Angry Metal-FiWritten By: Dave-Fi

Angry Metal-Fi is a series of articles that are cross posted on Angry Metal Guy and Metal-Fi as a collaborative effort to evangelize dynamics in metal.

In my last post for this series back in April, I talked about what vinyl is and what it is not, and what may make it sound better than CD. If you’re thinking about making the jump, I’m here to help. But first, here’s a quick refresher course.

Way back when, albums were recorded, mixed, and mastered on consoles using tape. That continued until roughly 25 years ago, when most artists and studios began to go digital. What that meant for vinyl is that instead of cutting pressings from master tapes, cutting engineers are now using digital masters which are converted to analog for the vinyl release. This also means that any inherent advantage vinyl may once have had, thanks to a pure analog signal chain from master tape to pressing, is now gone. So why bother with it at all? Because sometimes, not always but sometimes, engineers create a specific, vinyl only master, and when they do, that master usually has full dynamic range, which can turn a decent recording into something really good, and a great recording into something magical.

There are different reasons why people choose to buy vinyl these days, and if you’re just after the artwork or the collectability factor and you don’t really care about sound, you can probably stop here, any cheap table will do. Similarly, if your only source of music is your laptop speakers, or the headphones that came with your phone or MP3 player, you can also stop reading now. The fact is, for the vinyl endeavor to be worthwhile in terms of sound quality, at the very least you’re going to need a half decent pair of speakers and some sort of receiver or stereo amplifier with either RCA stereo input jacks or a phono input.

Records“But!” I hear you asking, “what about a USB turntable? Can’t I just rip my LPs to my computer and then listen however I want?” Yes you certainly can, but that doesn’t mean you should. Cheap USB turntables will rarely if ever produce results that sound any better than the CD (chances are much more likely that it’ll be worse), so you’ll mostly just waste a bunch of time recording, splicing and tagging tracks, and then trying to reduce surface noise so the songs don’t sound like a bowl of Rice Krispies. Caveat emptor.

If you’re still with me, the good news is that quality turntables are more affordable than ever, and most of these are designed for beginners and make things as easy as possible. Before I talk about these tables though, I need to talk about what not to get. Thanks to error correction, an old CD that’s covered in hairline scratches will probably play just fine. Vinyl doesn’t work like that. There is no error correction, and so condition is everything. Even a humble speck of dust will produce an audible click or pop when it’s picked up by the needle.

New vinyl typically goes for anywhere between $20-60, and old, out of production vinyl in mint condition may go for way more than that. So right off the bat, don’t spend the price of a single LP on your turntable. It would be one thing if you were just cheating yourself out of the sound quality you paid for when you bought the LP, but in addition to that, you’re also putting the long term health of your vinyl at risk. Why? Vinyl playback works through a very delicate mechanical interface between the grooves on the record’s surface and the needle, which sends a tiny electrical signal through the moving magnets or coils in the Phono cart, with the tonearm and its counterweight acting as a kind of dance partner. This is not the kind of thing you want to cheap out on, not when the difference of a couple of tenths of a gram can mean the difference between great sound and a worn out, ruined record.

That means don’t buy a Crosley, or pretty much anything made mostly from plastic that you can get on Amazon for under $100. Something like Audio-Technica’s $99 AT-LP60 may seem tempting, but if you can scrounge together just $80 more for a U-turn Orbit, you’ll be glad you did. The Orbit has rewritten the rules for what you can expect out of a turntable for under 200 bucks, and if you like, you can mix and match among the options they offer with a choice of the stock or acrylic platter upgrade, and with four different Phono cart options to boot!

Like most entry level tables, the Orbit is also designed to be easy to use. Whatever cart you decide to go with will be pre-installed, pre-aligned, and will even have the tracking force set for you, and that covers pretty much everything difficult about setting up a new turntable. The tracking force is the amount of weight pressing the needle into the groove. Too little and it will easily skip and may scratch the record, too much and it will quickly wear out the needle and possibly the grooves as well. Since it’s such an important thing to get right, you may want to double check the tracking force yourself to be on the safe side, I’ll get back to that later. The Orbit, like most of the other tables I would recommend, is a fully manual operation table. That means you have to pick up the arm out of the rest using either the finger lift on the headshell or the cueing lever, lower it onto the record surface, and when the side of the LP is over, pick it back up. If you’re too lazy for that, the Marantz TT42 will do all of the arm maneuvering work for you – but at a much higher cost than the Orbit ($329) and with lower performance in terms of sound quality.

