During my tenure on this Earth, I’ve been exposed to many disappointments at Christmas. There was the time I got a SEGA Saturn instead of a PlayStation. The day Grandma “forgot” I was vegetarian back in '91. The brussels sprouts war of '95.
The list goes on.
But having just joined the ranks of What Hi-Fi? less than a month ago, I can’t help but flash back to one of the worst Christmas travesties I’ve experienced – the day my parents gave me a cheap record player.
In the spirit of objectivity, I’m not going to name the specific company that made the unit, though I can safely say you won’t find any of its products in our best record player guide. I’m also not saying there aren’t good affordable record spinners on the market – because there are, few and far between they may be, as the Pro-Ject Primary E (pictured below) ably demonstrates. Instead, consider this a general warning about the dangers of investing in a cheap turntable without researching the specific model you’re getting, based on my personal, harrowing experience.
Let me set the scene.
The year was 1999. Westlife may have been dominating the charts with whatever vacuous pop melody they’d spun out, but I in my rebellious tween years had found something cooler. Specifically, I’d discovered rock and prog.
It happened that summer after a disciplinary incident that won’t be detailed here left me confined to the house with no hope of parole. Isolated while my parents and brother were out shopping, I did what all kids do – I rummaged through all the old wardrobes and storage units around the house hoping to find something to entertain me.
And after hours of rooting through drawers only to find table clothes and pillow sheets in my dad’s study, I finally hit gold and found a pile of vinyl records stashed in an old trunk.
But this wasn’t the standard Van Morrison easy-listening stuff I’d seen sitting in our lounge. Opening the trunk I was confronted with some of the coolest album covers I’d ever seen – to this day, I challenge you to find a kid who doesn't find Iron Maiden’s Eddie, Rush’s Star Man or the lavish fantasy scenes adorning Rainbow’s work awesome.
Rushing down to the lounge my excitement continued as I blasted through the albums, getting more excited with each thundering track. To this day I get shivers whenever I hear Dio bellow out “man on the silver mountain”.
Sadly, while my parents initially found it adorable that I liked the same music they did at my age, after months of playing the same albums on repeat every second I could, their patience wore thin and I was given a measly hour a day where I could use the lounge’s turntable.
Not content with this, I did what any good kid would. I begged them, repeatedly and aggressively, to get my own record player. After a few well-spent months wearing them down, I achieved a minor victory when my mother told me to “ask Santa” – which we all know is code for 'you’ll get one for Christmas'.
Come the big day, they technically did deliver on this promise. Racing down the stairs in my best Thundercats pyjamas (which to this day I wish I could find in an adult size), I b-lined to the tree and was elated to find a box with my name on it that was perfectly turntable sized.
Ripping the paper off my faith was rewarded and I found myself the proud owner of a new all-in-one turntable. At the time I didn’t care that I didn’t have a clue how to pronounce, let alone recognise, the brand name adoring its shiny plastic case. I was equally unperturbed about the fact its chassis noticeably creaked when I excitedly ran upstairs to get it set up.
All that mattered was that I could now listen to my records in my bedroom whenever I wanted.
While my father set the turntable up, I devoted my remaining time carefully picking what my first record would be. I flipped between the high energy, pure joy of Rush’s Permanent Waves to the thundering hard rock excellence of Motörhead’s Ace Of Spades before finally settling on Yes’ iconic fifth studio album, Close to the Edge.
But to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever had such a rapid turn in my fortunes. Before I’d even gotten one minute into the album’s majestic 18-minute opening track my world shattered as I heard distortion rear its ugly head.
After foolishly ignoring the issue, my idiocy was laid bare when I took the album off the player and found its tracking force was so insanely high it had gouged my beloved album beyond repair. Looking at the album the damage was plain to see and the record never sounded the same again even when played on my dad's infinitely superior system.
I now know that this is a common issue on cheaper players, which based on my experience using them, need the weight to stop their outright terrible needles from jumping around like a toddler high on Haribo. But back then the damage was an outright shock that all but ruined Christmas. Sheepishly coming back down the stairs I was a sobbing mess that couldn’t be consoled by any of the subsequent games or TV specials that would ordinarily have filled me with festive joy.
Which is why I’ve penned this to warn future generations of record adorers. Even if you can’t afford a premium unit, like the Pro-Ject Debut Pro that sits at the top of our best record player guide, make sure you do your research when picking a turntable or risk suffering my fate. At the very least invest in one where you can adjust the tracking force...
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