Vinyl was down -- but don't count it out.
Despite almost being beaten to death in the 80's by digital media (namely tapes, then CDs) -- and battered by the compressed music files revolution thanks to
iPod, iTunes and iPhone, old-fashioned vinyl LPs are making a comeback.
No, I don't expect everyone to put down their digital portables and strap a turntable to their backs -- but slowly, quietly, these old-fashioned, 12-inch disks have an all-new following.
You can usually find "classic" albums for a few dollars at auctions or even for a buck or two at garage sales. And, there are some artists that are marketing their new albums for sale as LPs, CDs and downloads. For instance, Elvis Costello's new collection was released first on vinyl, then, two weeks later as downloads, then on CD.
Turntable playback systems can cost a fortune. Not a small fortune -- a
fortune. You can spend well over $100,000 on an esoteric turntable (the large device that spins in a circle), tonearm (the long device that holds the cartridge) and cartridge (the little electrical generator that holds the diamond needle).
But, I've been doing months of research and can now tell you how you can get back into vinyl for under a grand.
I've even discovered a way to create a fantastic sounding system for less than $500.
My first recommendation is don't do what I started out doing. I decided it would be great to go onto
and buy an old turntable -- clean it up a bit -- and enjoy listening to music.
I bought a nearly 40-year old Kenwood belt-idler drive turntable for $75 plus shipping. When it arrived I found that I needed to scrape years of dirt and dust from nearly everywhere, lubricate every moving part, rebuild the sealed turntable bearing (with special foam rubber and a new ball bearing) then find a tonearm headshell to hold the cartridge/needle in place.
Kenwood couldn't help with any information on my PC-350 turntable. They said it was probably purchased at an Army PX during the Vietnam War and hand-carried into the country. Luckily, I found someone selling a similar model who was kind enough to make a copy of the instruction manual.
Unfortunately, it didn't tell me anything I didn't know.
The people at Audio Technica USA were kind enough to hand-carry one of their special weighted headshells for use in the Kenwood's arm. They're not sold in the United States. Japanese online retailers sell them for $100 or so plus shipping. That's more than the turntable itself.
In short, I didn't spend much money -- but, I'd say I spent 100 hours of my time, to get the $75 turntable to sound great. Don't bother trying this yourself (unless you're a masochist).
Luckily, I found a way to find a great turntable at an affordable price.
Bill Neumann is an expert in architectural woodworking by trade. He is also a genius when it comes to fixing and, more importantly, rebuilding classic Dual turntables. His love for Duals began when he was a teenager and continues today. I'd say he knows everything there is to know about every model Dual turntable ever made.
Bill started to repair his own Duals when the U.S. importer stopped importing them years ago. That's when he found it necessary to keep his turntables in working order. Then friends asked him to help with their Duals, and word spread.
Now Bill finds/buys older machines and refurbishes them from top to bottom. He then sells them
and on eBay at very reasonable prices.
I asked Bill to send me a sample or two of his work. A few days later I received an absolutely stunning rebuilt Dual 1219 (12-inch platter) and its cousin, a 1218 (similar, except with a 10-inch platter). They were delivered in perfect condition because Bill is also a pro at packing these things for shipping worldwide.
Not only are these great to look at, but they sound absolutely amazing. I could spend hours telling you just how good Bill's work is -- but why waste your time reading when you should be listening. Go online, and like hundreds of others, get one for yourself.
The deluxe 1219 with a plastic dust cover sells for $375, plus shipping. That includes a great-sounding phono cartridge of Bill's choice. The system is plug-and-play. So is the smaller 1218 which sells for $275, plus freight.
The other half of this equation is the speakers. To meet our system price points I'm recommending two models from
. They sell incredible-sounding powered speaker systems. Their Model 5s sell for $349. The amazing Model 2s sell for $200. Either would be the basis for a small stereo system (into which you could also plug in your iPod).
The only other item you would need is a phono preamp -- a box that equalizes and boosts the signal from your turntable cartridge. There are many affordable choices I could recommend: from the
($73.50) to the terrific
($149) or the highly regarded, fire-engine red
If you combine the 1219, the Bellari and the Audioengine 5s, you're at the $1,000 mark. Less if you choose the Hagerman. If you shop carefully online you might be able to save a few bucks.
If you choose the Dual 1218, maybe without a dust cover (or Bill can suggest a different Dual that will sell for $200 with a cover) the IEC phono preamp and the Audioengine 2s -- you'll be the proud owner of a great vinyl system for under $500.
I did the legwork. You enjoy.
Gary Krakow is TheStreet.com's senior technology correspondent.