Let’s Talk About Vinyl Records

There is a bit of buzz about vinyl records for music lovers, there’s a lot of debate, a lot of good and bad information out there about vinyl, turntables and so on. I’m going to try to demystify and explain what I think someone needs to know about vinyl records, turntables and all the myths and misinformation that’s out there.

Let’s talk about turntables.

I don’t think you have to break the bank to get a good turntable. Nor do you have to buy a new and expensive one to get decent sound quality. Frankly, not all people care about sound quality in terms of frequency response, signal to noise ratio and all the other jargon. That being said, I am not  saying that new turntables aren’t as good as the the vintage stuff (in some cases that can be true).

I think the first thing someone should consider before choosing a turntable is to figure out their budget. Turntables can be quite expensive, even a used 40 year old turntable can be shocking and new ones can be far more shocking. You can expect used turntables to range $100 on up. My personal opinion and experience when it comes to used turntables, Technics is usually a good choice. Even Technics’ low to mid range turntables can yield a great listening experience. New turntables aren’t all expensive such as the Audio Technica AT-LP60X which at the time of this article is priced at $139, while others are downright ridiculous costing thousands of dollars. I once seen a turntable cost nearly $30,000. 

My gut tends to lean towards telling people to buy a used turntable as opposed to a more expensive new turntable or a new budget turntable. If I compare a Technics SL-BD33, which is a turntable from the mid to late 80’s, has the bare essentials (things like auto stop, cueing) to the Audio Technica AT-LP60X, the Technics is just going to be a better performer at the same price. You can find higher end models like the Technics SL-QD33 that are fully automatic, quartz control that have better specs than some new “high end” turntables. They might look old and very “80’s” but they are no slouch. 

Technics SL-QD33 Turntable
Pro-ject Debut Carbon turntable
My Pro-ject Debut Carbon turntable

If your budget allows for more and you prefer to have something new there are a number of new turntables that offer great performance such as the Pro-Ject Essential II Digital turntable. This turntable while missing a few creature comforts like auto stop also has a built-in preamplifier and optical out (Toslink) which is a decent value at $379. I personally have a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon which does quite well but I, again, feel that a used Technics turntable can offer similar performance and comes with all the creature comforts. I find that many new turntables simply lack features like auto start/stop, strobe scope, even speed controls. For instance on my turntable if you want to play a 45, you have to remove the platter and move the belt to a different pulley. However, you can for another $200 get the speedbox so you don’t have to do that. 

I haven’t mentioned it in this article yet but it needs to be discussed and that is the Crosley turntables. There’s a lot of doom and gloom. Here’s the bottom line, they’re inexpensive turntables. No they’re not of the best quality, no they won’t destroy your records. They’re easy to set up and if you’re on a budget, it might be your way into spinning vinyl. This might be a good choice if you’re really not worried about how much bass it has and how clear the sound is. Youtuber VWestlife did a thorough video going through the whole thing and does a better job at explaining it, you can watch that video here.

 

Let’s Talk About Equipment.

Generally speaking all you need is a turntable, in most cases a preamplifier, a stereo receiver and a set of speakers to play. However, that may not be the case. Some turntables, including budget turntables, have Bluetooth, built-in speakers and preamps which can reduce the cost and complexity to get up and going. The Crosley Cruiser turntable is probably one of the easiest turntables to get up and going, they have built in speakers even if they’re equivalent to a laptop, some models have Bluetooth and of course a built-in preamp. While other setups will require a preamp, ground wire, stereo receiver and a set of speakers. Many setups will be somewhere in between. Here’s a couple things in mind. Most newer stereo receivers do not have a phono preamp, some might not have RCA jacks at all giving way to things like HDMI, Bluetooth and so on.

 

Project Phono Box S preamp

Preamps.

You might be think you can skip having a preamp but a preamp does more than just amplify the sound from your stylus (or needle). Phono preamps also equalize the audio, boosting bass frequencies and reducing higher frequencies. If you were to plug your turntable directly into a stereo receiver not only are you going to have to turn the volume way up you’ll notice that the sound will lack bass and sound very tinny. Preamps amplify the audio signal from your turntable over 30dB+, which is a lot.

Personally, I think one does not need to break the bank to get a decent preamp. That is, if your stereo receiver does not have one built-in. The Pro-ject Phono Box S, the one I have, does sound brighter and perhaps better than the Pyle PP999 but the Pyle also costs $20 as opposed to $199. Is the Pro-ject worth the extra money? You be the judge. One note is that the Pyle PP999 does not have a ground screw. What I did was simply attach the ground wire to one of the screws on the outside.

