Vinyl records are making a comeback, but will the new breed of turntables make our old record collection sound better (despite all of the hisses and pops delivered by the worn grooves of the recordings)?

To get the answer, we tested two new turntables with a record collection dating from the 1960s and were amazed by the results.

Yes, the hisses and pops were still there. But the sound delivered through even a so-called “budget” receiver and speaker system was much better than we had expected.

We used a direct-drive turntable from Onkyo and a belt-driven model from Pioneer to see if we could detect any differences between the two. The result? Despite a few subtle differences in sound reproduction — and the possibility you may have to replace a belt due to wear or breakage — the only big difference we could find was the price. Also, belt drive turntables are supposed to have the lowest rumble with direct drive turntables having less wow and flutter. Rumble is caused by a vibration in the turntable while wow and flutter are caused by variations in the speeds at which the platter is revolving.

The Onkyo CP-1050 ($599) is a direct drive turntable boasting an anti-vibration wood-grained cabinet and stylish aluminum deck.

One of the biggest criticisms of direct-drive turntables used to be a so-called “cogging noise” resulting from the gears of the turntable’s motor meshing together to turn the platters. The folks at Onkyo have eliminated this problem by designing a low-torque motor. They also claim that there’s less high-frequency noise using a direct-drive model than a belt-driven unit. We couldn’t detect a difference, but the human ear isn’t as discriminating as instruments used to accurately test such things.

Our one major complaint was the absence of a built-in phono preamp, which would allow us to use it with receivers/amplifiers that lack phono inputs. The solution is to purchase a small preamp (which costs about $20) and install it between the turntable and the receiver. If you need one, don’t skimp on the cost. Less expensive phono preamps tend to add an annoying hum to the sound reproduction. This wasn’t the case with the Behringer Microphono PP400 preamp we used.

Other features of the Onkyo CP-1050 include:

  • An S-shaped aluminum tone arm with a detachable headshell
  • An antiskate dial, which can be adjusted to reduce tracking distortion on the inner grooves of the record
  • A moving magnet cartridge
  • A die-cast aluminum turntable
  • A thick rubber mat
  • A brushless motor
  • A counterweight that can be adjusted to accommodate the weight of various cartridges
  • A 45 RPM setting to play those old favorites from the 1950s and 60s

The belt-driven turntable we used was the Pioneer PL-30-K ($299.99), which — to our ears — delivered sound that was equal to the CP-1050. The company claims that the combination of a dual servo motor and the belt drive reduces wow and flutter to less than .1 percent compared to less than .15 percent on the Onkyo unit. There’s no way we can dispute this claim, but the difference seems negligible, at best.

The best feature of the PL-30-K is its built-in phono preamp. A switch on the back of the of the turntable’s cabinet rerouted the signal through the preamp allowing us to use receivers that lacked a phono input.

Another feature resembles the days of so-called record changers, where the tone arm automatically moves into the proper position to play a recording and automatically returns to its stand when it’s done. A simple push of a start button sends all of this into motion. This also is not available on the CP-1050.

The PL-30-K also has a straight tone arm rather than the S-shaped tone arm that is used by the CP-1050. There has been much debate over which technology is better, with no clear winner.

Other than that, all of the features are identical to those on the CP-1050, including noise-dampening, a moving magnet cartridge, counterweight and anti-skating dials, detachable headshell and the ability to play 45 RPM records.

So why the difference in price? That all boils down to the direct drive versus belt drive debate. The better technology is in the eyes of the beholder — and the manufacturer.

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