Best Portable Record Players: Does One Actually Exist?
TLDR; If you plan on only playing a handful of times, sound quality is not of the upmost importance and you don’t mind wearing your vinyls out much faster than you would with a higher quality set then get the cheapest thing you like the look of (they are all made the same and come out of the same factory despite the different brand names - Crosley, Jensen, Skywin are all made at the same factory). For just under $50 the Jensen JTA-230 looks respectable and won’t break the bank.
If you have valuable or difficult to replace vinyls DO NOT play them on these cheap record players - you should be spending around $300 minimum, the cheapest quality portable turntable is probably the Vestax Handy Trax, but even this has its limitations.
First of all, beware of other sites out there that spew garbage about portable record players and how good they are. Do not fall for this hype.
According to several sources (here, here, here and here), finding the best portable record player might be a difficult feat. This is due to the fact that most portable record players currently being manufactured are of low or poor quality and can damage your vinyls - the key reasons why are the ceramic cartridges and high Vertical Tracking Force (VTF), we’ll cover these in more detail.
In order to find the best portable record player you’re going to have to go down the rabbit hole a bit and try find something vintage or suck it up and just lug your equipment around.
What Does ‘Ceramic Cartridge’ And VTF Mean?
It was expertly detailed in this article, but we’ll provide a short synopsis.
Record players need to convert the mechanical movement of the needle through the vinyl into an electrical signal which is then converted into audio. This is done via the piezoelectric effect, where a material will output an elecrical charge when there is an applied mechanical stress. So the ceramic cartridge (or crystal cartridge/pickup) can be explained in other terms as providing the piezoelectric effect to convert these forms of energy. In a record player the stylus is attached to the piezoelectric material (ceramic cartridge), as the record plays the grooves move the stylus which applies the mechanical stress on the material and outputs an electric charge.
There are other ways of converting the mechanical force into an electric charge and one of the more common ways is through electromagnetic induction. They have a moving coil and moving magnet and can have no or much less physical connection between the stylus, magnet and coils.
Directly from the article:
The more freedom of motion the stylus has and the less stiffly it is held, the better it can track. This is the main difference between the two types. A piezoelectric pickup requires the stylus to be able to deform the crystal enough in order to generate an electric signal. As such, high frequencies are not able to bend the crystal sufficiently leading to boosted bass and either soft or truncated treble.
On the other hand, a stylus attached to a magnetic cartridge only needs to move the comparatively lightweight coil or its housing. This allows for a greater freedom of movement of the stylus since it has less work to do.
So the reason that ceramic cartridges cop so much flak is because they are stiffer which translates to poorer audio quality (boosted base and soft treble) and require more force to move the stylus (which will damage your vinyl).
There are however issues with magnetic pickups such as their longevity. This can be compromised in humid climates as the metal parts of the pickup are more easily corroded.
I Still Want A Portable Record Player!
There’s a few brand names you’ll see which include Jensen and Skywin. These are really just Crosley (there are dozens, dozens more - see here - they are manufactured by Crosley in the same factory but just rebranded). So don’t let that trap lure you in. Crosley are the antithesis of quality record players.
However, if you choose to go with one of these cheap and cheerfuls, then the quality of your specific portable record player will depend on the quality of the Chinese craftsman who put it together, there’s no quality control standards so to speak, so the quality can range from not-so-bad to terrifying.
The poorer sound quality aside, the damage that is done to your vinyl due to poor tracking tonearms and heavy VTF on each play from a Crosley would be comparable to 20 - 30 plays (ballpark estimate) on a high quality system. If you’re wondering how much damage would a Crosley do to your vinyl that’s the estimate. The tip? Don’t play any valuable or difficult to replace records.
So if you’re looking for the best portable record player under $100 with built in speakers - they’re all the same even though the reviews say otherwise (remember it comes down to who has put the record player together, buying habits and the person reviewing it). They have different cosmetics and different brand names, but when buying new whatever you get it will have invariably come from the same Chinese factory. You taking the same spin at the roulette wheel no matter who you go with. This isn’t a bad thing if you’re playing cheap records and sound isn’t an issue, but just something to be aware of.
So the take away? Buy something you like the look of and don’t bother reading the reviews unless it’s about the aesthetics.
Want to cough up some more dough? Check out the Vestax Handy Trax which is without a doubt on the best portable turntables with built in speakers.
Vestax Handy Trax Review
Watch the video of it in action.
The Vestax Handy Trax is an exceptional choice when on vinyl hunts to inspect quality or scratching abroad. If inspecting vinyls make sure to bring a decent set of headphones as you’re going to get much better insight into the quality of the vinyl rather than listening through the small built in speaker. If you’re opting to play music through the Vestax then a small set of compact computer speakers will do a great deal better than the speaker.
The Vestax Handy Trax draws a very low voltage and so you’re looking at getting up to 65hrs worth of play time (this has not been verified but is the manufacturers specification). It’s highly recommended to purchase rechargeable batteries or install a rechargeable battery pack in the Vestax - see here for how to do that.
It’s not the greatest and it’s not the loudest, but for a portable record turntable what can you really expect? If you want the full quality of what the player can deliver then you need to be listening to it through a quality set of headphones or speakers.
- 3 speed play
- Powered by batteries or AC
- Mono speaker
- Sapphire stylus (this can be upgraded with aftermarket products)
- Belt driven
- 65 hours of play time
- Stero cartridge and line-outs
- Full frequency response
- Sufficient speed stability
- Low distortion and artifacts
- Good volume and tone control
- Very stable platter
- Non-recessed switch can turn on the record player even when it’s packed
- Cover can be difficult to remove and is not latched
There is an alternative though, it is possible to find something decent but you’re going to have to get lucky on the second hand market if you want it to be affordable. To start your search for the best vintage portable turntable follow our checklist.
Recommended Quality Vintage Turntable
Beyond these, eBay is your best friend, but there are other resources out there.
The Best Vintage Portable Turntable Buying Guide
- Always make sure you can see a demo of the thing playing or you are buying through a reputable seller that you can trust. Vintage are vintage for a reason. They are not new, they’re old and well used pieces of equipment.
- Questions to ask or check yourself are:
- What kind of condition is the stylus in?
- Does the turntable hum?
- Does the arm move freely on its bearing?
- What condition is the bearing in and when was the oil replaced?
- Does the platter make any strange sounds when rotating?
- Always do your due diligence with prices. The secondhand market can be very fragmented leading to prices varying greatly. Found a model you like? Do an extensive Google search to get an idea for the current market price.
- Avoid vintage portable turntables from the 50’s and 80’s as they have heavy tracking force, no counterweight and mistracking from portable speakers’ vibrations.
- For quite an exhaustive list on turntables you should not buy, check out this link.
For those getting serious about their vinyl and record players, the VinylEngine is a resource that is not the be missed.