The Vinyl Noob Diaries, Part One | Audio-Life

diary of a vinyl noob

As a vinyl noob, I declare that vinyl is the perfect format forever.

Whaaa??? How can such a cockamamie thing possibly be said? This is 2023, damn it! Digital has evolved into the de facto format of recorded music, digital analog converters have reached a golden age of sonics, we have hi-res music at our fingertips wherever we want to go, and you are making such ridiculous
claims? This vinyl noob must be off his proverbial rocker.

All of the above is true.

Words and Photos by Graig Neville

Vinyl is the realm of voodoo, tweaks, snake oil, and boat anchors. It is the antithesis of mobile with turntable rigs the size of washing machines that weigh more than boat anchors. These days you can walk into a room, connect with Bluetooth and get access to thousands if not millions of songs in a few seconds. Selecting an LP to play and firing up the turntable can last several minutes, and you need to hustle back to your seat before the music starts if you want to catch the beginning of the song.


Digital is plug and play. Vinyl requires a turntable, tone arm, cartridge, platter, platter mat, phono preamplification, and the list goes on. Everyone of those items in the chain makes a difference, even vibration isolation devices, cables, and record cleaning can impact the sound. Here there be dragons, witchcraft, and shenanigans all in the pursuit of the elusive “perfect audio bliss.”

Vinyl is the perfect format forever. Yes, I might be certifiably crazy to make such a claim. Yes, I am a vinyl noob.

schiit mani

A Vinyl Noob Gets Started

I met Scot Hull, Part-Time Audiophile’s grand poobah, at his storage locker which I call “The Vault.” I had recently signed on to the PTA review staff and Scot felt I needed some equipment upgrades during my freshman review year to really understand my role as a reviewer and what type of equipment was out there.

As we rummaged through the locker, piled eight feet high with gear, we shimmied between the stacks and Scot pulled out amplifiers, speakers, cables, and DACs. My trusty X5 was filled to the brim by the time we were done. In those early days we would meet every month or so and swap out gear as I played around with new things. I was in paradise. I was a gear slut, and much to my wife’s chagrin I was loving every minute.

Eventually Scot said, “Here, take this.” He handed me an Onkyo CP-1050(D) turntable, perfect for a vinyl noob. Little did I know this somewhat cast-off, still unopened box containing a modestly priced entry-level turntable would lead me down a road of ruination, delusion, and paradise. As Pandora lurked within the downright plebeian Onkyo box, I found a free afternoon and opened it up. No explosions, no apocalyptic brimstone, just a turntable, relatively easy to set up.

Little did I know the Pandora worked by degrees in this instance. Turntable set
up, I realized, would include a phono stage. Well look at that, a Schiit Mani was lurking like a mouse hidden in one of my audiophile hidey-holes. Ok, turntable, phono stage, all set up and ready. Uh. I’ve got zero records.


Kiss the Sky Records, in nearby Batavia IL, is my closest real record store. Yeah, I’ve dug through the trash bins at Half Price Books, but Kiss the Sky is the real deal. The store owner I had met a few times before when I had tagged along with Grover back when he actually was listening to records, and I picked up a few CDs. (Ha! I don’t even own a CD player any longer!) But here was a real opportunity, as a vinyl noob, to start a vinyl collection from true ground zero.


I selected Herbie Hancock’s Secrets, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, and a new Dave Mathews Band release (I can’t remember the title and it’s not important enough for me to look it up, but the green vinyl was neat) and I headed back to the house.

On first listen, I sat riveted in my listening chair waiting. Would it be terrible, would it be bliss and blow away digital, or would it be velvety and sumptuous like great tubes? I soon realized that it wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t bliss either. It definitely did this analog thing that I felt had potential, but compared to my considerably more refined (and expensive) digital setup it just ain’t that special. So, I kept the Onkyo in my rig for a bit longer and played one of my three records here and there just for kicks and then I put vinyl out of my mind for awhile.

