So you want to start spinning records in your living room. Here’s a collection of the advice I’ve given n00bs just like you over the last couple of years. Getting started can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t have to be expensive either. Here’s how to get going.
Audiophiles and nerds will say you need fancy shit to listen to records, but basically any turntable from a reputable manufacturer is going to play just fine for the casual listener. If you let audiophile assholes tell you what to buy you’ll end up with a pricey turntable that takes specialized cartridges, and allows all manner of customizability blah, blah, blah. In the future, when you have amassed a massive vinyl collection and developed an ear for “good sound,” you can upgrade your setup.
First of all, what is the difference between a record player and a turntable? Today there is none. Technically, the record player is the whole machine and the turntable is the actual part with the platter that turns. The terms are functionally interchangeable.
The one thing I am going to insist on is a truly stereo setup. You may be a child of the smartphone, and you may have a little Bluetooth speaker somewhere in your house. It might even be a very good one that simulates some stereo effects using signal processing. It’s possible to connect a turntable to this speaker. Don’t do it.
If you’re going to listen to stereophonic recordings, you should listen to them in true stereo. Buy some damn speakers. (Some dolt is going to point out that many records back in the day were originally mixed for mono. Acknowledged.)
There are a couple of ways to go about setting up your new system. I’ll break them into two convenient categories: new shit and old shit.
If you’re starting all the way from square one with nothing today I would just get some cheap new setup from established manufacturers. Keep it super simple: a cheap turntable and some powered speaker system. A “powered speaker system” means that the speakers have integrated amplifiers, as opposed to passive speakers that require an external amplifier/receiver. These are way more convenient. You just plug them into the wall and they will work. It’s idiot proof, which is preferable for new inductees.
What to get? Well for christake don’t go to Urban Outfitters and buy some hip-looking record player in a suitcase. At least, not if you respect yourself. Technically, it will play records, and it’s easy, but please. I just can’t.
Turntable Lab has a a pretty sweet $310 deal on a set of Audio Engine A2+ powered speakers and an Audio-Technica AT-LP60 turntable. I’ve used the turntable before, and I can certify that if you treat it kindly, it will not fuck up your records. It’s a belt-drive table so you can’t DJ with it, and you’ll probably want to stick to the automatic start/stop controls versus cuing up songs.
If you want something a little more fancy but not ridiculous, I like the options laid out by the Vinyl Factory. In particular I have an aesthetic soft spot for the cheaper Pro-Ject turntables, but you’ll get more bang for your buck from the step-up model of the cheap AT table above, the Audio-Technica LP120. But again, you’re a beginner. Let’s start off easy.
As for the bundled speakers in the package, Audio Engine is respectable company. It’s not the finest gear in the world, but it will certainly do you. I am a fan of Paradigm’s A2 speakers, but a pair of those will cost you twice what the Audio Engines cost.
Now, if you know what you’re doing with audio and/or you want to go root around your local vintage or thrift store to dig up a receiver, speakers, and turntable that works, this is an option. You run the risk that you’ll turn your living room into an electrical fire to be unraveled by CSI, or more likely, that something will be wrong with the old gear or all the components won’t be properly paired. There’s a possibility you’ll need to buy a pre-amp to throw between the record player and the receiver. Here are a couple cheap pre-amp options.
It’s not super easy, but doable. I’ve gotten some great gear from vintage stores and even junky thrift shops like Goodwill. My general tip on this front is that unless you know what you’re looking at—which you probably don’t if you’re reading this post—opt for newer looking, lighter-weight (like actually pick it up and feel how heavy it is) gear. Older really heavy shit is likely to need a little tweaking and tinkering before it really works. This is a totally random observation based on my own experience. Take it or leave it.
Another option: If you were alive and listening to music in the 90s, you might have one of those old CD changer/dual-tape deck/AM-FM megasystems in a parent’s attic or in storage. You know, one of these:
These systems basically all have an Aux input that’s perfect for connecting a turntable. (You can also find these pretty easily at a Salvation Army, Goodwill, etc.) Once you’ve got this system, grab yourself that Audio-Technica turntable I mention above.
