Data Doctors: Buying tips for USB turntables

Q: I’m getting back into music on vinyl, so what should I be looking for if I’m in the market for a record player that will connect to my computer?

A: The revival of vinyl records has been growing in popularity for over a decade, which has prompted many companies to create new turntables that can interface with a computer.

Making sure it has a USB interface isn’t the only thing to consider, because the cost of new vinyl records can be two to three times that of the comparable CD or digital download.

Vinyl records suffer from an affliction that doesn’t apply to any of its digital counterparts — they slowly deteriorate with each play, and buying a cheap turntable can accelerate the degradation.

The ‘needle’ of a turntable rides in the grooves of the record and the mechanics that control this physical contact will have a huge impact on the health of your vinyl over the years.

Record Player vs. Turntable

While many people use these terms interchangeably, there is a significant technical difference between the two.

A turntable is a separate component that relies on other components such as an amplifier, a preamp and speakers in order to generate sound.

A record player is an all-in-one device that can play the records without any other component.

My first suggestion is to avoid record players entirely as both the sound quality and damage to your vinyl collection are undesirable.

Preamp Considerations

If you also want to connect it to a sound system, you’ll want to determine if you need a turntable that has a built-in preamp or not.

Traditional turntables generate a very low output signal that needs to be amplified, which is why older stereo amps and receivers have a separate ‘phono’ input.

If you plan to use the turntable with an existing amplifier/receiver that does not have a phono input, you’ll want to buy a turntable that has a built-in preamp.

Another great use of a built-in preamp is that you can plug the turntable directly into high-quality powered speakers, which negates the need for a separate amplifier/receiver for those just getting started.

Upgradable Cartridge

The cartridge is what houses the stylus (or needle), which has the biggest impact on the sound quality, so buying a turntable that does not allow it to be changed out or upgraded should be avoided.

You’ll have a substantial investment in your vinyl collection and you could develop a taste for better sound down the road, so serviceability and upgradability is important.

Automatic vs. Semi-Automatic

Automatic turntables will start and stop the record with a push of a button — semi-automatic means you manually place the needle on the record and it auto-lift the tonearm at the end.

Semi-automatic units have fewer moving parts, so there’s less to go wrong.

Brands to Consider

If you’re looking for an entry-level turntable, start by looking at what Audio-Technica and Sony have to offer.

For those looking for higher fidelity and build quality, check out the Step-Up models from Audio-Technica, Denon or the Special Edition line from Pro-Ject.

Ken Colburn is founder and CEO of Data Doctors Computer Services. Ask any tech question on Facebook or Twitter.

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