inferior to belt drive. Someone even quoted well-respected magazine reviewer stating that DD table is constantly changing speed at a rate of about 3500 times a second, which is quite audible. I bought it. I sold my KAB table (surprisingly very close to the original price), in my heart blaming Kevin for selling me this junk, and got myself a … well, I don’t think I should use any more names here – it is really irrelevant. Let’s just say that the table was listed at $750 and at that price point is considered to be a de facto standard in audiophile world. Well, this is where my problems started. First, the damn thing was running fast. I was trying to get my dealer to fix it with no positive outcome. “The table is flawless” was the answer. Oh and did I mention “No Returns” policy? Running fast, switching between speeds was a nightmare, and then in 2000 they released an updated motor in which was supposed to fix speed deviation problem (what problem?) which set me back another $150. With no positive outcome. I had to let it go, losing a lot of money in the process. What do you think I did next?

Correct, I bought another belt-driven table from different manufacturer. It was about twice as expensive as my first one and was coming from the company that is even more respected in audiophile world. The construction of the table was very unusual. Almost as unusual as one of the first models from this company, shown in one of Stanley Kubrick’s movies. Built quality seemed to be better, but as I discovered, in order to achieve best results, I needed much better tonearm, special power supply etcetera, etcetera… Oh and did I mention that you can’t really clean the record on this table? Friction between the belt and the platter is too low for it… I got back to the previous company and purchased their just-released top of the line model. Exotic materials used for platter, outboard power supply, fancy words used in its description… I was not as stupid as I used to be, so I purchased it from Canada, thus losing my US warranty, but saving about 30%. Well, what do you know? The table was running fast! The brilliantly engineered power supply did not allow for speed adjustments without knowing the schematics and friendly technical support staff of the manufacturer was too friendly to respond to my request. Another bummer. I was getting smarter. No more purchases, I said to myself, before I am sure I know what I am buying.

Very famous and very local manufacturer just released reasonably inexpensive model, which I borrowed from my local dealer. Build quality was so low that I still don’t understand how people can actually mention the word “quality” when talking about this table? Platter bearing was loose, table was running slow and besides the motor was running hot as hell. I called the company with my questions and they responded that bearing has to burn-in (oh really?) motor has high operating temperature and speed can be easily adjusted by using their power generator costing a mere $1000! Thanks!

I tried few more tables. The more expensive they were getting, the more I was shocked by their poor quality. I got tired. My vinyl collection was several hundred LPs by now but I had no means of listening and enjoying. Then I called Kevin. I told him about my experience and my frustration and his simple and knowledgeable words got me back to real world. I have a degree in electrical engineer for crying out loud, cant’ I do something? And I did. To be continued…

Back to vinyl – Part 2
. I decided to go DIY way. I built quite few audio things in my life. Back in Russia I built several pairs of speakers from the ground up, which to be honest sounded like you know what. Later I realized that when I used drivers from actual speaker manufacturers the results were much better. I shall not mention power amps and all sorts of tweaks – they don’t count if you have a PhD in electronics. So I decided to approach this as an engineer. What is a turntable anyway? Tonearm part is easy – though some people get exotic and build them, there is no need for that. Second hand market in the US is not as extensive as it is in good old Europe, but it does exist and one could buy a very decent arm for very little money. Plinth (if any) has to be acoustically inert. Big deal! I live in New Jersey, kitchen remodellers are probably as common here as lawyers and realtors, no shortage of Korian and granite of any shape, form and color (I tried to write “colour” but my US edition word processor stopped me). Motor – well, not that difficult. Very high quality 32 pole DC motor with adjustable power supply would cost you a mere 5-6 hundred bucks (and don’t listen to that BS you hear at CES!). Bearing can be special-ordered from any reasonably good machine shop. Depending on the quality and materials it would cost anywhere from $10 for a decent one to $500 for something out of this world. Platter can be made in the same machine shop using any material you want and the cost would be so low that is not even worth mentioning. If you are fan of acrylic, try calling a place that makes it and get a quote. You’ll never be able to look at one German turntable company without a smile… I was almost ready to start ordering components when accidentally run across… Technics SP10MK3! Not Mark 2, but legendary Mark 3! The one that lots of people are talking about but almost no one actually saw! I bought it from a guy in Australia for an incredibly small amount of money. Even with shipping it was still much less that you could expect paying for a piece of History. I inspected it thoroughly when it arrived. It seemed to be in almost perfect condition, small scratches here and there, turning on and off, changing speed (and adjusting it). I ordered a service manual for it and began working on a plinth and tonearm. Korian plinth with space for 3 (three!) armboards - 12” SME arm for my dear Kontrapunkt B, RB600 for Exact that I use as a test platform and one extra space for heavy arm with Grado Statement that plays female voices like no other cartridge I ever tried. Is this Heaven or what? Well, it was Hell. Two months into the project everything was assembled. Amplifier was warm, phono corrector just retubed with NOS Telefunkens, one of the last Frank Sinatra’s albums was ready to go out of the shelf when I heard terrible squeaking noise from the table that I turned on and that was spinning at exactly 33 1/3 RPM for the last hour… The motor was gone. After I took it apart I realized that the table was probably very heavily used and before selling the owner put some really thick oil into its bearings so after you turn it on it would not be apparent that it is completely worn. I tried to find new motor with no results and the quotes from machine shops to rebuild the motor were so high that it did not make any sense to try to resurrect it. I sold SP10 in pieces and actually even made couple hundred vs. what I spend on it (including shipping from Oz), but once again I did not have a table! And I called Kevin again… To be continured… P.S. The reason why I did not mention any names in Part 1 was not political correctness. Coming from the former Soviet Union I am as far from being politically correct as it gets. I was just trying to be nice to people that own those tables and like them!

