GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "How To" Archives

Published February 15, 2004


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 Sony’s original CD slogan, "perfect sound forever" -- are the work of the devil. They’ll 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 we’ve come a long way since those early days of CD.

Today’s CDs and digital technology sound a whole lot better than those early releases, and, while there’s 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 Coltrane’s 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 had.

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 you’ve 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 you’ll need to buy to get started with vinyl, including some recommended accessories. I’ll 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 turntable?

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 I’ll be reviewing soon, does have a phono section as standard.) If you’re lucky enough to have a built-in phono section, then you’ll be able to get by without buying a phono preamp or the extra set of interconnects.

There are several basic turntable systems that won’t break the bank and will give you a taste of vinyl’s pleasures; the two I’ve 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). I’ll leave the choice of interconnects up to you, but for a total of $500 to $600, you can have a basic turntable system.

You might be able to save some money by buying used components, but I don’t recommend this, especially if you’re 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 manufacturer’s 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: AudioQuest’s 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. You’ll probably also want to buy Shure’s SFG-2 stylus-force gauge (another $25) for checking to see that the pressure your cartridge’s 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, you’ll need to consider where you’ll buy your records, and whether you’re 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 Coltrane’s 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 financial sense.

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. You’ll be able to get some of your favorite albums at low prices, and you’ll be able to pick up titles that haven’t made it to CD. I haven’t found the prices of rock LPs to be as rock-bottom as those of classical records, but the rock prices aren’t prohibitive.

Jazz listeners won’t 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 Note’s album covers, it’s 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 won’t 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 you’re going to have to get up off the sofa much more often than if you’re used to playing CDs (not to mention the ease of multi-disc CD changers). You’ll also want to clean your records before playing them, and periodically check the stylus pressure. Music deserves a listener’s attention; knowing you’ll 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, you’ll 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 you’re a serious music listener (if you’ve read this far, you probably are), then the added involvement a turntable requires won’t 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 you’re a DJ, you don’t 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 father’s 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]. Brubeck’s piano and Joe Morello’s cymbals had a level of realism I hadn’t heard before, and Paul Desmond’s 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, don’t have a stash of old records, and don’t 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.

...Eric Hetherington

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