In May 2014 CNET condemned USB turntables, calling them the “worst audio product ever.” The machines first came out in 2006, and many audiophiles saw them, preliminarily, as a godsend — able to both play vinyl, like a record player, and to transfer and copy that high-quality audio into a digital format, via their built-in analog-to-digital converter (a/d converter). Vinyl enthusiasts could play their collections and back them up, alleviating the worry that the vinyl would become damaged (and lost) over its lifetime of use. Plus, digital provided the perk of listening to the full-resolution audio on the road.
The turntables didn’t live up to expectations. “The a/d converter inside the unit wasn’t great, there were software conflicts and they didn’t offer as many options or recording capabilities,” says JP Torres, Sony’s Audio Expert for Home Entertainment & Sound (HES). Most were cheap turntables, so they had awful playback as well. Instead of wasting your money, CNET suggested buying a non-USB turntable and a separate USB converter. But, Sony never gave up the fight to make these condemned USB turntables work, and this spring they’re coming out with a new device, the HX500, that will finally give vinyl lovers a reason to rejoice.
The HX500 is designed, first and foremost, as a top-quality record player, able to play vinyl albums as they were intended. In addition, the HX500 is, as far as Torres knows, the only USB turntable able to back up and archive analog in full high-resolution audio native DSD (DSD 5.6 mHZ, to be exact). With mass-produced CDs, and their 44.1 KHz/16 bit frequency, listeners are losing a lot of the high frequencies that may not necessarily be heard, but add dimension and depth to the music. (For example, listeners are able to better hear where each of the musicians were standing, in relationship to each other, while recording the track.) “The old analog format holds an inherent nostalgia to people,” says Torres. “Now Sony, with the co-development of SACD DSD Audio, has really gotten to the point that it’s pretty much indistinguishable from the original analog.”
Sony HX500 USB Turntable
Digital Output: USB
DSD files: 5.6MHz, 2.8MHz
WAV files: 4.1KHz, 48KHz, 96KHz, 192KHz
Operating speeds: 33 1/3 and 45 RPM
Learn More: Here
When converting analog to digital, it really comes down to the quality of the a/d converter. “There’s a set clock speed so a certain amount of data has to be entered in at the exact correct time,” says Torres, “and you have an open and a close that have to be timed perfectly. If it isn’t you can get distortion in the music, especially when you’re listening on a high-quality playback system.” A quality a/d converter, specifically one that supports two channels (a/d and d/a) like the HX500, could cost several thousands of dollars, like the Antelope Audio Pure 2. The HX500 only costs $600.
The most price-conscious USB turntable that Sony makes is an LX300, which is under $200. For someone just looking to back up, archive or listen to records in standard quality, a turntable like the LX300 is fine. But to convert and listen to vinyl without signal or quality loss, the HX500 is the USB turntable of choice. Its internal a/d converter, noise floor, and signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) are much higher quality, according to Torres. (It should be noted that the HX500 can, if desired, convert in lower-quality WAV files.)
USB turntables have tried and, up to this point, failed to bring vinyl-quality audio to a digital format. But the vinyl demand is still there — vinyl album sales are up 260 percent since 2009, according to Nielsen’s most recent mid-year report — and Sony is betting that the desire to archive those albums is also still present. So will the HX500 succeed where its predecessors have failed, and shake the reputation of being the worst audio product ever? We’ll have to wait until April to find out.