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Turntables - Notable Historical Products

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The following section is a listing—by no means complete or comprehensive—of some of the best-selling and most important turntable products since 1960. 

Garrard RC-88 Changer

The Garrard RC-88, dating from around 1960, was representative of the early turntables that provided a transition from the mono era of the late 1950’s to stereo in the 1960’s. A ruggedly-built idler-wheel changer, the RC-88 and its ilk populated the majority of component stereo systems in the earliest days of stereo.

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Garrard RC-88 Idler Wheel Changer

AR Turntable Belt-Drive Manual

Arguably the first “audiophile” turntable (introduced around 1962), the AR Turntable’s operational/mechanical simplicity was combined with superb basic turntable performance and an amazingly low price. Its suspended sub-chassis design—in which the platter and tonearm were independently suspended from the main base of the unit—gave the AR Turntable an astonishing freedom from vibration-induced “skipping.” Early magazine ads showed the AR Turntable’s base being struck with a hammer, while the record continued to play uninterrupted.

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Early AR Turntable ad showing hammer

It added up to a legendary bestseller, deservedly so. Later incarnations added niceties like cueing control and better tonearms, but the basic virtues of great performance and outstanding value were a constant throughout its decades-long market life. A Hall-of-Fame product, to be sure.

Dual Changers 1009, 1010, 1215, 18, 19

The German-made Duals were probably the best of the mass-market idler-wheel changers in the mid-60’s through early 70’s. Along with good basic turntable performance (low rumble and wow & flutter, solid speed accuracy) and good reliability, the Duals—especially the 12xx series—had by far the best tonearms of the mass-market turntables. Straight, low-mass designs with double-gimbaled suspensions and gravity-independent coil-spring tracking force application, the Duals could accommodate the very best, most compliant, highest-performing cartridges available. A good Dual with a top cartridge made for a superb record-playing system at a very reasonable price. 

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Dual 1219 Idler Wheel Changer 

Miracord 50H MkII Changer

Dual’s biggest German changer competitor during the 60’s-70’s timeframe, the Miracords couldn’t match the Dual’s tonearm performance but the Miracords set the standard for simple, smooth, operation in the classic exact Germanic manner. With the tactilely-satisfying click of one-button actuation choosing both ‘play’ and record-size at the same time, the Miracords exuded class and precision. The top-of-the-line 50H Mk II even had a disc brake (!) on the platter that brought it to a smooth stop at the end of play, accompanied by a reassuring “swishhhhh” sound as the brake engaged. The entire turntable seemed like a precision surgical instrument.

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Miracord 50H MkII Idler Wheel Changer 

Linn Sondek LP12 Belt-Drive Manual

Linn’s fabulously-successful LP12 is a true audio classic. A simple manual turntable in the mold of the AR Turntable, the Linn had a superior tonearm and more sophisticated looks, at a slightly higher price than the AR. The Linn had a similar suspended sub-chassis design for superb isolation, and it quickly became a cult favorite due to its ability to be easily modified and upgraded with custom parts and tonearms. The LP12 has remained a favorite of vinyl enthusiasts for several decades.

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Linn Sondek LP12

Thorens TD 125 Belt-Drive Manual

This was the Swiss-German firm’s step-up from their TD 150, which was a competitor to the LP12. Adding such refinements as electronic speed control, an excellent factory-supplied tonearm and a beefier chassis for improved feedback resistance (although still using an isolated sub-chassis design), the belt-drive TD 125 was one of the most highly-regarded turntables of its day. One of its most popular attributes was the ability to order it with a blank tonearm plate and fit it with the tonearm of your choice. Its superb construction and clean, modern looks give the TD 125 a timeless quality, one that holds up quite well even today. 

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Thorens TD 125 w SME tonearm

SME 3009 Tonearm

By far the most popular and well-known separately-available tonearm for “component” turntables, the SME 3009 was in production in various guises from 1959 through 2004, a truly remarkable run, unmatched by virtually any other product in audio history.

It was always representative of the best tonearm performance available. Its “hanging weight” anti-skating device was incredibly visually-distinctive, and it imparted a sense of sophistication and mystery to non-audiophiles (“Ooooo…I don’t understand what that is, but it must be good!”) that surpassed virtually any component in the Hi-Fi realm

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SME 3009 tonearm

Pioneer PL-12D Belt-Drive Manual

The PL-12D was not a high-end turntable. It heralded in no new era in vinyl reproduction. It was not a performance leader, nor did it introduce any notable technology or innovative features to the record-playing universe. What it did do was sell. In huge numbers. Unlike the AR turntable, which was truly manual, requiring a steady hand as the user placed the tonearm down on the record and lifted it at the end, the PL-12D had a cueing control so that no hand placement of the tonearm was required.

As such, it was the perfect college-kid turntable for the 1970’s. You could find the PL-12D in countless smoke-filled college dorm rooms (don’t ask what kind of smoke!), in systems with Sherwood, Pioneer and Kenwood receivers, driving Large Advents or EPI 100’s or AR-2ax’s as they cranked out The Allman Brothers, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Santana at high volume on campuses from coast to coast. Reliable, decent-performing and extremely affordable, it was the ideal college ‘table.

