the turntables connected to the thingy, the thingys connected to the speakers
April 12, 2010 1:48 PM   Subscribe

I want to listen to records. I think I need a turntable, amp and!

Growing up my dad had the entertainment system component warehouse with a nice turntable, cd player, receiver, cassette tape deck, and 8 track. When I went to college I got a cheap Sony record player at Best Buy with red / white (RCA?) cables and then had a dangle adapter thingy that took those two cables and ended in a digital green computer cable so I player the record player through my computer speakers. Yes, it sounded like crap, but I was living in shoeboxes and couldn't really keep moving my records around with me everywhere so I didn't care.

Now I am a big girl and I want to play my records in a big girl way. My budget is around $1,000. I've read through these threads, but honestly only understand about half of the terminology being thrown around.

I want a setup with as few pieces as possible and that sounds "decent" (as in better than your average mp3). Do they make quality turntables with built in amps? What speakers would mesh with such an animal? Am I better off getting separate unites for the turntable and amp? Seriously, talk me through this like you are teaching a preschool seminar on it. Specific model recommendations are welcome. I listen to these genres mostly, in order of frequency: guitar based rock, classical (especially strings and piano), jazz, "world" (like tribal music from ethnomusicologists).

posted by WeekendJen to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
There's a confusing bit that you need to be aware of first. In the old days, turntables were built to output a very low-power signal (this low power was called "phono level"; short for phonograph). You needed to plug this output into the phono input of your amp, which gave it an extra boost of power before sending it through the usual amp circuitry and out through your speakers.

These days, most consumer-grade turntables are made with a built-in pre-amp, so that they output at "line level" instead of phono level, and they don't need an extra boost from your amp. (It can be tricky to find an amp--particularly a home-theater amp--with phono-in these days). Your cheap Sony from Best Buy outputs at line level; that's why you could plug it into your computer speakers and get sound.

This is all to let you know that you need to be careful when you ask the question "Do they make quality turntables with built in amps?". Yes they do, but it's just enough of an amp to get the signal up to line level. You still need another amp to get it up to the level a nice set of speakers needs.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:09 PM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

A nice stereo setup will certainly sound better than computer speakers, however, regardless of the source.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:13 PM on April 12, 2010

I enjoy the Tivoli Model Two with subwoofer. This sound is a little scooped in the mid range - in exactly the way that the radio announcer's voice is a little less clear, but you guest's voices will ride perfectly over the music.

I have no phonograph recommendations, but any modern record player should hook up to the AUX in with an RCA to 1/8" adapter.
posted by MesoFilter at 2:16 PM on April 12, 2010

Response by poster: Domo arigato, Mr_Roboto.

Now I am most in need of amp and speaker recommendations. I would also need to know if the turntable I buy would affect what kind of amp and speakers I could get because of cable connections i said, preschool seminar...
posted by WeekendJen at 2:17 PM on April 12, 2010

Response by poster: lakerk, I should mention that I currently have no setup to play anything other than my computer, so it's not so much that I want to be an audiophile, but that I would like a decent sounding setup for music (which for me is primarily mp3s and vinyl). I wanted to start the setuip with a turntable since that is the format I am currently unable to play in mediocre quality.

Also, my computer fan sounds like an airplane and its distracting in quieter music.
posted by WeekendJen at 2:21 PM on April 12, 2010

I had a longer response, but on preview I see some good tips from others; in terms of recommendations, I suggest getting a non-preamp turntable, buying a separate pre-amp, and invest in a nice amplifier. A vacuum tube preamp and amplifier are the way to go: they are audibly different than a solid-state amplifier, and general consensus is that tube amps sound much better, especially if you're going to spend the money on them.

