With the music industry in flux and CD sales falling daily, the full, rich sound of vinyl records is sparking a replay for this "old" media. The MP3's floating around online are generally poor quality and don't match the warmth of a record, so more consumers are starting to invest again in vinyl. This surge of new record buyers has generated a need for cheap turntables for casual listeners. Although we mention a few affordable analog turntables in this buying guide, our focus is on good quality USB turntables costing less than $150.
Cheap Turntables Buying Guide
A USB turntable can connect to your stereo system or use a built-in amplifier and speakers to deliver instant digitized listening pleasure. Alternatively, it can connect to a computer (through a USB port) and digitize records, so you can listen to your favorite music anywhere. The other option for vinyl aficionados is an analog turntable, which retains all the warmth present in vinyl because it reads the physical bumps and indentations on a record and doesn't alter the sound in any way. Although you can convert an analog turntable into a USB turntable by installing the right sound card in your computer and using a phono pre-amp, this is rarely an economical proposition. The majority of analog turntables are much more expensive than USB models and bypass the budget niche overall. The cheapest analog turntables generally start at about $250, compared with cheap USB turntables that retail for as little as $80.
USB Turntable Features.Turntables come in different categories: analog or USB, and direct drive or belt drive. There are only a few manufacturers that specialize in cheap turntables, and sell under brand names such as Numark, Ion, and Gemini. Each category has different technology behind it, but they all include similar features that should be considered before purchasing. Many of the newest cheap turntables incorporate a lot of these features to varying degrees of success, so here's what you should be aware of before buying.
Belt Drive vs. Direct Drive.All turntables, USB and analog, are either belt drive or direct drive. Belt-drive USB turntables, such as the Numark TTUSB (starting at $90) and the Ion Audio TTUSB 10 (starting at $125), are based on a cheaper design and are cheaper to build. Holding down the cost further, belt-drive turntables are not always automated; manual operation requires users to place the needle down while the record is spinning, which can damage the vinyl unless you have the proper amount of patience. Another disadvantage of belt drive is that the belt driving the platter's spin can stretch or break over time, so you'll eventually have to replace it; the cost of a replacement belt ranges from $14-$80, depending on the quality of the turntable. Belt drives can't withstand much wear and tear, so if you're looking to "scratch" records for fun, you'll have to raise your sights and opt for a direct drive turntable.Direct-drive turntables, such as Numark's TTXUSB (starting at $395) or Gemini's DJ TT2000 (starting at $250), are more expensive than the belt-driven models and generally outside the Cheapism niche. They have a built-in motor that starts the platter spinning and places the needle down automatically, which saves you from inadvertently dropping the needle and possibly ruining the record. Direct drive is the sole choice of professional DJs and many audiophiles. A notable downside of direct drive, besides the higher cost, is that the platters are usually much lighter than those on belt-driven turntables. This lack of weight can actually produce ringing feedback at times, not to mention the noise that the motor itself makes when running, and these irksome sounds can be picked up when digitizing tracks with a USB turntable.
Most analog record players are direct drive and most USB turntables are belt drive. Still, there are some exceptions. The Stanton T92USB (starting at $300) and the Numark TTXUSB are examples of direct-drive USB turntables and the Denon DP-300F (starting at $329) and the Pyle PLTTB1 (starting at $80) are examples of belt-drive analog turntables.
Tonearm.If you're listening to vinyl records, with all their bumps and grooves, the shape and weight of the tonearm matters. An expert at Knowzy.com points out that a straight tonearm centers the needle in the record groove, a position that only a DJ could love because it's better for "scratching" but hard on the record. A casual listener or vinyl archivist should opt for an offset tonearm because it works with the record's grooves instead of forcing the needle to center -- as a straight arm does -- thus saving the needle and the record from wear and tear. The majority of cheap USB turntables, including the Ion Audio TTUSB 10 and the Numark TTUSB, have offset arms; but there are straight-arm models out there, like the Sony PS-LX300USB (starting at $110), so know what you're buying.Regardless of shape, the tonearm should have an adjustable tracking weight. Both the Ion Audio TTUSB 10 and Numark TTUSB are equipped with counterweights, unlike the Ion Audio iPTUSB Portable (starting at $90), which is lacking in this dimension. Experts at Turntablebasics.com, explain that a counterweight is necessary to prevent tracking problems (e.g., the needle digging into the record as it plays, or the tonearm running too light and barely reading the record). Finding the middle ground is important for each individual turntable. This adjustment isn't a complex task for a decent turntable: Start by turning the dial at the end of the arm to zero, then turn the counterweight away from the pivot point until the tonearm is hovering level with the record's playing surface, and then change the counterweight until it reads the mass specified by the manufacturer. As a turntable review on Amazon notes about the Ion Audio TTUSB 10, a simple bit of trial and error and the tonearm was ready for play in about three minutes.
