One of the most common questions I receive on Instagram is: "I'm new to vinyl. Can you recommend a turntable and system for me?" The question is more difficult than it sounds as I typically only purchase vintage equipment, and most people are looking for something new which is also affordable. The real cost of vinyl is in the records themselves, and as a physical media, good quality and budget-friendly system options are difficult to achieve.
Many people start their vinyl experience with all-in-one systems like a Crosley suitcase player. If you care about preserving your expensive vinyl, I highly discourage this option as inexpensive players are notoriously hard on vinyl. Instead, with just a bit of DIY effort, you can build a high-quality, expandable system for around $500.
Thoughts on budget
The system I recommend consists of a separate turntable, amplifier, and speakers, and costs around $500. I purchased this system myself at retail, and don't have any biases toward specific companies. I spent a lot of time researching components based on my experience to keep the budget in-check. I tried a couple lower cost options for speakers, but ultimately found them to be too much of a compromise in quality and couldn't recommend them.
One option which I didn't test is using powered speakers instead of a separate amplifier. This option may decrease the cost slightly at the cost of flexibility and expandability in the future.
If you feel $500 is more than you can spend for a vinyl system, then you might want to consider a streaming only option, or, if you know someone who is into vintage HiFi, used. For less than $500 for a new vinyl system, the compromises in quality become significant, and you risk either having a bad experience, or worse, damaging your valued vinyl.
For the impatient here are the components I recommend:
- Fluance RT-80 Turnable
- Fostex FE83NV2 Full-range drivers (Note: I used the FE83NV, but they have been replaced with the FE83NV2)
- Fostex FE83 Cabinets
- Fosi Audio BT-20a Class D Amplifier and Bluetooth Receiver
Odds and Ends
The Fluance RT-80 Turntable
Finding an expensive turntable isn't an easy feat. Turntables are complex devices with electro-magnetic pickups and require precise motor speeds. Many low end turntables compromise on upgradability to hit a price point. That's not the case with the Fluance, as it has an Audio Technica cartridge mounted to a "universal" headshell, and an adjustable counterweight. The table also has a built in "phono" pre-amp which boosts and equalizes the signal from turntable prior to amplification. This can be defeated, but since the amplifier I used in this system doesn't have a phono input, I used the phono pre-amp in the turntable itself.
The ability to remove and upgrade the cartridge was a significant reason I choose this table. Many low-end tables have fixed counterweights and cartridges. The cartridges is the critical electro-magnetic device which transfer energy from the grooves of the record into an electric signal. Cartridges can significantly effect the overall tone and performance of the table. As listeners become more familiar with vinyl playback, cartridges are common upgrades, and there are 1000s of new and used to choose from. With that said, I didn't have any significant performance problems with the stock cartridge, and felt it was a good place to start.
But the table isn't without compromise. For one the table is very light construction compared to commercial grade tables like the Technics 1200. Also the counterbalance doesn't have a lot of mass and I wasn't able to counterbalance heavier moving coil (MC) cartridges like the Denon DL-103r. More common moving magnet (MM) cartridges worked fine.
The one issue I had with the table was one of the pins on the tonearm which contacts the cartridge got stuck in. I was able to fix this with the needle on a Deoxit bottle, but this shows the tradeoff of using a inexpensive table. I have 6 Technics 1200 of differing age and use, and none of them have had this problem. While I was able to remedy the problem, it did confound me a bit, and might cause others more significant problems.
Overall though for the money, I found the table easy to setup and use, with features which make it upgradeable in the future. I should note I paid $169 for this table, but it currently sells for $199 on Amazon.
Fostex FE83NV Speakers and Cabinets
The most difficult decision in the budget system was the speakers. After considering multiple options, I decided to compromise to come with-in budget. What was the compromise? Some light assembly on the speakers is required. The drivers and cabinets separately were purchased separately a the drivers needed to be wired and mounted to the cabinets.
The Fostex FE83NV drivers I decided are no longer available, but have been replaced with the very similar FE83NV2. What makes these drivers different from most common drivers is they are meant to reproduce a broad frequency spectrum including the entire critical mid-range. There is only one driver in the final system with no electronics, which provides a very simple signal path from the amplifier to the speakers.
Once assembled, the speakers have a very delicate sounding mid-range, especially at lower volumes. Horns and percussion jump out of the speakers with precise articulation.
I really enjoy the simplicity of this style of speakers. But there is one major drawback, and that is bass response. For the price of this system I had to compromise somewhere I decided to compromise on bass with the assumption that the system could later be upgraded with a powered subwoofer to address the issue. I did test these speakers with my Fostex 31" Superwoofer and it was a really good match, especially while listening to the FE83s in the near-field.
I want to add a couple notes about the speaker assembly which took about an hour. It did take about a month to receive the cabinets from Eastern Europe on eBay. The cabinets themselves are made of plywood and not MDF and are neatly laminated. Overall they are very handsome cabinets which look good with our decor.
Once I received the cabinets, I replaced the binding posts with higher quality Dayton posts which were easier to solder. I soldered about 8" of Belden speaker wire to the posts, and had my wife attach it to the binding posts since I couldn't get my hands into the the cabinet openings. I probably could have attached it with a pair of pliers, but it was easier to enlist my wife's small hands in this case. I soldered the leads to the FE83s and mounted the drivers by carefully screwing them in with a power screwdriver. I drilled a small pilot hole first, and then finished mounting them. I should mention that I did build another pair of FE83s and failed to drill the pilot hole, and I slipped and drilled a hole through the driver itself. Don't do that.
This is a little more DIY than some systems may require, but in someways it makes you more connected to the system and may encourage you to take on larger projects in the future. The final result is a fine quality speaker at a low price point.
Fosi Audio BT-20a Amplifier
The last piece of the system, and probably the least important is the Fosi BT-20a class D Amplifier. Class D amplifiers are very efficient, use little power, and can be bought fairly inexpensively (although high quality "audiophile" quality class D amps can get pretty expensive).
I've owned multiple Fosi amps and they all worked well. I think I had one failed after about a year of use, but considering the low cost, I just replaced it.
This amplifier has Bluetooth 5 integration which provides an alternative listening source for streaming music from Spotify or other services.
Bringing it together
Finally I connected the speakers and turntable to the amplifier. I used a few feet of Belden wire to connect the speakers and just terminated it with bare wire. I connected the turntable to the Aux input on the Fosi, and connected the ground wire to the Bluetooth antenna. These connections took about 5 minutes.
Overall I'm happy with how this system came out. I spent a few hours testing it and enjoyed listening to it. I am pleased with the mid-range presence of the Fostex speakers and the turntable proved easy to use. I would have no concerns recommending this system.
Also the system makes a great base which is upgradable. Everything in this system is upgradable. Some upgrades you could make would include:
- A powered subwoofer for better bass response
- A tube amp to power the Fostex
- A better cartridge for improved vinyl reproduction
But even without those upgrades, I enjoyed this system, and I hope you do too! Let me know if you decide on all or part of this system.