Lessons Learned From a $100 Turntable

When people learn that I’m a record geek, they often ask one or both of the following questions:

  • “Are my dad’s Beatles albums valuable?” (Answer: Probably not.)
  • “Can you tell me what sort of turntable to buy?” (Answer: Probably not.)

The reason your dad’s Beatles albums probably won’t put you through college is that there are literally millions of copies floating around and most of them weren’t handled very delicately. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen trot into my local record store with a copy of Meet the Beatles under their arms and dollar signs in their eyes only to learn that their scratched up hand me down is essentially worthless.

As for the turntable question; well, that one is a little more difficult, especially these days. How much do you want to spend? Do you plan on using it to digitize your albums, DJ, or just to spin some records? How concerned are you with maintaining the condition of your vinyl? How finicky are your ears?

After ten minutes of you carefully considering each of these questions before replying, I’ll shrug my shoulders and say, “Yeah, I don’t know anything about turntables, sorry,” and then I’ll go back to flipping through the record bins.

And I really don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ no turntables, at least not in any meaningful way. I have friends who rattle off sentences like, “I just bought the new Orchsblacher Trinity 8 with a Blingledocker 950 cartridge and a Spingdangler sapphire stylus. I put a custom Smerton tonearm on it and now it tracks at 34 goosepimples without dropping any dbs or amp ohms into the megahertzes.” I just smile and mutter “is it better than the Trinity 6” in hopes that my ignorance isn’t too apparent, but honestly I don’t care.

My turntable only has to do two things: Not damage my records, and sound good enough. This means that pretty much any well-built turntable suits my needs. For the last 20 years I’ve used a Stanton DJ-style turntable, but recently I picked up a ’70s-era amplifier and my trusty Stanton wasn’t having any of that. If I kept the volume low the hum of the ground buzz resulting from the mismatched components wasn’t too bad, but I made a mental note to keep my eyes peeled for a ’70s-era turntable that wouldn’t damage my records and might my pair with my new/old amp to sound “good enough.”

What should land on the record store’s counter a couple of months later but a vintage turntable. I didn’t recognize the brand, BIC, but aside from the auto changer (the “drop the record onto the platter thingy”) it appeared to be exactly what I was looking for: solid construction and–is that actual wood?–quality materials. Here’s the topper: Our local turntable expert looked it over, mounted a new Stanton cartridge in the headshell, and gave the BIC his seal of resale approval.

My record store buddy was only asking a hundred bucks for the BIC and he was willing to let me take it home for a test drive, so I agreed to give the turntable a one week trial period. We then spent the rest of the day filing records, swapping music trivia, and telling jokes that only the two of us might find funny while I sneaked glances at turntable forums on my smartphone. Apparently, the BIC that I was taking home was the greatest piece of junk ever to be labeled a turntable. According to those guys only fools, idiots, and idiotic fools would be so foolishly idiotic as to buy a BIC! On the other hand, these other guys felt that those guys were dullards. BICs were great turntables!

Yada yada yada, I got the beast home, hooked it up, and loved it. The BIC looks great, performs well, and to my ear sounds good enough. Of course, that’s thanks mostly to the new Stanton cartridge that the turntable guy mounted in the old record player, but who am I to let a little fact like that disrupt some high quality internet forum snobbery?

So what were my takeaways from this?

  1. If you aren’t brand-conscious, you can still buy a great sounding vintage turntable for $100. Visit your favorite big box retailer either online or in person and you’ll find a bunch of brand new record players around this price point that are nothing more than record-trashing toys. Every time I see a kid come into the store and spend $25 on a brand new, 180 gram album, it kills me to think that he or she is going to take it home and slap it onto a brand new $59 Crosley. If you believe you’re in this record thing for the long haul, both your ears and your records will be much happier with a well-maintained used turntable.
  2. Trust your own senses. We seem to have a really hard time with this concept in this country. Our cars aren’t fast enough unless they can push the sound barrier, yet most of us are lucky to average 35 MPH in city traffic. Our peppers aren’t hot enough unless they register seven digits on the Scoville scale. Books aren’t worth reading unless they’re best sellers, on and on. We’re constantly looking for some kind of external validation that our reality is real enough, and you see where that’s gotten us.
  3. Internet forums remain bickering cesspools of opinion masquerading as fact. But you already knew that.

And finally, your dad’s record collection is probably just worthless junk, so you may as well give it to me.

Categories: op-ed

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