Audiophilia – Optimizing Spend on Turntables

It's always interesting to discover shared passion with co-workers - the hobby kind. Many of us at Spend Matters are vinyl record snobs, and we somehow evolved a side board email thread about turntables last week. If you're thinking "You mean the ones where you actually have to stop a record and turn it over to hear the other side?" - yes. In the course of our dialogue, I was accused of possessing "a wealth of knowledge about all this" and encouraged to write a few diversionary Friday posts. So here goes.

If you're not an audiophile and have grown up listening to data compressed music from CDs, MP3 players and downloads, only read on at the risk of discovering a new fascination that could drain your discretionary hard earned cash at the same level as owning a boat. Despite the apparent technological "advances" of the past few decades for storing music for playback, we are among increasingly millions of music lovers who have either re-discovered the sonic analog superiority of vinyl records or never stopped listening in the first place. There are many components to feeding this passion - pre-amps, amplifiers, xovers, record cleaning machines, speakers etc. - but let's just look at the humble turntable (TT) today.

It's possible to buy a new or used vintage TT for about $150 bucks, but it's not a good idea. Cheap turntables transfer vibration (low frequency hum) to the listening experience and typically track - involving the tone arm that holds the needle that runs between the grooves of a record - at an imprecise angle with too much weight, both of which dramatically reduce playback quality and damage the vinyl record.

Exceedingly high end TTs can cost over $100K (that's not a typo) though they are, of course, poster examples of the law of diminishing returns. A very good turntable can be had in both the new and vintage used markets (Craigslist & Ebay) for between $500 and $1,000, and while either may come with a reasonably good cartridge and needle (the combo device that directly contacts the record and transfers the sound) it's also worthwhile to invest in the best quality cartridge & needle ("cartridges" for the sake of discussion) that's affordable, usually $200 to $300. Having said that, cartridges that cost upwards to $1,000 in $50 increments yield significantly increased fidelity and are not as subject to diminishing ROI. And yes, the sky is the limit here as well. I've compared $500 cartridges with $5,000 cartridges. While the latter is not 10x superior, the variance produces an extremely dramatic listening experience. In fact, a reasonable rule of thumb is to spend a roughly similar amount on the cartridge as you spend on a TT  to yield full composite value.

I could wax (npi) on for hours, but I'll wrap up this primer with a brief review of two turntable styles: Traditional pivoting tone arms vs. tangential tracking tone arms. The pivoting tone arm is most common and traverses the vinyl record on a slight arc from its fulcrum. Tangential tracking tone arms traverse the record in a straight line the way the record mold master was cut at the factory.

Here is a Thorens tangential tracker:

photo

I believe the debate as to which is best goes back to the mid 70's when both Thorens and Bang & Olufsen came out with tangential tracking models. I bought the B&O back then, loved it and still do, but I honestly can't hear the difference between my comparably priced pivot and tangential tracking tables. The majority of high-end tables today are designed for pivotal arc tracking - even those at the very high end. I've listened to almost every high-end table that's been produced over the past 50 years and my take is that the most important elements are (in rank order) the low mass of the tone arm, the vibration isolation of the table drive mechanism, and last but not least, the quality of the cartridge and diamond stylus. Of course the phono pre-amp section, whether a separate component or built into the overall preamp circuitry, is equally important, as are all the components. But let's save that for another day.

If you like this thread, please let me know. I'll be happy to continue in the weeks to follow. And if you're an audiophile or just happen to have a turntable that you use, I recently experimentally purchased a vibration absorbing table mat on Ebay for $17.00. It looks like cheap carpet padding but it noticeably works. I also suggest placing a thin felt mat on top of it. Passion aside, some parts look better covered.

Have a very musical weekend!

Voices (3)

  1. Enjoyment Matters More:

    There’s no doubt that $3k can buy a TT combo that will create beautiful music. And it is true that everything is relative- one listener’s reference system is another’s garage beater turntable.

    But IMO, one of the more interesting aspects of the diminishing returns curve is the $500 to $1000 range. This is a fun range for procurement types because it mandates a focus on value and forces fiscal discipline.

