I recently saw an article in a popular newspaper, in which the author listed 10 of the "best" turntables you can buy in 2013. My first thoughts was 'Hmmm, this should be interesting'… that quickly turned to 'WTF? CROSLEY?'
Yes, you heard me right… a Crosley reproduction turntable, complete with ceramic cartridge, cheap plastic platter, and heavy-tracking tonearm… was top of the list. The Rega RP1, along with the offerings from Linn and Pro-Ject, were further down the list – from memory, the Rega came in at number 5.
This infuriates me. That author clearly knew absolutely nothing about audio. Now I must make it clear that I'm not your typical audiophile – I don't spend all my money on statement equipment just to retain my audiophile status, and I like having tone controls. But to claim that a Crosley record grinder is the "best" turntable you can buy in 2013 is, to be frank, utter bullshit.
There's nothing that annoys me more than cheap, modern technology designed purely to rip off the average consumer who doesn't know better. So, that being said, I have a passionate dislike for the tons of cheap reproduction turntables, flimsy USB turntables, and "retro" stereos that are flooding the market, because brands are capitalising on the resurgence of vinyl.
These turntables are designed to allow the average consumer to bring their old LP's back to life. Whether that be providing a simple means to play them back, or allow them to transfer them to digital using their computer for later playback on an iPod. The concept is great – the execution, however, sucks balls. But why? Well, let's take a look at the features of your average cheap turntable.
Who remembers the cheap all-in-1 music centres from the 80s – the offerings from the likes of Alba, Panasonic and Philips just to name a few? They often consisted of a twin cassette deck, radio, and turntable – some of the later ones had CD players. They were often plastic fronted with wooden casings. The plastic used, however, was of reasonably high quality. They were well screwed together, and the mechanisms used were reasonable for the price – in fact, many of those systems are still working just fine today.
Fast forward today, and let's take a look at your average "retro" stereo. Thin, flimsy plastic construction throughout – even critical parts of the mechanisms, such as the autoreturn mechanism for the tonearm (if it has one) are plastic. If you're lucky, yours will have a wooden case… but it's probably just pressed cardboard covered with a thin veneer, or wood-effect plastic.
Take a look at the turntable in particular. Often times, the platters are plastic – and balanced on the centre spindle. There's no central hub keeping the platter level, which is essential for proper playback of a record. The platters in modern machines are often smaller than a 12" record – meaning the record hangs over the edge. This can not only cause damage to your records, but also puts excessive strain on the tiny motor used to turn the platter.
The tonearm, more commonly referred to as the 'arm', is the part of the turntable that holds the stylus and allows it to track the record.
Let's take a look at our cheap, 80's music centre – many of these were fitted with tonearms fashioned from a straight metal tube, with an adjustable counterweight on the end opposite the cartridge to allow the proper tracking force to be set. This meant that the cartridge could be set to rest lightly on the surface of the record, and therefore would cause minimal wear as the stylus traced the grooves.
Fast forward to today, and our modern record player – the tonearms are often made from a cheap, flimsy piece of plastic that flexes easily. They're generally held on with a few small plastic pins, which serve as the pivot for the arm – and, most importantly, they have no ability to adjust the tracking force. Many of these tonearms are heavy; meaning the pressure that the stylus exerts on your records grooves is enough to cause lasting damage to the record. And if your turntable is one fitted with a smaller platter, the pressure put on the outer edges of your 12" records will eventually cause them to warp.
Not only that, but they sound horrible too – the object of a tonearm is to remain rigid and minimise resonance as much as possible, something that simply cannot be achieved with a thin piece of plastic.
The cartridge is the part of the turntable that holds the stylus. There are 3 common types of cartridges – Moving Magnet, Moving Coil, and Ceramic. Moving magnet is the most common cartridge type used in mid-range hi-fi systems – Moving coil is the audiophile's cartridge of choice, and Ceramic carts are reserved for the lowest end turntables, all-in-1 stereos, and cheap USB turntables.
There were some respectable turntables in the 60's, 70's and 80's using ceramic cartridges – many brands used them in their lower end hi-fi systems and portable turntables. The advantage of a ceramic cartridge is that it is a high output cartridge, meaning it doesn't require any external amplification – however, the sound must be equalized, otherwise it lacks bass and sounds tinny.
The majority of the cheap turntables on the market today use ceramic cartridges – this reduces production cost, as the amplification circuitry requires fewer components, and ceramic carts are cheaper. However, they often don't equalise the output, meaning they sound horrible – and their stylus shapes, combined with the heavy tracking tonearms, destroy your records.
So are all modern turntables junk?
No, not at all. There are many turntables on the market from respectable brands such as Rega, Pro-Ject, Linn; VPI… the list goes on. These turntables are in a totally different league to the retro styled, plastic record grinders that are flooding the market.
Take, for example, the Rega RP1 – a phenomenal budget-oriented turntable with amazing sound quality, fantastic build quality, proper engineering, a great tonearm, and an amazing cartridge – all for not much more than your average Crosley. Even the cheap Pro-Ject Essential 2 has all that for less than £200. Not only will these turntables sound good and last a very long time, but they'll also be kind to your record collection – so when you're ready to upgrade your turntable, you're records are ready to upgrade with you.
The problem… the average consumer simply isn't aware that these better turntables exist. Ask the average consumer whether vinyl is on its way in our out – and they'll probably say something like "oh, that's yesterday's technology" or "you can still buy those things?" Decent turntables are hard to come by for the average consumer who, upon needing a new turntable, heads straight to amazon.
Let this post serve as a warning to all you consumers out there. See a nice looking retro-styled turntable? Don’t touch it. If you value your record collection or even if you're planning to sell your collection after transferring them to digital – invest in a decent turntable. It doesn't have to break the bank – but you'll be glad you did.
If any of the manufacturers of this mass-produced, mass-market crap are reading this, and you feel I've unfairly bashed your product, then please feel free to contact me and offer a review sample. Just remember… my reviews are 100% honest, in favour of the consumer…