Finally, if you’re very lucky, you know some old person in your family who has gear that’s been shored up in a crawl space since the 80s. Ask! Your aunt will be thrilled to unload the dead weight on you. And she might have some good records to spare too. Speaking of which...
There is no one way to build a vinyl collection, but I have some tips that you might find handy, if only because they have helped me obtain a both manageable and entertaining batch of records.
You should avoid the temptation to run out and just buy a crap ton of records. Like don’t set up your above system, walk over to your local independent record shop and spend $300. You can only listen to one record at a time, and if you buy too much shit at once, you’re never going to listen to it all. It’s a bit like when you used to go to the bookstore (remember those?) and get all enthusiastic and buy an ambitious armful of hefty tomes all at once. Maybe you read a few of them, but invariably, you leave a few to molder unread forever.
One method I like is buying a new record per paycheck. Go to the store. Browse the aisles. Pick one album out. Take it home. Listen to it. Come back two weeks later.
If you go new record shopping, don’t get scammed by 180 gram vinyl reissues. These very heavy vinyl pressings are much more durable, but they’re certainly not necessary. They’re nice! But if you find yourself spending $40 on a single album, ask yourself if it’s worth it to you.
Online, I like to read the Vinyl Factory for interesting new releases and Discogs has a huge marketplace where you can track down harder to find stuff. Buying used vinyl online comes with a little risk that you’ll get something banged up so, uhh, caveat emptor.
Don’t be afraid of used records and bargain bins. Go to the aforementioned independent record shop, and pull out the $1 record crate that’s probably stuffed under folding table in the back. Pick up some weird record featuring five dorks in leisure suits. Try your luck on the record by an odd guy with a tuba. You’ll find cool stuff this way.
Generally, a used record will be labeled if for whatever reason it’s unplayable, but it’s totally cool to slide the disc out of the sleeve and inspect it. The record does not need to be perfect but there shouldn’t be any big scratches.
So at this point, you’ve probably already made up you mind to get into this hobby. You’re not alone! Vinyl sales are skyrocketing these days, I’ve argued before, because vinyl is the sole ownership medium that makes any sense any more. It gives you a little something special. A reason to own when there really isn’t a logical one at all.
Music can be enjoyed at all levels—even with lossy streaming music playback and ancient MP3s ripped by a horrid encoder. For some people with good ears and/or audio training, higher quality digital files sound better than crappy MP3s. And by extension, many people insist that through the crackles and pops of vinyl playback, they hear “warmer” and “richer” sound. That’s an argument for another place. It’s true, at least, that vinyl records represent a more accurate and precise copy of a master recording than the lossy digital files the average person has stored on their phones. But I’m not convinced that most people are going to find it that much better sounding than any other way of listening to music.
All of which is a long way of saying that the main reason to listen to vinyl is because it’s fun. You will enjoy it. You want to listen to fucking records, just like some assholes wear skinny ties every day, and other stupid people obsess over worthless orchids. Is it a pretentious affectation to spin a record? A little bit! And that’s OK.
A difference anyone can appreciate between listening to vinyl and hitting shuffle on your playlist of favorite songs is the experience of listening to a side of a record. You know, four or five or six songs in the order the artist intended them. Not just the hits, but all of the songs. Did you ever consider that many artists think of their albums in terms of record sides? Why is there a slow jam in the middle of the record? One side ends with a certain song, and the next begins another, both calculated for specific effect. The side is this unit of music that’s longer than a song, but shorter than a whole album. It’s nice to sit back and listen to all the songs in a row. Not that you can’t do that in iTunes—but you more or less have to on vinyl. You can’t skip ahead and listen to the next song—not super easily anyway.
More than playing with fun gear or showing off, I’m advocating that you sit on the couch for a spell. Listen to the music. Listen. Listen!
This post was originally published on June 6, 2015.