For those who have been following along, I have selected a turntable for my vintage stereo project. I mentioned previously that in my original system, I had a Pioneer PL-516, and that I had really wished I could have afforded at least a PL-518. Even better would have been the PL-530.
The PL-530 was a direct drive, two-speed, fully automatic turntable. It featured separate pitch adjustments for 33 1/3 rpm and 45 rpm, and you could also choose between 7″, 10″, and 12″ record sizes.
The PL-530 was fairly unique in that it used two motors — one for the turntable drive, and a second to handle the automatic cueing and return functions. The idea was to eliminate speed imperfections caused by using the main motor to also operation the gearing for the tone-arm movement.
As with other things, I could never afford one of these, nor could I afford the semi-automatic, dual-motored PL-520, nor even the single-motored, direct-drive PL-518. So, there you have that. Now, of course, these gems are nearly impossible to find in any condition. Those that are out there are still expensive.
One interesting bit of ’70s hi-fi history is the link between Pioneer and Radio Shack. Radio Shack, at that time, would never sell anything other than their own Realistic brand of stereo components. But, they never hesitated when it came to contracting other companies to build things for them (for example, the Moog-built ConcertMate MG-1), and for a number of years, Radio Shack’s better stereo gear was built or designed by none other than Pioneer. I remember looking down inside the vents of many Realistic receivers when I was young, and seeing the Pioneer name and logo printed right on the circuit boards or other parts!
In 1981, Radio Shack introduced the LAB-420 automatic turntable, which appears to have been inspired, in part at least, by the Pioneer PL-530. It shares many of the same features — 2-speed direct-drive, dual pitch controls, three record sizes, etc. — but not, apparently, the dual motors. A more traditional “power take-off” to actuate the automatic start, repeat, and return functions. Reviews at the time were favorable, and remain so to this day. And wouldn’t you know it: Jim (remember Jim?) had one available at a very reasonable price. So I bought it.
This particular example, like the SX-450, has a few cosmetic blemishes (mostly, the wood-grain laminate is peeling around the lower edges), and it’s missing the dust cover and hinges (something I’ve always removed and stored away), but otherwise it functions reasonably well. All I needed to add was a new cartridge and head shell.
Back in the day, as we say, I used Pickering cartridges and styli pretty much exclusively, because they offered very good sound at a reasonable price. Interestingly, while they’re still made in the USA (and have been for 70 years!), the only places that seem to sell them any more are in Europe — they don’t even have a US web site that I can find. And, they’re no longer particularly affordable.
No matter, I’d always wanted a Grado or Ortofon cartridge. A little research turned up that Grado have basically been making the very same cartridges they did in 1979, which only incremental improvements to the designs. Now, as then, their lower-priced models receive decent reviews, and all of the reviews indicate that they can take months to “break in” and sound their best.
Ortofon, on the other hand, have not be resting on their laurels. While updated versions of the same old models are available, they’ve also released completely new lines, and based on the range of music I like to listen to, it seems that one of their newer models would be my best choice. So I ordered the 2M Red MM Cartridge, along with an appropriate head shell, from Turntable Lab in Brooklyn, New York.
Some of you who know me well may remember my affinity for the Dual 1219 turntable with a Pickering V15 cartridge, and may be wondering why I didn’t opt for one of those. I did consider another 1219, but ultimately decided that I wanted a direct drive turntable, and that I didn’t want a changer. I also didn’t want the maintenance headache that all the mechanics in the Dual turntables entail. Don’t get me wrong — they’re brilliantly designed, but when they do break down, they’re a major pain to rebuild. At one point when I was still using a 1219, I had one working and two more for parts.
At this point, I’m more interested in listening to music as opposed to tinkering with mechanics. In other words, I want something that simply works.
So, what was the first album I played? Well, it certainly wasn’t Dead or Alive’s You Spin Me ‘Round, that’s for sure! No, I chose my original release of Boston’s self-titled debut album from 1976 — one of the first albums I bought after buying my first turntable, and one of my all-time favorites. Unfortunately, as I mentioned the other day, when I went to pull the album off the shelf, I discovered that it, along with several other rare or important records, were missing from my collection.
The package of records actually arrived the day before yesterday, and the package with cartridge, yesterday. So last night, despite my having a searing migraine and feeling rather ill, I installed the cartridge and set up the turntable.. I balanced the tone arm, and then chose a tracking force of 1.25 grams, towards the low end of the recommended range. I placed the record on the turntable, clicked the lever to the start position and watched as the tone arm lifted, moved over the lead-in groove, and lowered the needle. Nice.
Unfortunately, the record didn’t sound as nice as it looked! In fact, along about halfway through Peace of Mind, there was a horrible skip, and then it launched into a jump-and-repeat routine. “So much for that ‘Very Good +’ condition rating,” I thought to myself as I got up and stopped the record. I decided to not even listen to the rest of the album, and moved on to my old copy of Rush’s 2112.
2112 started out well, and played decently until somewhere in The Temples of Syrinx, when Neil’s drumming literally kicked the needle out of the groove! “Hmmm. I guess 1.25 grams tracking force is a little too light!” I consulted the guide for the cartridge, and decided to try a setting of about 1.8 grams, and try again.
That setting change corrected the skipping problem, and markedly improved the sonic quality overall. I decided to try the Boston album again, and while still not a “VG+” across the whole record, the listening experience was still quite enjoyable. It certainly brought back fond memories! And that, my friends, is what this particular venture is all about.