For a teacher who has summers off, I’ve been working like a dog. I’ve traveled to Kansas City to learn about yearbook advising and done some really great work around the house. What’s more, I am the co-director of the Washington Journalism Education summer camp, which is a paid position, but demands hours of preparation as well as five days away from home.
I have a none-too-good basic NuMark TTusb turntable. It’s been serviceable, but by agreement with my wonderful, and terribly understanding missus we agreed that I could take some of summer earnings and upgrade my current deck. Besides, Monday is my 60th birthday, so what the heck. I spent some time previewing some possible purchase targets before heading up to Seattle with my friend Tim to do some serious shopping. The deal was it had to be a step up from the NuMark, but it couldn’t cost more than $500.
$500 sounds like a lot of cash. I mean, it’s a whole pile of money to me. Unfortunately, as vinyl regains popularity, the turntable biz has divided into two camps. There are the low-end turntable record players, much like my Crosley Cruiser and slightly better NuMark for the casual listener. Or, there are the super high end audiophile turntables that run into the thousands of dollars. But there are a few turntables that position themselves in the middle, an entry point for aspiring audiophiles, that would, barely, fit under my budget.
So, I did some research and read reviews of several turntables: the Audio Technica LP-120USB and the ProJect Debut Carbon, We agreed we would drive to Seattle to Hawthorne Music, where I bought my vintage (but relatively inexpensive) system last summer, and then on to Audio Connection in the U-District. I hoped to make a decision that night, but didn’t feel like I had to. As a test, we listened to Paul Kantner’s “Martha” on the same record After Bathing at Baxters by Jefferson Airplane for all the audio tests I ran with Tim.
First we went to Hawthorne Music, the shop where I bought my Kenwood receiver and Polk speakers last summer. They sell new and used equipment, but we agreed to listen to the new stuff first. We tried to approximate the sound I have at home by the same Kenwood KR-5400 I have in my den and some off the shelf speakers.
We listened to the Audio Technica deck first. The sound was bright and the musical components were well-articulated, but somehow it just sounded a bit brassy, as though it wasn’t accurately reproducing the sound. Of the turnatables we heard, the Audio Technica was the least expensive, so it had that going for it, and if I really wanted to economize there was one in the used room for about a hundred dollars cheaper than the $335 they were asking for a new one.
From there we tried the ProJect Debut Carbon. There was a noticeable improvement over the Audio Tech deck. The sound was deeper and fuller; we could hear Kantner’s breath in the song. It also required less energy (lower volume from the receiver) to drive great sound quality. We were both pretty taken by it. In discussing the Debut Carbon (named for its carbon fiber tone-arm) with the Hawthorne clerk, he suggested adding a plexiglas platter, mostly because it looks cool, but that also added $150 to its $445 price tag. An upgrade would have to come later.
Tim suggested we also listen to a used Rega Planar 2 turntable. Rega is a venerable British company that still makes its products in the UK. The Planar 2 is a product of the 70’s and in 1976 it was a $500 choice for audiophiles. We gave it a whirl and it sounded a tish better than the Debut Carbon, but was also a bit pricier at $589. As a used piece of equipment, Hawthorne offers a 90-day warranty, but for a piece of gear I hoped lasted for the rest of my days, I didn’t think it was a good choice.
With the evening clock ticking, we beat feet down to the Audio Connection. We were met at the door by the worthy proprietor and ushered into the back room. When I expressed my interest in the Debut Carbon turntable, he tsk tsked and shook his head disapprovingly. Most importantly he went on and gave an impassioned, but understandable technical explanation of why the Debut Carbon would not do and why he wouldn’t stock it, though he had other ProJect turntables he liked better.
Instead, he connected the Rega RP-1 to the Marantz tuner/amplifier rack he had handy and we threw Baxters on the platter. We cued up “Martha” and were blown away by the sound. To be fair, it might have been the superior gear we we were hearing it on, but it had the same full sound we heard on the Debut Carbon and Planar 2, but with a much more articulate Jack Casady on bass.
Further discussion about the bearing quality in the Rega tonearm assembly and the effect it has on vinyl preservation sold me. It’s one of those cases in which the knowledge and expertise of the salesman using data and reasoning augmented the observable evidence to make an inevitable decision. The other point he made was all about vinyl preservation and the importance the quality of the turntable has to the life of a record. He suggested the superior bearing assembly on the Rega created less vibration and that one play’s wobble from the Debut Carbon was worth 15 on the RP-1, and 50:1 on the NuMark. I couldn’t bear to tell him about the Cruiser.
Needless to say I bought the RP-1. It met my requirements, costing ten or so dollars more than the Debut Carbon. He insisted on selling me an assembled model, and even connected it to the Ankyo receiver in his entryway, which sounds a lot more like my Kenwood. I have it connected at home, but I haven’t listened yet. I have a couple of test albums on my plate: Roxy Music’s Avalon and Sleater-Kinney’;s Dig Me Out should offer an interesting contrast. I can’t wait to listen, and will give you a quick update in my next post.