Micro Seiki: The Jewel in the Rack

Readers may already have noticed that my speaker and receiver reviews have begun name-checking a new reference signal source. It is a Micro Seiki BL-51 turntable. And it's a jewel. There isn't a single component in my rack that I don't respect and depend on. But the Micro Seiki I love-love-love. Let me tell you how and why I acquired it.

Back story: I'm also the satisfied owner of a Luxman PD-289 turntable. It is a direct-drive and fully automatic model bought in 1983 before I became aware of the audiofool preference for belt drive (less motor-induced smearing) and manual operation (more reliable in the longterm). The Luxman has a heavy plastic-covered metal base, an aluminum platter with rubber mat, and a beautiful tonearm with filament-weight anti-skating. It sounded—and still sounds—fantastic, with solid bass response. A real rock & roll turntable. One of its most endearing traits is that when the motor is not engaged, the heavy platter spins freely. Combined with a brush it makes an efficient record-cleaning machine. Unfortunately, though the automatic set-down and lift-off work as well as ever, a dirty contact in 33/45/off switch causes the turntable to grind to a halt in the middle of a side. I still hope to restore it to health someday.

The Luxman's intended successor was from a popular manufacturer that has attracted great reviews. Let me draw a veil over my grievances because I'd rather celebrate the Micro Seiki without getting into a public spitting match with this unnamed manufacturer and its many fans. Let's just say the tonearm had a serious defect and I didn't want to reinvest in fixing or replacing it. At that point the dear old Luxman was still in good health and I fell back on it until it stopped working. Then I wanted a fresh start.

I entertained the possibility of buying a new Luxman. After all, the old one had served me well for many years. The present-day version of Luxman (recently acquired from its Japanese owners by IAG, the Taiwanese-Chinese owner of Wharfedale and Quad) has introduced a new model for the first time in decades. The aluminum-belt-drive PD-171 looks gorgeous, but at $5,000, it is a bit above my inkstained-wretch pay grade. I surfed disconsolately looking for a more affordable alternative, briefly considering something from the upper end of Music Hall's Czech-built line. If you want to inspect new turntables at a variety of prices, that's where I'd recommend you look.

But I ended up following a different path. My eureka moment came when I discovered that Luxman turntables, back in the day, had been manufactured by Micro Seiki. And Micro Seiki had a well-earned reputation for making high-performance turntables under its own name. An obsession was born.

The details of Micro Seiki's history are receding into the mist but here are some fragments I've pieced together. The company was founded in 1961, in Tokyo, as a maker of high-precision metal parts but was not primarily an audio company at first. It didn't get into the turntable business until 1976 with the massive DDX-1000, which accepted up to three tonearms simultaneously. The company continued to make turntables throughout the '70s and '80s. But it fell on hard times and shipped its last turntable in 2001. Even today Micro has a large international fan base, with its own forum at Vinyl Engine, and its own Yahoo Group. Historical details here and here.

Micro Seiki's eight or nine product lines boasted 89 turntables and 18 tonearms, according to a very helpful Dutch fan site, micro-seiki.nl. The assortment is epic, with belt drive and direct drive both well represented, and a variety of price points from entry level to bleeding edge. You can usually find some of them for sale on Ebay and Audiogon at prices ranging from less than $100 up to $20,000. Micro tonearms are comparatively rare—the best way to buy one is probably to buy the whole turntable. For the DIY fan, vintage and newly manufactured parts are for sale. Tiny parts. Loads of parts.

Excitement mounted as I browsed the Dutch site's library. By hovering the cursor over model after model, I quickly acquired an overview of the lines, and it was only a matter of time till I decided that my destiny lay in the belt-drive BL line. For six weeks or so I lurked on Ebay, waiting for my opportunity.

It came when I found a BL-51 for sale. This model came in two versions, the BL-51 (with straight tonearm) and BL-51X (with S-shaped tonearm). The seller had been using fishing twine in lieu of a rubber belt—no sweat, I'd buy a new one. He couldn't swear that the turntable produced a signal, because he'd already sold off his phono preamp, but he did verify that it could track a record. These circumstances may have depressed the final selling price. I won the bidding war for $491 plus $40 shipping and $14 each for a couple of separately purchased belts. The seller included an old Grado cartridge, which I replaced; a record clamp; and a gizmo that, when added to the tonearm, provides auto lift-off capability.

The seller was the original owner and apparently held the machine in high regard. I urged him to take whatever time he needed for a meticulous packing job. "Since you were so patient," he wrote to me, "I cleaned, oiled and waxed the base and citrus-oiled the dustcover. The table looks spectacular—nearly brand new." His listing had honestly mentioned a couple of minor stress fractures near the dustcover hinges but I'm not fussy about that sort of thing. If I were, Micro dustcover replacements are available for about $140. The seller didn't have the original box or manual but took care in double-boxing the turntable and packing its counterweight and platter separately to avoid damaging the tonearm and main bearing. I will always be grateful to this unmet friend.

