Upgrading From Your First Turntable
Owning your first vinyl HiFi system is a wonderful experience: picking up the tonearm on your first turntable, cueing up your favorite album, hearing details and nuances in the sound you had never heard before, sharing the enjoyment with your friends and family. A stereo system allows you to shut off the tv, put your phone on silent, and just enjoy the music. After some time, when your ears get better at picking out the details and you start to create your own taste for sound, you might wonder if there’s room for an upgrade. Figuring out an upgrade path can be confusing, with all the online marketing and review websites it’s hard to know who or what to believe. Let us help you figure out where to get the best bang for your upgrade bucks.
A great turntable is one of the most important pieces in your analogue chain. Making sure that you have a solid turntable will strengthen your entire system. Generally speaking, the better the turntable, the quieter the operation and the more you will get out of your cartridge. Tables using dense materials for their plinths and platters are more favorable than those using plastic or thin metals. Belt drive units are generally preferable to direct drives, and a resonance resistant material like carbon fiber is a good choice for tonearms. Given all this, the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon is a good investment and a great place to start. This table gives a solid performance right out of the box while still leaving you plenty of room with upgrade potential. If you’re looking to move past the Debut Carbon, have a look at the Pro-Ject 2Xperience SB; it has all the magic of the Debut Carbon but adds solid upgrades across the board. The 2Xperience features upgraded tonearm and feet, heavier plinth and platter, and push button speed control. The overall result is an even quieter platform that can support an even better cartridge to get even more detail and nuance from your music.
Once you have the table, it’s time to look at the cartridge. In a vinyl set-up, the cartridge is the first step in bringing the vinyl grooves to life. Upgrading the cartridge on your existing turntable is one the easiest ways to influence and improve the overall sound of your records. In general, a stylus (or needle) will last between 1500 and 3000 hours. For most of us, that works out to about 3 years. A worn stylus is also a great opportunity for an upgrade. A better cartridge will have a finer stylus that will go deeper in the grooves. This lets it read and transmit more detail, and have better sound staging. The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon comes with an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge. Although the 2M Red is no slouch, there is room to move up. The easiest upgrade here is to keep your cartridge body and swap the 2M Red stylus for the 2M Blue stylus. Not much effort for a noticeable jump in detail. For a bigger jump, try the Ortofon MC 1 Turbo or the Ortofon 2M Bronze. For a slightly different sound profile, you can’t go wrong with something from the Nagaoka line. Alternately, a table like the Pro-Ject 2Xperience pairs nicely with the 2M Bronze, Ortofon Quintet Bronze, Sumiko Blue Point Special Evo III, or the Dynavector 10x5. Changing out your cartridge to any one of these is a great way to bring the dynamics of Zeppelin and the trumpet of Miles Davis to life. The better the cartridge, the closer you’ll be to having the musicians in your living room.
Phono Preamplifier/Phono Stage
Once you’ve got the cartridge sorted, it’s time to consider the phono preamplifier or phono stage. This component is truly the unsung hero of your vinyl set-up, and it’s role is often overlooked. You can think of it as a translator: the better the translation, the better the sound. Grabbing a new turntable and plugging it into a vintage/older stereo can yield good results, as can using an entry level stand-alone component. But the phono stage is also a prime upgrade spot that can yield surprising improvements in performance. A product like the Graham Slee Gram Amp 2 Communicator is a really solid choice for most Moving Magnet and High Output Moving Coil cartridges. Up from that you might consider the Era Gold V or even the Reflex. These units are handmade in the UK, and when paired with a good cartridge, will bring out the best parts of your favorite albums. Limiting your phono stage can limit you from experiencing your cartridge’s full potential, while a great one will help you open up your whole system.
Retiring those old tired speakers you used with your computer, or pulled out of someone’s basement, can give you a big push in the Audiophile direction. Switching out your speakers can offer one of the most dramatic improvements in sound. Start with a speaker like the Castle Knight Ones or Mies S1, or jump up to a speaker like the Kef LS50, or even the Harbeth Compact 7 ES3. A good set of speakers will not only showcase all of the other components in your system, but will also allow you to hear all the details of the music and at lower volumes. When looking for a new speaker keep your other components, as well as your space and listening habits, in mind. Do you have a big room or like to turn the stereo up loud, maybe you need a larger floor standing model. Do you have some space constraints, maybe a smaller bookshelf is the ticket. Stop by the shop and let us guide you to the best fit for your ear, system, and budget.
Amplifiers are the heart of any stereo system. Having a weak one can lead to a lot of complications and just overall bad sound. Having a good one can make the whole system sound more effortless and open. Picking your upgrade amplifier doesn’t have to be complicated. Start with making a list of how you will be using the amp and with what gear. This will give you a list of necessary inputs and outputs and an idea of overall power requirements. Once your budget is thrown into the mix, you should get a good idea of which amp is best suited to your needs. Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need an amplifier with your entire wish list of functions built in. Features like Bluetooth, Wifi streaming, fm Tuner, and phono preamp, can always be added on and often with superior results. So when choosing an amplifier, focus on overall sound and build quality. An amazing first pick is the Mies i100. Jump up to the Marantz PM8005, or even the Heed Obelisk.
The last place you can upgrade is cables. Bad analogue cables in your stereo system can also be a bottleneck. Make sure to keep a budget in mind that is in line with the rest of your system, and stay away from lamp cord! Good quality cables will keep you from limiting your stereo system and the resulting sound. Oyaide PA-2075 phono interconnects and Explorer 2.0 speaker wire are great additions to any system.
In closing, upgrading your stereo system can be a very satisfying and rewarding process. Whether you’re just upgrading your stylus, or checking off your component wish list item by item, finding your perfect combination of components will allow your record collection, and listening experience, to really come to life.