Like any well-judged protagonist, vinyl's greatest strength is also its biggest weakness. The mechanical nature of how it functions lends it a unique sound and a physical interactivity that digital lacks. Unfortunately, this mechanical nature means that making improvements in vinyl playback generally involves paying out for more engineering prowess, and this can be a costly business. We've done a few articles on some relatively cost effective (and some less cost effective) upgrades but for the most part, these still come in at the $500 and upward point, or rely on you already having a reasonable turntable.
As such, this piece reflects a more constrained situation. Vinyl Me, Pease has given me a situation where I have a Crosley type record player and a notional budget of $200 to make things better. In order to get much done with $200, we're going to have to have a look at the murky world of used equipment so this piece is going to consider the do’s and don'ts of that and consider your buying options in two stages. The first will be attaching the record player to a more capable amp and speakers, which is how the $200 is going to be best spent in the first instance. If you already have an amp and speakers, we'll then take a look at getting improved vinyl replay for $200.
Phase One- Amp and Speakers
If you are the owner of an all-in-one style record player that sold in the countless thousands over the holiday period, you have a completely self contained audio system. This is extremely convenient but does place some design compromises on the performance as a whole. Putting amps and speakers in a record player affects the performance of both, and rather limits the scale of what you can expect from it. The good news is that the bulk of these small players also have an output- either at a fixed line level or headphone level that can be used to output the signal to external system.
As such, the best way to get more out of a turntable of this type is to stop using the on board speakers and connect it to an external amp and speakers. The turntable has a preamp in it so one isn't required in an amp you choose. As such, all your potential candidate needs is at least one line level input, a volume control and the ability to connect a pair of speakers to it. If you need an amp and speakers, dividing your budget roughly equally makes a degree of sense but the used market is random enough to ensure that, depending on when and where you are looking, you could find the split between the two items is 75/25% and still yield a pretty good system.
In terms of buying used equipment, the rules are the same with buying anything used. Do your research, pay attention to the description and remember that if something looks too good to be true, it almost certainly is. If something is sold as 'needing work' unless you are capable of doing that work, it is best to leave it well alone. Generally, like cars, if something once cost $2,000 and is now available for $100, it is likely that there will be an issue or two to go with it. Equally, something that started life at $500 or under is likely to have depreciated gracefully to this point.
Specific recommendations? Amps and receivers from the Japanese 'house brands'- Sony, Denon, Pioneer, Marantz, Onkyo, Technics/Panasonic etc. exist in large numbers and for the most part, offer more than respectable performance. Sometimes products from smaller manufacturers like NAD, Rotel and Cambridge Audio will show up at this sort of price too, which can be worth a look. More than instructions to look for a specific model, you should be looking for amps that have been well looked after- few owners, original box, etc.
Choosing speakers should be done in a similar manner to choosing your amp; look for well looked after models that have been produced in reasonable amounts rather than something that might have been impressive forty years ago but hasn't seen any maintenance since then. As well as the Japanese brands, American speakers from Klipsch, JBL, Infinity and Polk are solid choices. Some British offerings from KEF, Mission and Wharfedale can also be reasonably priced.
When buying equipment of this nature, my preference has always been to try and get a look at the item first. This means that eBay takes a backseat to local web listings, pawnbrokers and thrift shops. If you are buying online, check that the photos are actually of the item in question and not 'example pics.' For better or worse, the current Paypal regs do tend to favour the buyer giving you a degree of protection but there is no substitute to being able to get a good look at the product you're buying.
Having found and purchased your amp and speakers, you can connect the turntable to any line input on the amp. You can naturally spend a fortune on cables but my suggestion in this context is don't. With the turntable focusing on being a turntable, you should benefit from a significant jump in performance.
Part Two: The Turntable
Once you have a solid pairing of amp and speakers (or indeed if you already have an amp and speakers), you can look at upgrading the turntable itself when funds allow. As you may have noticed, we're in the middle of a bit of a boom time for vinyl right now, so the price of used turntables has gone a bit crazy of late. There's also seemingly very little pattern to what sells for surprisingly strong money and what doesn't. As such, once again look for the Japanese house brands for commonly encountered turntables that are capable of more than reasonable performance.
When buying a used deck at this price, it is important to take a few things into account. Give the age of most of them, cosmetic wear is to be expected, but try to ensure that the bearing, arm and motor are all serviceable-- especially as spares can be hard to find. Unless you get especially lucky, you need to work on the principle that the stylus-- and possibly the whole cartridge- is going to be worn out so you'll need to have $40-50 of your budget kept aside to replace the cartridge. When you get it home, have a look at our information on setup to get the best from it and make sure that the bearing has oil in it and the other moving parts are free from dust and debris.
If the amplifier you bought/own has a phono preamp on board, you can simply connect the turntable directly to that and you are good to go. If you have an amp that doesn't have such an input, you'll need to find further money to get an external one but the good news is that if you bought one of the Japanese house brand amps recommended earlier, the chances are you'll have a perfectly functional phono preamp in the amp.
Having done this, you'll note that your elegant, retro styled all-in-one turntable will have been replaced by a hefty pile of electronics, some of which might count as actually retro rather that looking that way. At the same time, you now have a system that should be capable of delivering a far more engrossing musical message than the compact system can. You can carry out further improvements if you want and as funds allow by targeting your budget where you feel it will do the most good rather than having to buy enough bits to make the system functional in the first place. It might not be as pretty but you should now have a setup that starts to deliver on what vinyl can do.