Back on Plastic, Buying a Turntable

"I'd like to buy a Grammophone please."

by Ed Selley Dec 4, 2014 at 8:25 AM

  • Vinyl- What’s all the fuss about?
    A few months ago, I went on at length about why I love vinyl records and what it was about this antiquated format that still holds such a fascination. The feedback on the piece was very encouraging and it seems that a small subset of this forum devoted to the latest and greatest in technology feel the same way as me. Furthermore, the wider UK seems to be feeling much the same way. As I write this, the BBC has just announced that vinyl sales in the UK are set to exceed a million units for the first time in nearly twenty years. Records are a big deal again. I have conducted an experiment this year where I have solely relied on downloads and vinyl for my purchases and not purchased a single CD. Download choices have remained annoyingly limited but vinyl has reached the stage where pretty much everything is available- yes, even One Direction.

    If you find yourself either looking to return to vinyl or start collecting what is very likely to be the last physical media format that there will ever be, there are a few things to take into account. Vinyl has slightly different ‘rules’ and priorities to other formats and there are a bewildering variety of choices open to someone looking to add analogue to their existing system. I’m going to try and explain the benefits and downsides to some of the aspects of choosing a turntable. I need to make it clear, I don’t profess to have all the answers. You might disagree with some of the things I have to say- which is why we have a comments section- and you are free to ignore everything I have to say but some of this has been learned the hard way.

    How much is this going to cost me?
    How much is this going to cost me?
    The good news is that the turntables are a category that occupies pretty much every price point you can think of. If we take Pro-Ject’s Elemental at £160 or so to be about the least you can spend on a deck that isn’t made entirely of plastic you can then go all the way up to devices like the Continuum Caliburn or Clearaudio Statement that will set you back as much as a house in some corners of the UK. Think of a budget and there is undoubtedly something that fits the bill.

    A more nuanced and contentious question might be, ‘how much do I need to spend?’ This is an important question because you will need to decide whether you are looking to add vinyl for a bit of fun- to listen to some old records and rekindle some memories- or as a means of delivering really excellent sound that can give good digital products a hard time. This best point of equivalence is something like projectors. You can buy some cheap, big screen thrills for a very reasonable outlay but a genuinely cinematic experience is going to cost you more. I would advise considering what you are hoping to achieve very carefully because to go from a ‘fun’ rig to a hifi one is pricey while buying a good turntable when all you want to do is listen to a few battered survivors from your parents collection is pretty pointless.

    As mentioned earlier, a brand new Pro-Ject Elemental is £160 and there are some other options at a similar price. Depending on whether you need a phono stage (more of which later), you can be up and running for the price of a record brush over that cost. For something that genuinely starts to show what vinyl can really do, I’m inclined to say that really you need to be looking at coming up with at least £500 and realistically a little more.

    Why the price disparity?

    Why the price disparity?
    A turntable is unusual in this day and age because it is exclusively mechanical. In a field where performance gains are usually achieved by white coated technicians pulling ever more processing power from chipsets and these gains being passed on at relatively small price increments because these same chips are built by the million. A turntable doesn’t benefit from these same advancements. Making a turntable better generally involves using better materials and better engineering practise. This regrettably costs money. There are some cheats and some companies benefit from economies of scale but there has never been anything equivalent to the big jump in the capability and sound of affordable digital products we’ve seen over the last few years.

    As such, while affordable turntables can sound very entertaining, they generally have a few shortcomings. Pitch stability- the ability to spin at exactly the right speed- can suffer (and in the same way that DLP ‘rainbows’ can drive some people spare, so can this) and simple, low cost tonearms are more susceptible to noise and geometry issues. They can also be sensitive to noise being created by things around them- which given there are likely to be speakers nearby could be seen as a problem. Equally, even these little decks are roughly a million times more fun to use than most digital products and the performance that manufacturers can squeeze out of them is impressive.
    The good news is that the turntables are a category that occupies pretty much every price point you can think of
    Spend a bit more though and the benefits start to make themselves apparent. Put a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon next to the Elemental and the way that the more expensive model performs in terms of pitch stability, noise floor levels and frequency response are all fairly marked, even if everything else in the system stays the same. Rivals like the Rega RP3 are also showing the same improvements in performance. £400 and up is where vinyl begins to show what it can do.

    What about second hand?
    As vinyl has been around for a very long time, there are naturally a great many turntables available used and it would be logical to assume that there are some value benefits to taking advantage of this. In reality, a sensible used turntable can be excellent value for money but it is vitally important not to get too carried away. The first thing to bear in mind is that the vinyl boom has been going on for a few years now. This means that absolute stone cold bargains are harder and harder to come by than they might have been a decade ago. Undervalued stuff gets hoovered up pretty quickly and there is a lot of worn out tat being advertised at shocking prices.

