Reviewed: 5 USB turntables that convert LPs to MP3s

Want to move all those great old LP tracks to your media player? We look at 5 USB turntables that can make the process easier.

With the right hardware, converting LPs to MP3s is a simple process.

With the right hardware, converting LPs to MP3s is a simple process.

Stanton T.92 USB

The Stanton T.92 USB turntable (US$300), like the Pro-Ject USB turntable, is a seriously heavy machine -- at 8.7kg, 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.

Conclusions

Any of these turntables will play your record albums and output digitised 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.

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Daniel P. Dern

Computerworld (US)
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