Sunday, June 01, 2014
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.