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Old records go in, CDs come out

The beauty of the Teac GF-350 is that it doesn't require a computer, a stereo or technical expertise.

Are you over 30? Sorry to hear it. That makes you part of the Transition Generation, those who have witnessed the world's shift from analog to digital recordings.

You therefore probably have a collection of phonograph records, audiocassettes and videotapes sitting in a closet somewhere at this very moment.

Maybe you still maintain a turntable and cassette deck, which you use to listen to your tunes just as you have for decades. If that's your situation, congratulations; you may skip to the next article.

Teac GF-350

But it's more likely that you've been staring at those piles of records and tapes and wondering if there's some easy way to transfer them to shiny new CDs. You imagine how nice it would be to have your music collection on convenient compact discs that can play in your car, home stereo or portable CD player--without having to buy them all over again.

The answer is yes: There is now a single machine, the Teac GF-350, that can turn your records into CDs. (Most people spot it in the Hammacher Schlemmer or SkyMall catalogs for $400, although you can find it online for as little as $330.)

It's a heavy, standalone cabinet, handsomely clad in black wood; lifting its lid reveals a standard, no-frills record turntable. The back panel has stereo inputs for connecting a tape deck. And the clean, silver front panel harbors an AM-FM radio, stereo speakers--and a sliding tray for the CD player/burner.

Now, any old geek can tell you that not everybody needs some $400 machine to transfer records and tapes to compact discs. If you already own a turntable, you can set up a less-expensive transfer system--but you'll need a preamp, cables, software, a computer and a good deal of technical knowledge. You can also ship your old records and tapes away to a music-transfer company (a Google search can find them)--but you might wind up paying more than you would for the Teac.

The beauty of the Teac machine is that it doesn't require a computer, a stereo or technical expertise. Here, in fact, is the entire routine:

1. Put a record on. The Teac can operate at all three standard playing speeds: 33, 45 and 78 rpm. (Actually, clean the record first, using a cleaning kit. Remember, your finished CD will dutifully replicate every scratch and pop.)

2. Insert a blank CD. But not just any CD; the Teac cannot, unfortunately, record onto standard, cheap computer CDs, like the ones you use to back up a Mac or PC. Instead, it requires a subspecies of recordable CD, bearing the tiny words Digital Audio beneath the CD-R or CD-RW logo. According to Teac, these discs are individually (invisibly) watermarked to prevent mass duplication, and all consumer audio CD recorders are required to use them. Unfortunately, these discs are harder to find than standard blanks and more expensive, thanks to a royalty that goes to the Recording Industry Association of America for every blank sold.

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(And speaking of antipiracy hysteria: To further appease the record companies, Teac built in a sort of copy protection to the discs it burns. You can make one copy of each CD produced by the Teac, and no more. Perhaps this form of copy protection, bearing the Orwellian name Serial Copy Management System, requires these special discs.

(Computer owners should note, however, that you can easily copy the resulting CD into a program like iTunes, just as you would any ordinary CD. That's a wonderful feature, because it means that you can name the tracks, rearrange them, touch them up in other software if necessary, and finally transfer them to an iPod or another music player. So much for copy protection.)

3. Using the remote control, specify how you want the machine to divide up the music into individual tracks on the CD. You can denote such track breaks manually while the record plays, if you like, or you can ask the machine to do the job automatically by inserting a track break every time it hears at least two seconds of silence. (More on this feature in a moment.)

4. Press Record. At this point, you're in Record Pause mode. This is your chance to adjust the volume level; you play a little bit of the album and turn the Rec Level knob until the graphic meter dances far as possible to the right without entering the zone marked "Over" (which would mean distortion on the final CD).

5. Start playback of the record (or, if you've connected a tape deck, play the cassette). You have to lift the tone arm and place it on the LP manually, although it does lift and swing home automatically at the end of the record.

6. Press Play; the recording begins.

So how's the result? This, of course, is the detail that matters most, and it's the first thing most people want to know when they hear about this machine.

The answer depends on your expectations. The Teac is decidedly not a piece of audiophile gear. When you play back your freshly minted CD on a stereo, you'll hear sound quality reminiscent of a car radio. The music is eminently listenable, the lyrics are crystal clear, and you can hear all the instruments--but there's practically no bass. If you own a subwoofer, well, it won't get much of a workout playing these discs.

Another clue that the Teac is not aimed at the golden-ears set: incredibly, it has no audio outputs on the back. In other words, you can't hook it up to your stereo. Why on earth would Teac, once a respected name in stereo components, omit so obvious a connector? (Yeah, yeah, we know. To prevent piracy, blah, blah, blah.)

The quality problem may stem from the fact that the Teac's turntable uses a ceramic stylus (needle) instead of a magnetic one. Well, whatever. The point is that this is not a record player for the $5,000-speaker crowd--or even the $500-speaker crowd.

There is one exception. Recordings you make from a tape deck (or something else plugged into the back of the Teac) do not suffer this quality problem. In fact, they sound terrific--nearly indistinguishable from the original. From a quality standpoint, in other words, the Teac actually does better with audio tapes than it does with records.

An even bigger disappointment is that automatic-track-break business; it just doesn't work very well. Sometimes the turntable sails right through four seconds of dead silence without noticing that a song has ended; other times, it hacks a single song into seven different "tracks."

In other words, if having the resulting CD accurately divided into tracks is important to you--so that, for example, you can use the next track/previous track buttons on your CD player or iPod--you pretty much have to babysit the transfer process, manually marking the song beginnings by hitting the Track Increment button after each song.

It's also worth noting that you can't record onto CD from the Teac's built-in radio, although you can record from a radio you've plugged into the back. Finally, the stylus is expected to last only 50 hours before requiring replacement (available from Teac dealers and's parts section).

Nonetheless, the Teac GF-350 is a one-of-a-kind machine, meant for a very large nonaudiophile, nonexpert audience: people who want a very simple, one-piece, ready-to-use way to liberate those old vinyl recordings and confer on them the conveniences of the digital age. Within its limitations, the Teac works extremely well. And if it's been awhile since you've even listened to your old records and tapes, babysitting the transfer process might not be a chore at all; in fact, it might represent a few Saturdays of pure pleasure.

Now all the world needs is equivalent machines that rescue all our VHS tapes, reels of movie film and 5.25-inch floppy disks.

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