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.

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Audio-Technica AT-LP2D-USB

[Note: This product has been discontinued.]

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.

Audio-Technica AT-LP2D-USB
Audio-Technica AT-LP2D-USB

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.

Ion TTUSB

[Note: This product has been discontinued.]

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.

Ion TTUSB
Ion TTUSB

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.

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