Sunday, December 16, 2012

Realistic LAB-420 - A Few More Photos

Since I'm in a turntable mood this weekend (I'm obsessed with getting a new one), I thought I would share a few more photos of the Realistic LAB-420 I purchased four years ago as a family Christmas present.  At the time, I owned a Pro-Ject Debut III, fully decked out.  This was my first introduction to a quality direct drive turntable, and it just swallowed the Pro-Ject up.

Looking back from the year 2012, I've learned a few things about turntables and 1970s direct drives.  I can easily spot the weaknesses in the 420's design: the plastic rear and base of the tonearm, the lack of quartz lock, the mediocre rumble stats (-65dB, ouch), the mostly empty frame, the overuse of switches.  No matter.  This was a really good sounding table, especially with its Audio Technica 440mla.  Santana's Abraxis sounded awesome, as did The White Stripes' Icky Thump.

And, of course, the wood frame looks terrific.  If I had another one today, I'd definitely give it a coat of varnish.  Add some metal polish for the tonearm and you're ready to rock.

I only had this turntable in my possession for a week (before packaging it and a stack of LPs for dear ol' Dad), but it left a deep impression upon me.  It set me in pursuit of Japanese direct drive turntables, and opened up a world of music that was actually affordable.  I really wish Radio Shack was still selling these things, to be honest.  Pair one with an AT 440mla and a '70s stereo receiver, and you'll be one happy camper.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

JVC QL-A2 Direct Drive Turntable

This is the JVC QL-A2, which sat at the low-end of their successful (and excellent) line of direct drive turntables.  These guys were one of the major players of the day, and their high-end decks rivaled the best.  Heck, even this model is a good turntable.  The cheap plastic frame benefits greatly from 7-10lbs of modeling clay, which adds weight and solidity to that hollow frame.  And look how cool that platter looks with gold spray paint.  I spray painted the sub-platter and feet on my old Pro-Ject Debut III, and enjoyed putting my unique stamp on my toys.

The QL-A2 features a quartz lock motor, easily the table's best quality (-73dB rumble).  The automatic function is also very nice to have, although the buttons are a bit cheap (the MCS 6700 had the best buttons).  The tonearm is standard '70s fare, not too impressive but it gets the job done.  And despite the fact it's a cheap chunk of plastic, the frame does look stylish and cool.  This is a really good looking turntable.

As I've said, the modeling clay mod boosts the QL-A2 up a notch, and there were times where I enjoyed it more than my Sony PS-X5.  I think this table handled internal resonances better, thanks to that box frame and a ton of Gumby clay.  With some quality feet or cones, it would really be impressive.

Sadly, my table suffered problems with the speed control, and started playing at slower speed.  Perhaps some Deoxit over the speed pots might have helped.  In retrospect, I would have taken this table into the shop for a tuneup.  It would have been worth saving.  Then again, perhaps this model was prone to breakdowns and endless hassles, which would mean throwing good money after bad.  Ah, say la vee.

I would recommend any of the QL-A series, and you can find one fairly cheap.  If you can rewire the tonerm, pack the inside frame, and replace the feet, you'll have something really nice.  If you can score one for $50 and everything works, consider yourself very lucky, score a quality budget phono cart, and enjoy your records..

MCS 6603 Direct Drive Turntable

Back in the day, department store chains would re-brand popular electronics goods, offering their own versions of more expensive, name-brand products.  MCS (Modular Component Systems) was JC Penny's house brand for hi-fi audio products, mostly Technics, but occasionally other brands as well.  I've recently shown photos of the MCS 6700, an excellent turntable based on Technics' SL-1900, and it was one of the better models.  Here is one of the lesser models.

The MCS 6603 is a re-badged Technics SL-D2, one of the cheap, low-entry models from the early 1980s.  I picked up this table for $70 or $80, I can't remember exactly how much.  It was nice to play for a while, and it played a mean Led Zeppelin, but it shortly developed a serious problem with the power cutting out.  Unfortunately, my repair skills were sorely lacking at the time, so after numerous attempts to keep the thing running, it was sent to the closets, and then the garbage bin.  Can't win 'em all.

