The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CXIII: A Turntable Is Not a Toy
"Do you have replacement parts for a [blank] turntable?"
As you can see, I don't want to mention this record player manufacturer by name. I don't want to be sued. Let's just say there's a certain turntable company out there that makes very cheap turntables, and these ‘tables are sold in places where you normally wouldn't find a turntable. Here in downtown Syracuse, for example, there's a hip clothing chain with a store about a block and a half away from where I'm sitting right now and they're selling this turntable. There's a whole wall of them, different shapes, different colors and different sizes, not far from the table where they're selling $150 pairs of jeans. These turntables are all merchandised with a skill that normally suggests a worthwhile product, something that exudes quality and durability. Some of them look like more expensive turntables from well-known turntable manufacturers such as Rega, Pro-Ject and Music Hall. Some of them look like toys, all cute and gimmicky and covered with a thick, cloying patina of nostalgia.
That's the problem in a nutshell--they are toys. They're mostly made from plastic. Plastic plinths, plastic tonearms, plastic platters. Fisher Price sold better turntables thirty years ago. There's a bigger problem, though. This company is selling a lot of turntables. They're all over the place.
How do I know this? Well, I've been working out of one my dealer's stores for the past few months--I explained this my column "We Specialize in Vinyl"--and several times per week someone wanders into the store and asks if we service that particular turntable, or if we sell replacement parts for that particular ‘table. This anecdotal evidence suggests that particular ‘table is a huge piece of crap that falls apart. You probably shouldn't be buying one. But a lot of you will. A lot of you will walk up to a cleverly merchandised wall of these turntables and decide, then and there, that it's time to listen to your old records again.
I try to be nice to these people when they come in and ask me to help them. I don't ask them why they bought such a miserable hunk of junk. These vinyl newbies want to listen to records, and they don't want to spend a fortune. Remember my famous $500 Turntable Rule, the one that stated that you should spend about $500 for a turntable before you get one that will sound better than most CD players? I made that rule almost 19 years ago, and it's still pretty much true in 2017. It was designed for people, like [blank] owners, who think that $100 buys a decent turntable and that they will live happily ever after, spinning vinyl until they die.
I don't want to sound like a broken you-know-what. I don't want to keep repeating myself over and over. But there's a new generation of vinyl lovers out there, and they need to hear this: If you buy a cheap POS turntable, you will never understand why so many people love vinyl.
You see, a decent turntable does more than spin a record. It spins it at a precise speed, which requires a well-designed motor. It isolates the vibrations of that motor from the tip of the needle, which requires some sort of suspension or damping throughout the design. The tonearm and the cartridge need to be properly set-up and aligned in order for the stylus to follow the grooves accurately, or else your records will be destroyed. A cheap turntable made entirely of cheap plastic will accomplish none of this. A cheap turntable will make you hate vinyl.
I revisited this concept in 2006 when I wrote the column "The State of the Turntable Union," and again less than three years ago when I wrote the column "The $500 Rule." I wrote that last column because I had discovered a few sub-$500 turntables that provided decent sound. So why do I have to bring this up once again in 2017?
"Do you fix [blank] turntables?" That's why.
Also, it's 2017 and some of the affordable turntables I mentioned just three years ago are no longer in production. I've also spent a considerable amount of time setting up inexpensive turntables over the last few months, and I've discovered a few new things. In other words, I'm about to provide you with a new list of five turntables you should consider over one of those [blanks].
I don't want to pick on just one particular brand, however. [blank] turntables deserve all the derision because it seems like they're preying on consumers who don't know any better. But there are plenty of other manufacturers out there, ones with histories and reputations and big names, who offer the same cheap and flimsy turntable designs for a $100 or so and people will buy these because they trust the name. These poor consumers, as I've said many times, will take these turntables home and within a few months, they'll stop using it because they couldn't understand what the fuss was all about.
1. Denon DP-300F turntable ($329)--Okay, I'm starting off with a turntable that's made mostly of plastic. Setting up and using the ‘300 may not inspire a lot of confidence, especially if you've been using something more substantial such as a Rega. But here's the thing about the belt-driven Denon--we have one set-up here in the shop and it really does sound surprisingly good. Not as good as that Rega, certainly, but for $329 you get a turntable, a tonearm, a pre-aligned cartridge AND a built-in phono preamplifier so you won't have to worry about buying a phono preamp. This is really the best ‘table I know of for the first-time turntable owner who wants good analog sound with little or no effort.
