Audio

Pioneer PLX-1000: A DJ turntable an audiophile can love?

Pioneer's new super-solid PLX-1000 turntable shakes up the Audiophiliac.

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The Pioneer PLX-1000 Pioneer Electronics

Most audiophiles never got on-board with direct-drive turntables, which is why the vast majority of high-end turntables are belt-drive designs. Their logic is simple enough: with belt-drive, the belt mechanically isolates the motor from the platter, so whatever rumble or noise the motor generates won't be transmitted through the platter and LP to the stylus tracing the groove.

High-torque, direct-drive turntables are favored by DJs for scratching and quick platter start-up, but direct drive's advantages are of little use with an audiophile-oriented turntable. Things are changing, over the last few years direct-drives are picking up admirers among persnickety audiophiles. The new VPI Classic Direct-Drive turned a lot of hard-core belt-drive fans around, but it's a very expensive turntable, so I wanted to try a much more affordable direct-drive turntable, and Pioneer's new PLX-1000 seemed like a great place to start.

When unboxing the PLX-1000 you get a sense of this turntable's considerable mass; it weighs 28.9 pounds (13.1 kg); an equivalent Rega or Music Hall belt-drive model weighs a third less. The PLX-1000 measures 17.8 x 6.3 x 13.9 inches (453 x 159 x 353 mm), and has stereo RCA phono output jacks and an IEC AC power connector on the rear panel. The PLX-1000 is a manual design; you have to manually lift the arm off its rest, place it over the LPs grooves and manually lower the phono cartridge's stylus onto the grooves.

Setup is straightforward for anyone who has previously set up a turntable, and the owner's manual takes you through the process step by step. Mounting a delicate phono cartridge on the turntable's headshell is no biggie, but fumble-fingered newbies should seek the aid of an experienced turntable owner. Once the cartridge is mounted the rest of the setup takes less than 10 minutes.

The PLX-1000 plays 33 1/3 and 45rpm discs, and since it was designed for DJs, the PLX-1000 has a tempo (speed) fader control, with a range of up to +/- 50 percent. Since the PLX-1000 doesn't have a built-in phono preamp, I used a Schiit Mani.

Compared with playing digital music formats, LPs and singles are a very hands-on trip: you're involved, and because of that you're also much more likely to focus on the music than digital music that asks nothing from you. With vinyl, the music is in the forefront, with digital it's background. That can be a profound difference.

The PLX-1000's LED in the front of the turntable scans the LP's grooves, so you can cue LPs in a dark room and still see what you're doing. I initially used a Shure M44-7 phono cartridge for all of my listening tests, but with the help of two audiophile buddies, Michael and Herb, I got a chance to try Ortofon's 2 M Black moving-magnet and Zu Audio's DL-103 Mk.II moving-coil cartridges. Each one was mounted on a plug-in headshell, so we could quickly swap one cartridge for the next. The Shure's sound was the most forgiving: it was very mellow and sweet. The Ortofon had a lot more detail, but the Zu Audio cartridge was the best. It was far more transparent and lively than the others.

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Technics SL-1200 Mk2 (left) Pioneer PLX-1000 (right) Steve Guttenberg/CNET

We compared the PLX-1000 with a belt-drive VPI Traveler turntable; that one's bass sounded a little soggy and bloated next to the PLX-1000's tighter low-end. Frankly, I was surprised; VPI sounded so lackluster, the PLX-1000 had more get up and go. Wow, the direct-drive beat out the belt-drive; it was no contest!

Michael also brought over a Technics SL-1200 Mk2 direct-drive turntable so we could compare it with the PLX-1000, while swapping the same cartridge between the turntables. The two 'tables look very similar, and had near identical feature sets, but they didn't sound the same. The SL-1200 MK2 had a warmer tonal balance, with better-defined bass; the PLX-1000 was brighter and clearer-sounding, so it was more fun to listen to. With my old Beatles albums, John Lennon's vocals popped out of the mix more on the PLX-1000.

The Technics is no longer made, so I'm especially happy to see the Pioneer PLX-1000 taking up the slack. It sells for $699 in the US. The UK price is £599, and in Australia it's AU$849.