And your ears.
There are a number of statistics you can present to illustrate the rise of vinyl in recent years. In the UK, record sales have reached their highest level in 30 years as fans and collectors of virtually all ages pile on their wax. Record racks have infiltrated out of their usual surroundings, popping up everywhere from cafes to supermarkets. A luxury vinyl set is now an integral part of any pop star’s graphic campaign.
This rise in popularity has invited a simultaneous rise in feature-rich audiophile speakers and turntables, with older designs revived and new units produced in all price brackets. But the thing about rising tides is that they don’t discriminate. The boom in the popularity of record collecting has led to the ubiquity of a less impressive piece of kit: the so-called “suitcase” turntable, with its cheap components crammed into a kitschy, colorful casing. These all-in-one setups are the bane of an audiophile’s existence.
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Affordability, convenience, overall aesthetics, and compactness make suitcase turntables very appealing to the untrained eye. Units made by companies like Crosley and Victrola (among many others) are inspired by the bulkier domestic all-in-ones popularized by Dansette in the 1950s and 1960s, and offer affordability, convenience and compact aesthetics and elegant. .
With their built-in speakers, the case players offer great ease of use and are as close to a plug-and-play experience as you’re likely to get from a record player. The ideal, albeit unlikely, of sitting around playing records while you picnic in the park suddenly seems possible. And considering that even entry-level turntables will often require you to buy speakers (as well as, in some cases, an amp) to start listening, the sub-£100 price of these suitcases n only becomes more attractive. It is therefore not surprising that they are so popular.
But behind all the appeal, there are many downsides that far outweigh the convenience, ease of use, compactness, and even affordability that make these decks so appealing.
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One of the most common problems with these case systems is the needle, or stylus, which comes pre-installed. Needles are important. They serve as the first and most direct point of contact that transfers sound to and from the record in the turntable and to your speakers. The needles that usually come packed in these all-in-one cases are cheap and will tend to scratch and damage your records beyond repair. These scratches will not only show up visibly on your records, they will show up audibly as the pops and cracks that clutter the music. Although wear is a normal phenomenon that occurs on any record, especially one that is played often, what you will find when listening to records with a cheap suitcase needle is that wear and sound quality degradation occur after significantly less listening experiences.
A cheap needle will also deliver a poorer sound profile, lacking the dynamics and clarity in the highs, mids and lows that you would otherwise get from a better built kit. Worse still, because suitcase turntables have their styluses built in, you’re permanently locked into that bad sound profile – and, when the stylus inevitably wears out, along with your records, you’ll more often than not be forced to replace the entire setup of the suitcase instead of simply exchanging it for a replacement needle. In comparison to other turntable ecosystems that allow you to install and upgrade other needles from different brands and price ranges, this is a huge downside. For many, the allure of buying and listening to records is the incredible sound quality you get. With suitcase turntables, you don’t even come close to that experience. And you ruin your records in the process.
We like the speakers, but not the ones built right into our turntables. Most suitcase turntables have one or two built-in speakers. But having speakers so close to the needle of your turntable – however sensitive – can cause unwanted interference, as the music coming out of the cones is picked up by the needle and played back at a delay. This creates feedback and a terrible, distorted experience that will make you think you bought a faulty disc.
Speakers, by their nature, also cause a lot of vibration. These vibrations can give you a muddy sound and cause your record to skip, which not only sounds bad, but also makes your records more prone to scratches. While vibration and things like your needle picking up unwanted frequencies can happen with even the best speakers, having the speakers separate from the turntable gives you the ability to move them further away. This allows you to minimize potential issues and enjoy a crisp, clean listening experience, something you obviously can’t do with a suitcase turntable.
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Despite all of this, affordability is still a plus for many and plays a huge role in the popularity of these decks. Generally available for under £100, these units are, in the context of audio equipment, very affordable. But that cheaper price is reflected in the overall build quality. Built-in hands tend to break often and ruin your records. The included speakers don’t offer great sound and are blown or distorted quite easily. Buttons and dials often become faulty or simply stop working. These suitcases aren’t built to last, and pretty soon you’ll find yourself buying a new turntable (and, most likely, replacement records for the ones the needle has worn down).
We get it, it’s not easy to find your first turntable. There’s a lot of advice out there, and even more unfamiliar terminology to go along with it. Suitcase turntables offer what seems like a simple solution. But we can’t stress enough how serious these units are for your records.
There are a ton of affordable turntables on the market – like Audio Technica’s LP-AT60 or Denon’s 300F – that offer easy setup without compromising your experience. Although these turntables are not all-in-one systems, they offer automatic functions and are very easy to use; the only extra thing you’ll need are speakers. Yes, it does drive the price up a bit, but your records – and your ears – will thank you.
Check out this guide to our favorite budget decks (that won’t ruin your records).