As vinyl grows in popularity, Heinz Lichtenegger of Pro-Ject Music Systems, Harry and Mat Weisfeld of VPI Industries, Roy Hall of Music Hall Audio, and Roy Gandy of Rega Research must be pleased that they kept their faith in LPs and continued to manufacture turntables. Companies that had scaled back or even dropped their turntable lines are back in the game. Audio-Technica and Technics are making turntables for the audiophile market after years of sticking with DJ or entry-level ’tables.
Some of the turntables from the companies I’ve name-checked are costly, and VPI makes a few ’tables in the oligarch audio range, to use audio writer Steven Stone’s clever and, I think, accurate phrase. However, some of them are in a range I’d consider reasonable. I could see myself taking out a loan for a turntable costing $5000 to $10,000 (all prices in USD).
But it is possible to get very good vinyl playback from turntables that are more affordably priced. In some cases, all that’s required to get audiophile-grade performance from a modestly priced turntable is to upgrade a few stock parts. A few tweaks can make for a better listening experience. For some vinyl geeks (guilty as charged!), these tweaks are also part of the fun.
Rega offers two upgrades for its ’tables. A glass platter is available for older Planar 3 turntables (it’s standard on the current model) and a speed control box, the Neo Mk2 PSU, brings more control and speed stability to some Rega models. Bryce Allen is the retail account sales manager at The Sound Organisation, Rega’s US distributor. I asked him if Rega markets any other products to enhance the performance of its turntables. “Rega don’t do anything like that,” he said. “You can change the arm, but with the money involved in that, we say buy more music rather than fiddling around with what we’ve created.”
Allen noted that some other companies sell Rega modifications: “There’s a lot of them we’ve actually tried and some of them are worse [than Rega’s standard offering]. We’ve measured others and they didn’t make the ’table sound better.” Allen advises saving for the next step up in Rega’s line if you want better performance.
Pro-Ject and Music Hall, on the other hand, do offer ways to get better performance from some of their lower-priced turntables. Turntables from both companies are made in the same factory in the Czech Republic and have a few similarities. I’m going to focus on Pro-Ject, since I have two of its ’tables, with some brief comments to follow about Music Hall.
I own a Pro-Ject Debut III, a fine entry-level hi-fi ’table, which I bought for a second system I use for casual listening in my living room. I soon realized I wanted the more refined sound I was getting from my reference Pro-Ject 1Xpression Carbon Classic. A little research led me to change out some of the stock parts for something better.
My first step was to replace the stock metal platter on the Debut III with Pro-Ject’s Acryl it platter, which costs $149. As you’ve probably already guessed, the Acryl it platter is made from acrylic, which is less resonant than the stock platter and larger in diameter. The original platter left an inch or so of overhang between its perimeter and the outer edge of the LP.
The Acryl it platter is easy to install: just remove the old platter and place the new one on the subplatter’s spindle. Playback on the Debut III immediately sounded better with the Acryl it. The midrange was more pronounced, and the overall sound was fuller and more balanced. Bass had more snap and highs were less edgy and more natural. The differences weren’t dramatic, but worth the cost.
Pro-Ject also offers a better subplatter for its Debut line. The stock subplatter is made of a light plastic or polymer, and the Debut Alu subplatter ($179) is machined from aluminum. According to Pro-Ject, “the diamond-cut aluminum material can be machined to tighter tolerances than the standard material and adds mass to the drive system, resulting in more effective damping of unwanted noise and resonance. The high-precision machining increases overall speed accuracy and improves wow & flutter.”
The Debut Alu is heavier than the stock subplatter and installs easily. You remove the belt that runs from the motor to the subplatter, pull the subplatter up from the plinth of the turntable, and replace it with the Debut Alu. A small amount of oil on the bottom spindle of the new subplatter might be a good idea. Pro-Ject sells a small bottle of lube for $25, but a couple of drops of Tri-Flow or a similar light oil should do. Just a couple of drops, though. Reinstall the belt, and you’re ready to go.
The difference the Alu brought to my Debut III was so striking that I removed it, put the old one back in, and went back and forth between them to make sure I wasn’t imagining the differences I heard. Vocals were far more sharply focused and three-dimensional; low bass was more forceful, and bass attack was stronger; and instruments were placed more precisely and sounded more solid.
The need for speed
Older Pro-Ject and Music Hall turntables, such as the Debut III, use a 15V AC outboard power supply. I picked up a Music Hall Cruise Control 2.0, an external box that uses quartz-lock speed control. At the time I bought the Cruise Control, Pro-Ject had stopped making its Speed Box S2, which is now back in production and costs $200. The Cruise Control 2.0 currently retails for $449.
Both units add greater stability to the motor and let you change speeds from 33⅓ to 45 rpm without lifting the platter and moving the belt. Two buttons on the front panel of the Cruise Control enable fine-tuning—adjusting to a slightly faster or slower speed at the 33⅓ or 45 rpm settings—and a display screen shows the speed you’ve chosen. The Speed Box also lets you change speeds but does not allow any adjustments. Two blue LEDs display the selected speed.
The Music Hall Cruise Control tightened up the sound of vinyl playback on the Debut III and gave more precision and focus to the music. I never thought the Debut III drifted in speed during, say, solo piano pieces with long sustained notes, but the Cruise Control brought more tonal consistency to those passages and more solidity overall to music. Given that the Speed Box S2 operates on the same principle, the results should be similar.
If you have a Debut III, you’ll benefit from all three of the modifications I’ve described so far. Pro-Ject’s new Debut line uses a DC power supply that does not require an external speed control. The newer Debuts have better specifications for speed variation and have an onboard switch that allows you to easily change speeds. The Acryl it platter and Alu subplatter are both available for current Debut turntables, and Pro-Ject makes variations for some of its other turntables.
