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Get what you pay for: Technics SL-1200G vs. Pioneer PLX-500

In the future, an increasing number of hi-fi systems will be powered by a single box: streamer, DAC, phono stage, amplifier. We only have to look at the work of Vinnie Rossie, Bel Canto, Moon by SIMAudio, Peachtree Audio, AURALiC, Micromega and, the most visually striking and fully featured of them all, Devialet, to see an increasing number of super-integrateds coming to market; just add loudspeakers.

To my Devialet Expert 200 – yes, I own it – I have hooked in the suitably future-facing KEF LS50 in their limited edition Racing Red attire – I own these too. At the other end of the chain, augmenting the Devialet’s in-built Air streaming input and DAC, sits a Technics SL-1200G turntable (US$4000/€3500) — it too is mine, all mine.

That trailing G tells us this isn’t an original SL-1200 or one of its many subsequent iterations, discontinued by Technics in 2010, but a new version as re-imagined by the Osaka engineering team for 2016. All new quad layer chassis, all new triple-layer platter, all new core-less direct drive motor and all new aluminium magnesium tonearm. It might look like the SL-1200 of yore but the 2016 G version is a complete rework, designed to maximise sound quality whilst maintaining the SL-1200’s now iconic look and feel. Consequently, this ‘table is aimed at audiophiles more than it is DJs. Catch up here.

From Devialet’s web-based ‘Le Configurateur’, the Expert 200’s inputs, digital and analogue, can be turned off and on and more granular settings applied. For the Zu-modded DL-103r MKII (mine!) – an MC cartridge – already mounted to the Technics SL-1200G’s tonearm, we select Devialet’s pre-configured settings from a drop-down menu.

The final configuration is downloaded to an SD card and inserted into the rear of the Expert 200 and applied to the internal operating system on startup. The Devialet doesn’t so much power on as boot up. Proof, if ever we needed it, that high-end audio is now as much about software as it is hardware.

As such, all analogue inputs are digitised upon entry: PCM at either 96kHz or 192kHz can be selected from within ‘Le Configurateur’. I went with the 96kHz for reasons that will soon become apparent.

Immediately prior to its loudspeaker output, this digital signal is decoded to analogue with Devialet’s ‘Magic Wire’ (TI PCM1792) DAC. The French company understandably like to make a big noise about the shortness of this signal path: 10cm. Purists who would bristle at an ADC → DAC signal path should consider that what we gain from DSP – in Devialet’s case, SAM loudspeaker correction – is far more substantial than anything lost (if at all) to the digital samples.

Perhaps one reason why some purists remain so vehemently opposed to the digitising of their precious analogue signal is resistance to change. For compelling examples of how the positives can outweigh any negatives (should sampling theory be insufficient), we need only look to do DEQX’s range of loudspeaker– and room-correcting processors, KEF’s LS50 Wireless loudspeakers, Audeze’s Sine/iSine headphones, Sony’s MDR-1000X headphones and Devialet’s own Phantom loudspeakers.

For this vinyl playback scenario, an analogue signal’s instant digitisation provides us with an additional tool. One lesser-known feature of the Expert 200 is its bi-directional USB port: an input for connecting a streamer – in my case, the Sonore microRendu – is what we’d expect; but that same USB port is also an output for sending the digital signal to a computer for archiving. In other words, we can capture the Devialet unit’s digital encode of a turntable’s output with a computer. And with ease.

For reviewers, analogue’s digitisation becomes one way to share with readers how a vinyl system might sound in their own system.

Note 1: I didn’t say “turntable”. With a cartridge playing a large role in its audible personality, we must be careful with language: vinyl system = turntable + cartridge. Vinyl fanatics might also subdivide the scene further to factor in alternative tonearms but we’re not going there. At least, not today.

Note 2: playback of a needle-drop requires a DAC and although the deltas are smaller between DACs than between loudspeakers (or rooms!), no two DACs sound alike. I could share a 24bit/96kHz needle-drop for you to compare with its digital equivalent but – would be commenters pay attention – we’re not tackling the digital vs. vinyl debate. At least, not today.

Instead – how about a comparison between a high-end vinyl rig and an entry-level vinyl rig? The Technics / Zu Denon combo heads out the door for ~US$4500. That’s €4000 in Euro-cash.

For an entry-level contender, I called upon a Pioneer retailer for their PLX-500 turntable (€336) that ships with a factory-fitted MM cartridge (of unknown origin), ADC and by-passable phono pre-amplifier. This Pioneer is one of the numerous Chinese ‘Hanpin SL-1200 clones’ arriving in the wake of the original’s 2010 discontinuation. Catch up here and here.

Aesthetically and functionally, the PLX-500 offers much of what made the Technics such a hit with DJs back in the day: direct drive, near instant-stop start, S-bend tonearm, pitch control and robust build quality. However, the Pioneer’s shortfall on mass – 11kg vs the SL-1200G’s 18kg – is one crude indicator of its qualitative shortfall.

