Streaming digital sound from an analog turntable: Is that such a good idea?
Commentary: Flexson's VinylPlay turntable lets you can stream LPs' sound to your Sonos speakers, so you can listen to your records in any room of the house. But does that miss the point?
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
I thought it was some kind of joke, but it's for real: you can now play LPs over a wireless system with the Flexson VinylPlay turntable . The unit -- which appears to be based on the UK-made Rega RP1 audiophile turntable -- can be paired with a Sonos Connect or Sonos Connect Amp "base station," which can then wirelessly stream your records to other Sonos speakers or devices throughout your house.
Now, let's be clear: any turntable with the same sort of built-in phono preamp (line-level outputs) can be attached to a Sonos unit -- Audio Technica's AT LP120 USB turntable, for instance, costs half as much as the VinylPlay's $500 price tag, and offers the same basic features -- and wirelessly beamed just as easily as the system streams Spotify, Rdio, Pandora and its many other built-in cloud-based digital music services. In fact, Sonos has always supported this ability -- you could connect a CD player, your cable box, an old iPod, or anything else. But I'm focusing on the Flexson because the company -- which makes Sonos accessories such as stands, mounts and skins -- touts the turntable's Sonos "compatibility" as its raison d'être.
Regardless of which turntable you connected, though, streaming an analog LP over a digital audio system seems like an odd pairing to me. Wireless audio is all about hands-free, background music, and the VinylPlay is a 100 percent, hands-on, fully manual turntable that requires total user involvement. You have to pick an LP from your record collection, pull the vinyl disc out of its jacket, put it on the turntable platter, start the motor to spin the platter, and place the stylus (needle) in the LP groove. Then, 20 minutes later at the end of the record reverse the process, lift up the stylus from the LP, turn off the motor, remove the LP from the platter, and put it back in the jacket. Then get another LP, and repeat the whole rigmarole. Whew, that's a lot more "work" than playing tunes from your smartphone!
As Justin Yu pointed out in his CNET review of the VinylPlay , it has a few significant design quirks: you have to take the platter off to move the drive belt position on the motor pulley every time you change speeds from 33.3rpm for LPs to 45rpm for singles, and the turntable's on-off switch is inconveniently located on the VinylPlay's rear end. On the upside, VinylPlay comes with a good quality Audio Technica phono cartridge, that aforementioned built-in phono preamp with RCA analog output jacks, and a USB output for converting your LPs to MP3s on a computer. (The latter is another feature found on many other turntables these days.)
But as an analog purist, the idea of digitizing vinyl to stream it wirelessly is an abomination. Vinyl at its best is about involvement, it's a touchy-feely experience that connects the listener to the music. Streaming is the opposite: it delivers background, easy to ignore sounds. If you're willing to put in the "work" to play vinyl, be there, fully present and buy the Rega RP1 turntable I reviewed last year, and connect it to a good old-fashioned analog hi-fi system. The RP1 has its power on/off switch where it should be, in front on the left corner of the turntable.
The RP1 also plays vinyl as nature intended: in its all-analog state. And I think it sounds a lot better that way.