Q I need help getting a new turntable for my sound system. Besides sound-system duty, I might want to transfer some of the music to my computer, too. My receiver doesn't have an input for a turntable, so I will also need a phono pre-amp unless the turntable has one built in. Do you recommend any of the USB turntables I see selling in stores for $125 to $200?
A The USB turntables selling in big-box stores look like, to put it bluntly, junk. They are made of flimsy plastic and are equipped with extremely crude tonearms and no-name cartridges.
As much as I love vinyl and encourage people to enjoy records for the sound quality and tremendous variety of music available at low prices, if you plan on going with such a turntable, just pass and stick with CDs. You will never know what vinyl is capable of if you use one of those turntables.
I did test an exceptional turntable recently that sells for about the same price as the flimsy cheapies. It looks good, is well built and sounds great. For less than $200, complete with cartridge, it is absolutely the only way to go if you are looking for an inexpensive turntable.
It is the AT-LP120-USB from Audio-Technica, a company long associated with quality vinyl playback. Although it lists for $300, I regularly see the turntable selling for $198 at sites such as Amazon.com. It is worth the suggested retail price, but at the discount price it is the vinyl record bargain of the 21st century.
The AT-LP120-USB looks like a clone of the famous Technics SL-1200, which was, sadly, discontinued recently. While the AT-LP120-USB does not duplicate the solidity and performance of the iconic SL-1200, your $200 gets you a quality turntable with a built-in phono preamplifier and USB connection for your computer. If your receiver has a phono input, you can bypass the turntable's preamplifier if you prefer.
I found the AT-LP120-USB simple to set up. Given all the features for the price, I was skeptical when I hooked the turntable up to my evaluation system. But my doubts disappeared the moment the needle hit the groove and the music started playing.
The AT-LP120-USB can produce that warm, listenable vinyl magic. It has a smooth, solid sound with good bass and a quiet background.
My only concern is that the supplied cartridge tracks at 3 grams, which is more than the typical tracking force of 1.25 to 2 grams for most cartridges. This extra force will wear your records sooner. Also, the stylus (needle) used on the cartridge is a primitive design that is not optimal for extracting fine detail from the record grooves.
When you are ready to upgrade the cartridge, the Shure M97xE for $55 or the Audio-Technica AT440MLA for $99 are good choices. Just take care that it is installed correctly for best performance.
Submit questions and read past columns at www.soundadviceblog.com.