Lets buy and refurbish a vintage turntable

Old can sometimes be better than new…

It’s time for me to get a new turntable.

I had just sold my Onkyo CP-1050 after a little bit of a love/hate relationship with it. It looked fantastic, but it suffered from Hanpin syndrome, with a little bit of rumble from the direct-drive motor, and one of the worst tonearm/bearing assemblies I’ve seen on a “HiFi turntable.” 

Beautiful Deck. If it only felt and performed as half as good as it looks…

I wanted something that reminded me of my old Akai AP-Q55, or Papa’s HiFi’s old SL1200. I decided that unless I want to spend $1500 or more on a new Technics 1500 or 1200, I’m gonna have to go vintage.

However, with the recent “Vinyl Boom,” decent decks that were going for $5-$50 five or six years ago, are now going for hundreds of dollars. Because of that, I decided to go searching for a diamond in the rough and refurbish my own vintage turntable.

My Old Akai AP-Q55.

It’s important to emphasize that when I say refurbish, I don’t mean rebuild. I’m looking for something at an attractive price that needs a little bit of TLC, and maybe a couple of spare parts to take on a new-in-box turntable. I’m also going to install a new cartridge, so nothing that’s been recently serviced or had its cart/stylus recently replaced, so that should save me some money.

I decided to go with a total budget of $250-$300, which puts me in line with new-in-box turntables like the AT-LP120 and Fluance RT82; high-fidelity oriented but still relatively inexpensive and entry-level.

$250-$300 does seem like a lot of money for a project deck, but being in the Bay Area, everything’s a little bit pricier. I also want this turntable to sonically outperform brand new decks at the price point, so it’s nice to have a little bit of budget to play around with when it comes to the cartridge.

I put together a checklist that covers all of my personal preferences for the perfect turntable:

  • Direct Drive
  • Preferably Quartz Lock
  • “S” Shape Tonearm

I did the usual rounds at the local thrift shops and Goodwills, but nothing that I was looking for. Craigslist, eBay, and local listings brought up more results, but OK-ish decks were going for pretty high prices, and better condition examples were entirely out of my budget. So overall, nothing that screamed “project!”.

I decided to hit up a local vintage HiFi repair shop here in the Bay Area that fixes up and sells vintage turntables, along with everything else HiFi you can think of. This place is usually a little pricey, and I wasn’t too thrilled on going there, but I did remember a stack of hapless looking turntables either getting ready to be repaired or are too far gone to make it viable for the shop owner to fix up and sell. I thought that if I have a chance of finding a gem worth polishing up and saving, it’s there.

I came in and spoke with the shop owner about a project deck, and he pointed me to the pile of neglected-looking record players. After digging through a menagerie of turntables, I picked out a beefy and chunky Technics SL-5200.

It ticked off pretty much all the boxes:

  • Direct Drive
  • Quartz Lock
  • “S” Shaped Tonearm

The shop owner let me take it to his workbench to see if the basics were still working, and they did. A quick rub on the completely trashed Pickering cartridge gave me some noise, and an RPM app on my smartphone reassured me that this Technics is spot-on accurate at 33.3 RPM.

God bless quartz lock!  

The SL-5200 in an Automatic turntable, which in reality means semi-automatic, or that it has an auto-return feature, so I also made sure that the return mechanism is working. Besides some jerkiness and a little extra slipping on the queuing lever, it seemed to work fine. The only real fault I could see I wouldn’t be able to fix on my own was the broken dustcover.

The shop owner asked for $70 (Silicone Valley prices SMH), and I was able to bring him down to $55.

The SL-5200 on the work bench at home.

After taking a closer look at home, I noticed that the Pickering cartridge on the plastic Stanton headshell, while being bent to hell, was more than a little outdated and not really worth sourcing a new stylus for. However, before getting a new headshell and cart, I wanted to make sure everything else on the deck was up to snuff. So, I took out my trusty Audio Technica AT-91 cart and started dialing it in to see what else needed mending, fixing, and replacing.

I decided to tackle the fast and jerky queuing system first. After a little messing around and troubleshooting, I could tell that the queuing lever’s dampening fluid reservoir was bone dry.

Like most things in this hobby, there are cheap options as well as some more expensive alternatives. Typically, if you are looking at a specific product marketed as “Dampening Fluid for Turntables,” the price can get pretty steep for a little vile of silicone grease.

I have good experiences using silicone differential fluid for RC cars. It’s cheap, and it’s easy to find at most hobby shops. I usually go with the smallest bottle of 30,000-35,000 CST (viscosity) silicone diff fluid for around $5 with an applicator. Now the queuing lever goes up and down with the grace of a Cirque De Soliel acrobat. 

While I had the top part of the armrest off to fill the dampening fluid, I noticed that the rubber had gotten a little dry and shiny over the years, which would explain the slippy and slidey-ness when raising the arm. A quick rub of some Rubber Restore brought it back to its grippy glory.

The Autoreturn on the SL-5200 is so graceful!

