Annihilating an Icon: Matsushita Murders the Technics SL-1200

It has been rumoured for years, often perhaps with the cynicism of local distributors wanting to get a flood of orders, but it looks as if the Technics SL-1200 series has finally been flushed away by Matsushita (Panasonic to most) like a dead bug, an unwanted distraction.

Most will have some sense of its greatness, but it worth remembering just how remarkble it was. This was one of the most important musical instruments, design icons and unintended pieces of genius in the history of technology. Originally released in 1972 as a tough, feature rich for the time hi-fi turntable, the base Mk2 model DJs especially love to use was introduced in 1979. Unlike belt driven turntables (which are much much better for hi-fi use really – yes you need to replace the belt but who cares), it used a magnetic motor that made it just perfect for scratching, spinning and generally turning vinyl records themselves into expressive musical instruments. Most of the millions built are still in use as they are one of the perfect Japanese pride products of the 60s and 70s.

Technics was for Panasonic what Lexus is for Toyota – a chance to sell top of the line kit to people who might be prejudiced and also have a mental price limit for what they would pay for a product made by a firm known for budget transistor radios. The debut of electronic, belt free ‘direct drive’ turntables created the widest impact. There were lots of lovely Technics components far into the 1980s well beyond turntables, but over time this slimmed down to just a few items and then nothing except for a few models of headphones, turntables and DJ sound mixers. In a post iPod world, hi-fi is a pretty small place to be and Panasonic no longer is involved except at the margins with a few cheap ‘micro’ systems. People these days are happy with very low quality compressed digital audio files played via ‘docks’ or PCs with 5 watt rubbish speakers.

DJs are a small but important market who have stayed true to the SL-1200 and Technics. Many top DJs use Technics turntables with special interfaces and software to control digital files, often in preference to colder ‘CD’ or ‘Digital’ turntables that simulate an SL. DJs and those who pretend to be them are a very small market, but high margin and with no small influence in the cool stakes.

The excuse in the official announcement is that due to market conditions where analogue sales are small, it is hard to get enough components and many suppliers for a 35-40 year old product are gone or certainly a bit diminished. Fair enough, but it is not difficult to reengineer to take a few different bits as needs be. There are plenty of firms that market SL imitators, many with the same components. Did Porsche cancel the 911 just because some firm that supplied a wire harness or knob stopped doing so? If Technics was a stand alone business solely selling the SL, tee shirts and headphones it would be doing just fine. So what is the real story?

If the SLs were a named Panasonic product, they would never have been cancelled. The halo effect of niche premium products is far too great, and well known. Many times the Chevrolet Corvette programme made a loss or barely broke even. GM would not touch it even when in the throes of bankruptcy. Canon hand builds some special lenses for sports photojournalists that sell a small handful of units a year for barely what they cost to make. And why on Earth does Yamaha make pianos and guitars? In a purely accounting sense these products should not exist – they are a distraction. Of course that is not how a brand works, however. The Corvette and the Canon lenses are a living demonstration of brand excellence designed for the interests of key influencer groups. You might buy a low end Canon or Chevrolet because of the halo effect of credibility earned with influencers and all kinds of media, on and offline.

Panasonic is one of the greatest technology firms on Earth. I began to turn to them in the early 1990s when my old Discman (which was lovely) stopped working for some minor reason and I noticed some Chinese OEM made the modern equivalent in vile, thin plastic. The Panasonic was Made in Japan, had a metal chassis, better sound and was a bit cheaper. Thus began my renewed love of Matsushita, whose components I noticed in my Mac as well. Now Panasonic is my default brand for everything from TVs to rice cookers and compact digital cameras. All these products are uniformly excellent.

Panasonic are also technologically stubborn in the Japanese way when they feel they are correct, as Sony was with the Betamax videocassette recorder. They have stuck with the ‘obsolete’ plasma television technology abandoned by the rest of the industry as expensive to make compared to LCD because it is just better (it is capable of real blacks, higher contrast and richer colours). I would bet my life that had DJs and the public knew the same SL under a Panasonic badge, it would be immortal.

I am amazed and disappointed Technics was not sold as a brand with all the tooling needed to make SL turntables to someone like Stanton, Vestax or Audio Technica but again this is not a Japanese thing to do business wise. Maybe someone will pull a Polaroid on it and get the tooling before its too late.

In the end the SL was killed off because it had the wrong brand name on it. This is a far sadder and more inexcusable fate than the cover story about components could even hint at. Eternal shame has been earned by the casual vandals responsible for this cultural atrocity.


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