Vinyl is in fashion these days. Vinyl is what the cool kids listen to. Vinyl is what some people don’t actually listen to but do hang on their walls. Vinyl is what I used to listen to as a teenager—decades before it became fashionable, cool, or decorative. That’s because vinyl was how music was primarily distributed in those days. But when the Compact Disc came along, I happily turned to digital because of vinyl’s drawbacks, four of which I’m going to mention.
Don’t take this as me knocking vinyl, though—I own four turntables and play records often. Instead, this is a warning for people new to hi-fi—or already into hi-fi but inexperienced with vinyl playback—who think it would be fun to get into vinyl, but aren’t aware of the issues that can spoil that fun.
1) Good turntables are expensive
A turntable’s cartridge is a transducer. A loudspeaker driver is also a transducer, but works in the opposite way to a cartridge. A transducer converts one form of energy into another.
A phono cartridge converts kinetic energy (the motion of the stylus assembly as it tracks the record grooves) into electrical energy (the signal that is passed on to your amplifier), whereas a loudspeaker driver converts electrical energy (the signal from your amplifier) into kinetic energy (the motion of the driver). Many types of distortion can arise during these conversion processes. So if the cartridge is not designed well and built well, it won’t do its job well. The same goes for any loudspeaker driver.
The job of the rest of the turntable—i.e., the turntable itself and tonearm—is to help the cartridge to translate the squiggles in the grooves in your record into an electrical signal—without adding anything, or taking anything away. The turntable must spin the record at precisely the right speed, without variation. The tonearm and turntable must keep unwanted vibrations (airborne, from the structure of your room, and internal) from reaching the stylus. Creative engineering, advanced materials, and painstaking manufacturing are needed to create a turntable, tonearm, and cartridge that can perform these tasks well.
You also need a good phono preamplifier, because a phono cartridge generates extremely low output voltages: the signal needs to be amplified a lot. If the phono preamp is not well designed and built, it may add audible noise and distortion to the signal. What constitutes a good phono stage includes its design and build quality, as well as its compatibility with your cartridge.
You can buy a half-decent turntable setup, complete with tonearm, cartridge, and maybe a built-in phono preamp, for a few hundred dollars. But that’s what you’re getting—something that’s half decent. Anything priced less than that is likely to be junk in terms of build quality and sound.
If you stretch your budget up to about $1000 (all prices in USD), you can get an okay setup, but it’s not going to come close to the sound quality that vinyl can deliver at its best. That’s why I tell people who want to spend less than $1000 on a turntable, tonearm, and cartridge (I’m not even counting the phono preamp in there) not to bother; just spend the same amount on a good digital setup. That could be a CD/SACD disc player or a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) for playing music files stored on a computer or streamed from the internet. It’s been my experience that if you’re spending less than $1000, you can attain much higher quality with digital playback than with vinyl. Furthermore, digital setups costing less than $1000 can rival the best digital setups at any cost. That’s because converting a digital bitstream to an electrical signal is now far easier—and therefore cheaper—than converting squiggles in a record’s groove to an electrical signal of a similar quality.
Bottom line: to get a turntable-tonearm-cartridge combination whose analog sound quality can rival digital, you’ll have to spend at least $1000. A turntable setup that can deliver truly great sound is likely to cost several thousand dollars. And, remember, you still need a phono preamp. A good one can be had for a few hundred bucks, but a great one will likely cost $1000 or more. High-quality vinyl playback costs.
2) Good turntables are difficult to set up
Buying a turntable is one thing—setting it up is another. Ironically, the more you spend on a turntable, the more challenging setup will be. Most turntables come packaged like IKEA flat-pack furniture—you need to assemble them before you can play a record. Most entry-level and mid-tier models have preinstalled cartridges, but you’ll still face mildly fiddly tasks like putting the footers on the plinth that supports the platter, attaching the platter to the plinth, sliding the belt around the motor and the platter (if you’ve bought a belt-driven ’table), putting the mat on the platter, attaching the dustcover and hinges, balancing the tonearm, and hanging the little antiskating weight. With many higher-end ’tables, you also must install and align the cartridge (extremely fiddly) and adjust tonearm height (also very fiddly). You also have to make sure that the turntable is level. If it’s tilting slightly in any direction, the tonearm and cartridge will not track the record’s grooves accurately.
That’s why I used to laugh when people complained that setting up computer audio is hard. Hard how? You attach a DAC to a computer with a USB cable, install some playback software, and maybe you download a driver. Of course, with anything involving software and networks, there can be glitches that need some troubleshooting. But generally, setting up a computer audio system is child’s play compared to setting up a turntable. That’s why there are turntable “gurus” who provide seminars on setup, and experts who set up turntables for a fee. A bit like the guys you can pay to assemble your IKEA furniture.
