The Vinyl Issue: Essential turntables

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Looking to take the plunge into the world of vinyl? Then you’ll need a turntable to play it on. Whether you’re on a tight budget or you’ve got money to burn, here’s our guide to buying wheels of steel.

Vinyl rules, okay? After 25 years in the wilderness, the true king of music formats has once again regained its crown. The resurgence of vinyl means that we all need record players once more, and thankfully there are plenty to choose from, all the way from plasticky beer-budget models to state-of-the-art behemoths.

Turntables are fundamentally quite simple things, consisting of a platter with a bearing in a plinth that is driven by a motor via a belt. Add a tonearm to hold the stylus or cartridge as it tracks the groove and you’re done. But because the process of reading the minute variations in the wall of a vinyl groove is a mechanical one, doing it well requires precision engineering, and that’s expensive. One reason CD took off is that few people were prepared to pay for a decent turntable. Another reason for vinyl’s fall from supremacy was the crackle and pop. Records get noisy when they get scratched and they’re played on cheap turntables. There are simple answers to both these problems, and they don’t need to be spelled out.

Turntables sound better than digital sources because there’s no processing of the signal involved; with CD players, iPods, you name it, number crunching gets between you and the music. With a record player, the signal remains in analogue form all the way from stylus to speakers. This is what gives it its characteristically warm sound. As you are probably aware, classic rock originated in the vinyl era, and the music recorded back then was made to sound right on this format. As a result, if you want to hear a 70s or 80s classic album at its very best, then you need an original pressing and a great record player.

So where do you start in the quest

for great vinyl sound? The answer is: with a simple separates system that’s built with this goal in mind. You can of course connect a CD player, mobile phone or iPod to any of them, but they’ll sound limp compared to the black stuff.

CHANGE FROM £500

BUILDING A SYSTEM WITHOUT HAVING TO DEMOLISH YOUR SAVINGS.

You can buy cheaper vinyl-based systems, but take it from us: don’t. The following options will give you long-term satisfaction and reveal why vinyl is the ultimate format for music. All the turntables here come with a cartridge, and these are all moving-magnet (MM) type that will work with any amplifier that has a phono input. If you have an amp that doesn’t, you can buy a separate phono stage for around £50, the best budget one being Pro-Ject’s Phono Box MM.

There are a couple of entry-level amplifiers on the market that already have a phono stage, and of these the Denon PMA520AE at £130 would be my choice. It has five inputs as well as the one for the turntable, and a headphone output. Combine this with a pair of Q-Acoustics 2010i speakers (£116) and you’re in for a treat.

**Pro-Ject Essential 2 **

£209

www.henleydesigns.co.uk

The least expensive turntable on the market that’s worth having is the simply styled Essential 2 from Pro-Ject . A low-vibration synchronous motor and belt drive via a silicone belt help it deliver good sound. The platter and plinth, the main body that supports all the various elements, are MDF, which comes in black as standard but you can have it in matte red or white for an extra tenner.

What differentiates this from cheaper options is an aluminium tonearm with sapphire bearings that comes factory fitted with an Ortofon OM5e cartridge. The latter has a removable stylus so that it can be replaced in case of accidental damage, but the fact that the Essential 2 has a lid should help make this a rare occurrence.

Rega RP1

£229

www.rega.co.uk

The RP1is Rega’s entry-level option. It’s a ‘plug and play’ design, with a cartridge already installed, and all you have to do is put on the drive belt, the phenolic resin platter and felt mat, slide the counterweight to a pre-set point and you’re away. What makes this turntable worth its salt is a high-quality aluminium tonearm and Rega’s well-established reputation for offering exceptional value for money. The RP1 has a low-vibration motor that’s hidden underneath the platter. This arrangement makes for a neater appearance but was done primarily to improve sound quality.

The cartridge is a Rega Carbon, an entry-level moving-magnet type that has a user-replaceable stylus in case of wear or damage. The tonearm is a Rega RB101, a descendent of the RB300 that took the audio world by storm back in the 80s. Finish options for the plinth are white, black or grey.

Pro-Ject Debut S/E3

£265

www.henleydesigns.co.uk

Pro-Ject turntables are made in the Czech Republic and are the only real competition that Rega has at this end of the market. The Debut is the least expensive model in the range if you are after something serious. It has a decent cartridge – the Ortofon OM10 Super – for a start, the platter is metal, and all the key elements – motor, bearing and arm bearings – are better than those found in the Essential model.

The motor, for example, has a suspension system to prevent vibration getting to the plinth. Like the Essential, it’s a manual-speed-change design and has a dust cover, but unlike it there are sockets on the back rather than a cable for the amp. This means you can upgrade this critical link should you feel the need.

**GRAND AFFAIRS **

THREE OPTIONS THAT WILL LEAVE YOU WITH CHANGE FROM £1,000. JUST. If you have a grand to spend on your vinyl passion, then you will really hear the difference. While more affordable systems will do the job, one in this price bracket will turn you into a vinyl junkie – in a good way. For an amplifier and speakers that are up to the job, I’ve chosen the Rotel RA-10 (£350) integrated amplifier because it has an excellent phono stage and is a good all-rounder.

