How to Decide if a Turntable is Right for You
If you listen to aficionados of vinyl
LPs, you might get the impression that the compact disc -- and especially Sonys
original CD slogan, "perfect sound forever" -- are the work of the devil.
Theyll likely tell you that CDs sound thin and anemic compared to the full, lush
sound of vinyl. If you compare many early CD releases to a vinyl counterpart, this
criticism may well ring true. But weve come a long way since those early days of CD.
Todays CDs and digital technology sound a whole lot
better than those early releases, and, while theres no doubt that part of the recent
rise in remastered editions of back-catalog titles is to give people a reason to buy the
same title again, often the remastered edition really does sound better. I recently bought
the new edition of John Coltranes Blue Train [Blue Note 41757], an SACD/CD
hybrid disc, and even the CD layer sounds better than the decade-old CD edition I already
Even with these advances in digital technology, vinyl
advocates hold out their preferred medium as offering a viable, more enjoyable alternative
for listening pleasure. Are they right? If youve never owned a turntable, should you
add one to your system? Here are some guidelines for you to consider before you invest in
an analog setup, beginning with an outline of just what youll need to buy to get
started with vinyl, including some recommended accessories. Ill then review some
things that any would-be vinyl junkie should consider before risking getting hooked.
A basic analog setup: Is your budget ready for a
Adding a turntable to your stereo system could entail
buying up to five items: a turntable, a tonearm, a cartridge, a phono preamplifier, and a
set of interconnects. Luckily, at the budget-friendly end of the spectrum, the first two
or three items are often packaged together. If you have an older preamplifier, integrated
amplifier, or receiver, it may have a phono preamplifier built-in, though few newer ones
do. (The Rotel RA-02 integrated amp, which Ill be reviewing soon, does have a phono
section as standard.) If youre lucky enough to have a built-in phono section, then
youll be able to get by without buying a phono preamp or the extra set of
There are several basic turntable systems that wont
break the bank and will give you a taste of vinyls pleasures; the two Ive
heard and like the best are the Pro-Ject 1.2 and the Music Hall 2.1. The Pro-Ject 1.2
comes with a tonearm and a Sumiko Oyster cartridge already installed, at a suggested
retail price of $319 USD. The Music Hall 1.2 comes with a tonearm and a Goldring Elan
cartridge for $349. Three good choices for a budget phono preamp are the NAD PP-2 ($129),
the Sumiko Phono Box ($119), and the Rotel RQ-970 ($199). Ill leave the choice of
interconnects up to you, but for a total of $500 to $600, you can have a basic turntable
You might be able to save some money by buying used
components, but I dont recommend this, especially if youre new to turntables.
The many moving parts of a vinyl rig -- the motor, belt, wires, tonearm pivot, stylus,
cantilever, etc. -- are delicate and easily broken. There are a couple of benefits of
buying new as well. First, you get the peace of mind that a manufacturers warranty
brings. Second, if you buy your turntable from an experienced dealer, you get their
expertise in both setting up your turntable and helping you determine future upgrades,
should you become hooked.
Another $100 will get you the essential accessories, the
most important of which is some kind of record-cleaning system. A good record brush is
nearly essential, and most are reasonably priced: AudioQuests can be had for $15;
the Hunt EDA Mk.6 brush costs $20. The Allsop Orbitrac 2 record-cleaning system includes
record-cleaning fluid and the tools to apply it, for $49.99. Youll probably also
want to buy Shures SFG-2 stylus-force gauge (another $25) for checking to see that
the pressure your cartridges stylus is putting on the record is just right.
If this total outlay of $600-$700 seems reasonable, we can
turn to some other factors that will help determine whether or not vinyl is for you.
Are your musical preferences best served by a turntable?
Before buying a turntable, you should take a good look at
what kind of music you listen to. Records can provide a very inexpensive source of music
for some people, but others will have a hard time finding enough LPs available for their
listening preferences, or will find that those they want are very expensive. Also,
youll need to consider where youll buy your records, and whether youre
going to stick to used discs or buy some of the new audiophile pressings.
Some companies, such as Classic Records and Mosaic Records,
produce for the audiophile market new editions of favorite recordings on heavy, high-grade
vinyl. These records are expensive: single discs can start at $33. I own the Mosaic set of
Miles Davis and John Coltranes The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-1961 [Mosaic
MQ9-191], and the tracks that were originally released as Kind of Blue do sound
better than the remastered CD [Columbia CK 64935] -- but it would be hard to recommend
that someone buy a turntable just to listen to these pressings. Three considerations stand
out: such pressings really shine with a good analog system, but there are only a limited
number of such titles, and they are all expensive.
