Record player stereo system

April 26, 2013
Zenith Vintage 1969 Stereo

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Building a stereo system around a turntable from scratch can be tough. There’s a lot to know and, if you’ve never done it before, there’s a lot to learn. Several years ago we put together a guide to selecting the best turntable for a beginner. We discussed the differences between belt drives direct drives. We talked about built-in preamps versus stand alone preamps. But it left a lot of questions unanswered.

That’s at least partially because there is more to building a stereo system than simply buying the best turntable. You need to consider phono-ins, amps, preamps, speakers, and so on. You need to know how to set up a record player sound system. To make matters worse, in the years since we first put together our recommendations for record players the market for audiophile turntables has changed. In fact, several of the best turntables for beginners that we had recommended have been discontinued or replaced.

As a result, we decided to build a new bigger and better guide to selecting the best turntable for your home. Instead of just listing our recommended turntables, this guide is intended to walk you through the process of building a system from scratch with many options and reviews for turntables, speakers, and more.

Starting with our recommended turntables, I’ve listed out six great systems with great turntables that you could build. Each of the systems are generally listed in this order Turntable > Phono Stage > Integrated Amp/Pre Amp > Speakers = Total Price. However, as you’ll notice, some of the products include built in phono stages and amps therefore saving you money on your system and the total number of products you need to get started (but often at the expensive of overall sound quality).

Here are the recommended turntables and setups with explanations for each recommended component following below. Beneath our summary, you’ll find a more in depth discussion of the individual parts. And, of course, if you already have some of these components, you can just skip to the sections you need.

  • Audio Technica AT-LP120-USB ($249) > Audioengine A5 Speakers ($399) = $648
  • Audio Technica AT-LP120-USB ($249) > Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10 ($349) > PSB Alpha B1s ($299) = $897
  • Pro-Ject Debut Carbon ($399) > Pro-Ject Phono Box ($149) > Audioengine A5 Speakers ($399) = $947
  • Pro-Ject Debut Carbon ($399) > Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10 ($349) > PSB Alpha B1s ($299) = $1047
  • Pro-Ject Debut Carbon ($399) > Pro-Ject Phono Box ($149) > Cambridge Audio Azur 351A ($549) > PSB Imagine X1T ($898) = $1995

Before we move on, it’s worth remembering that it’s possible to upgrade your system over time. That’s what we did. If an audiophile turntable is going to be the centerpiece of your stereo system, I particularly like any of the setups that begin with a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon turntable and a good set of audiophile speakers as your core and then upgrading the other components over time. Meanwhile, if you’re looking to start with the best turntable for a beginner on a budget to slowly build your stereo, we recommend the AT-LP120.

MattNekoRecordsThe Turntable

For me, my vinyl record collection came first and the decision to buy a record player followed sometime afterward. I’d picked up my first few vinyl records as nothing more than collectibles purchased to support my favorite artists. But then, as my collection grew, so did my interest in both buying an audiophile turntable and building a stereo system for listening to those vinyl records.

If you’re like me and you’re looking for audiophile quality equipment to play your records then you’ll have to spend a little money on a good turntable. At 9 we consider the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon to be an excellent (and stylish) entry-level component at a good price. Indeed, we started our system with its predecessor the Pro-Ject Debut III. The nearly identical Carbon is offered at the same price point as the Debut III but with a number of upgrades, most notably “the 8.6” single-piece tube carbon fiber tonearm that increases stiffness while decreasing unwanted resonances resulting in a higher fidelity presentation.” It continues to receive our highest recommendation as a beginner audiophile turntable.

It’s available at Amazon for 9 (and in the following colors: red, silver, black, white, blue, green & yellow).

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a recommended turntable for beginners on a cheaper budget (no shame – this stuff isn’t cheap), we recommend the Audio Technica AT-LP120-USB. It doesn’t offer quite the same audiophile sound quality as the Debut Carbon, but it’s a solid beginner turntable sufficient for listeners at $150 less. It’s a great option for anyone who wants to start their system without nudging up to the $1000 range for an initial budget and/or who’d rather make bigger investments in speakers and integrated amps than in the turntable.

The Phone Stage

Unless you’re using a receiver or integrated amp with a phono-in (which will be clearly marked as ‘phono’ on the back of the component) then you’ll need to purchase a phono stage. If you’ve tried setting up your turntable and you’re experiencing the problem where your turntable’s volume is too low – this is probably the reason. You need a phono stage. This is because the signal from a turntable isn’t as powerful as the signal from a digital source and also (due to the physics of turntables and vinyl records) needs to be re-equalized. Vintage equipment from vinyl’s heyday would normally include phono-ins, but contemporary receivers and amps typically do not (although the Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10 we recommended below does). That means if you try to connect your turntable to a receiver or amp without a phono stage, the volume of your turntable will be too low.

At $149, I like the Pro-Ject Phono Box DC. It’s a good price and a good piece of equipment. Since this is a great piece of equipment at a price point that isn’t going to bust your budget, it’s our only recommendation for a phono stage. Do note, however, that some of the equipment we recommend includes a built in phone stage.

The Integrated Amp/Pre-Amp

An integrated amp/pre-amp is the control center for your stereo system. It’s where the sound from your components will be amplified; where all of the components will be connected together; where you’ll select which components you want to use (the turntable, the CD player, etc); where you’ll turn down the volume, adjust the balance, and so on. In other words, a typical integrated amp combines a two-channel or multichannel amp (which provides the power to your speakers) with a pre-amplifier (the amp where all the different parts of your system are connected and controlled).

The Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10 is a great option because it provides balanced, full sound quality and includes it’s own phono stage (which means you wouldn’t need the Pro-Ject Phono Box we mentioned above).

On the higher end at $549, we like the Cambridge Audio Azur 351A. It’s more expensive than the Topaz AM10 listed above but it provides great quality for the price (45 watts x2 versus 35 watts x2 plus USB inputs). However, the price difference isn’t trivial because if you go with the Azur 351A you will need to purchase a separate phono stage as well (See above).

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