In 1965, Technics was created as the high end hi-fi brand of Panasonic Corporation. The name first appeared on loudspeakers, but was a natural choice for a new transcription turntable designed by Shuichi Obata. Launched in 1970, the ‘Technics by Panasonic’ SP-10 was the world’s first direct drive deck of the modern era. It found its way into broadcast studios all around the world, usurping ageing Garrard 301s. Aside from vanishingly low rumble (a claimed -70dB, DIN B), it was super speed stable (0.03% wow and flutter) and could get up to 33.33RPM within half a rotation of the platter.
The SP-10 Mk2 followed in 1975, now with the SH-10E outboard power supply unit. A consumer version was produced with a bundled Technics tonearm, called the SL-1000. The deck’s new SH-10B3 Obsidian Base was made from volcanic glass, no less! In 1981 the SP-10 Mk3 arrived, with a copper alloy/aluminium platter, and a restyled speed control unit with adjustable pitch of +/- 9%. By the mid eighties though, sales were in decline as Compact Disc caught on. Still, these early Technics reference decks became very popular with collectors, and by the end of the first decade of new millennium, they were highly sought-after on the second-hand market.
It was round about this time that Technics discontinued product of (what seemed to be) its last ever turntable, the SL-1200. The company’s Chief Technical Officer, Tetsuya Itani, told me that this was because the machinery used to make it was worn out. Also, it coincided with the credit crunch, where there was a lot of retrenchment going on by global luxury brands. Yet a huge campaign ensued for it to be reintroduced, and in 2016 the improved and more expensive SL-1200G reappeared. At the same time, Technics got ready to launch its new flagship broadcast turntable, the SP-10R. When supplied in its bespoke base and with Technics’ new tonearm, the package was called the Reference Class SL-1000R.
“I think that we can show the sonic direction of the new generation of direct drive turntables – one which is very different from the sound from belt drives,” Itani told me in 2018. “With the SL-1000R I wanted to show the improved sound of a deck with as little resonance as possible. That’s why I used the smallest possible plinth – made from aluminium and BMC – rather than the old SL-1000’s bulky wooden type.” He adds that the sound achieved is “very precise but warm, with a high signal-to-noise ratio.” Itani san adds, “in my opinion, no belt drive turntable can deliver this…”
It took Itani’s team of ten engineers a full year to produce this new £14,000 turntable package. Rather than a refresh of the old SP-10 mk3, it was a clean sheet design from the ground-up. At its heart is the new coreless direct drive motor, developed for the SL-1200G and further improved for this application. A double coil twin rotor coreless design, there are coils on both sides for 12-pole, 18-coil drive, and it delivers massive torque; on the highest of five user-selectable settings, you have to apply serious effort to the rim of the 7.9kg platter to slow it down at all. Technics claims 0.015% wow and flutter, which is on the limit of measurement. The diecast aluminium platter has 10mm thick brass weights inset into its periphery, giving a claimed inertial mass of approximately 1 ton/cm. Rubber damping material is applied underneath, and there’s a rubber mat on top.
The control unit offers an OLED digital display of the speed (33 1/3RPM, 45 and 78), but also the chosen playing speed expressed as a percentage (i.e. 45.11%, when the pitch is increased), and actual RPM (i.e. 33.33). Rotational speed is set to two decimal places, plus or minus 16%. Pressing the control unit’s speed up/down buttons and the reset button brings you into the torque control menu. Itani points out that, “some users appreciate this facility, to tune the sound. It affects this and also the start-up speed, but doesn’t affect speed stability.” The control unit also contains the deck’s switch mode power supply, and was designed to be the same size as that of earlier SP-10s
Technics said the new motor unit’s chassis is more rigid than earlier versions, with a better main bearing arrangement. The motor is stabilised with a low centre of gravity, thanks to two heavy stainless steel weights at the bottom of the chassis. It has three-tier construction, with a 25mm aluminium top panel, diecast aluminium main section and Technics Bulk Moulding Compound. The plinth in which it sits is a two-layer design with a 30mm aluminium top panel and BMC base. The feet have a zinc diecast outer section, inside which there is silicon rubber reinforced by cylindrical polymer tubes. The SP-10R’s motor unit has been designed as a direct fit into SP-10MK2 and SP-10MK3 plinth systems, so users of these decks can upgrade. The deck can take up to two more tonearm bases for a variety of arms; these are fitted via concealed panels in the side of the plinth. Even with just the one, the SL-1000R weighs a massive 40.2kg.
Although not quite the star attraction of this package, the design team has paid serious attention to the tonearm. It’s a longer version of that fitted to the SL-1200G, being a universal S-shaped type with 254mm (10 inch) effective length from the tonearm pivot to the stylus. It sports a beautifully finished lightweight magnesium tube, with gimbal suspension and precision bearings. This is said to be hand-assembled and adjusted, and oxygen-free copper wiring is fitted internally. The base offers an elegant system for height adjustment (0-15mm), and the counterweight and bias adjusters have a measured, high precision action. Auxiliary balance weights are supplied to give a huge range of 15.9 to 31g.The deck is a pleasure to use, with its large, sturdy plinth making hand cueing effortless. The tonearm feels silky and the motor unit is beautiful to see in action, but the control box can be fiddly to operate if you want to get to sub-menus like the torque setting, for example
The SL-1000R gives a wide open window on the recording, stepping back to let the listener hear for themselves precisely what’s going on. Music bubbles out of the groove, giving a wonderfully zesty sound that bristles with detail. There seem to be vast, wide open spaces between each beat, so you can zero-in on microscopic details of the production, and sit back and hear the whole song flow in a delightfully lucid way. The Technics is one of very few high end turntables I have heard that can perform this trick. Listening to music from it is like jumping on a train; there’s only one direction of travel as you sit there and watch the scenery fly by, yet you can focus on all sorts of weird and wonderful details as you speed along.
This brilliant rhythmic ability makes for an electrifying listen, so the SL-1000R cannot be characterised as “one of those analytical Japanese direct drives”. It bristles with enthusiasm whatever it is asked to play. So much so that its combination of clarity, timing and dynamics is enough to make you wonder what the point of high end digital audio is. The way this vinyl-spinner can extract both subtle accenting and dramatic dynamic contrasts from middling vinyl pressings never ceased to amaze me. Dynamic light and shade is profound, you sit transfixed as all the recording’s complex tiers of production unwrap themselves before your very ears.
The deck’s handling of frequency extremes is also exceptional. Those who have grown up with warmer, softer belt drive turntables might initially think the SL-1000R sounds a little ‘digital’ at the bottom end – on account of the fact that it has the ability to begin and end bass notes with the speed of an LED pulsing on and off. Bass guitar lines sound lightning-fast and highly expressive, while at the opposite end of the scale, hi-hat cymbals have great timbral delicacy, shimmering like stars glinting out of the night sky.
This is a remarkable turntable package then, and one of the best ways to play vinyl ever made – although so it should be, at this price. It’s difficult to see how the SP-10R motor unit can be improved upon, and the matching base and tonearm are very high quality affairs. Technics’ SL-1000R is a definitive statement of engineering prowess, and marks the return of direct drive to the top tier of turntables.