You Spin Me 'Round (Like a Record)

Pioneer PL-530 two-speed automatic turntable

For those who have been following along, I have selected a turntable for my vintage stereo project. I mentioned previously that in my original system, I had a Pioneer PL-516, and that I had really wished I could have afforded at least a PL-518. Even better would have been the PL-530.

The PL-530 was a direct drive, two-speed, fully automatic turntable. It featured separate pitch adjustments for 33 1/3 rpm and 45 rpm, and you could also choose between 7", 10", and 12" record sizes.

The PL-530 was fairly unique in that it used two motors -- one for the turntable drive, and a second to handle the automatic cueing and return functions. The idea was to eliminate speed imperfections caused by using the main motor to also operation the gearing for the tone-arm movement.

As with other things, I could never afford one of these, nor could I afford the semi-automatic, dual-motored PL-520, nor even the single-motored, direct-drive PL-518. So, there you have that. Now, of course, these gems are nearly impossible to find in any condition. Those that are out there are still expensive.

One interesting bit of '70s hi-fi history is the link between Pioneer and Radio Shack. Radio Shack, at that time, would never sell anything other than their own Realistic brand of stereo components. But, they never hesitated when it came to contracting other companies to build things for them (for example, the Moog-built ConcertMate MG-1), and for a number of years, Radio Shack's better stereo gear was built or designed by none other than Pioneer. I remember looking down inside the vents of many Realistic receivers when I was young, and seeing the Pioneer name and logo printed right on the circuit boards or other parts!

In 1981, Radio Shack introduced the LAB-420 automatic turntable, which appears to have been inspired, in part at least, by the Pioneer PL-530. It shares many of the same features -- 2-speed direct-drive, dual pitch controls, three record sizes, etc. -- but not, apparently, the dual motors. A more traditional "power take-off" to actuate the automatic start, repeat, and return functions. Reviews at the time were favorable, and remain so to this day. And wouldn't you know it: Jim (remember Jim?) had one available at a very reasonable price. So I bought it.

This particular example, like the SX-450, has a few cosmetic blemishes (mostly, the wood-grain laminate is peeling around the lower edges), and it's missing the dust cover and hinges (something I've always removed and stored away), but otherwise it functions reasonably well. All I needed to add was a new cartridge and head shell.

Back in the day, as we say, I used Pickering cartridges and styli pretty much exclusively, because they offered very good sound at a reasonable price. Interestingly, while they're still made in the USA (and have been for 70 years!), the only places that seem to sell them any more are in Europe -- they don't even have a US web site that I can find. And, they're no longer particularly affordable.

Ortofon 2M Red MM Cartridge

Ortofon 2M Red MM Cartridge

No matter, I'd always wanted a Grado or Ortofon cartridge. A little research turned up that Grado have basically been making the very same cartridges they did in 1979, which only incremental improvements to the designs. Now, as then, their lower-priced models receive decent reviews, and all of the reviews indicate that they can take months to "break in" and sound their best.

Ortofon, on the other hand, have not be resting on their laurels. While updated versions of the same old models are available, they've also released completely new lines, and based on the range of music I like to listen to, it seems that one of their newer models would be my best choice. So I ordered the 2M Red MM Cartridge, along with an appropriate head shell, from Turntable Lab in Brooklyn, New York.

Dual 1219 Automatic Record Changer and United Audio turntable cabinet.

Some of you who know me well may remember my affinity for the Dual 1219 turntable with a Pickering V15 cartridge, and may be wondering why I didn't opt for one of those. I did consider another 1219, but ultimately decided that I wanted a direct drive turntable, and that I didn't want a changer. I also didn't want the maintenance headache that all the mechanics in the Dual turntables entail. Don't get me wrong -- they're brilliantly designed, but when they do break down, they're a major pain to rebuild. At one point when I was still using a 1219, I had one working and two more for parts.

At this point, I'm more interested in listening to music as opposed to tinkering with mechanics. In other words, I want something that simply works.

So, what was the first album I played? Well, it certainly wasn't Dead or Alive's You Spin Me 'Round, that's for sure! No, I chose my original release of Boston's self-titled debut album from 1976 -- one of the first albums I bought after buying my first turntable, and one of my all-time favorites. Unfortunately, as I mentioned the other day, when I went to pull the album off the shelf, I discovered that it, along with several other rare or important records, were missing from my collection.

The package of records actually arrived the day before yesterday, and the package with cartridge, yesterday. So last night, despite my having a searing migraine and feeling rather ill, I installed the cartridge and set up the turntable.. I balanced the tone arm, and then chose a tracking force of 1.25 grams, towards the low end of the recommended range. I placed the record on the turntable, clicked the lever to the start position and watched as the tone arm lifted, moved over the lead-in groove, and lowered the needle. Nice.

Unfortunately, the record didn't sound as nice as it looked! In fact, along about halfway through Peace of Mind, there was a horrible skip, and then it launched into a jump-and-repeat routine. "So much for that 'Very Good +' condition rating," I thought to myself as I got up and stopped the record. I decided to not even listen to the rest of the album, and moved on to my old copy of Rush's 2112.

2112 started out well, and played decently until somewhere in The Temples of Syrinx, when Neil's drumming literally kicked the needle out of the groove! "Hmmm. I guess 1.25 grams tracking force is a little too light!" I consulted the guide for the cartridge, and decided to try a setting of about 1.8 grams, and try again.

