Every music-based forum, including Discogs, is filled with posts from people wanting advice about buying their first turntable, upgrading their existing one, or putting together a complete system.
It can be daunting, especially these days. When brick-and-mortar stereo shops were a normal part of the landscape, you could spend time actually listening to components and learning firsthand what they did and how.
Now, not so much. Even the fairly ubiquitous Best Buy doesn’t physically stock the vast majority of the turntables it sells, so asking fellow travelers for advice is not only necessary but smart. What makes it more confounding is that a lot of new vinyl fans were born during a time when mass-market turntables were barely being produced.
And that brings us to Discogs’ down-and-dirty guide to putting together a complete two-channel turntable set-up. We’ve chosen three general price points that are meant to loosely correspond to your current obsession level for record collecting (and your income, of course). These are real-world systems with budgets, not daydream systems.
Each system will be built around a turntable from Pro-Ject, the Austrian manufacturer which has become a dominant player in the world of vinyl. After that, it gets pretty wide open, with the emphasis on getting the most bang for your buck.
If you need help understanding some of these terms and specs for the gear while you’re shopping, scroll down to the bottom for a few basic definitions. It’ll make things easier.
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Beginner Turntable Set-up
AKA the Noob Alert System
First up is the entry-level, which is where a lot of vinyl converts find themselves these days. At this level, we’re trying to meet three goals: simplicity, affordability, and some measure of upgradable options. The total budget is limited to $700.
The turntable is the Pro-Ject T1, widely available online for about $329. This fully manual model comes with a built-in phono preamp and an Ortofon OM-5 cartridge already mounted. It spins at 33.3 and 45 RPM.
This means that all you need are powered speakers to start making music. The choices in our budget include the Kanto YU4, the PreSonus Eris E4.5, the Vanatoo Transparent Zero (T0), and the Edifier S1000DB. We narrowed it down to these because each features Bluetooth connectivity, and because phones are our BFFs, it’s crucial to have the ability to stream music when the occasion demands.
Each model has its ardent fans and all are rated highly for sound quality, so it might come down to aesthetics.
The Vanatoo look like what they are: desktop speakers for a computer, neither attractive or unattractive. The Edifier have a 1970s vibe which is cool, owing to the walnut veneer, while the PreSonus go for a sleek, modern look. The Kanto are also very modern and have the added bonus of being available in a variety of colors, including a very sleek teal.
|Record Cleaner||GrooveWasher Starter Kit||$30|
|Stylus Cleaner||Audio-Technica AT-607a||$12|
The Kanto have one more bonus, and it’s a good one. It has its own built-in phono stage, which means you can turn off the Pro-Ject’s phono stage if you prefer the one in the Kanto. The Pro-Ject phono stage is great, but it’s nice to have options. Let’s go with the Kanto, then, which at normal retail for about $330, brings our system total to $660. You can always shop around, of course.
The extra $40 should be spent on a versatile cleaning kit, such as the Turntable Lab edition of the GrooveWasher record cleaner starter kit. For $30, you get spray cleaner, a mat on which to place your LP while cleaning, a second mat that protects the LP’s label from getting wet, and a nice looking walnut-handled brush.
Use the supplied maintenance brush to keep the main brush clean, and then the main brush can also be used to wipe the dust off a record before playing. You also need to keep your stylus clean and the Audio-Technica 607a will do the trick for $12. Technically, this puts at $701, but the record and stylus cleaners are worth it.
Intermediate Turntable Set-up
AKA the You-Just-Got-a-Raise System
Look at you, suddenly rolling around in piles of cash. Now let’s spend some. Our mid-level system has a budget of $1,500, which opens up a lot of possibilities for people who have decided that vinyl is actually a passion and not a phase.
The turntable is the $399 Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC, one of the most popular models on the planet. It comes packaged with an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge but does not have a phono stage. It is upgradable, however, but let’s get to that in a minute.
The Debut Carbon DC is also a manual with 33.3 and 45 speeds. It comes with a better arm, platter, and base (aka a plinth) than the T1. There are color options, and for my money, I’m going with the sporty red. That thing is sweet.
A nice carbon fiber arm means better tracking, which is a term that refers to how well a stylus stays in the groove without hiccups. The Debut’s motor is isolated from the turntable’s plinth by a thermoplastic elastomer suspension system; this tweak reduces the motor’s inclination to vibrate the plinth, which would then vibrate the tonearm, which would then vibrate the cartridge. You don’t want that. It means muddy sound, possible skips, and less fun. We want more fun.
Since the Debut Carbon DC doesn’t have a phono stage, we get a world of choices. The easiest and most effective option would be to get an integrated amplifier that has a phono stage already included, and there are a lot to choose from — mo’ money, mo’ problems.
I’ve had extensive experience with products from Marantz, Yamaha, Denon, and NAD. All are consistently excellent companies. Cambridge’s reputation is inarguably top tier. Marantz is one of my favorite brands, and NAD and Yamaha have long histories of producing high-value components.
