It's no secret that I am a fan of the famed Technics SL-1200 turntable. I believe it is the stuff of legend, and I legitimately wish I still had both of my old 1200 decks from back in college. I know Technics has released a new 1200, as well as an "audiophile friendly" model in the form of the SL-1500C, which I recently reviewed; but like many of you, my rationale for not owning one comes down to one single factor: price. It's not that the 1200 or 1500C are overpriced for what they deliver; I just don't have a cool thousand bucks and change burning a hole in my pocket.
Enter the Music Hall Classic, a $599, semi-automatic, belt-driven turntable that--on the surface--offers up many of the same features and much of the same convenience as the Technics, but at half the price. While $599 isn't couch cushion change, it's within the realm of reason for most working stiffs like yours truly.
The Classic arrived at my home while I was in the middle of reviewing two other fantastic turntables: The Technics SL-1500C and Pro-Ject's X2. Picture both of those tables if you can for just a moment, now imagine they had a baby. That baby would be the Music Hall Classic.
The thick wood base of the X2 may not quite up to the standard set by the X2 upon close inspection, but it looks the part from a foot or more away. The same could be said for the Classic's tonearm construction, which looks more than a little reminiscent of the Technics SL-1500C's. Sure it lacks the Technics' S-shaped tone arm, but the Classic does have a user-friendly removable headshell, a uni-pivot design , not to mention semi-automatic operation (auto lift and shut off). The Classic is a belt-driven design (the belt is below the aluminum platter) not unlike the X2, and features touch sensitive speed controls not unlike both the X2 and the 1500C. Lastly, the Classic has a built-in phono preamp (defeatable), enabling it to be connected to any hi-fi or home theater system regardless if your equipment has a phono stage or not. You can even connect the Classic to a pair of powered monitors--provided those monitor speakers have a variable level or volume control. So, like I said, the Classic isn't a Pro-ject X2 or a Technics 1500C, but it's enough of both to make it more than a little compelling.
Setting up the Classic was extremely straightforward and easy--easy enough, I think, for even a novice or first-time turntable buyer. The only other table I've encountered that is easier in terms of setup has to be the U-Turn Orbit Plus, but the two really aren't comparable beyond that.
The Classic comes with Music Hall's own Spirit cartridge installed as standard. Admittedly I don't have a great deal of experience with this particular cartridge, and while I could've swapped it out for one that I was more familiar with, I thought it best to judge the Classic as a complete all-in-one design. I did this because I honestly don't think consumers buying affordable turntables are buying them to tinker, but rather to simply get on with enjoying their favorite albums on vinyl. If I'm wrong, let me know, but I don't think I am.
Once setup and connected to my Marantz NR1200 stereo receiver, using the supplied RCA interconnects and with the Classic's internal phono stage engaged, it was time to see what the Classic's sound was all about. Through my JBL L100 Classic loudspeakers, the Music Hall Classic was decidedly full-bodied in the midrange and bottom octaves. And I mean full. Mind you, the Marantz is a bit on the richer, fuller side in the midrange itself, so it no doubt compounded things a bit, but that's not to diminish the Classic's noticeable midrange hump.
I don't hold the Classic's sound against it, for I believe a lot of listeners will find it quite pleasing, maybe even preferable to the sound one might achieve through the costlier Technics or Pro-Ject models referenced above. I say preferable because, let's face it, a lot of today's records are mastered or cut from their digital counterparts, which make them sound a bit thin or harsh. Via the Music Hall Classic, a lot of these records lose that edge and gain a little weight, making modern LPs sound a bit more "analog," or dare I say "vintage," upon playback. But if your record of choice was cut from an analog master from back in the day, well, they still sound good too, they might just sound a tad fuller than what you may be used to.
High frequencies are smooth, airy, and a bit rolled off at the extremes, which does cut down a little on the sense of air and even space, but it's nothing that is distracting or bad. Bass, on the other hand, is deep and very rich. Not the most dynamic, but appropriate and satisfying for most people. I did find the 1500C to be livelier and more dynamic in comparison, but it was nowhere near as full, nor did it plunge as deep as the Music Hall Classic. Conversely, the X2 may have been the most refined of the three, but it sounded rather lifeless compared to the Classic--whether you take that as a good or a bad thing is a matter of personal taste.
The biggest takeaway, for me, about the Classic's performance was that I kept wanting to listen to it. It's ease-of-use, pleasant, non-judgmental sound, and automatic feature set quickly made it my go-to turntable despite having other, higher-end options available to me.
Competition and Comparisons
I think I've sort of covered where the Classic falls among its peers elsewhere in this review, but here's a recap. The Classic is a bit more money than, say, a U-Turn Audio Orbit, but it earns its sticker price with a larger feature set and better build quality. Does it sound better? With vinyl, that's a matter of personal taste. Suffice to say, I could see someone shopping for either an Orbit or Classic, so it's worth mentioning them in the same sentence.
The Classic isn't as good on a whole as the Technics SL-1500C, but the delta between the two isn't that large. When you take things a step further and consider the fact that you have to pay double the Classic's asking price to get a 1500C, I'm not sure I would make that leap without question, even given my affinity for all things Technics.
As for the Pro-Ject X2, it's more expensive than the Classic and carries with it a fair amount of cache to boot, but it's finicky and a decidedly more audiophile-style table, whereas the Classic is aimed at a more beginner or moderate user.
I believe $599 is the breaking point for a lot of enthusiasts. Meaning, it's on the edge of what I think most would claim to be affordable, and reaching the next plateau in terms of performance requires two or three times the spend. So, the Music Hall Classic at $599 is a value, but maybe not the biggest one. However, compared to costlier rivals, it's a steal. Make sense? The Classic is not the same as its costlier rivals, but gives you enough of a taste that one of two things is going to happen: you'll question the need for more and never upgrade, or you'll be so enthralled that you'll upgrade quickly.
As I said, though, you'll need to probably spend three times as much on a pre-configured table to make upgrading over the Classic truly worth it. A simple cartridge upgrade, which may run you an additional $100 or $200, is bound to be a better investment overall. So, all that said, how would I sum up the Music Hall Classic? It is a well-rounded, pleasant sounding turntable that is somewhat a jack of all trades and dangerously close to being a master of some of them.