As I noted earlier, I also have a Pro-Ject 1Xpression Carbon Classic, which has the newer DC power supply, a heftier platter, and steadier playback than the stock Debut III. With modifications, the Debut III sounds as good to me as the 1Xpression, but those modifications brought the total investment for the ’table to a little over $1100, about the same as the 1Xpression out of the box. Would it have been easier to buy a higher-priced ’table than the Debut III up front rather than fool with the modifications? Sure, but what fun would that have been?
Music Hall markets an acrylic platter that will work with the models in its MMF series. If your Music Hall ’table uses AC outboard power, the Cruise Control should also work—check with your dealer or email Music Hall. Music Hall does not market a subplatter upgrade.
Puttin’ on the stylus
Both of my Pro-Ject turntables benefited from a move to a better stylus. I switched out the stock Ortofon 2M Silver cartridge on the 1Xpression for an Audio-Technica VM540ML that I had stored away. The 2M Silver uses an elliptical stylus, while the VM540ML uses a microline stylus, which tracks more accurately and is manufactured to higher standards.
I picked up the Blue Note Classic pressing of Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions, a 2019 reissue of a Blue Note release from 1964. On my Debut III, I noticed some distortion during louder passages of the track “Triangle.” If the comments from folks on Discogs are any indication, this is a common experience. When I played the album on the 1Xpression Carbon Classic with the Audio-Technica microline stylus installed, the distortion was gone.
I was using an Ortofon OM 10 on my Debut III, so I decided to root through the cabinet where I store audio interconnects and other gear to see if I had kept any old OM 20 styli around. The OM 20 is a nude elliptical stylus. I did have one, and installed it on the Debut III. When I replayed the Hancock track, I could no longer hear that distortion.
If your Pro-Ject turntable came with an Ortofon 2M Red or 2M Silver cartridge, you should upgrade it with a 2M Blue stylus ($209). If it came with a Sumiko Rainier installed, you should move up to a Sumiko Olympia stylus ($119). If your Pro-Ject came with an Ortofon OM 5E, replace it with the OM 20 stylus ($215).
The price increase is significant, especially for the Ortofon styli, but worth it. You’ll hear smoother high frequencies, better definition on low frequencies, and more textured vocals. The Ortofon Red and Sumiko Rainier are fine cartridges, but the upgraded styli will bring out more details and a deeper and wider soundstage from your LPs.
If, like me, you buy used vinyl online from Discogs, at yard sales, or from used-record stores, you’ll enjoy listening to them more with a nude elliptical or better stylus. Groove noise caused by a previous owner’s heavy-tracking tonearm will be considerably reduced by better styli, which rest more deeply and solidly in the record groove.
My final suggestion to improve the sound of an affordable turntable is to isolate it from vibration. Pro-Ject created an online resource describing different methods to isolate a turntable, and there are plenty of good suggestions there. Pro-Ject makes an isolation platform, the Ground it E ($199). Made from heavy MDF, it sits on four conical feet, each with a damping ring. Thorens and IsoAcoustics make similar products in the same price range.
You can make your own platform for considerably less. Both of my ’tables sit on platforms I made from luan plywood cut to leave a couple of inches on each side of the turntable. I painted them flat black and put vibration-canceling material on the underside. You can experiment with Sorbothane, cork, or foam, but I stumbled on something more effective. Years ago, I read an article called “Cheap Tweaks” that described a product called Sticky Balls: “1.75″ hemispheres of ‘Memory Gel,’ a tacky polymer substance both icky and effective at damping vibration.”
The article on the web remains, and it has some other great ideas, but the damping material is no longer available. I’ve searched for it several times, ordered stuff that seemed like it might be what I was looking for, and have been stymied. If you’re a well-heeled audiophile or audio manufacturer, consider finding a way to make and sell these memory-gel balls.
By isolating a turntable, you’re eliminating external vibration that can affect playback. You can easily test if your turntable is well isolated. Lower the stylus onto the outer groove of a record without turning on the motor. If you do a light thump on the plinth with your finger, you’ll hear that sound amplified in your speakers. If you thump the shelf holding the turntable, you’ll still hear something, although it will be fainter. If you place the turntable on an isolation platform and thump the shelf on either side of the platform, you shouldn’t hear anything from your speakers.
My isolation platforms are so effective I can turn my integrated amps up full, tap the shelves beside each isolation platform soundly, and hear no noise coming from my speakers. A stylus is a tiny, tiny thing that vibrates as it travels through a record groove and then sends the information picked up in that groove, through a series of electronic events, to your speakers. Any external vibration, however minimal, that makes its way to the stylus can degrade performance.
Since isolating both my turntables, music seems to pour forth more effortlessly from LPs. If I remove the isolation platform and set the turntable directly on the shelf, music doesn’t flow with the same ease; and it sounds less spacious. If I drop the stylus on the lead-in groove without the motor running, I can’t hear anything at most listening levels, but if I crank the amp up full I can hear some white noise that I attribute to tiny vibrations traveling through the plinth. If I replace the isolation platform under the ’table and crank up the volume, I hear the hushed whisper of the phono stage or phono preamp, but other background noise is gone.
Turntables closing in on $3000 and above will include materials and design innovations that should make an isolation platform less important, but the sound of many ’tables below that price will benefit from banishing external vibrations.
I’m sure many SoundStage! Network readers have turntables costing less than $1000, and the modifications and tweaks I’ve described here could help to get the most out of them. Even some slightly more expensive ’tables will benefit from a better stylus or isolation from vibration. If you feel you’re not getting the transporting experience from vinyl that you’ve been promised, try a few of these suggestions.
. . . Joseph Taylor