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Review: 5 USB turntables 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.

By Daniel P. Dern
August 7, 2009 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - 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.)

So you've never used a turntable?

Those who didn't grow up with turntables may not appreciate how delicate an operation it is to set up a turntable and play an LP. Sure, you can just put the record on the turntable and then drop the needle on the groove, but if you want reasonably good music quality (and don't want to ruin the record), you've got to make sure the equipment is properly balanced in several aspects. This is especially important if you want to get the most of the information -- i.e., sound -- from the record, and get it accurately. (Think of it like cleaning your camera lens and using a tripod for taking crisp videos.)

There are several ways you need to adjust your turntable for the best results.

Set the tone arm tracking force. Record players work by having a needle ("stylus") press down in the record's groove; as the record turns, the needle vibrates based on the bumps in the groove. (You can hear the sound faintly even without any electronics. Try this by sticking a pin through a cone of paper and holding the pin on the track -- but use a record you don't mind damaging.)

"Tracking force" means how much weight the needle exerts on the record. Too much, and you don't get the best sound (and possibly damage the record); too little, and the needle won't stay in the groove and won't give you good sound. Every cartridge (the shell that includes the stylus) has a recommended tracking force (usually somewhere between one and three grams).

Every reasonably good turntable has a counterweight on the tone arm which you use during setup: First you move the counterweight until the tone arm is balanced, then you adjust it to the weight that the cartridge's specs call for. If you're a real audiophile, a stylus pressure gauge (which measures how heavily the needle is pressing on the record) can help here.

Set the anti-skating force. This counteracts the tone arm's tendency to drive inward as the record plays, which forces the needle into the inner side of the record's groove. This means that you're not getting all the sound you should and that you're wearing the record out unevenly; it could even make the needle hop out of the groove and skip inward. The anti-skating controls on the turntables I tested were calibrated dials, except on the Pro-Ject, which used a small brass weight on a short nylon thread -- I had to slip this over a thin metal rod to the appropriate notch.

Make sure the turntable is level. This is important for the record to play properly. A good way to check is to use a carpenter's level and prop up the turntable's feet with a few business cards.

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