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"Cheap Turntable?"
(Getting Started Affordably In Vinyl)



  Updated 2016 December 19    Electronics   Reviews, Teardowns, & Guides


"What's the best low-cost turntable?"  I had originally put this article up here in May 2013 to try to answer that question.

Now that many people are getting into vinyl records, this is a very common question.  It's an even more common question as we go into 2017.

I've already covered the $200 to $1,000+ range in a previous article, but I know some readers are looking for something that costs about a hundred bucks or so.

You've probably seen those modern "Crosley" ones that look "retro" or "old style".   I've always wanted to like these cute, retro, portable record players as much as you probably have.  Here's the main reason why I didn't.  Early on, they used a ceramic cartridge that could not be switched for a better one.   (Don't use a ceramic cartridge unless you want (A.) poor sound quality, and (B.) trashed vinyl.)

Another big problem with the Crosleys was the ultra-cheap tonearm and their lack of any way to connect to external speakers.  

Well, the good news is that as of 2016-2017, they're starting to make units that have RCA outputs.  I think they've listened to what consumers want.

So I think Crosley is starting to produce some better record players, which at least have a diamond stylus.  As of 2016-2017 they're producing units like this one, which I understand has RCA outputs so you can connect it to other devices such as powered speakers.  Now, that particular Crosley is a little higher-priced than you might have been looking for.  However it does seem to be getting a lot of positive reviews.  That, and it's basically self-contained.  You could use it without buying external amplifiers, etc.


"I don't need the greatest turntable ever made," many people say.  "I just want to listen to some scratchy old Bob Dylan records I got in a thrift store."  If that describes you, then it's possible that a Crosley or something could be all you need. 

Long ago there was a singular event in the history of the universe.  I call it "The Great Vinyl Record Ice-Skate Fest".  It lasted from about 1955 to 1985.  It seems that half the population of the USA put on ice skates and tried figure-skating across the surface of all their rock & roll and folk music records.  (Some of the country music records got pretty scratched up, too.)  I don't know why, but they left the classical and most of the Lawrence Welk records alone, usually.  Anyway, the fallout from this event can still be gathered at yard sales across the nation. 

These scratched-up records are pretty much worthless to collectors, but there's some good music on them if you don't mind a few clicks and pops. 

Well, some of 'em have more than a few clicks and pops.



"Betcha fifty cents this will have some surface noise."


The worst of them shouldn't be played on any turntable.  They'll wreck the stylus.  As for the not-quite-as-bad vinyl, which may be lightly scratched but doesn't have any deep furrows, it can still be risky to play it on a good stylus.   Every time the stylus has to cross a scratch, it's hitting an edge at fairly high speed before it can continue along in the groove. 

Even scratchy vinyl should not be played on a cheap ceramic-cartridge turntable, because it will destroy any sound fidelity the vinyl may still have had. 

So, what to do (aside from buying cleaner copies)? 

As I said, the Crosley turntables are starting to become reasonable choices for this type of use.  This newer one doesn't have a ceramic stylus, but now we're up into the $100+ range.  At this point, there might also be some QC issues that still have to be fixed.  You might really like this player, but then again you may find it has poor speed control (and poor durability).  I want to see Crosley do well.  I really do.  I used to have one of their tube radios, and it was still working perfectly after forty or fifty years.  Oh well, maybe in the future I'll finally get to see Crosley return to their former glory.  

Then again, the brand known today as "Crosley" is not the same people, not the same factories, and not the same manufacturing methods... so keep that in mind.

As with almost anything, you get what you pay for.  If you're willing to spend over $100, there are a lot of choices that could work for you.   In this category there's the Audio Technica AT-LP60 (available through this link ;  USB model is available through this one.)   There's also the Numark TTUSB turntable (get yours here), which is even better.   

The Numark TTUSB is "fully-manual", meaning the tonearm doesn't have auto-return.  (The LP-60 does;  I was thinking of the LP-120, not the LP-60, when I said that it didn't.)   You have to pick up the tonearm manually (by lifting it carefully off the record) and set it back on its perch when the side is done playing.  I just want to make sure you understand that the TTUSB does not have a cueing lever.  That means you have to lift and place the tonearm manually, which increases the chances that you'll scratch your vinyl.  (As I said, this article is about low-priced turntables for playing already-scratchy vinyl....)

