Written By: Dave-Fi
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.
“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.