Only the most naive of buyers would expect the Pioneer to offer similar levels of engineering to that of the Technics which shows more attention to detailed lavished top to bottom. If affordability sits top of the priority list or an SL-1200-like deck is needed for bedroom bangin’, the Pioneer PLX-500 will suffice.

On sound quality, listened to from an audiophile perspective, it’s (somewhat predictably) an entirely different story. Fresh phono stage settings were applied to Expert 200 via ‘Le Configurateur’, then to SD card and lastly to the Devialet unit itself. The Pioneer’s cartridge remains of unknown origin but the default MM settings are sufficient.

Even when augmented with a yellow Funk Firm Acromat, as was the Technics, the Pioneer sounds comparatively flat, rolled-off in the treble, mushy in the low-end and dynamically cut-off at the knees.

The Pioneer does nothing to counter my (controversial in some quarters) opinion that the vinyl revival isn’t primarily about sound quality. With results like these, from what is likely a better performer than the median average turntable out in the wild, how could it be? Does this therefore suggest that the sound quality heard from vinyl playback at the entry-level is overrated? I think so.

Flipping the comparative dialogue over for a sunny-side up take on events: the Technics + Zu/Denon positively bursts into life with superior clarity, tonality and dynamics.

What’s interesting here isn’t that differences between the two setups exists – that much we expect – but that those differences aren’t subtle. They come across as plain as day via the Devialet/KEF system. So too via Sony’s MDR-1000X where Bluetooth carries the signal from laptop to headphone. Wait – how so?

The Expert 200’s USB output and Audacity were used to record snippets of two songs from the same album at 96kHz, first with the Pioneer and then with the Technics. Normalisation was applied to both. The vinyl used is an original UK pressing/master, recently supplanted on streaming services by a Deluxe Edition. If you have the original CD, by all means have at a comparison. Your findings are your own. Remember: this is about a high-end vinyl rig vs an entry-level vinyl rig.

What we have here are results that seem to transcend the audiophile world’s obsession with securing the final 5% of performance. Here are deltas notably wider than those usually heard between, say, high-end and entry-level digital streamers or high-end and entry-level DACs. Now that’s interesting!

The Technics / Zu combination easily earns its higher price tag. Judged on sound quality alone, I could live with the Technics / Zu setup for the long term. I can’t say the same for the Pioneer.

Don’t just take my word for it. Have a listen for yourself. Download the two 24bit/96kHz files here and vote for your preference here:

Technics + Zu/Denon vs Pioneer: which needle-drop do you prefer?

  • 1-fb.flac (77%, 54 Votes)
  • 2-fb.flac (23%, 16 Votes)

Total Voters: 70

Loading ... Loading ...

The download link will live for a week. So too will the poll.

One final thought: Upgrading the cartridge on the Pioneer would certainly help its cause. However, one wouldn’t realistically run it with a Zu/Denon DL-103r. It remains instructive to hear how the Pioneer sounds for the average user who will more than likely keep the stock cart in place.

For now, see the above observations (and poll) as a vote on €4000 hardware vs. €400 hardware. A follow-up post in which the Zu/Denon cart (or similar) is added to the Pioneer will spill as time allows.

Further information: Technics | Pioneer DJ

Written by John H. Darko

John H. Darko

John is the editor of DAR from which he derives an income from its ad revenues. John is also an occasional contributor to 6moons and AudioStream and currently resides in Berlin, Germany.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
Facebook: DAR

29 Comments

  1. If you think that even the price differences of the turntables aim at different markets, than the whole comparison is senseless in my opinion. And in the case that the objective of the test is the quality of the turntable, than you must compare them with the same cartridge. The plx 1000 and the technics sl 1200 share the same tonearm dimensions. The headshells are easily changeable. I don’t know whether the same applies to the plx 500, you’ve tested. What is the benefit of your trial?

    • It’s almost as if you didn’t read the final two paragraphs. Oh well. Thank you for your comment.

  2. A solid demonstration of the superiority of the Technics. What piqued my curiosity was the Devialet interface for setting loading etc. As someone who runs low output MC cartridges with step up transformers I would be interested in hearing how it handles something like a 0.2mV Ortofon SPU or a LoMC Denon without a head amp or transformer.

  3. After repeated listening’s I think I should like 1 better but I don’t. it wears on me more than 2 does. But in the end I remember why I left vinyl in the 80’s. just can’t stand the surface noise. thanks for jogging my memory:-)

    • Ah, finally an honest answer. So there IS surface noise. There you have it, the reason why 99% of people prefer digital. And one reason not to trust audiophile’s opinions.

