Is it worth upgrading the new Technics SL-1200GR turntable?

by | Feb 27, 2020

Technics SL-1200 turntables have had a thriving upgrade scene for years, concentrating on the Mk2 and Mk5 models.  Technics stopped making the Mk2 and Mk5 some years ago, but clearly regretted leaving the turntable market and came back in a couple of years ago with the special edition SL-1200GAE and latterly the SL-1200G and SL-1200GR.  Their return to the turntable market is a great commitment to the ‘vinyl revival’ and probably more significant than the hordes of ‘me too’ decks launched by a whole load of manufacturers in the last few years, some of which are admittedly very good but invariably very expensive.

The Technics SL-1200GAE, G and GR share nothing with the old Mk2 and Mk5 decks apart from the hinged lid.  Many people on audio forums cannot understand that Technics have made some new decks that look pretty much exactly like the old ones, but that they are in fact very different, and technically much, much better: musically better.  Period.  That’s due to a completely different motor design, which now uses overlapping flat-wound coils instead of the old arrangement of separate coils arranged around the magnetic rotor.  This alone is why Technics claim to have eliminated ‘cogging’ which affected the old SL-1200 models.  Incidentally, Technics seem to have, rather belatedly, used the overlapping coils direct drive motor topology that Trio/Kenwood and others used very successfully for decades.

This blog piece is about the SL-1200GR, but what about the SL-1200G and SL-1200GAE?  In short, all of these decks share the same motor topology, but the SL-1200GR has a single magnetic rotor and the SL-1200G/GAE have two, so more torque and an even smoother drive.  The SL-1200G/GAE also have a heavier and dynamically balanced platter, which is very much a Good Thing.  The SL-1200G/GAE have a machined alloy top chassis and a heavy intermediate layer inside – the GR has a cast alloy top plate and no intermediate layer.  Straight out of the box, the SL-1200G/GAE both have a cold drawn magnesium arm tube, and the GR makes do with a simpler aluminium alloy affair (with a plastic base that looks like metal, but is not).  Read all the reviews out there and you soon get the feeling that the stock tonearms are nicely made, good to handle but in no way match the superb motor systems that all these decks have.

Is it worth upgrading any of these new Technics decks, and particularly the cheaper SL-1200GR?  Yes, I think it is worthwhile, and unlike the old SL-1200 Mk2/Mk5 where huge sums of money can easily be sunk into a variety of technically tricky and irreversible modifications that are not reflected in the market value of the deck once modified, all of the useful upgrades to the SL-1200GAE/G and GR are completely reversible, do not involve any circuit modifications, do not require any soldering; and if you’re careful everything can be put back as standard without leaving any evidence of anyone having been inside.  Of course the manufacturer’s warranty is going to be voided, but upgrading is still worthwhile.  Very worthwhile if you can buy a used deck that’s out of warranty.

So, what upgrades would we recommend for the Technics SL-1200GR (also directly applicable to the GAE and G)?  More or less in increasing order of cost, here we go:

  1. Replace the stock mains cable with a screened alternative.  This is because these decks use and internal Switch Mode Power Supply (SMPS) and pretty much all of these chuck out a whole load of HF noise back along the mains cable and then into all your other system components, resulting in a degradation of your system’s musical performance.  There’s nothing wrong with the SMPS as far as powering the deck is concerned, but a lot wrong with its effect on other components.  I should stress that a replacement power cable need not be an expensive ‘audiophile’ cable, just a good quality copper cable that conforms to any relevant standard for wiring of mains components, with an overall screen connected at the mains plug earth .  You don’t need fancy plugs either, so the total cost here is something like £10, which should deliver a more organic, stress-free musical performance from your system.  Even more so if you can plug the deck into a separate mains power outlet from the rest of the system.
  2. Replace the rubber mat.  Every time I try the stock rubber mat with my GR, the sound gets sort of ‘rubbery’ and ‘overdamped’.  I know that many people like the stock mat, and that’s fine.  The only third party mat that I have used and which always works wonders, is the Funk Firm Achromat (the Technics SL-1200 version).  The Achromat works even better if stuck down to the metal platter with a very thin smear of Vaseline, which ensures you can easily remove the Achromat if you wish.  The Achromat brings increased focus and natural detail to the sound – everything just sounds more ‘real’.  We don’t sell the Achromat but it costs £88 here in the UK.
  3. Isolate the Turntable.   This applies to any turntable but it’s definitely worth isolating it from vibrations arising from footfalls etc, but also things that you may not actually feel such as passing traffic, people walking past the house etc.  Turntables are very sensitive vibration measuring devices – if they were not then they would not play records very well, so it’s worth stopping all of this stuff from passing up through the structure of the house and into the deck.  If your house has suspended floors, then try to get the deck off a table/rack sitting on the floor and onto a solid wall shelf.  The stock feet aren’t bad for isolation, but placing the whole deck on a Townshend Seismic Isolation Platform really does yield huge benefits – expect a dramatic lowering of noise and a more natural sound with increased musical precision.
  4. Replace the tonearm.  This is an easier decision with the SL-1200GR since the stock arm is actually rather poor by any standard (the magnesium arm of the GAE and G is better, but still not great).  Anyone who has replaced the arm on the old SL-1200 Mk2/M5 will remember having to cut away part of the rubber base – don’t fret because nothing like that is needed with any of the new SL-1200 models.  In the case of the SL-1200GR, removing the old arm simply involves removing a number of small screws holding the black bottom part of the chassis, lifting that part away, then removing three screws holding in the old tonearm and one earth lead, and the entire arm structure can be lifted away from the top plate.  You’ll then need a suitable replacement armboard to suit your tonearm of choice and we offer our own Ammonite Audio Modular Machined Alloy armboards which are compatible with any SL-1200 model from Mk2 onwards.  Note that the SL-1200GR has a different pattern of armboard mounting bolts and spacers are required to lift the armboard too, so the SL-1200GR version of our armboard takes those requirements into account.   Having got this far, it’s worth saying that even the SL-1200GR has such an outstanding motor unit that it will do justice to some very serious tonearms, and we have used the Glanz MH-94S (£5600), Timestep T-609 (£1450) and the new Jelco TK-850S (£950).  All these arms have performed wonderfully and it’s worth saying that we have customers who have mounted the Jelco TK-850S on the SL-1200G, using our alloy armboard, and report a significant improvement on the stock magnesium arm.
  5. Replace the Internal PSU.  While the stock SMPS is good for powering the deck, and a screened power cable limits its effect on other system components, removing the SMPS entirely and substituting a good linear PSU does make quite a positive difference.  We don’t sell a PSU ourselves, but we can recommend the Timestep HE-V power supply which is thoughtfully designed, easy to install (a completely reversible process that requires no special tools) and the separate PSU box is quite smart looking.  The Timestep HE-V costs £495 in the UK.  Changing the SMPS for a linear one does not affect operation of the deck at all, so you still use the on/off switch as normal.  What can you expect in terms of sound quality/reproduction with a good linear PSU?  In our experience a bolder, more expressive sound character with greater tonal colour and just more musical involvement.

We are quite often asked whether we would recommend the SL-1200GR over the SL-1200G or GAE.  The SL-1200G is a better sounding turntable straight out of the box, because it’s much more solidly built and the magnesium tonearm is decent, if not the last word in musical performance.  The SL-1200GR is significantly hampered by its cheap and plasticky tonearm, but if upgraded with something like a Jelco TK-850S tonearm and a Timestep linear PSU it will, in our view, be better sounding and more musical than the stock SL-1200G.  But, for someone prepared to spend the extra money on the SL-1200G and then perform the same mods, the SL-1200G will in truth be a much better bet all round.  So, not an exact answer to the question, but hopefully helpful!

In summary, any of the new Technics SL-1200 models are superb in having motor systems that are as accurate as you’re going to see without forking out for the new Technics SP-10R, and they provide an outstanding platform for really good tonearms and cartridges that really sing.  Forget that the SL-1200GR is a fairly inexpensive deck – when fitted with a tonearm like the Jelco TK-850S it will play music like you won’t believe, and some of the other modifications that I’ve outlined above will simply build things up further.  You can spend many times the cost of an upgraded SL-1200GR and not get the same musical satisfaction.  Do the same upgrades on the SL-1200G and you’ll have something very special indeed.