    The good news is that there is an abundance of great music makers on the used market in this realm. All the typical suspects are here- Rega, Pro-ject, Music Hall, VPI, and so forth. Aside from the turntable itself, some of the absolute steals you can find are…
    – $0-$50- turntable set up guides, alignment templates, levels, vibration isolation, shelving, etc. A turntable that’s correctly set-up will smoke poorly configured competitors at any price.
    – $50 – $500- used integrated amplifier with good phono stage. The bang for the buck here is sinful. It is as close as you can come to stealing. Typical brands are not a secret (e.g. Rotel, Cambridge Audio, NAD, Onyko, etc.) but require a bit of research on the specific make/model.
    – $20-$100- No need to start a religious war over cabling, but it is safe to say that cables can make changes to sonic signature that you may find appealing
    – $10-$500- turntable tweaks. Vinyl is paradisiacal playground for DIYers and manufacturers of aftermarket accessories. Interesting items here include platters, mats, counter weights, tone arm wiring, bearings, bearing lubricant, etc., etc.
    – $100-$500 – record cleaning vacuum. This is not optional equipment- it is essential. Vacuum cleaners and solvents remove dust and debris. But they also remove release compounds used in the manufacture of records themselves. You will be amazed what a good cleaning can do- even for a brand new record. You can DIY from parts you have laying around the house or look to brands like Nitty Gritty or VPI.

    And last but not least is my absolute killer-deal-of-the-century and only product-specific endorsement. And it isn’t event analog gear. It is distinctly digital- the Apogee Duet. Why does it belong on this list? When paired with a good aftermarket breakout cable (props to bluejeans cable) it provides analog-to-digital conversion services that are way beyond its price bracket. This lets you digitize albums and save them on your hard drive for high resolution playback. Or you can move recordings to your ipod or phone for sounds on the go. (Bonus- the Duet also a digital to analog converter that is very competitive $1k range with the right cabling.) the Apogee Duet can be found on ebay for less than $200.

    So we’ve come full circle back lossy mp3s. Have we defeated the purpose of getting into high end analog systems? Not at all. Lossy or not, digital formats give us the opportunity enjoy rare, out-of-print recordings when flying to Monday morning meeting or driving over to Granny’s house. And in the final analysis, enjoyment matters much more than the brand of turntable or sample rate of the recording.

    So keep the audio posts coming. I’d love to see some analysis on the residual value curves of audio gear. The economics of DACs are really interesting. Are the price drops setting the stage for the rebirth of hi-fi? Is the CD player dead? What’s new for the traveling audiophile?

  2. HD:

    Love this thread. Keep it coming! I’m passionate about vinyl, but also have the spendmatters thrifty mentality. Would love more tips and tricks about how to balance these two alter egos.

    I have a Linn Sondek LP12 and love it. Looking to replace my cartridge soon. Any recommendations on how to pick a cartridge in the $200-$800 range? As you mentioned, they’re expensive and you really can’t “try-before-you-buy” them from online retailers, so without just reading reviews online, how can I make sure I pick a cart that’s a good fit for my individual setup and musical preferences?

    1. William Busch:

      HD,
      You’re clearly working with one of the finest TTs below the stratosphere! I’ll assume that you’re considering a moving magnet (mm) or high output moving coil cartridge. I’m partial to traditional low output mc in my quest for realism (especially superior highs & mids from strings, brass and piano) but they typically require incorporating a phono pre-amp i.e. $$$$. Happy to discuss that but not necessary with the advent and perpetual improvement of high output mc design. I’m not knocking mm tech for a moment but to my musician’s ears, mc produces a tad more warmth and realism.

      I believe Ortofon, Grado, Goldring, Clearaudio & Denon are all devoted and sincere in their design and manufacture of superior cartridges under $1K — and certainly above that threshold as well. It’s an intensely competitive market place and all these companies seem to realize the importance of nurturing consumer upgrades within their brand. In terms of “balancing the alter egos” in your range, I like Ortofon’s X5-MC High Output and their 2M Black mm cartridges and have found their written product descriptions accurate. I also strongly suggest researching European distributors on eBay for significant discounts.
      Another consideration, if you’re willing to assume more risk for return, is buying slightly used — at 75% off — from fellow audiophiles on Craig’s List who decide to upgrade — and you can listen before you buy. This can also serve as a personal R&D project to find brands that meet your preference.
      Full discosure: I have no financial interest in any of the manufactures mentioned.

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