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Pioneer PL-12D

Technics 1200 Direct-Drive Single-Play Automatic

As previously detailed, the Technics 1200 started the era of the direct-drive turntable and so the 1200 takes its justly-deserved place in the turntable all-star lineup. A spirited rivalry developed in the mid-70’s when Dual came out with its higher-end automatic belt-drive single play units like the 701 and 721. The Duals clearly had slightly superior tonearms, but the Technics units had the panache of the new direct-drive technology. Various manufacturers lined up behind belt or direct and both systems co-existed the whole time, as they continue to do today.

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Technics 1200 direct-drive turntable

Cartridges

No discussion of turntables would be complete without a commensurate mention of cartridges, since the buggy without the horse is of no use whatsoever. What follows is a 20,000-ft view of some of the more popular cartridges that accompanied many of the turntables we’ve talked about here. Again, this is nowhere near a comprehensive list, merely a quick look at some of the more prominent players. Perhaps we’ll delve into this a greater length in the future.

Shure V15 Series (Type II Improved through Type V MR)

The biggest-selling cartridge brand, Shure’s top-of-the-line V15 series was the reference standard for cartridges for many people all throughout the 1970’s. They became known for their ability to track “hotly-recorded” records with very low distortion, to the point that Shure even invented a new specification called “Trackability” to show how high a recorded level their cartridges could successfully negotiate without mistracking.

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Shure V15 Type III

Stanton 681 EE/EEE

Shure’s big competitor during the 1970’s timeframe, many customers and critics felt that the Stantons were more musical than the Shures and Stanton also enjoyed great success and very strong sales and were immediately recognizable by their “dust brush” fitting in front of the stylus.

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Stanton 681 Series

Pickering XV15 Series

Pickering sort of rounded out the “Big Three” of cartridge brands from the 60’s and 70’s. They were known as detailed-sounding units with a reputation for a slightly peaky, exaggerated high end.  (Walter Stanton originally worked for Norman Pickering before leaving and founding Stanton Magnetics in 1946.) Like the Stanton 681, the Pickerings also had the “dust brush” appendage in front of the stylus.

 

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Pickering XV15 Ad from 1960’s

Ortofon Moving Coil Cartridges

As we know, the back end of the stylus cantilever in a conventional magnetic cartridge is free-moving. As the diamond stylus moves back and forth in the record groove, the back end of the stylus is also moving freely. Imagine you’re holding a pencil between your thumb and forefinger. (Go ahead—pick up a pencil and hold it in the middle.) As you move the pointed end of the pencil (the diamond stylus in the record groove), the eraser end moves correspondingly. A magnetic cartridge works like that.

However, a magnetic cartridge doesn’t have an eraser on the back end like a pencil. It has a little magnet. The inside of the cartridge body has small wire coils. As the stylus moves, the magnet moves closer to and farther away from those coils. When a magnet is moved in relational proximity to a coil, an electrical signal is generated. (That’s why it’s called a magnetic or moving magnet cartridge.) This starts the signal playback process—the signal goes through the turntable’s wiring, into the music system’s phono pre-amp (where the RIAA phono equalization is applied), then to the pre-amp (where gain [“volume’], bass and treble, etc. are applied), then to the power amp and out to the speakers.

But…remember that analogy we used before about a 5-lb. brick being held close to your body and what it feels like when you extend your arm and try to hold that same 5-lb. brick?

That’s the thought behind a moving-coil vs. a moving magnet cartridge. A magnet at the end of that cantilever is like holding a brick with your arm extended. It really increases the effective mass of the stylus cantilever, which adversely affects the stylus’ ability to track the record groove accurately. Why not reverse the arrangement of the magnet and the coils?  Put the lightweight coil on the end of the cantilever and fix the heavy magnets inside the cartridge body. That’ll really reduce the effective mass of the cantilever and thus greatly increase the ability of the diamond stylus to dance on light, precise toes around the intricate grooves of the record.

That’s the rationale of the design of a moving-coil cartridge. The problem with moving coils is that their output voltage is very low, much lower than a moving magnet cartridge. In fact, a moving coil cartridge requires a pre pre-amp, an additional circuit just to step the voltage up to the level that the regular phono pre-amp will recognize. That’s the big drawback—few pre-amps had the moving-coil pre-pre-amp built in, and so the user would have to get a small outboard pre-pre-amp circuit, at additional expense, and with the possibility of the cascading circuits adding noise and distortion. It was a hassle and just not worth it to most people.

Ortofon offered both moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges and both types earned considerable praise for their sophisticated performance. But properly set up, supporters of the moving-coil approach swear that no other phono cartridge sounds as lifelike, transparent and three-dimensional.

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Ortofon moving coil cartridge

Conclusion

So, there you have it—an overview of the basic turntable types with an historical chronology, some operational details, a look at a few of the more famous models through the years and a brief look at some of the cartridges that went with them.

Tell us what you remember from those good old days and what your favorites were—and still are!

Vinyl vs CD: Which Sounds Better?

Are you in the digital or analog camp for best audio playback? Check out our YouTube video discussion on this still controversial topic that always seems to generate a lively and often heated discussion. Can't we all just get along?!?

 

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