After uncovering a large, dusty collection of vinyl hidden away in his parent’s house (and no working turntable to play them on), my significant other thought it would be a great idea to buy his parents a turntable for Christmas. Neither of us knew much anything about audio equipment, but we figured with a little help from Google, we’d have no problem picking one out.
I jumped on our laptop and discovered turntables ranged in price from $200 all the way up to $2,000+. Aside from the fact that the more expensive ones were clearly prettier, I couldn’t figure out what made them (theoretically) better. Realising I knew nothing about brand prestige or what kind of specs to look for, I turned to co-workers for advice.
They asked questions like, do we have speakers? (Oh right! You need speakers for sound. I had forgotten about that.) And if we had an amp. I simply said I wasn’t sure, not wanting to admit I had no idea what they were talking about.
I went home and did some more research.
Though I found tons of articles dedicated towards helping people buy their first turntable, most assumed the reader had at least a basic understanding of how one worked. People who knew what words like ‘phono’ and ‘aux’ meant, or the difference between a turntable and a record player (I had been googling them interchangeably, assuming they were the same thing).
For those in need of a thoroughly dumbed down explanation like I did, here’s what I found:
A record player has everything that you need built in (speakers, amplifier, pre-amp). They’re all-in-one systems, like those Crosley-type suitcase players, that you simply plug in and play. While their ease makes them ideal for vinyl novices, they’re notorious for poor sound quality. Another thing they’re notorious for – destroying your records by gouging grooves into them.
A turntable is the platter you play your record on. On its own, it doesn’t produce any sound. You also need speakers, an amplifier and possibly a pre-amp to do that.
An amplifier is the middleman that lines the sound from your turntable to your speakers. The amplifier also does other things that impacts the quality of your sound, but the main thing a novice needs to know is that the amplifier is where you control the volume.
A pre-amp (or phono pre-amp, also referred to as a phono stage) helps make the sound signal from your turntable audible through your speakers. Essentially, it boosts the sound. Some turntables and some amplifiers have built-in pre-amps – if you don’t see the word phono anywhere, you probably need one of these. If you’re still not sure, check out this amazing article from the Sydney Morning Herald about pre-amps and phono (if only I had found this article a couple of months earlier…).
Armed with this newfound information, we did some sleuthing and discovered his parents already owned speakers and his aunt and uncle had a spare receiver (which I thought we could use instead of an amplifier… more on that later), so we headed to a store a colleague had recommended called Addicted To Audio to pick out a turntable.
The salesperson who greeted us at the store seemed knowledgeable and after a quick chat about what we were looking for, recommended a Sony turntable that was on sale for $599. It was more than we had thought we would spend, but it had a nice, sleek aesthetic; a USB port so you could burn digital files of vinyl records to your computer (though it might seem counterintuitive to do this, we thought his dad might enjoy being able to burn his old Croatian records so he could listen to them in the car) and a built-in preamp! We bought it, figuring our work was done.
If only it was that simple.
Any good store that sells audio equipment should be happy to show you how it works. Addicted To Audio was no different – the salesperson offered to set up the turntable with speakers and an amp so we could see it put together. We declined his offer, assuming it was just a way for him to try and sell us more stuff.
We also didn’t open the box before we gifted it to his parents. If we had, we would have seen that the ‘little bit’ of assembly we were told was required was actually quite involved, and required a great deal of patience and careful reading of the instructions (neither of which was in much supply Christmas day). We would have then taken our time to preassemble it, and after assembly, we would have seen that the outputs on the turntable were not compatible with the receiver we had.
Instead, we had a case of too many chefs in the kitchen on Christmas day. The instruction book was overshadowed by the person with the loudest voice and the turntable was almost broken before it was even put together. After several stress-filled hours, we discovered the receiver didn’t work and his parents wouldn’t be able to listen to any records that day. It was pretty disappointing.
About a month went by before my significant other decided to go back to Addicted to Audio and buy a Cambridge amplifier the salesperson had recommended. I had been researching used amplifiers online, but found they still ran a couple of hundred bucks. My significant other reasoned that it was better to add another hundred or two to that, and buy a brand new one.
Again, we went to his parent’s house, excited that the gift was finally complete. I carefully followed the instructions, attaching the wires from the turntable to the amplifier, and from to amplifier to the speakers. We turned on the amplifier, placed the record on the platter, and… no sound came out.
Normally if there’s no sound that means you are missing a pre-amp, but ours was built in. We had no idea what was wrong. Maybe we had broken the turntable during assembly (except when we connected it to the computer, it worked). Maybe the amplifier was a dud (that can happen, right?). Maybe the speakers didn’t work anymore (but we tested them, and they did). I eventually decided it must be the wires that connect the amplifier to the speaker.
We went to a cheapish electronics store called Jaycar and bought some new wires. They didn’t work. We went back to Jaycar with the turntable, amplifier and speakers to get some advice – they played with some of the switches on the back of the devices and told us to go home and try again. It didn’t work.
Out of ideas and options, my significant other took all the pieces – more than two months after Christmas – back to Addicted To Audio for expert help.
Even the experts struggled. The first person to help him encountered the same problem we did. But then the real expert came in – the expert of the experts – and found the problem.
He fiddled with the plugs and switches and it wasn’t long before he had our system working beautifully. From what I understand, both our turntable and our amplifier had built in pre-amps and we had somehow managed to disengage both.
My advice to other turntable newbies and audiophile novices – do your homework, get an expert to show you the ropes and if you’re planning on buying a turntable as a gift, give yourself several months to get it sorted.
Photo courtesy ebootcamp.org