Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part CXV: A Good Old-Fashioned Record Player
(June 2017)

"Do you have any record speakers?"

Spending time working out of a high-end audio dealership has certainly been illuminating. I'm both amused and troubled that the average person walking down the street no longer recognizes what we used to call a "stereo shop" or a "hi-fi store." They poke their noses through the door, take a quick glance around and ask things such as "What is this place, a recording studio?" I've had a couple people say oh, this must be a "speaker store" and I have to reply that yes, we sell speakers, but they don't work on their own. You need an amplifier, a source and, well, never mind. I've lost you already. I see that glazed look in your eyes.

I suppose that there's always been a time where people didn't know what they needed to assemble a decent audio system. Speakers are obvious, of course, but amplifiers are somewhat mysterious to the uninitiated--they're metal boxes with knobs and buttons. Cables are especially tricky because many people assume they are included at no extra cost, like when you buy a flat-screen TV at Sears. Don't even get me started on phono preamplifiers. It seems like only hardcore audiophiles know that you need a phono stage to listen to LP's. If you don't know what a phono stage is, you probably need to buy one.

That brings me to the question at the top. This was uttered by a quiet, tentative young man who entered the store one rainy afternoon. Record speakers, he wanted. I know what records are, I thought, and I know what speakers are. But I'm not sure how the two are combined. And then I figured it out.

He wanted a record player.

Remember record players? They were all-in-one audio systems that included a turntable, an amplifier and maybe one or even two built-in speakers. You closed the lid, flipped the catch and toted it around to your friends' houses and listened to records, preferably on the floor. Most of us who grew up in the '50's, '60's and '70's had one. Generally speaking, this is how kids and teens played music until they became old enough to live in their own houses and play their favorite bands without dad marching down the hallway and yelling "Turn that shit down!"

Evidently, people who are new to vinyl think these self-contained record players are still a thing. Well, to a certain extent they are. A handful of companies started making old-fashioned record players again and people are buying quite a few of them. Quite a few of them only cost a couple of hundred dollars or even less. They seem like an excellent choice for people who are just getting started on vinyl, or perhaps they live in a small apartment and want to listen to their LP's without the neighbors downstairs poking at their ceiling angrily with a broom handle.

If you've been reading this column for any amount of time, you probably see where I'm going with this. Hundred dollar record players probably don't conform to The $500 Rule. Well, they don't and that's the problem. As I mentioned a couple of columns ago in "A Turntable Is Not a Toy," most of those modern record players are made by [blank]. Perhaps that's why they sell so many, because they're the only ones really offering traditional all-in-one rigs. But, as I've said before, you will not "get" the sound of vinyl if you buy an analog rig that is not optimized for sound quality. On the opposite side of the spectrum, squarely in the heart of audiophile territory, some manufacturers are flirting with designs that approach the simplicity of the record player--but at a price, of course. For example, the new Shinola Runwell turntable has been getting a ton of buzz in the audio world because it sounds great and is built in Detroit (the actual turntable was designed with VPI, one of the most popular analog manufacturers in the US). The Runwell has a built-in phono stage and a pair of matching active loudspeakers, which means you don't need a preamp or a power amp or an integrated or a receiver. You just need this well-made, high-end $2500 turntable and the $1500 speakers and you have a $4000 record player that will sound amazing while fitting perfectly into your modern, busy and streamlined lifestyle. Unfortunately, $4000 is a lot of money for those just looking for a record speaker.

After considering the pros and cons of the Runwell system however, I realized something rather obvious. There are plenty of inexpensive turntables out there with built-in phono stages, and there are plenty of powered speakers that don't cost an arm and a leg. Back in the Syracuse store, I grabbed the Denon DP-300T belt-drive turntable, one of my choices for my top five inexpensive turntables in that "A Turntable Is Not a Toy" column. The Denon provides reasonably good sound for a $329 turntable, and it even comes with tonearm, cartridge and a built-in phono stage. The Denon rig offers an easy-going, relaxed sound (which does come at the cost of inner detail and dynamics that you'll find in more expensive turntables). I paired up the Denon with Audioengine 5+ active speakers, which sound really, really nice for $450/pair.

Within a few minutes I had this very simple rig up and running and playing music pretty well. Soundstaging and imaging were lacking a bit of spaciousness, and I wasn't getting really deep bass from the Audioengine's tiny cabinets, but tonality was exceptional and I felt like I was listening to real music in a real space--an illusion you probably can't achieve with the record players from [blank]. So this record player, which costs less than $800, got me much closer to the music than I'd expected. I can easily imagine running this system in a spare bedroom, a tiny apartment in the city or a vacation home. If I had only $800 for a new analog-centric system, this might be my choice--unless, of course, I played around with some vintage amps and turntables (which would be a very real option for me). Also, there are other inexpensive turntables from U-Turn Audio and Audio-Technica and others that include a built-in phono stage, so it might be worth making a few A/B comparisons.

There's only one problem with the Denon/Audioengine record player. It's $800. That's still a lot of money for a lot of people, especially those vinyl newbies who are surprised at the low cost of used LP's and think it's going to be a fairly cheap hobby to take up. In fact, my second question for the man who was looking for a record speaker was "How much is your budget?" He told me about $100 for everything. At that point, you're on your own as far as I'm concerned. I'm not interested in recommending great-sounding analog rigs for $100 because they don't really exist. You may get lucky at an estate sale or at the Goodwill, but I don't have a magic answer for you. If $100 is your budget, there's a very good chance that you're going to start off with a piece of junk. Hopefully that piece of junk will be intriguing enough to convince you of buying something much in a year or two, but I'm pretty sure most people who head down this dusty old road eventually give up and tell everyone that "yeah, I tried out vinyl but I didn't hear a big improvement over my MP3's." No kidding.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that we have a gap to fill, a gap between toy turntables that sound awful and fall apart, and decent-sounding all-in-one rigs that are not perceived as affordable to the newbie who wants to check out LP's.

Perhaps we need to revive the $500 Rule, and amend it a bit. I think a $500 record player, designed by the right people, would sell like crazy--you know, like a Technics SL-1200 maybe (after all, the 1200 sold for $500 right before it was discontinued a few years ago). Start off with a decent belt-drive turntable that isn't made out of plastic. Add a capable tonearm and a cartridge--keep it simple but use solid engineering (like the U-Turn Orbit). Make the loudspeakers detachable from the main unit, but also design them to sound decent when they are attached. Use a T-amp for power--they're cheap and sound decent. Make the whole thing portable. Make it look like an old-fashioned record player as much as possible. But nicer.

Finally, do it for $500.

This might be a tall order. But I think it will accomplish something important. First of all, there will be a real, quality alternative to the cheap toys. Sure, it will cost slightly more money, but not enough to put it out of reach of most music lovers. It will draw a line in the sand between the people who just want to be cool and say they "play the vinyls," and those who are willing to spend more to extract a little more music out of their record players. We refer to those people as "music lovers."

When the latter group gets a little bit older, they are the ones who will trade in their record players on real audio systems because they have had a taste of how great LP's can sound when you invest in the right hardware. That will keep vinyl alive for at least another generation.

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