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.

Minolta Maxxum 70-210mm f/4 First Shots Test

As I mentioned yesterday, my Minolta Maxxum AF 70-210mm f/4 arrived while I was away, and I finally got a moment this afternoon to make a few test shots. As with my previous tests, the subjects are mediocre and the lighting bad. Perfect for testing lenses...

We have a really confused Azalea bush in our front yard -- it's still making flowers! Anyway, this is literally the first shot with the new lens. Not too bad, I suppose. I did have to do some work, however, to get here.

For the techies: ISO 200, 1/160, F4, 210mm. Distance from subject is about 10 feet.

There's a slight back-focus exhibited on this shot, but that could be simply that I "missed" a little bit when focusing. It was also a little bit breezy when I took this picture. There was also a little bit of purple fringing, which I was able to remove in Lightroom. I also performed "the usual" tweaks on the raw conversion. The final result is very likable.

Another truly inspired pair of images, this time of the shed in our back yard.

For the techies: ISO200, 1/250, F4, 210mm. Distance from subject is about 75 feet.

The focus point is supposed to be right on the corner of the roof, and it looks pretty darned close. I did pretty much the same treatment, though I didn't notice so much fringing on this one. Crappy picture, but a good test subject, and I'd say the result is quite acceptable.

Finally, another relatively close shot.

Techies: ISO 200, 1/320, F4, 210mm. Distance to subject is about 10 feet.

This one suffered from some green fringing, but no purple. In this case, focus was spot on. What's sharp is exactly what I focused on. Again, the usual raw conversion, but nothing else.

So far, I'd say that the results with this lens are very nearly as good as what I was getting with my Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS lens after I spent $265 to get it overhauled (on top of the $1900 the lens cost new). And for this, I paid $200. Hmmm... I think I've got a winner!

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Minolta Maxxum AF 28-85mm f/3.5-4.5

My second old lens, Minolta Maxxum AF 28-85mm f/3.5-4.5, arrived on schedule today from KEH Camera. There were two versions of the 28-85, and I ordered the original version, which was introduced back in 1985.

While it arrived too late to really make any decent images, I did at least pop the lens on the camera and pop off a few shots. None of them are particularly inspired or particularly good. The image at left is pretty much right out of the camera, with the exception of a little cropping.

As with the 50mm f/1.7, the color and the subjective feel of the image are exactly what I had hoped for: deep, punchy colors with nice, smooth bokeh. If you look closely, you'll see that this image isn't completely sharp, except in a very few spots. In this image, I'm shooting at the maximum focal length of the lens (85mm), wide open (f/4.5), and as close to the subject as I could be and still get anything in focus (about 32 inches).

Getting down to the lens itself. My copy is, as mentioned above, from the initial group of 11 Maxxum lenses introduced in 1985. It is built like a small tank, with a completely metal lens barrel and mount. The zoom action is silky smooth, as is the manual focus. KEH rated the lens condition as "Excellent," and in all of the important aspects, that's absolutely true. The glass is perfect, and I can't even see any of the usual dust inside the lens. And, the aperture blades are clean and move freely. The only "not-so-excellent" bit is cosmetic -- some discoloration on the rubber zoom ring. I think if I had rated the lens, I might have given it an "Excellent -".

I'm really looking forward to having some time to play with it over the weekend. Hopefully, I'll have some "real" pictures to post then.

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The Allure of Old Glass

Last week, I wrote a short post called The Beauty of the Old, in which I shared my first experience with a 25-year-old Maxxum 50mm f/1.7 lens. Yesterday in a post on one of the many online forums, a user posted the comment, "I just don't get why people are willing to pay so much money for the big old Minolta prime lenses." This, of course, is a small part of her post, but this one sentence was the gist of it. She went on to comment that old things break and it's hard to get parts, etc. A lively discussion has ensued, focused (no pun intended) more on the mechanics of things and the currently available A-mount offerings. Her question is valid. Often times, the old Maxxum primes sell for nearly as much as their newer counterparts. In the course of the discussion, little has been said about why people actually want these things. Here's my perspective:

Konica Minolta Dynax/Maxxum 7D

I remember when then Maxxum 5D and 7D were introduced. Minolta did a series of advertisements featuring "interviews" with prominent Japanese professional photographers who were Minolta shooters. Of course, the ads each featured stunning photographs taken with the Maxxum 7D and a Minolta lens.

In each of the ads, the photographers moved quickly beyond the technical aspects of the digital cameras and spoke about being able to leverage their existing Minolta lenses. They spoke at length about the aesthetic advantage they felt that Minolta optics gave them in their photography.

Minolta optics have an interesting history which certainly helped to shape the subjective quality of their lenses. When Minolta was developing their first SLR (and again with their first autofocus SLR), they entered an agreement with Leica for assistance. The result was a combination of German precision design and consistency with Japanese aesthetics. The lenses were very carefully ground and polished and the coatings were developed to create lenses with a color balance that was consistent across the entire line. This philosophy continued up to the point when Minolta no longer made their own glass lens elements. Many of the Japan-made Maxxum primes reflect this early philosophy.

As I related in my earlier post, there is a certain "look" to these lenses. Those of you who have been following my posts over the years (predating this version of will know that I, perhaps romantically, prefer a more "analog" look and that I feel that a lot of today's cameras and lenses are almost too perfect; and that I also have a preference to do as much in-camera as possible.

Recently, I've had a bit of a shift in perspective about what I'll do in post-processing (see my recent comments on Snapseed, for instance). But there are certain things that can't be done in post. I think that certain aspects of the basic "look and feel" of a photograph begin with the lens.

So, that's why I'll be willing to spend money on those old lenses. I'd love to see your thoughts on the subject. You can post them in the space below the related articles?

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