The only truth is music.

Jack Kerouac

This week, Scott Garlock is back with more “sound advice,” regarding turntables, cartridges, and more (Oh, my!).

Turntables, Cartridges, & LP Love

Welcome back to our third installment discussing the purchasing and use of sound equipment–thanks for your feedback thus far, and we invite plenty more of it (see email addresses below).

While I last shared some online resources, I didn’t include in-person purchase locations in our last conversation. Once upon a time, there were ample storefronts dedicated solely to audio gear–growing up in the Akron area, there were three such stores within a 10 minute drive from my home (Get Off My Lawn! #2).

These stores have been replaced by the big box electronic stores and by the niche audio/visual stores, mostly of the Mom-and-Pop variety. As mentioned before, the big box stores don’t allow for much in the way of unadorned critical listening, as one finds soooooo much extraneous noise in these spaces from other machines wanting attention. With the smaller audio/visual store, it often happens that many of the smaller staffs at these edifices specialize more in video or in home installations than in audio. This isn’t always the case, but it is difficult to find stores that offer expertise and enough gear to be able to compare goods. In visiting such places, a good sign to look for is to see if there is a dedicated room or two set aside to view and listen-this means that the owners of said establishments know enough and care enough to isolate this gear from extraneous noise so that deep and critical listening can take place.

As we make some gear suggestions, it will be towards moving the reader into the consideration of equipment that is what some might deem to be low-mid fi. For the purposes of our discussion, low-fi equipment components will be arbitrarily set for anything one can buy for less than $250 new.

For those of you who are wiser than this audio spendthrift, solid choices in low-fi are companies like Yamaha, Sony and Pioneer. These will come feature laden, and will be built brick solid, but at this price point (each of these companies makes more expensive gear, some of which is highly thought of) will lack the detail and the “oh, wow” factor of mid or hi-fi equipment.

Finally, utilize various sites dedicated to audio opinions and advice. Like anything on the internet, these can be rabbit holes, and also be filled with bad information. But, I have learned a great deal using sites like:

Turntables & Cartridges – where to spend the $?

In keeping with the dictum of “spend your cash with the sound producer at the initial and final stages,” investing in a quality cartridge for one’s turntable is perhaps more sonically important than the turntable itself. Most certainly turntables can contribute to the sound rendered by an LP, but this is mostly in a negative sense. Cheaper equipment will be much noisier due to a lack of dampening, construction, and subtlety.

While I indicated my preference for buying a new turntable, there aren’t that many moving parts on a turntable, and many audiophiles love their used machines. And, of course, one can find great deals on used gear.

General thoughts: 
  • The more automatic the machine is, often the lesser the fidelity.
  • If the turntable has a USB hookup, it will often be of less quality.
  • The more speeds the turntable has, the lesser the quality. Especially be wary of those machines that do all 3 speeds. I own a machine that does 33 and 45 RPM, but to switch to either, I need to disassemble the platter and put a different belt on the machine. My machine is really then pretty strictly dedicated to playing 33’s.
  • The more one spends on a turntable and cartridge, the more temperamental the set up and maintenance is. While most of this is in the initial “putting it all together and making sure it’s aimed right and is balanced,” one needs to find their degree of comfort in such things. And as we’ve mentioned, there aren’t a great deal of stores at-the-ready to do this sort of set up and maintenance. If you spend for good gear, you will likely need to educate yourself on how to optimize it.
  • If buying used, opt for a turntable that is belt driven instead of direct drive. Theoretically, all one might need to do to get a used turntable going is to slap a new belt on it if the motor is functioning properly. I’ve had direct drive turntables go bad, and there’s nothing quite like listening to your favorite ballad speeding up and slowing down. A well-worn belt will do likewise, but these belts are often readily available and are really inexpensive ($5-$30) to replace.
  • Buy a machine that allows you to swap out your needle/cartridge. Needles (styluses) start to lose high frequencies and get duller after 1000 hours of use.
  • Occasionally, the more that a manufacturer spends on the look of the unit, the more the sounds are sacrificed. There are some great looking units that are housed in retro cases; others have space-aged designs, and sometimes this is where the concentration is at the expense of the sound.
  • The best turntables do not have a preamp built in, and one will need to either have a turntable preamp in their receiver or will need an exterior preamp. I can share some models of these if you’d like.

Some old school used turntables that are lauded:

  • Dual 1219
  • Thorens TD 160
  • Technics SL 1500
  • Sansui FR-4060

New turntables ($250-$700 – this is by NO means an exhaustive list…I can only responsibly offer what I know):

  • Any from Pro-Ject (I have a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Esprit)
  • Audio-Technica-anything over a 120 model
  • Rega Planar-1
  • Denon DP-1
Phono Preamps 

The sound coming from a cartridge does not have enough gain to produce levels adequate for listening. Therefore, this sound needs to be amplified at some stage. As mentioned above, some turntables have a preamp built in (Pro-Ject for example sells these), but most will not.

Depending on the age, model, and level of your receiver, you may not want, or need, to consider the purchase of a phono preamp. Some receiver preamps are far nicer than other receivers, and some exterior preamps are far nicer than others. My prior receiver (a Denon 5800) had a wonderful preamp, but my much newer Anthem does not, so I have a separate box that sits atop my receiver for this purpose. As you look at the connectors at the back of your receiver, if one of your inputs says “phono,” you have a built-in preamp. Like everywhere else, one can spend a child’s college education on such boxes-more power to you if you can swing that (speaking of which, if you can swing that, I know a certain swinging big band in Cleveland that would love your support!).

For most of us mortals, competent turntable companies like Regas and Pro-Ject are solid options. For other choices, there’s Schiit, NAD, and here’s a few other boxes to consider:

This is also an area where a used preamp can get you optional bang for the buck.

Until next time, happy listening, and let us know your thoughts!

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*The CJO is not endorsing any products or sites listed, nor is it receiving any compensation from the businesses listed above.