The Dali Zensor 3 (£299) is a particularly good example of the bookshelf speaker. They’re simple but extremely effective at delivering the energy and pace that makes vinyl so appealing.

Rega RP3/Elys2

£549

www.rega.co.uk

The latest generation of a design that launched a million systems back in vinyl’s heyday, the Rega RP3 is a genuine classic. It’s a lot more sophisticated than its clean appearance would suggest. For example, there’s a brace either side of the plinth that locks the tonearm to the main bearing in order to prevent movement and allow the cartridge to pick up the maximum amount of detail.

The RP3 has a glass platter under its felt mat, and a 24-volt motor that drives it via a short belt and sub-platter. Speed change is manual, but an optional speed-control box can be added to make this a push-button operation. The cartridge is Rega’s Elys2, which has a fixed stylus for maximum mechanical integrity, but this means you can’t just click in a new stylus in if it gets worn or damaged.

Pro-ject Debut Carbon

£325

www.henleydesigns.co.uk

The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon is so called because it has a one-piece carbon-fibre tonearm, a piece of kit that used to be the exclusive reserve of the high end. This material is both lighter and stiffer than aluminium, which means it’s less inclined to vibrate and muddy the sound. With this model, the headshell (which holds the cartridge) is formed from the same piece of material. All other things being equal, the fewer pieces an arm is made from the better.

The platter is metal, with a felt mat, and drive is provided by a motor that’s decoupled from the plinth on isolating feet. It comes with an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, a rather more serious needle that will dig out more musical detail from the groove.

The Debut is a remarkably refined-sounding turntable for the money. And while it doesn’t have quite the drive of the Rega RP3, it makes up for this with an open, three-dimensional sound that is very easy to enjoy.

Pro-Ject RPM1 Carbon

£325

www.henleydesigns.co.uk

This pared-down design from Pro-Ject comes in three colours and looks as distinctive as vinyl sounds. It has an MDF platter that sits on an inverted bearing, an arrangement found in a number of high-end turntables. The S-shaped tonearm is constructed from aluminium and carbon fibre. It’s not quite as rigid as that found on the Debut Carbon, but it offers a different take on the theme. The arm also uses magnetic anti-skating instead of the thread and weight found on the Debut. This is equally effective and less likely to require a tweak if the deck is moved to a different location.

Once again it comes fitted with an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, which combines with the simple-but-effective design of the RPM1 to produce a sound that’s similar to the Debut, if slightly less refined.

**THE 3K CLUB **

PUSHING THE BUDGET TO A SYSTEM COSTING AROUND £3,000.

The difference in the sound of turntables is largely a result of differing standards of engineering and design. But a well-executed turntable is a thing of beauty and musical transportation. Spending in the region of £3,000 on a record-playing system gets you some very nice kit indeed – the BMW M series of analogue audio, if you like.

It therefore needs a great amplifier. Such as the Rega Elex-R (£1,098), which has a remarkable ability to deliver music in an engaging fashion. It’s both powerful enough to get the house rockin’ and so revealing that it will prompt the hairs on your neck to stant to attention.

The loudspeaker of choice at this price level is ATC’s SCM11 (£940). ATC are a small British company who have supplied recording studios and concert halls around the globe. The SCM11 is both a very revealing and hugely entertaining speaker. It shows you precisely what each musician is contributing to an overall sonic experience that is very convincing indeed.

**Rega RP6/Exact **

£1,098

www.rega.co.uk

The Rega RP6 is a real adrenalin ride of a turntable. It may look harmless enough with its shiny paint job, but put a good record under the stylus and you’ll be forced to get down with your bad self. Rega’s most advanced square plinth turntable, it has a laminated glass platter with peripheral weighting, a carefully selected motor and an external power supply box that provides electronic speed switching. The tonearm is the RB-303 with spring down-force for better tracking. There’s also a double brace that locks the arm base to the platter bearing in order to eliminate movement between these points. The only movement you want is the stylus in the groove. The Exact cartridge is top dog in Rega’s moving-magnet range. The stylus is fixed, and the sound is nothing short of exhilarating.

Roksan Radius 5.2

£1,375

www.roksan.co.uk

The Radius has an acrylic platter that sits on a precision-machined stainless steel and brass bearing, and its motor is suspended from the acrylic plinth, which can be black or clear. Drive is achieved with a silicone belt for minimum energy transfer into the platter. Roksan prefer to put as little power as possible into the disc-spinning job, so that the stylus traces just the vibrations in the groove.

Its Nima tonearm is a uni-pivot type that sits on a spike and can move in pretty much any direction except up and down. Get a dealer to fit a Goldring 2100 cartridge (£125) and revel in a clear and exciting sound that will enliven the most compressed of recordings. If there’s one thing that vinyl has over digital audio, it’s this sense of vivacity, and the Roksan delivers it in spades.