2. U-Turn Orbit Basic turntable (starting at $179)--I mentioned this new crowdfunded turntable three years ago, but I couldn't vouch for it because I hadn't heard one yet. Since then I've heard it several times, and dammit it really sounds good. I know a lot of fellow audiophiles who agree--U-Turn Audio really smacked this one out of the park. How? They stuck to a minimalist design that focuses on sound engineering over materials costs. Best of all, you have plenty of choices when it comes to upgrades such as cartridges, colors, built-in phono preamplifiers, platters and more. You can wind up spending more than $500 on your customized Orbit, but almost every upgrade results in a sonic improvement.
3. Rega Planar 1 ($475)--I haven't been a huge fan of the Rega RP1 over the last few years, despite being a huge cheerleader for this British brand over the years. The first edition had a wobbly MDF platter that freaked me out somewhat. The much-improved second version sounded reasonably solid, but it still had that cheap plastic feel despite the proven design. The newest version, the Planar 1, looks more like a classic Rega with its colored plinth and sleek, simple lines. It also has a better low-noise motor, a redesigned arm and a truly great bearing. You still get the same cheap platter as the RP1, but you can fix that with a glass platter upgrade for less than $80. You won't get a built-in phono preamp like the Denon and the U-Turn, but you do get a turntable that's almost completely set-up in advance. As far as I'm concerned, this is the best-sounding ‘table under $500.
4. Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC ($399)--I have mentioned this ‘table before; it's been around for quite a while. I haven't been a huge Pro-Ject fan in the past because I was never that impressed with the sound or the build quality. I also find the Carbon Debut tonearm, which comes standard, one of the most obnoxious arms to work with--can you say "flimsy tonearm leads"? All that aside, why do I recommend the Debut Carbon now? First, Pro-Ject has quietly become one of the best-selling turntable manufacturers in the world. I saw their US sales numbers recently and was gobsmacked. That has nothing to do with sound quality of course, but I've met plenty of owners who think it's quite a good sounding deck for the money and that's why they bought it. I know, people say the same thing about the Technics SL-1200. But here's the real reason why I now recommend it--because I was sitting in a high-end dealer's store and we were listening to records and I was really digging the sound of the system. I looked over and yes, you guessed it, I was listening to a Debut. Someone told me they've steadily improved the design over the years, but this was quite the surprise.
5. Audio-Technica AT-LP120 ($299)--I list this one as sort of a last resort--before you buy a [blank]! I used one of these a few years ago. It looks like a cheap knock-off Technics and the build quality is meh. It looks like one of those goofy DJ rigs with the big letters plastered all over the platter mat like bad graffiti. But here's the crazy thing--I prefer the sound of the direct-drive AT to the much-more-expensive direct-drive SL-1200. I know a lot of vinyl lovers who use the AT and are also surprised at what you get for the money. Like the Denon, it comes with arm, cartridge and built-in phono preamp. But here's the caveat--the AT's phono stage sounds horrible while the Denon's is downright competent in comparison. I suggest that you bypass the phono stage and get an outboard phono stage if you can (you can get a Cambridge Audio 551 for $120 online--and it really sounds nice for the money). The 120 even gives you a USB jack, if you're into that sort of thing. I'm not. But you knew that.
This even occurs at the loftier price points. One of my industry friends runs a very reputable turntable manufacturing company, and one day, he exploded on social media about all the audio brands who are now coming out with a new turntable so they can cash in on the vinyl craze. Many of these new ‘tables are well into the four-figure range, and people will buy them because of the name and not because they are known for their engineering and design when it comes to analog rigs. That's not to say there aren't plenty of new turntable companies out there with worthwhile and exciting designs. But why should some of these other companies cannibalize sales from the manufacturers who have advanced the art of analog design?
I think about this more and more as I was considering buying my last turntable. Over the last few weeks, I've been leaning toward a Linn, but I can also see myself getting an old idler drive from Thorens or Garrard or Lenco. I might go out with another Rega. Whatever it is, it won't be a toy. It won't be a [blank]. It will be something I'm proud of. I think that's what separates vinyl from every other format available.
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