Now that the queuing and return parts were all working, I decided to balance the turntable, and that’s when I noticed the anti-skating issue. When trying to dial it in, it would just swing in both directions and was impossible to balance. I used a test LP and a Laserdisc to try and dial it in, but I was still having problems. Eventually, I flipped the deck to see what was going on.  

On the inside of the deck, I could see that the corresponding spring for the anti-skating was caked in what looked like 4-decade old mechanical grease, and was seizing the majority of the spring, making it go stiff. I took a cotton swab with a little bit of isopropyl alcohol and cleaned out all of the old oil and massaged the spring a bit back to life to help ensure a more even pull. Then I re-applied some fresh grease to the spring to help with rust and closed it back up.

That seemed to fix the issue with the anti-skating, and I was able to dial it in just right.

Dialing in the Anti-Skating with an old LaserDisc.

Mechanically, the turntable was now in excellent working condition. It’s time to tackle that yellowed and broken dustcover. I’ve had some good results in the past with interchanging Technics components, so I tried my luck with a relatively inexpensive 3rd party SL-1200 replacement dustcover I had lying around, but that didn’t work. I looked around to see if anyone was selling just the dustcover, but except for 2 or 3 less broken examples, the used market was pretty dry.  In the end, a new dustcover is the only viable option.  

To my surprise, the dustcover turned out to be the most expensive part of this whole build. I tried looking for an OEM part, but Technics understandably doesn’t support a 40+-year-old model.

I eventually spent $110 with shipping on a custom-made acrylic dustcover from a seller on eBay who makes dustcovers for a variety of unsupported vintage turntables.

The new dustcover isn’t an exact reproduction since it’s made up of clear acrylic panels that are glued together instead of tinted injection molding. That means that instead of plastic tabs that fit into the deck’s spring-loaded hinges, it has metal washers screwed in to serve as tabs. However, there was a problem when I installed the dustcover onto the turntable.

The left hinge felt like it didn’t have enough grip on the metal tabs and was making the whole thing slip out whenever I opened or closed it. I took a more in-depth look at the problematic hinge and noticed a hairline crack going down the inner side of the plastic hinge housing. Whenever the dustcover put pressure on the hinge, it would splay open, and the tab would slip out. :/

JB Weld to the rescue! I put a little bit (more like an oversized blob) of some JB Weld cement down the crack and clicked on a small vice-grip plier and let it dry and cure overnight.

To be honest, I was sure that the adhesive would crack open the second I put the dustcover on, but it held up remarkably well. There’s still a minimal wobble, but it’s completely manageable, and most importantly, the dustcover now stays in place.

The final touch on the dustcover was getting the metallic “Technics” logo off of the old and broken dustcover and putting it on the new one. I used a blow dryer and started blasting it with heat from underneath until the sticker started to rise. I then carefully pulled it off with a pair of tweezers and used some Zippo lighter fluid to help get rid of the old adhesive without damaging the print on the sticker.

Along with the help of a ruler, a dry erase marker, and a glue dot, I was able to center the old logo on the new dustcover. It’s a small detail that really pushed the aesthetic of this build to the next level.

The SL-5200 with the new perspex lid and transplanted Tehcnics sticker.

Now that the deck works well and is looking super fresh, it was time to make it sound amazing with a new cartridge. Budget wise, the deck is at around $170, including the dustcover and dampening fluid, leaving me with about $130 to play with.

I know I could have skipped the dustcover and then have more money to put down on the cart, but for me, living with 3 cats, a dog, and a lot of weed ash, a dustcover is essential.

When starting the refurb, I initially wanted to go with the Ortofon 2M Blue. However, since the dustcover took a more significant chunk out of the budget, I decided to go with the Ortofon 2M Red for $100.

The 2M Red isn’t that much of a compromise, though. It’s an excellent all-around cartridge that lends perfectly to most music genres, with that classic neutral Ortofon sound with just a touch of warmth. Overall a really sweet-sounding cart at a reasonable price. Also, nothing in the $250-$300 range offers a 2M Red, so sonically, I’m ahead.

I also added a standard Technics-styled DJ headshell with wires to my Amazon cart along with the 2M Red, all coming out to $110. Once the cartridge and headshell arrived, it was just a matter of screwing them together, plugging in the wires, and dialing everything in.

Quick tally:

  • Turntable – $55
  • Dustcover – $110
  • Ortofon 2M Red with headshell – $110
  • Silicone grease – $5

Total – $280

The end result came out fantastic! For an overall price of $280, I got a Made in Japan Technics turntable with an Ortofon 2M Red that knocks out any new DD deck in its price point, or even twice as much.

Holding its own next to the Den’s Fluance RT85

To be honest, this build was pretty forgiving, albeit a little frustrating. All of the basics were working, and, in the end, it was just a matter of giving this deck a little bit of TLC to get it back to its fully functioning, semi-automated glory. The dustcover was a bit of a challenge, but nothing a little bit of crunch budgeting and JB weld couldn’t fix. Overall, this deck is one of the best turntables I have had the pleasure of listening to, and it has earned its place in the Herb n’ HiFi Den.

Check out the full SL-5200 Vintage Review HERE.

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