Lastly: change your needle regularly. If you buy a turntable, make sure you can get a supply of needles.
posted by AzraelBrown at 2:24 PM on April 12, 2010

Are you at all interested in using this setup for home theater (i.e. surround sound) in the future. That'll decide what kind of amp you're in the market for. Also, do you need a remote control? You can get some great vintage amps off of eBay if you're willing to stick with vintage technology (which sounds great, but lacks remotes).
posted by mr_roboto at 2:24 PM on April 12, 2010

Response by poster: I do not intend to use this for home theater and don't need a remote. vintage is good by me.
posted by WeekendJen at 2:31 PM on April 12, 2010

The only way you're going to get good quality for your budget, IMHO, is second-hand. Here is my home setup, entirely thrifted or passed down from my dad:

- Pioneer turntable, model PL 518. Has two RCA outs (the red/white or red/black cables). Those go into the receiver/tuner. The turntable plays records only, and that's all you want it to do. Do not buy a USB turntable. Do not buy a turntable that makes waffles. Do not buy a turntable meant primarily for a DJ if you're just listening at home. You want to order a brand new needle for whatever you buy, so make sure you figure out what needle it takes and if that needle or a generic replacement is still manufactured. Without going into depth, good turntable = heavy and solid, no plastic parts, especially the arm and platter.

- Yamaha tuner/receiver (can't remember model, something from the late 70s). This has 3 RCA inputs from my Ipod, turntable, and sometimes my laptop. It has two channels of speaker output. You want one with a dedicated input that says "phono" for the turntable and maybe one or two inputs that say "aux" for Ipods or CD players. To connect an Ipod, you need a 1/8" jack-to-RCA cable. CD players will connect with a cable with RCA jacks on both ends. Mine also has an FM receiver and headphone jacks.

- Speakers; two pairs, Technics. These are wired with heavy copper speaker wire going from the back of the speaker and into the receiver. You buy the wire separately and you have to mark the wire red/black and keep track of it when you connect them to your receiver. The peril of old speakers is that the cones are made of foam which disintegrates with time. If the speakers are old and the cones are still in good shape, that's a good sign.

This is all going to sound only as good as the weakest link in this whole chain.
posted by slow graffiti at 2:44 PM on April 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

You'll definitely get the most bang for your buck from vintage. I'd hit up eBay for a 70s-era Marantz amp. The Model 1060 is a classic. This bad boy looks pretty damn tempting....
posted by mr_roboto at 2:46 PM on April 12, 2010

note on terminology: if it's not obvious already, the words "receiver", "tuner", and "amp" are all referring to basically the same box that takes the signal from a turntable and boosts it to something that can be fed to the speakers.
posted by slow graffiti at 2:47 PM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're looking at high-end vintage stuff, though, you should be aware that the amp is often separate from the tuner/receiver. You don't get radio with the amp.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:49 PM on April 12, 2010

I really want an iMPAMP. The world's smallest vacuum tube amplifier. Hook up your turntable to it, and hook up to some high efficiency speakers and you should be vintage audio in heaven.
posted by MesoFilter at 2:52 PM on April 12, 2010

Response by poster: So If i get a vintage amp that has a phono input, but a new turntable with built in pre-amp, would I plug the turntable into the aux input or does it still go into the phono input?
posted by WeekendJen at 2:57 PM on April 12, 2010

If the turntable has a pre-amp, do not plug it into the phono input. The phono input is only for unamplified straight-from-the-needle signals.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:00 PM on April 12, 2010

You don't need high-end for high quality (see this FPP and The Carver Challenge, wherein a solid state amp designer was able to duplicate a particular high-end amp sound, starting with his $700 mid-range model). That's not to say you can get any mid-range equipment and it'll be fine, just that you don't need to pay buku-bucks for a great sound.

If you'd like to hear more, you may want to spend some time taking music you know and like to audio equipment shops and testing things out, to see what equipment can sound like. Listening to the shop's own reference discs is silly (as I found out), because you generally don't know what to listen for.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:00 PM on April 12, 2010

If I had a grand to drop on a current setup, I'd probably go with a newer turntable, newer speakers and a vintage receiver.

The Pro-Ject Debut III is a highly regarded budget turntable. It's easy to set up and operate, and will come with a cartridge already mounted and properly aligned.

For speakers, I would go with something by Paradigm or Klipsch (I currently have set of Klipsch bookshelfs that I love). You should be able to get a decent pair in the neighborhood of $400. The Klipsch will be slightly brighter and the Paradigm will be a little more laid back. I temper the brightness of the Klipsch by using a relatively warm-sounding receiver.

