Tag Archives: Vinyl

An affordable hifi stereo system for vinyl

One of the major topics of this blog is affordable audio, so i’ve decided to put together a reasonable priced system for playing vinyl records. These recommendations are just starting points, and I would encourage you to substitute components for any vintage or used stuff you might find. You can always upgrade later, the point now is to start spinning records as soon as possible.

Basically, a hifi stereo setup involves three parts: the source(s), amplifier and speakers. There are a variety of other sources possible (CD/SACD players, iPods, computers, etc) but for now we’ll stick to a turntable. You probably already own a MP3 or CD player anyway.

Pro-ject Debut III

Turntable – Pro-ject Debut III

This is the table I currently use, and I highly recommend it. Professional reviewers agree that it is a perfect entry level turntable for those curious about vinyl. Unlike other, more expensive turntables, it’s pretty much ready to go right out of the box and comes complete with a cartridge (the needle), tonearm, dust cover, felt record mat and attached L+R and grounding cables. The MSRP is currently $349, and there is a $499 version that includes a USB output so you can rip your records to your computer and convert them to MP3. Amazon has it, and they can also be found at Magnolia outlets (which are often located in Best Buy stores).

Topaz AM10

Amplifier – Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10

The signal from a turntable must go through a preliminary stage of amplification before it can go to the main amp. This might be accomplished with a “phono stage” like the NAD PP-2 , which I use, but it is an additional expense, takes up more space and uses more resources. The solution is to use an amplifier that has an integrated phono stage, like the Topaz AM10. I haven’t listened to this particular amp, but Stereophile’s Stephen Mejias recommends this and it is the cheapest one of the four he lists in the linked article. In addition to the phono stage, it’s small, light, looks cool, and has a front input to plug in your iPod. Amazon’s got it for 349 dollars , and it’s probably your cheapest, easiest bet for beginner hifi amplification.

Polk Audio TSi 200 - cherry finish

Speakers –

For beginners, floorstanders might not be the best idea, simply due to their size and expense (although you wouldn’t need to buy speaker stands). Bookshelf speakers are the optimal entry level solution. The problem with speakers is that they are the most subjective in terms of sound quality; what sounds good to me might sound awful to you. This is why it’s kind of difficult to recommend a good speaker without listening first, but sticking with established brands that specialize in making speakers is a good start. This means avoiding crap from Sony or Yamaha, which might be cheap but are of poor quality. Bose speakers have an undeserved reputation for quality thanks to aggressive marketing, but they are the laughing stock of the audiophile world. The Polk Audio TSi200 is available for about $300 a pair, or if you need to go cheaper then the Klipsch B-2 Synergy is only a bit over $180. Either of these would work fine for a hi-fi-curious individual. A set of speaker stands can be found at most any big box store for 20-30 bucks, or you could DIY up some of your own.


Turntable – $349

Amp – $349

Speakers- $180

Cables and other accessories – $50

Total: +- $928

I hear ya, that’s hardly pocket change. But as I mentioned in the beginning, this is only a suggestion. The best deal and the most important purchase is the Pro-ject turntable, I can’t really think of a better value for the money. The speakers can vary, if you already have a cheapo pair then use them to begin with. The amplifier is optional as well, in fact, if you browse vintage or thrift stores you shouldn’t have a problem finding a decent integrated amp. Most older (pre-1990s) amps that you’ll likely encounter have a phono stage; if it has an input on the back labeled “PHONO” then you’re good to go.

Every system has humble origins, and once you get into vinyl you’ll be hooked.

Green hi-fi

Green hi-fi

Caring about the environment is another pillar of hipsterdom, so if you’re going to get into hi-fi, you should do it in a eco-friendly way. There’s a few ways to go about this:

Green hi-fi
Image courtesy of www.ecdsounddesign.com

1. Use energy efficient amplification

The folks at MetaEfficient drew up a list of power saving stereo amplifiers, but most of them are beefy power amps that require a separate pre-amp to function. More resources, more space, more weight, etc. However, one amp on the list that stands out is the Onkyo A-9555 which uses efficient digital circuitry and is available new for only $439.99.

2. Buy from sustainable companies

NAD Electronics, in addition to using efficient circuitry and standby modes in its products, also avoids using harmful heavy metals or excessive packaging (and utilizes recycled material in the packaging it does use). Cambridge Audio, another affordable hi-fi company, also has a strong environmental commitment, as well as pledging to not use child or prison labor. Now that’s a plus!

3. Buy used gear

If you’re just starting out, thrift stores can be a great place to find components for your system. You can also check out the Audiogon Marketplace for deals on used high-end gear, and eBay or Craigslist are options as well. By buying used, you keep old electronics out of landfills, reduce the amount of resources consumed, and just might score some hip vintage stuff to impress your guests!

