Sunday, June 01, 2014

Memories of Sony PS-X5 Direct Drive Turntable

In January, 2009, I purchased not one, but two, Sony direct drive turntables.  My main goal was, of course, the PS-X75 Biotracer, "The Battleship," which I scored from Ebay for $300.  But I had a second deck that I had my eyes on, and when the dust was settled, I paid $100 for a Sony PS-X5 deck.  As fortune would have it, this is the deck that arrived at my apartment first.

I snapped these photos the evening I received the package.  I was thrilled to have this exciting new toy to play.  The Sony's size immediately jumped out at me;  next to my decked-out Pro-Ject Debut III (my turntable throughout 2008), the PS-X5 was as large as a tank, heavy and metallic and shiny.  This was a marvel of an ancient relic, from an age when the world's greatest Japanese engineers spent millions to build the perfect record players.  My humble Pro-Ject Debut was just swallowed whole.

As a mid-fi turntable, the PS-X5 was, and remains, a solid deck.  It launched Sony's vaunted "X" series, introducing a number of key features, including a BSL (brushless-slotless) motor, Quartz Lock/Magnedisc, a non-resonant frame design called SBMC (Sony Bulk Mould Compound), and gel-filled feet designed to block outside resonances.  Sony's PS-X6 model would replace the mechanical buttons and gears with touch-sensitive electronics, and the PS-X7 introduced a carbon-fiber tonearm.  All in all, a very impressive design from Sony's most creatively fertile years.

The Quartz/Magnedisc system is especially impressive.  The quartz lock became the new standard for direct drive turntables in the late 1970, with greater speed stability than the older servo designs.  The magnetic strip under the platter is by a magnetic head, monitoring the speed, telling the computer to make necessary adjustments.  Sony's engineers were so obsessive, they even aimed to compensate for stylus drag with this system.

Unfortunately, there are a few negatives against this deck.  The PS-X5 I purchased arrived with a broken automatic play system, refusing to even play records until I manually disabled everything by removing a gear from the tonearm mechanism.  This is a very common problem with this series of decks, owing to plastic parts that have decayed over time.  In addition, I was never very fond of the tonearm, certainly when compared to the later PS-X50/60/70 series and the Biotracers.  But I treated mine terribly, either by attempting any number of silly "hacks" (damping the tonearm), or mismatching with the wrong headshell or cartridge.  If you find one of these turntables, be very careful not to lose the original Sony headshell.

This is an important lesson that all turntable junkies must learn: you will always have maintenance issues with vintage decks.  I can personally testify that every classic deck I bought has required repair work, usually minor, but sometimes more serious.  This is true for any consumer electronics over 30 years old.

The sound of the PS-X5 is highly impressive.  Compared to the Pro-Ject Debut III, there was far greater bite and growl from the music, greater detail and resolution.  Bass and drums are punchy and clear, as one would expect from a quartz lock deck.  The slim BSL motor doesn't appear to suffer as badly as other direct drive turntables from the dreaded "cogging effect," which can give a harder edge to your music.  I think the only limitations come from the standard-issue 1970s aluminum tonearm; again, compared to my Pro-Ject Debut, there's really no contest.  The Sony stomps it flat.

Using a Denon DL-160, I was surprised to hear the cartridge "open up" in a way never heard on the Pro-Ject.  The sound became more spacious, more clear, as though it finally had room to stretch its legs and breathe.  But it also seemed to lose a little color, a little of that warm, romantic sound coming from the fully decked-out Debut (Speed Box II, acrylic platter).

I think the Biotracer deck spoiled me.  A few days after the PS-X5 arrived in the mail, the PS-X75 Biotracer Battleship appeared in a very large box.  Angels descended from high with a Robert Ludwig press of Led Zeppelin II, and that was the end of that debate.  And thus entered the greatest turntable I have ever owned...for four months.  Oy, let's not revisit that tragic loss, shall we?

