My Turntable Setup
As I watch my children grow, and start to develop their own music taste, I've been thinking a lot about how I experienced music as a kid.
My music interests developed in the tape cassette world, and quickly shifted to the compact disk. I even toyed around with mini-discs for a number of years in order to make near CD quality mix tapes. I never had a turntable growing up, but at least I grokked the concept of an album and all that went into making it (album art, pamphlet, lyrics etc).
My kids, they just know Spotify and Pandora. I've been reading with interest about how Vinyl is making a huge comeback thanks to Millennials!
"It's definitely a bright spot for the business," said Josh Friedlander, RIAA's senior vice president of strategic data analysis. "In an increasingly digital age, vinyl records can provide a deeper, tactile connection to music that resonates with some of the biggest fans."
I agree wholeheartedly. Seattle has some incredible Vinyl stores, and so we decided to pull the trigger and drag our children back into the past, so that they could develop an appreciation for music that was more connected to the Artist and the Album. I'll just call this the "slow music movement".
And hey, another excuse to research the crap out of at least 5 different things to power a turntable :-).
A Primer on the Turntable
I'll save you all the gory details and just break it down for you Turntable newbies. If you want the gory details, read A Beginner's Guide to Turntables.
In order to listen to music on a Vinyl record you need:
A turntable - probably the most important component. You can spend anywhere from $100 to $5000. What is a turntable? A platter spins at a specific speed, powered by a motor. A Cartridge, which is a crystal attached to some electronics that vibrates based on the grooves in the Vinyl producing sound. It's connected to an Arm that captures the sound (and other unwanted noises like ground hum and radio frequency) and delivers it to the RCA output.
A phono amp - A device that can take the signal from a Turntable and amplify it enough for the next state, which is either a pre-amp or amp
A pre-amp or amp - A device that will take the input from the phono amp, or any other audio source and amplify that further. These devices can either be solid state (digital) or powered by a tube (analog).
Speakers or Headphones - something to listen to the music.
We have a rather un-used living room in our house and we decided to make the Turntable the focal point of the living room. This would provide for a nice space to both enjoy listening to music, but also encourage the use of the space. For this reason aesthetics were one of the most important factors in deciding what components to purchase.
I'll be honest. My first requirement was that I get a white turntable. So this drastically limited options down to 2. I also opted to get a turntable with the fewest options available. I did not want an on-board phono amp, USB, bluetooth or anything like that. This is because I wanted to get discrete components such as a dedicated phono amp and pre-amp as I knew the outcome would be better and higher quality.
My first instinct was to purchase from Amazon. That was a mistake. I ordered the Pro-Ject Audio Debut Carbon DC Esprit SB with 2M Red Cartridge in White and ran into a bunch of problems setting it up (ground hum). I returned it and grabbed the kids and headed down to Hawthorne Stereo in Seattle. Just look at their reviews. I should have done this in the first place.
It was there that I listened to a bunch of different turntables and decided on the Rega - RP1 Turntable w/Performance Pack - White. Rega came highly recommended by the store, and they did all the work to set it up for me.
For this, I went with a company called Schiit (pronounced Shih-tah). Go to their website and marvel in their incredible sense of humor and geekiness about audio products. This stuff is amazing, and made in the USA.
"Yes, that is our name. Shih-tah. It's a proud German name, host to a long line of audio engineers who slaved away in crumbling Teutonic fortresses as lightning lashed the dark lands outside, working to perfect the best amplification devices in the world...
Or, well, no. Yep, Schiit is our name, and it's pronounced, well, like "hey man, that's some really good Schiit!" And now that we have your attention..."
For the Phono Amp, I got the Schiit Mani. It is very well priced at $129 for a phono amp and has some basic configuration (read the manual). You need the Mani to be calibrated to the kind of Turntable you have (gain and cartridge type)
For the pre-amp I wanted a tube amp. I've never had one and wanted to experience the warmer audio. I went with the basic Schiit Vali 2. This allows me to power headphones, and also plug into the speakers. And it's also reasonably priced at $169.
Both the phono amp and the pre-amp come with linear power supply which is important for keeping ground noise out.
You can go nuts and spent a few thousand dollars on this stuff like the McIntosh MA5200. But even Schiit will take a lot more of your money. A nice step up would be the Lyr 2 which can transform back and forth from a solid state pre-amp to a tube pre-amp.
As you probably know, I love Sonos.
I considered going with some independent speakers, but then remembered that I could get a pair of Sonos Play 5s and have a stereo pair. The Play 5 has a line input, so you can also connect the pre-amp to the Sonos with a RCA to line in cable, and then listen to the awesome Vinyl anywhere in your house.
But I didn't stop there. I also got a Sonos Sub, to make the house rumble a bit.
I am super happy with this Sonos setup. The new Play 5s are incredible and are a huge improvement over the previous generation Play 5.
Headphones are great for sitting on the couch, and relaxing in the awesome deep / rich sound of the Turntable.
You could spend $20 to $50,000. There is only one person who I listen to about headphones and that's Macro Arment. Spend a few minutes reading his Headphone Mega Review and purchase the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x.
Macro is also the person who pointed me to Schiit.
I personally think there are some great starter albums to get and have fun with your Turntable.
Amazon has a huge selection of Vinyl. Many albums are still in print, but many (like Joshua Tree) will need to be purchased used - I've used both Amazon and eBay but also local record stores.
Miles Davis - Kind of Blue
The Beatles - Revolver
U2 - Joshua Tree
Journey - Greatest Hits
Michael Jackson - Thriller
Taylor Swift - 1989
Nora Jones - The Fall
Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
Van Morrison - Moondance
I am so happy with this setup. It's a joy to re-discover some of my favorite artists and albums, and play their music starting with Side A Song 1.