Having exhausted most of my playlists on Tidal over the past couple of weeks of working remotely, I’ve begun the process of listening to my favorite albums on vinyl as a form of escape. The act of cleaning both record and stylus before listening on one of my turntables has been somewhat elusive during the first few weeks of the global pandemic, but over the weekend as the wind and rain pelted the side of our home on the Jersey Shore I decided that enough was enough. Normality has been absent for too long. With all of my weekly record haunts closed across the Garden State, I had to make do with some unopened records, a new record cleaning machine (review forthcoming), and an innovative new wireless loudspeaker designed to be a base for turntables. No pity party for this audiophile as dedicated health care professionals are working tirelessly down the block from our home 24-7 at our local trauma center to save neighbors and friends. Listening to vinyl is a luxury and a welcome stress relief right now. Nothing more.
The economic impact of this crisis has also put an enormous strain on the companies that make listening to vinyl possible; which makes us even more grateful to the companies who continue to keep the light on and send us products to write about. We’re all about supporting the small businesses that have always been the backbone of the high-end audio community because they have always been driven by a passionate love of the music that connects all of us.
Best Restored Turntable
Vinyl Nirvana Thorens TD-160 Series (from $629.00 – $2,195.00)
Vinyl Nirvana is a custom turntable restoration shop in rural New Hampshire that has developed a global reputation for delivering beautiful, reliable, and exquisite sounding tables. Dave Archambault runs a tight ship and packs each project to survive even the worst delivery conditions. With a customer base that includes famous musicians, actors, and a growing list of audiophiles who have decided that his restored tables offer better long-term value than mass-produced MDF tables overseas, Vinyl Nirvana has become the go-to source for quality restorations of Thorens turntables including the TD-150, TD-160, and TD-160 Super.
The restored Thorens turntables are offered with a selection of tonearms and phono cartridges from Ortofon, Denon, and Dynavector; Archambault also offers a comprehensive selection of hardwood plinths that are beautifully finished. Vinyl Nirvana’s customer service is also first rate; with the proprietor available to talk customers through set-up issues if they arise.
For more information: Vinyl Nirvana
Best Entry-Level Phono Cartridges
Grado Labs Timbre Series (from $275.00 – $1,500)
Based in Brooklyn, Grado Labs has been manufacturing award-winning phono cartridges and headphones for decades making them a pillar of the audio community. The late-Joseph Grado invented the stereo phono cartridge in 1953 at his kitchen table in Brooklyn and the business has been driven forward by three generations of Grado family members. Having visited the house and spent time watching these handmade cartridges painstakingly assembled, there is no question that vinyl listeners are getting quality transducers every time they mount one of the new Timbre Series phono cartridges to a tonearm.
The old Reference Series and Statement Series cartridges have been combined into the new Timbre Series; which include the new Sonata3, Platinum3, Reference3, Master3, and the new Opus3. Each cartridge is available in high-output (4.8mV) and low-output (1.0mV) stereo and mono versions.
The Opus3 offers an affordable entry-level option for $275 and is assembled inside a maple body while the remaining models are made from an Australian Jarrah wood.
Grado Labs cartridges have always had a very specific “house” sound that emphasized midrange and low-end punch at the expense of inner detail, and top-end information – but we think you can toss that into the dustbin of history with the new Timbre models. All of the signature Grado midrange and low punch still exists, but we find these new carts to be quieter in the groove, more transparent sounding, and far superior in the detail department to the cartridges that they have replaced. These American-made phono cartridges may be the best sounding affordable cartridges available right now.
For More Information: Grado Labs Timbre Series
Best Affordable Wireless Loudspeaker with Phono Pre-amplifier
Andover Audio Spinbase ($300.00)
Vibration is the enemy when it comes to vinyl playback and there is nothing worse than placing a pair of loudspeakers on the same surface as a turntable unless one of the two components is isolated from the other using vibration control stands or a platform. Andover Audio has a slightly more affordable solution that addresses both the loudspeaker and vibration issue in a very compact and great-sounding package well worth your attention.
Designed for vinyl lovers desiring a compact, yet premium speaker solution for their turntable, the Spinbase features Andover’s feedback eliminating Isogroove™ technology and Bluetooth streaming, with audio performance that is designed to be comparable to a pair of bookshelf loudspeakers.
The Spinbase audio system utilizes a clever arrangement of two woofers and two tweeters to produce an expansive stereo image. Traditional component systems create “sweet spots”, which only provide one ideal listening location. Spinbase fills the room with a surprisingly balanced sound stage, making every location the best place to listen.
With support for additional auxiliary devices, such as a music streamer or CD player, and Bass and Treble EQ controls on the back panel, users can tweak the tonal balance of the Spinbase to best match their listening space.
The top platform of the Spinbase is large enough for an entry-level turntable like an Orbit+ from U-Turn Audio or Pro-Ject T1 which fit into the price range of the Spinbase making it ideal for an office or dorm room system.
Sonically, the internal phono section of the Spinbase worked quite well with the pre-installed Grado Labs Black2 that came with my daughter’s Orbit+ turntable; the midrange resolution of the affordable cartridge was well preserved by the loudspeaker system and while it wasn’t the last word in top end detail or extension, the Soundbase won’t make you reach for the volume knob to turn things down either. The system has good dynamic punch and a surprisingly wide soundstage; albeit with some restrictions on absolute loudness.
For $300, its performance with both streaming (Bluetooth 5.0 support) and vinyl playback is a lot of fun.
For more information: Andover Audio Spinbase
Best Affordable Vacuum Record Cleaner
Record Doctor VI Record Cleaning Machine ($299.95)
The resurgence of vinyl was not only a boon for turntable and cartridge manufacturers but for the accessories market as well. Record cleaning machines never really vanished with brands like VPI and Nitty Gritty keeping the market well supplied but the rebirth of the record created an opening for other brands already in the analog playback space to offer their own cleaning machines. Consumers can spend anywhere from $80 to $6,000 for a record cleaning machine and there is some merit to the expense if your record collection continues to grow and you really care about preserving your collection and the lifespan of your cartridge.
Clean records sound better and that means more playback hours for your cartridge if you take the time to clean and store your vinyl properly. The VPI HW 16.5 has to be considered the go-to unit if you have a large record collection and want something that will last a very long time. It’s loud and not the prettiest piece of industrial design but it does the job well every single time. We know people who still use 20 year-old units on a daily basis and will buy nothing else. The issue for most people getting into vinyl is the cost of a record cleaning machine; the VPI HW 16.5 retails for $799.95 which is more than most listeners have spent on their table/cartridge set-up. If you have a budget of $800, the VPI is the model to buy. For vinyl lovers with a maximum budget of $300, the Record Doctor VI is an excellent alternative.
The new Record Doctor VI Record Cleaning Machine is the first major upgrade to the original Record Doctor V in the last ten years. The new machine is quieter and cleans better than any other entry-level unit which offers vacuum cleaning. The Record Doctor VI utilizes a high-performance vacuum motor to remove all of the cleaning fluid and dirt from the surface of your records while you manually turn the record with the included injection-molded turner that also covers the entire record label to prevent damage.
The unit comes with a deep-cleaning applicator brush which you use to scrub clean the grooves with a record cleaning solution; the manufacturer sells their own cleaning solution, but we had good success with both VPI and Mobile Fidelity cleaning solutions as well.
For $300, the Record Doctor VI does the job and without a lot of fuss. Like any record cleaning machine with a vacuum, there is a noise factor to contend with and this unit is only slightly quieter than other units that we have used.
For more information: Record Doctor VI