As exciting as today’s news – via Wired – concerning Panasonic’s apparent change of heart over the fate of their iconic turntable brand is, it can hardly be that unexpected. Although there have been plenty of pretenders to the Technics’ crown, most recently Pioneer’s resolutely old school PLX1000, nothing seems to have scratched the TT itch quite like a pair of the original bad boys. And even taking into account the number of units still available from Ebay and a billion other places, demand for the original decks remains incredibly high. This demand, coupled with the fact that sales of vinyl are hitting twenty year highs, makes it just about the best time Panasonic could hope for when it comes to bringing Technics back from the dead.
On the surface, it’s a great idea. Although never the most outstanding of turntables from a hi-fi point of view, the Techies garnered themselves a reputation as the deck of choice. The term ‘industry standard’ is one that is almost as overused as the term ‘underground’, but if anything can lay claim to that label, it’s Technics. Simple, built to survive a direct nuclear strike, and with a direct drive motor that would probably outlive you as long as you didn’t hit it with a hammer, you can understand why clubs were so willing to get their hands on them.
But here’s the thing: We don’t know if Panasonic has any interest in catering to the sort of freaks who mostly spin weird beats. The first photos of the prototype that are doing the rounds shows something that might give a Dalek a hard-on but looks uncomfortably austere. Sure, the damn thing doesn’t even have a tone arm just now, let alone pitch control or anything else, but there is already a rumour that the new Technics might not be the descendent of our beloved club-ready decks, that it might – whisper it – actually be aimed at the poncey Hi-Fi market instead.
And that’s a worry if true. For a start, direct drive turntables have long been frowned upon in the sort of circles where it’s considered cool to spunk ten G on a cartridge carved from sentient wood and coral. Belt drives have long been considered the better choice because of, I don’t know, something to do with magic or ghosts or Jesus or whatever. (Personally speaking, if your want to spend £50,000 on a super-duper system to hear the Budapest Symphony Orchestra play Mahler’s 9th ‘like they’re in the room with me’ I don’t know why you wouldn’t just hire them instead. I know, I’m a philistine.) Should Panasonic decide that the Hi-Fi market is the one they want to court, those of us who still hold fond memories of the Silver Brick would probably be left high and dry. These are two markets that are ships in the night and what works for one probably won’t work for the other. Have you ever tried to DJ on belt drive turntables? Try it once, if only to shut yourself up about how hard it is not to use the sync button on Traktor.
The vinyl sales thing is deeply misleading too. Mostly, those sales aren’t going to DJ Chucklebeard’s terribly cool and underground label. Those sales are going to the huge bastards they always did for the simple reason that EMI, Sony and the rest of them have seen yet another opportunity to flog us the same Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Roxy Music albums once again. They love format changes, remember; they loved CDs, they loved tapes. They loved selling us the same crap over and over and over. Most of the rest of the sales are going towards things like Sam Smith or Ed Sheeran 12″s because, and I can’t overstate this enough, people think that if the music is on wax it is more authentic and people are sometimes very, deeply, thick.
Of course, it could all work out nice. Pioneer got a bit of moaning aimed at them for the pretty old-fashioned feature set of the PLX1000 (it played records. Apparently some folks expected more). One wonders whether Panasonic have cast their eye over the changed world of music technology and decided to do something different. If they simply wanted a cut of the money currently going to people selling second-hand units on Ebay all they needed to do would be to relaunch the 1200/1210 and have done with it. But the fact that they are building the new turntable from scratch suggests changes are afoot. Will we see removable leads and wires? a greater pitch range? Will we see USB connectivity allowing greater and easier integration with digital systems, even a built in soundcard? Possibly, but I doubt it.
What I expect, and I do hope I’m wrong, is a very expensive high-end turntable which will be a thing of beauty and contain a level of sound quality that will make choirs of angels cry with envy, and which will trade heavily on the Technics branding for sales. What I don’t expect is a club ready slab of pure functionality that can withstand drum’n’bass spinbacks, gubbed DJs and spilled beer in equal measure. I really hope I’m wrong about that, but I have a feeling I won’t be. All we can do is wait and see. Whatever happens, expect the eventual delight and outrage to run parallel. Keep your ears pealed. It’s going to be interesting.