For a decent vintage receiver, look for something made in the 70s by the likes of Marantz, Sansui, or Pioneer. Kenwood and Yamaha are also pretty highly regarded. My personal choice is Sansui. It's a joke of a name now, but from about the late '60s to the early '80s, they made some seriously top-notch gear. Marantz receivers tend to be the warmest, and Pioneer is known to be a bit less on the warm side. Sansui I think is a nice balance between the two extremes. You'll find that the Sansui models like the 9090 and G-series are highly sought after and command a pretty high price. The real price/performance sweet spot lies in their earlier 70s models. The 2000x-5000x series and the 3300-5500 series can be had for a song and they sound absolutely BEAUTIFUL. I switched from using a well-regarded 90s Yamaha to a Sansui 3300 and the difference was nothing short of stunning. My tone controls are set at zero and the loudness switch is on because I don't like to blast my music. Sounds perfect like that. And I got it for $80 on Craigslist, already serviced by a tech.

HOWEVER, and this is a big and important HOWEVER, you need to be aware of some of the issues of using a vintage receiver. Components age and drift out of spec, and the first thing that you'll need to do with one of these is take them to a tech to have the all of the controls cleaned, and the Bias current and DC offset adjusted back to factory spec to insure that your signal isn't distorted and your amp isn't running too hot. Beyond that, electrolytic capacitors can wear out over time. If the receiver you're looking at has an audible hum or you hear crackling noises, chances are you'll need to have a tech replace those. Any bulging or leaking capacitors will need to be replaced. A total overhaul could be done by a tech for a few hundred dollars, but this isn't always necessary. If you're interested in using the tuner section, a tuner alignment will also be in order. You'll find that it outperforms modern digital tuners easily.

If you have more questions about vintage stuff, I would really recommend that you check out the Audio Karma forums.
posted by TrialByMedia at 3:17 PM on April 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have an older Sony receiver/amp with phono input (it's this one, I paid $150 for it a couple years ago) and an old MCS (Technics) record player with a new cartridge ($125). Audiophiles would probably laugh, but as far as I'm concerned, this and a good pair of speakers are all you need to make most music sound "decent". I guess you could spend $1000 rather than $300, but IMHO, you won't get $700 worth of improvement, especially if you listen primarily to rock.

The advantage of choosing something like this over a vintage setup is the fact that you can use it for everything -- that receiver has tons of inputs for your DVD player, game console, computer, iPod, tape deck, etc, and it also has S-Video inputs, so you can switch between video sources with it, too. It also comes with a programmable remote. Most vintage receivers/amps have no more than 4 inputs, and, of course, no remote.

If I were you, I'd try something like this before investing in anything more expensive. If your criteria really is "better than your average mp3", you'll be blown away by this receiver and a used Technics, so a $400 "budget" turntable seems like overkill in your (and my!) case.
posted by vorfeed at 3:23 PM on April 12, 2010

want to save yourself time, money and frustration? all while adding some serious swank factor to your home? get a hi-fi console! they usually look and sound great, and though they're getting rarer, you can usually pick them up for a song (pardon my pun)...check out the vintage asian lacquer console my designer friends found...
they usually have storage space for records inside, and the later models might even have 8-track or cassette players as well...
posted by sexyrobot at 3:34 PM on April 12, 2010

What kind of cartridges are you using?
(I've got an old Vega Planar II that I bought used and repaired, it's a nice simple turntable, plugged into a mid-eighties Telefunken reciever, which seems to work fine. The aging Polk speakers are hideous though.)
posted by sneebler at 3:36 PM on April 12, 2010

(oh, also...the consoles are all ready to go...i.e. they have the turntable and amp and speakers already inside, hooked up, and ready to go...just plug it in!)
posted by sexyrobot at 3:38 PM on April 12, 2010

and (god...where is my head) they probably have an AM/FM radio...and if you're really lucky... short wave! listen to radio from all over the world!
posted by sexyrobot at 3:41 PM on April 12, 2010

would I plug the turntable into the aux input
Yes, and if in doubt always try the aux input first.

