If you’re shopping for a turntable, you will have undoubtedly seen the surplus of budget priced models available from high street retailers and online department stores such as Amazon and eBay. Self-contained with an amplifier and speakers in an aesthetically pleasing enclosure (usually resembling a briefcase), and often priced at below £100, these turntables can seem like a great value proposition to the untrained eye, particularly given the price of even the most basic ‘hi-fi’ offerings. However in my recent Guide to Turntables and Vinyl I dedicated an entire section to these turntables and, as many have before me, offered up a few reasons why they should be avoided at all costs.
Wanting to backup my statements with some conclusive evidence and hoping that I may in fact prove myself wrong, I purchased a GPO Stylo – one of Amazon’s best-selling portable turntables. Available in black or red and priced at £39.99, the Stylo incorporates a 3-speed turntable, stereo amplification and speakers into a compact casing for the price of a couple of new records.
The GPO Stylo
Out of the box, the first thing that struck me was the Stylo’s compact dimensions. It is truly tiny – smaller than an LP jacket in fact – and as such has cutouts in the lid to enable a 12” LP to protrude from the side, front and back when the lid is closed.
On the front a pair of metal dials serve as both a volume control and power switch, the former surrounded by a semicircular ring of blue LEDs. The lights are clearly present for aesthetics and offer no useful function, as they don’t light consecutively as the volume is raised, nor do they fully surround the control over its available adjustment range. There’s a 3.5MM headphone jack too, which mutes the speakers as you would expect.
On the back you’ll find an auxiliary input jack, again on a 3.5MM connection. Variable output RCA jacks provide an output to extension speakers or an external amplifier. The mains cable is permanently wired to the unit which was a surprise given the obvious portability of the design.
Beneath the lid, its miniature platter is barely larger than a 7” single. It’s mounted on a fixed central spindle and driven via a belt and a small DC motor mounted beneath. The tonearm, and the bearings on which it rides are made entirely of plastic and there is no counterweight. A ceramic cartridge is mounted to one end covered by a stylus protector, and there’s an oil-damped arm lift lever which raises the arm above the record on a small plastic platform. An extremely flimsy clip secures the arm to its rest, with a cable tie securing the arm during shipping. Two switches cater for switching between 33, 45 and 78RPM speeds and disabling the auto stop function. You also get an adapter for records with large centre holes, with a place to store it when not in use.
While the casing of the turntable is a solid thick plastic, you can’t expect anything approaching build quality or attention to detail at this price, and the GPO Stylo is certainly no exception. The lid is not spring loaded and there is no dampening as it is lowered, so should you drop it it will fall quickly and likely cause the turntable to jump. It also flexes and creaks as it moves. The platter is no better. There is no true bearing, instead the platter spins around a metal post with only a thin layer of grease preventing the friction between plastic and metal. The platter spins in an uneven motion, made obvious as a 12” Lp spins upon it, rising and falling as it goes.
Perhaps the worst offender is the tonearm. It’s a truly awful design incorporating plastic vertical and horizontal ‘bearings’ and a flexible plastic arm tube with a flimsy headshell supporting the cartridge. There is a large amount of play in the arm bearing, which can be moved up and down, side-to-side and back and forth. This means that the arm is incapable of holding the cartridge still in the vinyl groove, and it audibly shakes during loud passages in tracks where the groove modulations are highest.
The cartridge is the typical ceramic design and includes a stylus designed to play LPs and 45s with a .7 mil conical tip. The Stylo doesn’t include the correct stylus for playing 78s despite the presence of a 78RPM speed option, and given the flimsiness of the arm’s headshell and the cartridge mount I don’t see it surviving many stylus replacements.
The arm provides no counterweight, and as such both the effective mass of the arm and cartridge are placed on the grooves of your records. Tracking force on our example was measured at over 7 grams using an electronic scale which is much too high. Any respectable turntable tracks no higher than 3.5 grams or so with very few exceptions. THere’s no prevision for anti-skate either, which is designed to counteract the centripetal force pulling the stylus in toward the centre of the record as it tracks the groove. This results in excessive pressure being exerted on the inner-most wall of the groove and uneven wear to the record.
The arm lifter worked surprisingly well however, though it lifted the arm so high above the record that cuing the desired track with any degree of accuracy was nigh on impossible
Inside, the design is simple and typical of such a turntable. At the rear, a small circuit board holds the amplification and power supply components. It sits next to a power transformer which produced a horrendous hum in operation, not to mention enough heat to noticeably warm the case to the touch. The transformer in my example developed a short circuit shortly after my testing, probably assisted by the lack of an obvious protection fuse aside from that in the plug.
