The compact disk player is now well into its second decade, and every month a new and better machine is unveiled. But surprisingly, with the rebirth of long-playing records, there has never been a better time to buy a turntable.
A plethora of new vinyl releases and a renewed interest in old LPs is prompting manufacturers to come out with affordable turntable, tonearm, and cartridge packages for $1,500 and under--sometimes well under. "I think most people like the CD players, but they have records and just want to get back into listening to them," says Robert Leitz, owner of the Analog Shop, an audio store near Rochester, N.Y.
NO PLASTIC. While you can certainly spend a fortune on a turntable, with top-of-the-line models costing $5,000 and up, there are many high-quality, reasonably priced versions on the market today that sound world's better than the cheap, plastic machines you can still buy for $100 or so. They include offerings from American makers VPI and SOTA Industries, as well as British manufacturer Rega. Sumiko, a maker of phono cartridges, features its line of Czechoslovakian-made Project turntables--including arm and cartridge--for $370 and up. At Audio Advisor, a mail-order stereo supply company in Kentwood, Mich. (800 942-0220), owner Wayne Schuurman recommends a package that includes the Rega 3 table with a Rega arm, long considered one of the best available, and the Sumiko Blue Point Special cartridge, all for $699.
The key to buying a turntable is looking for a unit that eliminates vibrations with a sturdy platter, a good suspension system, and a belt drive. Cartridges and tonearms are available in all types and price ranges, but the synergy of a packaged deal is hard to beat. "The simpler, the better" is often the wisest course to follow in picking a new deck. A basic manually operated machine with a solid, not flimsy, arm will lift the most information off the record grooves. Some of the pricier players have separate power supplies, which help isolate feedback, but this is probably a luxury most listeners can do without.
How good are these tables? For the money, they will likely outperform a similarly priced CD player by providing a greater sense of depth to the music. Compared to the mass-produced turntables you bought 20 years ago, today's quality models are often handmade and employ principles of physics to block unwanted noise and resonances. "Once you listen to a decent playback system, the differences are outstanding," says Jack Shafton, CEO of SOTA. Its new Moonbeam table, complete with tonearm and cartridge, sells for less than $500.
DUSTBUSTERS. If you enjoy records enough that you're willing to shell out good money for a new turntable, you should also consider buying a cleaning device to take care of your LPs. Brushes and liquid cleaners will work with a minimal amount of dust and dirt. But to truly get the grime out of the grooves, it's worth thinking about a vacuum type of cleaner. The Record Doctor, made by a company called Nitty Gritty and sold at Audio Advisor for $170, requires you to spin the LP manually on its platform while the device sucks off dirt. VPI sells automatic cleaning machines ranging from $360 to $800, with the most expensive one turning the records backward and forward. "Records really will last a lifetime with moderate care," says the Analog Shop's Leitz.
That's reassuring to know, since you probably have spent a good chunk of your life and money amassing the collection in the first place. Your record albums deserve to be treated with reverence. So why not take them out for a spin on a new turntable?
In the Groove
REGA PLANAR 3 British-made, no frills. Relies on a glass platter to block unwanted noise, available in green and purple; $649 price includes solid, straight-line tonearm.
SOTA MOONBEAM American-made heavyweight (25 lb.). Uses a high-density polymer platter and a motor bolted to the cabinet to reduce resonances. Aluminum-tube tone-arm included in $449 price; cartridge optional.
SUMIKO PROJECT SERIES Czech-made, highly affordable: Starting at around $400, with arm and cartridge. Similar to the Rega in style and design.
VPI HW-19JR American-made. Features a 1-in., milled acrylic platter to eliminate vibration. Package, including VPI tone arm and Clearaudio cartridge, sells for $1,160.