The SL-1500C is a good, solid turntable…but can you do better? Funk Firm thinks you can. Paul Rigby reviews its 1500C upgrade kit, the Kit 10
The Technics SL-1500C was released this year to a chorus of approval. It’s an easy to set up, direct drive design using a coreless motor and features quality speed management gubbins within.
The chassis is solid and damped and the curvaceous tonearm with a removable SME-type headshell uses the company’s traditional manufacturing techniques. What most impressed me about the tonearm was the VTA adjustment option and how easy it is to use, for the price.
You flip the lock switch on the arm based to Unlock and then you simply pull the tonearm up or push it down. Ideal if you happen to be testing out a new cartridge or a thicker platter mat.
In fact, I used this turntable to test a range of platter mats for another, recent review and it proved very easy to use indeed.
You also get the highly-rated Ortofon 2M Red cartridge in the box, to get you up and running.
There are allusions to ease of use on the turntable with its ready-to-use auto-lift option. That is, once engaged, the tonearm will lift up at the end of the record’s final track and hang in the air, waiting for you to return the tonearm back to its protective cradle.
Doing so means that the SL-1500C is not a true semi automatic (a true semi automatic would automatically return the tonearm to its cradle) but this feature does help if you happen to drift off to sleep during Side B of Black Lace’s single, Agadoo. You can disable the auto-lift option, if you wish. I’m not aware just yet how to disable Black Lace, though.
There’s also a half decent phono amp included. You can switch this off if you’re using an external model.
The aluminium platter is nicely damped. Actually, I was quite impressed at the attention to detail for this part.
In sound terms, out of the box, the SL-1500C is very nice indeed. It’s not perfect and I could nit pick but really, for the price and the facilities it provides, the SL-1500C does a great job and I recommend a demo if you’re in the market for a sub-£1k turntable. Last time I looked, the turntable was priced at £899, in fact.
As I say, though. It’s not perfect. UK outfit, The Funk Firm appears to be of the same mind. Which is why it has produced a kit to upgrade it sonic capabilities. As I’ve found out myself, most turntables out there have hidden capacity. That is, it you carefully tweak and tone up a default, out-of-the-box turntable, any turntable, then nine times out of ten, the sound will improve. Sometimes dramatically.
When I heard that ex-Mr Pink Triangle, Arthur Khoubesserian’s The Funk Firm were on the case of the SL-1500C, I was intrigued indeed.
The kit itself holds the rather prosaic name of Kit 10 (well, prosaic for The Funk Firm at any rate, I expected something like ‘The Armageddon I’ or some such which would have been more be par for the course, I feel – then a viewer on my YouTube channel mentioned that Kit 10 = Kitten. Ahhh).
In short, the Kit 10 includes a full set of Bo!ng feet to replace the default Technics examples. You also get an Achromat platter mat to replace the useless rubber example. The final part of the kit is attached to the tonearm. In fact, its a replacement headshell called the Cobra. Under that is a Houdini.
So, let’s take a quick look at each of these components in turn.
The Bo!ng feet feature a screw thread to connect to the underside of the SL-1500C plinth. These are sprung, rather bouncy feet with extra damping material included to decouple the turntable from the vibration happening around it. The particular variants used here are more expensive than the basic, off-the-shelf models because they have to cope with the extra weight from the Technics plinth.
I’m used to using the Bo!ings on my reference Funk Firm LSD turntable and know how good they are and how much vibration and hence noise they reduce during use. So thumbs up there.
The Achromat is one of the best value platter mats currently for sale on the market and sits in my Top 5, all-time mat designs so its inclusion here is welcome indeed. The mat is acrylic based and features thousands of micro bubbles within its structure to draw in energy from the turntable and your vinyl record. That energy is then turned to heat which dissipates into the air and reduces the noise floor still further. It also damps metal and glass platters so – on a tangent here – check out this mat if you run a Rega or NAD or even certain Pro-Jects et al. Just make sure your tonearm is level in use because this mat is thick (either 3mm or 5mm). Tonearm shims will be handy for those designs. The SL-1500C has that easy-to-use VTA option I mentioned above so set up of this mat was a doddle.
