The Vinyl Listening Experience Doesn’t Have To Be Expensive

It’s 2017 as of the writing of this blog post and we currently enjoy technology that most would not have dreamed possible 15 or even 10 years ago. TV shows and movies can be quickly streamed over services like Netflix and Hulu, video games can be downloaded over Steam or the Xbox store, apps that do just about anything can be downloaded to our iPhones, iPads, and Androids in mere seconds, and nearly any song or album imaginable can be downloaded or streamed from iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, or *insert streaming service here*. It would seem that the physical medium is dying….except it’s not.

While services like Spotify have continued to grow more popular, physical mediums like the vinyl record and CD have made a resurgence. This is partly due to the obvious loss of audio quality from streaming music vs. listening to it in a lossless or near lossless format, and it’s partly due to the nostalgia of collecting CDs or records.

Even as a child of the late 80s, I can fondly remember buying my first CD and quickly expanding my collection. I can also remember that funny looking bulky gadget in the dining room of our up north cabin which spun records–I had no idea how to operate it, but it looked cool. I feel nostalgia for these things so I can only imagine what it feels like for people who grew up with vinyl, then saw that overtaken by cassette and then again by CD and then by MP3s and now by streaming.

The Younger Generation Embraces Old Technology

What’s crazy is that even those who grew up exclusively surrounded by digital music are now embracing the physical medium. My niece (15 at the time) is a great example of this. She and her siblings decided to purchase an all-in-one vinyl, cassette and CD player which is now enjoyed by the kids and their parents alike. They’ve since built up a nice collection of vinyl records and CDs.

By the time my niece had gotten into vinyl records and CDs, I had long since abandoned my CD collection. I used my iPhone and iPod exclusively for music listening. CDs were just too bulky to carry around in the house or car, and when my iPhone could do everything I needed, why would I deal with the clutter of the CD? I didn’t want to totally get rid of my CDs, though (sentimental value and all), so I packaged them up and put them in storage. Once my niece started getting into the sort of music I enjoyed as a teenager, I offered to give her some of my old CDs. She found quite a few of them to her liking.

A Longing For Musical Nostalgia

Sometime late last year I started to get back into music in a major way. It started with a new found interest in the bass guitar, followed by months spent learning how to play the instrument, and culminating in listening to lots of new music that inspired my bass guitar playing. At some point I pulled out one of the few CDs I still had in my closet (U2’s “Achtung Baby”), listened to it in the car, and was quickly brought back to my teenage years. The listening experience was so much better, so much more immersive than merely listening to individual songs on a playlist on my iPhone. I longed for the music listening experience of my teens. I wanted to get a CD player and listen to music that way again.

After also listening to vinyl records on my niece’s player, I quickly realized that I wanted to get a vinyl player, too. So with those things in mind, I set out trying to find a gadget that give me high quality play of vinyl records and CDs.

A Quality All-In-One Doesn’t Exist

Unfortunately several hours of research lead me to one conclusion: a good all-in-one solution doesn’t exist. While all-in-one vinyl/CD/cassette players have been flooding the market in recent years, none are particularly good. All have flaws (whether it’s subpar audio quality, an inadequate vinyl player or a combination of both), all aren’t really aesthetically pleasing, and most are well over $100…which seems absurdly expensive considering how old the technology itself is.

I quickly decided that my best bet was to purchase the individual components themselves.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. CD players aren’t found all over Walmart, Best Buy etc. as easily as they were even 10 years ago when you could find numerous portable CD players or stereos in the electronics section. Even Amazon has a small selection of CD players and those that they do have are either overpriced (due to their scarcity) or poorly reviewed.

After lots of research, I went with the GPX HM3817DTBK micro system. It came with a pair of speakers, AM/FM capability, AUX input, and a CD player. I bought it knowing that I only wanted the CD player functionality–the speakers were considered to be junk and I had no need for the other features. It was $31.99 at the time of purchase but has since gone up to $38.99 which is a little more than I’d be willing to pay for it.

