What can you do when you have favorite old LPs that haven't been converted into digital form? Convert them yourself. Here are 5 USB turntables that can make it easier.
If you've got a collection of LPs (those pre-MP3, pre-CD, flat black platter-like things) or even 45s (like LPs, but smaller) sitting in boxes somewhere, there are probably some tunes on them, even entire albums, that you wouldn't mind having on your portable media player. Why not convert these old-fashioned LPs to MP3s yourself?
Fortunately, that's both possible and affordable. There are a number of "USB turntables" out there that include USB ports and onboard electronics to help you MP3-ize your vinyl albums. And if you still have a working turntable, there's even a way to use the one you've got to convert analog music to digital.
Most USB turntables include cables and circuitry to connect to and digitize music from other audio sources, such as tape decks. Many have analog outputs so you can plug them into a plain old stereo and use them like any turntable. They also include (or recommend) digitization/editing software.
There are even a few USB turntables that record directly to media cards, flash drives, CDs or iPods. The Numark TTi, for instance, records directly to iPods and includes an iPod dock. But even though such "all-in-one" devices can digitize and record directly to these media or devices, if you want to properly "tag" the digitized song tracks -- that is, to add titles, genres and other metadata -- you'll need to use a computer after the recording is done. Based on my testing experiences for this article, you'll end up with the same amount of post-recording work to do.
USB turntables for digitizing your LPs (or for simply listening to them through your computer instead of a stereo system) are available from a dozen or so manufacturers. List prices range from about $120 to $500 (actual street prices can be significantly less).
For this article, I gathered five USB turntables: the Audio-Technica AT-LP2D-USB, Ion TT USB Turntable, Numark TT USB Turntable With USB Audio Interface, Pro-Ject Debut III/Phono USB, and Stanton T.92 USB. List prices ranged from $120 for the Ion turntable to $500 for the Pro-Ject; street prices varied widely.
To see if I could do the same job with a non-USB turntable, I took my still-working Revox B795 turntable and attached it to a USB phono/pre-amp -- a device that contains the amplify/equalize/sound card circuitry that's included in a USB turntable. I chose the Pro-Ject external Phono Box II USB pre-amp. With a list price of $199, it's on the higher side of the price equation; most cost between $20 and $200 (although, as with all audio gear, you can easily find ones that cost lots more).
How we tested
For my tests, I pulled a handful of records from my not-touched-in-over-a-decade orange crates, ranging from beat-up yard sale purchases to previously unopened albums. With each turntable, I used the Windows software that the manufacturer included or recommended to capture the audio stream from the USB cable to my hard drive; split captured sessions into individual tracks (files); tagged them with the album name, artist, and track/title data; and converted digitized tunes into MP3s.
(Note: Because several of the turntables came with the same third-party software, I've reviewed the applications separately.)
The Audio-Technica AT-LP2D-USB LP-to-Digital Recording System is, at 14 inches wide, the narrowest of the five USB turntables I tested.
With a list price of $229 (dust cover included), the Audio-Technica sits pricewise between the Ion TTUSB and Numark TTUSB. (Interestingly, though, some of the retail prices online cut the list price by over 50%.) But price notwithstanding, the Audio-Technica turntable has a lot to recommend it, and nearly no negatives -- in fact, for overall convenience, it's my pick of the lot.
Unlike the other four USB turntables I tested, the Audio-Technica comes almost fully set up. All I had to do (other than take it out of the box) was put the platter on, and slip the belt over the drive pulley.
Software bundled with Audio-Technica includes Cakewalk pyro Audio Creator LE (for PC use) and Audacity (for Mac or PC).
Once set up, the Audio-Technica beats the pants off the Ion and Numark TT turntables for ease of use. It's the only fully automatic turntable of the five I tested. The Start button not only starts the turntable turning but also automatically lifts the tone arm, moves it to the beginning of the record and gently lowers it down to the record. And when the tone arm reaches the end of the record, the turntable automatically lifts the tone arm up, returns it to the starting position, and turns off.
The Audio-Technica also has its tone-arm Up/Down control outside of the dust cover, so you can go directly to a specific track manually without having to raise and lower the dust cover. All this made the Audio-Technica a pleasure to use.
The only thing to complain about is the lack of a tone-arm lock (which the other four tested USB turntables do have) to hold the tone-arm down when moving the turntable. This isn't a showstopper -- but if you need to move the turntable, make sure to reinstall the plastic guard that comes with the stylus cartridge to protect the needle.
All told, the Audio-Technica is the only turntable of the batch reviewed here that I consider suitable for unattended recording sessions, thanks to it being fully automatic. And street-price-wise, it's one of the least expensive of the lot.