That setting change corrected the skipping problem, and markedly improved the sonic quality overall. I decided to try the Boston album again, and while still not a "VG+" across the whole record, the listening experience was still quite enjoyable. It certainly brought back fond memories! And that, my friends, is what this particular venture is all about.


Bose Knows: The Highs and The Lows (A Review of an Old Pair of Speakers)

In my last post, Rebuilding the Past, I mentioned that I was going to try to put together something akin to my first stereo system, and that I had a line on a Pioneer SX-450 receiver. Yesterday, I met with the Craigslist seller. After talking for 20 minutes or so, I decided he was on the up-and-up, and parted with a small amount of cash, collected my new/old receiver, and headed off down the road for the day's adventures in computer shopping (which will be a subject of a later posting, I'm certain).

Horrible iPhone picture of my new/old Pioneer SX-450 receiver.

At 15 watts-per-channel (in 1978 watts), the SX-450 is by no means a powerhouse. But, I know from experience that with an appropriate pair of speakers, that's plenty of power to sound great. I own several pairs of very-good-to-excellent speakers, and I figured that my Yamaha NS-6390s would be a good match. That's what I hooked up first, along with my iPhone 6s as a music source (since that's really all I have to play music from right now -- there's no antenna line to the basement yet).

Boy, was I wrong. The Yamaha's sounded okay, but relatively lifeless. The highs were nice, but the mid-range was muddy and the lows were pretty flat. Ugh. This is not the sound I remembered, either from the receiver or the speakers. Hmm ... Now I was hoping there wasn't a problem of some sort with the amp. Next!

Das Book: The owner's guide, ca. 1991, for The Bose 201 Series III Direct/Reflecting Speaker System.

Next, I tried the Bose 201 Series III Direct/Reflecting Speaker System which had belonged to my grandfather. I vaguely remember his comment was that he bought them because they had "great tone", but I don't think I ever heard them when he was alive. This particular pair seems to have been born in 1991, somewhere in Mexico, which makes them just old enough to officially be considered antique. I even have the original instruction booklet for them (in four languages), which looks like it just arrived from the printer.

Bose 201s are a deceptively simple-looking speaker. The driver compliment is a 6 1/2" woofer and an angled 2 1/4" tweeter, mounted in a smallish bookshelf enclosure. Like all of the Bose Direct/Reflecting line, they are sold in pairs, and there are specific instructions on how they should be placed for the best results.

The Bose manual had two recommendations for speaker setup, based on a "larger" or "smaller" room. I, of course, have a "medium" room, so I started with the larger room setup, which has the tweeters facing towards the center of the room, switched on the receiver, and started the music.

Whoa! Where did all that music come from?

I'd always poo-pooed the 201s, thinking that a little box like this couldn't produce good sound, despite knowing full well that Acoustic Wave radio thing always sounded amazing (remind me to tell you sometime about the first time I heard one of those), and that the folks at Radio Shack had blown everyone away for years with the little Minimus 7 speakers (heck, I own a half dozen of those!). In fact, until today I don't think I'd ever listened to a pair of 201s. And, I've never cared for the Acoustimass sub-woofer-and-satellite systems -- I think Bose has the crossover frequency all wrong. As far as I'd always been concerned, the only Bose speakers worth considering were the 501 Series II floor speakers (I really wanted a pair of those), or that the 301 Series II bookshelf models would be good (I've never cared for any version of the 901s and all the extra baggage they carry).

Bose 201 Series III Direct/Reflecting Speaker System -- Part I

Guess what. I was wrong again. These little guys are amazing speakers, and a perfect match for the little SX-450 (yeah, I'm gushing a little). Along with the drivers and crossover, there must be a good bit of magic stuffed into those little boxes, because the low end is full and warm, yet still punchy, and cross over beautifully into a high end that is bright and transparent without being harsh.

I'm not even going to mess with any of the other speakers I have laying around, at least not as primary speakers. I might see if I can find a good deal on a 301 Series II or III set, but I'm not sure I'll really want or need to.

You can buy 201s new, at under $220 for a pair or find older ones on eBay. The new series V are a lot sleeker looking, and maintain the 6 1/2" woofer. The new version has a high-tech 2 1/2" tweeter in place of older 2 1/4" paper cone type, but I'd imagine they still sound great. If you want a little more guts, the new 301 Series V is an amazing speaker system, too, for less than $330 a pair, and uses an 8" woofer and two 2 1/2" tweeters in a special arrangement to further enhance the stereo sound field.

The next part of the stereo project is to find an appropriate turntable. In searching eBay and Craigslist, there's a decent selection out there, but the prices on vintage models in good original shape or nicely restored are approaching those of some of the modern boutique models. What I'd like to find in a vintage model is a Pioneer PL-518 direct drive, semi-automatic turntable. The comparable Radio Shack would do (it was a re-badged Pioneer at that time), as would a Technics model. Otherwise, I may bite the bullet and get a new Orbit from U-Turn Audio.

BTW, those Yamahas are up for sale (as is an AudioSource SW6.5 powered subwoofer) if you or someone you know might be interested. They sound sweet with a 50-100 watt amp. I'll have a couple of more modern receivers up for sale soon.