I'm not a fan of Technics' SL-D2, and while the MCS model has a more stylish frame (retaining the motor, electronics, and tonearm), it's still a cheap plastic turntable.  Packing the insides with 8lbs of modeling clay made a great difference, and if you find yourself with a cheap Japanese direct drive with box frame, I highly recommend the mod.  However, nothing could salvage the needlessly thick and heavy sound, or the crummy feet, or the cheap-o tonearm.

One more note: looking at these photos, I remember that I was using a heavy Sumiko headshell, which threw the tonearm resonance way off.  These low-to-medium mass tonearms require light headshells, especially with the Ortofon 2M phono cartridges.  I really don't know what I was thinking when I bought that thing; "heavier" equaled "better" in my mind at the time.  Ah, well, we all learn.

Prices on vintage turntables are rising across the board, and while the MCS 6603 was once a decent $50 buy, now you'll probably be spending a hundred at least.  That puts this table in the same league as much better machines, ones that look and sound much better, and there's really no point in wasting your time on a cheap record player.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Steely Dan "Black Cow" - Analog/Digital Showdown

We haven't had an analog/digital music showdown here on the blog for a while (okay, we've never done it), and I've found a perfect candidate in Steely Dan's "Black Cow," the opening track to their 1977 classic Aja.  This is a terrific album, a rich, warm and jazzy pop sound that perfectly defines the late 1970s for me.  Let's see how it compares on digital (CD/mp3) and analog (vinyl LP).

The analog setup features a Thorens TD-160 belt-drive turntable, one of the true classics of analog audio.  The phono cartridge is the Audio Technica 150MLX, one of the finest moving magnet cartridges ever built.  That object of my desire, the Bellari VP-130 tube phono preamp, in fire engine red, drives the music with a wonderful warm and buttery smooth sound.  Ooh, I really love this stereo system.

The digital version was the best version I could find on YouTube.  I'm not sure if it was ripped from CD or 128bps mp3 file.  It probably wouldn't make too much difference, given YT's heavy video compressions.  But I made sure this version would sound clean and clear.

Which version do you prefer, and why?  Which version pulls you into the music, moves you more deeply?  For me, it's no contest: the analog version wins easily.  The difference is small but noticeable; percussion and bass pumps deeper, there's more groove and swing.  The vocals are more natural, warmer.  The 150MLX and Bellari make an excellent team.  Everything is more musical, and I find myself getting lost in my imagination.

The digital version is certainly very good, as it demonstrates the clarity that CDs are known for.  But doesn't it feel a little reserved, a little cold?  It's not a question of volume or bass levels; I'm just not feeling the music.  While listening, my mind tends to wander and daydream, and the song soon becomes background noise.  I'm sure that if I had the actual CD on my stereo, the experience would be better.  But I can also say the same for the vinyl LP, and that one already has a clear advantage in the YouTube arena.

I think it's too easy to dismiss LPs as old-fashioned, or dismiss CDs as inferior to analog audio.  Most everything is dependent on your stereo equipment, the quality of the LP, the quality of the turntable and phono cartridge, the quality of your CD player.  I still believe that you have to spend $500 before analog defeats digital.  On a cheap USB turntable, the digital version would easily triumph.

So we'll offer this showdown as an example of the analog/digital divide, and where they stand.  As for me, I'm getting desperate to finally rebuild my stereo system.  I want that Bellari and those vacuum tubes!!

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Dave Brubeck Has Died

Sigh, a very sad day as we lose our greatest living jazz musician, and a wonderfully kind and generous human being.  School and work is hereby cancelled for the rest of the day.  I'll be grief-stricken for the rest of the week; Dave Brubeck has always been one of my favorites, right next to Miles and Coltrane.  Now he's gone forever and we'll never hear his wonderful music or see his spirited smiles again.

Here's one of my YouTube recordings from a few years back, of The Dave Brubeck's most popular song, "Take Five," from the 1959 jazz masterpiece, Time Out.  The turntable is a Sony PS-X5, and the Ortofon 2M Blue is the phono cartridge (mounted on a headshell that's slightly too heavy, oops).  That's a great combination, and while the 2M lacks the musical groove and swing of, say, the Denon Dl-110/160, it provides excellent dynamics.  I hope you enjoy it.