Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part LIX: The USB Port Turntable Blues, or,
Needle Drops Keep Falling on My Head
(May 2007)

I really am a Luddite when it comes to new technologies. Sure, I own an iPod, but I barely know how to make it work sometimes. I finally found out what Blu-Ray is just a few weeks ago - and I still don't know what a Squeezebox is, or why I need one. But I'm sure I'll figure it all out just in time for each technology to become obsolete.

I have, however, taken the time to learn a little bit about these so-called USB port turntables, only because so many people have been asking me about them lately. My wife asked me. My father-in-law asked me. Even our illustrious PSF leader, Jason Gross, asked me about them. So I've been doing some research, just so I can look like I know what I'm talking about when the e-mails arrive. I know, I know... I'm not really an expert on vinyl; I just play one on the Internet.

A USB port turntable, for those of you don't know, is an all-in-one unit that comprises a turntable, and some sort of combination of features that allow you to burn CD's directly from it. Some products, like the Teac GF-350, are self-contained units with turntables, CD burners, and even speakers. These are not technically "USB port turntables," since they are not designed to interface with your computer. Others however, strictly follow the definition by being a turntable that can interface directly with the CD burner of your computer via a USB cable. And a third variation on this theme is outboard converters that act as an interface between your existing turntable and your computer.

How do they work? Well, I don't know. My father-in-law went ahead and bought the Teac, and seems pretty happy with it. But I really don't have a need for something like this because I actually enjoy listening to LP's on turntables. Transcribing all of my LP's to CD's seems to be missing the point. That's one question I get from people that really makes me bristle, "How are you transferring your records to CD?" I'm not. I take care of my records. I have many LP's in my collection that I've owned for decades, and they still sound as good as the day I ran to the local Gemco with my paper route money and bought them. Conversely, I've had quite a few CD's become mysteriously unplayable over the years. So why in the world would I need to transfer anything to CD?

Still, there's a lot to be said about doing "needle drops," as they're now calling it. There's an art to doing it correctly, and a lot of hi-fi enthusiasts are, well, enthusiastic about getting the best possible results. And what's interesting about needle drops is that in theory, the digital conversion should preserve the sound of the turntable perfectly. This was demonstrated a few years ago when vinyl maven Michael Fremer burned some CD's from the $73,000 Rockport Sirius III turntable he had on hand for review. And rumor had it that these were the best-sounding CD's anyone had ever heard. Even hardcore vinyl lovers were impressed.

But therein lies the rub. Many of these so-called USB port turntables really cheap out when it comes to 'table itself. My father-in-law's Teac, for instance, is quite unimpressive. The 'table itself is cheap, has plasticity and reminds me of those ubiquitous BSR record changers back in the '70's that sounded so awful. And most of the USB port 'tables are based upon DJ 'tables which are known more for durability than sound quality (and no, I'm not talking about the Technics SL1200 specifically, so simmer down).

When it comes right down to it, I think everyone got a little spoiled from burning copies of CD's. Again, in theory, a CD copy should be identical to the original, despite the hardware used to do the transfer. Differences in sound quality between CD players are usually attributable to devices outside of the actual stream of data, such as chips and filters. But the actual information on the CD should transfer perfectly to a new disc, even on the cheapest CD recorders.

It's different with a turntable. Your CD copy is only as good as your turntable. Use a cheap, crappy turntable, and you'll get a cheap, crappy-sounding CD-R. And it doesn't help that most of these manufacturers are using the cheapest cartridge they can find in order to save you a few bucks. Worst of all, poorly-made turntables tend to accentuate surface noise on your LP's, so your needle drop will sound even worse. Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. The general consensus in the needle drop community is the vast majority of these USB port turntables and all-in-one units are mediocre at best. No one seems to be raving about any one model that's different from the others.

To be fair, there is some response to this from the manufacturers. Teac, for example, is introducing an upscale, audiophile version of their GF-350 that might just be the answer. But there's a right way to doing needle drops, and like most things in the world, it'll cost you. Serious hobbyists maintain that the right way to do a needle drop is with a high-quality turntable, arm and cartridge, mated to a high-quality digital-to-analog converter with a USB port (the Benchmark DAC-1 seems to be a huge favorite). But again, that's potentially a lot of money.

I know the question some people are thinking: Why in the world would you want to go through this much trouble, when you can just buy everything on CD and be done with it? I have to admit that this crossed my mind once or twice. The answer is simple, yet quite amazing in its way. Today, in the year 2007, there is still a lot of music on LP's that is not yet available on CD! I remember this being a big argument for analog lovers back in, say, 1990 or so. But now? Really? There's stuff that isn't available on CD? Well, of course, there's stuff that's never been released on CD, and perhaps never will be. Ask the people at Tower Records how they feel about the future of CD's. Oh wait... you can't.

The other reason why needle drops are becoming so popular is that it's one more way to integrate your music system into your computer. Let's face it; integration is the wave of the future. That's why sales of CD's, pre-recorded ones anyway, are steadily decreasing. I'm not going to spend any time discussing how MP3 and Internet downloading are revolutionizing the music industry. You already know that.

But if the CD is dying, then what does that say about the LP? I'm not sure. When I first heard about needle drops, I was against it because it sounded like one more way to phase out the LP. But now I'm seeing how enthusiastic people are about this new hobby, and I realize that the LP is still part of the chain. Needle drops are popular because people still love their LP's, and they want to preserve the sound. The goal of needle drops is to come up with the best possible sound quality, and we all know that when it comes to ultimate quality, analog still rules, right?

So, when it comes to recommending the right USB port turntable, I still don't have an answer. However, here’s the obvious choice: either wait for the manufacturers to come up with something better (and it looks like they definitely will), or you can be like me and continue to listen to LP's on your good old-fashioned turntable, like a good little Luddite.

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