The Numark TTUSB has an offset tonearm.  Some people say this puts less wear on records than a straight tonearm.  This is not a definitely settled issue.  Many high-end turntables actually have straight tonearms, but the main thing is that I just like offset tonearms better.  (Maybe it's because straight tonearms remind me of those cheap portable players that ruin vinyl....)

More important, it has a tonearm counterbalance.  That means that in theory, you can adjust the downward force of the stylus.  This is really important, because the wrong amount of force can either damage vinyl or cause the needle to skate right off it. 

The Numark TTUSB actually retails for quite a bit more than the AT-LP60, but the discounted prices on the two of them are similar.  For an entry-level turntable it's hard to go wrong with either of these, but I'd get the Numark.

These two turntables don't have all the adjustments of more expensive units, but they're way better made than the "all-in-one" or "portable" units out there.  The AT-LP60 and the NuMark TTUSB both have a built-in phono pre-amp, which means you can connect it to a stereo tuner that doesn't have a phono stage...  (this feature is mega-useful today, because a lot of the "digital" stereo amplifiers made by squares for squares do not have a phono stage...)

...or, get a pair of powered computer speakers with RCA inputs.   If you're looking to keep the cost down, I would go for the Genius 1250 set (get 'em here or through the link shown below).  One thing I like about these is the separate volume control, so you don't have to put one of the satellite speakers on your desk.  That is a huge feature.  These are not high end audio speakers, but we're not talking about high-end prices here.  If you want to play your favorite song louder than your ears can probably safely endure, this'll do the trick. 

By the way, that reminds me of another reason for getting vinyl in the first place.  One mp3 I bought had the same flaw in every version. Guess where it came from?  The duplication process when they made the mass-market CD, way back in the 80's.  Their player skipped and they didn't even notice.  The vinyl doesn't have the problem. 

So where were we?  Turntables and powered speakers.  Total investment:  About $150 to $175, and you get a setup that's got some versatility. (Don't forget the RCA cable extensions if you want to place the speakers away from your turntable.)   

         

Another alternative in powered speakers:  consider these.  Like the Genius 1250's, they have RCA line-in jacks.  Again this is about getting decent sound for the money, even if they're not floorstanding speakers.

If you're going to get an AT-LP60 or a TTUSB and you plug them into powered speakers, make sure you set the "Phono / Line" switch to "Line", not "Phono".  The Phono setting is what you would use with an external amplifier that has its own phono stage.  One of the reasons for getting one of these turntables is so you don't have to buy that extra amp.  (If you're looking to set up a traditional stereo system, check out my Audio Guide.)


Conclusion

There are cheaper ways to listen to thrift store vinyl, but right now there are probably not better cheaper ways.   These turntables include a cartridge that's passably good.  Use it for playing vinyl that's a bit worn or has light scratches, and save the better vinyl for use with a better cartridge such as a Shure M97xE

One more thing.  In case you don't already have a "good" turntable for your higher-grade vinyl, just know that a $100 turntable shouldn't be your first purchase anyway.  If just starting out, I would probably get this turntable for the better vinyl.   This is not quite high-end audio, but for the price there isn't much (if anything) on the new market that can outdo it.  (If it's in your budget, just go directly for the Technics SL-1210.  The SL-1210 Mk5 can be found new here.  You may also be able to find them used through this link.  Please help support my website by purchasing your gear through these links.  Thank you in advance.) 

This has been a look at (mainly) inexpensive, beginner-level turntables.  The main point has been to find something that's cheap enough to play scratchy vinyl, but not so cheap that it destroys whatever audio is left on the records.  The turntables we've looked at are actually good enough for your "good" vinyl, provided you've properly aligned the cartridge.   (The AT-LP60, though, I'm not sure I would use on the really good vinyl.)

Of course, once you get to the point of wanting to align the cartridge and all that, you're probably not listening to scratchy thrift-store discs anymore.

I hope you enjoyed this article.  It helps me keep this site going if you shop through any of the links on here, for pretty much anything.

Thanks for visiting!




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