We’re in the age of digital music — a period in the history of recorded music where any song and any artist is accessible on our mobile phones at anytime. While digital music makes it easier than ever to consume music, formats like vinyl records have not gone away. In fact, in 2017 14% of all physical music was sold on vinyl LP records — and there’s a reason for it.
Unlike digital music, there is a physicality to vinyl records, a slowness to it, that requires a listener to browse a stack, pull out a record and slip it onto a turntable. And while digital music may be easier to consume, there is a certain pleasure in hearing music played on a turntable. Audiophiles will tell you that the sound is warmer on records than digital files or CD (this author believes there is some truth to that), and that due to the nature of having to lift a needle on and off a platter, it forces one to listen through a complete album (or at least one side) rather than flipping through tracks with a swipe of your finger.
Getting into vinyl records is easy and rewarding. You simply need a handful of components: a turntable with needle, an amplifier, and two speakers. But not all parts are created equal, and most of the time, you get what you pay for. This guide shares our go-to gear for enjoying records like a true vinyl junkie. We stick to basic, easy-to-find components in hopes that they’ll inspire you to get bit by the vinyl bug.
We start with the turntable and this is one of the better sub-$500 tables you can buy. Pro-Ject turntables are quite appealing for their modern design and out-of-the-box convenience. The Ortofon 2M Red cartridge (which houses the needle that makes the sound blast off the vinyl) comes preinstalled, requiring very little setup. Simply plug the turntable into the phono input on your amp and go! At $395, it’s a worthy investment.
As mentioned, all turntables need a “phono stage” to amplify the sound coming from the turntable needle to your speakers, but finding a phono stage that isn’t a separate unit or part of a large, integrated receiver can be tough. PS Audio’s Sprout 100 is a strong solution. It’s compact chassis provides a turntable phono input as well as support for other analog and digital devices, plus Bluetooth audio support. It’s a beefy little amp with good power to run a pair of bookshelf speakers. Once you plug them in, you’re ready to go.
Don’t let the price point veer you away. When it comes to building a two-channel hi-fi system to play music, your money is best spent on speakers. Simply put: Speakers are the heart and soul of your system. They need to sound great and look even better to complement your refined taste. Components matter of course, but upgrade those in accordance with your speakers, not the other way around.
A great pair is the KEF R3 Bookshelf speakers. They’re part of KEF’s upgraded R Series line that looks to bring music closer to the source by reaching for “reference” level sound — a term hi-fi nerds use to describe the purest sound going from source to speaker. What makes them appealing to us isn’t just how they sound, but also how they look. Featuring a modern design on the speaker box and drivers, the KEF R3s are speakers that will provide you with beautiful sound for years and years. We believe they’ll sound better with time too. Don’t forget to pick up speaker wire. Start with these for $14 and move onto Anticables Level 2.1 if you want to go upstream down the road.
One of those no-brainer subscription services, VMP offers members exclusive new and reissued music in special editions every month. Members get special edition colors, club-only exclusives, and more delivered right to their doorstep. They cover all genres: Look for Cash Money limited-edition issues and hard-to-find Willie Nelson records. Join the club, and pick one of three subscription models based on your choosing: Classics, Essentials, or Rap & Hip-Hop.
There is no better ambient soundtrack to play through your new hi-fi set up than Eno’s legendary Music for Airports. The record is a fantastic journey through sound and space as your ears focus in on the layering of sound and air that makes Eno’s work enjoyable by all. Look for this new 2018 two-vinyl version remastered at the legendary Abbey Road Studio. Want more Eno? Pick up the rest of his remastered catalog including Music for Films, Discreet Music, and On Land.
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