The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CXXII: A Good Old-Fashioned Record Player, Part 2
The last time I talked about the need for good old-fashioned record players, back in June of 2017, there was still a tremendous gap between those all-in-one players that cost $100 to $200 and the kind of analog sound quality that will make you sit up and say, "Wow! Now I know why everyone's listening to vinyl these days!"
That's an important distinction. Let me remind you of the problem:
Vinyl Newbie: "Hi, I want to buy a turntable. I want to start listening to records like everyone else."By the time the salesperson has brought up phono preamplifiers--huh? what's that?--that person has already left to buy a Crosley at Urban Outfitters.
Audio Salesperson: "Great! How much were you looking to spend?"
VN: "I dunno, hundred bucks or so."
AS: "Oh. Well, there aren't a lot of real options at that price point. But we do have this cheap, plastic turntable that sounds like crap and will probably die within the year. Tell me about the rest of your system."
VN: "System? I don't have a system. I just want to play the vinyls like my friends do."
In the last two-and-a-half years, there has been a noticeable attempt to bridge this gap in the audio marketplace. Inexpensive turntables have started including features such as arms, cartridges, in-board phono preamplifiers, amplifiers and even speakers built into the turntable base, just like in the old days. You're still not going to get the same sound quality as you would with an audio system where the turntable, arm and cartridge are just one piece in the analog chain, especially if the speakers aren't spaced out in the room far enough to create a believable stereo image. But for the most part, the build quality and sonics are improving.
On the other side of the equation, we have more one-box solutions in high-end audio than ever before. In the digital world, I'm finding more and more products that jam amplifiers, preamplifiers, DACs, disc transports, CD rippers, network streamers, headphone amplifiers and even phono preamplifiers into one single chassis. You still need to buy a turntable, not to mention speakers and cables, but at least you're looking at a single box instead of a huge rack filled with individual components.
The downside of this, of course, is the MSRP. The last time I used a one-box solution like this, it retailed for $18,000. And you still needed to buy a turntable. And if you're going to spend $18,000 on everything else, you should probably buy a really nice analog rig as well.
I've also found at least one reasonable compromise--I mated the Denon DP-300 turntable to a pair of powered Audioengine speakers and found that it sounded pretty good. The Denon turntable, which retails for around $329, includes the arm, cartridge and an inboard phono stage. Audioengine active speakers start at around $219/pair, and they even provide the cables. That's all you need, for around $550. The only problem is that the inboard phono pre inside the Denon just isn't that good, and you'll want a real phono stage ASAP. That might cost anywhere from $100-$200 or more.
In addition, I've found from experience that $500 is still too much for most vinyl newbies. They really want something for $100 or so. $500 gives them a sad.
Last month, I attended the 2020 Florida Audio Expo, and I visited a room that hinted at a world where the two sides meet. You can read my show report at https://parttimeaudiophile.com/2020/02/15/andover-audio-and-the-rebirth-of-the-record-player-flax-2020/. Andover Audio, based in Massachusetts, was exhibiting the Model-One Turntable Music System. This is a system where the turntable, amplification and speakers are all contained in one box, and you can get options like a subwoofer and racks to hold your LPs. It's an elegant, simple and compact solution, and it sounds surprisingly good considering there are no detachable speakers to create a nice stereo image.
The Andover Audio Model-One starts off with an affordable yet very decent Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Espirit SB turntable with the Carbon Fiber tonearm and adds an acrylic platter as well as an Ortofon cartridge. It's one of the cheapest models, the OM2 Silver, but you can always upgrade. The two Class D amplifiers provide 200 watts per channel. You get a full-function preamp as well, so you can add other components. It includes outputs for the optional sub. To top it off, the Model-One includes a headphone amplifier--which makes this the perfect solution for vinyl lovers who live in an apartment or enjoy late night listening sessions when everyone else is asleep.
The compact speaker system doesn't cut corners either. It's comprised of four aluminum diaphragm woofers and two Air Motion Transformer tweeters. For me, this is the truly special part--the lateral imaging is surprisingly fulsome. Remember when I talked about the Naim Mu-So, and how even though it was a box that was roughly a cubic foot, the sound could be so immersive that you'd forget you weren't listening to a true stereo image? This is better than the $1000 Mu-So. It's not quite a high-quality two-channel audio sound, but it's close.
There's only one problem with the Andover Audio Model-One. The record player starts at $2500. One subwoofer adds $800 and each LP bin costs another $200. Fully decked out, the Model-One can cost $3400. I don't have to tell you that you can buy a pretty nice two-channel system for $3400. The true potential of this "record player," however, is obvious. In its basic form, it's compact--like those good old-fashioned record players of the past. It probably sounds better than any all-in-one record player ever made. In addition, it's expandable. You can add other components and features down the road.
So we still haven't come up with a decent-sounding solution for the vinyl newbie who wants to get into analog for a few hundred bucks. That's where the Spinbase system comes in.
The Spinbase, also from Andover Audio, is a single box that includes speakers, amplification and even Bluetooth capabilities. It's 3.25" tall, and the length and width correspond to the size of most turntables. The Spinbase will work with almost any turntable--Andover Audio specifies that it must have a ceramic or magnetic cartridge, and that's it. The two soft-dome tweeters and the two active woofers create a 270 degree sound field. It also features internal bracing so that the vibrations from the speaker won't affect the needle in the grooves.
The best part of all--the Spinbase is only $300.
Yes, you still need to buy a turntable. But here's the kind of vinyl newbie who will want the Spinbase:
Vinyl Newbie: "Hi, I found my dad's old turntable in the attic and all of his records, and I want to play them. What do I need to make this happen?"
Audio Salesperson: "You got $300?"
This isn't meant to be a commercial for Andover Audio and there is, as always, no money changing hands to promote this product. It's just exciting for me on a personal level--a couple of years ago I noticed, right here in this column, that there was a need in the marketplace for good old-fashioned record players, ones that sounded good without breaking the bank.
Since then, I've heard of several companies working on this. Andover Audio seems to be the first company to bring a fully realized product to the marketplace. More will follow. Some will sound better. Some will be cheaper. If we're lucky, they'll be both.
Contact the Vinyl Anachronist at firstname.lastname@example.org and see his Blog site
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