I’m going to release a cat from a bag here—I’ve set up turntables with preinstalled cartridges and balanced the tonearm, because that’s not too big a deal. But I’ve never mounted and aligned a cartridge, because that’s super-tricky and potentially expensive, since the cartridge can get damaged. I leave that to the pros.
3) New records are expensive
It’s not just turntables that are expensive; so are records. While researching this article, I googled “album prices in 1980 in the United States.” The top answer, from Quora.com, was “$7.98 to $9.98.” That sounds about right. I plugged those numbers into a US inflation calculator; that’s $30.69 to $38.33 in today’s dollars. Next, I looked up Taylor Swift’s latest album, Midnights, on Amazon.com, where it sells for $24.99. Not bad considering inflation—if you’re into Swift’s music. I’m not, so I looked for my favorite Lana Del Rey album, Norman Fucking Rockwell!; it was listed for $39.98. Her most recent album, Blue Banisters, cost $38.96. In real terms, those prices are close to what a new album cost in 1980. But the CD versions sell for $13.80 today—and CDs sold for $15 to $20 in the mid-1980s! Inflation hasn’t touched CDs.
Where record prices get crazy are remasters—i.e., new versions with sonic adjustments of older recordings—from boutique companies. Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab—the company that recently got caught cutting records from digital copies of the original analog tapes—sells its low-end remasters for $39.99 and its top-end One-Step remasters for a whopping $125. Acoustic Sounds claims its UHQR remasters are created from the original analog tapes. I looked at what’s available there. At the low end is the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced for $125. The rest, such as Steely Dan’s Aja (I have the original 1977 LP), cost $150.
Whether you think those prices are reasonable is up to you. But vinyl LPs cost more than any digital format. If you’re one of those people who thinks that streaming services are too expensive (I certainly don’t), get ready for some serious sticker shock if you jump into vinyl.
4) Turntables and records require maintenance
A good turntable and tonearm should last many years—decades even. The cartridge is another matter. According to high-end cartridge manufacturer Sumiko: “Most styli have a lifespan between 200 and 1,000 hours, but a high-end diamond stylus often lasts almost 2,000 hours before it’s completely worn out.”
Many cartridges have user-replaceable styli. But some high-end models have to be rebuilt by the manufacturer or replaced entirely when the stylus wears out. You may want to research this ongoing cost upfront.
If 2000 hours seems like a long time, remember that an LP record contains about 20 minutes of music per side. You’ll be able to play 3000 single albums with a super-duper expensive cartridge and stylus. More typically, you’ll get 1000 hours or less, which translates to 1500 albums at most. If you only get 200 hours, that’s 300 album plays.
Furthermore, the stylus and the records both require cleaning. As our resident vinyl-disciple Jason Thorpe knows, cleaning a stylus can be tricky business—he once tore the stylus from his cartridge while cleaning it, so he’s extra-careful now, and performs this task only when necessary, which it sometimes is. Most vinylphiles have some type of stylus cleaner on hand.
Record cleaning is mandatory. At minimum, you’ll need a record brush; prices start at around $15. Serious enthusiasts use record-cleaning machines. Even new vinyl can be dirty right out of the sleeve, and all records get dirty with time. Used records are almost always filthy, so you need to clean them if you don’t want to suffer lousy sound and wear out your stylus even faster.
An inexpensive option is the Spin-Clean, which costs $80 for a starter kit; you’ll also have to factor in wash fluid and replacement cloths. Serious record-cleaning systems run from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.
The purpose of this article isn’t to dissuade anyone from buying a turntable. I just wanted to present some facts that many people fail to consider before jumping into vinyl. My intention when I conceived this piece was for it to be an eye-opener, not a deal-breaker.
As surprising as this might sound, I’m about to upgrade my living-room turntable setup. My current vinyl rig cost about $1200; the new one is going to be about $5000. Neither of these prices include a phono stage. But I know what I’m getting into—and I’m aware of my limits. I might do a little bit of the setup, but Jason Thorpe is going to handle the tricky stuff with the cartridge. I already have a stylus cleaner, a couple of record brushes, and a good record-cleaning machine, so no more investment is needed. I also have a couple of good phono preamplifiers, and I already own a lot of records. But I also know I’ll be tempted to buy more new albums for my new spinner, so there will be some out-of-pocket expenses beyond the turntable itself. I’m okay with that. The point is, I’m prepared for what I’m getting into—and I hope I’ve also prepared you.
. . . Doug Schneider