For turntables I recommend something simple like a Rega or Pro-ject either of which you can get new or second hand. is a good source for cartridges and/or needles

For speakers a new pair of the tiny Wharfedale Diamonds will outshine a lot of worn out vintage speakers and will probably cost less.
posted by Lanark at 3:41 PM on April 12, 2010

...just had a look around on craigslist and found about a dozen consoles...ranging from $25-600 (the $600 one was just wishful thinking...most were under $150) look under 'antiques' 'furniture' and 'electronics' keywords: 'hi-fi' 'console' 'record player' 'cabinet'
posted by sexyrobot at 3:56 PM on April 12, 2010

I've got to strongly caution you on vintage gear, and I say this as someone that loves it, but you've really got to be careful when going vintage.

Speakers are relatively straightforward. Take the covers off and check to see if all the cones are in good shape (no tears) and if the surrounds (the outside of the cone that attaches to the frame) are solid. For a time foam surrounds that are prone to dry-rot were used. Eventually they moved to treated foam and other materials that resist this. Play some music at low volume and stick your ear next to each driver to verify it is producing sound. Play at moderate volume to check that nothing sounds wrong (like nasty scratching/buzzing from a rubbing voice coil).

Receivers are more difficult. If someone tells you "It lights up but I have no way of testing it" it means it's probably busted (lights are on a separate electrical circuit from the amplifier and preampfliier sections). I've got four vintage receivers and my dad has more than that. I think of all the ones we have maybe one has no issues at all. The others have problems ranging from the minor to the severe: scratchy controls when adjusting a knob, an input or set of inputs that doesn't work, a speaker output that doesn't work, an entire left or right channel that doesn't work at all. Testing all the functions/inputs/outputs of a receiver is time consuming, although not really difficult, and may be not be practical depending on where you're looking at the receiver.

I don't want to write an essay but I can't recommend vintage equipment without those reservation. With your budget I would recommend checking out dealers in your area that specialize in vintage and high-end audio.
posted by 6550 at 5:16 PM on April 12, 2010

I'd get a Rega P1 turntable (about $400) and an Onkyo 9555 integrated amp (about $500). And probably a pair of used B&W speakers from eBay (price depends on your room requirements).

As for vintage... I have a Marantz 1060 and a 2270 and they're both great, but not so great that they are worth the prices they're fetching on eBay these days.
posted by paperzach at 6:13 PM on April 12, 2010

If you are curious about vintage sound, but not in a big hurry to get something right away, spend some spare time in what is called 'charity shops' (Goodwill or Sally-Ann where I come from). Bring along a sort of friend who might respond to this post, if possible.

TrialByMedia is correct, those 70's Sansui's is sweet.
posted by ovvl at 7:57 PM on April 12, 2010

As others have mentioned, the two models currently duking it out for best entry-level turntable are the Rega P1 and the Pro-Ject Debut III. They both cost about the same and come highly recommended. (I like the Pro-Ject since it comes in several colors, which is pretty unheard of in turntables) (take a good read of the Pro-Ject link - Robert Reina is gold when it comes to recommendations for budget gear, and he suggests a $1000 system just for you)

I personally would be too nervous to buy a used turntable since they're more fragile and accrue real wear'n'tear. However I would definitely consider (and have bought multiple) used integrated amplifiers and speakers. Great cheaper speaker brands include PSB, Paradigm, Monitor Audio, and Dynaudio. (there are dozens of others)

The 'ebay' of audio equipment is Audiogon. You can do the advanced search and search the first two numbers of your zip code if you'd like to see what's available locally. All of us who caught the audio bug are on Audiogon, and most of us upgrade frequently, so our loss could be your gain.
posted by chickencoop at 8:06 PM on April 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

There's a lot of good advice here, but nothing beats going in to your local vinyl store and seeing what they have. My local shop (and maybe I'm spoiled) has equipment to mix and match to your hearts content and a staff knowledgeable enough to help you do it. The good ones rehab vintage setups and carry new ones too.
posted by piedmont at 8:31 PM on April 12, 2010

« Older best book about iraq war   |   How to deal with a bipolar alcoholic sister Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.