Vinyl and Bluetooth? I may be committing hi-fi blasphemy here, but hear me out.
We've recently reviewed a handful of Bluetooth-enabled wireless turntables from the likes of Audio Technica and Cambridge Audio, and while it's very much a niche product category even in the turntable market, it was the combination of the Audio Technica AT-LPW50BTRW record player with the Sonos Era 100 wireless speaker that really hit it home: when it works, this is a really neat, modern system.
Specifically, it's a neat system for those new to vinyl or only have a handful of records that they'd still like to be able to play without going straight into the hi-fi separates route, offering a convenient path to get really rather decent sound without spending a lot of money or sacrificing lots of space in your home.
If you're serious about your vinyl collection, however, I'll be the first to tell you to look away now and invest in purist decks from Rega or Pro-Ject, with a decent phono stage or an integrated amplifier with one built in, and a proper pair of stereo speakers. There's simply no competition when it comes to a wired, separates set up – it sounds significantly better.
Bluetooth brings convenience
But for many of the younger generations (I'm talking Millennials to Gen Z here), that set-up isn't always viable. It's a lot of boxes and cables. All of which take up a significant amount of space (which we don't have) and a significant chunk of money (which we don't have).
The older members of team What Hi-Fi? are sometimes puzzled why the younger generations are so taken with vinyl, but it makes sense to me. When streaming from Spotify or Netflix from your smartphone or laptop has been the norm, vinyl records – and turntables – offer a wonderfully tactile, physical sense of ownership and connection to music that a digital stream simply doesn't. Being able to disconnect from the shiny screen of doom and instead interact with physical products also does wonders for your mental health.
I don't buy vinyl records often, but when I do it's more akin to collector's items, like those gorgeous illustrated Folio Society editions of much-loved books. They're lovely things to own and cherish. You don't really get that same kind of feeling from a digital file or stream.
And that's the key point here: a lot of us are only buying the odd vinyl here and there (because a vinyl record itself is rather expensive at roughly £25), but we still want a way to play those records without going all-in into the hi-fi experience, which can be intimidating.
Bluetooth turntables offer a neat path here. Yes, you can absolutely plug in the Audio Technica AT-LPW50BTRW and Sony PS-LX310BT decks into a 'proper' hi-fi set up and get excellent sound on a budget. But the ability to stream to wireless speakers or a pair of wireless headphones gives a level of convenience and flexibility that really takes the cake here.
Flexibility first: a Bluetooth connection to your speakers means it doesn't matter where you place your products. As long as the turntable is on a level surface, the wireless speaker can be placed pretty much anywhere in the room. When we paired the AT-LPW50BTRW with the Sonos Era 100 away from our usual hi-fi reference system, we simply had them both on a desk, and it was eye-opening just how simple, neat and effective it was. For many, that is a perfect space-saving solution if you're living in a small flat or have to share space with family, housemates or pets.
And it sounds good, too. Bluetooth may not be the best-sounding connection, but we live our daily life with Bluetooth earbuds and speakers offering great sound and value for money, so why can't Bluetooth turntables sound good, too? The quality of the vinyl stream also depends on the quality of the speaker you choose, which gives you plenty of choice in just how good you can make the system sound. You can opt for a high-end Naim Mu-so Qb model or even an active stereo pair like the Triangle AIO Twin, but more affordable (and more convenient) options such as the Era 100 or Audio Pro C10 MkII would be perfect choices. We'd steer away from more budget speaker offerings from Ultimate Ears or JBL – they're decent, but your vinyl does deserve a better class of speaker quality.
The point is that these types of Bluetooth turntables offer an appealing half-way point – they're a huge step above the suit-case style Crosley decks you get at Urban Outfitters (which can damage your records) and are a more inviting, welcoming step into the world of vinyl playback – and to decent sound. Turntables like the AT-LPW50BTRW are built properly to hi-fi standards: the belt-drive design is of a high quality, you can adjust the counterweight and anti-skating, the cartridge is of good quality, and there's no danger of it gouging your records they way the cheaply made Crosleys can. You're already off to a good starting point for your vinyl to sound good, even using the Bluetooth connection.
The ability to stream vinyl to your Bluetooth headphones of choice also gives you the convenience of listening to your heavy metal or Taylor Swift records in peace without disturbing your housemates, family or neighbours, especially if you want to listen to music late at night.
Pairing can be a pain
The biggest problem that arose during our testing wasn't with the quality of the Bluetooth stream, it was with the pairing process. This was the biggest stumbling block when using both the Cambridge Audio Alva TT V2 and Audio Technica AT-LPW50BTRW. The process on both those decks is: set your headphones or speakers in pairing mode, press down the Bluetooth pairing button on the deck, and hope for the best.
I'm being a bit glib, but that's essentially what it feels like. There's no app or way to select the source like you can when pairing Bluetooth speakers or headphones with your smartphone. You need to keep the headphones/speaker close to the turntable when pairing, but even when literally shoving them next to each other, we still had trouble making a connection.
One problem is that if you have other active Bluetooth-enabled products in the same room, the turntable will try to pair with that as well. This isn't just a problem in our dedicated listening room, where the AT-LPW50BTRW kept trying to connect to our reference Naim streamer; it will likely arise if you have any Bluetooth-toting earbuds, speaker or radio in your home (which many of us likely do). We ended up having to turn off every single Bluetooth device in our test area to make the Audio Technica deck see the headphones only. Not ideal.
And even still, it doesn't always connect. We shoved so many headphones and speakers to both Bluetooth turntables, getting increasingly annoyed when it just wouldn't pair. They didn't manage to connect to the Grado GW100X wireless headphones (which would be an ideal partner for this niche home use) or the AirPods Max, or the Wonderboom 3 (used just to test the Bluetooth process). "Why won't you pair?!" we yelled, far too many times.
Whether that's a codec compatibility issue or something else, the fact remains that the Bluetooth implementation and pairing process in these wireless turntables (which aren't necessarily cheap) is a letdown. It needs to be better thought out and offer the same seamless standard that we get in current Bluetooth headphones and speakers. Otherwise, it's a real frustration in what should be a really easy playing process.
When we did, eventually, have success with pairing to the Mark Levinson No. 5909 headphones (far too expensive for this set up, we know, but it did show just how good this modern, convenient system can sound when using the right products), or the aforementioned Era 100 – it all snapped into place. When it does work, it's a really nice, convincing system to use. For many, it just makes sense.
Would I recommend this set up to friends who have no interest in hi-fi and simply want the very pretty, very tactile experience of playing vinyl without going all-in on cables and separates? Yes, easily. Would I opt for this system if I were to buy a turntable now? Honestly: I'd be tempted. While the hi-fi reviewer in me will be twitching, the fact that I live in a small, mid-terrace house where I can hear my neighbours sing means that the convenience this set-up offers might trump my hi-fi sensibilities. (Or at least make me think seriously about it.)
And it means I can listen to my questionable music tastes late into the night without bothering others in my household. The only things stopping me are the knowledge that more purist turntable offerings like the Rega Planar 1 Plus undoubtedly sound better (even if it doesn't have Bluetooth and needs the separate boxes), and that the Bluetooth pairing process will annoy me, and probably play havoc with the other Bluetooth devices I have in each room. Especially if trying to re-pair.
There are technological and audio advancements being made in wireless headphones all the time; I'd love for Bluetooth turntables to be given the same level of care and thought. Gives us young 'uns more choice, I say. And if that's an entry point into better sound quality and even getting into 'proper' hi-fi – well, that's no bad thing at all.
Read the full Audio Technica AT-LPW50BTRW review
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