USB turntables: The worst-ever audio product?

USB turntables sound like crap, make lousy-sounding files, and worse yet, almost no one uses them to play records.

Steve Guttenberg
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.
Steve Guttenberg
2 min read

The Music Hall MMF 2.2, non-USB turntable Music Hall

I've heard the story many times: you have a bunch of old records you haven't played in ages, so you buy a USB turntable to transfer the tunes to files. Sounds like a reasonable idea, but it's a really dumb idea.

First, most cheap USB turntables sound like cheap turntables. They have no bass, their phono cartridge's sound isn't perfectly clear, so the sound quality of the transfers is poor. So why bother? If the music is really important to you, it makes a lot more sense to buy professionally mastered files from Amazon, iTunes, or better yet, the CD.

Then again, if you have just 30 to 50 albums to transfer, that might be a lot more money than you want to spend on files, so it might make more sense to subscribe to a streaming service that lets you download files.

Still not convinced USB turntables are a waste of time? Consider this: You'll waste a lot of it doing the transfers, which are after all, done in real time. A 50-minute album takes 50 minutes, and you have to sit next to the turntable to insert start points for each new tune. Next, you'll need to invest in decent editing software to fix the LP's noises, clicks, and pops, and that could consume another hour or more of your time per album. Are you willing to invest that much of your life?

So putting aside the transferring-analog-to-digital issues, will you actually use the turntable to play records? I asked friends who have bought USB 'tables, and they admitted they never really worked out.

I love playing records on my VPI Classic turntable, but it definitely takes more "work" to play an LP than listen to Spotify on your phone. I enjoy the hands-on aspects of playing vinyl, but if you don't, don't buy a USB turntable; you'll be wasting your money.

If on the other hand, you might relish the process of playing vinyl, have hundreds of records that you'd love to hear, and they're in reasonably good condition, I'd recommend buying a decent-sounding "real," non-USB turntable. Start with either a Rega RP1 or Music Hall MMF 2.2 turntable. Then, if you want to make high-quality digital transfers, buy a separate phono preamp/USB converter, like the Parasound Zphono and editing software. Just be prepared to put in the time to reap the rewards.

I've done transfers for reviews, but at home I prefer to enjoy LPs in their natural, all-analog state. If I'm out in the world, I try to make digital music sound as good as I can, with lossless files and great headphones.

If you've bought a USB turntable and transferred a bunch of records or never really used it, share your experiences in the Comments section.

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