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While streaming has risen to an unassailable level of dominance, downloads and CD sales seem to be in terminal decline. However, sales of vinyl continue to soar, with a 30% increase between 2019 and 2020 to over $600 million. And vintage vinyl is a huge sector in itself. According to Forbes, the performance of the secondhand and collectors’ market is roughly equivalent to the level of new vinyl sales. Therefore, it’s time for aficionados to rise to the challenge of finding the perfect sound system.
In response to vinyl’s resurgence, we have seen a flood of cheaply produced, low-quality turntables, mostly from China. These are cheap, compact and convenient, but for sound quality, they are woefully inadequate. Older, better models are available from familiar household names like Sony and Philips, but for serious listening, you should consider investing in a setup of hand-picked separates to get your perfect sound. You’ll need a turntable, amplifier, cartridge and speakers. If the turntable doesn’t come with a built-in phono preamp, you’ll need to buy one separately, but the configuration is basically the same.
What is a phono preamp? A turntable’s output is a phono signal, which needs to be converted to a line level or aux signal before your speakers can produce the recorded sound. That is the job of a phono preamp, like this Naim Stageline Phono Preamplifier.
Looking a little more closely, let’s consider your choice of turntable and specifically the question of belt drive versus direct drive. Both types have their proponents. Direct drive turntables run from an integral motor and tend to be more robust with stronger torque. They are the only kind that is suitable for DJing. Belt drives are powered by an independent motor and are driven by a rubber belt. They may be less advanced technologically, but they are generally regarded as giving a better quality of sound because they produce less extraneous noise and vibration. Pro-Ject’s Debut belt drive turntable invigorated the industry when it appeared in the 1990s, became a bestseller, is still winning awards 20 years later, as the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Turntable, and helped encourage other manufacturers to develop their own ranges.
A turntable mat is often an overlooked feature, but it can be a very useful accessory. Not only will it protect your vinyl, but it can reduce friction, dampen vibrations and generally improve sound. Rubber and cork are the most popular choices, and they are available in different weights and sizes. They may seem like a minor component, but they will assist performance and finish off the look of your turntable very nicely.
Many turntables will have a cartridge pre-fitted, although this is not always the case because manufacturers recognize that audiophiles relish the element of personal choice in creating a sound system. Even if your turntable of choice is pre-fitted, you need to ascertain which cartridges will be compatible should you wish to alternate.
Some will be headshell-mounted, while others bypass the headshell and plug straight into the tonearm. A removable headshell enables easy maintenance and upgrades, allowing you the freedom to mount different cartridges. You can also modify the weight of your headshell to adjust sound and resonance. Whatever cartridge you select, it is usually advisable to choose the better-value moving magnet (MM) type rather than moving coil (MC) like the Clearaudio Concept. As a rule of thumb, the more you can afford to invest, the better the performance you’ll get back in terms of sound quality, power output, frequency range and tracking.
The final piece of the setup is the speaker system. Just as the choice of preamps, turntables and cartridges is huge, the proliferation of quality speakers can seem daunting. It’s important to focus on practical issues like size. Where are you going to accommodate your setup? Do you have the luxury of an environment generous enough to make floor-standing speakers feasible, or do you need speakers that can be incorporated unobtrusively into a smaller space? The Sonus Faber Principia is a great shelf speaker, but if you have the room for it, you might opt for something from the Audio Note range or even something that fits into the ceiling like this B&W model.
Ultimately, there isn’t one perfect turntable setup because we all want something a little bit different. However, there is so much choice that finding your own perfection will be a pleasure and not a chore.
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