Would you spend $100,000 on a turntable?
We've been hearing about the resurgence of vinyl over the past few years, and it's been welcomed with open arms by not only the music industry but also the retailers of LPs and turntables. But for those perhaps not so versed in the analog domain, is there more to a turntable than just spinning a polyvinyl record at the correct speed? Let's delve deeper.
According to Nielsen, last year 5.6 million LP vinyl records were sold in the US, double that of 2009. So while streaming and on-demand music services now make up the bulk of album sales, there is no doubt vinyl is growing in popularity. With that comes increased demand for turntables.
Some brands never disappeared – the mainstays such as Rega, Pro-ject, VPI and Thorens – riding the tide with just a glimmer of hope that happy days may return. And return they did, spurring the rise of new manufacturers like Japan's TechDAS with just one aim: to make the best analog turntable. The result is the Air Force One, a statement piece and the ultimate in analog reproduction, weighing in at an investment of around $100,000.
So does one need to spend the equivalent of a luxury car for the 'silence of digital', the rich tones and warmth, and the theatre of analog and vinyl LPs? No, but there are generally a few types of buyers when it comes to turntables.
The first is typically hanging on to a record collection from the 70s and 80s, and simply wanting to be able to play these and relive those memories once again.
Next we have the music enthusiast who has grown up with MP3s and compressed music. Someone told them vinyl is cool now, and they're in for a treat when they experience uncompressed musical fidelity.
Then there's the audiophile always looking for the best possible audio reproduction from their hi-fi system, constantly upgrading or trying new things.
Beyond that, there are those who don't necessarily care for the how and why, and they might not have even owned a turntable previously. They just like the statement, much like a Rolex watch compared to a Citizen, or a Porsche compared to a Toyota. Both still achieve their fundamental purpose, but to varying degrees of precision and performance.
Like most things, you get what you pay for. To get those old records playing once more you'll likely need to budget at least $500, assuming you already have an amplifier and speakers. This will buy a mainstream brand turntable that comes with a tone-arm and most likely a phono cartridge already installed. In some cases this can be connected directly to your amplifier if it has a phono input. Otherwise expect to pay a little more for a phono pre-amplifier.
Where vinyl really starts to show off, however, is when you climb a few rungs up the ladder. Boutique branded turntables, bespoke tone-arm and phono cartridge choices, along with dedicated pre-amps, really do offer significant sonic benefits. You could expect to pay anywhere from $2500 to $20,000, with the benefit of being able to upgrade individual components as you go.
But for those wanting the ultimate in analog audio reproduction, the Air Force One may be just the ticket. With its complex construction of exotic alloys, air bearing and elaborately forged stainless steel platter, this turntable weighs in at a more than 60kg. The external electric air pump essentially levitates the platter, and unlike conventional turntable bearings it eliminates any platter load frictional noise. With just a press of the "suction" button even warped records are pulled flat.
So does it sound better than a far more realistically priced turntable? Of course, but the law of diminishing returns will still see you get into the richness of vinyl sound at your chosen budget. Shop around and audition turntables at your local specialist retailer and hear the difference for yourself.
TechDAS is distributed in Australia by Pure Music Group.
Originally published in The Age Green Guide (October 7, 2015). Republished with permission.
StereoNET's Founder & Publisher and still buried deep in the review room auditioning everything from docks to soundbars, amplifiers and headphones. Marc is also the founder of the annual International HiFi Show.
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