It’s another weekend of analog music fun over here at the apartment! A couple nights ago, I picked up a vintage turntable from beloved Minneapolis record store Roadrunner Records. I’m getting it for my Dad as a Christmas present. The table is a 1979 Realistic LAB-420, a fully automatic direct drive turntable from the late 1970s. This table was manufactured by CEC in Japan (a behind-the-scenes player that built decks for many of the major brands) and sold by Radioshack in the USA, and is today regarded as a minor classic. I paid $125 for the unit, which is a steal for anything in high-end audio, and thankfully everything works perfectly.

I took the table home and cleaned it out as best I could, even giving the wood a solid waxing. Then last night, the fine crew at Needle Doctor gave me a terrific deal on a new phono cartridge and headshell. For $150, I received a Technics headshell (in black), and the celebrated Audio Technica 440mla Moving Magnet cartridge.

I took everything home and started to play some albums. The sound, unfortunately, seemed to be off. There was far too much bass, the sound was too muffled and heavy, and for the life of me I couldn’t discover the cause. Was this just because the turntable is old? Is it because it’s a direct drive? Is it because the cart needs time to break in? After some time, I finally discovered what the problem with the sound is, and it’s one of those stupid rookie mistakes: my Pro-Ject Tube Box II phono preamp was set to “MC” mode! D’oh! I had completely forgotten about that. The “MC” (Moving Coil) setting has a gain of 60db, while the “MM” (Moving Magnet) has a gain of 40db. I clicked the button to the correct setting, and instantly everything was transformed.

The Realistic Lab-420 is my first immersion into direct drive turntables, after using two belt drive decks. I’m completely blown away. Now I must rethink everything I’ve been taught about direct drives being inferior to belts. This really is a terrific table, and it’s going to be very hard for me to give it away on Christmas.

The AT-440mla is a stunning cartridge: clear tones, sharply detailed, excellent dynamics, tracks like a dream. Needle Doctor gave me a great deal. They had the cart already mounted onto a Technics headshell, and they sold the package to me for $150. Once again, the Needle Doctor crew delivers!

Right now, I have my Pro-Ject Debut III alongside the Lab-420. This way I can spend a few days testing one against the other. It’s here that I wish I had a preamp with more sockets (the Tube Box only has one pair). So far, it’s been illuminating and a bit humbling.

The short, short version is that the Lab-420 kicks. The Debut III is pretty much even, maybe even very slightly ahead. But this is due to three crucial upgrades: 1) the Speed Box II, 2) the acrylic platter, and 3) the Denon DL-160 cartridge. With all these weapons, it’s an equal race. I strongly suspect the only difference at this point is the difference between the carts. The DL-160 has more muscle and is super-smooth, while the 440mla has the clarity and crispness. Perhaps I should try switching carts for a full comparison, but I’m still inexperienced in changing carts.

And this is with a fully decked-out Debut III. The stock unit — no Speed Box, steel platter, Ortofon OM5E cart — would just get steamrolled. No contest. The Lab-420 would just kick its hide. That’s the humbling part for me. I paid $125 for the Lab, the Debut much more so.

The Lab-420 still delivers the better bass, richer and fuller. My Debut performs brilliantly, but that’s really the Denon doing all the work. The 440mla is a strong contender, though, and even if it’s a dryer sound, everything is so detailed and sharp that pretty soon I’m singing along to Neil Young just the same.

Then there’s style. On that front, no contest, Realistic wins hands down. It’s a fantastic looking machine. I miss the days when stereo components were made of wood. The tonearm is sleek and shiny, the platter is unbelievably smooth, everything carries size, gravity, presence.

The best thing to come from this experience is that my mind is open to direct drive tables. If this is what the DJ scene raves about with their Technics decks, then I must believe them. I don’t know how the Lab-420, or the Technics 1200, would compare to a $1,000 belt drive. I would expect the more expensive machines to win out. But it’s the fact that you have to spend so much more to win that contest; that’s the thing that always gets to me, nudges me in my ribs and drives me half-bonkers.

I think if anyone is lucky enough to score one of these vintage tables, they’ll have something to cherish for years to come. Heck, just get a couple more phono carts and headshells (a mono cart would be killer), and you’re set for life. You’ll never want for anything.

Like I said, I’ll have a hard time giving the Lab-420 away for Christmas. But my dad will have a fantastic turntable that will keep him happy for life. And anytime I see another one of these tables, I’ll snap them up without hesitation. Everyone should. You can always give them to friends and family, and they’ll be able to experience the thrills of analog music.

Anyway…whew. That’s my report. Not a bad way to finish out 2008.

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