Vinyl managed to snaffle some column inches recently with the news that sales in 2014 reached an 18-year high at 1.8 million. To add some context, that’s a mighty 1.5% of the UK’s record sales. But industry experts reckon that the format will get another 70% bump this year, prodding bean-counting pop botherers The Chart Company to launch the UK’s first ever vinyl chart. And though it’ll be as fast moving as continental drift with Noel Gallagher eternally at number one or thereabouts, you’ll be needing a turntable to jump onto this new/old bandwagon, right?
Which is where “issues” happen. Just setting a turntable up can feel like a hobbyist faff of separate amplifier units, earthing and arm balancing on a pivot of chaos-theory proportions. So here’s T3’s fuss-free guide to the best turntables you can stick through your stereo and/or your PC for simple playback and vinyl ripping.
AudioTechnica LP1240 USB
With the design an obvious “homage” to the legendary Technics SL1200 DJ decks, even down to the heavy plinth, direct-drive motor, S-shape tone arm, pitch control slider and stroboscopic speed marked platter, pleasingly this feels as bullet-proof (and weighty) as Technics’ epic product. There’s a selectable pre-amp, so it can be plugged straight into stereos via the RCA input, or turned off if you have a mixing desk or separate amp. And it sounds as sturdy, characterful and detailed as the build quality would suggest. Add a USB out so you can connect it direct to a PC to rip your vinyl and this a character-filled winner that’s equally at home on a lounge shelf or blazing out La Macarena at Student Monday at Ritzy’s. It’s truly the first, genuine alternative to the SL1200. And our choice. Hands down.
£393 | Audio Technica
Pro-Ject Elemental Phono USB
A slick, minimalist design statement that also happens to play vinyl, this is an oval of MDF with a DC motor on one end and a straight tone arm, optimised for Ortofon OM cartridges on the other. The USP here is its “central gravity mass point”, made from a material interestingly described as “artificial stone. This is placed underneath the platter bearing, with the idea to fully absorb rumble and motor vibration, negating the need for anti-skating doo-dads. Thread the belt through the motor and around the platter and you’re good to go. It will need a pre-amp, though, or a powered amplifier, and it features a finicky belt-swapping 33/45rpm speed selector (you need to feed the belt through different size grooves on the motor). But set it up and it delivers a fine noise that belies its still-just-about-budget price.
£219 | Henley Designs
ION Max LP
The very definition of entry level. This is all you’ll need to begin playing vinyl. An all-in-one turntable, it even sticks a brace of small speakers into the luxury, “wood effect” casing, although you can connect it to a stereo via standard RCA cables. Sound and build quality accurately reflect its price, but you can rip to your PC and there’s nothing wrong at all with the audio quality you’d receive. It’ll play 33, 45 and, unusually, 78rpm records, a curved dust cover keeps evil motes from infecting your precious plastic and there’s a headphone jack for selfless listening. There’s better out there. There’s cheaper out there. But with speakers, this is a true sweet entry spot.
£79 | Tesco
Crosley Executive USB
The look’s a bit/tragically “hipster”, but this is a genuinely portable deck that folds down into its own suitcase carrier. There are stereo speakers on each side, but RCA outs to cable it to a stereo, alongside headphone ports for your oversized cans and an aux in for your phone’s music. It’s belt driven, with a fully automatic return arm, something we’ve not seen in years. Two snags: even when the volume’s turned to nothing you’ll still get some output through the speakers when you’ve connected it to another source, and some people find Crossley turntables a bit skip happy. (A pound coin popped on the stylus should address that, BTW.) Mid-level fashion retailers Urban Outfitters sell them. That’s probably all you need to know.
£89.95 | John Lewis
Musical Fidelity Merlin 1
Great all-in-one system from the British audio pros has everything you’ll need in two boxes. Included is a “Round Table” turntable, Merlin digital amplifier with Bluetooth apt-X streamer and Merlin 1 speakers. The turntable is both handsome and well made: its centre of gravity is carefully placed at the pivot point of the main bearing for maximum stability, and they’ve stuck in a high quality pick up arm and cartridge for good measure. And a micro USB to plumb in your PC and configurable output to rip audio from any source from the amp, including the turntable and this is an able and versatile system. And the digital amp still translates the warmth of vinyl through the pleasingly capable 50W speakers. This kit sounds <good>.
But for £1,300 you want a few less niggles like strangely short speaker leads, a volume knob with the longest lead we’ve ever experienced and finicky 33/45rpm belt changing. Plus, a digital optical in would have been a sweet option, to pipe in TV or games console sources (you can achieve this, but you'll to pick up an additional cable). But if you want a great-sounding, simple hi-fi for vinyl, smartphone streaming and PC connection, this should be top of your wish list.
£1,300 | Musical Fidelity
The TN-300 is a sophisticated, design-led alternative to AudioTechnica’s high sepc crowd-pleaser. The cabinet is an eye-pleasing, highly polished MDF designed to hoover up vibrations and skips, on top of which is a die-cast aluminium platter with heavy rubber mat, driven by a high-torque DC motor via a neoprene belt. The straight tone arm specifies the excellent Audi-Technica AT-95E moving magnet cartridge. And although it can occasionally veer towards a smidge muddy, it’s a great all-round performer. The minimalist design runs to two selector switches: start/stop and 33/45rpm finish the system. And for straight playback, this is all you’ll ever need. It’s is a cast iron looker and will do all your vinyl justice. Again there’s a pre-amp, so no need for a separate amplifier, and the requisite USB out to your PC. If the AudioTechnica feels a bit button-brimming gimmicky, or too pricey, this is a winning alternative.
£300 | Teac