Saturday, December 20, 2008

Realistic LAB-420 Turntable

It's another weekend of analog music fun over here at the apartment! A couple nights ago, I picked up a vintage turntable from the local record store, Roadrunner Records. I'm getting it for my Dad as a Christmas present. The table is a 1979 Realistic LAB-420, a fully automatic direct drive turntable. This table was made in the US and sold by Radio Shack, and is highly regarded as a classic. I paid $125 for the unit, which is a steal for anything in high-end audio, and thankfully everything works perfectly.

I took the table home and cleaned it out as best I could, even giving the wood a solid waxing. Then last night, the fine crew at Needle Doctor gave me a terrific deal on a new phono cartridge and headshell. For $150, I received a Technics headshell (in black), and the vaunted Audio Technica 440mla Moving Magnet cartridge.

I took everything home and started to play some albums. The sound, unfortunately, seems to be off. There was far too much bass, the sound was too muffled and heavy, and for the life of me I couldn't discover the cause. Was this just because the turntable is old? Is it because it's a direct drive? Is it because the cart needs time to break in?

After some time, I finally discovered what the problem with the sound is, and it's one of those stupid rookie mistakes: my Pro-Ject Tube Box II preamp was set to "MC" mode! D'oh! I had completely forgotten about that. The "MC" (Moving Coil) setting has a gain of 60db, while the "MM" (Moving Magnet) has a gain of 40 db. I clicked the button to the correct setting, and instantly everything was transformed.

Now I'm having the fun experience of having to completely rethink everything. I was never too keen on direct drive tables, but that's because the only one's I ever met were very cheap plastic tables, the kind you see at rummage sales for $10. Oh, and those uber-cheap turntables you see stocked at Best Buy for $150, all plastic parts. Ugh. Strangely enough, all of the local record stores have the flimsiest turntables. What's the deal with that? You'd think they'd use a decent model and help promote their product.

Anyway, the Realistic Lab-420 is my first immersion into direct drives, probably since those cheap '80s stereos (again with the plastic, oy). And I'm completely blown away. This really is a fantastic table, and it's going to be very hard for me to give it away on Christmas.

The 440mla is stunning, fantastic, clear, sharp, detailed, tracks perfectly...yadda yadda. Needle Doctor gave me a great deal. They had the cart already mounted onto a Technics headshell, and they sold the package to me for $150. Once again, the Needle Doctor crew delivers! Now if we could only get them into a bigger store....

Right now, I have my Pro-Ject Debut III alongside the Lab-420. This way I can spend a few days testing one against the other. It's here that I wish I had a preamp with more sockets (the Tube Box only has one pair). So far, it's been illuminating and a bit humbling.

The short, short version is that the Lab-420 kicks ***. The Debut III is pretty much even, maybe even very slightly ahead. But this is due to three crucial upgrades: 1) the Speed Box II, 2) the acrylic platter, and 3) the Denon DL-160 cart. With all these weapons, it's an equal race. I strongly suspect the only difference at this point is the difference between the carts. The DL-160 has more muscle and is super-smooth, while the 440mla has the clarity and crispness. Perhaps I should try switching carts for a full comparison, but I'm still inexperienced in changing carts.

And this is with a fully decked-out Debut III. The stock unit - no Speed Box, steel platter, Ortofon OM5E cart - would just get steamrolled. No contest. The Lab-420 would just kick its ***. That's the humbling part for me. I paid $125 for the Lab, the Debut much more so.

The Lab-420 still delivers the better bass, richer and fuller. My Debut performs brilliantly, but that's really the Denon doing all the work. The 440mla is a strong contender, though, and even if it's a dryer sound, everything is so detailed and sharp that pretty soon I'm singing along to Neil Young just the same.

Then there's style. On that front, no contest, Realistic wins hands down. It's a fantastic looking machine. I miss the days when stereo components were made of wood. The tonearm is sleek and shiny, the platter is unbelievably smooth, everything carries size, gravity, presence. The turntable just screams, "American Made." Remember when America actually made things? The good old days when we had a manufacturing base? Now everything has been sold off and shipped overseas, there's nothing left but strip malls and fast food joints, and - hey, lookit that! - the whole nation is crumbling into dust.

I wouldn't expect America to solve all her problems if we went back to making killer turntables like the Lab again. But it sure would help. Not to disrespect or put down the Pro-Ject guys. They make killer turntables. But it's a very European design. Realistics are very much American design.

Oh, well, forgive me for rambling. The best thing to come from this experience is that my mind is open to direct drive tables. If this is what the DJ scene raves about with their Technics, then I believe them. I don't know how the Lab-420, or the Technics 1200, would compare to a $1,000 belt drive. I would expect the more expensive machines to win out. But it's the fact that you have to spend so much more to win that contest - that's the thing that gets me.

I think if anyone is lucky enough to score one of these vintage tables, they'll have something to cherish for life. Heck, just get a couple more phono carts and headshells (a mono cart would be killer), and you're set for life.

Like I said, I'll have a hard time giving the Lab away for Christmas. But my dad will have a fantastic turntable that will keep him happy for life. And anytime I see another one of these tables, I'll snap them up without hesitation. Everyone should. You can always give them to friends and family, and they'll be able to experience the thrills of analog music.

Anyway...whew. That's my report. Enjoy.


Anonymous said...