    There is also the issue of parts. If you buy a used Rega or Linn, there is pretty much nothing on them that can’t be repaired or replaced. The same is regrettably not true of many wonderful Japanese direct drive designs from the seventies and eighties and of the many British brands that have come and gone. In the same way you wouldn’t expect a twenty five year old car to be completely trouble free, the same goes for turntables. If you are eyeing up something older than you are on eBay, please take this into account- especially if the company that built them no longer exists.
    Like a moth to a flame, I still find myself browsing used turntables and if you held a gun to my head and asked me to call on what I felt was worth looking at, I’d be inclined to say that Pro-Ject and Roksan (especially the smaller Radius turntable) equipment is probably undervalued as is Nottingham Analogue if and when you can find it for sale. Michell and Rega turntables can represent a good saving over new if not a stone cold bargain. Slightly contentiously, after years of being rather overvalued, the venerable Linn LP12 is looking more competitively priced at the moment and given you could technically take a slightly tired £350 example and turn it into a £15,000 monster bit by bit, there’s quite an upgrade path. Plus, Brian Cox now owns one which may or may not cheer up your significant other.

    There are a couple of things to remember when buying used, some of which apply to all used hi-fi, others of which are more specific. If you can get to see the deck work, you are likely to save yourself a lot of grief and this also allows you to take care of transit as any missing packaging could be a serious issue when couriers get involved. Read the sales description like a hawk to see what is included in sale- many decks are pictured with arms that are not included in the sale. If a turntable has spent a long time in storage, check that the bearing has oil in it as opposed to sticky goo and that the belt hasn’t stretched or perished. Cartridges also wear out so unless you are being sold something that explicitly has low hours on it, be prepared for it to be worn.

    What else do I need?
    A ‘turntable’ as usually described is actually three components that may or may not be bundled together or sold separately. This is the deck itself, the tonearm and the cartridge. If you are buying an entry level deck, these tend towards being sold as a complete package and you generally get everything you need in the box. Further up the pricing scale- between £400 and £1,000, it is common to find that a tonearm is fitted but the cartridge is not included and many brands sell decks less arm and cartridge from about £700 and up. There are pros and cons to both approaches but the good news is that if you don’t want to mix and match, companies like Rega, Clearaudio, Linn and Pro-Ject do one stop solutions up to many thousands of pounds while if you want to go À la carte, Michell, Avid and others will allow you to do so for under £1,000.

    The signal from a turntable is much lower than a conventional piece of equipment. In order for an amplifier to make proper use of it, you will need a phono stage or preamp. This raises the signal level to point where amplification is practical. The good news is that if you own a Japanese house brand amp or receiver, the overwhelming majority- even AV Receivers- have a phono stage built in. The role of the phono stage in the overall performance of a turntable is very large however and while a select few products have an excellent phono stage built in, many of them are there for convenience and won’t offer you performance that compliments your deck. The vast majority of internal phono stages are suitable for moving magnet cartridges. If you are really going for it and buy a low output moving coil cartridge, you will usually need a phono stage to suit. My personal opinion- make of it what you will- is that unless you are planning to spend £500 or more on a cartridge, there is no point to going for a moving coil as they offer no benefits over good moving magnet designs until this sort of price.
    In the same way you wouldn’t expect a twenty five year old car to be completely trouble free, the same goes for turntables
    Once you have these basics in place you have the bare minimum of things you need to make a turntable run but there are one or two items that will definitely help make the most of things. The first is a record cleaning brush. Giving your records a quick sweep before you play them won’t hurt and should keep crackles and pops to a minimum. After that, you are standing on the edge of a precipice. You can stop here and start to play records or you can leap off into a world of clamps, tracking force gauges and equipment supports. The choice is yours.

    So, what now?
    Well, in case you’d forgotten, the purpose of this frenzied activity was to participate in the business of buying and listening to records. The good news is that after the fun and games of getting a turntable together, this is the easy bit. Got an Amazon account? That’s pretty much any recent release ready to go. Have some issues with Amazon because of tax or working practises or whatever reason they’ve annoyed the righteous? Your choices are endless. In the same way that used turntable prices have firmed up considerably, second hand vinyl is also more expensive than it was. The days of finding great records in charity shops has pretty much gone but sites like Discogs and to a lesser extent eBay are still reasonable value.
    The good news is that once you’re on the vinyl ladder, the costs of moving up can be significant but because the rate of technical change in vinyl is effectively non-existent, there is a solid market for you to sell your old equipment in. Furthermore, once you have reached a certain level of enthusiasm (or madness), you will find that a turntable will survive a few arm, cartridge and phono stage updates before you need to chop it in. If you don’t have an obsessive personality, vinyl can be impressively cost effective. As society has noted though, that isn’t usually the case.

    Some of my friends and colleagues are of the opinion that this current surge in the popularity of vinyl is a phase and while I’m not completely convinced, it is perfectly possible they are right. All I would say though is that this doesn’t really matter. For me, there are few more enjoyable ways to own and listen to music and if I find myself no longer in competition with a mass of hipsters for vinyl, so much the better. As I said earlier, you should carefully weigh up what you are expecting from the format but if you go in with your eyes open, I expect you can have a blast like I do.

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