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Technics SL-120 Turntable Recommissioning

I love the classic Technics SL-120, so let’s look at how I recommissioned this lovely old girl!

Welcome back, everyone. I said you see me again sooner than you think, perhaps you didn’t expect two posts in one day though! I’ve been dying to do more writing and, as we approach the 2-million view milestone (no kidding), I’m trying to embrace a tentative Monday writing schedule like the good old days. So, sit back and relax as we dive again into the mists of the golden age with another of my favourite turntables, the gorgeous, direct-drive Technics SL-120.

Features

I reckon the Technics SL-120 is the thinking man’s SL-1200, not quite as ‘pretty’ perhaps but a better and more sensible choice for many. You give up the mostly superfluous DJ features (pitch slider and cueing lamp) and gain a more elegant, simple turntable that rewards with typical Technics build quality and reliability. The chassis and motor are the same, but you get no tonearm as standard. That meant you could fit whatever arm you wanted when you ordered one.

The chassis, like the SL-1200, is a lovely light alloy die-casting, though the deck feels anything but lightweight. Technically speaking these are lower in mass than a Technics SL-110 or 1100 (articles coming), or a Kenwood KD-600/650 for example but much more substantial than many belt drive competitors of the day. The Technics SL-M3 which came later is an even heavier beast of a table and one of my favourites.

You get a nice strobe to allow for precise speed adjustment, a balanced and moderately weighty platter for smooth rotation, a heavy-duty motor, of which the platter is a part, two speed verniers and a cool little ‘joystick’ thing to turn the deck on and select speeds. That’s it though, no pitch slider and really nothing else unnecessary and I like that.

As always, for those wanting a video overview and a few extra bits and pieces, check my accompanying video:

Technics SL-120 Specifications

Courtesy of Vinyl Engine, show them some love people!

Type: manual turntable

Drive method: direct drive – why? learn!

Motor: brushless DC motor

Platter: 330mm, 1.75kg, aluminium diecast

Speeds: 33 and 45rpm

Pitch control: 10%

Wow and flutter: 0.03% WRMS

Rumble: -70dB

Dimensions: 453 x 366 x 180mm

Weight: 10.0kg (with dust cover)

Problems

I’ve worked on many of these lovely machines over the years and the story is usually similar – the deck has been sitting idle, poorly set up or maybe damaged, and needs TLC to get right and usable again. Often an SL-120 will be fitted with a lovely SME 3009, like this one I restored in 2016. Other times though, they will be fitted with something much worse.

This SL-120 came from an engineer who loved it, but his mechanical skills were not quite in keeping with what he wanted to achieve. This is no judgment of the original owner, it’s something I see often. People want to save money, especially where they have a background that perhaps leads them to take on this type of work, but the theoretical and practical aspects of engineering for example are completely different. The results often include damage, poor parts choices and poorly executed repairs.

That was certainly the case here as the tonearm wiring and headshell wires were damaged, the tonearm was mounted poorly, to a damaged phenolic mounting plate, a screw had been forced into the chassis and broken off and the deck didn’t run properly. The cartridge was a decent but worn-out Shure M-55.

The deck also didn’t hold speed, the master speed adjustments were way out so that both verniers were pegged at the end of their adjustment range and she was just looking tired, dirty and in need of some love. The deck had been passed on to his daughter and sat unused, in a box, for years, hence the recommissioning needed here.

Overhaul

What’s plan B..? Well, in this case, the current owner and daughter of the original owner, wanted the deck recommissioned so it could be enjoyed for many years to come. I achieved that in two straightforward stages:

  • I serviced and repaired all extant parts where possible, and the SL-120, and made recommendations for any additional parts necessary to get the deck running perfectly for the foreseeable future.
  • I supplied and installed the necessary parts including Rega RB-303 tonearm, suitable arm board and Audio Technica VM-95ML cartridge, and of course set all of this up perfectly, including overhang, azimuth, VTA, tracking force and anti-skate.

Time to look at a few of those details. Let’s go!