At $150, the Ion TT USB turntable has the lowest list price of the lot, and its construction reflects it, notably in the platter, which is plastic and weighs a mere 12 ounces. (All the other turntables' platters are made of metal.) A lighter platter means you may get more micro-fluctuations in speed, reducing accuracy of sound reproduction. A heavier platter evens out the speed and resists external vibrations better.
Despite having the lowest list price of the bunch, the Ion TT USB includes everything you need -- turntable, cartridge, electronics, cables and software. A dust cover, which helps block out noise while you're recording as well as keep dirt and dust off the turntable and record, is separate and costs another $39.95.
The software provided by Ion includes EZ Vinyl Creator (for Windows), EZ Vinyl (for Mac), Audacity (Windows/Mac/Linux freeware) and iTunes (Windows/Mac freeware).
The Ion was easy to assemble. I first connected the USB cable -- that came first because the Ion's USB port is on the underside of the device (an annoying place to put it), along with an output volume control that I set halfway up and then never touched again. (Also underneath: the Phono/Line output switch, which is relevant only if you're plugging the RCA output cables into a stereo.)
The drive belt ships on the underside of the platter -- it's easy to miss if you aren't paying careful attention. I slipped the belt drive over the drive pulley, put the cartridge assembly onto the tone arm, put the tracking weight on and set the tracking weight. After that, it was just a matter of plugging in the power cord, and connecting the USB cable to a computer.
The Ion TT USB Turntable worked perfectly well -- most of the time. But some records skipped when I played them, and the turntable was more prone than the others to skipping if there was vibration, like somebody walking around near the table it was on. This sensitivity was no doubt due to the lightness of the platter and other low-end aspects of the design. Increasing the tracking force stopped the skipping -- but, as noted earlier, too much tracking force isn't good.
MP3s made with the Ion TTUSB sounded good enough on my MP3 player. However, depending on how solid a surface the turntable is on, what condition your records are in, and so on, you may have trouble getting the records to play without skipping. Also, the Ion doesn't have a cueing lever, or auto start/stop, making it more cumbersome to use than a machine with these features, like the Audio-Technica.
Numark and Ion are two of five companies run by Numark Industries, so it's not surprising that the Numark and Ion USB turntables share similar design, setup and controls.
There are differences. The $229 Numark turntable has a somewhat better manufacturing quality (and is therefore somewhat more expensive) than the Ion. For example, unlike the Ion TTUSB, the Numark's platter is aluminum, not plastic, so it is heavier and less sensitive to vibrations.
Like the other turntables here, the Numark plays 33-1/3 and 45 rpm records. According to the company, it can also handle 78 rpm records via software; in other words, you can slow down the audio on your computer after the fact. If you've got old 78 rpm records, it would probably be better to use a turntable like the Stanton T.92 that can actually handle that speed.
Also like the Ion, the Numark doesn't have a tone-arm raising lever for cueing. And again, like the Ion TTUSB, a dust cover for the Numark costs extra, pushing the total price about $40 higher.
In terms of setup, the Numark is identical to the Ion. So the Numark TTUSB is also easy to use: Turn the power on, press Start, make sure the recording software on your computer is on, manually lift the tone arm and set it down on the record, and then quickly click the software to start recording.
The software provided by Numark includes EZ Vinyl Creator (for Windows), EZ Vinyl (for Mac), Audacity (Windows/Mac/Linux freeware) and iTunes (Windows/Mac freeware).
Like the Ion, the Numark doesn't have a cueing lever or automatic stop-at-end-of-record feature. So while it is a better device than the Ion due to its weight and the quality of its components, I can't recommend the Numark over the Audio-Technica, Stanton or Pro-Ject turntables.
Pro-Ject Debut III/Phono USB
The most expensive (with a list price of $499) of the five USB turntables in this roundup, the Pro-Ject Debut III/Phono USB is, without a doubt, the sweetest-looking and highest-quality turntable of the bunch.
The steel platter alone weighs around three pounds, nearly half what the entire Ion turntable weighs. The design is elegant, and the specs read like an audiophile's dream, with phrases like "low-tolerance chrome-plated stainless-steel axle runs on a polished ball bearing in a brass bearing housing" and "gold-plated RCA phono sockets."
There are a few more assembly steps involved in getting the Pro-Ject set up compared to the other four machines reviewed in this article. For example, it ships with two locking screws, which help secure the mechanism during transit and have to be carefully removed.
In addition, the anti-skating mechanism uses a little metal weight on a thin nylon thread; you slip the pre-tied looped end over a notch on a little metal bar on the tone arm. This only takes a few seconds, but requires good eyes and lighting. (By contrast, the other turntables have a dial that regulates an unseen counterweight.)
