There’s a lot to be said for convenience. The world of consumer technology has embraced convenience with gusto, from the iPod to streaming services, wireless speakers to soundbars; much of the hardware and software we surround ourselves with today are born out of making our lives easier. Fewer cables, fewer boxes, subscription rather than ownership. But there’s always a trade-off and, for the most part, this has been quality.
Vinyl bucks this trend. There’s certainly nothing convenient about 12-inch slabs of plastic that might only contain a few minutes of music, especially when you have access to all the music ever recorded (give or take) from your smartphone or laptop. And, let’s be honest, the apparent flaws in vinyl's sound quality are something of a compromise for many people compared to the clarity of a hi-res download or even a CD track.
That being said, some manufacturers have tried to make the world of vinyl easier to access, which is certainly a good thing. However, with the What Hi-Fi? focus on performance-per-pound value, and an overall eye for getting the best quality, there are always lines to be drawn. And when it comes to all-in-one turntables – a record player, sometimes in a suitcase-style box, complete with everything else you need to hear a sound from vinyl, including speakers, integrated inside – we haven't been able to quite get on board.
Now, before we're accused of being closed-minded, let us say that we are always happy to test new products, new types of products, new brands – discovering something (anything!) great is one of the most satisfying things we do. That’s why we’ve tested a couple of Crosley turntables. The US company pretty much leads the way when it comes to all-in-one record players, and that isn't surprising considering they don't just look the part but have also made their way into high street stores. But we had issues. And having seen similar propositions from other brands, including the Lenco LS-410 very recently, we know these issues aren’t limited to Crosley but are rather a sign of the necessary compromise when it comes to an all-in-one machine.
Firstly, we found the sound quality wasn't great. As we said of the Crosley Keepsake: “The side-firing integrated speakers go loud enough to be heard across a decent-sized room and manage to avoid sounding tinny, but ultimately the presentation is woolly. It lacks clarity and detail, and every element of the sound seems squeezed within a confined midrange.” Not good.
As for the Crosley Cruiser, we noted that “voices are shrill, and there’s not enough resolution to hear deeper into the mix. There’s a tune in there, but no enjoyment to be had from it.” Ouch.
Secondly, the heavy-handed weighting of the needles was such that over time it could damage your records. This can happen on any deck – you need to make sure you set up your turntable properly – but it was certainly an issue with the Crosley all-in-one record players we tested. The cartridge’s unusually heavy tracking weight (over 7g when around 2g is more typical) would slowly harm your records. For the sake of user simplicity, the tonearm on the Keepsake and Cruiser can't be adjusted to correct this either.
We actually found the Lenco LS-410 output fine in terms of sonic character, but it suffered from quality control issues we can't help but believe comes from trying to offer so much (turntable, amplifier, speakers – the lot) at a low price point. In calibrating the tonearm, we become aware of too much play in the arm bearings, to the point that the arm actually rattles, which creates noise and hampers sound quality by messing up speed stability.
We took no pleasure in these findings. We loved the designs of all three; they looked the part. And of course we can see the appeal of such a plug-and-play product when building a turntable system of separates can seem quite daunting with so many necessary components and parts. But these examples were a compromise too far for us, and we've yet to hear an all-in-one system in the same vein that counters these negative experiences.
Honestly, when it comes to records and turntables we don’t think it’s meant to be easy either. Part of the appeal of vinyl is that there’s a reward on investment, not just financially but also in terms of time spent setting up your system, perfecting your turntable set up, taking the time to cue up a record, and then sitting back and enjoying the fact you don’t have a skip button a finger press away. Vinyl isn’t a plug-and-play world.
The best turntables, as is the case in most product categories, tend to focus on one job and one job alone – playing vinyl. The more components you add, the more you tend to compromise on quality.
Of course, there’s always an exception, and you can make it easier for yourself by getting the What Hi-Fi? seal of approval. For a start, you can seek out a turntable with a built-in phono stage. That way, there's one less box to worry about. You can also get a deck with a pre-fitted cartridge to tick off another job. The What Hi-Fi? Award-winning Technics SL-1500C ticks both of these boxes and doesn't ask its prospective owner to take out a loan for it.
Want more (and for less money)? The Pro-Ject Juke Box E is the closest thing we’ve seen to an all-in-one that doesn’t compromise on performance. It’s based on Pro-Ject’s well-regarded but uber-simple Primary turntable but also boasts an Ortofon OM 5E cartridge, phono stage (25W per channel into 8 ohms) and a Bluetooth receiver. You really do just need to add speakers.
So, while we can't quite recommend you spend your money on a true all-in-one turntable – we haven't seen or heard one yet that does your music justice – there are record players on the market that are making it easier for anyone to start listening to vinyl. And as we celebrate Record Store Day with our special Vinyl Week reviews and features, we definitely think that's a good thing.