USB turntable is an ungodly oxymoron. Plug these record players, often tarted up in retro cases, into a computer, and you can turn the audio from your vinyl records into digital files. The sound quality is usually terrible (especially the bass response), and garbage electronics make the digital transfers sound hideous. Worse, these plastic monstrosities are preloaded with crude styli that plow through the grooves of your precious records like chisels. If you want to listen to your LP collection at the gym, you’re better off paying for the lossless digital downloads and saving yourself some aggravation.
Sony PS-HX500 Turntable
Somebody finally got serious and made a decent turntable with plug-and-play hi-res digital recording capability. Rejoice. Your vinyl library is finally portable.
Some will grumble about the $600 price tag. Others will take issue with the no-name cartridge, generic design, and curious build quality lapses.
That doesn’t always work. Countless titles aren’t available as digital downloads. Sometimes, you can’t even rip a CD—many albums and singles by artists from the ’60s through the ’80s are out of print or were never issued on compact disc to begin with. The Tidal, Spotify, and Apple Music catalogs are riddled with conspicuous gaps. Sometimes, you simply must bring analog into the digital domain.
Seeing a void in the market, Sony recently unveiled the PS-HX500, a $600 hybrid rig that promises hi-fidelity turntable goodness with digital transfers so detailed and pristine that you’ll forget all about the el cheapo USB deck your college roommate picked up at Urban Outfitters.
The turntable comes with a stylus cartridge, USB and RCA cables, and a built-in phono preamp. Playing in the digital realm, of course, requires software. To record, edit, and store tracks from needle drops, simply download the “Hi-Res Audio Recorder.” You’ll also need an audio app to hear your freshly minted hi-res files. Mac users get a free pass with iTunes compatibility. I used JRiver Media Center 21 because the interface is brilliant, and it will play any audio file known to man and machina.
Sony’s industrial designers phoned in this assignment. The PS-HX500 looks like every other entry-level audiophile turntable from the likes of Pro-Ject, Rega and Music Hall. These mid-three-figure record players are exercises in tasteful restraint, with the same slender MDF plinth and adjustable rubber feet. Ditto for the Dieter Rams matte-black minimalism (the default audiophile color) and the smoked plastic dust cover that flips down like a coffin lid but is typically removed by audio snobs “because it resonates.” The only nod to singularity is the iPod click wheel that controls power and turntable speed. Two details are glaringly wrong; the tone arm lock and the cue lever are woefully under-engineered. They feel flimsy and cheap. The tone arm lock isn’t a deal-breaker—unless you’re a Bedouin, packing and unpacking your rig every day, how often will you use the tone arm lock? The crappy cueing lever, though, is a problem. This is what delivers and retrieves the stylus tip to and from the grooves, so it’s not something to scrimp on. One more thing: The paint job on my review model looks like it was applied by Jackson Pollock. Hundreds of small blotches dot the surface like Braille spelling the same five letters over and over: SNAFU.
The pre-loaded cartridge, a selling point for turntables at this price, isn’t branded, but it’s an Audio Technica moving magnet model that Sony says was designed for PS-HX500. Modders, rejoice, because the slotted headshell works with lots of alternatives. Sony tested carts ranging from the excellent $120 Sumiko Pearl and $99 Shure M97-XE to the mediocre $40 Audio Technica AT95E and $65 Rega Carbon.
The cartridge that Audio Technica tuned for Sony probably performs somewhere between the Pearl and the AT95E. To test this theory, I plugged in a Nagaoka MP110 and noticed a definite sonic uptick, with impressive extension at the frequency extremes. Still, even with the stock cart, this is a very serviceable deck. You won’t hear detail and texture you’ve never heard before (that will cost another couple grand), but your annoying analog pals won’t complain about their ears bleeding either. Swap in a better cartridge, and this rig can hold its own with popular audiophile starter decks like the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon and Rega RP1. For a mass-market manufacturer like Sony, with a stable of inexpensive, no-frills turntables in their catalog, that’s no small accomplishment.
All of which begs the question: If this Sony turntable doesn’t sound better than the Pro-Ject or the Rega, why should I drop 200 bucks more for it? Because the digital music streams it churns out like widgets on a MakerBot sound sublime. Just drop the needle, click the app, and you’re recording.
Software controls are bare bones (select the bit depth and sampling frequency) and the color palate is depression era black-and-white, but it’s glitch-free and idiot-proof. From Ben Webster’s breathy tenor saxophone on “Soulville,” to Charlie Watt’s thumping disco beat on “Miss You,” to Bowie’s lachrymose baritone croon on the title track of Blackstar, these digital files are truly “Hi-Res,” just like the gold badge on the plinth advertises.
Corners may have been cut when CADing the cueing lever by committee, but the integrated electronics, bolted beneath the chassis in a tidy little box, definitely aren’t bargain bin, especially the phono stage and the all-important Burr-Brown PCM4202, a Texas Instruments analog-to-digital-converter. Rips aren’t limited to 24-bit/216kHz WAV files. If hard drive or cloud space is no object, go crazy. This deck supports DSD (2.8MHz) and double DSD (5.8MHz)—a first for a USB turntable. For those who care more about good sound than fancy acronyms, “DSD” is Direct-Stream Digital, the same format used by Sony and Philips to record Super Audio CDs. A double DSD file is twice as big, which is cool but complete overkill.
Remember, though: “Hi-Res” is what the PS-HX500 is all about. If you want to preserve your A+++ Led Zeppelin II “Bob Ludwig Hot Mix” by ripping a 5.6MHz DSD copy, that’s your god-given, audiophile right. And the next time some smug jerk at CES crows about their USB phono preamp recording “CD quality” files straight from vinyl, nod and casually mention that 16-bit/44kHz (aka “CD quality”) is the lowest resolution your Sony deck records. Ouch.