1981 Rocks On
Yeessssss!

Results

I think you’ll agree the deck looks amazing, amazingly better than before and sonically, this Technics SL-120 sounds superb. This is for a few reasons including that the deck itself is a great performer and in excellent condition, the new parts are all excellent and picked precisely because they work extremely well together and the critical set-up was done, as always, to the micron.

A good direct-drive machine like the SL-120 has a sense of solidity, pace and rhythm that many lesser decks struggle to capture. With the added bonus of the Rega RB-303 and Audio Technica VM-95ML, the deck picks up warmth, midrange smoothness and resolution of detail that many SL-1200s don’t have.

The deck can be improved further of course, with the addition of a better cartridge, perhaps an Audio Technica AT-OC9x in one of its many modern variants, perhaps the AT-OC9XML which I like a lot.

The owner and her husband are very pleased, which is very rewarding:

Mike

Thanks for your efforts on the turntable. She is connected to a Sansui AU 505 amplifier and Technics SB 101 speakers. Beautiful sound. Rose is very happy.

Paul M

Thanks of course to Paul and Rose for entrusting me with their lovely heirloom!

Technics SL-120
Rega RB-303
Lovely Rega RB-303 tonearm, close-up, before final adjustment and possibly at the first mock-up stage in terms of the armboard. I’ve used the factory Rega fasteners and you might see the nylon shims I’ve used here to trim VTA adjustment. VTA is a critical adjustment and shims are not optional where VTA needs to be dialled in with a Rega arm. I should mention that the better Rega tonearms like the RB-303/330 upwards are in large part responsible for the sonic performance of Rega decks. These are very good arms and I rate the RB-303/330 highly.
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The Audio Technica AT VM-95ML moving magnet cartridge is a killer at the $300 price point. I supply and fit dozens of these each year.

You’d be hard-pressed to beat a lovely and well-fettled deck like this SL-120 for anything less than about the $3,000 AUD you’d need to buy a new Technics SL-1200GR. Get one from Dan at Addicted to Audio if you want one, they are very good for the money and I’ve set up many of these great decks, highly recommended at that price-point.

I prefer the SL-120 in this comparison though, because: a) it’s vintage and b) the RB-303 on this one is better than the Technics arm. You can pick up an SL-120 for not a lot these days, I think they are still undervalued for what they are, like a lot of vintage hi-fi gear. That’s changing of course, so if you want bargains, grab them while they are still available.

As always, I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit and if you’d like me to look at your Technics SL-120, SL-1200 or any other lovely Japanese turntable for that matter, you need only get in touch.

Thanks for visiting you legends and stay tuned for the next article!


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6 thoughts on “Technics SL-120 Turntable Recommissioning”

  1. What an Easter Egg bonus – two articles from Mike!

    So good to read about this lovely Technics being restored and upgraded so carefully and thoughtfully – well done!

    I’m another big fan of the Audio Technica AT VM-95ML cartridge and microlinear stylus – have one on my restored Dual 1219.

    I notice from your Feedback section that you have recently worked on a Sansui AU-555A – as the owner of one of those, I’m eager to read that story, hint, hint.

    Rob H.

    1. Thanks Rob, glad you enjoyed those two and there will be more as I attempt to regain my writing schedule. The AU-555A is a classic, I’ll get to that story eventually too!

  2. I have two Technics SL-1700s. Maybe old but they still perform, and are my go to turntables for my vinyl old and new.

      1. Andrew rodriquez

        My neighbors son left to the army 3 years ago … He gave me 2 Technics “1200mk2” and 2 “1200mk5” that his son left. They’ve been in my closet for about 13 years now – they are like new and work perfect…. Are these worth anything? And also some funny gimmicky one it’s a “Vestax Qfo”. Any Info would be appreciated

        1. Hi Andrew and yes, good equipment like this is always worth something, though how much depends on condition, service history, etc. Try selling these in your local hi-fi forum or trading platform. If unsure of a decent price, search hifi shark previous and current sales.

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