By Don Lindich
Week 7, 2015
Q. I want to build a system to listen to vinyl records, and have seen you warn people away from plastic USB turntables and integrated systems. What is the least amount I can spend to enjoy records, without buying junk?
-Fred W., San Jose, CA
A. Not long ago I would have said about $350 to $400. After some thought and experimentation I was able to piece together a system for $169.57 using brand-new equipment. More on that later.
For years I have warned readers away from the cheap plastic USB turntables sold in stores for $100 to $200, or the single-piece units that have speakers built-in. Not only do they sound bad, they can damage your records. For $249 you can get an Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB, a well-made turntable with a built-in phono preamp and a USB connection, good sound and the possibility to upgrade it later with better cartridges. It’s one of the best values in audio, and I consider it the point where high quality vinyl record playback begins.
I had given up on finding a truly cheap, decent turntable but after some cajoling from Audio-Technica’s PR man, I tested their AT-LP60, which sells for $99 with cartridge and integrated phono preamp. A USB version is available for $30 more.
The AT-LP60 is a fully automatic turntable with integrated cartridge. It is easy to set up and use and has a small footprint. The stylus can be replaced or upgraded for better sound when it wears out. I found it to perform quite decently, if not spectacularly, and to be adequate for inclusion in a budget system or to get started with vinyl records.
Please note I said, “adequate.” It’s not a great turntable that will provide rich, high-end vinyl sound that rivals or betters digital sources. It will sound decent and won’t damage your records like the plastic cheapies will. “Adequate” is high praise for a $99 turntable, and an accomplishment to be lauded. It’s like a $5,000 new car that is safe and provides reliable transportation.
In the past I have written about Dayton Audio’s B652 speakers, which sound pretty good for only $39.99. Dayton Audio has a $69 bundle combining a pair of B652 speakers with their tiny DTA-1 amplifier. It is often advertised as a “30 watt amplifier” with 15 watts per channel, but that is at 10% distortion. True, clean output is estimated at about 9 watts. It has a single miniplug input and is powered by a wall-wart power supply. It uses an extremely efficient “Class T” digital amplifier and can even be run by four AA batteries.
Take the output from the LP60 and connect it to the DTA-1 using the included cables, and use the wires that come with the speakers to connect them to the amplifier. Ta-da! A vinyl record system for under $170! The sound is more detailed than you would expect. The low bass is lacking and it could use more richness and tonal color, but the sound is far beyond any integrated system and you can always upgrade it later.
After I put the system together and was satisfied, I went online to Amazon to get up-to-date pricing for everything. When I searched for the B652 bundle, a suggestion from Amazon said, “Frequently Bought Together” with the AT-LP60 turntable! I wish I could take credit for thinking of it first, but apparently a lot of people are already enjoying this budget system. My hat is off to all of you!