Portable turntables are an inexpensive entry into the world of vinyl records. Are the new Rock 'N' Rolla turntables an improvement over those already on the market?
I understand Neil Young’s desire for Pono to catch on, and why Team Tidal launched a lossless streaming service. On the studio quality speakers that they heard their music on when recording it, sonic nuances are present that matter to them—details that get lost as file information is knocked out in the conversion to mp3s. But the truth is that most of us have always listened to music on systems that can’t access those details. I certainly have. Car stereos, phones, bookshelf stereos and the like don’t give us high fidelity as much as high-enough fidelity—high enough for us to hear enough of the music to make us happy. And if we’ve never heard better sound, how would we know that we’re missing anything? Berry Gordy Jr. got this, and he famously tested mixes of Motown singles in a car because he knew that was where it needed to sound good. That was where is audience would hear the records.
Sound quality is theoretically one of the drivers of the renewed interest in vinyl. I understand the love of vinyl because it is the arena in which music consumption is a tactile, active process. Streaming and downloading involve little more than a few keystrokes or clicks. They’re not entirely passive activities, but they don’t involve poring over bins, examining covers for clues as to what something is or why you should care. They don’t involve physically putting a record on the turntable, carefully and attentively lowering the needle on to the record, listening, then repeating the process in three to 25 minutes, depending on the length of a side of the record. There’s no doing the dishes while an album’s on because you’ll still have your hands wet and soapy when a side finishes.
I also get vinyl records as cool objects because they’re durable to stand up to a night of carousing but fragile enough that they demand some care. You can’t take them for granted. They’re semi-precious. You can’t be a complete clod and deal with them, but they’re forgiving enough that we don’t need white gloves and delicacy of heart and mind.
Still, I’m skeptical of those who claim to hear the warmth of vinyl. My suspicion is that many of those who say they do say so because others said it first. If you’re running your turntable through your computer or straight to a pair of speakers, you’re not hearing the vinyl magic. You have to run it through a receiver to get that sound, and back in the day, not just any receiver. Solid state receivers were thought of as cold too. Yours had to be governed by tubes to really get the effect.
Still, the renewed interest in vinyl has led to a renewed interest in something to play them on, and stylishly retro portable turntables are a popular option. They’re cost-efficient, self-contained (sort of) and attractive. Crosley has owned that market so far, but not without controversy. The name has become a dirty word among vinyl aficionados who worry that its tone arm design—no counterbalance—and ceramic cartridge will damage your records, and that the sound isn’t good enough to offset the turntables’ drawbacks.
Rock ’N’ Rolla recently introduced a line of alternatives to Crosley briefcase turntables, and while they’re improvements, they’re not big improvements. It’s hard to imagine who would be made happy by the tinny sound coming from the speakers built in to the Rock ’N’ Rolla Premium that I test drove. That’s not a surprise. There’s simply not enough real estate in these compact units for speakers that would offer satisfactory bass response. The top of the line XL includes a CD player as well, but since the speakers appear to be the same size based on photos, that’s only a selling point for the truly desperate. Like Crosley turntables, Rock ’N’ Rollas need to be heard through headphones or external speakers to be enjoyed.
With good—not great—headphones or speakers, the sound on the Rock ’N’ Rolla Premium is fine. I tested it with Sparks’ No. 1 in Heaven and Adrian Younge and Ghostface Killah’s Twelve Reasons to Die II, and heard without any point of comparison, I got what I wanted from each album—the crisp beats and textured synths of Sparks’ collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, and the dubby, low-end atmosphere of Younge’s take on psychedelic blaxploitation.
That likely had a lot to do with the headphones and speakers, though. I suspect that if I could quickly switch speakers and hear the same music through other delivery systems, the shortcomings would emerge. The Rock ’N’ Rolla Premium has a USB port and controls so you can record your vinyl to digital. When I recorded Younge’s “King of New York” and listened to the digital recording next to the track on Spotify, the recording lacked presence and would require some tweaks in Audacity or Garageband to be satisfying if you knew what it should sound like.
Those who really want the vinyl experience need to accept the fact that you can’t get it on the cheap. Turntables, amps and speakers cost money, and they’re integral to getting the legendary sonic difference. Still, the Rock ’N’ Rolla Premium and the line of portable turntables allow people access to all the music that, remarkably, has yet to be reissued, as well as the growing world of vinyl-only music. On National Record Store Day, The Revivalists released the vinyl-only live album from Tipitina’s, Strangers in the Bright Lights, and Black Friday also saw the release of a previously unreleased Ramones live show, and The Stooges’ Telluric Chaos, featuring the reunited Stooges with Mike Watt on bass in 2004 in Japan. You don’t hear those albums as well as you might, but you can hear them well enough.
If a portable turntable is your starting place, the Rock ’N’ Rolla line is a step up from Crosleys. The actual turntables on Crosleys are so close to the rear of the unit that the lid has to be opened beyond 90 degrees or taken off entirely to prevent it from contacting 12-inch records and creating drag, but the Rock ’N’ Rolla turntable is closer to the front, and if the lid is opened to 90 degrees, albums play just fine. Since its size is one of the selling points, the fact that the unit doesn’t require any more space on your shelf, counter, table or desk than the space it sits on matters.
If you’re into vinyl or want to be though, the portable turntable is a gateway technology. It gets you in the game, but at some point you will want to upgrade.