One of the advantages a higher end preamp might have is the ability to adjust the gain, capacitance or the ability to work with different types of phono cartridges. 

A Quick Word About Phono Cartridges.

Not going to spend a whole lot of time on the subject on phono cartridges because your new turntable, new or used, will almost certainly come with a phono cartridge with a stylus already installed. So what do you need to know about phono cartridges?

The cartridge is what “picks up” the vibration from the groove in a record. Most turntables today use what is called a “moving magnet” or a “moving coil” cartridge. Moving magnet cartridges are the most common. There are also ceramic cartridges which are older technology and are common to record players/changers before the 1970’s. It is good to know this because some phono preamps have settings for moving magnet and moving coil. Generally speaking moving coil cartridges require higher gain than moving magnet cartridges and thus require different loading. However, chances are whatever turntable setup you end up with will very likely have a moving magnet cartridge. It is also very likely that your phono preamp has no adjustments at all while others like the Pro-ject Phono Box S has dip switches on the bottom of the unit.

 

 

 

If you have purchased a cartridge you can usually find the specifications and information on how to “load” your cartridge. On the image on the left you can adjust settings like gain and capacitance, so in some cases you can better match up your cartridge with your preamp.

Specifications for Otofon's  2M line of cartidges.

Final Word.

So what does all this really mean? You don’t really have to worry about all the finer specs, but if the equipment allows for adjustment, why not make adjustments to your liking. Changing things like the capacitance can “color” the sound differently. Remember this is all analog and reproduction of what’s in the grooves are going to differ based on a number of factors. The bottom line is that you need a preamp and moving coil cartridge’s may require a preamp that supports it , even though it is unlikely that you have one. 

At the end of the day, details as to what turntable you have, what preamp you have, etc might not matter as much as other things.

Speakers.

You can have the best turntable and the best preamp and the best amplifer and playing back the best pressing of an album to have ever existed if you got crappy speakers it doesn’t make any sense. If there’s anything you should throw money at it should be speakers first. Now, I’m no expert on speakers, but what I will say is generally speaking you get what you pay for. However, like everything else up to this point, I don’t think you have to break the bank to get good audio. Also consider used speakers. Never know what deal you might find. You can also do a lot of research on sites like audiokarma.org.

I do think people focus on power handling too much in the beginning rather than listening quality. Sure, I like a lot of bass but not everyone lives out in the boonies, a lot of people live in apartments and can’t crank it up. So buy what makes sense for you. 10 watts is actually starting to get a bit loud, so a pair of 50 watt speakers might be more than adequate. While me, out here in the sticks, I can get away with cranking up the stereo and get the full 150 watts or whatever. I also can’t emphasize this enough, but listen to the equipment, do you like the way that your equipment sounds? I used to have a set of RCA (Optimus) 40-5007 that had the linaeum ribbon tweeters, the speaker itself didn’t really handle much bass and mid range was pretty meh. About 7 years ago I got a pair of Klipsch R-28F floor speakers, by far an upgrade over the RCA’s. However, I do think the ribbon tweeter gives the Klipsch a run for the money in a way, the Klipsch is superior in every way. Way more bass, mids much more clear and defined and the highs are plenty good and overall a very sensitive speaker. I found out quite some time after I bought everything that I got the wrong receiver and only putting 70w + 70w into the Klipsch floor speakers, you could have told me it was 150 watts each channel. I guess what I am getting at is that each pair of speakers are going to vary drastically. Obviously comparing the RCA/Optimus bookshelf speakers to a Klipsch floor speaker is kind of apples and oranges. Both are good speakers and depending on the situation, one will get your a noise complaint and the other might not. I do, like turntables, think that you could easily go vintage with speakers. What I will say is that you should inspect the speakers, make sure the cone and that the surrounds are in good shape and you really should listen to them before buying. I know it sounds crazy and obvious that you should test anything that is used before buying, it is surprisingly easy to buy something and not do just that.

Myths.