4. Listen to vinyl

Keeping with the thrift store theme, there are tons of old vinyl records out there that would otherwise end up in a dump. Sure, you wouldn’t be caught dead listening to most of the crap they have at Goodwill, but there are some great finds if you’re willing to look. Plus, all those Burt Bacharach records you’ll find can be hung on the wall for decoration or turned into DIY snack bowls or bookends. And finally, turntables use less power than other music sources; my turntable consumes only 2 watts while my Sony SACD player sucks down 15 watts.

Vinyl review : Time-Life Great Men of Music series

One way to enhance your hipster cred is to feign interest in the high arts, so what better way than occasionally listening to classical music? Classical music on vinyl at that…

Time-Life Great Men of Music LP Boxsets
I own 8 out of the 13 pictured

Much of my LP collection started out as stuff my parents previously owned. Nearly all of the classic punk and new wave I own once belonged to my dad, but I also claimed the classical music he got via mail-order back in the early eighties. These were from the Time-Life Great Men of Music series, which consisted of 4 records each from all the major classical composers. Each set had the composer’s most famous works (e.g. Symphony No.5 for Beethoven, Rondo alla Turca for Mozart) but also had some of their lesser known pieces. The full series pretty much covered everyone from the Baroque to the early Modern period (Bach to Copland), but my dad only had 8 of the 30 box set.

The records come in sturdy, attractive boxes with anti-scratch sleeves and a booklet containing the history of the composer and notes on each included recording. Many of the recordings are sourced from the well-regarded RCA Living Stereo series. Internet research later backed me up, but I had originally suspected this when I first played the Living Stereo SACD of Van Cliburn performing Beethovens Emperor Concerto and found it…somehow familiar. Sure enough, they are the exact same recording.

The overall sound quality of the records is pleasant and mellow; as I write this I am listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #2, which flows smoothly from the speakers while demonstrating a well defined soundstage (that is, every instrument has a discernible “place of origin” emitting from the speakers that mostly corresponds to how an actual chamber orchestra is set up). Mozart’s piano works are crisp and believable , if not a tad bright, while Beethoven’s Fifth is immersive and effective. The recordings aren’t always perfect though, some of the tracks, like Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, aren’t true stereo but are “electronically reprocessed” , which I personally don’t like but YMMV. Some of the speedy glissandos in Chopin’s Etudes kind of smear together, but I suspect this is a weakness of my system rather than the recording.

These boxsets are a great way to start a classical collection, and they seem like the kind of thing you could score from a yard sale, thrift store, or Craigslist. Amazon has just the Beethoven set starting at 22 bucks, but if you’re more of a completist then eBay has most of them, unfortunately sold separately.

Final scores:

Music: A

Sound: A- to C+, depending on each recording.

Vinyl records versus CD = what do hi-fi lovers prefer?

Vinyl vs CD

An endless debate has raged among audio lovers since the introduction of the Compact Disc in 1982. Detractors of the format complained of a “harsh”, or “bright” sound and stood by their vinyl records as the truest form of music reproduction. Those in the CD camp extolled the format’s ease of use and setup, lack of pops and clicks, no need for extensive cleaning procedures, and the fact that they could hold more music.

Both sides had valid points; early CDs did not sound very good for many reasons. The first CD players released used inferior decoding equipment and frequency cutoffs, fixed in later players by better circuitry and processors. Additionally, recording engineers in the early days of CD were not used to mixing and mastering for the format, hence the unpleasant sound. As for vinyl, the drawbacks are still clear: dust and dirt affects the sound, the grooves eventually wear out, and the frequency response is slightly more limited. Not to mention that turntables can be fiddly, complex things to set up (although some people like them for that).

My opinion on all this is that both formats are equally valid in anyone’s colleciton, and like pretty much anything in hi-fi, it’s all up to the listener’s personal preference. My vinyl collection is currently bigger than my CD/SACD library (and my MP3 list is bigger than both, more on that some other time). My preference for vinyl or CD depends a lot the type of music. Jazz and classical seem to fit CD better since there is a lack of surface noise, which can be distracting with quieter instrumental pieces. Rock music is more at home on vinyl, partly for the “authenticity factor”, but also because louder instrumentation tends to cancel out any noise caused by debris on the record.

But what I like the most about vinyl is the artwork. It’s much larger, bolder and overall nicer to look at than the tiny renditions squeezed onto a CD booklet. For example, the artwork on the CD version of The Grand Wazoo is cramped and compressed, but on the vinyl version’s cover you can see much more amusing, Sergio Aragones-esque detail.

So for hi-fi newbies, there is no need to throw out your CD collection. If you’re looking to start a vinyl collection, a good place to start first would be a local thrift or charity store. The records are usually incredibly cheap, but the drawback is the selection (hope you like Barbara Streisand or Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass!) and the physical condition of the records is often quite poor. But at around a buck a pop, its not a huge loss if you take one home and find it unplayably damaged. Within all the crap, there are hidden gems at these stores; recently I got the first two volumes of The Beethoven Bicentennial Collection (by Deutsche Grammophon) for 20 bucks. It includes all 9 of his symphonies and were in great condition.

More debate and discussion on Vinyl vs CD from Google Answers