If you're drawn to well-built gear, you'll have trouble not buying the Pro-Ject over the Audio-Technica, even though it means more hands-on work per record.
For example, the Pro-Ject doesn't have an automatic stop feature, so you have to move the tone arm back manually when the record's over. And while the Pro-Ject turntable has a cueing lever, unlike the Audio-Technica's pushbutton controls, the Pro-Ject's cueing is manual, so you have to raise the dustcover to use it.
Pro-Ject did not include any software with its turntable; the manual suggests the free open-source application Audacity.
If you're an audiophile also looking for a new turntable, don't need the automatic tone-arm pickup at the end of a side, and you've got the money, you'll like this machine. Otherwise, the Pro-Ject Debut III/Phono USB may be too rich for your budget ... and the lack of automatic stop means you can't walk away without risking damage to the needle.
Stanton T.92 USB
The Stanton T.92 USB turntable ($300), like the Pro-Ject USB turntable, is a seriously heavy machine -- at 19 pounds, the heaviest of the five tested. That's actually a good thing, since it means the turntable will be less susceptible to vibration.
In addition to having a tone arm lock and a dust cover, the Stanton T.92 turntable includes some fancier features, like pitch control. There's also a Pitch Control Fader with DSP Key Lock, meaning you can change the tempo without impacting the pitch (in other words, you can make the record play somewhat faster without voices sounding like Alvin and the Chipmunks). This is the type of feature that's popular if you want to play DJ. It's also useful if you're trying to match a tune's playing time to a video sequence.
The Stanton T.92 has a few other features none of the other USB turntables I tried have -- notably, a small strobe light (for calibrating speed), S/PDIF output and the ability to play 78 rpm LPs (invaluable if you collect pre-World War II recordings). Stanton also offers a different needle for playing 78s (which you need, because the grooves on 78s are significantly larger than on 33s or 45s).
The Stanton T.92 turntable is the only one of these five turntables that's direct-drive rather than belt-driven -- the motor connects to the platter directly by gears. This feature is particularly useful for DJs (and radio engineers) who want to drop the needle and have the record start spinning at the target rate, rather than have to come up to speed. This can also makes it easier to cue up specific tracks to record, if you don't want an entire side of a record. (And it makes it easier to assemble the turntable, since unlike the others reviewed here, you don't have to run the belt from the turntable to the drive mechanism.)
Stanton bundles in the same Windows software as Audio-Technica: Cakewalk pyro Audio Creator. But the turntable does not have a cuing control for gentler mating of the needle to the record, nor an automatic end-of-record stop-and-lift-tone-arm.
If you're in a vibration-prone area, the Stanton, like the Pro-Ject, is less likely to skip due to its heavier platter and general design. The records I tried played without problem.
All told, the Stanton T.92 USB turntable is a good machine, particularly if you are a party or radio DJ, but it lacks the cuing and auto-stop features you'll want for serious album digitizing.
Any of these turntables will play your record albums and output digitized signals through a USB cable. The differences are in terms of usability, manufacturing quality and price.
If you're looking for something that's easy to use -- and if you're going to record a large record collection -- the Audio Technica AT-LP2D-USB has more automatic features than the other tested USB turntables, including end-of-record-stop and cuing controls. And it's also the least expensive in terms of street price.
If you're planning to do more than just convert your records to digital format, you should consider either the Pro-Ject or (if you want to pay a bit less) the Stanton. Both are excellent turntables thanks to their heavy platters and vibration-damping features, which keep the record spinning with the least speed variations and disturb the needle the least in the record groove. If you have a bit of cash to spend, you may want to go with the Pro-Ject, since it's the least likely to wear out your impossible-to-replace LPs.
But which, you may ask, will produce the best-sounding MP3s? The truth is you're not going to hear a lot of difference among them -- partly due to the nature of MP3 compression, which can result in some loss of audio quality.
When I played the MP3s from the various turntables on an inexpensive audio player, I was unable to hear any differences in the tunes. Additionally, I connected my computer's audio output to the stereo, and played the MP3s through it. The Stanton's output sounded slightly muffled, but I didn't hear any other differences in sound quality.
It's possible that with a more expensive MP3 player, a true audiophile might hear the difference among the turntables. With permission of the artist, I've posted the MP3s of the song "Reincarnation" from Bob Holmes' RAILROAD album, made from these five USB turntables and from my non-USB Revox turntable via Pro-Ject's Phono Box II USB pre-amp.
Have a listen and see if you notice a difference.
