Technology takes leaps and bounds each year, but there’s one area where trends are looking to the past instead of the future: turntables. Vinyl is back in a big way, not only as the fastest-growing segment of the music industry, but back into our homes as modern artists release their latest albums on wax.
If you’re new to vinyl — or if you have a classic collection you’re ready to dust off — the basics haven’t changed, but there is a lot of new gear that makes sure every groove sounds good. Here’s what you need to build your perfect turntable setup.
Picking the Right Turntable
The first and most important choice you make when putting your vinyl setup together is, of course, which turntable to buy. All record players include the same basic functionality, but there are a few features you may want to pay a little more for. Here are the ones that are most important to think about as you’re shopping.
Built-in pre-amplification. Record players aren’t like other audio sources: They require pre-amplification before being played through a standard stereo. Many record players have built-in “pre-amps” that can be toggled on or off, although third-party pre-amps are available and can make LPs sound even more nuanced. For most listeners, a record player with a built-in pre-amp is the simplest, most cost-effective option; if you’re an audiophile, you may want to consider upgrading to an external pre-amp.
USB connectivity. Many newer turntables are built to connect directly to a computer’s USB port for easy conversion of vinyl to digital audio formats. While you can certainly buy an aftermarket adapter to add the same functionality to a standard turntable, having it built in is a huge convenience. What’s more, most USB turntables include free software to walk you through the conversion process — complete with easy ways to remove unwanted pops and hiss.
Portability. Although they’re definitely a throwback, portable record players are a nostalgic hit among kids, nostalgic adults, and hipsters. If you’ve ever wanted to throw an instant party, or if you’re looking for a starter model to get your kids hooked, grab a portable turntable: They’ve never been more affordable.
Once you’ve picked out the perfect turntable, it’s time to pair it with amplification to get your tunes bumpin’. There are three ways to do it.
Using a receiver and speakers. The most traditional setups rely on a stereo receiver connected to speakers — typically bookshelf speakers in smaller rooms, or floor-standing speakers in larger ones. Building a setup with components is the bulkiest, most expensive way to go, but you’ll be rewarded with the best sound quality your records can offer.
Using a wireless speaker. Many standalone speakers — including models from Sonos and Bose — have auxiliary inputs that can be connected directly to a turntable. Although some purists might balk at using speakers designed for streaming to power a turntable, more and more music lovers are pairing their records with their wireless speakers; some are even using them to listen to vinyl through multi-room audio systems.
Using a turntable’s built-in speakers. Many portable turntables include built-in speakers — and universally, they sound only so-so. If you’re in the market for a portable turntable, expect the speakers to sound like a decent FM radio.
Still not sure where to start? Here are our top picks based on the most common listening scenarios.
For the casual listener
If you want a record player that’s super simple to use and a speaker that will bring out every note (and also stream any audio on your smartphone), you can’t go wrong with this combo.
For the audiophile
Need to build a setup that’s dedicated to high-quality listening? It won’t be cheap, but it will definitely be worth it. Pro-Ject, Onkyo, and ELAC are some of the biggest names in the hi-fi business — and these are gems that earn some of their highest marks.
Turntable: Pro-Ject Debut Carbon
Receiver: Onkyo TX-8270 Network Stereo Receiver
Speakers: ELAC Uni-fi UB5 Bookshelf Speakers
For the digital archivist
Ready to turn that mountain of albums into crisp, clean digital files? Grab the direct-drive turntable that’s the weapon of choice for many analog archivists and a speaker that can make anything sound good.