Record playing systems for the grad student on-the-go, Focal Bathys headphones (Week 39, 2023)

Sound Advice
By Don Lindich

Week 39, 2023

Q. I’m in the market for a beginner record-playing system with a turntable and speaker. I’m a grad student in my late 20s and fairly transient, so I don’t want to invest in an expensive set-up with too many components. I was thinking about a $149.99 Audio-Technica AT-LP60X turntable and a $249 Sonos Era speaker.

What do you think? Any advice on a set-up that would be in that price range? My total budget is $500.

-K.S., San Jose, CA

A. The components you have chosen are good ones, but I do not think there is a lot of synergy between them, specifically with the speaker. Given the music starts with the turntable, I will begin there.

The AT-LP60X is a good entry-level turntable, but with your budget you can do a lot better. For $100 more you can a turntable that sounds far superior and can grow with you as your situation changes and want to upgrade your system. The Fluance RT81 is $249.99 and has a beautiful wood base, an easily-upgradable cartridge, and a built-in phono preamp. It can also be set to stop rotating when the record is over. With almost 3,000 reviews and a 4.8/5 rating on Amazon, it has been making music lovers happy ever since its introduction.

The Sonos Era is a single-piece speaker with a small form factor, which is not ideal for vinyl playback because you don’t get much stereo separation. A pair of Edifier R1280DB powered bookshelf speakers with Bluetooth sells for $149.99 and will provide a more authentic vinyl experience with genuine stereo separation from speakers placed a few feet apart from each other. A Certified Refurbished Andover SpinBase is $269.99, a bit over your budget but it will provide a base for your turntable as well. It would be extremely convenient given you will be moving around over the next few years.

Another speaker candidate is the $199.99 Tribit StormBox Blast, which has the best overall sound of the three speakers I am recommending here. The sound quality is truly exceptional, competing with high-end brands selling for much more.

If you are truly set on the Sonos, go for it! But I recommend upgrading the speaker when your circumstances allow.

Focal Bathys Headphones: Back in February I briefly mentioned these headphones, the first noise-canceling Bluetooth headphones from famed French manufacturer Focal. They recently went on sale and introduced a second color, so it is a good time to tell the rest of the story.

The Bathys are some of the most satisfying headphones I have ever had the pleasure to review. They sound wonderful, they do everything you need a headphone to do, and they shine with avant-garde design and functionality. The Bathys can be connected via Bluetooth, but my favorite way to use them is with a direct USB-C connection to my iPad Pro. The Bathys takes the pure digital signal over USB, converts it to analog with a high quality digital-to-analog converter and plays it with unique Focal drivers for sound that is rich, pure, and dynamic, with extended and detailed treble that never sounds harsh or fatiguing. The only downside to these designed-for-digital headphones is the sound quality suffers a bit when using the analog 3.5-mm input. It is passable, but stick to USB and Bluetooth for the best sound.

An attractive, compact hard case is provided and it is available in two colors, Black and Dune. Normally $799, the Focal Bathys is now on sale for $699. If you can only have one pair of headphones, these are the ones to get.