Now that more people are getting back into playing records, a batch of new companies like U-Turn, Rega and Pro-ject have turned up to introduce their take on the modern turntable.
Add Flexson to that list. The UK-based manufacturer of Sonos accessories has its own turntable called the VinylPlay. Priced at $499 in the US (£330 in the UK, AU$999 in Australia), it has a few tricks up its sleeve that set it apart from your dusty old hi-fi unit: there's a integrated phono stage -- so, unlike many turntables, there's no need to buy an external preamplifier in order to connect it to your standard audio equipment -- and a USB port on the side lets you digitize your old records so you can listen to your archived music on your smartphone.
Flexson isn't the first manufacturer to come up with the idea, though the price suggests it wants customers to believe it did. For example, you can save a lot of money buying the $250 Audio Technica LP-120 that does all the same things (USB connectivity, and a built in phono preamp), but without the modern design and foolproof setup. In fact, Teac, Pro-Ject and Music Hall all have their own models that have the same deal for around $400 or less.
Still, that doesn't change the fact that the Flexson VinylPlay is generally a well-built turntable that looks great and performs at a standard that both seasoned audiophiles and casual listeners will appreciate. If and when Flexson drops the price somewhat, it'll be much easier to make a case for the VinylPlay against those competitors.
Our first thought when seeing the VinylPlay is that it bears a very strong resemblance to the popular Rega RP1 turntable, borrowing from its minimal design qualities and bearing a very similar tone arm.
When we Flexson to comment on the similarity, the company told CNET that the "VinylPlay is built in the UK by a very reputable turntable manufacturer. That being said, Flexson's design and manufacturing information is proprietary and can't be disclosed."
Regardless, everything about the Flexson VinylPlay is obviously tuned for simplicity. Anyone that has experienced issues with counterweights, grounding buzzes and tracking force misalignments on an older turntable will be supremely thankful that the Flexson doesn't require any of it.
In true plug-and-play fashion, the turntable comes shipped with the location of the counter weight's stopping point clearly labeled on the tone arm, so all you have to do after unpacking the box is push the balance weight as close to that point as possible, then set the bias slider to "2."
It shouldn't take more than 10 minutes to get the whole thing set up if you're using the Audio-Technica cartridge that also comes preinstalled on the unit. You can also upgrade later if you like, but Flexson tells me that you'll forfeit the VinylPlay's one-year warranty if any modifications are done to it within the first year -- that includes replacing the cartridge.
And of course, you'll have to fuss with the counterweight and anti-skate yourself if you do. As it comes, the generic AT cartridge works fine for playing records and I wouldn't have an issue using it for at least a year before upgrading.
The tone arm itself mirrors Rega's classic black three-point cartridge mounting system that extends off the aluminum tube straight down to the bonded headshell. Its cueing platform is ample size and feels comfortable setting the needle down with precision along various parts of a record, and you'll also find a cueing lever next to it along with a small plastic switch that locks the tone arm down into resting position.
While the Audio-Technica LP-120 tries to mimic the classic Technics 1200's sturdy profile, the VinylPlay caters the design to a minimalist style that starts with the thin rectangular base, or plinth.
Three rubber feet on the bottom support the table and offer basic vibration damping. You might be thinking that a rectangular base requires four for support, but it feels sturdy enough and doesn't tip unless you press down on the far left corner. Regardless, you should always be sure to mount any turntable on a rigid, level surface.
The back houses a set of RCA connections, a USB port and a level knob to control the output when connecting the turntable to a computer. You can run a USB cable from the turntable to any computer to convert your archival records into digital music files. While Flexson doesn't include the software you need to do so, you can always download the Audacity software for free. Thankfully, USB and RCA cables are enclosed in the box.
If you're wondering why there are no physical buttons on the turntable, it's because Flexson made the decision to move the start/stop button to the far right corner, underneath the plinth. On one hand, it's cool that you don't have to lift the cover to turn the turntable on and off, but it also means you can't put anything close to that side of the base, unless you want to shimmy your finger down there every time. It wasn't a huge deal in my experience playing music for a few weeks, but I definitely still prefer a dedicated button on top.
The VinylPlay is a belt-driven turntable that requires manual adjustment to change the speed between 45 and 33rpm, but you don't get a 45 adapter in the box. Flexson tells us that the decision to eschew an automatic mechanism is to reduce belt wear over time, but that also means you have to lift the entire platter/felt mat off the cradle and physical move the belt pulley up or down the steps to change speeds.
That should raise a huge red flag for anyone that swaps between 45s and 33s; if you're one of them, you'll be much happier with the direct-drive LP-120 or another turntable.
The VinylPlay has an integrated phono amp built into the unit so you don't have to buy a separate pre-amplifier to get the signal up to line level. Most people would consider that a handy feature, but it's also worth noting that you can't bypass it to hear how the table sounds with another phono stage. If you're confused by this paragraph, then don't worry about it -- you can hook up any powered speakers (that have a separate power cord) to the turntable and play music straight away.
On that note, Flexson markets the VinylPlay as Sonos-ready solution, which is true, but that feature certainly isn't exclusive to this particular turntable: any player with a built-in phono preamp (line-level outputs) can connect to the Sonos Connect or Sonos Connect Amp , though the VinylPlay certainly meshes with the silver and white look of those products more than other models might.
Both record newbs and old heads alike will enjoy playing records on the VinylPlay. The tone arm is weighted so that it floats above the record until you engage the cueing lever, and Flexson precalibrated it so the stylus sounds properly seated in the grooves.
The motor is quick to start and stop with little delay dragging the needle along, and you likely won't notice the difference in sound quality between the standard cartridge and an upgraded version unless you're a truly dedicated audiophile.
The Flexson VinylPlay combines many of the features people liked about the entry-level Rega RP-1 turntable and adds an integrated amp and USB port to modernize the design. Its simplicity in both set up and aesthetics takes the hassle out of playing records (unless you consider flipping the record an inconvenience), and there's even room for upgrades down the line if you choose.
The biggest complaint I have is that Flexson charges $100+ more than competing turntables that bundle the same set of features. So while we'd like to see a price cut, this is still a very capable record player that's easy on the eyes.