If your turntable budget does happen to start with a 3 or a 4, Pro-Ject has a table for you. The company pretty much owns the entry to mid-level turntable market (they actually build the tables for some of their competitors). Setup will be a bit more involved than the Orbit but shouldn’t be too difficult, and dealers like Music Direct will help you through every step over the phone. I mentioned before that you’re probably going to want to check to make sure that your tracking force is correct, and you can do that very accurately with the $30 Shure SFG-2 force gauge. It also probably wouldn’t hurt to print out a basic alignment protractor to check that the factory cartridge alignment is where it should be. Your table also needs to be nice and flat, so get a spirit level to be sure.

If your amp has a phono input you can just plug and play, but if not, you’ll need a phono preamp. There are a number of low cost options, but the one at the top of my list is Schiit Audio’s $129 Mani. Finally, you need to keep your table and your records clean. That means always use your table’s dust cover, and think about spending $80 for a Spin Clean record washer. At the very least you’ll need a basic carbon fiber record brush, but properly washing and drying your records will give you much lower surface noise.

Oh, one last thing. Even after you’ve spent the money for all this stuff, chances are some of the records you buy will have been cut from the CD master, and thus will sound pretty much the same. When the engineers put in the effort though, the payoff is big. Trust me when I say you haven’t heard South of Heaven until you’ve heard an original 1988 vinyl pressing. The same is true for Blackwater Park, With Oden on Our Side, and Peace Sells. I wish artists and labels would release their vinyl masters in digital form, but with the exception of the new Witherscape and Iced Earth releases, it hasn’t happened yet. For now at least, vinyl is where the good sound is. Spin it.

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  • RagE

    In the market for a new TT, so this came at the right time. *le mark to read later*

  • RF2000

    I’m not rich enough to do vinyl, but when I backfill my cd collection I always go for pre-remaster discs.

    • If you wanna be really anal about it try to get the original CDs from the country the recording originated from (if possible.) You’re almost guaranteed that they’re from original master tapes and not dubbed reels that were sent out to other pressing plants overseas.

      This doesn’t always apply as once CDs started really catching on with the average consumer they started using glass CD masters.

  • Two most important aspects of your set-up: what picks up the music and what puts it out. That means you want to focus on decent speakers and not just a decent tt, but a decent cartridge. For over $300, that Marantz is a p.o.s. It’s cheap plastic and comes with a cartridge you would you want to upgrade immediately. If your going to pay over $300, Pro-Ject or Rega are your best bets. Pro-Ject’s Debut Carbon is $400, but comes stock with the $100 Ortifon 2M Red cartridge.

    Even if you spend $100 or $200 dollars on a tt, upgrading the cartridge is recommended. Audio-Technica makes a variety if cartridges that range from $20 to over $200.

    Last, I would stay away from buying online and having a tt shipped to you, unless that is somehow your only option.

    • Speakers are definitely where the most money should be invested. That Ortofon 2M Red is really nothing to write home about though. I’m irrationally partial to Denon’s line of moving coil carts.

      Nice thing about a good CD player is you never need to upgrade the laser haha.

      • Well..I have HAD the laser go bad on a Cambridge Audio Azur substance.

    • Dave

      No arguments here. Just keep in mind that this piece was written with folks in mind that are considering their first turntable, and may be on a limited budget. If you’ve got some cash to spend, get the best Pro-Ject you can afford.

      Those brand new to vinyl should familiarize themselves a bit before considering a cart upgrade. If you do decide to get a new cart, the alignment, VTF, VTA (if applicable) and Azimuth are all on you to get right. A shiny new cart with bad setup will sound worse than your old cart.

      I would also recommend practicing on something cheap first to get comfortable with the process. I would hate to see folks break the cantilever on their brand new $200 A-T 440MLa because they’ve never changed a Phono cart before.

      It’s also on you to choose the right cart for your setup when you decide to make an upgrade. The popular Denon DL-103 for example does not like light mass tonearms. It’s a low-output MC, low compliance cart, and if you don’t know what those words mean, you probably shouldn’t be upgrading your cart.

  • Add Nightingale’s “Retribution” to the list of vinyl masters available in digital form :) Of course it’s another Dan Swanö production so the DR6 master sounds very good along with the DR12 mix.