But one of my favorite integrated of all time was a Denon PMA 500v that was stolen from my car after DJing a birthday party. For its time, it did everything and did it exceptionally well. And now we have the PMA-600NE, which offers a ridiculous amount of features for $400.
The Denon PMA-600NE is listed as having 70 watts per channel (WPC) into 4 Ohms, which in the real world is 45 WPC into 8 Ohms, the most common speaker impedance. Still plenty of power. Remarkably, the highly-rated Denon also has Bluetooth connectivity and a built-in 192kHz/24bit digital-to-analog converter.
So in addition to being ready for vinyl, you can also connect to Bluetooth via Wi-Fi and stream digital music services. Believe me, you’ll use this — there comes a point in every record night when someone wants to stream something, and when you’re doing work around the house it’s nice to stream rather than flip records.
|Turntable||Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC||$399|
|Integrated Amplifier with Phono Stage||Denon PMA-600NE||$400|
|Speakers||Elac Debut 2.0 B6.2||$350|
|Stylus||Ortofon 2M Blue Replacement Stylus||$189|
|Record Cleaner||GrooveWasher Starter Kit||$30|
|Brush||Turntable Lab Dust Brush||$15|
|Stylus Cleaner||Audio-Technica AT-607a||$12|
|Record Mat||Turntable Lab Cork Record Mat||$20|
Now, with our total up to $799, we move on to the speakers. I’ve owned many pairs of PSB Speakers and each one has inspired me to move up the line to higher-grade models. When it comes to affordable high-end speakers, PSB and Elac run the game.
The PSB Alpha 5 ($399) is the latest in a long series of Alpha models that have spent many years as a Stereophile recommended component, a tradition continued with these. What you’re going to get is a slightly warm tonal balance, incredible imaging, a surprisingly big sound for a small speaker, and … not a lot of bass. The bass you do get is very tuneful and goes shockingly low given the speaker’s diminutive size.
But the Elac Debut 2.0 B6.2 ($350) is $50 cheaper and offers a fuller bass response in addition to doing everything else the PSBs can do. You can use the $50 to get a pair of cheap speaker stands and go nuts. But if space is an issue, the Alpha 5 is smaller (11 x 9.06 x 5.91 inches vs. 14.76 x 10.5 x 7.69 inches).
Let’s say you go with Elac, which means you’re up to $1,149. Next is a crucial upgrade from the Ortofon 2M Red cartridge included with the Pro-Ject. It’s great but leans toward playing rude rather than nice. But the stylus is replaceable, so drop $189 on the very good Ortofon 2M Blue stylus, which is interchangeable with the Red stylus. Save the Red for nights when you can just tell you’re gonna get loaded.
To finish up, you gotta get your record-cleaning gear: a GrooveWasher Starter Kit at $30, the Audio-Technica AT-607a stylus cleaner for $12, and a Turntable Lab Carbon Fiber Anti-Static Record Brush for $15. Top it off with a cork platter mat from Turntable Lab for $20.
That leaves you with some extra change. Chip in a little extra and buy some speaker stands or, if you already have something on which to put your Elacs, buy a record and a six-pack.
Advanced Turntable Set-up
AKA the High(ish)-End System
We’re really upping the ante here. This category is for friends with well-paying jobs and stacks of disposable income, but it’s still nowhere near what a moderately insane audiophile will spend on a system. We’re setting the ceiling at $3,500, figuring that if you have a couple thousand records then you want them sounding not good, but exceptional.
I’ve been given the choice of starting with a Pro-Ject X1 or X2 turntable ($900 v. $1,300, respectively). In order to have more cash to play around with for speakers and electronics, let’s go with the excellent X1.
The X1 is a high quality ‘table with a carbon fiber-over-aluminum tonearm designed specifically for Pro-Ject’s X series. Every important adjustment is available, including an azimuth with a mass of 10 grams. The arm will work with a wide variety of cartridges, although it comes with a well-regarded Sumiko Rainier. The speed is electronically controlled at the touch a button, the platter is 3.3 lbs. of acrylic, and the motor has been even further isolated from the plinth. Vinyl legend Michael Fremer gave the X1 a glowing review on AnalogPlanet. You can choose walnut, glossy white, or piano black.
Deciding on the amplification was easily the hardest part of putting this system together. There are a lot of options, but every time something qualified in three categories, it fell short in two more.
A lot of consideration was given to Parasound, one of the most venerable names in audio, and its NewClassic 200 integrated got a very long look. The Marantz PM8006 is a real honey, but for a system at this price point, a digital option is crucial. Products from Arcam, Rotel, Rega, and NAD all had contenders.
Some might consider the winning combination a wild card. Vincent Audio is based in Germany and I’ve owned and enjoyed several pieces of their gear for years with absolutely zero reliability issues, and, more importantly, the company’s house sound is glorious. Their designs are a hybrid of tubes and solid-state, and there’s nothing quite like getting the best of both worlds.
Vincent’s SV-500 integrated amp uses trickle-down tech from the award-winning Vincent SV-237, which costs nearly $3,000. The SV-500 costs $1,000 and includes a built-in DAC that can easily decode FLAC files and then some (although there is no Bluetooth). The Vincent sound is a very appealing combination of warmth, detail, and bass slam. Don’t let the 50 WPC rating fool you; Vincent amps have enormous power supplies and a lot of headroom.
