The Final Technics SL1200 Modification by Greg Simmons
Build Your Own.
Over the years, I have rebuilt a few turntables. I enjoy the mechanical process and love listening to the product when it’s finished. That’s how the seventy-year-old Rek-O-Kut T12h idler that I use for a monaural rig came to life: I tore it down, every nut and bolt, had a little professional help for the motor rebuild and milling the one-inch-thick brass arm board, and spent a lot of time in the garage building the big red plinth. Though it’s a bit primitive, it is also hands down the most fun piece of audio gear I own. Turning it on is the audiophile equivalent of shifting an old Dodge Power Wagon into first gear, mechanically engaging the motor, idler wheel, and platter. It took the better part of a winter to complete, and it was incredibly satisfying to fire it up and discover that it actually worked! It sounds great, and I still play my monaural records on it regularly. (You can read more about the Rek-O-Kut here)
Fast forward to 2022, and I’ve had this urge to put together a third, permanently installed turntable of more modest origin, specifically as a platform to review less expensive cartridges, phono stages, and the like. There’s a panoply of excellent equipment out there that’s affordable and worth writing about. It seemed like a good project, if substantially less ambitious than the Rek-O-Kut.
And why not just use either of the tables I already have to review this more modest gear? Well, cognizant of reasonable system matching, throwing something like the sixty-nine-dollar Audio-Technica AT-VM95E cartridge (Excellent, by the way) on my Sota would not make a lot of sense. It is unlikely that anyone will install the aforementioned $69 AT on an $8,000 turntable, just as no one is likely to pair a $10,000 set of cables with a $500 receiver.
Whaddya Got Lying Around the House?
For this third spinner, I pressed into service a bunch of stuff I already had lying around the house, much of which was in a poor state of readiness. The basic components included a Technics SL-1200 M3D with a jiggly mess of an arm, an SME 3009 Improved Fixed Headshell tonearm, missing its cartridge leads, and a Tech-12 specific version on the Funk Firm Acromat (the platter mat was working just fine, thanks).
The turntable – once its failing arm had been removed – was in good working order and just needed to be cleaned up and lubricated. The SME arm required a complete rewire for which it was sent to SME Tonearms of Minising, Ontario, Canada (not to be confused with SME Limited of Steyning, West Sussex, England, which still produces turntables and current production SME tonearms). The only new-to-me parts for this project were an SME-style armboard sourced from eBay and a used Soundsmith Otello cartridge found on USAudiomart. The goal was to have all of this bolted together and make music for under $1,000. I expected the arm rebuild to be far and away the lions share the expense.
SME Tonearms of Minising, Ontario – Tonearm Rebuild
Aside from being fifty years old, this SME 3009 Improved Fixed Headshell tonearm had two major issues that needed to be addressed. Most 3009 arms had detachable headshells where the wires were largely protected inside the connection collet. But this model, with a fixed headshell, left the fragile wires permanently exposed and vulnerable to damage. On my arm, two of the wires were completely gone. The arm also still had its original flat bar, four-pin connection on its base, and the original matching detachable tonearm cable, which over time had disintegrated into a sticky mess.
I sent the arm off to Alfred Kayser, owner of SME Tonearms, for a rebuild. The service included a complete nut-and-bolt teardown of the arm which, as a sterling example of old-school British engineering, has a lot of little parts, the antithesis of today’s ‘less is more’ design fashion. The wiring was replaced with Cardas 33awg tonearm wire. More importantly, the lower, gooey connection assembly was eliminated, and replaced with 1.5 meters of the same Cardas wire, now a continuous run between the headshell leads and some rather beefy RCA plugs. Also returned were new rubber grommets for the sliding arm base to ensure a small gap between the base and the armboard. The price of the basic rebuild and rewire is $400, which includes complete disassembly, inspection for spec tolerances, parts washing, and ultrasonic cleaning of everything, as well as the Cardas, rewire, and reassembly. Adding new ceramic pillar bearings, a new anti-skate pulley assembly, and a new armrest brought the total up to $652, plus shipping. When I got it back, the arm looked as though it had just come off the assembly line: spotlessly clean and shiny new. It was a first-rate job.
