A Beginner’s Guide to Your First Turntable

Pro-Ject Debut III Turntable

When you decide to explore the world of vinyl records, you’ll be asking lots of questions about turntables, and you’ll likely be swarmed with a million different answers. This may seem overwhelming at first, but it’s perfectly normal. Analog music (which is what records are all about) is far more nuanced and tricky than simply popping a CD into the tray and hitting the play button. There are many different turntable brands, many different designs, and many different price points. And everybody has their own opinion, which contradicts everybody else.

The great example of this is the “turf war” (I say that half-jokingly) between Technics and Rega fans. In a broader sense, this is a battle between the defenders of belt-drive turntables and direct-drive turntables. In truth, both designs have their advantages and weaknesses, and great tables can be had on both sides equally. But passions are fierce among the devoted, and it can be confusing to newcomers.

Here is my advice for every one of you. At the end of the day, you need to dive in and just get your hands dirty. A first turntable is like a first car. You don’t expect perfection, just a reliable clunker that you can tear apart and destroy as you learn and grow.

Over the past two years, I’ve gone through half a dozen turntables, starting with a $99 Numark PT-101 portable, then moving up to a Pro-Ject Debut III, later followed by a series of vintage 1970s direct drive models: Sony, Technics, MCS, JVC. My current setup — Sony PS-X600 Biotracer, Dynavector 10×5 phono cartridge, Pro-Ject Tube Box SE II phono preamplifier — is one of the best I’ve yet heard, and paired with my Marantz 2235b stereo receiver, it’s an excellent sound system. I learned everything the long and hard way, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

In the process of learning, I’ve become a more skilled listener. I’ve learned to listen critically, something I never really did before. I’ve learned much about the science of turntables, of their designs and the various theories of replicating that perfect sound. And I’ve wrecked my share of parts and ruined my share of records.

If someone wants to discover the world of analog LPs, then I’d recommend searching local rummage sales and want-ads. Find a cheap turntable that costs next to nothing, get a cheap cartridge, and start spinning records. Then learn as much as you possibly can about them, so when it comes time to upgrade to the next table, you’re on a stronger footing, and hopefully you won’t be spending a small fortune in the process.

Another key goal is to keep costs down as much as possible. More money does not equal better performance. I spent a lot of money to fully upgrade my 2008 Pro-Ject Debut III, only to see it bettered by a 1978 Realistic LAB 420 direct drive. My grandfather’s ancient MacDonald 510 idler drive sounds far better than it has any right to. The Sony PS-X tables are very solid. The MCS 6700, a rebranded Technics/Sansui hybrid sold by JC Penny’s in the late 1970s, is both sophisticated and stylish. Thorens and Dual still maintain a cult following. There are many such examples. Do modern $1500 turntables sound that much better? Yes, actually. But it’s not something to lose sleep over now. Save the expensive audio investments for later.

For an amplifier, my advice is get a great stereo receiver from the 1970s, any of the great brands like Marantz, Pioneer, Sansui, Sony or Technics. A great stereo is the foundation of your sound system. You can find a stereo receiver and a pair of speakers for under $200. Then proceed with the turntable and phono cartridge, and you’re ready to experience the bliss of vinyl records. Start with a cheap, used table, then work your way up the chain. Or, you could just copy my current system and skip a few steps. It’s all up to you.

The best advice I ever read about turntables came from a Michael Fremer review: “If you’re thinking of taking the analog plunge…get a Bellari VP129 (tube phono preamplifier) and a budget turntable, and I promise that your CDs will start to gather dust.” If that doesn’t inspire you to collect vinyl records, I don’t know what could.

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