  • TminusEight

    I got a TT this year and wish I’d had this advice back then. The kit that is suggested above is a great way to go. If you went for an entry-level Pro-Ject TT and pre-amp (unless your amp happens to have a phono-in) then you’ll be set. Then stick a copy of WOooS on there and you’ll pretty quickly see what all the fuss is about. I have a decent digital setup, and yet the vinyl versions I have of With Oden… and Surgical Steel sound better – snappier, punchier, more dynamic, blah blah… if you try it you’ll see.
    But, not all LP’s sound that good. I have two other recent metal albums on vinyl (as well as CD) and to be honest the vinyl pressings don’t sound any better at all. So I think there is a fair bit of variability out there with regards to how much attention the vinyl production process gets for a given release.
    Also, be warned: if you see a brand new shiny vinyl copy of your favourite old classics in the shops (even with stickers saying things like ‘audiophile 180gm vinyl’), chances are you’re looking a record that has simply been cut from a CD – which means none of the advantages that Alex has talked about will be there… those are rip offs. So, before you shell out the cash for a record look into it to find out if its going to be worth it.
    Oh yeah, and gotta mention: an exciting upcoming vinyl release for me is going to be Be’Lakor’s forthcoming cut of Stone’s Reach… can’t wait.

    • Dave

      Yep, the rule in 99.9% of cases is first press = best press. Over time, vinyl reissues of classic metal albums are typically lazily produced and sound mediocre at best.

  • Schmitzel

    Thanks Dave for the awesome write up. There’s really a lot of good info for somebody (like me *wink wink) trying to find a good starter setup. I don’t have anything right now, but I was considering starting with a Rega RP1 as a turntable, still yet to decide on amp and speakers. Any thoughts on that particular TT? It’s about as high as I can go budget wise :|

    • Dave

      Thanks for reading! The RP1 is a solid entry into vinyl. You may also want to look at Pro-Ject’s RM-1.3. It costs about $50 more than the Rega, but comes with the Sumiko Pearl which is a nice cart for the money.

  • Ernesto Aimar

    Amazing article. I happen to have an audio technica lp200…but i never use the usb dock at all. Is this tt really bad?? I love listening to my vinyls on it, but most of times I dont hear much difference from CD (Wintersun “Time” i.e).

    I use dali senzor 7 speakers and I’m quite happy with them. Any expert opinion on both systems will be highly appreciated!

    • The Wintersun CD master is excellent. There should really be no difference. I have the CD and the vinyl as well. Only difference I hear is my cart’s EQ/bias.

      Do you mean the LP120? That’s a fairly respectable (for the price) semi-clone of the Technics SL 1200 (which is great.)

      • Ernesto Aimar

        Yes, that one….sorry, my bad. Would an upgrade in the cartridge make much difference??

        • Dave

          Unfortunately in your case its the TT that’s the limiting factor. The LP120 has the speed accuracy that’s prized by direct drive advocates, but it’s still no match for an affordable belt drive like the Debut Carbon, or arguably even the U-turn.

          This is one of those examples that proves that the cart isn’t everything. The LP120 comes with the AT95E which is a solid cart and pretty comparable to what you get on most other $500 and below tables. It’s the LP120 itself that’s holding the cart back, not the other way around.

          • I’ve never owned a AT LP120 but I’m not sure how any lower-priced Pro-Ject could be an audible improvement. My last Debut II had so much rumble (new and properly set up) that I just sold it and got an SL 1200. Couldn’t be happier.

            The tonearm on my Pro-Ject used to make a really *cool* squeaking noise that was picked up in the quiet passages of my needledrops. The build quality is really lacking on these things IMO. I don’t even think the lower-end Regas are much better (but at least they don’t have the cheapo fishing-line w/ weight anti-skate thing going on.)

  • Our Fortress Is Burning

    At some point in the near future, I plan on purchasing a turntable again. I’m considering the Thorens TD 295. Not cheap, but enjoy listening to music. So for me, it will be worth it.

    • Dave

      Assuming you can find one in good shape at a reasonable cost, the SL-1200 is a good option. Decent sound out of the box, and extremely durable as you would expect given the role it was intended for.

      With the bearing upgrade and packing a new armboard and something like a Rega RB-303, the 1200 can sound VERY nice.

  • Carlos Marrickvillian

    Thanks Alex a very insightful and helpful article, I’m hoping to do a big system upgrade in the new year…though I’d like to track down a vintage Kenwood system if I can I grew up with one and always remember how big and clear the sound was.

  • Greg Hasbrouck

    In the beginning of your article you said, “…sometimes, not always but sometimes, engineers create a specific, vinyl only master…” Any guess as to how often a vinyl master is created? If this is the only time vinyl trumps digital, it seems this percentage would need to be high enough to warrant an investment in the format. Any guesses? Thanks.