While some claims can make a difference there is a lot of snake oil when it comes to audio gear, everything from power cables, to super expensive RCA cables, DAC’s (digital audio converter) that sample far into ultrasonics and so on. Let me give you an example. Let’s pick on the Ortofon 2M line up. I have the 2M red, it is a $99 cartridge and comes with the stylus. There’s also the 2M blue, the 2M bronze and the 2M black. I have had both the 2M red and 2M bronze. Does the 2M bronze sound better than the 2M red? Yes it does, the 2M bronze has what’s called a nude fine-line stylus, while the 2M red is an elliptical stylus. Not going to dive into what all that means but the thing is the 2M bronze costs over $400. Again, no question that the 2M bronze sounds better than the 2M red but in my opinion the cost of the bronze doesn’t return that big of an upgrade over the red. The 2M red sounds just fine and I think you’ll do better upgrading your speakers over the cartridge. For those who are curious. What I noticed about the 2M bronze was that things like “inner grove distortion” weren’t as pronounced and that some records that seemed noisier played quieter. The difference between the 2M red and 2M bronze on a mint record were harder to tell apart. 

Other claims are utter bullshit. Claims that a certain power cord will reduce noise, costing over $100 for some power cables. While there is some merit to RCA cables, you don’t need to spend a fortune on cables. Frankly, this is one of those things that should be far down your list, that is, unless you just don’t have any RCA cables. However, the stuff at Walmart or Best Buy are fine enough. Shielded RCA cables do help with noise reduction, however, there is a point where the cost exceeds the increase in performance. My advice is simply this, if it sounds too good to be true, it most certainly is. 

Cleaning Your Records.

Vintage photo of ronco record vacuum

This subject can be a hot one. Everyone has different opinions and some of the things I have done with records I have owned might make your skin crawl. I have bought records from the flea market that were so dirty and had so much noise playing them back I almost trashed them. In that case I felt I had nothing to lose, so I tossed them in the sink with some Dawn dish soap and scrubbed them with a microfiber cloth. This was, mind you, after using record cleaner fluid, record brushes and so forth without much change. It wasn’t after I tossed them in the kitchen sink that a saw a big difference. You will be shocked at how much crap can get stuck in the groves of these records and 78’s are worse having a much wider grove over LP and 45’s.

Spin clean record washer

One product I would recommend is the spin clean record washer. Comes with everything you need, including the wash solution. It is a little expensive but if you buy used records, or even new ones, you really should clean them thoroughly. The only gripe I have is the cleaning solution. The solution they give you is fine but it isn’t enough and they charge a premium for it. You might be able to clean 10-20 records with the fluid but after so much use the solution gets pretty dirty. So what I ended up doing was making my own. I recommend using distilled water, since tap water in many places is very hard, and a few drops of dish soap. Otherwise, I think it is a great product. There are other things out there that cost way more that basically do the same exact thing. One thing you can do if you have trouble getting a record clean, let it soak. Now, in the record washer that’s only going to be one half of the record at a time, but sometimes letting the vinyl soak for a while helps loosen up whatever dirt and grime. 

Final thoughts.

The whole point of vinyl is to be more connected with the music, it is the ritual of playing records that makes it fun. There is something “organic” about records, I can’t quite put my finger on it but it has been something I have enjoyed for a decade now. I think it is far too easy to believe that you must buy new or expensive equipment in order to have a good experience with vinyl. A lot of equipment and accessories are overpriced simply because playing vinyl is something of a privilege. Records aren’t cheap to make either, most new records are $25 and up. I’ve seen some that are over $300. Just remember that just because something is priced at $300 or whatever the price is, doesn’t mean it is worth it. I highly recommend checking out Discogs.org to look up what a record might be worth. I have also bought and sold records on that site with good results. I have also had good luck with eBay for the most part, just make sure you read the listings. Some sellers try to hide details about the condition or “visually” grade a record, often overstating the condition. The other thing to record condition is that the pressing might have been crap to begin with. I have had brand new albums that just didn’t sound good. 

Go with what makes sense to you. If you live in an apartment where you can’t play loud music, no sense in buying expensive floor speakers that can handle 150 watts. Sure, they sound good but a pair of good quality bookshelf speakers can give you a pleasant listening experience. To provide some context, I often turn off the subwoofer simply because even at low volume the “thump” from the subwoofer can easily penetrate walls and frankly the Klipsch floor speakers really don’t need that much help. 

This all being said, I am by no means an expert, however, I look back at some of the things I did when I first began my journey into playing vinyl. I really drak the kool-aid as they say, and in retrospect I could have saved a lot of money and could have had a lot more records. Feel free to leave a comment.

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