With the enormous resurgence in vinyl, we get lots of enquiries from novices asking about what to buy, where to buy it and what to look out for when buying their first turntable. What most of the enquiries boil down to is they want something that does the job and does it well, but are a bit frightened off by the techno-geek talk which makes them think that owning a turntable has to be complicated.
Easy questions to answer so here goes. It’s all quite interwoven, so bear with it until you get to the end when all makes sense.
1. Decide how much you want to spend before you venture from home
There are so many amazing turntables from a myriad of different brands that it’s easy to get hornswaggled by the audio performance they can deliver. Prices go up and up, beyond your imagination. And I do mean beyond your imagination. Don’t believe me? Check out this story from Pulse Radio from 2016. Good hi fi stores have listening rooms where you may be invited to listen to a more expensive set up and hear a more wonderful sound and be tempted to cough up more cash.
To be honest, though, in Australia you’d be fine starting out with a budget of $300-$500. If this is your first turntable there are some good choices in that price range that will get you off to a flying start. By all means listen to a more expensive set up, but bear in mind the tips below about tech knowledge (and interest) and what other gear you have at home.
2. Stick to your budget – if you want to
See above. When you get in store it’s the sales person’s job to see if you are interested in buying something more expensive. By all means listen but bear in mind they are audiophiles (that’s why they work where they do) so they love the geeky gear and the store will have a perfect set up in an ideal listening space. See tech nerd below. You’re reading this because you want a good quality turntable for a newbie, not a leading edge audiophile set up that will be featured in hi fi magazines around the world. In my view, stick to your budget unless you really, really see a good reason to move up.
3. Don’t want to be a tech nerd?
For me, I really don’t want to be a tech nerd. I just want to be able to play my records without faffing about first. If that’s you then remember that the higher you go up the price range then the more likely you are to need to have some tech knowledge and the more likely there will be faffing. Geeks will talk about upgrading the cartridge, platter height and the optimal weight for the tone arm. At that point I fall asleep. As I said, I just want to be able to play my records and get good sound. So if you set your budget at $300-500 you should get a turntable that is pretty much plug and play when it comes to set up. You don’t want to be fiddling with counterweights or installing new cartridges or balancing tone arms. You want to just take it out of the box and plug it in and use it. Double check that with the salesperson before you hand over the credit card. Specifically ask ‘do I need anything else in order to make this turntable work with my system?’.
4. What are you plugging your new turntable into?
Yes you need some other components to be able to use your turntable. At the least you need an amp and speakers. If your amp and speakers are shoddy then no matter how much you spend on the turntable the sound will be horrible. Make sure your turntable is compatible with the gear you’ve already got and that the gear will do justice to your new turntable.
There are some turntables where the amp is built into the base (plinth). Those are an option if you don’t have an amp already or your amp is past its best, but you’ll need to raise the budget to get like-for-like quality turntable. If you’re getting both an amp and turntable you will need to pay more to get the same quality of turntable. See below about always paying for what you get.
You will always need speakers and this is the techy bit: they need to put in the right place in the room. Where that ‘right place’ is depends on where you plan to be when you listen. Don’t google for information as they will give you lots of guidance about long walls and short walls and the rule of thirds. That’s fine if you plan to set up a dedicated listening room. Most of us don’t. My hi fi is in the combo kitchen/dining/living room. I want the sound to be best when I’m sitting on the sofa. So the speakers need to be set up ahead of me as I’m on the sofa, one to my right and one to my left, at an equal distance. Think of it as a triangle with equal length sides (equilateral triangle). That’s about it. Don’t be side tracked by tech nerds who say different.
Caveat: if you don’t have an amp and speakers then extend your budget to around $700. You will need an amp and speakers.
5. Go for simplicity not bells and whistles
Two turntables may have the same price, but one has more buttons and bows. That looks like you’re getting more for your money, right? Stop right there. Everything has a price. You need to know what has been cut in order to provide all those bells and whistles? Because something will have been. It’s likely that the components inside are of a lesser quality, which means the sound won’t be as good. I used to do PR for some of the world’s biggest audio brands and you can trust me on this one! We used to say that the gear with all the frills for a budget price were for those with cloth ears because they couldn’t hear that the audio was fuzzy and muddy. Focus on simplicity and you’ll likely get the best sound quality for your money.
Other tech things that might come up:
USB v non USB: believe it or not you can buy a turntable with a USB connection so you can rip your record and play it on your computer (or smart phone) as an MP3. Me, I don’t know why anyone would want to do this. The joy of a record is that … it’s a record. Dropping it down into compressed MP3 audio is not what I want. Quick non tech explanation: MP3 turns music into digital data and then removes all the data that’s ‘not needed’ and also compresses it. This means the soundwaves produced by an MP3 are sonically different and poorer quality to those produced by a record. If you really want to play music on your computer or smart phone, then use Spotify. The quality is still horrible, but it’s convenient.
Performance pack: some turntables are accompanied by a ‘performance pack’ for an additional cost (of course). The pack might include a cartridge (the bit at the end of the arm that holds the needle, also called the stylus), a slip mat (to stop your beloved record slipping as it’s played), a different tone arm(9usually a different weight) and so on. Buy it if you want, but my advice is to get your new turntable home and set up, listen to it for a while and then decide if you want to upgrade with the performance pack. Installing the performance pack can be a smidgeon techy.
Automatic v manual: worried you might scratch the record if you put the needle in the groove with your shaky hand? Then an automatic turntable is for you. My caveat is that putting a needle into the groove becomes second nature very quickly and it’s really not as big of a deal as you may think. My turntable is manual and I haven’t scratched a record yet. And I can’t say my hands are that steady! My turntable has a manual tone arm lift and I use that. It’s a little handle that lifts the tone arm and takes most of the shake out of it.
Surround sound: it’s a thing if you want to use your set up to watch TV or DVD. It won’t do anything, though, for the audio from your records as they’re recorded in stereo. Surround sound is in a minimum of 5 channels, so you’ll need five speakers – front centre, front left and right, and back left and right – or a soundbar which is designed to replicate surround sound and is much neater, easy to set up and takes up less space. A sound bar is a good, modern option instead of five speakers.
Am I going to make a recommendation? Of course, I am. The Record Store Day turntable partner is Pro-Ject. We chose them because their products are universally excellent. Their Primary E is a great entry level turntable. Why? Lots of reasons. Its build quality is good. It has a lightweight aluminium tone arm which is optimised for the pre-fitted Ortofon OM cartridge (that’s a good thing). It has both an anti-skate weight and a counterweight on the tone arm to improve what’s called ‘tracking force’ which put simply is how heavily the needle sits in the groove. Too heavy and you ruin the record. Too light and the needle won’t pick up all the information that’s recorded there. It’s plug and play – ask the sales person to show you how to set it up and you’ll see how easy it is. The design is simple and minimalist, so you’re paying for good components and not bells and whistles. It has great sound quality. And last but not least it’s $349 RRP so well within your budget. In fact you could buy the performance pack and still have coins to spare. Or invest in more wax instead. I think I’d go for the wax.
Where can you hear it demo’d or buy it. Pro-Ject has a list of good hi fi stores on their website.
PS. What turntable do I have? A vintage Pro-Ject Debut Carbon (c. 1984) bought when new and beautifully refurb’d a couple of years ago by Clef Audio in Melbourne. It’s a trusty old friend.