As for SME Tonearms, Alfred is friendly and knowledgeable. He talked me out of spending the extra money to covert my arm to a detachable collet, insisting that the straight, uninterrupted run of wire was sonically more important (though he also said the conversion is a real pain in the ass to do). He provided extremely detailed instructions for getting the arm through Canadian customs smoothly, which was helpful. Alfred was also good about setting expectations for turnaround. Initially, I was told up to twelve weeks to get the arm back, but the actual return time was only about a month. His communication, both via email and telephone, was excellent. The process was smooth, and the finished product is gorgeous.
One suggestion, though: Do not ask Alfred about the current price of a liter of gasoline in Canada.
The Technics 1200 is a great turntable for a project like this. There are millions of them out there, so they are not difficult to source, although prices have been steadily creeping up. They have exactly one moving mechanical part: the main turntable bearing. The switchgear is robust, the direct-drive speed stability is excellent, and with basic maintenance, they tend to be bullet-proof. There are also plenty of aftermarket suppliers for parts and tweaks.
To install a new armboard on a Tech-12, both the heavy rubber outer and hard-plastic inner bottom covers will have to be removed, as the armboard will now need to be bolted from the top with the nuts under the plinth (Keep good track of all those little screws and their order for re-installation). With the Tech-12’s low profile platter, it is critical that any aftermarket arm sit low enough to properly adjust VTA. To that end, the board needs to be recessed into the top of the plinth, precluding any flush-mount options. The armboard I chose is a two-piece, 3mm thick unit with the appropriate cutout for an SME mount, which gives enough room for vertical adjustment to properly set up the tonearm. While I was performing the installation, I also inserted rubber washers between the armboard and the plinth as an extra measure of mechanical isolation.
With the armboard and the SME’s base installed on the M3D and the bottom covers re-installed, setting up the arm was straightforward enough, if a little more finicky than other arms I have used. I installed the cartridge before putting the arm onto the table, giving me better access to the cartridge leads while the arm was upside down. Also, Alfred includes a ground wire that clips to the bottom of the arm assembly, which I initially did not use but immediately wished I had. Without it, the table hummed like a beehive. Installing the wire required taking the entire table apart again so I could get at the underside of the armboard but doing so did eliminate the hum.
The 3009 has two counterweights, one main weight on the rear of the arm and a smaller one, which is adjusted laterally based on the weight of the cartridge before being used to fine-tune vertical tracking force. The general idea is to under-set the main counterweight, then adjust the smaller weight forward on its reverse direction pole to fine-tune the tracking force. Anti-skate is set with a weight on a string over a pulley on a rod.
SME arms – all of them, to this day – have fixed headshell holes to mount the cartridge. As a result, alignment cannot be adjusted in the headshell. Users are at the mercy of SME’s preferred geometry, with overhang and VTA the only adjustable parameters. To set overhang, the entire arm base slides fore and aft until the cantilever is parallel to one line and perpendicular to another on the supplied little piece of cardboard that fits over the platter spindle. This might get you close to proper alignment – within a few millimeters – but it is not especially accurate because it does not account for the length of either the cartridge or the cantilever. I used my Dr. Feikert’s protractor and found that the supplied paper card left the stylus three to five mm behind the Lofgren and Baerwald hash marks, respectively. I wound up sliding the entire arm forward in its tracks to get the stylus onto the Lofgren mark. This left pivot-to-spindle distance at 212mm. The Baerwald mark would have come closer to the arm’s specified 213mm measurement. The SME geometry seems to fall somewhere between Baerwald and Lofgren.
The headshell has enough roll within the arm wand to adjust azimuth by a degree or two, but it is very primitive. Once adjusted, care must be taken not to jostle the headshell too much, as there’s really no way to lock down the setting. I found myself cuing the arm with the arm tube instead of the finger lift to minimize the chance I would throw off the azimuth. It works, but it also seems like it was an afterthought.
This is my first experience with a 3009. The setup seems finicky, with more mechanical bits to adjust than the Jelco, Audio-Creative, and Karmadon arms on my other tables, but without any discernable benefit from their presence. In general, both the arm itself and maintaining its setup seem a bit fragile.
