My Experience with Vinyl Records and Creating a Budget Turntable Setup
Updated: May 17, 2022
Setting up a record player is a bitch, especially when you don’t know much about audio equipment, are on a budget, and aren’t a practiced audiophile. It feels like trying to learn economics from Youtube videos without any background in math whatsoever. In this article, I’ll recount my experience setting up my record player and hopefully be able to help other, uninformed individuals with their audio setup.
First, I’d like to briefly explain how I became initially interested in vinyl. I remember that my friend’s older brother, Augie, had a sick record player set up and hundreds of records that he started showing me when I was 12-years-old. Vinyls that I remember he owned (and now I own as well) include a few Thee Oh Sees records, a handful of Danny Brown records, and Death Grips’ The Money Store. I remember digging through his vinyl records and absolutely loving the fact that he owned his favorite albums in a physical format–looking at the covers and colored vinyls still mesmerizes me.
I also really liked the idea of buying something relatively inexpensive that supports an artist (more than streaming services, anyway) and ultimately [hopefully] accrues value, similarly to NFTs, art, or stocks. I remember that before getting into records I used to play Team Fortress 2, Counter Strike Global, and Runescape. If you’re not familiar with these games, they all have intricate economies surrounding the trade mechanic. I would check Backpack.tf and similar sites daily to participate in those economies: buying, earning, trading, holding, selling, gambling, and scamming my way to the top. These games made me feel important, productive, and like I was part of a larger community. The idea of beginning my own record collection gave me a similar feeling of community and financial productivity without any real outlet to create wealth at such a young age.
Anyway, so I quickly became interested in beginning my own record collection but I didn’t really care about the sound of my turntable setup at 12-years-old. Thankfully my grandmother had a phonograph that she didn’t use and my mom had a Sony preamp in storage. My mom also found some shitty computer speakers in storage that I used for a year or two. I knew off the bat that I wouldn’t have a good vinyl setup for years, but I didn’t care. I simply wanted to begin my collection. I’ll always remember the first vinyl that I bought and it will always make me cringe: AM by the Arctic Monkeys.
About 10 years later, at 21-years-old, I still didn’t have a decent record player setup. My grandma’s record player broke years ago so I had a basic Audio Technica player, remarkably shitty speakers from Goodwill, and a mixer that made everything fucked up and distorted. As soon as I got a consistent job last year, my goal was to substantially upgrade my record player. Still a year later, at 22-years-old, I’m finally happy with my turntable setup.
The first thing I did was create an approximate budget. To do this, I investigated what was most important to create a quality sound, so you don’t have to. I found that the order of importance is as follows: turntable, cartridge, speakers, and then an amp/preamp/receiver/mixer. So, I figured that it would make the most sense to spend the most money on the turntable/cartridge and then work my way down. I budgeted $400-600 for my turntable & cartridge (as they usually come together), less than $300 for my speakers, and $100-$150 for my receiver.
Then, I tried to look for brands I was interested in, initially just Googling ‘best record players’ and looking through Audio Technica’s website to see what I wanted. There were just so many meaningless (at least, to me) numbers and terms though such as the ‘Wow and Flutter’ (measured in % of WRMS) and the ‘Signal-to-Noise Ratio’ (measured in decibels). Those words, numbers, and labels genuinely mean nothing to me and learning about them felt wholly unaccessible, especially to someone with practically no traditional musical background.
So, to find the best setup for my budget, I took to Reddit (r/audiophile) and The New York Times. I was slightly worried about stumbling into an affiliate marketing ad and effectively getting scammed but, to negate any chance of this, I cross-referenced any piece of audio equipment that I was interested in with Google/Reddit reviews and might check the profile of the person posting said review if I was still on the fence.
Reddit was surprisingly helpful in helping me find a record player that, apparently, has a solid cartridge and looks super clean. For the record player, I ended up purchasing the REGA - Planar 1 Plus (Matte Black).
The Planar 2 also seemed like a solid option but I didn’t mind saving a few bucks to get the slightly older model. Additionally, the Planar 1 Plus was on sale at the time (30% off, around $450) which contributed to convincing me to buy the turntable. Overall I’m extremely happy with the sound and look of the Planar 1 Plus. The only issue with the Planar 1 Plus is that you must manually switch between 33.3 RPM and 45 RPM by taking the central spinning disk off of the table and adjusting the internal rubber band accordingly rather than just flip a switch. Slightly annoying, but I don’t listen to 45’s much anyway.
The next thing that I decided to purchase was speakers. I already had two large $15 used JBL J2060 speakers from Goodwill that sounded very good considering they’re old and relatively cheap. I live in an apartment, so I decided that two bookshelf speakers, the Klipsch B-100’s, could handle the high and mid ranges well while my large JBL’s could handle the bass and low end, rather than a sub. So, I bought these two bookshelf speakers for around $100. The goal for me here was to be able to listen to music loudly without shaking the entire apartment and having my neighbors bang on my door. Honestly, I’m surprised by how good the low-end sounds on the JBLs and the bookshelf speakers were a necessary addition to raise the quality substantially (they sound extremely punchy and full-bodied).
The next thing that I bought was my mixer, the Sony STRDH190. This is essentially the standard mixer: it has easy-to-use Bluetooth capability, works well, and has a phono input in case your phonograph doesn’t have a preamp (the Planar 1 Plus does have a preamp but this input is still helpful). It’s only about $180 on Amazon but you can find it for around $100-$120 if you look through a few different sites or wait for a sale.
The setup was easy enough; I bought the remaining supplies which I’ll quickly detail and link here: wires, wire cutters, and record cleaner and I began the setup. I plugged my mixer into the wall, stripped the wires, connected the speakers into the mixer, set up the Planar in output one (do not put the Planar in the phono output as the Planar does have a built-in preamp), and tested Jesus is King on my turntable. The choir vocals came in deep and layered--everything sounded excellent.
Overall the hassle of tearing through web pages and reviews was worth it. The setup is finally completed and I can relax and listen to music that sounds significantly better than any mix I’ve ever had in my own house before. I’m extremely happy with my record player set up and would recommend any of the parts to anyone who’s interested in upgrading their turntable setup. I don’t think I’ll be making any significant upgrades for a long time, so I’m looking forward to resuming spending all my money on vinyls!
Similarly, I also briefly want to mention that I recently purchased studio headphones to hook up to my receiver. After a lot of research, I decided to buy the DT 770 PRO 250 Ohm on Sweetwater because they are high-end headphones that aren’t too expensive. I also got $50 off (bringing the total to about $150) because of a Sweetwater sale and I’m extremely pleased with the sound quality of these headphones when connected to my amp. They sound very rich and full-bodied while the bass remains extremely powerful. However, I also use these headphones with my iPhone but, without a portable amp, they sound substantially muted and won’t get very loud.