This time of year lots of folks are buying record players, either for themselves or to give as a gift. There are all kinds of audiophile-grade models to choose from, often selling for thousands of dollars. But that’s not what we’re going to talk about now. The fact is, most first-time buyers are looking for something quite a bit cheaper, generally under $100. There are plenty of choices. Unfortunately, most of them will end in disappointment.
The market has been flooded with cheap machines that will indeed play a record, but not do a very good job of it. Many of them look like little suitcases. Some are in fancy wood cabinets, and some include CD players. Some brand names are Crosley, Ion, Jensen, Victrola, Boytone, Studebaker, Innovative Technology, and the above-pictured Funkyfonic (not at our store!) But no matter how they’re packaged, and what brand name they carry, they all use the same basic mechanism and probably come out of the same few factories. The main selling point of these players, besides the low price, is that they are self-contained units with the amplifier and speakers built in. They are simple to set up and operate. The bad part is that they have poor sound quality, will prematurely wear out your records, and will often skip on currently-issued vinyl pressings, even records that are brand new. They are not built to last and usually not worth the cost of repair if they break.
These players almost always have two characteristics which make them easy to spot: the rotating platter on which the record sits is made of plastic and is usually about 8 inches in diameter, too small to fully support a standard record; and the tonearm is not counterbalanced and uses what is known as a “ceramic” cartridge with a stylus (needle) mostly made of red plastic. For kids these players are ok. But anyone who plans to build a record collection, particularly of current music, will soon want to upgrade to something better.
The alternative costs a little more but is worth it. We’re big fans of the Audio-Technica LP60 turntable. This is a component turntable, which means that the amp and speakers are not built in. This is actually a good thing. It can easily be connected to any existing audio system the same way one would connect a CD player or MP3 player. It can work with something as simple as a pair of powered computer speakers, or as complex as a home theater system or a traditional stereo. It’s a basic entry-level turntable but a solid performer, with nice features including automatic tonearm cueing and return, full-size metal platter, and a magnetic (rather than ceramic) cartridge. It won’t tear up your records. Right now we have it on sale for $99, a great value. We also have USB and Bluetooth versions of this turntable which cost a bit more.
If you want to step up in features and quality, there are several good turntables available in the $200-$400 range. These offer better build quality and will play records with greater fidelity, more stable speed and less wear to the record.
“But wait,” you ask, “don’t you guys sell Crosleys?” Yes, we do. The fact that these are simple, self-contained record players make them a good choice for kids, or anyone who just wants to listen to those old records Aunt Sally gave them but who isn’t particularly interested in getting serious about collecting vinyl. We carry the Crosley brand because they’ve been in the record player business for a long time, they have good customer service if something goes wrong, and as a bonus they’re based in Louisville. (Crosley also sells some better-quality turntables too at a higher price point).
Bottom line for gift shoppers: if you’re buying for a young person who just has a casual interest in vinyl, a Crosley might be the way to go. If buying for grown-ups, consider a component turntable. Whatever you do, skip the big box stores or online sellers and buy it at a record store where you can get knowledgeable advice and service.