Back in the nineteen eighties, if you were serious about sound on a budget, then vinyl was your only choice. For most of the decade, Compact Disc was the province of the rich – in today’s terms, even the cheapest Philips machines were selling for over £300 at the end of the decade. No, if you only had half that amount – or less – to spend, then vinyl it was.
Although the early eighties saw a number of Japanese ‘budget audiophile’ turntables jostling for hi-fi buyers cash – from Sansui’s SR-222/II to Pioneer’s PL-512 – there one only one real choice. Launched at the 1980 Harrogate show, Dual’s £120 CS 506 (CS standing for ‘Complete System’) proved a revelation. It was a high quality semi-automatic deck, belt-driven from a 16-pole synchronous motor. The 304mm, 0.9kg platter had built in stroboscopic markings, working in conjunction with an AC mains-driven strobe light and (6%) variable pitch control via the company’s ‘Vario Pulley’ system. The tonearm was Dual’s (then fashionable) ULM (Ultra Low Mass) 221mm design, a thin aluminium tubed device that came complete with a matching Ortofon cartridge.
The new deck proved an instant hit, but Dual got the whiff of success and decided to bring out an even more conspicuously ‘value-for-money’ product less than a year later. The result was the CS 505, which proved a budget blockbuster in the truest sense of the world. £75 bought you most of the CS 506’s feature set, minus the strobe light and lavish wood plinth. As neither of these features did much for the sound quality, the 505 lost very little from its bigger brother in performance terms apart from its heftier price tag. Suddenly, every other entry-level turntable fell by the wayside compared to this slick piece of German engineering.
It was interesting to watch a European brand doing to the Japanese what they’d previously done to the likes of Garrard and BSR a decade earlier. Every hi-fi magazine scratched its head but just couldn’t come up with a reason not to buy a CS 505! The only obvious upgrade was the Rega Planar 2, which cost virtually twice as much when the price of a cartridge was factored in.
Not content to rest on its laurels, the CS 505 was soon improved. The basic belt-drive, independently sprung subchassis design was retained, but the fussy cartridge mounting system was improved – and a superior cartridge fitted – to make 1984’s CS 505/I. The came a modified platter mat offering better support and another plinth change to give the CS 505-1 Improved. The 1986 CS 505-2 had a better headshell and the option of a Deluxe model, offering the now defunct 506’s real wood plinth back again. The CS 505-3 gave a heavier, 1.2kg platter for better speed stability, and a superior Dual ULM 65E bi-radial tipped moving magnet cartridge, and the ‘4 variant lost the classic pressed steel platter with stroboscopic markings, and got some minor changes to its detail finish.
The CS 505 was initially incredibly successful and sold by the bucket load, but as the different iterations came, so the price went up, and it got closer to the superior sounding Rega Planar 2. Meanwhile, Dual decided to a pricier, more upmarket version called the CS 5000. This new £200 machine was launched in 1987, and was essentially a better engineered ‘505 with microprocessor controlled, quartz-referenced motor complete with 78RPM speed facility. It also had a better engineered arm with VTA adjustment, and superior Ortofon OM20 fitted cartridge. The improvements made for better measured performance, with a wow and flutter figure of 0.025% and a S/N ratio of 80dB – figures not too far away from seventies superdecks such as Technics’ SP10.
Dual turntables have never sounded as good as Regas – bass is quite lightweight, and they’re slightly slick and airbrushed sounding. Although they make very nice noises, with a smooth and sweet tonality and no obvious vinyl nasties, they’re a little unengaging. The CS 5000 is like this but more so – plug it into a modern system and it sounds beautifully polished and refined, and makes a very pleasing job of anything you care to play. It doesn’t, however, really get to the heart and soul of the music as a Rega Planar 3 would.
The good news is that all Duals – and the CS 5000 in particular – are now pretty unfashionable, and as such superb value first turntables. If you’ve been born and raised with CD, you’ll be amazed how sweet and beguiling vinyl can be for such a small outlay. For £50 you can pick up a reasonable 505, whereas £150 will buy you a mint boxed CS 5000. You can partner the former to an Audio Technica AT95E for £25, but if pressed the latter is up to tracking Goldring’s superb G1042. Don’t, however, be tempted to use a moving coil – the low mass tonearm is a poor mechanical match. Now as then, there’s little better in turntable value than a Dual.