The DC motor is a typical design. Speed control is electronic, with the motor spinning the platter via a single pulley and a flat belt surrounding a rim beneath the platter. Trimmers on the underside of the motor allow for speed control providing you have a small tool (usually a plastic screwdriver) to access them.
On the tonearm side, the auto stop is handled by a small plastic lever, which engages a switch in the rest position, and again at the stop position. It’s simple and crude, but it works though the turntable does have a tendency to stop before the record has finished, depending on the location of the lead out groove.
The two speakers sit at either side behind oval-shaped mesh grills. They produce two watts of output power each and get surprisingly loud, even if the sound is extraordinarily tinny with a complete lack of bass.
Will a cheap turntable damage your records?
The primary purpose of obtaining this player was to determine whether or not a cheap, low quality turntable will cause excessive and audible damage to a vinyl record after a minimal amount of plays. This is the point where critics and the pedantic will point out that even the most expensive and meticulously setup turntable will cause a certain amount of damage as its stylus tracks the record, and that is of course true. However, vinyl is a pretty elastic material and a record played on such a turntable can last thousands of plays if not more with few if any audible defects.
To test our turntable, I needed a sacrificial record. One of the recent 180 gram reissues of The Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’, of which I had a copy with a defective side (side A) was chosen, being the only damaged record in my collection. Side B was undamaged, and as the record had seen only a play or 2 on a high-end setup it was the perfect candidate for our tests as aside from the odd pop and click it sounded perfect.
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I began by taking a reference recording of the LP on my Technics 1210, fitted with an LP Gear CF3600LE cartridge. This cartridge was chosen not only because it is a superb tracker, but also because it is extremely revealing and the budget price of its stylus meant that should any physical damage be caused to the LP which could then damage the stylus, it wouldn’t be too expensive to replace.
I would then play the side on the GPO a total of 50 times, stopping after every 10 plays to make another complete transfer on the Technics. Ultimately I’d end up with 56 transfers which I could then compare. As some purists believe that playing the same portion of a record in quick succession accelerates the damage, the vinyl was allowed to sit for at least 10 minutes between each transfer. All recordings were taken in Logic Pro X using a Behringer UCA-200 USB interface.
The GPO was connected via its line outputs, and the Technics connected via the phono stage of a Marantz PM-44SE which I have found to work particularly well with this cartridge. None of the audio has been normalised or altered in any way besides basic cutting and splicing.
Sadly I cannot share all 56 transfers here via this article. Fair Use permits me to use limited examples of a copyrighted work for the purposes of critique or education, though it doesn’t permit me to share the copyrighted work in full. Not only am I wholeheartedly against music piracy, but I don’t fancy a lawsuit and nor do you wish to listen to side 2 of Abbey Road 56 times in quick succession – believe me you don’t. What I can do however is share my observations and offer short clips to back up my claims. It is recommended that you listen to these recordings through headphones.
One of the easiest ways to assess record wear is to assess the surface noise. This is the noise that you can hear in the gaps between songs. It is the sound of the stylus tracing the record and can be influenced by background noise recorded onto the record itself, irregularities in the surface of the vinyl, wear to the record and any dirt and grime that is present on the record surface or in its grooves. Surface noise is not the same as rumble, which is the sum of the noise generated by the mechanical parts of the turntable – however rumble does contribute towards overall surface noise. In the below clip we’re comparing the surface noise at the beginning and end grooves of the side, and the silence between tracks from the Technics transfers from the original reference recording and after 20 and 50 plays on the GPO. Notice how the noise becomes slightly louder on each play.
After 20 Plays:
After 50 Plays:
The surface noise becomes more audible when we examine the recordings taken from the GPO itself. This is because the cartridge fitted to the Technics has an elliptical stylus profile, which can access parts of the groove untouched by the larger conical profile of the GPO, and thus reproduces less noise. The below recordings demonstrate the surface noise when played by the GPO, which makes the damage far more evident. The first examples are taken from the first playback:
And here is the surface noise, as reproduced by the GPO, after 50 plays.
As you can hear, the damage in this case manifests itself as a harsh scratching sound. This noise is clearly audible during quiet passages too. Unfortunately the audio clips cannot be included in the article below so my explanations will have to suffice. If I find a record that is free of copyright, I will repeat the experiment.
A recording comparing the introduction to ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ after 50 plays to the reference recording played on the Technics shows that the reference recording is almost dead quiet besides a couple of small pops. After 50 plays, the surface noise is clearly evident, particularly on the left channel where a lack of bias has caused uneven wear to the vinyl groove.
