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-ise 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) digitisation/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 digitise 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 $300 to $900 (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 US$120 for the Ion turntable to US$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 US$199, it's on the higher side of the price equation; most cost between US$20 and US$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 US$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 per cent.) 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 US$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 340g. (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 US$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.