Updated 2018 Audio How-To
You may have seen this article, which mentions a couple of turntable choices for playing scratchy thrift-store vinyl.
If you've never hooked up a turntable before, the whole process can seem rather confusing. In this article, we'll see how you can easily hook up the turntable yourself.
Let's use the Audio Technica AT-LP60 as an example. This will work for any other turntable with the same basic features. Your turntable will need RCA output jacks, usually located on the back of the turntable. The AT-LP60 and LP-120 have these attached in the form of a cable, so you don't have to buy your own RCA cable.
We're also going to look at some specific drawbacks of the AT-LP60, because it's one of the most common turntables purchased by and for beginners.
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In This Article
What You'll Need
Headphones, If You Prefer
Hooking Up The Turntable
Right now, the AT-LP60 is one of the most affordable turntables that actually has a diamond stylus and RCA outputs. It's also made by a company that produces much higher-grade turntables. That means at least in concept, they know what they're doing.
Realize, of course, that at the lowest price-point, you're not going to get the overall quality of one of their more expensive units.
The AT-LP60 has a built-in phono pre-amp. That means you can hook it directly to any stereo receiver that has LINE-IN, CD, or AUX inputs. That also means with the right adapter, you could even hook it to something that has a 3.5mm AUX jack, such as this stereo from Sony.
There are other turntables that have their own preamp, also. The Numark TTUSB and the Audio Technica AT-LP120, both more capable turntables than the AT-LP60, have built-in preamps as well.
The AT-LP60 has auto return, which is more of a beginner feature. There were better turntables in the 70's that had it, but mechanically it's kind of expensive to implement well. Also, auto return decides when to lift the tonearm, and it initates this whole sequence of lift-move-drop that you can't interrupt once it starts. That can be kind of frustrating for advanced users. However, you might be glad to have the auto-return feature if you're just getting started in vinyl.
Auto return means you don't need to be standing right there when the record is finished playing. The tonearm will return to the starting position. Again, this feature is not on the better and more advanced AT-LP120, partly because advanced users can find auto-return to be annoying. It might also stress the tonearm assembly, which could affect playback fidelity. If you're a beginner with scratchy thrift-store vinyl, you might not care about that or even notice it.
OK, now let's see how to hook up the turntable.
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What You'll Need to Make It Play
Besides the turntable, you'll also need:
(1.) Amplifier or Stereo Receiver.
You might already have these. If not, we'll look at some choices for a beginner.
You don't need extra RCA cables, because the AT-LP60 comes with a set. Actually they are wired permanently into the back of the unit, which is true for some other beginner models as well.
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There is a way that combines the amplifier and speakers into one, and we'll look at that soon. If you like the flexibility of a separate amp and speakers, keep reading this section.
Now, wattage. When you see those mini stereo systems that advertise "700 watts", realize that it's bogus. The marketing departments are trying to get you to play a sucker's game that's been going on for at least fifty or sixty years. Probably, the actual output is more like 100 watts, if that. With some of these things, it's more like 25 watts.
The marketing types think they have to lie to you this way, because they've built up so much hype about stereo wattage. They've been doing this for decades. Many people do not realize that you can get beautiful sound from a one-watt amplifier and a pair of small speakers. In fact, you can make it loud enough to ruin your hearing.
So which amplifier?
If you want to keep it low-cost: get one of these. Actual output? I think it's about five to ten watts.
You know that an amp that cheap is going to have quality-control issues. One big reason is that they probably use cheap no-name capacitors, which fail. The cheap wall-wart power supply is another one of the weak points. However, if you get a good unit that survives, it's the cheapest amplifier that actually has passably good sound. What's really nice about this unit is that it can be modified for much better quality, as long as you know what you're doing. There is practically a whole community of people who mod this amplifier. And they are quite happy with it.
Other AmpsAny other stereo amplifier or receiver that has RCA "line in" or "AUX" jacks will work, unless your turntable has only "PHONO" out. If so, it has to plug into a phono pre-amp, which may or may not be present in your amplifier. The cheap Lepai doesn't have one, but many of the full-size home stereo amps do. Look for "PHONO" on the back of them.
If your turntable does not have its own pre-amp,andyour stereo does not have one either, just get one of these phono pre-amps and an extra set of RCA cables. Again, that will allow you to use a non pre-amplified turntable with a stereo receiver that has no "PHONO" jacks.
As mentioned earlier, the AT-LP60 has the capability for "LINE OUT" input (instead of "PHONO"). A few other turntables also have this feature. This puts the output power at what's called "line level", meaning that it's already pre-amplified enough for any standard device to receive the signal. They probably figured that beginners would not want to mess around with an external phono pre-amp.
So, once again, if you have the AT-LP60, you don't need to worry about any of this. If you have a stereo amp that has some type of "LINE IN" jacks, you're good to go.
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Get good ones. They don't have to be super-expensive; just avoid cheap garbage. It's like buying a good camera, only to take pictures through a dirty, scratched-up lens. It makes it impossible to know just how good the other equipment really is (or isn't). And like a camera lens, you can always move the good speakers to a better stereo when you upgrade later.
To achieve that "big sound" without having a big stereo, you need sensitive speakers. Look for speakers with sensitivity of 90 dB or higher. These are not that common, but there are several for less than $200 for a pair.
Try to get decent speakers from the start; later on, you can always use them with some other stereo system. If you're OK with spending $100 to $180 or so, get a pair of Klipsch Synergy B-2's, B-3's, B-20's, or maybe the B-10's.
High sensitivity means you don't need as much amplifier power to get good sound out of them.
The B-3's have very high sensitivity (93.5 dB). Look for a used or old-stock pair through this link. These will work great with very low-powered amps.
