Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Beginner's Guide to Your First Turntables

As you might be aware, I'm a great music lover and a member of the turntable club. Because of the revival in vinyl records, usually younger kids who grew up exclusively with CD's and .mp3's, there are a lot of questions for advice on turntables and analog LP's. I've written a short speech or at Vinyl Engine, and I was impressed enough with what I wrote that I decided to share it here with you.

"First Turntable"

When you decide to explore the world of vinyl records, you'll be asking lots of questions about turntables, and you'll likely be swarmed with a million different answers. This may seem overwhelming at first, but it's perfectly normal. Analog music - that's what records are all about - is far more nuanced and tricky than simply popping a CD into the tray and hitting the repeat button. There are many different turntable brands, many different designs, and many different price points. And everybody has their own opinion, which contradicts everybody else.

The great example of this is the "turf war" (I say that jokingly) between Technics and Rega fans. In a broader sense, this is a battle between the defenders of belt-drive turntables and direct-drive turntables. In truth, both designs have their advantages and weaknesses, and great tables can be had on both sides equally. But passions are fierce among the devoted, and it's confusing as hell.

Here is my advice for every one of you. At the end of the day, you need to dive in and just get your hands dirty. A first turntable is like a first car. You don't expect perfection, just a reliable clunker that you can tear apart and destroy as you learn and grow.

Over the past two years, I've gone through half a dozen turntables, starting with a $99 Newmark PT-101 portable to a Pro-Ject Debut III to a Sony PS-X75. My current setup - Sony PS-X5, Ortofon 2M Blue - is the best I've yet heard, and paired with my Marantz stereo receiver, it's a spectacular sound system. But I learned everything the long and hard way, and I wouldn't trade that for anything.

In the process of learning, I've become a more skilled listener. I've learned to listen critically, something I never really did before. I've learned much about the science of turntables, of their designs and the various theories of replicating that perfect sound. And I've wrecked my share of parts and ruined my share of records.

If someone wants to discover the world of analog LP's, then I'd recommend searching local rummage sales and want-ads. Get a cheap clunker that costs next to nothing, get a cheap cartridge, and start playing records. Then learn as much as you possibly can about them, so when it comes time to upgrade to the next table, you're on a stronger footing. And hopefully you won't be spending a small fortune in the process.

I think another key goal is to keep costs down as much as possible. More money does not equal better performance. I spent a lot of money to fully upgrade a Pro-Ject Debut III, only to see it smashed to pieces by a 30-year-old Realistic Lab-420 direct drive. My grandfather's old MacDonald 510 idler drive sounded far better than it has any right to. And the Sony PS-X tables are stunning.

So, everyone, my advice is get a great stereo receiver from the 1970s, like one of the Marantz models. A great stereo is the foundation of your sound system. You can find a stereo and a pair of speakers for under $100, easy. Then proceed with the turntable and phono cartridge, and you're ready to experience the bliss of vinyl records. Start with a cheap, used table, then work your way up the chain. Or, you could just copy my current system and skip a few steps. It's all up to you.

For reference, here's my current system, with prices included:

Sony PS-X5 Turntable - $100
Ortofon 2M Blue Cartridge - $200
Marantz 2235b Stereo Receiver - $65
RCA Speakers (pair) - $35


Kristina said...

did you buy your turntable second hand? if not, what store did you get it from. if it was from a local record store then ok.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Thanks for visiting and writing. It means a lot. The Pro-Ject Debut III was bought brand new at Needle Doctor in Dinkytown. The Sony turntables were bought on Ebay and shipped to me in a double-box.

If you're looking for vintage turntables, Craigslist is an option, but most tables are the cheap, plastic kind. But once in a blue moon, something exceptional appears.

Audiogon and Ebay are the best sources for audio gear. There is also a Japanese website called Hi Fi Do which sells worldwide. I think the secret's out about them, however, because the prices have just shot up this past year.

Hope that helps you out!