Q: I want to build a system to listen to vinyl records but don't have a lot of money to invest. I've seen you warn people away from plastic USB turntables and integrated systems. What is the least amount I can spend to enjoy records, without buying junk?
A: Not long ago I would have said that you'd need about $350 to $400. But after some thought and experimentation I was able to piece together a system for $169.57 using brand-new equipment.
You are right about my earlier warnings. For years I have steered readers away from the cheap plastic USB turntables sold in stores for $100 to $200, or the single-piece units that have speakers built in. Not only do they sound bad, they can damage your records.
For $249 you can get an Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB, a well-made turntable with a built-in phono preamp and a USB connection, good sound and the possibility to upgrade it later with better cartridges. It's one of the best values in audio, and I consider it the price point where quality vinyl record playback begins.
I had given up on finding a truly cheap, decent turntable, but after some cajoling from Audio-Technica's public relations office, I tested the AT-LP60, which sells for $99 with cartridge and integrated phono preamp. A USB version is available for $30 more.
The AT-LP60 is a fully automatic turntable with integrated cartridge. It's easy to set up and use, and it has a small footprint. The stylus can be replaced or upgraded for better sound when it wears out. I found it to perform decently, if not spectacularly, and to be adequate for inclusion in a budget system or to get started with vinyl records.
Please note that I used the term "adequate." It's not a great turntable that will provide rich, high-end vinyl sound that rivals or betters digital sources. It will produce suitable sound, and it won't damage your records like the plastic cheapies will. "Adequate" is high praise for a $99 turntable.
In the past, I have written about Dayton Audio's B652 speakers, which sound pretty good for only $39.99. Dayton Audio has a $69 bundle combining a pair of B652 speakers with a tiny DTA-1 amplifier. It is often advertised as a "30-watt amplifier" with 15 watts per channel, but that is at 10 percent distortion. True, clean output is estimated at 9 watts. It has a single miniplug input and is powered by a "wall wart" power supply. It uses an extremely efficient Class T digital amplifier and even can be run by four AA batteries.
Take the output from the LP60 and connect it to the DTA-1 using the included cables, and use the wires that come with the speakers to connect them to the amplifier. Ta-da: You will have a vinyl record system for under $170. The sound is more detailed than you might expect. The low bass is lacking, and it could use more richness and tonal color, but the sound is far beyond any integrated system, and you always can upgrade it later.
After I put the system together and was satisfied, I went online to get up-to-date pricing for everything. When I searched for the B652 bundle, a suggestion from Amazon said, "Frequently Bought Together" with the AT-LP60 turntable. I wish I could take credit for thinking of it first, but apparently a lot of people are enjoying this budget system. My hat is off to all of you.
Send questions to Don Lindich at firstname.lastname@example.org. Get recommendations and read past columns at www.soundadviceblog.com.