Q What do you think of buying a budget turntable brand new, compared to a vintage turntable from Craigslist or eBay for the same amount or less?
-- E.H., Bethel Park, Pa.
A I have mixed feelings about vintage turntables, perhaps because my own experience is mixed.
You make a good point about new pricing vs. vintage pricing. If you are considering a new turntable, don't buy one of the plastic cheapies found at big-box stores. The best turntable value on the planet is the Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB, which you can buy online for $240 or less. It looks like a clone of a Technics SL-1200 and is extremely well-made for the money. An excellent budget cartridge is premounted and it has a built-in phono preamp and USB connection for use with any audio receiver or computer. If you want to spend more, there are lots of higher-performance options available as well, but that is a subject for another column.
Compared to this, a vintage turntable on Craigslist for $80-$100 may seem like a good deal. The problem is whether you are actually getting a good deal or not, and many items on Craigslist are horrendously overpriced. The seller either thinks it is worth far more than what it is actually worth, or they are looking for a sucker.
A name brand is no assurance of quality due to the cyclical nature of ownership of many electronics companies and brand licensing. For example, when Marantz started out it was a very high-quality brand. The name was sold and Marantz became a lower-quality, mass-market product for a period of time, finding itself largely known for inexpensive rack systems in the 1980s. Eventually Marantz was purchased by an entity that made it a high-end brand again, and today their products are some of the best.
As for my own experience with vintage turntables, I can cite two examples of vintage buys, one good and one bad.
The good example was a Philips turntable I bought on Craigslist for $20. It needed a cartridge, but other than that it was a solid piece of equipment. I mounted a new cartridge and it sounded fantastic. It eventually found its way into the home of a friend and he is enjoying it to this day.
The bad example is of a turntable that should have been much better than the Philips. When I was in college I lusted after the beautiful Kyocera turntables with their attractive wood-side panels and gunmetal blue finished accents with red striping. Fast-forward 15 years, where I find a used one on eBay and buy it. Nothing I did ever made that turntable sound good. It looked great on the outside, but the bearings were worn and it led to a noisy, low-quality listening experience. I ended up dumping it for the value of the cartridge I mounted on it.
This brings up another point about buying an old turntable. It will probably need a cartridge, and mounting one correctly is no small task.
If you are thinking about buying a vintage turntable, try and find an audiophile friend to help you so you get good value and a solid performer. They can help you mount a cartridge as well. Some good cartridges for $50-$100 are the Audio-Technica AT-95E, the Grado Black, the Shure M97xE, and my personal favorite, the Nagaoka MP-110.
Contact Don Lindich at www.soundadviceblog.com and use the "submit question" link on that site.