Building a system to play back vinyl records

Week of May 7, 2006

Q:   I want to buy a new stereo system, for music reproduction only not TV or movies.   My music is still primarily on my record albums which are in great condition. I like my old rock music and enjoy classical music, especially sad violins played really loud.     Your May 1st article on speakers was timely and if you have other suggestion I would welcome them.   My total budget is between $3,000 and $5,000 and I already have a CD player.

-Keith Walli-Ware, Eagan, MN

A:   First of all, I commend you on wanting to build a system designed around music reproduction.   I think something has been lost with the push towards home theater- by focusing on music you will be assured of a great-sounding system, especially with the budget you have allocated.

My first piece of advice is to stay away from components designed primarily for home theater usage, specifically the speaker systems using tiny speakers, as well as surround-sound receivers.   While good-sounding music systems can certainly be based around surround-sound receivers, you will get more bang for your buck if you buy dedicated stereo electronics such as a stereo-only receiver, intergrated amplifier, or separates (amplifier and preamp).

The two places to sink most of your money are the speakers and the record-playing system (turntable, arm and cartridge).

The importance of the speakers has been discussed frequently in this column- they produce the sound you will hear no matter what you are playing, and impart the sonic signature you will listen to every day.   You will find suggestions in the previous column you mentioned.

Because your music is contained mostly on records, your turntable investment will yield large dividends.   The music contained in the grooves of a record can be hard to retrieve and the better the turntable setup, the more of the music you will extract from the grooves and the better it will sound.   Anyone who read last week’s column recommending a $6 HDMI cable over a $150 HDMI cable knows I don’t tell my readers to spend money needlessly.   That same columnist is saying spending your hard-earned cash on a great turntable is a really good investment.

The dividing line between good turntable sound and great turntable sound seems to be around $500 (for the turntable and arm only).   Recently I have been testing a Pro-Ject RM-5 turntable which I will be reporting on in a future column, but for now I just want to say I have been surprised at how fantastic a $649 turntable can sound- it puts CDs totally to shame.   Pro-Ject has a well-regarded line of turntables starting at $329 and going up to $1,500 for their most expensive model.   You can see Pro-Ject turntables at the website of the importer, www.sumikoaudio.net.

Your budget allows you to consider amplifiers and receivers a grade above the mass-market brands.   I’d recommend checking out Rotel as a good fit to your needs and budget.   Rotel makes fantastic amplifiers and receivers, offering true high-end sound quality for just a bit more than mass-market offerings, and many thousands less than the exotic high-end brands.   It’s a difference you will hear.   You can see them at www.rotel.com.

As to how all this translates in terms of your budget, at $3,000 I would advise spending $1,000 on your speakers, $1,000 on your turntable/cartridge setup, and $700 for an integrated amplifier or receiver.   At $5,000 I would spend $2,000 on the speakers,   $1,800 on the record player, and $700-$900 for the integrated amplifier or receiver.

The remaining $300 in each case would go to a Nitty Gritty vacuum record cleaning machine.   Using cleaning fluid, a brush and vacuum suction, it will get all the grunge and dirt out of old records and garage-sale finds, making them sound like new.     Even new records usually benefit from a cleaning- you would be surprised at how much better they will sound once given a true cleaning. You can see the machines at www.nittygrittyinc.com.

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