      • Surface noise is part of the vinyl deal. It’s generally worse on coloured vinyl and – especially – picture discs (which I avoid for that reason). I don’t mind surface noise as long as it remains randomly dispersed; rotational clicks from surface scratches drive me bonkers!

        • The whole surface noise on picture disc situation was hugely annoying when I couldn’t find a decent “standard” pressing of Tool’s Lateralus. I picked up a decent condition picture disc version, but it didn’t hold a candle to the CD.

        • All well and fine. But I do not understand all the effort that goes into describing minute audible perceptions, differentials between 48kHz and 192kHz, bubbling of 320kbps lossy format, silver cable sound characteristics, etc, etc. And on the other hand we are forgetting to mention the elephant in the room (vinyl surface noise).

      • I think opinions are fine; dogmas are problematic. And the vinyl supremacy (as in: Vinyl is the best. Period.) is a dogma. Vinyl is anything but straightforward, simple or budget friendly: it requires high quality gear, meticulous set-up, good pressings (!!!) which are well taken care of (to the extent that surface noise becomes a minor/non-issue) to do its magic. Yes, these are the terms, no one ever reads….
        So expectations inflate until reality strikes. I’m afraid many are left disappointed and puzzled after purchasing their entry level turntables. And that’s sad actually.

  4. What an interesting experiment. Here are my impressions:

    Listening through my main rig, I prefer a different file than listening via headphones. My main system easily tells the two apart and shows me, which file comes from the high end system and which one from the budget system (plus: through my main system I prefer the high end vinyl sound). Through my headphones and headphone DAC/AMP, I actually prefer the rip from the entry-level turntable.

    Does anyone else have similar thoughts?

  5. The perceived volume according to ReplayGain of 1-fb.flac is 1.59 dB greater than 2-fb.flac. This could skew the results since the louder track tends to be the one preferred.

  6. okay, but how good are the Devialet needle drops vs the vinyl? Can you tell them apart?

    • All we are doing here is siphoning off the digital stream from the Expert 200 before its hits the DAC. We could feed the digital rips back into the Expert 200 via USB and hear them as they would sound going phono-direct. Remember: the phono input signal is digitised upon entry. Very, very difficult to tell native vinyl playback and needle-drops apart.

  7. Utterly useless read. Arrogant answers to people who read your reviews don’t make it better either. Please stop telling people who leave the slightest bit of critique that they don’t read your stuff right. What you are really comparing here is, possibly by >90%, the edge of an already fantastic mc cartridge that has been further enhanced to a budget mm cartridge of “unknown origin”.

    • The point of this investigation was clearly laid out in the article itself and I purposefully gave specific instruction on how it should be read at the end (where the polling takes place). What you are seeing isn’t arrogance but frustration that the reader above didn’t appear to read that explanation at all or even draw a similar message from the broader spirit of the post: one answer to what an entry level table sounds like and what an extra (big) spend will get you in the world of vinyl playback.

      Also in the wrap, I stated that the same cart would be swapped in due course – clearly I am aware that this needs to also be done at some point. Again, the above reader seemed to miss it. The right to criticise my words or methodology comes with the responsibility that it is first read thoroughly.

      As YOU say, “What you are really comparing here is, possibly by >90%, the edge of an already fantastic mc cartridge that has been further enhanced to a budget mm cartridge of “unknown origin”.” Yes – you’re absolutely right on that! We expect a more expensive table and cart will be better than a cheaper one but HOW MUCH better? I provided commentary AND a way for readers to hear for themselves. My finding that this delta was more pronounced that between many DACs I also thought was very interesting.

      As for “utterly useless”? For you, maybe – but other commenters don’t see it that way, especially as this post also purposefully details the flexibility and power user features of the Expert 200 as well providing another data point that shows, in vinyl land, we really DO get what we pay for.

  8. Clearly to my ears the first file is recorded with the better rig. Much better dynamics, pace, and transients and overall lower noise floor. I think some people’s objection to the first file might have to do with the slightly shrill lead guitar which is tamed a little bit with the second rigs dampened dynamics/compression and rolled off top end. Thanks for the comparison, John. That’s fun!

    I must say that the whole digital versus analog argument is a bit tired at this point. I have nice digital and analog rigs and love and enjoy both. What it comes down to at the end of the day is the mastering. Some LPs just are clearly superior in terms mastering compared to their vinyl counterparts (MoFi Steely Dan Aja, Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau’s recent collaboration come to mind), while others vinyl are much weaker that the digital files (basically all Led Zeppelin and White Stripes’ Elephant, ironically). I pick and choose where I see fit. There really is something relaxing to sitting down with a record, though. Although Roon with Tidal has really make digital more fun for me too. So there.

    • I agree – things can get a bit much up top on the first one. There’s a possible reason for that which I’ll cover in the follow-up.

      • Hence my preference for recording #2.Interesting test John.

