Maybe you have a stash of old records in the attic. Perhaps your favorite band started pressing vinyl. Whatever the reason, if you're ready to pick up a turntable, the Sony PS-LX250H ($100) is a great starter model you can use with any receiver, home theater in a box (HTIB), or computer sound card.
The Sony PS-LX250H's plastic look and feel is what we expect from a $100 turntable, but the platter's cast-aluminum finish adds a touch of class. The PS-LX250H's automatic operation makes playing records almost as easy as playing a CD. The lower front edge of the turntable has three buttons, labeled Start, Stop, and Up/Down. After you've placed a record on the platter, press the Start button; the PS-LX250H will automatically lift the arm from its rest, move it over the record, and lower the stylus into the LP's lead-in groove. When the record ends, the tone arm returns to its rest, and the PS-LX250H's motor turns itself off. The Up/Down button raises and lowers the tone arm, which is useful if you want to manually skip ahead or back. You can select 33.3rpm or 45rpm speeds with a knob on the front of the turntable base.
You can replace the cartridge's needle when it wears out or breaks, but as far as we can tell, you're stuck with the phono cartridge built into the tone arm; it's not upgradable. The turntable is a little smaller than average and measures 16.5 inches wide, 13.25 inches deep, and 3.6 inches high with the dustcover in place; it weighs 6 pounds.
The Sony PS-LX250H's built-in phono preamp allows you to use the turntable with any receiver, HTIB, or computer sound card by plugging the turntable's cables into any line-level input, such as auxiliary or VCR. If your receiver does have a dedicated phono input, we recommend using it instead of the turntable's internal phono preamp (which can be turned off). Chances are, the turntable will sound better that way.
Unlike CD players, turntables require some assembly and adjustment. The Sony PS-LX250H is pretty undemanding in that respect; all you have to do is place the metal platter on the spindle (the part that fits through the record's hole). The underside of the platter already has a rubber belt in place, so you just need to reach in and slip the belt onto the turntable motor's pulley. Then place the rubber mat on the metal platter and hook up the red and white cables to your receiver or HTIB.
With the Sony PS-LX250H's built-in phono preamp turned on, the sound was a little weak, with soft treble detail and a lack of dynamic punch--pleasant enough but slightly boring. After that, we hooked up the turntable's cables to the phono inputs on a A/V receiver, which produced a more alive and engaging sound.
We couldn't resist a CD vs. LP contest, so we used Nirvana's Nevermind to settle the issue. In this case, the turntable didn't completely crush the CD player--the bass was punchier and definitely tighter on CD, but the PS-LX250H produced a bigger soundstage and made the band sound better overall. Digital music sounds more mechanical, so you feel less involved with it.
For those looking to dip their toes into the world of vinyl, the Sony PS-LX250H is a sufficient starter turntable. True music aficionados may want to spring for a higher-end turntable, such as the ($430), which offers a distinctly clearer sound and delivers more of the music's energy.