Q I purchased the Pro-ject Debut III turntable a year ago to take part in the "vinyl renaissance" and I've really gotten into it. My record collection grows every week, and I am thinking of upgrading my turntable. How much do I need to spend to make a noticeable improvement in sound quality?
JERRY WELLS, SAN FRANCISCO
A To make a difference worth replacing your Debut III, you need to step up to the Pro-ject RM-5 SE, which sells for $999 with cartridge.
But before you replace your turntable, there are several measures you can take to improve the sound quality of what you have now. The differences made by each tweak are relatively small, but when you add them together, they can make a tremendous difference.
Turntables extract microscopic information from the record's groove, and vibrations from footfalls and the speakers can find their way into the record and obscure the sound. You won't even realize it was happening until you take steps to isolate the turntable and diminish these vibrations. Audiophile isolation stands cost hundreds of dollars at retail, but you can build an effective one easily and inexpensively.
Buy a butcher block called Exklusivit from Ikea for $20. It's heavy and quite attractive, with patterned wood surfaces and a rubber strip around the circumference. Then visit Minneapolis-based Needle Doctor (612-378-0543 or www.needledoctor.com) and buy four Vibrapod cones for $8 each. Put a Vibrapod under each corner of the Exklusivit, and put your turntable on top. You will hear the sound open up, and delicate notes will be rendered more clearly.
The next step is to upgrade your phono preamp. Phono cartridges produce tiny amounts of electricity, and amplifying and equalizing this minuscule signal is a tough task. The phono inputs on receivers do an OK job, but a good-quality external phono preamp will produce more detailed sound. External phono preamps range from $25 to more than $10,000, but good units are available for under $200. The Parasound Zphono (www.parasound.com) can be found for $150 and exhibits first-class workmanship and sound quality.
The isolation stand and phono preamp tweaks will work with any turntable.
There are also things you can do specific to your Debut III, such as upgrading the stylus from the Ortofon OM-5E cartridge to the OM-20 for about $140 and adding the Pro-ject Speed Box II to provide precise speed stability for $159.
Do the tweaks all at once, or a step at a time -- whatever your desire and budget allow. Think of them as steps along the way to vinyl nirvana.
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