Rant: Avoid Cheap Modern Turntables and “Retro” Stereos 20


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.

The construction

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

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

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…


About Ashley

I founded Audio Appraisal a few years ago and continue to regularly update it with fresh content. An avid vinyl collector and coffee addict, I can often be found at a workbench tinkering with a faulty electronic device, tweaking a turntable to extract the last bit of detail from those tiny grooves in the plastic stuff, or relaxing in front of the Tannoys with a good album. A musician, occasional producer and sound engineer, other hobbies include software programming, web development, long walks and occasional DIY. Follow @ashleycox2

Share Your Thoughts

20 thoughts on “Rant: Avoid Cheap Modern Turntables and “Retro” Stereos

  • Mark C

    Just to throw my opinion into the ring I reckon Rega should be at the bottom of any turntable comparison. Comparing my 2015 model Rega with its set and forget weight on a plastic tonearm, complimented by its cheap looking plastic sub platter ( with its recycle stamp no doubt ) and cheaply made plastic, sorry, phenolic resin (plastic) main platter to a 1977 model Realistic Lab 12 turntable was always going to be interesting. Suffice to say the Lab12 is superior on all levels. Construction of the Lab 12 is solid with a highly adjustable tracking and weighting . The motor is whisper quiet and totally reliable. Componentry of aluminium platters with rubber mat provides weight and resonance and leaves the cheaply made plastics of the Rega for dead. The rega motor is noisy and sluggish .Did Rega ever make a good motor ? The Rega may have made a quality turntable back in the 60’s but this rubbish they pass off as stereo equipment today is an expensive joke. I’m thinking that vintage equipment is so much better than name brands today that rest on past achievements. That’s my rant over. .

    • Ashley Post author

      I do agree with your views, but I should point out that you’re comparing a bottom of the range modern turntable to a fairly decent vintage turntable. I’ve had issues with Rega’s quality control, but their engineering at least is sound especially when you move up the range. I certainly wouldn’t say that vintage equipment always outshines modern equipment; it’s just that not all modern equipment lives up to the hype.

  • Matt

    Ashley, I am Christmas shopping and I want to get my daughter her first Turntable but we are limited on what we can spend. A lot of these really good models are more than we can afford. Searching on what is best is hard to find and then Amazon, ebay and so on have very jaded reviews and I’m just not sure what to get her. She is into old school stuff so I wanted to go with a retro look, with some of the benefits of the new, but I honestly don’t think I can trust any of these reviews. So really not sure what I can get. Looking to spend around 200 or less on one for her 1st one, and she will be playing a lot of my old school records that were handed down to me, so I want a good starter player for her. Any suggestions?

    • Ashley Post author

      Hi Matt, I am currently putting together the ultimate guide to turntables, which is an absolutely monumental guide which will answer all of your questions along with providing some recommendations. It should be out by the middle of next week at the latest, so if you can hold out until then I’m confident it would be well worth the read.

  • Paul

    Hi Ashley,

    Having bit by bit disposed of, retired or lost my deck and separates over the years I now want to re-build. My children (bless ’em) got me one of those Ion decks at Christmas which has a) re-ignited my interest in my vinyl collection and b) made me scared to play my records on it…
    I don’t have a huge budget to start with so I was wondering if you could recommend a decent(ish) deck/phono amp/amp/speaker combination for under £1000 to get me going again? Thanks

    • Ashley Post author

      You can build an awesome system for under a grand. If you’re buying new, Rega P3 2016 with either the Elys2 or perhaps an Audio Technica AT440MLB cartridge, with a Marantz PM-6005 or a Yamaha A-S501 and a pair of Tannoys with what’s left. The P3 is probably the best reasonable budget deck going. yes it’s a little pricy but it’ll take plenty of cartridge upgrading in the future. IMO you’re better off spending more on the turntable from the get-go as it gives you room to upgrade the system in the future without the need to start again. As for the cart, the Rega cart is a great plug and play, but my experience with them is a bit hit and miss. I use Audio Technica carts personally as they’ll track just about anything beautifully and sound great doing it.

      As for the amp, the Marantz PM-6005 is lovely, as is the Yamaha A-S501. There are other similarly priced budget models out there too which will suit just fine, but both of those I mention have very reasonable phono stages too which allows you to spend a little more on the turntable and perhaps add a phono stage later. Try your local Richer Sounds and I’m sure you could get a good deal on either amp. Try Moorgate Acoustics for the Rega, who I’m sure would be only too happy to advise you on carts, they also sell the Audio Technica line so if you decided to opt for that over the Elys2 (which personally I would) I’m sure they’d be more than happy to fit it for you.

      As for the speakers, have a look at the ranges from Tannoy (including the Mercury and Eclipse), Dali, Q-Acoustics and Monitor Audio. I believe Richer Sounds also sell those. I’d always advise you to try and hear what you’re thinking of buying beforehand, but those are my personal recommendations. Of course if you want to go second-hand, there are many bargains out there to be had.

      Of course, a system is only as good as the vinyl you play on it. Never underestimate the importance of clean vinyl and a clean stylus. Happily there are many products to accomplish both, something like the Pro-Ject VC-S is something you may want to look at down the line.

      • Paul

        Thanks Ashley, really appreciate your comments and quick response. I have recently bought a Knosti Disco-Anti stat to get going with the vinyl cleaning and have the Pro-Ject VC-S on my Amazon wish list.

        My nearest Richer Sounds is not far from me in Leicester so I’ll probably pop up there based on your recommendation and lookup Moorgate Acoustics for the turmtable and cart. Thanks again.

