Vinyl enthusiasts love to brag that last year, the dollar volume of record sales surpassed that of CDs for the first time since the 1980s. But ask them what people are playing those records on, and they’ll likely clam up. That’s because the vast majority of people play their sides not on elite, high-end turntables such as those from Pro-Ject and VPI, but on all-in-one record players purchased for less than $100 at big-box stores such as Best Buy or Walmart.
Whether or not you agree with audiophiles’ claims that vinyl sounds better, there’s little chance that those sonic benefits could find their way through these record players’ cheap ceramic phono cartridges and tiny speakers. And the extremely heavy tracking force applied by these players is enough to do significant damage to a record groove after just a few dozen spins.
Still, the appeal of a simple, all-in-one record player is undeniable. While audiophile turntables typically require complicated setup with $50 to $100 worth of specialized tools— and sometimes the addition of a special preamp to boost and EQ the signal—all-in-one record players require no extra components or cables, and no setup. Just turn on the power, place a record on the platter, and lower the needle into the groove.
Fortunately, a few audiophile-focused companies have started to offer higher-quality all-in-one (or close to all-in-one) models, and at least one mass-market brand is working to make its players sound better.
The Problems with Cheap Players and More
Inexpensive record players are available under various brands, but they all tend to look suspiciously the same; insiders have told me most come from just a handful of factories in China. They start with a crude playback mechanism—a non-adjustable tonearm tipped with a cheap ceramic cartridge. In an effort to keep the needle from skipping out of the groove, the tonearm has high tracking force, i.e., it pushes down very hard on the needle, which wears out records prematurely. Most of these players have tracking force too high for my digital tracking-force gauge to measure. I’d estimate it at about seven or eight grams, while two grams is more typical for high-quality turntable setups.
Whereas high-quality turntables take pains to isolate records from the rumble of their motor, inexpensive models usually let the motor’s hum pass right through the record into the needle, from which it then emerges out of your speakers. The speakers and amps built into these turntables, especially the small portable models, are often crude enough to make Charlie Parker sound like he’s playing through a Marshall stack.
Stepping Up to Better Sound
Despite their flaws, these record players—at least the larger models—can be fun to listen to. When I played my old copy of Jeff Beck’s Wired on the Victrola’s retro-looking Plaza record player, it reminded me a lot of the Sears Silvertone player I first heard Wired on, more than 40 years ago. But I knew they could be a lot better, which is why I was excited when Victrola told me they were introducing the Eastwood, a $99 record player that includes an Audio-Technica AT-3600LA moving-magnet cartridge.
I was shocked from the first moment I lowered the Eastwood’s needle onto Bill Evans and Toots Thielemans’ Affinity, because the piano and harmonica both sounded clearer and more detailed than they did through the rather soft-sounding Plaza. Even more important, though, was that the Eastwood’s tracking force measured 3.9 grams, just a little above the 2.5 to 3.5 grams Audio-Technica recommends for the AT-3600LA. The tonearm’s not adjustable, so there was no way to bring the tracking force within spec, but at least I wasn’t as worried that the Eastwood would put excessive wear and tear on my records’ grooves.
The Plaza’s larger chassis and speakers gave it a fuller sound than the Eastwood, and I immediately found myself hoping that Victrola equips some of its larger players with the AT-3600LA. However, the Eastwood has a built-in Bluetooth transmitter, so you can get better sound by listening through a good set of Bluetooth speakers or headphones.
If you want the convenience of the Eastwood with better sound quality, there are a few options. Pro-Ject’s $599 Juke Box E and $799 Juke Box S2 are high-quality turntables with built-in amplifiers; just connect a good pair of speakers and you have a system with real audiophile-grade stereo sound and all the convenience of a one-piece record player. Andover Audio’s $1,999 Model-One builds a Pro-Ject turntable into a single enclosure along with four 3.5-inch woofers, two tweeters and a 150-watt amplifier, plus a Bluetooth receiver that lets you play music from your phone.
Granted, this isn’t a lot of options, especially for a category that’s been around since before bebop was invented. But manufacturers I’ve talked to tell me we can expect to see and hear more high-quality, all-in-one record players in the coming year—just in time for crate-digging to resume after the pandemic subsides.