Shortly we'll look at another type of speaker which has the amplifier built-in. Then you wouldn't even need a separate amplifier.
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Headphones, If You Prefer
The AT-LP60 and TTUSB have their own phono preamps. That means the output is at "line level". There are some headphones that will work OK by direct plugging (well, you need an adapter, maybe like this one, but it costs very little.) However, you won't be able to adjust the volume unless the headphones have built-in volume control.
Better solution.... connect the line-level output into a mini headphone amp. One of the lowest-cost and most popular is this one, cleverly built in a metal tin. This is probably what I would get for this type of situation, because it uses standard components rather than surface-mount. A little headphone amp like this is also good as a "desktop volume control" for your computer audio, when you're not using your turntable.
Just a reminder.... all devices should be turned OFF and preferably unplugged from the wall before you try to connect or disconnect any RCA cables, phono plugs, headphones, jacks, speakers, or anything else.
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Another Option: Powered Speakers
So far we looked at speakers and amplifiers for your turntable. Well, nowadays there is a shortcut you can take.
Today they make speakers that also have their own amplifier. I think I used to see these around in the Eighties, but they were uncommon, sort of a novelty item. Well, today they're not a novelty item; they're mainstream. Powered speakers are like their own mini stereo system; the only thing they lack is something to provide the music. You're going to supply the turntable.
There are many powered speakers on the market today. For the price, I would highly recommend these speakers; read my full review of them here.
Another idea, which may provide even better sound (and look better), would be this set from Mackie. (These don't have a separate subwoofer to contend with, but they also don't have that nice control box that the Genius speakers have.) Again, all you'd have to do is hook your AT-LP60's RCA plugs into the RCA inputs of these powered speakers. That should give you a working mini stereo system. It will be way more awesome than most of those mini systems you could buy in a store. With modern speaker technology, 4" speakers can provide surprisingly big sound.
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Hooking Up the Turntable
Here's a review:
1. Set the turntable up where you want to use it. Don't use a rickety card table or flimsy shelves. Set the turntable on a solid, well-built surface. It has to be close enough to your stereo system that the cables will reach! If not, you can get cable extenders if you have to.
2. Install the drive belt, if necessary. Remove any piece of tape or other stuff that was added to secure the platter (etc) during shipping.
If you're using a $100 turntable, you don't really need to worry about VTF or any of those types of adjustments. So let's go to Step 3.
3. With all the power cords unplugged, hook the RCA cables to your amplifier or receiver. Output of the turntable goes to input of the amplifier / receiver.
Your turntable should have only one pair of RCA jacks. They will probably say "LINE OUT" or "PHONO OUT".
Now, look at the back of your amplifier or stereo receiver. Find the RCA jacks for LINE IN, AUX IN, CD IN, or PHONO IN. Match up the correct type: LINE OUT from the turntable goes to LINE IN or sometimes AUX IN on the stereo receiver. (If your turntable has PHONO OUT instead, that goes to PHONO IN on the stereo receiver.)
Remember what I said about a pre-amp: if you have an AT-LP60, AT-LP120, or TTUSB, you don't need a pre-amp. The RCA cables are LINE OUT, which means they attach directly to the LINE IN or AUX IN jacks on your amplifier. Or, you could connect them directly to the RCA inputs of your favorite powered speaker system. These might say "RCA IN", "RCA", or "RCA (Unbalanced)". Or they might just say "AUX", with "LEFT" and "RIGHT" or something.
If you have some model of turntable that does not have a pre-amp, proceed to step 4:
4. (Do this step only if you know for sure you don't have a preamp in your turntable or your stereo receiver): Connect the RCA output of your turntable to the RCA input jacks of the pre-amp. Then connect another set of RCA cables from the OUT jacks of the preamp to the correct input of your stereo receiver, or to your powered speakers. Look for either the LINE IN, AUX IN, or equivalent jacks. Once again, your powered speakers might just say "RCA", "RCA (Unbalanced)", "AUX", or something like that. These are the same as LINE IN jacks.
If your stereo has two or three different types of RCA inputs, pick the set labeled LINE IN or AUX IN. (As I recall you can also use CD IN jacks if there are no others, but now I have to go back and check if that works.)
Just a reminder here, so you don't wreck your stereo or speakers. Make sure the power cords are unplugged while you're doing all these steps. If you were to plug an RCA cable with the power turned on, you could damage something.
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If you haven't bought a turntable yet, I would actually recommend this one instead of the AT-LP60; it will give you much more satisfaction in the long haul. Your good vinyl will also last much longer, if you do your part.
And if you want something even nicer, this one is a good choice.
If you've already bought an AT-LP60, then all you'll need is a pair of speakers and an amplifier. These speakers accomplish both, which means you could just plug the output of the AT-LP60 into them, and you're ready to go. And actually, those will work with any turntable, as long as you can boost the signal to the correct level. The AT-LP120 already has it there, but with some other turntables you could just use a pre-amp to boost the signal for your powered speakers.
Realize that the AT-LP60 could possibly discourage someone from getting really into vinyl, because the sound quality is simply not as good as the better units.
However, if you want something for playing worn, scratchy thrift-store vinyl, it's a pretty good unit for that. And if you do decide to get another turntable later, you could always keep the AT-LP60 for the tots. (You'll just have to wait 'til they get past the stage of pouring water on stuff......) There are zillions of Peter Pan and Scholastic 45 rpm records out there. The AT-LP60 is way better than those portable, ceramic-stylus players we had back in the Seventies.
This has been a mini How-To for hooking up a turntable. The focus has been on the AT-LP60, but it should apply to almost any unit that has the same basic features.
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