If you have been an audiophile for any length of time you’ve probably come to realize that assembling and maintaining a high-performance phono system costs a lot of money. And while there are digital front ends from companies such as DCS, Audio Note, and MSB that cost as much as a top-flight analog rig, most high-performance DACs’ prices do not approach what you can expect to pay for a first-class turntable.
The question is, why?
The simple answer is that turntables cost more because they require more in both assembly time and materials to manufacture. And these costs add up due to the number of unique and special parts that require extremely tight tolerances found in a premium turntable. Unlike a DAC where once you have the fancy custom box most of the contents inside the box are off-the-shelf parts that do not require much in the way of specialized fabrication. Conversely, in a premium turntable most of the parts are unique. Also, a turntable has more separate mechanical operations that must perform perfectly to operate properly than any DAC (which has virtually none, except if you consider the volume control a mechanical part). On a turntable we have the motor to drive the platter, the platter itself, the platter’s bearing, the isolation and/or suspension system, and the tonearm…all require precision manufacturing to work smoothly. And then you must add the phonograph cartridge and finally the phono preamplifier needed to re-equalize the LP curve back to line level. And just like the basic turntable itself, top-echelon cartridges, tonearms, and phono preamplifiers are all pricey.
But what about $500 turntables? Could a budget turntable ever perform at the same level as a premium-priced example? Probably not. Sure, they work, turn, and make sound, but with compromises, big and small, to make it into the world at their designated price it means that there is no time of money for the kind of parts quality and tight tolerances needed for a turntable to be a top-performer.
Is there an entry-level amount that I think you need to spend to get a turntable without any serious shortcomings?
For $5000 an audiophile looking for a reference-quality DAC or DAC/PRE has many outstanding options. In the analog phono world that’s enough for a mid-level rig, barely. So, should we conclude that analog phono is a bad value, or not “worth it?”
Some things, by their very nature cost more to produce. An analog turntable is just one of them. Couple this with the fact that most turntables need an initial set-up from someone with the skills to do the job and you have a sonic direction that will require capital to pursue to its fullest.
As to whether a turntable system is a good or bad value, that is more of a personal cost/benefit analysis question than one that can be generalized to everyone. My own two VPI-based analog rigs date from the mid-90’s, when they were among the best available. They have served me well over the years. And if the costs of both turntable systems were amortized over all the years I’ve owned them, their average yearly cost for both has been less than $500 per year.
Given the amount of pleasure my analog rigs have given me, I consider that a bargain…