Q I'm thinking of adding a turntable to my sound system. Do you really think vinyl records sound better than digital formats like downloads and CDs? What would you recommend? Is it worth considering a used turntable from Craigslist?
A Most audiophiles agree that a really super turntable setup sounds better than digital. No matter where you stand on digital vs. vinyl, you can embrace and enjoy both. A turntable not only provides warm, natural sound quality, but also allows you to experience a wide variety of music that can be found used at low prices. Often you can buy a whole album for the price of a single iTunes download.
I usually recommend that people stay away from Craigslist turntables, because they tend to be poor quality, ridiculously overpriced, in questionable mechanical condition, and rarely are they set up correctly. It's not worth the risk. Many affordable new turntable packages are offered with a cartridge preinstalled, providing optimal performance with little setup hassle.
Extracting music from the record grooves is a difficult task. Spending more to get a better turntable setup will yield much larger sonic benefits than buying a more expensive receiver or amplifier. If you plan on making vinyl the centerpiece of your system, invest as much as you can. It is a lifetime purchase that pays big dividends over time.
Selling for $200 online is Audio-Technica's AT-LP120-USB, which I have reviewed and recommended in past columns. It looks like a Technics SL-1200 turntable and has a built-in phono preamp and USB port, so it is all you need to get started with vinyl records. A modest cartridge is preinstalled.
The AT-LP120-USB looks good, sounds good and for $200 it is a no-brainer. But you would be well served to go to LP Gear (www.lpgear.com) and buy its $309 upgraded version. It has a much better cartridge installed, so records will sound better and last longer.
Between $400 and $500, the $449 Rega RP1 is worth a look, as is the $499 Pro-ject RM-1.3.
At $1,000, you start getting into truly superior sound. My favorite is the Pro-ject RM-5.1 SE. It has an attractive, minimalist modern design with a carbon-fiber tonearm and a wonderful cartridge that sounds detailed and sweet.
At $1,500, the king of the ready-to-go turntables is the award-winning Clearaudio Concept. Not only is it the best sounding in its class, but it also is the best-made and easiest to set up.
If your receiver or amplifier doesn't have a phono input, you will need a preamp to go between your turntable and receiver. Good and affordable models to consider are the Audio-Technica AT-PEQ3 ($45), the Parasound zPhono ($199) and the Pro-ject Phono Box II USB ($199), which also has a USB connection for your computer.
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