Sound Advice: Don't buy into high-end hype when it comes to turntables

  • Article by: DON LINDICH , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 11, 2014 - 1:06 PM
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The turntable itself is the most important ­component when playing records.

Q: I read your column about turntables and the relative insignificance of cartridges when purchasing a new turntable.

I find it interesting that magazines such as Stereophile, which you referenced, seem to find cartridges to be of utmost importance, and they glorify high-end cartridges that sell in the thousands of dollars. Of course, they spend nearly as much ink on the virtues of turntables and tone arms selling for unattainable prices. But I’ve seldom read in those magazines that cartridges are only the third, nearly insignificant, item in a trio of components.

You did say that one’s first, cheap cartridge can be improved upon in the future. How soon should that be?

Most of the written concern about inexpensive cartridges is in their stylus wear, thus destroying those microscopic elements in vinyl grooves after hours of use, and in the vast musical improvement that cartridge replacement can accomplish. Is the sound improvement as vast as they say?

Thanks for your articles. They often seem to be contrary to suggestions that you have to spend a fortune to get good sound.

A: I like Stereophile and other high-end audio magazines and use them as a reference, but you need to look at the whole picture.

A lot of high-end audio is scams and silliness. For example, take cables, speaker wire and power cords. It has been proven 100 percent of the time — in every scientifically controlled test, done over decades — that differences don’t exist between wires, as long as they aren’t defective or mismatched for the task. Yet high-end audio magazines still write about these items as if they have magical properties.

Power cords are silliest of all. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles of wire between the power plant and the wall socket. How in the world is changing the last 3 feet between the wall and the component with a $1,000 power cord going to make a difference?

As you noted, a lot of the gear in the magazines is unattainable in terms of price. Most people are shocked to find out that you can spend $100,000 on a turntable or amplifier. It’s like car magazines reviewing Ferraris. Few readers can afford them, but they love to see and read about them.

As for your questions about record-playing gear, the reason you don’t read about the turntable being most important in the hierarchy is because it’s an accepted fact among audiophiles by now. You wouldn’t see expensive turntables for sale, otherwise. People would just buy a $1,000 turntable and put a $5,000 cartridge on it, rather than the other way around.

Cartridges that expensive are a waste in almost all cases. You hit diminishing returns pretty fast well before that, and a lot of expensive gear from small companies is outperformed by more modestly priced equipment produced by larger companies with bigger budgets for research and development, and quality control. I’ll be writing more about this soon.

As for record wear, even a $49 Audio-Technica AT-95E has an elliptical stylus that will be kind to your records when properly installed and tracking at 1.5 grams or so. I can’t imagine anyone with a decent turntable using any less than that.

Send questions to Don Lindich at donlindich@gmail.com. Get more recommendations and read past columns at www.soundadviceblog.com.

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