Anti-Skate Adjustment.When choosing a USB turntable, one of the most important features is anti-skate. According to the experts at Knowzy.com, anti-skate prevents records from being damaged and worn down, and minimizes extraneous noise by stabilizing the needle in the record groove. The Numark TTUSB Turntable and Ion TTUSB both include anti-skate adjustment for protecting records. The Ion iPTUSB lacks this critical feature, although an expert turntables review on CNET still gives this cheap turntable a somewhat positive appraisal. Note: without these adjustable counterweight and anti-skate features, you run the risk of seriously destroying your records.
Cartridges.Most audiophiles insist on turntables without ceramic cartridges. There are cheap USB turntables on the market equipped with these cartridges, so be on the lookout and pass right over these models. As the turntables expert at Knowzy emphasizes, manufacturers install low-cost ceramic cartridges because it's cheaper than adding a pre-amp device, which is a critical feature if you want good sound quality. Ion's iPTUSB is an example of a USB turntable with a ceramic cartridge, which partially explains why its price is so low. Most USB turntables don't use ceramic cartridges. Any other type of cartridge, such as a moving coil or moving magnet, produces fine sound quality; the Ion TTUSB 10 uses a moving magnet, as does the Numark TTUSB. Make sure that a cartridge is included with the cheap turntable you select because there are deals out there that exclude the cartridge altogether.
Digitizing Software.Most cheap USB turntables, like the Ion TTUSB, include a bundled digitizing software suite. These pieces of discrete software interact to capture the analog audio being played on the turntable in real time, convert it to a digital format that is sent on its way through the USB port to be played later on a computer or portable music device. Sometimes the digitizing software includes plug-ins that can clean up the audio, allowing users to fix any vinyl-exclusive noise, such as pops or clicks; this is a huge bonus when trying to get quality tracks. The Numark TTUSB Turntable includes a bundled version of Audacity digitizing software that works with a Mac or PC. Sony provides the powerful Sonic Foundry Sound Forge LE software with the PS-LX300USB, but the suite isn't compatible with Mac computers.
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Analog turntables, especially direct drive models, seem more solid and substantial than USB turntables. But there are reasons for this. The parts are more expensive and direct drive motors are pricey. Usually there's a lot of steel instead of plastic parts, and the overall look of analog turntables is decidedly slicker. They're less apt to break easily and are generally more durable. Obviously, they cost a lot more than USB turntables. Although USB models are usually made with plastic throughout, and the belt-driven models can wear out quickly, you can still find some cheap USB turntables that provide decent audio and acceptable longevity.
Sound/Recording Quality.In the dimensions that matter -- recording and sound -- several cheap turntables stand out. A CNET expert turntables review says the performance of the Ion TTUSB 10 is more than adequate given its low price. A turntables review by a CNET consumer applauds the sound quality and solid tone of the straight playback on the Ion TTUSB 10, but concedes the sound of the digital transfer doesn't quite compare. A turntables review at Everythingusb.com agrees, saying the recorded vocals sound somewhat harsh although playback on a stereo is warm and free of distortions.Turntable reviews by users also sing the praises of the Numark TTUSB. If you start with a high-quality recording, writes one user in a belt-drive turntables review on Amazon, the sound will surpass what you hear with CDs. Sound quality gets even better, comments one turntables reviewer on Epinions, if you invest in a higher quality cartridge.
The Sony PS-LX300USB, on the other hand, is panned in an expert review on Gadgetguy.com for producing poor quality sound because of the way in which it captures the audio and converts it to the MP3 format. A consumer posting on Amazon isn't pleased with the sound coming from the Ion iPTUSB, commenting that it neared around eight bits of resolution per second, which is less, even, than an MP3; knowledgeable listeners will be much happier with at least 16 bits per second.
As noted above, the prices for direct drive turntables are generally out of the Cheapism range, but several lower-priced models are worth mentioning. The Stanton T92USB appeals to serious casual listeners and not-so-serious DJs. It produces "nice" audio quality, according to a turntables review by a user on Musician's Friend, but would benefit from a better cartridge. Consumers use this model for straight playback as well as digitizing 33 rpm and 45 rpm records; one user posting on Amazon happily says a 30-year-old recording of his high school varsity band album sounds like his memories, but he grumbles about the software and an uneven platter. The analog DJ-grade Gemini TT-2000 produces decent sound but users report on VirtualDJ.com about struggling to get it to "scratch" properly; one user post on Musician's Friend complains about noise coming through the pre-amp.