It’s time I wrote a piece on the legendary Kenwood KD-500 / KD-550 direct-drive turntables. These classic direct-drive decks hail from an era when things were built to last.
Indeed, if decks like the KD-500 / KD-550 with this level of bespoke engineering were to be built now, they would cost many thousands of dollars. The Technics SL-1200 is a classic example – it’s been reissued and costs literally thousands! This is just one reason I love these Kenwood decks.
Nothing new from Rega or Project can even hope to come close the level of precision you see in a deck like the KD-500. The Japanese just knew how to do this stuff properly, nothing spared. A modern Rega and a KD-500 or 550 are in differnent universes, no matter what the salesperson tells you. Trust me, he or she hasn’t owned one of these and remember – I’m not selling you anything here!
The difference between the KD-500 and 550 relates to the tonearm – the KD-500 came without an arm from the factory. The idea was that you would then fit your favourite Grace G-707, or perhaps an SME Series 2 or 3. The KD-550 came with a Kenwood tonearm that was really very nice for the asking price.
Specifications, courtesy of the Vinyl Engine:
Drive: direct-drive system
Motor: 8-pole 24 slot brushless DC servo motor
Platter: 30cm, 1.5kg aluminium alloy die-cast
Speeds: 33.33 and 45rpm
Wow and flutter: less than 0.03% WRMS
Signal to noise ratio: more than 60dB
Tonearm: static-balance type, s-shaped pipe arm, eia plug-in connector on KD-550
Effective length: 237mm
Tracking force range: 0 to 4g
Usable cartridge range: 5 to 12g
Dimensions: 502 x 382 x 162mm
The deck in the pictures here is a KD-500, and therefore has a Kenwood arm. These Kenwood direct drive decks have a chassis made from Kenwood proprietary ARCB synthetic granite. The motors are a custom, high-torque design, the tonearm on the KD-550 is also a Kenwood custom design. More on this custom engineering below.
The KD-500 / KD-550 have custom-manufactured direct-drive motors. This is a whole world of precision apart from the AC ‘clock’ motors you find in Rega or Linn decks for example. This is what the Japanese do best, well-designed, well-executed custom engineering like this. No belt-drive deck can hope to compete with the speed and pitch stability generated a direct-drive motor like the one found here. You can tell as soon as you play a record.
Another area where the Kenwood KD-500 / KD-550 excels is the chassis or ‘plinth’. This is not a plinth made of wood or chipboard like many other decks. Instead, this plinth is made from synthetic marble, or granite, called ARCB. ARCB is a resin impregnated composite, that looks and feels like marble and a material Kenwood became famous for. Possessing excellent strength and damping properties, ARCB can also be molded into complex shapes, like the chassis you see in the images in this article.
Something like this would not even be made now due to the high costs to set up production. If it were, it would be thousands of dollars. If you look at the feature image at the top of this page, you will see the attention to detail in the heavily ribbed under-chassis, all designed to dampen and minimise resonance through the deck.
The platter on the Kenwood is nice, nothing special, just solid and weighing around 1.5kg. The whole deck weighs around 15kg which these days would put it in the massive category. Rumble is around -70dB and wow and flutter sit at around 0.03%, all very good figures even now.
You can see some specs and a few more pics of the KD-500 at the excellent The Vintage Knob.
One thing I always do when a Kenwood KD-500 / KD-550 comes in for service is clean and lubricate the bearing and motor. These motors were designed as sealed-for-life units. It turns out though that the folks who designed the deck and wrote the service manual underestimated how long these wonderful turntables would last! These days, unserviced motors are running dry and are very much in need of a fresh dose of synthetic bearing oil. This always makes a deck run more quietly, often more quietly than when new due to improvements in lubricants since the 1970’s. .
I should also mention the Kenwood KD-600/650 direct-drive turntables. These are even better, synthetic marble decks from Kenwood. I own one of these and can confirm it is a superb deck. Mine came with a gorgeous SME Series 3 tonearm which I rewired with silver.
In Use & Sound Quality
Both the Kenwood KD-500 and KD-550 are a delight to use. Being fully manual decks, you get to enjoy raising and lowering the arm yourself, cueing the lead-in groove and returning the arm to rest at the end of a record. And because it’s manual, there’s nothing interfering with the tonearm and its ability to extract detail from the groove.
You get simple push-buttons for speed selection and there’s a handy strobe to help you sync the speed. This is not a quartz-locked deck, rather the speed is referenced to the mains frequency of 50 or 60Hz, depending on where you live.
Because of the massive chassis and compliant feet, the deck is good at isolating itself from external noise and vibration. Even so, you should always mount a deck on a dedicated shelf, preferably wall-mounted.
This is a very good sounding turntable, with nothing strange to report. It simply gets out of the ways and plays a record, exactly what you want and exactly what cheap modern decks find it really hard to do! With the right arm, or the Kenwood arm in the KD-550, bass is deep and controlled. Midrange and treble are smooth and unfatiging and soundstaging is excellent. Pitch stability is of course also excellent. Just find a good cartridge to match and you’re all set.
The Bottom Line
This part is easy. If you want a fully manual deck with huge bang for the buck and cool retro looks, look no further than the Kenwood KD-500 or KD-550. This is an excellent deck and one of the best mid-range decks from this period.
If you need yours serviced, I look at many of these decks and can quickly and easily get yours running at it’s best. I can of course recommend, supply and fit a suitable cartridge, and I’m very familiar with all the little tricks needed to get these machines running perfectly.
Don’t forget, you’ll find more KD-500/550 articles here.