While true that traditional turntable setups have a lot of moving parts, that’s the nature of the beast — if not vinyl’s main allure. There’s also an easy workaround. These days, a bunch of turntables and speaker systems come with integrated components (like a phono preamplifier or amplifier) and they make listening to vinyl as hassle-free. Before we get into the setups, we’re going to answer a few basic questions below.
What is an all-in-one turntable?
The name “all-in-one turntable” is a little misleading, at least in most cases, because it generally still requires you to add speakers to complete the system and play music. An all-in-one turntable has a built-in phono preamp (also known as phono stage) and a built-in powered amplifier (also referred to as an amp). The preamp is needed to amplify the signal coming out of the turntable’s cartridge, while the powered amplifier boosts and preps the signal so that it can be sent to the speakers.
There are a few key advantages to buying an all-in-one turntable. They’re generally cheaper. They take up less space because you don’t have to factor in where to place the external phono stage and amplifier. Finally, all-in-one turntables are just easier to set up because there are less components to fiddle with.
What are the downsides of an all-in-one turntable?
In order for a hi-fi system to work to its full potential, all its components have to work in perfect harmony and not disrupt each other. These individual components — turntable, preamp, amplifier, etc. — naturally create vibrations and when they’re in close proximity of one another they can have a negative effect on the rest of the system. This is one reason why all-in-one turntables are not popular with high-end enthusiasts. Of course, there are high-end all-in-one turntables that do a great job of isolating the individual components and minimizing noise, but that is a whole other can of worms.
The other big downside around all-in-one turntables is that their built-in preamp isn’t upgradeable. Many enthusiasts like to upgrade their systems over time and customize their sound, and an external preamp is a great way of doing just that. That said, more and more all-in-one turntables have switches that allow you to turn its built-in preamp on or off, giving listeners the option to add their own preamp if they like.
Passive, Powered or Active bookshelf speakers: Does it matter?
The short answer is: absolutely.
Passive bookshelf speakers are the most flexible type of bookshelf speaker (and generally the cheapest) because they have no built-in amplification. This means that the turntable needs to either have a built-in phono preamp and a powered amplifier, or it needs to be connected to external components, in order to play. The reason why passive bookshelf speakers are the most flexible option is that they allow the listener the most room to experiment; you can easily swap in or out different components, such as amplifiers, preamps and DACs, without you having to get a new pair of speakers. Passive bookshelf speakers are what we’d recommend to pair with most all-in-one turntables.
Powered bookshelf speakers are exactly as you’d think: they are “powered,” meaning they have their own built-in amplification and need to be connected to power to work. Generally, only one of the speakers is amplified (it’s called the “master”) and needs to be connected via cable to the passive speaker (the “slave”). If the turntable has a built-in preamp, you can connect it directly to a pair of powered speakers and it’ll work.
Active bookshelf speakers are essentially the same as powered bookshelf speakers, but more advanced. The speakers are individually amplified and have a multitude of built-in connectivity options, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and optical. Active bookshelf speakers can connect directly to a turntable with a built-in preamp. If the turntable doesn’t have a preamp or powered amplifier built into it, you can usually connect it directly to the active speaker.
The Entry-Level Setup
Turntable: Audio Technica AT-LP120-USB
The AT-LP120-USB is one of our favorite entry-level turntables. Its design pays tribute to the legendary Technics SL-1200, but it has more than good looks. With a USB output, you can hook it up to your computer and digitalize your records to listen to the files elsewhere; it has a built-in phono preamp, meaning you can connect it to either powered or passive speakers; and it’s decked out with DJ-friendly features, similar to SL-1200, so you can try your hand at spinning.
Speakers: Audioengine A2+ Wireless
The latest powered desktop speakers by Audioengine, the A2+ Wireless, make a great partner for AT-LP120-USB. You can connect the two via stereo RCA cables — one cable goes from the turntable to the master speaker (left) and then another tethers the two speakers together. What’s great about the A2+ Wireless is that they’re also versatile. They support Bluetooth aptX, so when the turntable is off, you can stream audio to them right from your smartphone or computer.
The Upgraded Setup
Turntable: Cambridge Audio Alva TT
The Alva TT is the latest and greatest turntable by Cambridge Audio; it’s also its most expensive turntable ever. It’s a direct-drive turntable with a heavy platter and an integrated phono stage, and it has a generally bespoke design. What makes it different is that it’s the first turntable with hi-res 24bit/48kHz aptX HD streaming. You can wirelessly pair it to any Bluetooth receiver or speakers, so your system and turntable don’t have to be in the same room. You can also hook up the Alva TT direct to your speakers via RCA connections.
Speakers: KEF LSX
The LSX is just a brilliant little hi-fi system by KEF. It’s a smaller version of the company’s acclaimed LS50 Wireless and it sounds terrific. Plus, you can connect to just about anything: your TV (via optical), turntable (via RCA), smartphone (via aux) or computer (via USB). It has built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth that let users stream audio straight from apps like Tidal and Spotify. You can connect the speaker system to the Alva TT via an RCA connection (you’ll need an RCA splitter) — or you could simply connect the two over Bluetooth.
The Premium Setup
Turntable: McIntosh MTI100
A $6,500 turntable isn’t in most people’s wheelhouse, but this guide was a great excuse to fawn over the MTI100. It’s the first all-in-one turntable by McIntosh and it has the brand’s signature look — black lacquer finish, large tactile knobs and lime-green glow. It’s just as beautiful on the inside, too. It comes decked out with a 50-watt Class D amplifier, vacuum tube preamp, phono preamplifier, digital and analog outputs, and a Bluetooth receiver. If you’re looking for a “just add speakers” turntable and your budget is high, this is as good as they come.
Speakers: Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2
This is the only setup with passive speakers, so we went big. The 705 S2 are arguably one of the best bookshelf speakers out there. They’re beautiful and unique, with the tweeter sitting on top of the speaker, and separated from the main cabinet, which isolates treble and gives the B&W’s new Continuum midrange drivers even more room to breathe. The bass performance of the 705 S2 speakers is impressively big, too.
Bonus: The Sonos Setup
Truly want vinyl without the hassle? Few setups embody that idea better than the two sold by Sonos, who partnered with respected manufacturer Pro-Ject to take all the guesswork out of building a respectable audio rig from scratch.
Both options come with the Essential III Phono turntable, which is respectable in its own right and features a built-in phono pre-amp. Where they differ is the number of speakers: the Sonos Vinyl Set ($799) has one Play:5 speaker while the Sonos Vinyl Pro Set ($1,249) has two. The Play:5 is unique among Sonos speakers because it can output both mono and stereo. You can also chain it with other Sonos speakers around the house, or just use it to stream audio from your phone.