Bitch, Bitch, Bitch
All of that aside, I have one major complaint about the SME 3009, and this is aimed at whoever designed it in the first place. The SME 3009 has hands down the worst armrest I’ve ever used. It requires two hands to remove the arm from the rest, one to hold the arm and one to release the catch, and the arm then swings to the right, outside the arc of the lift, so if you accidentally let go of it while it’s over that way, the stylus WILL bounce off the surface of the turntable plinth. It seems ridiculous that, although the 3009 had been in production for almost twenty years when this arm was built, no one at SME ever saw fit to fix this. Even simply turning the rest around so the arm would always be over the lift would be an improvement.
The Soundsmith Otello
On paper, the Sounsmith Otello, with its high 22 mm/mN compliance (although this is the medium compliance version. There is also a 28 mm/mN higher compliance version), should be a good match for the 3009’s very low 9.5g effective mass, and that did indeed prove to be the case. In fact, once I had all the bugs worked out – the alignment and re-alignment, the grounding wire, anti-skate, etc. – the sound of this cartridge installed on this arm and table was better than I expected. The Otello is very linear top to bottom, with no emphasis or hot spots within its range. It has a lot of sonic body, good resolution, and, once properly set up, nice, smooth, extended treble. It occasionally got a bit strident on really loud, complex passages, but never for more than a moment.
I recently picked up a record I had not listened to since it was new in 1976: The Electric Light Orchestra, A New World Record. This album should be everything that sucked about music in the nineteen seventies: grandiose, over-produced, syrupy strings, an unfortunate turn by a bad opera singer – the worst musical excesses from the decade of bell bottoms and roller disco. Except this record does not suck. Not a bit. In fact, it’s quite fun to listen to. Even “Telephone Line,” the semi-ballad that I always felt like I was suffering through when I was eight, has weathered pretty well. Yes, as a conceit, it’s way over the top with the Wurlitzer jukebox trimmed spaceship on the cover, but forty-five years later, the music is more compelling than I expected. It’s a lot of fun and hangs together the way any great album should: worth listening to all the way through. If you told me George Harrison had contributed vocals to “Mission,” I would believe it (He didn’t, or at least he’s not credited in the notes). Jeff Lynn wears his Beatles influences around his neck like a cinderblock, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Played through the Otello, the record is punchy and spacious. Jeff Lynn, while not etched in space, is out front. The core group –keys, bass, drums, and guitars – are placed in what might be described as a band-on-stage configuration. The choirs and strings are placed behind and on either side of the band, creating an enormous theatrical soundstage well beyond the boundaries of the speakers. The treble is extended without being shrill, bass is solid, and the mids are lush, lush, lush. When they get to the rocker “Do-Ya,” where Lynn & Co do a pretty good impression of a guitar-driven hard rock band, the riffs are enormous. The solo drum breaks are placed well back into the stage. The Otello rocked this album.
Dipping down to minimalist production values is the recent Analogue Productions reissue of Buddy Holly (no other album title), which was originally issued in 1958 on the old Coral label. This is stripped-down rock and roll: Buddy singing and playing guitar with only drums and double bass (not electric!), and on a few tracks, piano. It is rockabilly, rock, and roll, and it’s just plain terrific.
The Otello/SME/Tech-12 loved this record. The table provides the dead-stable rhythmic bounce while the Otello gives a clear look into the recording. The acoustic double bass is woody and resonant, and the piano has percussive drive. Buddy’s voice is clear with just a bit of added reverb. There is even some stage depth, with the drums recessed, which is not always an easy trick with a monaural recording, especially on affordable gear where wall-of-sound presentations often prevail.
On the whole, the Otello has a lot to offer at its price point. I bought this one used, but I would still consider it a better-than-average value at its full $400 price. It really is a fine-sounding cartridge.
The combination of the Tech-12, the SME arm, and the Soundsmith Otello cartridge makes a fine sonic presentation. The turntable does what Tech-12s always do: spins endlessly with rock-solid direct-drive stability. The 3009 arm is a far superior platform than the stock arm – or at least compared to the beater I removed from this table – and though it has one unnecessarily dangerous operational quirk, it really is a lovely bit of gear, if a little fragile and fussy. The arm’s low mass proved to have great synergy with the high-compliance Otello. In short, everything worked well, it sounds great, and I would consider this build an overall success.