A Second Try for the Vinyl Noob

Then we had HUBCON and AXPONA, and the vinyl bug began to stick its grubby little hands into my pockets. I was beginning to hear what a good vinyl rig could do and I wanted to experience more, at least in the comfort of my own home. Back at The Vault I asked Scot if he had something a step up from the modest Onkyo. “Here try this, it was a gift,” said Scot and he handed me two boxes. “And you’ll need this too,” he added, heaving a mystery box onto the vinyl noob pile.

rega p3

Getting home, I discovered the “gift” was a Shinola Runwell. Shinola is still around, but they’ve gotten out of the audio industry. Overall, that’s a good decision, but there’s neat history and some good YouTube content. Basically, the Runwell is a cosmetically fancy VPI table with a Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge and built-in phono stage. I’ll get to the second mystery box later.

Compared to the Onkyo, the Runwell was a significant step up. My socks were still not blown off, but the sound was substantially better with improved imaging, focus, and an analog vibe that I was starting to enjoy.


My trips to Kiss the Sky Records became more frequent and my collection slowly started to grow. Pandora’s hooks were beginning to tighten. And here is where my first vinyl noob tragedy occurred. I was putting the cover back on the Ortofon 2M cartridge and was having difficulty. It slipped and I bent the needle. [You’re now no longer a vinyl noob–Ed.]

My chagrin was somewhat abated since a replacement head was under $200, but it was a hard lesson to learn that with vinyl things are delicate, very delicate, and a soft, gentle and knowledgeable hand was needed moving forward.

vinyl noob

The needle was replaced and the Shinola was back up and running. I would play vinyl more often as it was enjoyable and a different kind of sound than what digital offered, still nowhere close to better than digital, but different. I kept wondering “What if I upgraded the cartridge, or could bypass the phono stage?” The Runwell did not lend itself to any tweaks besides replacing the cartridge, and since it was borrowed and a gift I knew I would have to make my dreaded first purchase as a vinyl noob.

“Just Buy a Rega P3”

Having experienced vinyl friends on the Part-Time Audiophile staff was a godsend. The amount of rabbit holes I could have delved down as a vinyl noob are myriad. After much discussion, Dave McNair just blurted out, “Buy a Rega P3 and be done with it.” That was followed quickly by Eric Franklin Shook: “I wonder how far you can tweak a P3?” And that’s when the idea hit me. I would document my pursuit of audio perfection and rapture through vinyl by starting with a Rega P3. First dilemma: go with the stock Rega cart or upgrade from the start?

rega planar3

Christopher Livengood from Ember Audio + Design suggested either a Hana or Dynavector. The Hana would be more vibe and the Dynavector more clarity. Audio is an emotional journey for me, so I decided on vibe and procured a Hana SH. And with that the hooks were in as I stood at the precipice of the abyss that is the rabbit hole of vinyl and took my first fateful step into bliss, madness, despair, and elation.

Next up: Unpacking Red, Ockham’s Razor is a Lie, and the Mysterious Box.



  1. Interested to follow this. My second rig is a Rega P3 with a Hana SL cartridge. Right now I’m using a Sutherland KC Vibe Mk2 for the phono stage, I’ve always wondered how far you could take the P3 with some of the available tweaks.

  2. Here’s the other perspective for all you noobs. I started collecting LPs in 1957 and never stopped, this with a pause in the early ’80s when CDs became commonly available. For 25 years I kept upgrading and fighting the good fight to get the best possible sound from my records and then the CDs. I had every cartridge made by Shure and top line Dual turntables.

    A huge thing happened when the industry escaped the IM and harmonic distortion unavoidable with vacuum tube equipment and the hiss and high frequency restrictions which came with magnetic tape recordings. These two developments alone, along with the CDs, reset ALL the bars. I had custom made bass reflex enclosures but I got new drivers, the ones found in the Klipsch corner horns, and solid state electronics. So far, so good.

