Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part XCVI: 2013--The $500 Rule
(February 2014)

"Remember that I told you there were two prerequisites to extracting better sound from LP's than from CD's? The first thing is that you have to take care of your records better through record cleaning machines, a little elbow grease, and a little responsibility. The second thing is that you had to spend about $500 to get a turntable that would out-perform nearly every mass-market CD player out there."

I wrote that back in June of 1998 in what was only my fourth Vinyl Anachronist column. That $500 price level, of course, was based on the retail price of a Rega Planar 2 turntable at the time. I felt that the Planar 2 was the minimum point of entry for a competent analog rig, and that all turntables under the $500 mark were underachievers and would never convert you into a true vinyl freak. You'd listen to a cheap turntable and think it sounded OK, but then you'd go back to your mass-market CD player and wonder why people were still clinging onto their LPs. The Planar 2 was the lowest-priced turntable, in my opinion, that reached the level of performance where you would regret selling off your record collection. I even started calling this piece of advice the "$500 Rule."

I revisited the $500 Rule in an October 2006 column and found that not a lot had changed. A flurry of new 'tables at the $300 price point were gaining sales momentum at the time, but I was ultimately unconvinced of their sonic superiority over the CD medium. Even though the Rega Planar 2 had just been discontinued and the introduction of an even cheaper Rega was on the horizon, the $500 Rule was still in effect--even though the only $500 turntable selling in reasonable numbers at that time was the Technics SL-1200. Let's not acknowledge the irony of that.

Now that it's 2014, and I've written 92 additional bi-monthly columns since making the $500 Rule, things have changed considerably. It might seem obvious that the marketplace would change over the course of 16 years, but we're talking about analog, a supposedly obsolete technology. While it's utterly amazing that analog playback systems have continued to improve during that time, it's even more amazing that most of the field has been shaken up over the last couple of years--even the last few months. It's actually a very exciting time to get into vinyl, which is why so many people are doing it these days. The market is definitely skewing toward vinyl newbies--and the younger generations of music lovers in particular--in an effort to keep the format alive and well.

Your first thought might be that the cost of admission has risen substantially over the last 16 years. You'd be wrong. The price of decent analog playback has actually dropped. The Rega Planar 2 was discontinued a few years ago, and its eventual replacement--the RP1--is currently $50 less and it even includes an Ortofon cartridge. The RP1 did have a brief predecessor, the P1, but it had issues--such as the chintzy, wobbly MDF platter--that were resolved in the RP1.

The Rega RP1 is about as plug-and-play as you can get; you can pull it out of the box and have it up and running in just a few minutes. I do recommend that you spend an extra $195 and get the RP1 Performance Pack which includes a better mat, belt and cartridge that gets the performance closer to the classic Rega Planar 3. But you can do that later when funds allow. For $445, you can be deliriously happy with vinyl in 2014.

So is the Rega RP1 my new entry level analog rig? Well, I might have declared it so if I hadn't heard the latest version of the Pro-Ject Carbon Debut turntable--at just $399. I've heard many Pro-ject 'tables over the years, and they never quite impressed me enough to deter me from my preference for Rega. Made in the Czech Republic, Pro-ject has always been popular among budget-minded people who are just getting back into vinyl, but I heard too many stories about reliability problems. I wasn't impressed with the poor fit-and-finish and sound quality that just wasn't up to Rega standards. But this new Carbon Debut features a DC motor and power supply that improves speed stability, an excellent carbon fiber tonearm, a more massive platter and a better Ortofon cartridge than the Rega RP1 offers. It even comes in seven high-gloss colors. The word on the street is that Pro-Ject and Music Hall (who also makes turntables in the same Czech factory) have been producing well-made and reliable turntables for many years now. In other words, the bugs were worked out long ago. Both brands have certainly prospered over the last decade and have been vital to vinyl's continued popularity.

Most importantly, I've heard the Carbon Debut recently and I thought it sounded pretty darned good for $399--far better than those earlier $300 models from Music Hall and Pro-Ject. Is the Pro-Ject Carbon Debut--or even the Rega RP1 for that matter--the sonic equal of that old $500 Rega Planar 2? It's hard to say since I haven't heard the P2 since 2007 or so. But if memory serves, they're close enough.

So has the $500 Rule become the $399 Rule? Not quite--there's a new low-cost analog sheriff in town. In my last column I mentioned the U-Turn Audio Orbit turntable, a minimalist design that was introduced via a Kickstarter campaign. The Orbit, which was originally priced at $150 with tonearm and cartridge, focused solely on delivering the most sound for the least amount of money--a surprising set of priorities in an industry that has preferred convenience over good sound since the '80's. The folks at U-Turn, who manufacturer the Orbit in Boston and not China, weren't worried about fancy cosmetics or cool features. They just wanted to offer a decent-sounding analog rig at a price almost everyone could afford.

It was a great idea, and the Kickstarter campaign was a success. Unfortunately, it took a little longer than expected to deliver the final product, which is entirely predictable with these types of start-up projects (I'm currently involved with an audio project that's been "almost ready" for more than a year, so I'm very familiar with the curse of last-minute details). The price jumped from $150 to $179--not really a big deal considering U-Turn decided to include the arm and cartridge. They also decided to offer a "Plus" model for $279 that replaces the MDF platter with an acrylic one, and replaces the very cheap Audio-Technica cartridge in the Basic model with a better one from Grado. It's sort of the same idea as with the Rega Performance Pack--if you're looking to get into analog for as little as possible, the basic version is the way to go, but once you get there you'll probably need a little more oomph before you sell off your CD player and all your little silver discs. Consider the Plus version if you can afford it, or purchase the upgrade kit down the road.

I haven't heard the Orbit yet--I started getting e-mails asking my opinions on the Orbit before U-Turn even started delivering the product to customers--but the reviews are coming in and they're quite enthusiastic. Steve Guttenberg of CNET, who I interviewed here last year, wrote that the Basic version "...succeeded beyond my wildest dreams; their very first attempt is a knockout." You can also find very positive reviews in TONEAudio,Uncrate and a few other websites. I'm sure I'll hear one soon, however, or I might even just spend the $179 and find out for myself just how good it is.

So maybe the $500 Rule has become the $179 Rule. If it has, that's very exciting news for the latest generation of prospective vinyl lovers. $179 is far cheaper than the latest generation of tablets, or maybe even an MP3 player and a cheap pair of earbuds. When I first got into audio back in the late '70's, $179 would buy you a decent turntable from Dual, AR, Thorens or many other venerable brands. In 1977, I bought a brand-new Dual CS-510 turntable with a Shure V-15 Type III cartridge for $199, and it was a killer analog rig that I used for many years. Once digital formats took over in the late '80's, however, vinyl lovers changed their tune. We started talking about how you couldn't get a decent turntable for less than, I don't know, $500 or so. Old mass-market turntables were suddenly used as the main example of why you wanted to switch to CD's.

Digital did change everything, however. Vinyl playback became better because it had to compete with something that was much quieter and much more convenient. Now it's better than ever, and for far less money. Who could have guessed that was going to happen in the 21st century?

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