Some Honest Comparisons
I am having a lot of fun with this Franken-turntable. It never misses a beat. BUT… it is still a budget-oriented table, and there are tradeoffs against more expensive equipment. The Tech-12, with its lightweight platter, does not deliver the bass power that I get out of my Sota, and as good as it is – and it is quite good – the Otello cannot pull detail out of a groove the way my Lyra Delos, or even the Audio-Technica AT33Sa moving coils can.
As a result, the Tech-12/SME/Otello combination is a little less successful with classical music, where the subtlety of micro-dynamics and ultimate resolution contribute more to the listening experience. Simple recordings of string quartets fared well, but choirs lost ambiance and individually distinct voice tonality. Large orchestral pieces, like Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony, lost details like the rosined vibrato on bowed strings and got a bit muddy on the loudest passages. The turntable did not sound bad with classical music – it was still highly enjoyable – but it noticeably omitted some of the finer details that I know are on these recordings. The story was similar with acoustic jazz.
Of course, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. The current version of the Sota Star Sapphire, the Audio Creative Groovemaster III, and the Lyra Delos come in at a combined price of over $8,200 before any options. This Tech-12 is a pawnshop table, a fifty-year-old tonearm, and Sounsmith’s entry-level cartridge, and the combination does not embarrass itself in any way. If it were 1979 and this thing was paired with a good Pioneer receiver and some JBL speakers, it would be kicking ass all over the place, and it still sounds good today.
I met all my goals on this build. I now have a more modest turntable that will be an excellent platform for reviewing more affordable pickups and accouterments. I expect the Tech-12 to run forever, and the Otello makes a good starting reference for future comparisons. I also kept this project within my anticipated budget (although it was close): $652 for the arm repairs, $225 for the lightly used cartridge, $80 for the armboard, and about $15 for a variety of nuts, bolts, and washers, at Home Depot. I had several reasons for wanting to use this particular arm (its original owner was an old family friend), but I could have easily used the Jelco 750-DB that I have on a shelf and gotten out for under $400.
Taking turntables apart and putting them back together (and taking them apart and putting them back together again and…) is one of the things I enjoy about this hobby. I am always moderately amazed when I flip the switch on one of these creations, and it actually produces music. When the music sounds as good as it does with this turntable, it’s quite gratifying. I did not build this one expecting it to be a giant killer or to pretend it can compete with state-of-the-art modern turntables, tonearms, and cartridges; it’s not, and it doesn’t. But it does play music with a level of competence that belies its humble origins. These components work well together and sound great. When I started, I could not have asked for anything more, and I got more than expected.
Whoops! I spoke too soon. Remember a few paragraphs ago I was complaining about the hazards of the SME 3009’s armrest? Well, while moving the turntable around to take pictures, I fumbled the arm again, which makes this a good time to mention Soundsmith’s excellent policy on re-tipping a cartridge. Soundsmith advertises that they will charge only 20% of the original purchase price to rebuild any of their own cartridges, though, in the case of the Otello, it is slightly higher at $100 or 25%. I suppose there must be a minimum cost to make it worth doing. Even so, one hundred bucks for a re-tip is very reasonable, especially from the original manufacturer. There are a lot of companies that charge 50% of the original purchase price for the same service, making Soundsmith’s policy the best in the business that I know of. At some future date, I will let you know how it all works out.
Soundsmith Otello Phono Cartridge
Type: Fixed Coil Moving Iron
Stylus: Elliptical Titanium Bonded, 0.20 mm round
Cantilever: Aluminum Alloy
Compliance: 22 mm/mN
Frequency Response:20-20,000 Hz ± 2.5 dB
Channel Separation: > 24 dB
Output: 2.12 mV
Recommended Load Resistance: ≥ 47kΩ
Technics 1200 M3G Turntable
There is much information about this turntable and all of the Tech-12’s variants on the Web.
SME 3009 Improved Fixed Headshell Tonearm
There is almost as much information about this arm on the Web as there is about the Tech-12—no point in reinventing the wheel.
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