If you think the LAB-420 is good you need to find yourself a LAB-400. The only visible differenc is the LAB-420 has the programmable feature and a switch for raising and lowering the tonearm manually rather than a lever on the LAB-400. I have both and I will say the build quality on the LAB-400 is far superior to the LAB-420. I took my LAB-400 in to have a new cartridge installed and the technician told me that I would have to spend $1500 on a new audiophile turntable before I noticed a difference in sound quality. I have had the LAB-400 for 28 years and it works and looks today exactly as it did the day I bought it... I use the LAB-420 in my bedroom system and its very good too.

Butch said...

I also have a LAB 420 that I have had since the late 70's and it still works perfect. I just purchased a replacement stylus from LP Tunes identical to the original , made in Japan.
I agree with your comments
that the US would be better if it still had a manufacturing base. Between government and big business globalization, we have destroyed American business as we once knew it and destroyed what made America great. Glad you found you Dad the turn table.

PM Summer said...

Just a note to this old thread, the Realistic LAB 420 (and 400) was made in Japan, not the USA (look on the back of the turntable). It was made by a company called CEC that OEM's turntables for several companies.

The only performance differences between a 400 and a 420 is that the 420 has a very SLIGHTLY stronger and smoother motor, and offers a needless "multi-play" feature that doesn't get in the way of operation.

Both are very nice decks, as were most of the higher-end Realistic turntables.

Scott said...

I got my LAB-420 for $100, new needle included, from a guy on Craigslist. Mine also includes the beautiful tinted plastic cover on the top, detachable if you want, but it keeps the dust off the record when you're just sitting back.
I've never scratched on mine just because she's almost too pretty to abuse that way, but there's no belt to break and the needles are at a cheap $30 online. Such a deal.

Anonymous said...

I know this is an old thread...however I thought I would add my two cents. Just scored a lab 420 after waiting for an opportunity for a 400 or 420 on Ebay. They're usually snatched up quickly and expensively, however I was watching a 420 with a starting bid of $59. The auction ended without a sale, so I asked the seller to relist for a "Buy now" of $45. I quickly grabbed it and with a Ebay discount credit, the final cost was $30. Alomost like a lottery moment...

Anonymous said...

Those were designed in the U.S. but manufactured in Japan custom to Tandy and radio shack specs. some of the very first ones were made down at Fort Worth they couldn't get the quality they wanted and keep the price reasonable. it`s a shame what happened to radio shack and Lafayette electronics heath kit all those now days Jameco is trying to be a lot like the old radio shack.

Joe said...

I love my Realistic lab 420. Ive never had an issue, and this was purchased new from Radio Shack by my father when i was 9 years old. He has since passed away leaving me with his albums and lab420 to enjoy as we all did as a family when this gem was new. I buy a new vintage album every weekend. Thanks dad!

Ed & Jo Kelley said...

Another comment on your old thread. I've had a LAB-420 for a number of years, probably close to 10. I don't use it a lot, and except for the bad hinge design, it's a very well-made and functional TT. However, back in the winter, I was playing an instrument with an LP and the instrument's tuning (not a tunable instrument) was slightly off from what was recorded on the LP. I decided to tune it using the speed adjust control knob, which hasn't been used in several years because there was no need/speed was accurate and contant. However, after I did this, I could not get the platter to spin at a constant speed again, as shown on the strobe marks, and also by hearing it when playing a record. I did just a little research and found that the pots for the speed adjustments could possibly be fouled. I removed the knobs from the pots, took a can of tuner cleaner with an extension tube and sprayed it down into the pots. I did them individually, and after spraying, put the knob back on and turned it full turns back and forth. They became noticeably easier to turn. After waiting for the spray to dry, I plugged the TT in and fired it up. I am know able to set the speed again and it runs with little variation.

Mark Zizzo said...

I realize that this blog piece is 9 years old now but what the hey,
A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine scored a vintage Pioneer pl 550 in pristine condition of a site similar to Craigs list for a whopping $50, I had been keeping an eye out for him as he wanted to get back in to playing vinyl, and he goes and scores that pioneer, anyways I have been a little envious, So Ive been digging in all the local buy and sell groups. Flea Markets, pawn shops and all four corners of hell trying to find a good vintage turntable, Yesterday I found a Realistic Lab-420 up for sale for $100, physically and cosmetically it is abeautiful deck, I would go so far as to say it equals the beauty of my friends pioneer, Sonically though I wasnt so sure, Back in the heyday Realistic has always seemed to get a bad rap, So As physically attractive as the Realistic Lab-420 is Ive been humming and hawing about whether or not to jump on it,
Ive been reading and watching all I can on the 420 which brought me to this blog, after reading the commentts here YOU all have convinced me on going to at least have a look at it, I'll be going with a hundred dollars in hand with the hope of scoring it for $75...With a new stylus or cart or both I might end up with a half decent deck, I mention that the turntable I have now is a 1977 Yamaha yp 211 which is a nice tt but doesnt hold a candle to my friends pioneer or the 420,
Thanks for helping knocking me off the fence
Mark Zizzo
Paris Ontario Canada

daniel thomas said...

Mark, I think any budget phono cartridge will work nicely with the Lab-420. Audio Technica carts sound really good, and if you can find a 440mla/b, you'll be very happy. I'm also a big fan of Denon DL-110 (despite the price hikes), Ortofon 2M Blue, and vintage Shure.

Much thanks to everyone for taking the time to write and leave comments on this zombie blog. I've decided to dust it off and restart posting, at least for now. Much of the content of this website has been adapted (and massively revised) into several book manuscripts that will be published later this year.