CD-player Technics SL-P1200

Nineteen eighty seven was a transitional year for the world's first mass digital music carrier. In Europe, we were all running variants of first generation machines, the Marantz CD54 and Meridian MCD being big sellers in the audiophile community. Philips' TDA1541 sixteen bit, four times oversampling DAC was just beginning its strong but shortlived bid for global fame, appearing in the newest high end Arcam, Missions and Sonys. Cambridge Audio's CD1 remained arguably the best sounding silver disc spinner on the planet, despite being a heavily reworked first generation Philips CD104, and lacking the build quality of the ever-better sounding Japanese 'battleships' coming from across the sea.

At the time, Technics was an extremely strong hi-fi brand, and nowhere was it more impressive than in CD players. They were very 'eighties looking' machines - big, fussy fascias festooned with facilities and vast, needlessly complex fluorescent displays. The first generation SLP10 had recently made way for the SL-P1000 which was a redoubtable design, just about able to hold its own with monstrously priced (and sized) behemoths like Sony's CDP-557ESD.

Still the most interesting thing in the new 1987 Technics catalogue was the SL-P1200, a (then) unfashionable top loading CD spinner with a pitch control and 'jog dial' offering precise and accurate control of cueing. Like the turntable with which it shared a model number (and indeed feet!), the 1200 was a 'pro' design made for nightclub use, and like the turntable of the same name it was very robustly made - more so than the SL-1200, as it happens.

The idea was brilliant - bundle all the front-loading SL-P1000's internal componentry inside a large, robust, top loading casing with a vast angled display, making it ideal for 'pro' nightclub use. Matsushita, Technics' parent company, had already found that adapting its old 1973 SL120 turntable for pro use had proved a nice little earner, and so why not follow the formula for the digital generation?

Like the SL-P1000, the major sales point for the 'P1200 was the large search dial, this time on the top right of the case instead of the front left of the fascia. This gave easy access to all its elaborate cueing facilities, such as A-B Repeat for example. The pitch control was virtually unique at the time, and must have seemed amazing to those who get excited about such things. The display is also big fun, being large and full of flashing legends and numbers - there's a 'music calendar', track time display and even a tenths and hundredths of seconds display for when you do your split second cueing!

Although the button-festooned top panel must have delighted spiky haired eighties button pushers, the real surprises were under the hood. By any standards, including those of today, the SL-P1200 is a beautifully built machine. Inside, it is separated into four main sections, power, CD transport, control/ servo and digital to analogue conversion. Two separate power transformers - one for digital electronics and the other for analogue sections - are used, and there are independent power supplies everywhere. Two Burr Brown PCM54HP DACs are used, there's a headphone amp with its own volume control, and very high quality internal wiring is in evidence.

It's fascinating to put a 'blast from the past' like this against a modern silver disc spinner, and all the more so when you have to conclude that it actually fares rather well. My recollection of Japanese machines of this age was that they were shrill and mechanical sounding, and certainly in the first respect the Technics isn't the smoothest around. For example a $400 Cambridge Audio 640C has a softer upper mid band, making the Technics sound a tad 'chromeplated' on female vocals and strings. Still, however 'robust' the Technics' upper mid may be, it's not bright like the Sonys of that era, and careful interconnect matching and/or use of a valve amplifier would certainly ameliorate it. It's certainly nowhere near as hard as I remember late eighties machines being demmed in hi-fi shops at the time.

Move downwards and you're in for a shock, as the Technics has a truly powerful yet relaxed bass. In fact, it reminds me of a Meridian MCD Pro in the way it can pile-drive large amounts of barrel-chested low frequencies into the listening room. As it delivers that capacious bass, the SL-P1200 never for a second sounds out of breath - quite the reverse in fact. Indeed the old Technics made a modern $1000 Audiolab 8000CD sound like it was the one that needed to start pumping iron and give up smoking...

The midband also shares the energy and commitment of the bass. As I've said, it's brightly lit, but displays great enthusiasm for playing music - it really pumps out songs with all its (big) heart. In this respect, and in so many others, it is spookily similar its SL1200 vinyl cousin. It's a tad rough and ready, but has massive energy and real resolve to make music sound magical. Also like the SL1200, its treble isn't going to win prizes for finesse and decorum. Likewise, stereo imaging is very strong left to right, but don't wait up for a deep capacious recorded acoustic.

This is special because no other modern machine either looks or sounds like it - such chest-pounding bass, real 'up and at 'em' musicality and a sense of utter unflappability isn't common these days. The downsides - poor depth perspective and a brightly lit midband almost go unnoticed amidst the fun it has. Then there's the weird styling, garish display and tenths and hundreds of a second readout - well, your friends won't have one, that's for sure! Factor in the brilliant build and it's a truly appealing purchasing proposition.

The SL-P1200 didn't reach these shores until 1988, and then only in relatively small numbers, so don't expect to snap one up for nothing. Particularly with a machine that could have been carted around every wedding and sixth form disco in town for the first half of the nineteen nineties, it's essential to get one in excellent cosmetic condition (as proof of light domestic use only). Two versions were made - the SL-P1200 and the SL-P1200B. The latter adds balanced XLR outputs in addition to RCA phonos, and a rear panel IEC power socket as opposed to a captive flying power lead - and it is very much the one to go for. I have seen mint, boxed Bs now going for as much as $1250 to eager buyers, and this isn't so silly considering its superb build, rarity and the fact that replacement lasers are still available from Technics Europe. Find a tatty non-B though, and you can look at as little as $450 - as with so many classics of the hi-fi and non-hi-fi variety, condition is everything. Either way, there are few better ways to play your classic collection of early Beatmasters, Bomb the Bass and Coldcut CD singles.

Technics SL-P1200 CD-player photo