If you’re of a certain age, you may remember the first time you ever heard a vinyl record. For me, the song was the Beatles’ "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and the turntable belonged to my dad. I can almost see him placing the LP on the turntable, lifting the tone arm and gently dropping the needle on the fourth track of “The White Album.” I heard a popping sound, then a slight hiss, and then, that wonderful, lively, rhythmic burst of piano notes.
I repeated that ritual myself many times, playing hundreds of different LPs throughout childhood and my early adult years. And those memories fuel the excitement I feel over the return of the turntable, a technology on sale in such stores as Urban Outfitters, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Kmart.
The details have changed a bit from the heyday of the technology. Many new turntables include USB ports, letting you connect them to a computer to digitize your Pink Floyd collection. Most also include traditional RCA jacks to connect to speakers, and some turntables are Bluetooth-compatible, allowing you to play the music through wireless speakers.
One thing that hasn't changed much—the vast price range. You can spend anywhere from $100 for the crudest model and up to $4,000 or more at the high end. To understand why, consider the analog wizardry performed by a turntable. As the needle—or, to use the right term, stylus—on the tonearm moves along a groove in a record, it glides up and down the tiny peaks and valleys carved into the vinyl. That sets up vibrations that are converted into electrical signals, which are sent to an amplifier and eventually to your ears via speakers or a pair of headphones.
If that sounds like it requires mechanical precision, you're right. And in engineering, "precise" can often be translated as "expensive."
We've listed a few turntables at vastly different prices below. We haven't tested any of today's crop of turntables, but these models have good reputations and will give you a sense of what features to look for. First, though, here's what you need to know before you go shopping.
What Components Do You Need?
Here are the basics. First, all turntables need a cartridge and stylus, also called a needle. Many of the less expensive models come with the cartridge/stylus installed, but some pricier models require that you buy the unit separately. There are two types of cartridges: "moving magnet," the most common type, especially on more affordable turntables; and "moving coil," typically found on pricier players. Cartridges can cost as little as $20, or more than $1000 for use with audiophile-grade turntables.
You'll also need a phono preamp, which takes the signal produced by the cartridge and prepares it for use by other audio equipment. Some turntables, and many receivers, have built-in phono preamps, but if necessary you can buy an external preamp, which can range in price anywhere from $50 to several hundred dollars. If your turntable has a USB output, it already has a preamp. Just note that the preamp has to match the type of cartridge—either moving magnet or moving coil—you're using.
Finally, there's some setup involved with all but the least expensive turntables. (That's right: Low-end models are actually easier to get started with.)
You may need to install and align the cartridge, set the tracking force (the weight being applied to the record), set the azimuth (the tilt of the cartridge), and adjust the anti-skating force, which keeps the needle centered in the record's grooves. There are numerous websites and videos that can help you set up a turntable—we like this one, for example. If you prefer a more comprehensive guide on DVD, we recommend "21st Century Vinyl: Michael Fremer's Practical Guide to Turntable Set-up," which costs about $30 at various outlets.
Now, onto the turntables.
For roughly $100 to $250, you can buy a turntable that will be easy to set up, though it won't produce great sound. You also won't have much flexibility in choosing components. The $100 Audio Technica AT-LP60-USB, for example, has a fixed 1/2-inch cartridge, which means you can change the stylus, but not the device that converts sound vibrations into electrical signals. If fine-tuning is important to you, it's best to look elsewhere.
On the upside, though, the LP60 does have a built-in preamp, which means it's ready to play tunes via powered speakers, a computer, or a home stereo system. To help you digitize your record collection, the turntable also includes a USB port and software that's compatible with Mac and PC devices.
In the $300 to $600 range, you'll find turntables such as the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon ($400), which features an interchangeable cartridge, along with heftier construction.
That's important because you want a turntable to register the vibrations generated by a vinyl record, not those created by the device's motor or the feet dancing around your family room. If a turntable is too light or poorly constructed, the stylus may even skip out of an LP's grooves.
To further cut down on unwanted resonance, this model features a tonearm made of very stiff carbon fiber, instead of steel. This turntable requires a separate amplifier, but if you'd prefer a built-in pre-amp, check out Pro-Ject's Debut Carbon USB turntable ($550).
While there are many good turntables in the $600 range, a top-end model can cost anywhere from a thousand dollars to tens of thousands. But quality comes down to the same factors we've already discussed: The $1,000 price tag on Music Hall MMF-5.1 essentially brings you sturdier construction and higher precision.
In this case, the unit is heavier, about 24 pounds, roughly twice as heavy as the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon (12 lbs.) and four times the weight of the Audio Technica AT-LP60-USB (6.6 lbs.) But that’s not the only difference. The manufacturer also built the MMF-5.1 with two plinths or platforms, instead of just one. According to manufacturer, the platter, main bearing, tone arm and cartridge are built into the top platform, while the motor, switch, wiring and feet are included in the bottom platform. This construction, combined with its weight, allows the turntable to isolate the vibrations on the turntable from any outside interference.
On this pricier model, you can also upgrade various components, as well as fine-tune them. For instance, you can be rather specific in adjusting the counter weight on the tonearm.
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