  • Ron

    In the U.S., a fairly new company called U-turn Audio makes the Orbit starting at US $179. I ordered mine with an upgraded cartridge and platter, but even the base model is very respectable and it’s less expensive than some of the junk your article mentions, which uninformed consumers are buying from Amazon and big box electronics retailers. Sad.

    • Ashley Post author

      Exactly. This is actually a very old post (hence it being rather poorly written). I’m working on a complete guide to guide the ‘uninformed’ through the process of buying a turntable, new or used, and correctly setting it up so as to achieve the best performance and to not risk excessive damage to a record collection.

  • P. I. S.

    Thanks for this “rant” — which is very persuasive. I wish I had the moolah to stump for a Rega, but $500 Australian is more than I can afford for some foreseeable time.

    My aim, at this time, may perhaps strike you as contemptible, but I have a stack of 80s LPs I’d love to record so that I can listen to them in FLAC quality via my PC, rather than listen to them through the LPs themselves. Given that I only want to record these 40-odd LPs once, and listen to their digital clones instead, the $500 for a Rega isn’t at this time justifiable for me (with only a Casual job). Off-hand, do you know of any USB-recording turntables that are actually worth spending money on? Ones with moving coil cartridges…?

    In the 80s I used to spend a lot of effort organizing Metal cassettes to tape my LPs at distortion-free recording levels — all so that I would spare wear-n-tear of the LP grooves themselves — and I would fuss over the recording levels and cleaning the LPs of dust etc etc. I have yet to find a USB-recording turntable of incontrovertible quality, and even though such a thing may not be of interest to someone like you who is clearly a pure audiophile, it also strikes me that by chance you may have heard of a unit — if it exists — that yields respectable results. If so, I wonder if you may part with a recommendation for such a product…? Especially if under $500…?

    In any case, even if not, your “rant” was a great read and clarified some crucial things for me to keep in mind, so thank you for that.

    • Ashley Post author

      Something like an Audio-Technica AT-LP120? They’re about £250 over here, not sure what they are in Australia.. Or why not pick up a vintage table and connect it to something like the Behringer UCA-202 via an external phono stage? Vintage technics turntables can be had for next to nothing, their P Mount cartridges make setup a snap, and they sound great. An old technics with a replacement elliptical stylus (or one of the P Mount Audio Technica cartridges which are also very cheap), a cheap external phono stage and the aforementioned Behringer interface will get the job done nicely.

  • HC

    I just stumbled upon this post and this site, and I have to say thank you a thousand times for this wonderful post. It’s dead-on accurate and thoroughly enjoyable to read. Thank you!

    • Martin Gallacher

      I discovered it earlier this morning and find it enjoyable and informative also. Ashley seems to no his stuff.
      Ashley do you comment on higher end equipment or are just not going there. I know a whole load of the things that are written can go from the sublime to the ridiculous and wouldn’t blame you if you’re just not into it. I like to listen to music and am at an age where I’ve got the money (kids are now off my hands) that I can afford some of the better things but I don’t want to listen to “how sweet” or other things like that, just “you will not buy better for X amount”. That will do it for me in just about all categories, well almost. I do exaggerate and jest of course, but you get my drift.

      • Ashley Post author

        I do cover higher-end equipment, though i tend to cover equipment that is good at the task of music reproduction rather than covering equipment purely based on the fact that is deemed ‘high-end’ by the audiophile ‘community’. To me, the brand and price mean nothing; there are several budget components that I’d happily take over a few 5 figure pieces. There are a few very wealthy people out there who buy things based on price because they’re highly rated by magazines; but ultimately those people gain less satisfaction from their purchase. Me personally? I own a Rega system and love it. It does everything I need it to, and it’s priced such that were I to spend any more I would quickly reach the point of diminishing returns.

        • Martin

          Hi Ashley,
          Once again, bang on. Iv’e got what I’ve got mainly because I believe in buy good LOCALLY made products. I’ve got a Sondek because a) it’s great and b) I’m originally from Glasgow. All my stuff is ex-dem or second hand and as locally produced as possible, ie: made in UK and of course it must sound good or else I’d by a Japanese system and be done with it. It is not snob value, it must be the business sound wise.
          I now live in Australia and when I need to buy any Hi-Fi equipment (which is rare as I still have the Sondek) I will buy as locally as I can (if it sounds good). People that are influenced by mags or the hi-fi “community” deserve what they get, and you are quite correct in your comment about diminishing returns.

  • An Annoymous Person

    Of course! The Crosleys or any other cheap record players out there aren’t designed for audiophiles like you! They are designed for the average person who wants to listen to viynl.

    • Ashley Post author

      It's not that they're not audiophile turntables. I own several turntables, particularly Technics models from the 80s, that wouldn't be considered audiophile – and I love them, because for what they are, they sound great.

      It has more to do with the fact that they harm your record collection. If the owner of one of these tables wanted to upgrade later on to a better unit, they're going to be pretty disappointed when their records sound like crap because they've been trashed by the oversized, heavy-tracking stylus on their cheap turntable. Do your records a favor – and pick up a decent table.

    • Martin Gallacher

      I’m sorry anonymous person. I’v found Ashley’s advise to be pretty much on the money here. If you want your vinyl music trashed, go for your life mate and buy these crappy turntables if not, don’t blame the technology and say “that’s why CDs and streaming sounds so much better”. If you want to buy something and don’t know anything about it, seek advice. In this day and age it’s all out there.