A USB turntable works like most other turntables — it hooks up to your existing hi-fi system and plays your vinyl records — but it has the added functionality of allowing you to digitize what you're playing. You can backup your records and save them as digital files on your computer, smartphone or portable hi-fi-player, so that you can then listen to them whenever you want. No turntable required.
You might be thinking: Why? You can stream the same songs from services like Spotify, Apple Music or Tidal anyway. One big answer is the sound. It's a warm sound filled with wonderful imperfections (like scratches) — and that's nostalgic for a lot of people. Also, vinyl records tend to be easily damaged, so having a digital backup makes a lot of sense.
In years past, USB turntables were frowned upon by vinyl lovers — Steve Guttenberg wrote an article for CNET in 2014 that condemned them as “worst audio product ever” — because they were usually cheap that had crappy built-in analog-to-digital converters. But in the last several years, that's changed quite a bit and you can buy a relatively high-quality turntable with many capabilities — including built-in USB.
Of course, digitizing your vinyl records depends a lot on your turntable. The better your turntable, the higher-quality the digital files you're going to be able to record. So if you're serious about audio quality and you have an extensive vinyl collection, we recommend getting a nicer USB turntable. (Or you can get a separate USB converter for your non-USB turntable.)
How to Digitize Your Vinyl
The good news is that if you have a USB turntable, it's fairly easy to digitize your records. You just need to connect your turntable (via its USB output) to your computer — some USB turntables allow you to save files directly to a USB flash drive, too — and the companion software walks you through the process, hitting the record button, dropping the needle and choosing what kind of digital file (WAV or MP3) you want to save it as. Most USB turntables come with their own companion software, but there are third-party options, like VinylStudio, if you want a different solution. (Just make sure it's compatible with your Mac or PC. )
The Audio-Technica AT-LP120XUSB is a great entry-level USB turntable. It has a solid body (weighing over 20 pounds), a built-in phono preamp and comes with the company's well-loved AT-VM95E cartridge. Ultimately, you're going to get this turntable because you like its looks (and it falls within your budget).
Pro-Ject Debut III RecordMaster USB
Pro-Ject makes some of our favorite audiophile turntables that are still relatively affordable. Its Debut line has nice features like a heavier platter, higher-quality feet and a motor that’s decoupled from the plinth. The Debut III RecordMaster USB has an added A/D converter and USB output.
The Denon DP-450USB is one of the highest-quality USB turntables you can buy. It has a built-in phono preamp as well as a built-in phono equalizer, the latter of which allows you to tweak the treble, midrange and bass of your music.