The legendary Kenwood KD-500 / KD-550 direct-drive turntables are classic decks from an era when things really were built to last.
Indeed, if decks like the KD-500 / KD-550 with this level of custom engineering were 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.
I’ve written many Kenwood KD-500/550 articles, and don’t forget to check out my articles on the Kenwood KD-600 / KD-650, which are just about the best direct-drive decks from Kenwood, apart from the legendary L-07D.
The only difference between the KD-500 and 550 is in the tonearm. The KD-500 came without an arm from the factory, while the 550 was supplied with a Kenwood arm. The idea was that you would then fit your favourite Grace G-707, or perhaps an SME Series 2 or 3 to the KD-500.
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
Effective length: 237mm
Tracking force range: 0 to 4g
Usable cartridge range: 5 to 12g
Dimensions: 502 x 382 x 162mm
Nothing new from Rega or Pro-Ject can even hope to come to close the level of precision you see in a deck like the KD-500. The Japanese just do this stuff properly, nothing spared. A modern Rega and a KD-500 or 550 are in different 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 deck in the pictures here is a KD-500 and therefore has a non-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 feature custom-manufactured direct drive motors. This is a world of precision apart from the puny AC clock motors you find in Rega or Linn decks and is exactly what the Japanese do best – impeccably well-designed, well-executed custom engineering.
No belt-drive deck can even 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, despite what all the belt drive fanboys will tell you!
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, the Kenwood plinth is made from a synthetic marble, or granite, called ARCB.
ARCB is a resin impregnated composite. It looks and feels like marble and is a material Kenwood became well-known for. Many customers still whisper about the “marble turntables” when they see Kenwood decks here in the shop. Possessing excellent strength and damping properties, ARCB can also be moulded into complex shapes, like these KD-500 / 550 chassis for example.
With the extraordinarily high costs needed to set up production, it’s unlikely we will ever see custom materials engineering like this again in turntables. If you look at the featured image at the top of this page, you’ll see the attention to detail in the heavily ribbed under-chassis. All this was designed to dampen and minimise resonance in the deck.
The platter on the Kenwood is nice and solid, weighing around 1.5kg. It’s not a heavyweight platter, but the 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%, very good figures even now.
You can see a few more pics of the KD-500 at 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 1970s.
I should also mention the Kenwood KD-600/650 direct-drive turntables. These are even better ARCB decks from Kenwood. I own one of these and it is a superb deck. Mine came with a gorgeous SME Series 3 tonearm.
The KD-500 and KD-550 are a delight to use. Being fully manual decks, you get to raise and lower the arm yourself, cueing the lead-in groove and returning the arm to rest at the end of a record. This is proper turntabling and, because it’s manual, nothing interferes with the tonearm and its ability to extract information from the groove.
Simple push-buttons select the speed and there’s a handy strobe to help you get that spot on. 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 pretty well isolated from external noise and vibration. Even so, you should always mount a deck on a dedicated shelf, preferably wall-mounted.
This is a very nice sounding turntable. It simply gets out of the way and plays records, exactly what you want and exactly what cheap modern decks find it really hard to do. With a good arm or the Kenwood arm in the KD-550, the bass is deep and controlled. Midrange and treble are smooth and unfatiguing and sound-staging is excellent. Pitch stability is of course also excellent. Just find a good cartridge to match and you’re all set.
The Bottom Line
If you want a manual deck with a huge bang for the buck and cool retro looks, look no further than the Kenwood KD-500 or KD-550. These are excellent decks and certainly 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 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.