Face Off: The Best Turntable on a Budget Page 4


I first lived with each turntable in my system for a few days to get a handle on its sonic thumbprint before setting up for the final shoot-out. In the interest of fairness, the turntables were auditioned under identical conditions, using a rigid, carefully leveled stand. Also, since the Music Hall's Tracker cartridge has a slightly higher output than the Ortofon, I made a point of tweaking my preamp's volume adjustment to a pre-marked position to match levels when playing the mmf 2.2.


As it turned out, the initial impression left by the Technics' heavy duty build quality extended to its sonic performance as well. This turntable has a big, bold sound, with tons of dynamic swing and lots of punch in the bottom octaves. On "My Rival" from an original MCA pressing of Steely Dan's Gaucho album, the rhythmic groove set up by Steve Gadd's drumming - underpinned by Anthony Jackson's bass - took center stage. With this emphasis on the beat, it's no wonder that the SL-1200MK2 is the DJ's choice!

After switching over to the Rega, it soon became clear just what the Technics was missing. The P1's sound was snappier and tighter, with a significantly better sense of clarity and focus. Layers in the mix were easier to unravel, while high-frequency sounds like cymbal crashes came across more like the real thing. The SL-1200MK2 clearly reached quite a bit deeper into the bottom octaves and had a lot more drive, but the P1's bass was more nimble and agile-sounding.

Turning next to the Music Hall, I found that it combined many of the best qualities of both the Rega and the Technics: The tracks I listened to displayed most of the P1's sense of liveliness and focus, but they also carried a healthy dose of the SL-1200MK2's bottom-end punch. The Music Hall's Tracker cartridge was also somewhat more refined-sounding than the Ortofon: It had a slightly laid-back quality that was easy to listen to, though its sound at times seemed a touch less dynamic and exciting.

As someone who regularly plays solo piano music on vinyl, dynamic "wow" is something I've grown sensitive to. If a turntable doesn't provide sufficient motor torque or platter inertia, the drag on the record from the needle in the groove can actually cause a small variation in the platter speed that will sour the pitch ever so slightly, making instruments sound less than perfectly in tune. This effect is especially easy to hear when a pianist bangs out a big chord. (For me, an instrument has to sound like it's perfectly in tune or I'll soon be reaching for my CD stacks.)

A German EMI LP of Mozart piano sonatas played by Andor Foldes showed that while all three turntables could keeps things in tune quite well, the two belt-drive models clearly outpaced the Technics. This held especially true for the Rega, which displayed a near CD-like (in a good way!) sense of stability. Such results may seem to be at odds with the vanishingly low wow and flutter numbers in Technics' published specs, but those measurements are made using steady signals and don't take dynamics into account. While the Rega proved to be the pitch-stability king, I also found that the Music Hall's transparent reproduction gave the clearest insight into the piano's tone, as well as the space that the recording was made in.


Each of these three turntables provides a no-fuss way to get into - or back into - vinyl without breaking the bank. When set up correctly, any one of them will also do justice to your record collection. The Rega P1 is a clear and fast-sounding machine that serves the music to you straight without waffling. The Music Hall mmf 2.2, on the other hand, displays many of the same attributes as the Rega, but adds a bit more warmth and subtlety to the mix. Technics' bold-sounding SL-1200MK2 is built to last a lifetime of nightclub abuse, and while it can still perform well in a domestic environment, I found that its simpler belt-drive competitors were able extract just a little extra musical enjoyment from those grooves. (I must admit to being a bit surprised that the Technics didn't walk away with this contest, especially since I own one myself!) Now all I need to do is find some more relatives who want to dump their record collections.