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Radio’s Wheels of Steel Are Coming Back: The Technics SL-1200 Mk VII

If Jennifer’s radio tours and my recent visits to stations are any indication, it seems like a large percentage of the physical media being played on community and college stations are vinyl records. Since true broadcast turntables have been out of production for decades, a variety of reasonably sturdy DJ turntables have filled in the gap (I gave an overview of some good ones a few years ago.) Yet, pretty much all of these are copies or clones of the original wheels of steel: the Technics SL-1200.

The 1200, however, had been out of production since 2010. A new, completely revised version emerged in 2016, but oriented towards audiophiles and home listening, and with a multi-thousand price-tag. But finally, at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show, Technics announced the new SL-1200 Mk VII, designed with DJs in mind, and with a more approachable price of $1199.

Now, I realize that some people will see a price over a thousand bucks and think “that’s neither approachable nor affordable.” I understand that reaction, but I also think it fails to take into account several important factors.

The first thing is that our contemporary perception of the price of consumer electronics is completely distorted by how cheap Chinese manufacturing is. Just thinking about turntables, back in 1987 I bought a decent, but not high end, Onkyo turntable that was typical of the late 80s, with a good portion of it made out of plastic. It cost me about $250, which is $550 today, adjusted for inflation.

Look at any online retailer and you will find more than a dozen very decent turntables (not Crosleys) for that same $250 in 2019 dollars , which is equivalent to about $113 in 1987. That’s thanks to inexpensive Chinese manufacturing.

Looking just at the SL-1200, when the Mark 2 version was introduced in 1979 the MSRP was $350, or – get this – equivalent to $1200 in 2019. (That price should ring a bell.)

Today the most expensive iPhone costs $1400, and it’s easy to drop nearly a grand on top-of-the-line Android phones. All for a device that is unlikely to last more than five years.

By comparison, there are thousands (if not millions) of 10 to 40 year-old 1200s still in service, because they were built like tanks, and are relatively easy to repair. Really, how many $1200 electronics items can you buy today and expect to be using still in 20 years?

Now looking at a college or community radio studio, how many different pairs of hands touch a turntable in a given week? In a month? Even with careful training, how many accidents or how much abuse will those turntables suffer? And how much of an inconvenience is it when that takes them offline for repair, or completely out-of-commission?

In my 30 years of radio I’ve certainly seen SL-1200s that needed repair, but far less often than cheaper turntables. Though I’ve heard about ones that were trashed beyond repair, I’ve never seen one with my own eyes. I can’t say that about CD players, tape decks or computers… never mind smartphones.

Now, I’m not making a sales pitch for Technics or the SL-1200. Rather, I’m just pointing out how nice it is to have a truly professional turntable option again, especially for the radio stations where vinyl not only continues to live, but is arguably more popular than any time in the last three decades.

If your station or DJ booth needs a turntable I would seriously consider holding out for a 1200 MK VII, or even putting one on pre-order with your favorite electronics or broadcast supply company (preferably local, if available). Or you could go find an earlier model used, with the caveat that even a little bit of sprucing up might be in order.

The lesson I’ve seen learned over and over is that cheap electronic gear in your studio doesn’t end up being a value over time. While you can certainly overpay, buying good stuff up front pays off in less downtime and not having repurchase gear over and over again. I understand that budgets can be tight, but when even some of your DJs and hosts are walking around with smartphones in their pocket that cost nearly enough, there’s probably a way to drum up the money.

¡Viva la vinyl!

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