Despite some reviews to the contrary, this has actually been a very solid CD player for me. Nearly 5 months later, it still plays CDs flawlessly. Even my old burned mixtape CDs play well. Although the unit itself is a little bulky, it can be wall mounted and has a sliding deck, so it looks a little sleek:

Once I found the CD player, I set out trying to find a vinyl record player….and quickly fell into a trap that I presume many aspiring beginner vinyl record collectors fall into.

Your Record Player Is Junk Unless It’s a Technics Or Pioneer Or *Insert Highly Regarded Turntable Here*

Here’s the unfortunate reality of the vinyl record collecting world of today: many collectors are snobs. They’re audiophiles who laugh at beginners who pick up a Crosley record player. They scoff at those who use inferior speakers. And they constantly recommend searching high and low for a vintage player like a Technics or Pioneer. Oh, and these must be paired with a great vintage receiver and stereo speakers.

All of that is fine. They make a great point and if it’s at all possible, you should follow their advice. However, what works for one person might not work well for another and it’s important to not let their advice scare you away from the vinyl record world. It almost scared me away because I could not afford to spend hundreds on my setup and I did not have space for a big, bulky old school setup.

After nearly giving up, I decided to purchase a record player that received good reviews on average but was pooh-poohed by vinyl snobs: the Audio Technica LP-60. It was said that this record player was meant for beginners and that the needle was barely adequate and may wear/tear your records in ways that a more expensive player wouldn’t.

This hasn’t been my experience at all. The LP-60 hasn’t harmed any of my records and does a good job of playing most records. The only records it has struggled to play have been those from my dad’s collection which are all scratched/slightly warped due to years of staying in a moist basement. I would say for $80, the LP-60 is a great deal and is far above the quality of any all-in-one player on the market.

But What About The Speakers?

There was just one more part of the equation: the speakers. Here, too, I ran into the struggle of trying to find decent speakers for a reasonable price. By this point, I was already out $110ish between the CD player and vinyl player.

Of course, music snobs have a lot of opinions about speakers, as mentioned above. Every option I found seemed inadequate. The options that I did find which were recommended were passive speakers which required an amplifier. Here, too, presented a problem: good amplifiers aren’t cheap, and the cheap ones are very hit or miss.

After lots of research/frustration I went with the simplest option available: repurposing my Logitech Z200 stereo sound speakers for my CD/vinyl player setup.

Surprisingly, these speakers are more than adequate for my bedroom music listening space. If you don’t have a ton of money to spare, then I’d definitely recommend these:

 

I now had a perfectly decent vinyl/CD player setup for just $130, less than the cost of an all-in-one but arguably of superior quality to any Crosley on the market.

How Does It Sound?

The answer to this is: surprisingly good. Obviously, it’s got nothing on more expensive setups, but it’s far, far better than listening to music through a bluetooth speaker or even in the car. The first album I played on my CD player (“Achtung Baby”) sounded absolutely incredible–the vocals, the guitar, the drums, the bass, all of it was totally crisp sounding. My niece’s copy of “The Last Hero” by Alter Bridge sounded amazing on the vinyl player. I quickly realized that I had made the right call with the minimalist, fairly inexpensive setup.

Now several months later, I’ve since invested in a Spin Clean and have begun cleaning up my dad’s old records. It’s already worth it because listening to “Purple Rain” the other night on vinyl was incredible.

But Yes, I’m Upgrading

Although I love the current setup, I am upgrading…sort of. I’m currently planning a modified setup with a homemade record player wall mount, mounting the CD player on the wall, and putting up a couple small shelves for the speakers to sit on. I’ve also picked up a 3-way audio switch box so that I don’t have to unplug/plug in cables every time I want to switch listening devices. I plan to get better speakers, but am still figuring out which ones to buy since I don’t want to spend a lot, but I also want to get a pair that will last a while.

Once the setup is complete, I’ll be doing another blog post with pictures and more of an in-depth explanation on how I put it together.

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