Software for capturing and processing audio
Of course, the turntable hardware won't do you any good without software to capture the input stream to your hard drive and split each song into a separate file.
It's important to note that there's no inherent connection between a given USB turntable and whatever software you use. Any USB turntable can be used with any of the included -- or other -- software.
Similarly, you can use these USB turntables with Windows, Mac, Linux or any other computer/OS that has a USB port -- as long as the system has enough processing power for the software. At least one of the accompanying programs, Cakewalk's pyro Audio Creator, ran fine on my May 2008-vintage desktop (with an Intel Core 2 Duo E8400, 4GB RAM and Windows XP Pro SP3) but was too much for my four-year-old IBM ThinkPad notebook).
I tested two Windows programs bundled with the USB turntables: EZ Vinyl Converter 3 for Windows, which is included with the Ion and Numark turntables, and Cakewalk's pyro Audio Creator LE, included with the Audio-Technica and Stanton USB turntables. For Mac users, the Ion and Numark also included EZ Audio Converter for Mac, while Audio-Technica, Stanton and Pro-Ject recommended getting Audacity.
MixMeister's EZ Vinyl/Tape Converter
EZ Vinyl Converter and the upgrade EZ Vinyl/Tape Converter (which you can download free using your Ion or Numark turntable's serial number) are from MixMeister, a software company also owned by Numark Industries. The application was created to work with the Numark and Ion turntables, but it will work with others.
EZ Vinyl Converter identifies when one track stops and another starts, and then fetches ID tagging information -- artist, album, track name, etc. -- from the online Gracenote database. In theory, all you have to do is click the mouse one or two times per track, ending up with separated, tagged tracks under iTunes.
That's true -- as long as nothing goes wrong. However, the upgrade's automatic new-track detection (which you can turn off) is far from accurate. When I tried it, it split some tracks, such as "Girl With No Eyes" from the album It's a Beautiful Day, into three files and one song, from Judy Collins' In My Life, into two files.
This means you can end up with several files with the same song name -- and will need to manually splice the files together.
EZ Vinyl/Tape Creator does let you manually indicate that a new track is starting as you record, which avoids the split-track problem. But this means you have to be at your computer as you record, clicking the "New Track" button within the few-second break between each song.
The manual tagging process is also problematic, because there's no way to listen to a track to confirm it's what you think it is -- kind of like trying to give names to photos or videos without seeing the image on your screen. Similarly, while EZ Vinyl/Tape Converter can handshake with the online Gracenote music database, which automatically adds album, artist, and song information, if there are any errors or omissions, you have to use a separate tune-tagging utility to correct the problems.
Worse, if you abort a session, the files are not user-accessible. (So if you don't finish all the steps, you have to record the album all over again.)
If you know what you're doing, and pay careful attention, EZ Vinyl/Tape Converter can let you do what you need to -- record songs from records and turn them into tagged MP3 files. But if there are any problems in the recording activity, or you can't be at the computer to indicate that new tracks are starting, you're likely to need other software.
Cakewalk pyro Audio Creator LE
Cakewalk's pyro Audio Creator LE, included with the Audio-Technica and Stanton USB turntables, is the OEM version of pyro Audio Creator. Audio Creator LE lacks some features of the full $39.95 commercial product, notably the ability to save tracks in MP3 format (it just saves in WAV format), but you can download the upgrade and use it free for 30 days, and after that, buy it for $9.95. For this review, I worked with the full version.
To record an album, you use the Editor module; the Editor is also where you do track marking and splitting, and save your files to a variety of formats, such as MP3, WMA, WAV, FLAC and AIFF. If you've got more exotic format needs, you can use Cakewalk's Encoder module to convert tracks to other formats including AU, CAF, FLAC, RAW and SD2.
Audio Creator lacks the automatic handshaking with Gracenote and iTunes that EZ Vinyl Recorder includes, and it won't auto-split tracks. However, it does a great job of letting you mark track start locations. While you're recording/editing, you see the waveform, and once recorded, you can click on the waveform to listen to it, making it easy to distinguish quiet from end-of-track and taking all the guesswork out of track-splitting. Audio Creator conveniently lets you save a session as a "project" and come back to it later.
Once you've saved the tracks, you can use Audio Creator's Tagger utility to edit in artist, album, and track text, track number, and notes. This is where an interface to the Gracenote database, or another utility to access it, would come in handy.
However, all in all, Audio Creator is a useful application for converting your music files.
Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology writer based in Newton Center, Mass. His Web site is www.dern.com and his technology blog is TryingTechnology.com. He was helped in this project by David Williams, a Boston-area field sound engineer.
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