The same is evident as the track fades into ‘Sun King’. The bass line becomes heavily distorted on the bass notes after 50 plays, biased towards the left channel. Again this is caused not only by excessive tracking pressure, but also the complete lack of anti-skating or bias compensation which causes the stylus to exert uneven pressure on the groove walls, causing greater damage to the the inner-most wall of the groove. Contrary to popular beliefs it is not only excessive tracking pressure that can quickly damage a record.
Damage to records whereby heavily modulated grooves develop excessive distortion is a particular trait of these turntables. I was therefore surprised at how little effect the GPO had on our record in this area. It is obvious listening to the transfers that the GPO has gradually caused clearly audible damage to the record as shown in the clips and explanations above. However the audible damage to the heavily modulated grooves wasn’t quite as much as I had expected.
Not entirely satisfied with my results, I continued to play the record, though stopped making transfers in order to speed up the process. So far the GPO had played the record side 50 times, the equivalent of playing 25 records. I continued until on play 57 the cartridge failed. The arm began to violently shake and rattle and the sound produced was a distorted mess. This it turned out was the final straw for our record, which was severely audibly damaged
The end result was the GPO coming to a grinding holt following failure of the power transformer. Prior to this, the motor itself began to fail under the strain of turning the 180 gram 12” LP which was sitting upon a platter with an uneven bearing. Nevertheless, its work was done. Our record is irreparably damaged after just 57 plays of a single side, the equivalent of playing just over 28 vinyl LPs. There is visual damage to the vinyl too…
Sadly I do not have a microscope, so am unable to photograph the grooves in detail. I will keep the record and hope to update this article in due course with microscopic photos.
Let’s Talk Prices
Based on current Amazon prices and rounded to the nearest whole figure, the GPO Stylo comes in at £35. It is one of the cheaper models on the market, with the popular Crosley models coming in at anywhere between £50 – £100 though with similar features, components and build quality. The record we used currently retails for £16, with the average price of a new record being £20. Those who purchase such turntables with the intention of building a collection will likely start with new releases or reissues. While most new record prices average out at about £20, many limited edition albums and box sets cost significantly more.
When we look at the cost of a budget turntable, it’s important to consider the cost relative to the collection of records it will be used to play. If you’re starting out and your collection consists of 5 new releases, you’ll have spent an average of £100 on the records. That’s nearly 3 times the cost of the GPO turntable, and almost twice the price of a Crosley. As your collection grows, so does that margin.
A typical hi-fi turntable may seem expensive to the first-time buyer. Audio-Technica’s AT-LP60 currently retails on Amazon for £99.99, with the similar Pioneer PL990 currently selling for £130. Pro-Ject’s Elemental retails for £175, with their Primary model coming in at £189. Rega’s 2016 Planar 1 retails for £248 and so on and so forth.
Of course these turntables are far from portable, and will require ancillary components (a pair of powered speakers at the very least) to function. Speakers are far from expensive; a £30 pair of computer speakers will be more than enough to get you going., It’s possible to purchase a respectable vinyl playback system that won’t ruin your records for around £200, or the average price of just 10 new records.
Vinyl is not a portable medium. The discs are large and fragile, as are the components required to play them. They are also a largely mechanical medium, requiring components built to precise tolerances to play them correctly and without damage. And vinyl is not a cheap hobby. With the relatively high average cost of new records, and the cost of used vinyl on the rise, it makes sense to own a turntable that will protect your investment, rather than destroying it.
In this article my intention was to provide some definitive proof to show beyond reasonable doubt that a cheap turntable will cause excessive damage to the records it plays. Not only do the clips above demonstrate my point, but I can’t help but be surprised at just how durable the vinyl disc is. While it cannot be argued that our test record is not severely damaged, I thought that the level of damage would be greater. However any damage especially caused in such a short space of time is unacceptable when it is clearly audible. In future articles we will explore a range of vinyl-based systems designed to offer vinyl playback on a budget without ruining your records.
Since this article was published, a few people have expressed concerns that there is a lack of a control variable in the experiment. While I do feel the experiment was fair, I do agree that a control in the form of the same record played an identical number of times on a better turntable would have offered a more conclusive result. This is something I am working to achieve, and will produce as soon as I am able to obtain a suitable turntable. In the meantime, This Video offers a similar controlled experiment. It shows two identical 7″ singles being played back 100 times, 1 on a similar turntable to the GPO above and one on a much better machine fitted with the popular Ortofon 2M Red cartridge. Sound demos are provided and the waveforms compared, and the results speak for themselves.