    The problem was, I had a few CDs and over 400 LPs. What to do. Finally I got serious. I replaced my first generation transistorized Sony amp with a Yamaha which could deliver 80 watts into each of five channels with indiscernible distortion. I was almost there, but what about the LPs?

    You’ve already mentioned Audio-Technica, so I’ll cut to the chase. The AT-LP120USB is magnificent. It is a direct drive transcription quality turntable with NO audible rumble from my 80 watt front channels with both 12″ and 15″ woofers. It came equipped with a fine fifty-dollar elliptical stylus cartridge, the AT95E, but I quickly upgraded to the VM740ML, as one earlier reviewer noted, and, finally, THIS was the angel on top of the Christmas tree! This thing is unbelievable! It has no sound of its own. It picks up whatever is in the record groove and passes it to the first stage preamp, which in this case is inside the AT turntable. What happens to it after that is entirely up to you.

    AT makes a higher line more expensive table and much more expensive moving coil cartridges, but I cannot imagine and would disbelieve comments which insist they sound any better than what I have.

    I consider my opinion valid not only because I worked my way up from the beginning of stereo LP, following the development of the recording industry and the records themselves, but also because I regularly attend concerts of the LA Philharmonic and I know what unamplified music played by the finest orchestra in the galaxy in an acoustically perfect hall sounds like.

    LPs do not sound warmer or otherwise different from CDs. You can now get remastered, carefully pressed new LPs and in many cases you can get both the LP and the CD made from the same master. I have a few of these pairs, and with the VM740ML they yield identical sound. The pickup is, many of my records from the ’60s and ’70s have marvelous sound on them, and the Microline stylus fits deeper and better into the record groove, in many cases lessening any surface wear I could hear before.

    Finally: Never forget that LP records were and still are made like waffles and there’s just only so much frequency response and dynamic range and sheer volume on them, and paying ten thousand dollars for a cartridge isn’t going to add any more. There is frequently noise of some kind on the record even before you open and play it. Finally: In same day dollars, LP records now cost about the same as they did when I started collecting them.

    Have a nice day.

  3. There is no debate that vinyl can sound good, you just can’t do it for $1k. One might start with a Audio Technica LP140, but you need to upgrade the AT cartridge to an “ML” stylus to enter “audiophile land”. A microphone preamp is kin to a phono preamp and to think that you can do this really well for less than $500 to $1K is a fool’s errand.

    To me if you have not started with at least a Rega P3, and Ortofon 2M Black, and a well- reviewed $1K phono stage you are not even beginning to reach high end land; and many will say you are still not even close. Just this will push you to nearly $3K.

    There are certainly many DACs that are under $3k that are superb and don’t require the proper set up and “tweeking” that turntables require. If you want to join the vinyl club you must pay.

    I haven’t even discussed the price of new vinyl that is not cheap, some of it exceptional, but not all, as the mastering, disc-cutting, and pressing can be all over the place. Too many pressings are graded 4 out of 5 stars, or less, for $20 to $40 a pop for new releases.

    To me this is SACD territory where good players start at $1K and discs can be the same price as a new LP at $30 and don’t have clicks and pops. Or you can stream DSD with a $500 USB DAC from your computer. This is not to say that one should not enjoy vinyl, but just to understand that it is a more labor-intensive process that one must endure to enjoy all that vinyl can bring.

    And don’t forget you will need that LP cleaning machine sometime in the future in you dive into the used LP market. It is always something with vinyl. For those of us who have been doing this since the 1960’s we have enjoyed the ride, but is can be bumpy at times.

  4. Oh my. I’m just dipping my toes in the vinyl waters. I’ve been debating how far to take it. Going to keep my eyes open for that Rega p3. Looking forward to the next part of the story.

    • As someone who has owned two P3s, along with a P25, a P9, and a P2, I’m going to say that you don’t need to take it any further than the Rega P3 if you don’t want to.

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