When the turntable arrived—safely and in immaculate condition—I conquered my excitement and decided not to give it a test spin without a proper belt. I ordered belts from two different retailers, about two weeks apart, and they arrived on the same day. I placed the BL-51 atop the rack, where my turntable of the moment always lives, and admired it. It was beautiful. Truly beautiful.

It sits on four elephant feet. The two-inch-thick plinth accounts for the lion's share of the turntable's 26 pounds. It is made of plywood, not particleboard: "One of the best acoustical damping materials known is wood," says the manual. The plinth is covered with a lovely dark veneer that the manufacturer describes as "natural ebony" (it resembles rosewood). The five-pound rubber-matted aluminum platter might be the twin brother of the one on my beloved Luxman. The fat belt rides around the platter, above the plinth, and attaches to a covered pulley at the rear left corner. A combined on/off and speed control (33/45/off) is at front left.

The Micro Seiki MA-701 tonearm is straight. According to the manual, the tube is aluminum alloy ("formidable strength and exceptionally low mass") and the headshell is carbon fiber ("as light and rigid as the arm itself"). However, it looks to me as if most of the tube is made of the same dark grey material as the headshell. (Infinity's classic Black Widow tonearm is made of carbon fiber and is compatible with the BL-51, along with arms by ADC, Grace, SME, and Stax.) The MA-701 is a low-mass arm and therefore compatible with the kind of inexpensive Shure cartridges I favor.

Stylus pressure and anti-skating are both applied with cylindrical dials which have numerous tiny markings to take the guesswork out of hairline adjustments. They are spring-loaded, which worried me at first. This is after all a turntable built in the early '80s. Could a spring last that long? Worries evaporated once I floated the tonearm and picked my settings. The tonearm tracked beautifully, better than anything I've owned before.

The motor has loads of torque: it gets that heavy platter up to speed in a second or two. It runs at correct speed and can be adjusted with a knob. Wow and flutter are rated at 0.025 percent WRMS. The oil-damped cueing control is so gentle that I rarely second-guess it by keeping my fingers on the lever. I let the mechanism do all the work. It invariably sets down the tonearm gently, with a brief delay between touchdown and the gentle slide into the groove.

Now that I've replaced the worn-out cartridge with one of my trusty Shures, the Micro Seiki just sings. The bass is similar to what I've come to expect from the Luxman (thank you, rubber-matted aluminum platter). The midband is exceptionally clean (thank you, carbon fiber tonearm and belt drive). High frequency extension may be limited by my poor man's audiophile cartridge, the Shure M97xE, but the BL-51 gets more detail out of it than I've heard in years of using it with other turntables. It almost sounds airy.

Incidentally, the Shure is a great value at about seventy bucks on Amazon. It has an elliptical stylus and a metal body, the latter unusual in a budget cartridge. There is a little brush mounted on it which is said to provide stability in addition to cleaning the record as it plays. Whether to use the brush or flip it out of the way is a frequent subject of fistfights at audiophile barbecues.

The BL-51 manual would like to tell you about the turntable in detail. "Many manufactures [sic] have been promoting the direct-drive motor at the expense of precision materials and manufacturing techniques," it says, blithely ignoring that Micro made numerous direct-drive models for both itself and Luxman—though at a high level of quality. "While direct-drive is capable of remarkable speed accuracy, the system does nothing toward maintaining that accuracy against the inevitable destructive effects of aging." Incidentally, my old Luxman's speed strobe does reveal a slight wobble, which becomes pronounced when it's not running at precisely the right speed.

"Our philosophy is that there is no substitute for quality, precision and tank-like ruggedness," the manual continues. "The BL-51 turntable is the ultimate expression of that philosophy. Starting with a massive, thick, 12.2 inch platter and employing special-alloy bearings machined and polished with techniques usually reserved for turbojet engines, MCRO's [sic] engineers have devised an exclusive oil-bath damping system to support the entire rotating assembly in complete isolation from all mechanical resonances.... Not only does the system negate the need for periodical user lubrication, it is unaffected by temperature changes and aging!" Indeed, though I can no longer find the URL, I've read that someone had found a Micro Seiki in the trunk of a car. Hooked up after years of bouncing over potholes, it still worked.

However, let me warn anyone tempted to follow in my footsteps: When you buy a used product, especially an old one with moving parts, you are taking a risk. Neither I or this publication take any responsibility for the outcome. My story had a happy ending; yours may not. But if you are determined to capture something like my jewel, I hope your story has as happy an ending as mine.

Micro Seiki turntable owners are invited to share their experiences and post pictures in our Galleries.