A Cheaper Record Deck

Problems with the Project RPM Genie One

Since 2008, I was using a Pro-Ject RPM Genie One, to play my vinyl records on. It was cheap for its time and quality, but there was definitely several down sides to owning one.

  1. The motor only went at one speed, so you changed speed by swapping the belt between two pulleys on the motor spindle.
  2. The tonearm didn’t have anti-skate, resulting in records often jumping forwards as they were playing.
  3. The belt itself had to be quite loose, otherwise it would pull the motor and the turntable parts together.
  4. The belt had a habit of falling off and it wasn’t as easy as you’d think to put it back on again.
  5. The belt got looser over time, and given that it’s a glorified elastic band, I think that £20 is a bit much for a replacement. The outcome is that the records took a long time to come up to speed, and even then, were about 3% too slow.
  6. When my domestic situation changed, due to space, I had to put the deck on a slide-out shelf, which made getting the belt back on, and even switching the deck on and off, very awkward! Both the spindle where you hook on the drive belt, and the on-off switch are located at the back, and the shelf doesn’t come all the way out!

Enter the Lenco L-3808

After the Covid-19 lockdown started, I was going out far less often (having already retired), and found the time to read stuff on the net. A new family of record decks, cheaper and based on the design of the age-old Technics DJ decks, has emerged in recent years, and the cheapest of these is the Lenco L-3808 (it’s also called the L-400. They are identical). Had I cottoned on earlier, I might have been able to take advantage of a promotion, and got one for £150, but now I was looking at £200. Still cheaper in real terms than the £175 I paid for the Pro-Ject in 2008, though. I’ve seen them new as low as £175, and second hand cheaper.

These decks are Direct Drive, which means that the motor drove the turntable either directly, or via gears. Back in the day, you had to pay serious cash to get a direct drive deck (like the aforementioned Technics) where this didn’t result in the motor noise being picked up by the stylus. Not any more, and there is no longer any real disadvantage to having Direct Drive on any but the cheapest decks, as long as the motor is good enough to run quietly and at a constant speed.

Lenco L-3808 viewed from the front.

Lenco L-3808 viewed from the front.

Had I bought a new L-3808, I would have had to discard the lid, as it would be impossible to get on and off on the slide-out shelf. As luck would have it, I found a shop return on E-bay where the lid had gone missing, for under £150 and that’s what I bought.

As supplied, the deck had a number of features listed here:

  1. An Audio-Technica AT3600 cartridge with conical stylus, in a standard removable head.
  2. A built-in RIAA pre-amp which allows you to plug the deck into a line-level input on an amplifier, or into powered (a.k.a. active) loudspeakers. You can switch this out and use the phono output directly.
  3. A USB output that can be connected to a computer for capturing the contents of a record and digitising it.
  4. Adjustable counter-weight and anti-skate settings.
  5. A lever for raising and lowering the tonearm, as there is no automatic movement on this type of deck.
  6. Adjustable feet which allow you to level the turntable on slanted surfaces.
  7. Output through RCA/phono sockets, not a hardwired lead, this allows you to attempt to get a better sound by changing the lead supplied.
  8. A felt slipmat. The turntable itself is bare metal.
  9. A double power switch, one to close the mains right off, and the other to start and stop but with the mains connected.
  10. A two-speed control, 33⅓ and 45 rpm.
  11. A strobe light to check whether the turntable is running at the correct speed.
  12. A fine speed adjustment slider.
  13. A small lamp to enable you to see the track separator areas on a record. It can be switched off.
  14. Once it’s all set up and plugged in, everything is accessed from near the front!
View of sockets on the rear of the Lenco L-3808

Rear view: the phono outputs, phono/line switch, and USB output

There are things it doesn’t have which you do get on similar but slightly dearer decks such as the Audio-Technica LP120 decks:

  1. An elliptical cartridge and stylus such as the Audio Technica AT95E.
  2. 78 rpm
  3. An adjustable height for the tonearm. This might help if you bought a very thick mat.
  4. Quartz locking of turntable speed.

In terms of the sound you get from the unmodified deck, it’s pretty good but with room for improvement. One thing that is common to this type of deck is the felt so-called “slipmat”. It’s all very well if you’re a DJ, but for hi-fi domestic use, you can do better, without paying a great deal. I did find some of the other DJ features useful though. The strobe light, coupled with the speed slider, allows you to correct any slight speed inaccuracies. The small lamp helps you to position the tonearm correctly before lowering it, without having to switch on the room lighting. And the direct drive mechanism gets the turntable up to speed very quickly.

When I bought my amplifier (an all-in-one Cambridge Audio One), I’d already had to buy an RIAA phono pre-amp for it. It was a cheap one, the Behringer PP400. It’s not bad, but not great. With the L-3808, there was a small difference in sound quality between using the deck in “phono” mode and inserting the pre-amp, and using the deck in “line” mode and plugging it straight to the amp. The extra pre-amp was slightly better in that sibilants in vocals were handled slightly better, but having heard CDs and Digitised Music through the Cambridge unit, I felt that I could do better.

On the other hand, the presence of the Anti-skate control meant that there were fewer jumps compared to my old Pro-Ject, and less background distortion resulting from the needle pushing against the inside of the groove. I have to say that this omission was corrected on later versions of the Pro-Ject RPM Genie.

Overall I have to say that this type of deck will sound much better than the cheap all in one stuff, but it’s at a price point where you have to spend a lot more to get small improvements. With a few modifications, you can push it up a further couple of notches. I’ve made a few mods, and my deck’s sound now has the fullness of CDs and Digitised music played through the same amplifier. I’ve written about some of the things to try in another post.IMG_20200517_171057c

My Lenco L-3808 record deck on its shelf. (Before I adjusted the Cartridge Position — see below!)

Setting Up the Deck

Firstly, make sure that your record deck is level. The L-3808 has adjustable feet. Although I couldn’t access the rear ones on the slide-out shelf, I was able to get the deck perfectly level with the front ones. The shelf it sits on tilts forward by a tiny amount. It was just a question of turning the front feet clockwise to compensate. Using a small spirit level, (small enough to fit on the turntable platter itself), I placed it pointing left and right, and front to back, whilst I made adjustments. When I thought I had it right, I placed it diagonally on the platter, along the line that the arm swings through. It was perfect. Check the video just ahead but bear in mind that you have adjustable feet on the L-3808.

Secondly, you need to get your cartridge and stylus to the correct tracking weight and angle. I’ve found that with this deck, that the AT9600 and AT95E cartridges need to be screwed into to the head as far back as they will go (towards the pivot) to get the angle right. Anyway don’t take my word for it. This video illustrates how to set up your cartridge perfectly. Levelling is at 1:44, Tracking Weight at 4:10, Anti-Skate at 8:40 and Align Cartridge at 12:05. 

Finally, make sure your cartridge is level. You don’t want the needle coming down onto the record at anything but a perfect right angle (as viewed from the front). You can get a bit of clear plastic for a few quid, as illustrated here. To avoid damage to anything, place the stylus on a stationary record, preferably an old one, and place this item in front of it, very gently.IMG_20200603_175727 You will be able to see whether the cartridge is straight. If it’s not, you might have to adjust the screws holding it in, or maybe twist the tonearm a tiny bit. There is a little bit of give and it can be carefully bent into the right position. Let’s hope you don’t get a bum setting, eh?

Next: Hacking the Lenco L-3808 turntable

 

 

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