Michell Technodec + Arm

£735 + £635

www.michell-engineering.co.uk

Michell, a family firm based near London, made the turntable seen in the film A Clockwork Orange. The Technodec is their least expensive model, but it embodies the engineering prowess that has kept the brand among the best in class. It has an inverted bearing and a platter made of an acrylic/vinyl mix, the choice of materials being designed to match the character of the vinyl record itself. The motor is a separate element that contains a DC motor for maximum smoothness of drive.

The Technodec tonearm is Michell’s version of the Rega RB250 with reduced weight and an underslung counterweight. Cartridge-wise, go for a Grado Prestige Gold at £160.

The Technodec is a distinctive record player with a controlled, revealing sound, and is one for those who want to hear into the production techniques used in the studio and the nuances in the music.

FORGET THE NEW CAR IF YOU’VE GOT 10 GRAND BURNING A HOLE IN YOUR POCKET, TRY THESE.

If you really want to transcend the physical world and escape your cares, it’s difficult to beat a really serious system. At this price level you can start to taste the high end, the sort of turntables that audiophiles lust after because they are so well made and sound so good.

For these turntables you could do a lot worse than a Leema Essentials phono stage (£495) and Leema’s superb Tucana II integrated amplifier (£3,595). Leema is a British company that was founded by former BBC engineers, so they know their electronics onions, and this beefy yet sensibly sized amp is one of the best at the price.

In this price bracket here are plenty of loudspeakers to choose from, but one that stands out is the Eclipse TD510Mk2 (£1,920). Used by Brian Eno, among other professionals, it has a single drive unit for maximum coherence. It won’t give you floor-shaking bass, but the sound picture it produces in the room is breathtaking in its realism.

SME Model 10A

£5,001

www.sme.ltd.uk

SME is a legend in audio circles, and their turntables and arms set a standard that few can match at any price. The Model 10A is their entry-level turntable, but heavyweight by most standards and weighs in at 15kg. It has a diamond-turned platter with a screw-down clamp to dampen vibrations in the vinyl, and comes equipped with a “precision pick-up arm” that has a one-piece magnesium arm tube, detachable headshell and the easiest set-up system in the business. The cartridge you should get an expert to install is the Dynavector DV-20X2L (£599).

The SME has a stately and calm character that gets out of the way and lets you hear what’s on the record and very little else. It can deliver thunderous bass and room-filling highs, but only if that’s what was put down in the studio, so don’t expect fireworks unless the band lit the fuse while recording.

Rega RP10/Apheta 2

£3,598

www.rega.co.uk

The best turntable that Rega currently make, and also the most radical one in this round-up, the RP10 is a supreme piece of design and technology. Its plinth is in two parts: the square element merely supports the lid; inside it sits a skeletal frame with a foam core and three feet. It is phenomenally light and equally stiff. The platter is ceramic and the tonearm one of the finest available. This is the Lotus 7 of the turntable world, incredibly nimble, fast and revealing. Which means that your records will virtually come to life in the room. It grabs hold of every nuance that the musicians put down, and lets you know just what they were feeling when they did so. The Apheta 2 cartridge is a key to this result and like the RP10, is astonishing value for money.

Linn Majik LP12

£2,700

www.linn.co.uk

If you prefer a more relaxed approach to music making, the Linn LP12 could be the turntable for you. Back in the day, it launched a thousand systems (at least) when its Glasgow-based maker declared that the source is king – that is the turntable, CD player, you name it – being more important than either the amp or speakers. It was a controversial statement at the time, but it’s accepted wisdom today.

The Majik LP12 is the entry-level version of a turntable that can cost up to £25k, but it shares the design and many of that more expensive sibling’s parts. The platter and arm are mounted on springs to isolate them from external vibration, and although the springiness might seem a bit strange to begin with, there’s no getting away from just how beguiling a sound it delivers. The LP12 is supplied complete with a Pro-Ject 9cc carbon tonearm and a Linn Adikt cartridge.

AVOIDING BAD VIBES

While you can plonk a turntable down on any shelf or sideboard, if you want it to show you just how good vinyl can sound it pays to think about support. What you want to avoid is having it sitting on anything that vibrates or moves in any way. Which is not so easy if you’re playing your music at an entertaining volume. Wooden objects pick up sound waves and run with them – you can often feel furniture vibrating when music is being played in the room.

There are various schools of thought on how best to isolate a turntable from vibration, and the least expensive is to get a dedicated bracket that bolts to the wall. A number of companies make these, including Hi-Fi Racks, who do attractive solid-wood designs for sensible prices (£200).

Another approach is to use an isolation platform that you can put on any piece of furniture and which will minimise the amount of energy that can get to the turntable. The best one on the market is made by Townshend Audio, who offer a range of sizes and provide spring suspension to suit turntables of different weights. These start at £550.