Where to Begin? - Choosing the Right Equipment and Pitfalls to Avoid
At Instant Classic, we've set out to present your favourite songs and albums to you in the best quality sound you can afford. And because we've geared our model towards driving prices down, the best quality you can afford is even better than you might reasonably expect.
Ask anyone who works in the hifi game what you'd want to fork out for a good quality entry-level system, and they'll probably guide you somewhere between $1,500 - $2,000. We're talking about a good European-made turntable (made of wood, not plastic), a standalone amplifier and a pair of speakers.
We've got some options we think you'll like that are a little more financially attainable than that, more on those later.
If you've been shopping around for budget-friendly options for some time, you'll know that there are a number of other ways you can begin your foray into hifi. We thought we'd take you through a few of those in this blog, and highlight a few upsides as well as potential pitfalls you might run into.
Compact, but does it produce great sound?
These are the compact systems that have been around for a number of decades now. Their design philosophy is simple; jack of all trades, master of none. Probably not what you'd hope for in something you're spending hundreds of dollars on, right?
Let's start at the beginning. These systems tend to have a number of features packed in. Twenty years ago, you might've got a cassette deck, CD player, and radio all built into the one unit. These days the trimmings will've been updated, with the radio perhaps replaced by a Bluetooth connection and the likely eschewing of the tape deck, but the premise remains fundamentally unchanged.
Your number one issue with this setup is that if you're on this blog, you're probably looking for a way to play records. These systems are generally designed around a CD player and not a turntable, which presents an obvious shortcoming for you.
Another issue is the sound. Even if there's an auxiliary input that allows you to plug a turntable into one of these systems, sacrifices are made to make them seem like they're such great value, and one of those sacrifices is going to be the amplification stage. What does this mean? Your music is going to sound flat.
Without getting too geeky, hifi amplifiers are designed so that their internals can hold a charge of power so that when there's a serious dynamic shift in the music, (soft to loud, for example) the amplifier has the power reserves to give that shift the emphasis it needs. You're not going to find that here.
But our biggest gripe with these all-in-one systems? Even if you want it, there's no upgrade path.
Want better speakers? A more powerful amp? Sorry, no dice.
If hifi develops into a hobby for you, you might want to sink some cash into a more powerful amplifier or bigger speakers down the track. Whilst the speakers on one of these systems might not be permanently tethered to the main unit, we wish you good luck trying to get said unit to power a nice pair of floorstanding speakers.
Conversely, if you want to upgrade the amplifier, you'll lose your CD player, streamer, radio and whatever else you were relying on this thing to do. We think all-in-one systems are perfect for a first stereo for your teenager's bedroom, but if you want your vinyl to sparkle and like the sound of the option to upgrade later on, this might not be the best option.
The Vintage System
It looks the part, but is it the place to start?
People often get into vinyl collecting because of the retro appeal. It invokes feelings of nostalgia, and its pointedly not-digital method of playback flies in the face of the likes of CDs and Bluetooth streaming.
It'd make sense then that if those invocations are drawing you to vinyl that vintage is an avenue you'd fancy strolling down.
Let's frame this with some context. It's true that the technology involved in vinyl playback hasn't really changed too much since we arrived at the current 33/45rpm iterations in the mid-20th century. There have been significant advancements in design, sure, but the componentry at the core of listening to records hasn't evolved much, nor is it likely to any time soon.
Despite that, you need to consider how delicate a number of the links in the audio chain are and how these degrade over time, and also what sort of value you were getting from a $1,000 system thirty or forty years ago vs what your money gets you in the present. Your dollar goes a lot further now.
A couple of positives first. Vintage systems have the looks. That's why you're buying them right? And, if you strike it lucky, they might sound ok too.
Then again, they might not. It's often the case that if you're buying from an antique store or a deceased estate auction, you won't get the chance to listen first. And because of those older design principles we mentioned earlier, there's a pretty good chance your purchase is going to sound just ok.
But the biggest issue with vintage gear is parts and warranty. If anything goes wrong with your system - and there's a higher likelihood it will compared to a fresh system - you'll have to fork out to repair it, and that's if you can find someone who has the parts you need.
Your average hifi specialist mightn't have the ways or means to repair gear like this.
So we'll say this; vintage audio can be a terrifically rewarding hobby if you're spending well into the thousands of dollars for properly restored gear from a specialist outlet, but if this is your first foray into vinyl, please be careful.