        I also read your article on Bluetooth speakers just as I was listening to Gomez radio on Pandora over my UE Boom whilst renovating (electrical tools, ear protection, you know the drill) I heard a very enjoyable song by Monophonics; High off your Love. Tonight I finally had a chance to listen to it on the ‘big rig’ (Tidal, Devialet Original d’ Atelier, Dynaudio C1) and must say I enjoyed it much more on the UE Boom. Which leaves me to think that there’s a place for cheap and expensive. Cheap equipment for bad recordings and expensive equipment for good recordings. I’m really not interested in listening to how my big rig is so good at showing up how crap a recording is. I’d rather just enjoy it on the UE Boom.

        P.S. Gomez radio on Pandora; What a great day of discovery! That’s what music is all about.

  9. Very interesting a-b experiment. Thanks for doing it. I have not owned a turntable for @ 35 years (Technics SL-10 + Ortofon MC). Still not tempted to get another 🙂

  10. I did a similar test between an entry level Audio-Technica AT-LP60-USB and a Pro-ject Essential II Digital and the results were just as great as yours. Granted the AT was at 16/44 but the Pro-ject was at 24/96.

  11. Well, that was interesting.

    When I first listened, it sounded like sample 1 was noticeably louder – so I pulled them both into Audition to check. Pulling sample 1 down by 1.4 dB got their average levels lined up better, so that’s how I listened.

    I couldn’t get past how sample 1 had (to my ears) way too much treble energy – it seemed aggressive and I found it unpleasant to listen to. I never really got past that when I compared, so I picked sample 2 as the one I preferred (whether or not it’s the fancy rig).

    • I agree – but that slight excess of treble energy is kinda fundamental to the first track’s fiddle line. Maybe even the master? And also apparently a characteristic of the Denon DL-103r (note the ‘r’). When I repeat this experiment, I’ll use a different record.

  12. Great article. I also find myself living vicariously through your writing. I googled the price of the Devialet 200 . . . nearly $12,000 AUD. Whoa. That’s the kind of dedication I come back for here. You can buy a brand new car for that or most household utility bills for one year. Live the life for us John!

  13. The first file sounded better, however, I am not of fan of the first track either. I think this is more to do with my preference for another cartridge. I really think the Denon sounds thick and slow. I much rather listen to an Audio Technica MC with a Microline stylus running through a SUT.

  14. Hi John – thanks for taking the time to do this interesting experiment. I know Michael Fremer over at Analog Planet has done this sort of thing before and is currently asking if tone arm cables make a difference (https://www.analogplanet.com/content/do-tonearm-cables-make-sonic-difference-you-decide). Now there’s a flame war waiting to happen!

    The interesting thing for me was how difficult a task it was initially to pick the difference between these two recordings, perhaps I have cloth ears, but given your comment in the article “Here are deltas notably wider than those usually heard between, say, high-end and entry-level digital streamers or high-end and entry-level DACs.” I was expecting the differences between the two files to be night and day.

    However I found I needed to do a lot of A/B’ing (I think that’s a term?) between the two files before I felt I could draw a solid conclusion. In the end I preferred the first file as I perceived there to be better separation between the instruments, in particular the mandolin in the first recording is much more obvious to me than in the second.

    Anyway this makes me think that there is definitely an art or perhaps technique to critical listening, you reviewer types do it all the time so I’d be interested in your thoughts. Should we the punters just expect the differences to jump out to us, or do we need to approach a task such as this with a well defined method? Or perhaps the hell with it and just enjoy the recording that our gut tells us we like the best?

  15. Thanks John, for well written and interesting articles on most things audio!
    As have a pretty decent rig and enjoy both vinyl and digital music i though this was a fun experiment. However, as previously pointed out, the levels are skewed in favour of the first track which probably wins a LOT of votes!
    However, I managed to confuse myself by downloading the needledrops from the later article, “Global feedback:” and reading this article! 🙂
    As systems they are easily told apart, however when used with the same cartridge the vinyl spinners are not that obvious. And more importantly, there are a multitude of combinations where some are better and some are worse.
    The DL-103r, while a great cart, needs a turntable and arm where it can pull on its strengths and hide some of its flaws. In a Zu shell this holds even more true as it becomes a pretty heavy unit which affects tone arm resonances and effective mass.
    What all this boils down to is word of caution, there are no absolutes in audio, and most ntably so in vinyl playback!
    Rant over! 🙂

    • Absolutely – if anything, these two posts show that those who speak of “the sound of vinyl” are talking nonsense.

  16. €3500 for Technics SL-1200G is plain MAD!!! That piece of hardware is not worth even a 1/3 of that price. Good luck with reviewing…..won’t even bother to comment on this “test”!

    • ‘Plain mad’ because you know the cost of each part used within the SL-1200G and therefore Technics’ BOM. Or ‘plain mad’ because you personally don’t wish to spend that amount of money on this particular ‘table?

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