Your First Turntable: Old vs. New
There is no such thing as a free table.
It is very easy to stop by any garage sale, thrift store, or used record shop and come across a very attractively priced record player ready for the taking, but ready for the taking doesn’t always mean it’s ready for playing. When dealing with used tables it’s what’s under the hood that counts. Many of them are more than 20 years old and are only getting older. Typically they will suffer from one, if not all of the following issues: motor speed problems, a worn stylus, improper weight and alignment calibration, failed or failing mechanics, stretched belts, and any other standard wear and tear their previous owner(s) subjected them to.
Before buying always think about the table’s condition and how much work will be needed to get that second hand table sounding its finest. It’s rare to find a vintage table that is going to do more good than bad to your vinyl when it is bought and used as is. Records get worn, and a poor quality table with an aged needle is only going to wear them out quicker. With so many different makes and models it is always best to get them serviced by a professional who is familiar with the brand before throwing your records on it. They can source out parts and give your table the proper attention it needs.
We all want to stretch a dollar, but suddenly that $50 bargain table has turned into a potential $200 worth of extra work. If you really want your records to last and your enjoyment to be maximized, spending a bit more money initially may mean a better overall listening experience.
Not all tables are, or were, created equal.
It is true that most vintage record players, given a little TLC, sound better than the $150 budget tables of today. Be wary of buying a turntable from the same place you buy your jeans! These modern day low cost tables are typically an all-plastic design with glued on parts, meaning finding a new cartridge or someone to service them is next to impossible. The build and sound quality just aren’t there. In fact, due to the short length of most of the tonearms and the lack of anti-skate, they are certainly damaging your records. They’re selling a retro aesthetic that will only lead to disappointment down the road.
If you have given yourself a larger budget, don’t get too caught up trying to find the audiophile Holy Grails such as the Thorens TD-124 or a Linn LP-12, amongst many others. A lot of these highly sought after tables will be overpriced and may not live up to the expectations given to them by their online reviewers. Turntable technology has advanced in the last 20 years and sound quality is subjective. With labour costs at an historic lows and the advancement of computer design and machining, it is now possible to get far higher quality for much less money than in the past.
Brands like Pro-Ject have entry-level hi-fi tables that can be had at the $300 mark and will produce crystal clear sound compared to their older counterparts.
Pro-Ject’s newest release, the Debut Carbon, retails for $449 and features upgraded bearings, a carbon fiber tonearm, and an upgraded motor suspension - all which help reduce resonance. It has a simple design with few moving parts meaning it will age with grace and also make it free from the rumble often found on dated tables. Not to mention it includes a $100 starting cartridge and comes in a wide variety of vibrant finishes making it one sleek looking, and sounding table. The equivalent table bought in 1980 would have cost $1000 in 1980s dollars! At $449 today, it is a bargain.
What is most important to you?
Some people will enjoy the research and personal investment of taking a used or hand-me-down table and making it their own. They are a great way to get your feet wet and learn about vinyl. If you have the patience, there are many sonically good tables readily available just in need of a little extra time and money to be refurbished.
New record players are the ultimate in convenience and reliability, plus the expectation of a new 30 year life span. You know exactly what you are getting and more often than not, you can even listen to them before buying at your local hi-fi shop. The initial investment will ensure years of trouble free listening and enjoyment.
Whatever you decide, do what is best for your budget, your records, and most of all – your ears.