One of the biggest barriers in getting into records is the equipment you need to listen. It can be quite bewildering. The good news is that you can put together a decent hifi for under 50 quid.
There are three different components you’ll need to buy. The (1) amplifier which boosts the sound from (2) the record deck and passes it to (3) the speakers. Lets look at each, what to look for and how to buy.
1. The amplifier.
The power of the hifi system. There are a number of myths associated with amps. Firstly that power equals quality. Many amps are marketed in terms of watts. You see numbers like 100w. When buying an amp don’t worry too much about power. Amps with power as low as 12.5w can drive most sets of speakers (we’ll see why when we talk speakers).
The key thing to look for when buying a second hand amp are that it has a phono inputs on the back or you can see an option on the front for phono. Phono means record. I bought this Rotel on eBay for £12/$20.
If the amp doesn’t have an input labelled phono you will need what’s called a phono pre-amp or phono stage. The small distortion caused by needle/stylus moving across the record produces a tiny change in current. The phono stage amplifies this tiny current, effectively amplifying the signal twice, once through the pre-amp and then through the main amp. Many modern amps don’t have this phono pre-amp which means if you plug a turntable in the sound will be really, really quiet. A good phono stage pre-amp. Pro-ject Phone Stage (Amazon UK for £42 / $60).
Other things to look for: Avoid amps with tons of controls or graphic equalisers, the more functions there are for changing the sound the less pure it’ll sound. The best amps just pass the sound through with no modification.
When buying an amp ask for a demo when collecting. If you hear any kind of buzz it’s probably on it’s way out.
Models to look for, you want an integrated amp. Good brands:
Arcam, Sony, Panasonic, Pioneer, Technics, Denon, Linn, Mission/Cyrus, NAD, Rotel, Yamaha or Kenwood.
I have a Cyrus One I picked up for £50.
2. The Record Deck / Turntable (TT)
Buying second hand turntables (TT) is a little more tricky than buying an amp.
My Scottish made Ariston RD80. Not the best TT out there but it looks the business.
Here’s three tips for buying a turntable.
It’s best to buy local, the turntable platter (the round bit) is often weighted which make them heavy. Many platters are mounted on springs to minimise feedback and movement. Often when posted in the mail the platters are not removed or secured (often via a transit screw). This can really mess with the delicate spring and ruining the turntable.
The cartridge and stylus get warn out. The long arm (called the tone arm) has a little bit of plastic at the end. This is called the cartridge, the needle or stylus fits into it (this is the diamond that reads the record). A cartridge can get worn out after 5 – 10 years. You can’t see a worn cartridge but you can hear it as the sound is often flat. The same is true of the stylus. The sssss sound in music is distorted is a sign of a worn stylus. The best thing to do is to budget for a new cartridge and stylus. The Otoforn Red is a great Amazon UK for about £65 / $100.
Check the mechanics before you buy. Many budget/Japanese turntables auto rotate the platter when the needle is placed on the record. Check this. Don’t worry about sound quality, that’s just a bad cart/stylus. Does the platter spin? Does the tone arm move from the edge to centre? If there is a rumble when it spins it’s not a good sign.
Not all TT have 33/45 speed switch controls, mine for example you have to remove the belt and place it on a different part of the motor. With TT the less moving parts the better the sound.
Brands to look for:
Rega, Pro-ject, Dual, Ariston, Linn, Thorens, Technics, Panasonic.
A good choice would be the Dual CS505-2 or CS505-3 (the mark one was unreliable). Expect to pay no more than £70 for one in good condition, ideally in it’s box. Here’s a good guide to setting up an old turntable.
Avoid cheap plastic looking turntables from the midi-systems of the 80s. Brands like Sony, JVC, Philips, Goodmans, Aiwa and others. They are poor sounding and a cheap stylus could damage your records
You can buy brand new and save the hassle. The Pro-ject Essential 2 is £189 / $300 with cartridge.
Buying speakers is pretty straightforward compared to amps and turntables.
The one number to look for in a speaker is sensitivity. Watts mean little when it comes to speakers. Sensitivity relates to basic current needed to move the speaker cones (the round bits). The higher the sensitivity the easier it is for your amp to get a good/loud sound from the speakers. If you have speakers with a low sensitivity the amp has to work harder, stressing it and consequently producing a poor sound. A lower watt amp, say 12.5w can power a sensitive speaker with no problems.
Look for a minimum of 85db, ideally you’ll get 87db or above.
When buying second hand the thing you’ll find is speakers are heavy so buying local is better.
When checking before you buy ask to listen to the speakers. Most speakers come with at least 2 cones, the round cardboard bits. One, the tweeter is smaller and produces high pitch sounds, the other, the woofer low pitch / bass sounds. Get close and listen to check both are working on each speaker. You’ll notice if one isn’t working as the sound will either be muffled (blown tweeter) or tinny (blown woofer). You can visually check the cones are not damaged. They speaker may have a dust protecting grill, take this off and have a look.
Try bookshelf speakers first, these are a bit smaller and easier to manage. You can always sell them and buy bigger later.
Expect to pay from £8 a pair up to £100. I’ve picked up some great, British made, hifi speakers for £1 before.
Here’s my B&W DM14s (bought for £113 on eBay)
Speaker brands to look for. The UK leads the world in speaker design so buy British:
Bowers & Wilkens (B&W), Gale, Celestion, JPW (less good), KEF, Linn, Mission, Mordaunt-Short, Naim, Rodgers and Tannoy.
UK speakers tend to sound more ‘bright’ and engaging and suit smaller UK rooms.
I avoid Japanese as they are often less refined and bass heavy.
The USA is not far behind in speaker design:
Bose, Boston Acoustics, Harman Kardon, McIntosh Laboratory, Polk.
US speakers are more bass driven, less detailed but can fill a big room.
Records sound ‘warmer’ than CDs and MP3s. There’s nothing like 40 minutes of a great album, you can’t easily skip tracks so are more engaged. You can put a good sounding and beautiful hifi set up together for under a £100 ($160) so there’s no excuse.
Got any tips? Leave a comment.
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