The new nylon headshell – the Cobra – is a solid headhsell variant but it’s main claim to fame is that it has been produced to connect to turntable’s with limited VTA. Even though the SL-1500C can be tweaked on those terms, it does need extra clearance because this kit also includes…
The Houdini, the most expensive part of the entire kit. In fact around half the price of the kit in its entirety. Decoupling the cartridge from the headshell, the Houdini provides a suspension system for your cartridge that remains stable during play with a “torsion tether” to prevent vibration running down the tonearm to your cartridge and back again. It’s a 6mm mini beast of an accessory so that extra VTA provided by that curvy headshell comes nicely in play here.
So that’s the kit – how does it sound? Well, before I moved one step closer to reviewing the Kit 10, I wanted to upgrade the stock cartridge. The 2M Red is highly recommended and very nice indeed but, if we’re looking to increase the sound quality of the overall turntable then this £100 cartridge will quickly become a bottle neck, damaging and skewing the Kit 10’s results. I moved up the ladder by a rung or three by changing this cartridge to an Audio-Technica VM540ML which you can find priced around £230. The stock Ortofon cartridge was a moving magnet design so I wanted to retain that moving magnet flavour and personality with the VM540ML. I just wanted to provide more capacity in this area to give the Technics turntable room to breathe.
The cartridge was used on both turntables during the test, incidentally.
My methodology for testing was this. I wanted to test each individual part of the Kit 10 with a stock model. I wanted to see what each upgrade element brought to the party, as it where. I wanted to see what parts of the sound envelope each bit of the Kit 10 addressed. Once each section of the Kit 10 was examined, then I wanted to lump the whole lot together and test the Kit 10 as a single entity.
For the sound tests I turned, as many of us do in times of turntable tribulation, to Ella Fitzgerald and an album of spiritual music on Capitol and the LP, Brighten the Corner. I chose I Shall Not be Moved a song that has as many footballing connotations these days as it does religious.
The track features percussion, a slightly shy piano on the left channel and a backing harmony choir, upright bass and cymbal taps. It’s a simple song, simply sung but there’s plenty of frequency action for the upgrade to tackle.
To begin, I took the Houdini-loaded headshell from the Funk Firm kit and tested that against an out-of-the-box 1500C to see what differences, in any, that made.
The difference offered by the addition of the Houdini-loaded headshell was interesting. It didn’t hit you over the head with ‘obvious’. A half-hearted, casual listen would probably result in a less than impressive response but if you listen to what had gone before and you listen to what you get now the differences are there and there’s plenty of them. The differences here reside in the detail and the information on offer.
In some ways, listening differences brought to the table via the Houdini/headshell was akin to seeing a flower blossoming. Before, the piano tinkled merrily and plonked with a sense of satisfaction but now there seemed more substance to that tinkling and plonking. There was more weight of information. The piano strings were getting together and launching in the same direction. Earlier, the piano sounded a little one dimensional. Now, the tonal realism was improved.
The same could be said of the upright bass which sounded fuller and richer in tone with a new-found weight that supplied a definite addition to the soundstage. The backing vocals revealed more information within the harmony. Rather than being lumped into a foggy mass that merely ‘sounded nice…pleasant’ there now appeared more context to that harmony. More information on the individual voices.
I then moved onto the Achromat and tested that, again in isolation. Testing the mat on the stock variant, I did have to change the VTA of the tonearm (as I say, easily done on the 1500C, check out P.16 in the turntable manual).
The results were straight-forward here. The addition of the mat lowered high-frequency noise. The Fitzgerald delivery was clearer in approach which added to the smoothness of her vocal. In addition, the music as a whole was more focused which enhanced the instrumental diction. What I mean is that notes started and stopped with a measure of purpose and exactitude.
Hence, the upright bass sounded definite in its approach. There seemed to be a sense of greater purpose from the bass response now. Instead of the earlier, slightly mushy sound, the bass notes offered a greater sense of accuracy while piano, a resonant and relatively chaotic instrument, seemed to sort itself out and offer a performance of greater precision. The result, especially with that lower noise floor, was a sparkling performance.
So then, what of the feet? The Bo!ng feet, four and true? I then tried those in isolation from the rest of the kit.
The result? Well, don’t make the mistake of seeing these feet as also-rans. Don’t see them as makeweights to this kit. They are critical, I would say. On their own? The isolation features from the sprung feet again remove vibrational effects around the turntable as a whole this time, plinth included, to infuse the soundstage with a gamut of air and space.