The classical music listener will probably have the easiest
time finding good, cheap LPs. On a recent trip to the Princeton Record Exchange, in New Jersey, I bought 23 used classical
LPs for the low price of $1 apiece, including many performances that are available on CD
for $10 to $18 each. Fortunately for me but tragically for society, there are far more
classical-music records than classical-music record buyers. If you like classical music,
then a turntable and access to a good used-record store or thrift store can make great
Fans of classic rock might be able to do pretty well at
used-record stores as well, though some titles will inevitably have high price tags.
Youll be able to get some of your favorite albums at low prices, and youll be
able to pick up titles that havent made it to CD. I havent found the prices of
rock LPs to be as rock-bottom as those of classical records, but the rock prices
Jazz listeners wont have as easy a time as their
classical brethren. Jazz LPs are highly collectible, which means that old jazz album you
might want to buy will likely be more expensive than a new CD of the same title. For
example, pressings from the late 1960s and early 1970s of titles released on Blue Note
Records usually go for $10-$15 each, and earlier pressings can go for much more. Given the
artistic quality of Blue Notes album covers, its much nicer to have the LP
jacket than the tiny CD booklet, but the sound of pressings from this era sometimes offer
no benefit over the newly remastered CD editions -- and the CDs often have bonus tracks.
All of my pre-1965 Blue Note LPs do sound amazing, but shopping for jazz records
wont save you money the way it can for a classical music listener.
If you prefer contemporary rock or pop music, then you
should look into what records are available before jumping into vinyl, for at least two
reasons: First, there simply may not be enough records by the artists you like to make it
worth your time; second, many contemporary recordings are mixed and produced to sound
their best on CD, so the move to vinyl may be a side-step at best. For example, in a
recent interview, producer Rick Rubin, the head of American Recordings, discussed how part
of his job is making the recordings he produces sound as good as they possibly can on
CD. The vinyl market is just too small for him to take into account when producing
most of the music he is involved with. An audiophile himself, Rubin acknowledges the magic
of vinyl, but also the reality of the CD hegemony. If the recordings are produced and
mastered using the CD format as a standard, then the sonic benefits that many feel vinyl
offers may not exist on these newer releases.
Are your listening habits compatible with a turntable?
The average duration of an album side is about 20 minutes,
so youre going to have to get up off the sofa much more often than if youre
used to playing CDs (not to mention the ease of multi-disc CD changers). Youll also
want to clean your records before playing them, and periodically check the stylus
pressure. Music deserves a listeners attention; knowing youll need to clean
the record and soon have to get up to turn the record over or put the tonearm back in its
rest can remind you to pay attention.
With a turntable, youll be less inclined to simply
hit a Play button and run out to the kitchen to make dinner, or to use your LPs as
background music for cleaning the house. If youre a serious music listener (if
youve read this far, you probably are), then the added involvement a turntable
requires wont deter you from trying vinyl. However, if you mostly play your system
during parties or for background music as you go about your day, then this need to pay
attention can be a hindrance. Unless youre a DJ, you dont want to spend your
party jumping up and changing records when a multi-disc CD changer would free you from
having to think about music for the duration of the party.
When done right, vinyl playback can be an amazing thing. I
first noticed this when I found my fathers 40-year-old copy of the Dave Brubeck
Quartet classic, Time Out. Even on my humble Pro-Ject 1.2 turntable, the sound had
much more physicality than the remastered CD [Columbia CK 65122]. Brubecks piano and
Joe Morellos cymbals had a level of realism I hadnt heard before, and Paul
Desmonds alto sax had a fullness of tone that the CD lacked. If you have the money
and the right musical preferences and listening habits, then I heartily recommend adding a
turntable to your system. If, however, you tend to listen to contemporary releases,
dont have a stash of old records, and dont want the involvement (some might
call it a hassle) that vinyl playback entails, be happy with your CDs.
The digital reproduction of music has come a long way since
the early 1980s, and will only get better with time (see, for example, the new SACD and
DVD-Audio formats). An analog setup can be a magical part of a stereo system or it can be
an expensive, oversized paperweight. With some careful forethought, you can determine
which of these roles a turntable might play in your home.