The PS-X5 stayed with me for four years, my constant tinkering and attempts to "improve" the sound usually making things worse.  I never could get the automatic functions to work properly, and there was an issue with flickering lights that I couldn't solve (turns out the cause was worn capacitors).  Eventually, I broke the anti-skate and knocked the tonearm loose from the chassis.  Oops.  By that point, in Spring of 2012, I was deeply frustrated with my budget-minded stereo system, which was nowhere near as good as what I had in 2008 and 2009.  And so, I ended up selling or junking the entire stereo system, saving only my Marantz 2235b stereo receiver, and began the slow process of rebuilding.

So that's my story of the Sony PS-X5.  On a 1-10 scale, this deck rates a solid 7, maybe an 8.  This depends on whether everything is working properly and whether you can fix what's broken.  But, again, that's true of all vintage hi-fi gear.  If you see one, check it out, but move fast!  Sony turntables are becoming more expensive, and more rare, on Ebay these days.  Supply and Demand, kids.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Sony PS-X75 Biotracer Plays The Who

Well, if I am going to dust off Daniel Thomas Vol 4 and get back into a publishing routine, I will have to write a lot more about music and hi-fi audio.  What better time to listen to my favorite turntable, the mighty Sony PS-X75 Biotracer battleship?

My own hi-fi journey often feels like Billy from Family Circus: a lot of meandering and jumping around the neighborhood, only to wind up at the house across the street.  Back in 2009, I had a spectacular stereo system: Sony PS-X75 Biotracer, Dynavector 10x5 phono cartridge, Pro-Ject Tube Box II with a pair of Mullard 12AX7's.  In less than six months, it was all gone, and I've lamented the loss ever since.  You would think that I would have saved my pennies to rebuild that classic system...but, ohhh nooo.  I've spent years with varying budget turntables, cartridges and phono stages.  It's been a fun journey of learning and discovery, but I'm still sorely missing the days when my music rattled the windows.

Thankfully, I have a Biotracer deck back in my hands, the smaller and more svelte 1981-84 PS-X600.  But I have a tube phono preamp that's nowhere as richly musical as the Pro-Ject Tube Box.  But I'm working to solve that problem right now.  Hopefully, before the end of the year, I can score that Dynavector cart and be back in the promised land.  Maybe...the key difference between 2014 and 2009 is that I'm now married.  "Spare Money" has become a fleeting illusion to me now.

Anyway, enjoy this video of Who's Next.  This LP only really came alive on the PS-X75.  It's a spectacular example of what makes spinning records so much fun.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Project Y - A New Sega Genesis Brawler!

As a dedicated Sega fanboy, I am thrilled and delighted to see video games for my beloved systems continue to arrive all these years later.  The Sega Dreamcast gets most of the attention, but a few indie titles have also appeared on the Sega Genesis.  Project Y (tentatively titled) is the latest and greatest to appear.

Project Y is a classic side-scrolling brawler, features some amazingly detailed and colorful 16-bit graphics, and appears to take many cues from the Streets of Rage series, including adapting SoR3 character sprites, a move which has generated controversy among online circles.  I personally don't have a problem with this; since Project Y's graphics have been so heavily reworked; adapting an existing graphics engine is an affordable way for indie programmers to develop software titles for the Genesis, without all the heavy investments in programming from the ground up.  We forget, all too foolishly, that these indie video games are a labor of love, made with next to no money, and barely earn enough money to pay for the raw materials.  If this title sells 1,000 copies, that would be considered a blockbuster smash hit.

I have my "High Definition Graphics" Model 1 Sega Genesis connected to the Sony Trinitron, and I'm ready to rock.  Today's video game industry is melting down, crumbling into extinction under the weight of sheer incompetence.  You can keep your reruns and franchise sequels that were burned out 15 years ago.  I want something new.  I want real video games again!  And I'll be first in line to grab a cartridge copy of Project Y whenever it is completed.

Let's keep our fingers crossed and hope this beat-em-up is completed and released to the public.