Back into vinyl – Part 3.
Interesting thing – Kevin (you know, gentleman behind KAB Electro-Acoustics?) never suggested me to buy 1200 again. He would talk about its benefits and quality and terrific price-performance ratio, but never actually tried to push me into buying it. This is so unlike one dealer that I use every once in a while. I’ll leave his name out of the picture. His showroom (which was just recently renovated) is just a few blocks away from my office (right in the middle of North East Philly), which makes it very convenient for me to visit him during lunchtime. Well, not anymore actually. After driving to my office for six years I finally gave up to road rage and started taking a train. Now I can at least read, and by the time I come to work I don’t use the “f” word in my mind few dozen times. Anyway, this dealer humbly calls himself “Ultra High End Dealer”. He would not talk to you unless you promise to spend at least 5 Gs (plus cables) and his knowledge of electronics is pretty much limited to the names of the owners of high end companies. It was very interesting listening to his story about great owner-designer of one British company named after him, while I personally know the guy who designed pretty much everything that came out of that place in the last ten years. He finally left the place. But just try to ask this dealer’s opinion about something – he would immediately tell you that he knows exactly what you need and he has it right here, or at least can special-order it for you… well, for extra 150 bucks, but what is 150 when you are spending 5 thousand? When I came to him with my turntable problems, he proudly showed me his latest arrival. That thing had tonearm by major manufacturer specially built (actually, “specially” in this case meant covered with 24 Karat gold), cheapo AC motor, chrome-covered platter, all for mere price of well equipped Nissan Centra. Oh, and did I mention that the plinth is an individually picked stone slab? Of course then I needed to replace my equipment rack, buy external power supply and probably run a separate line from my local power company. Same old story… I was tired, frustrated and little angry with myself. The solution was always there, right in front of me, but I was too blind to see it. I made a quick phone call and three days later a box was sitting on my porch. It was brand spanking new Technics SL-1210MK2…

Editors Note: --In case this conlcusion seem contradictory, go back and read the second paragraph.--

Maybe later I will tell you what I did to it to improve on this simple and already very capable design, but this is a completely different story… Now I listen to my records every day, I change the speed to any one I want and I don’t need to hear anyone’s opinion on how bad direct drive sounds. This time the only one I listen to is myself. And maybe also my wife. Well, maybe also my son. He is 13. You know – the “MP3 generation”? He asked me few days ago – “Dad, can I have table like yours for Christmas?” In my world it is too much for a Christmas present, but this time I think I’ll make an exception. In conclusion, when comparing tables from "High End" manufacturers with 1200 one has to understand the difference in production cost. If 1200 was built in one of these tiny places it would cost thousands. But even without taking price into concideration - I would put my modified MK2 against anything below 5-6 thousand, maybe even more. After my DIY project I was left with plenty of parts for three tables, so I built mine different from Kevin, with more radical approach to power (I removed all original power supply components) and replacing tonearm with RB600. Also, I got rid of pitch slider and strobe LEDs.

For the less adverturesome, all upgrades are available from KAB. So you can grow your 1200 at any rate you desire upto worldclass KAB Audiophile Standard. This story was originally posted on audiogon.com in the analog discussion pages.