By Don Lindich
Week 13, 2018
Q. My son recently appropriated my albums from my college days and he and his friends are playing them on, shall we say, “less than optimal” equipment. I would like for him to have something better sounding, and I also don’t want my records damaged on that cheap turntable! What is the best we can do for $1,000 or a little more?
-W.V., Cape May, NJ
A. For $1,000 we can build something with high-end flair that sounds fantastic. Two products I recently discovered make this possible, and fortunately they are the turntable and the speakers, which are the most important parts of any vinyl playback system.
First is the $399 Music Hall MMF-1.5 turntable, which recently received a rave review in this column and on my soundadvicevinyl.com website. In terms of looks, quality and sound, the MMF-1.5 is a noticeable step ahead of anything else under $600 and will provide unmatched satisfaction and pride of ownership.
The speakers are the most recent find. I recently tried the $299/pair Polk Signature S20 bookshelf speakers and I’ve been anxious to tell readers about them ever since.
Polk bills the speakers as “American HiFi” and as I tested them I realized what an appropriate tagline it is. Speakers from certain places tend to have a certain reputation and sonic signature. British speakers tend towards the warmish side, German speakers were once known to be shrill, and Japanese speakers, somewhat analytical. What is at the top of the heap? The very best high-end speakers are (wave the flag and cheer) American speakers!
Speakers from the top American manufacturers have clean, neutral yet engaging sound quality that really brings the music to life. They also sound good with all kinds of music, so you do not have to qualify them as “good rock speakers” or ‘well suited for jazz and classical.” I should also note that speakers from Canadian companies like Axiom Audio and Paradigm share this superior reputation. (Maybe it is a North American thing.)
The Polk Signature S20s are largish bookshelf speakers with a well-executed retro design and Polk’s rear-mounted PowerPort, which means they can be used close to the rear walls. The sound lives up to the “American HiFi” tagline as the Signature S20s are cut from the same cloth as the best American speakers. My vinyl system has $6,500/pair Ohm Walsh 5000 speakers and when I switched to the Signature S20s, I was struck by how the overall character and pleasing nature across musical genres resembled the Ohms, which cost over 21 times more. Obviously the Ohms are significantly better and play in a different league, but the Signature S20s are worthy of the “American HiFi” name. The bass is also surprisingly solid given their size. The Polk Audio Signature S20s are now my top speaker pick under $300.
Providing the power is Onkyo’s TX-8020 receiver for $199. This old stalwart is the go-to receiver for budget stereo applications and has clean, ample power and a phono input. onkyousa.com
Optional (and affordable) turntable upgrades
For more detailed and dynamic sound I suggest you upgrade the turntable stylus (needle) to the $29 Carbon Fidelity CFN3600LE
If you can stretch a little more, get the $148 LP Gear The Vessel A3SE Ultimate Set. This pre-mounted cartridge plugs right in to the MMF-1.5 and will improve the sound by more than a few notches.