mbeat Retro Briefcase USB turntable $129.95

As everybody loves to discuss, vinyl is enjoying a revival, with LP sales rising around 40% every year and reports that turntable sales are also doing very nicely thank you. But these are nearly all turntables which plug into a conventional hi-fi amp — which may have a phono socket if you’re lucky, or else, if your amp has only newfangled line-level inputs, requiring a separate phono stage.

But back in the glory days of vinyl, that’s probably not how most records got played. Many record players were standalone items, with their own speakers built-in. We’re not talking giant Bakelite gramophone units, but more the Dansette-style bedroom player, where you’d open the hinged lid, load a stack of 45s on the tall metal spindle, and sit back for some tunes interspersed with the clatter of dropping discs.

altFor some time we have thought the market to be ripe for some of those to return. So when we spotted mbeat’s “Retro Briefcase-Styled USB Turntable Recorder’, we sent a request for a review unit.

And what excellent fun it is. Although called a USB turntable recorder, you don’t need to connect it to your computer to hear your vinyl. The mbeat has its own speakers built-in, so can be used in just that traditional Dansette bedroom style. Or there is a pair of RCA audio outs, so you can cable it through into anything with an auxiliary input — a hi-fi amp, receiver, wireless speaker. It delivers at normal line level, so you won’t need a special phono input or separate phono stage. There’s even a headphone output, so you can spin discs in complete privacy.

altSet up requires none of the arcane arts of turntable set-up. The black briefcase opens to reveal a platter only six inches in diameter, so that a 12-inch disc sticks out a few inches on two sides and just a tad at the rear, over the briefcase hinge. There is a switch for electronic speed control for 33/3, 45 and even 78rpm, a lift for the arm, and a nice knob to control the volume from its own speakers — inserting headphones will mute the speakers but using the line outs to a hi-fi won’t, you just turn the knob to zero. There’s also a 45rpm adaptor (what used to be called a spider) stored in the case, which will be useful for those who popped the centres out of their singles in the 1970s in order to use them in jukeboxes (or, in our case, on the record player fitted under the dash of our Austin-Cambridge motor car).

We were playing within minutes of opening the briefcase. Sound from the internal speakers is inevitably limited, but will do for kiddies playing discs in their bedroom — there’s a minijack input so you can play another device through the internal speakers as well.

A better sense of the sound quality came when feeding the output through our usual hi-fi. Clearly you can’t expect a $125 unit to deliver the spine-shivering realism and wondrous warmth that can flow from a well-adjusted hi-fi turntable. But the result here proved by no means unacceptable, and rather better than we had expected. Indeed the mbeat ate through surface noise rather more than expensive and sensitive decks, so we enjoyed exhuming LPs that we have long ignored as too noisy (waiting for the day we finally use that record cleaner machine we purchased over a year ago). Bass frequencies are underplayed and light, with most of the energy delivered through a warm midrange and a treble response that will never shriek because that sort of noise simply doesn’t come from vinyl. Highly complex and louder material brought occasional tracking noise as distortion on top of the music, but again, at this price we hesitate to complain.

It’s worth nothing, however, that mbeat recommends replacing the stylus every three to four months of regular play. mbeat in Australia offers two whole replacement cartridges for $21.95, so maybe stock up on a couple in advance. (For those keen to know their specs, the product link for the stylus is here.)

Onto the USB connection, and the ability to digitise your discs for posterity. There’s a CD in the box with Audacity (you may be better off downloading the latest version from the web), and the mbeat mounts as a USB audio input device; it’s all pretty easy to set up. Once recorded you can trim the start and end, cut up album sides into single tracks and put them in your music program of choice. Then spend happy hours labelling all the metadata.

But is this the turntable to use for archiving? Not really — you want to be archiving stuff only once, and the higher quality the turntable you use, the better. So perhaps consider the mbeat’s USB abilities as just another way of accessing the audio from the unit, and once in a while for copying across that rare Wombles single you can’t find on Spotify.

What we enjoyed most about the mbeat was its neat solution as a multipurpose vinyl playing system that you can pack up in a minute and take off for a session playing someone else’s neglected collection. It is very much entry-level (we’ve seen similar but not identical units even cheaper in Target recently), so it won’t extract all the information vinyl has to offer deep in its grooves. But if you have vinyl, no turntable and no more money to spend than $129.95, we reckon you’ll enjoy the mbeat enormously.

Product page: www.mbeat.com.au

Who Sells What: mbeat