Spin Control: Top Turntables
September 12, 2008
After a recent Brussels concert by the The Duke Spirit, I stood in line to buy the up-and-coming British rock band's new record, "Neptune," on vinyl. The group's lead singer, Liela Moss, was signing fans' purchases. A teenager next to me smirked as he asked, "Do you even have a record player?" I gave him a quick "Sure, dude," but was too busy getting Ms. Moss's autograph on the album cover to explain that it probably predated him.
In fact it was the same Technics belt-drive model I've had for 30 years. A month ago it was finally wearing out, and I decided to replace it. I was surprised by the range of record players still on the market — from basic models under €100 to ultra-high-end audiophile contraptions from Continuum Labs and Thorens costing €10,000 or more. Several new turntables will even convert music from vinyl records to CDs or MP3 files, though the process can be cumbersome (with some software, you have to tell the computer where tracks begin and end). Yes, a few models even have iPod docks.
One thing to keep in mind as you shop: Many of today's compact stereo systems don't have "phono" inputs, which boost the analog signal from a phonograph needle. Some new turntables will plug directly into normal "line" inputs found on most stereos, but if you buy one that can't you may need a separate preamp. And don't forget: You have to get up from the sofa to flip the record to side two.
Here, a look at four popular and widely available record players.
Numark TT USB
A dependable, inexpensive unit perfect for someone starting a new record collection or dusting off the old one. It includes a USB connection and software for converting LPs to digital formats. (Numark's new TTi USB model adds an iPod dock.) It also works on newer stereo systems with no phono input. "We sell loads of these," says Chris Summers, manager of London's Rough Trade record shop in Notting Hill, adding that most young buyers don't bother with the USB connection. Unlike the other turntables listed here a dust cover isn't included; the company says it will start selling one for €39 at the end of September.
Pro-Ject Debut III
Sleek design and simple controls distinguish this entry-level model from an Austrian manufacturer of high-end turntables. The Debut III is sold in a variety of cool colors, from fire-engine red to lime green. It requires a phono input or optional adapter to play on most recently manufactured stereos. Also, changing from 33 1/3 rpm to 45 rpm to play singles is a hassle (you have to remove the platter and change the belt from one sprocket to another, or else buy an optional speed-changing attachment).
Vestax Handy Trax
The iPod of turntables. This portable unit folds up like a clamshell, has a built-in speaker and headphone jack and can run on batteries, so it can be taken to parties and picnics. But it also has a good enough needle to use at home through hi-fi stereo systems (even ones without a phono input).
Technics SL1200 MkII
The old war horse of the turntable world, a sturdy direct-drive model favored by DJs everywhere but also fine for home use — though your stereo needs a phono input. (I ended up buying an inexpensive imitation made by American Audio that cost €98; it works fine but isn't as solidly built as the Technics.)
Write to Craig Winneker at firstname.lastname@example.org