USB Turntable Performance
Analog turntables, especially direct drive models, seem more solid and substantial than USB turntables. But there are reasons for this.
Sound/Recording Quality.In the dimensions that matter -- recording and sound -- several cheap turntables stand out. A CNET expert turntables review says the performance of the Ion TTUSB 10 is more than adequate given its low price. A turntables review by a CNET consumer applauds the sound quality and solid tone of the straight playback on the Ion TTUSB 10, but concedes the sound of the digital transfer doesn't quite compare. A turntables review at Everythingusb.com agrees, saying the recorded vocals sound somewhat harsh although playback on a stereo is warm and free of distortions.
Turntable reviews by users also sing the praises of the Numark TTUSB. If you start with a high-quality recording, writes one user in a belt-drive turntables review on Amazon, the sound will surpass what you hear with CDs. Sound quality gets even better, comments one turntables reviewer on Epinions, if you invest in a higher quality cartridge.
The Sony PS-LX300USB, on the other hand, is panned in an expert review on Gadgetguy.com for producing poor quality sound because of the way in which it captures the audio and converts it to the MP3 format. A consumer posting on Amazon isn't pleased with the sound coming from the Ion iPTUSB, commenting that it neared around eight bits of resolution per second, which is less, even, than an MP3; knowledgeable listeners will be much happier with at least 16 bits per second.
As noted above, the prices for direct drive turntables are generally out of the Cheapism range, but several lower-priced models are worth mentioning. The Stanton T92USB appeals to serious casual listeners and not-so-serious DJs. It produces "nice" audio quality, according to a turntables review by a user on Musician's Friend, but would benefit from a better cartridge. Consumers use this model for straight playback as well as digitizing 33 rpm and 45 rpm records; one user posting on Amazon happily says a 30-year-old recording of his high school varsity band album sounds like his memories, but he grumbles about the software and an uneven platter. The analog DJ-grade Gemini TT-2000 produces decent sound but users report on VirtualDJ.com about struggling to get it to "scratch" properly; one user post on Musician's Friend complains about noise coming through the pre-amp.
Reliability.Inexpensive USB turntables seem to be at their best right when bought because the platter can warp over time and the belt will wear and eventually snap after many hours of play. The platter itself may even be lower quality than the rest of the hardware, as noted in a Numark TTUSB turntables review on Amazon. The Stanton T92USB is noted for its price and as a user at Amazon comments, it's platter isn't perfectly flat but that's to be expected at this moderate price point. In general, cheap USB turntables are somewhat less reliable than higher-end turntables over the long run. As an expert turntables reviewer writes on AVguide.com about one older belt-driven USB model, wear and tear is inevitable given the plastic construction.
There's something to be said for direct-drive turntables if you've got the budget for them. The Numark TT200 is a relatively inexpensive direct-drive analog model that a turntables review at Clubsguide.com calls a good model for beginners. Another decent direct-drive analog deck is the Gemini DJ TT2000, although it has its limitations; a user review of analog turntables at JR.com grouses that it doesn't support 78 rpm records. USB direct-drive turntables, such as the Stanton T92USB or the Numark TTXUSB are also valued for their solid construction, ability to digitize records, and almost-cheap price. An expert review of the Numark TTXUSB at Skratchworx.com notes it has way more features than other models in the same general price range and should appeal to consumers looking for more control, whether digitizing records or enjoying regular playback.
Digitizing Software.The software included with most cheap USB turntables is the same as what's included with higher-priced models, so there won't be much difference in the ability to digitize vinyl. There are many different software suites available for USB turntables, but most bargain models offer a similar package. Although some of the software is quite simple, a new user may need assistance. Indeed, some software is not as amateur-friendly as others, and could wind up costing you real money if you choose the wrong turntable. Shortly after purchasing the Sony PS-LX300USB at Best Buy, for example, a customer ran into trouble when attempting to digitize a record, but the retailer's tech support wanted $30 to help him out. In a Numark TTUSB review on Amazon, a user writes of struggling a bit with the bundled Audacity software until he got the hang of it. Many software companies are hard to reach by phone, but online forums and guides can often answer your questions. By the way, don't forget to keep your software updated; these updates often improve performance. An Ion TTUSB 10 review on Amazon notes that the bundled Audacity software is simple to use, even without the instruction manual; the reviewer particularly appreciates the feature that fixes any vinyl noise.
The quality of these software suites ranges from inoperable to thorough, depending on the features and ease of use. One user posting a turntables review on Amazon reports that the software can be touch-and-go until you get the hang of it, and the only downside noted is the need for a special plug-in that must be downloaded to export into an MP3 format.
Needles.As happens with any type of turntable, the needle on cheap USB turntables eventually wears out, and some users report that needles on low-cost turntables break easily. For the most part, you can find replacement needles online, such as the Ion Audio iCT04RS DJ Stylus (starting at $23), which can replace needles on the Ion TTUSB 10 and the Ion TTUSB. The replacement needle for the Numark TTUSB, ST-09D Replacement Stylus, starts at $17. But finding a replacement can be costly, not to mention difficult. A user review of cheap turntables on Amazon notes that Sony doesn't even make replacement needles for the PS-LX300USB and the Sony-certified stores in her area would not fix the turntable.
In sum, USB turntables are quite affordable, but some inexpensive models are pieced together poorly, with plastic parts and/or bad needles. To insure you're getting the best deal, look for all the necessary features, such as anti-skate and tonearm adjustments. Also, because you want to preserve a record collection instead of wearing it down, research which type of cartridge is included (avoid ceramic cartridges), and check out the ripping software before buying to make sure all the critical features are present.