The SV-500 doesn’t have a phono stage but you can add the highly-regarded Phono Box S2 Phono Preamp, a steal at $199. However, if you want to experiment with tubes without the heat and expense of a tube power amp, the Pro-Ject’s Tube Box S2 upgrades the Phono Box S2 with a pair of dual-triode vacuum tubes to really make things sing. $449 in Black or Silver. But to keep us under budget, we’re going with the Phono Box S2.
|Integrated Amplifier||Vincent Audio SV-500||$1,000|
|Phono Stage||Pro-Ject Phono Box S2||$199|
|Speakers||Wharfedale Diamond 11.3||$798|
|Record Cleaner||Pro-Ject VC-S Record Cleaning Machine||$449|
|Brush||Turntable Lab Dust Brush||$15|
|Stylus Cleaner||DS Audio ST50||$80|
Speakers were only marginally easier to figure out. Although the Vincent sounds more powerful than 50 WPC, you can’t pair it with inefficient speakers. You also need speakers that sound good with a variety of genres, because if you’re so dedicated to vinyl that you’re spending $3,500 on a system, then your collection probably contains a whole lot of everything.
The pick here is the Wharfedale Diamond 11.3, a small tower speaker from the United Kingdom that can flirt with deep bass but also has a very well-defined midrange and treble. It’s a 2.5-way design, meaning that one 6-inch driver is used strictly for low frequencies, a second is used for upper bass and midrange, and a 1-inch tweeter tops it off.
The Wharfedales offer a stable 8 Ohm load and efficiency is an impressive 90dB, meaning it only takes one watt to give you music at a reasonable listening level. The Vincent will have zero issues driving these, and the slightly sweet sound of the Vincent will combine with the slightly sweet sound of the Wharfedales to make an extremely sweet sound.
The Wharfedales retail for $1,000, but the street price has been $798 for quite some time, which brings our total system cost to $2,897 with one more major addition: the Pro-Ject VC-S vacuum record cleaning machine, available now for $449 from Turntable Lab. A wet scrub followed by a vacuuming is how you get your records sounding their best. Even new records should be cleaned because they show up littered with dirt, dust, and other contaminants. I know it sounds crazy, but just do it. Toss in the DS Audio ST50 and a Turntable Lab anti-static dust brush and we’re up to $3,441. Spend the extra (or a tad bit more) on affordable cabling and speaker wire from Monoprice and call it a day.
Holy crap, that was a lot of work just to get called an idiot in the comment section. But any one of these systems is going to sound great, and careful shopping will surely save you a few bucks to spend on records.
Turntable: The world’s greatest invention, because it magically turns vinyl into music. There are two basic kinds: one that uses a rubber belt to spin the platter (belt-drive) and one where the platter is driven by a motor directly attached to the platter (direct-drive). There are also idler-wheel models but those are so far in the minority that there’s no reason to get into it. Another crucial distinction is that some turntables, of either variety, have a built-in phono preamplifier and some do not. You’ll see why this is important in a minute.
Cartridge: Some people just call these “needles” but those folks should be taken out back. A phono cartridge is primarily comprised of a body, magnets, and a cantilever on which is mounted a diamond stylus (aka needle).
Moving magnet cartridges are the most common, followed by moving coil. The cantilever and stylus work together to follow a record’s grooves, which creates a magnetic field, which is then turned into a tiny signal that is passed along by those delicate red, white, green, and blue wires.
Phono preamplifier: This is where the tiny signal ends up. A phono preamp, also called a phono stage, equalizes the signal to match the industry-standard RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) curve used when music is recorded for vinyl. A phono stage also amplifies the signal so that we can bang our heads with zero fucks given.
Some stereo equipment comes with a quality phono stage included and some do not. In that case, your turntable will need to have a built-in phono stage, which is relatively common these days, or you can buy one separately.
Integrated amplifier, receiver, preamplifier, power amplifier: These are all variations of gear that have the same function: to send that tiny signal one step further to a pair of speakers, through which you blast the Melvins until the cops are called.
A preamplifier and power amp are separate components that are connected via cables; the preamp controls the power amp which feeds power to the speakers. Some gear heads swear that the best sound is achieved only by using separates.
But an integrated amp, which is simply a preamp and power amp in one unit, is more than a viable option. There are many terrific sounding integrateds. A receiver adds an AM/FM radio tuner to an integrated, which … sure?
Loudspeakers: The land of woofers and tweeters. You have two basic categories: passive, which require amplification, and active, which have built-in amps. After that it’s a matter of size — you have desktop speakers, stand-mounted speakers, and floor-standing speakers, all of which come in various shapes and sizes.
Record cleaning system: This is non-negotiable. A lot of things that anti-vinyl dweebs like to complain about can be greatly improved by cleaning your records and keeping them clean, things like ticks, pops, and static. There are a lot of options and we’ve touched on several.