The vocal now had freedom to fully explore the song in emotional terms because the goal now offered a greater nuance and refinement. Fitzgerald’s signature smooth delivery really – well – delivered here. The smooth midrange performance allowed her to maximise her vocal strengths.
In addition, the overall noise reduction encouraged micro details to issue forth. Subtle effects here and there that added to an overall presentation that truly sparkled.
Which is all well and good but what happens when you put the entire orchestra to work? What happens when we complete the picture and have all three of the upgrade elements working in situ?
THE KIT 10
As I said at the beginning of this review, the 1500C is a very good performer. If you then compare the basic, out-of-the-box 1500C with the The Funk Firm upgrade, the latter could be accused of passive aggressivism because, when you listen to both as an A-B, the basic 1500C sounds ‘pleasant’, ‘nice’ and ‘fine’. The out-of-the-box 1500C is destined to die towards an unmarked grave. It’s reasonable. It’s ok.
The Funk Firm upgrade lifts the basic design to new heights. More than anything else here, the Funk Firm hits the noise floor where it hurts and sends it down to the canvas. The lower vibration and noise conveys a ton of new detail that just wasn’t there before. The entire soundstage opens up, air and space infuses it and drags delicate details with it.
Space is made in between instruments which means that you tend to hear more of their edges which improves definition, it focuses more on the start and stopping of notes, it enhances the pace of the music, it gives the presentation a greater transparency to formally shy details. All of that information is brought to the fore and listening fatigue is reduced. This makes you want to just well, sit there in your chair for longer. You become eager to hear what’s next.
So what can this turntable truly do when it’s off the leash? That’s what this Funk Firm upgrade kit is all about.
Before the upgrade, the SL-1500C sounded almost desultory. After it, the same turntable sounded methodical. It finally had a purpose.
Allow me to firstly compliment Technics and say that it has produced a good basic turntable design. A design whose capabilities exceeded its initial performance capabilities. Also allow me to remind you all of this. Turntables are released onto the market with capacity to burn. This Funk Firm upgrade kit is not the first time I’ve heard this effect.
Just because a manufacturer sends out a turntable design at Price Point X, accompanied by a list of accessories, it doesn’t mean that the brand ‘knows best’ so one should not touch, shouldn’t look to enhance or improve. Never forget that a manufacturer is restricted and is compromised whenever they build and release a product. Compromised by a build budget. Compromised by a target retail price.
If Technics could really let loose on the 1500C and make the most of the core design then they would have busted their budget. Which is not part of the game. Making money is the game. The ultimate game, here.
So again, never think that a manufacturer ‘knows best’. Never think, “They made it that way so ‘they should know’.” So I won’t touch that platter mat, those feet, that headshell. Rubbish. A manufacturer is in business to make a profit and its products are set to a quality of finish that is all part of the balancing act to achieve that profit.
You, as the end user, know and care not of their profit margin. And nor should you.
WORK IN PROGRESS
If you care about maximising the sound from your turntable purchase, then it’s your job to finish what any manufacturer started. And that’s what many turntables are when you buy them. A work in progress. You win if, in effect, you throw both money and ingenuity at the problem. Something the manufacturer is either unwilling or unable to do – because of economics and resources. Because of business.
If you want the best performance from your hi-fi components then don’t see yourself just as a passive consumer, wanting more like the sonic equivalent of Oliver Twist. See yourself as a proactive part of the design team, able to make a difference. It’s your job to get out there and tweak, to enhance and to get the most from the products you buy.
What The Funk Firm is doing here is helping in that task. It’s empowering all 1500C users to do just that. To enable you to finish the job. If what I have just said was wrong then there should be no performance enhancement from this upgrade kit. But there is. There’s an awful lot of improvement.
Thanks, once more, Technics for infusing the 1500C with hidden performance capacity and then thanks also to The Funk Firm for supplying the key to access it.
All 1500C users should take a careful look at this upgrade. It lifts that turntable up to another level.
FUNK FIRM KIT 10 UPGRADE KIT
Website: www.thefunkfirm.co.uk but call the company for this one because this kit isn’t on the site (at least, not the time of writing) ring +44 (0) 7846 798367 instead.
GOOD: low noise floor, spacious soundstage, focused bass, smooth mids, fragile treble
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