When it comes to all-in-one decks, there's only one piece of advice we can convey with hands on hearts. Don't do it. We here at Instant Classic understand reluctance to fork out $1,000+ for your first setup, but we'd recommend a cheap Bluetooth speaker for listening before one of these.
Records aren't cheap and in all likelihood an all-in-one turntable is going to damage your records, and possibly turn you off vinyl forever.
How, you ask? A turntable's tonearm is carefully balanced so that a very specific, very small amount of downforce is applied when the stylus hits the record grooves. The all-in-one decks you'll find at larger hifi retail chains have as much as five times the downforce. That downforce, combined with the constant momentum of the record spinning means that the stylus on those turntables is literally dragging across the surface of your vinyl. These units carve an ever-deepening canal in the grooves meaning you're losing musical information every time you listen.
We'll shout from the rooftops until we're blue in the face. It's not worth it.
More than anything though, these everything-in-one-box setups go against just about every design principle of good quality vinyl playback. You want to minimise the likelihood of vibrations that permeate your turntable, so having the speakers in the same box as the turntable is going to make that pretty difficult, once again diminishing your sound.
Listening To Your Turntable Through A Bluetooth Speaker
It's one of the most common inquiries we get here at Instant Classic. "I've got a Bluetooth speaker, and I want to add a turntable. Help!"
Thankfully, most Bluetooth speakers offer one or two ways to connect from a turntable, though you may need to invest in an extra piece of hardware to get this happening, depending on what your current gear can already do.
Let's start with a physical connection. If your Bluetooth speaker has a small headphone-looking jack (you remember, the ones that used to feature on an iPhone), there's a way you can plug your turntable directly into your speaker.
If your Bluetooth speaker has an input like the one on the right, you're halfway there.
You'll just need to make sure there's a phono stage built into your turntable. This is the circuit that boosts the signal from the turntable so that it's loud enough to feed into an amplifier. If you don't have one built in to your turntable, you'll need to source one. We've got a great option that's reasonably priced that'll work in this exact situation. Once the phono stage has been added to your signal chain, a simple adapter will allow you to plug your turntable into that small input on your speaker.
Secondly, your other option is to go wireless, which is probably the more practical solution for most. To do this, you'll want to convert your turntable's output signal into a Bluetooth one so that your speaker can receive it. There's a few ways to do this, we're going to cover off two of the simplest.
One route you can take, if you're not already in possession of a turntable, is to buy a turntable that comes with a Bluetooth transmitter. The deck we've linked to there is a Pro-Ject Primary E that comes with a Pro-Ject Phono Box E BT. The little black box in the package takes the delicate phono signal, gives it a boost, and then converts it into a Bluetooth signal and beams it to your chosen speaker.
Otherwise, you can purchase the Phono Box E BT on its own if you've already got your hands on a turntable. It gives you the option of using a turntable with or without a phono preamp, so regardless of how your turntable works it'll have you listening wireless in no time.
We should finish by saying that whilst it's possible to listen to records this way, the very best sound you can achieve is by plugging a turntable into an amplifier that's driving a standalone pair of stereo speakers. But buying all of this stuff in one go can be a big ask, both financially and in terms of space, and we want to get everyone listening in whatever way works for them, and Bluetooth streaming from a turntable can be a great way to start.
Hey, I've Already Invested In Audio Gear!
If this is the case, you might not need our assistance. If you do, you can fill in the gaps from us with standalone turntables, amplifiers and speakers. If you've already got some gear but not sure what you need to fill in the blanks, check out our guide on the basics of a stereo system to figure out what you need.
And, if all of this is making sense to you and you'd rather start your hifi journey with a terrific system that won't send you broke, we do have a cheeky suggestion.
We mentioned earlier that someone who knows their hifi might suggest spend around $2,000 on a first time system. Whilst this isn't an unreasonable price of admission, it's still not realistic for a number of us. Which is why we've put together our Killer Turntable System.
Get started in style.
For just under a thousand dollars, you can play your LPs knowing they sound the way the artist and producer wanted. You can also sleep soundly at night knowing you've got a warranty, an upgrade path, and isolated components that work perfectly together.
It's true that sinking your teeth into hifi for the first time can be intimidating, but it shouldn't be! We're here to make sure that all of your questions are answered, and that making your first purchase or upgrading the system you already have is stress-free and easy.