The turntable's audio quality is so good that I'm happily willing to overlook its higher price and shaky bundled software selection. This turntable gets my full endorsement.

25 September 2007, Comments: 0

 September 2007         Eric Hanson

Turntable Design


The setup instructions for the T.90 USB turntable are pretty basic, and if you haven’t set up a turntable before, beware: you may want to practice on another unit (with a better instruction manual), read the instructions very, very closely, or just get someone else to help you. The problem is two-fold: first, Stanton wrote the instructions to help you set up a number of related products, which probably saved them some money in printing costs, but doesn’t help if you have no idea if you’re using one of their “1/2 inch mounted products with a headshell in a mobile application.”

Second, there are very illustrations in the manual, so when you’re going through the multi-step process of mounting the cartridge to the tone arm and then balancing the tone arm so the turntable plays records and doesn’t turn your vinyl into scratched piles of plastic, you’re much more likely to get lost.

Once you get past that first tricky area, however, you can start to appreciate how the T.90 turntable is a very carefully crafted, complex tool: while the T.90’s USB output makes it useful to collectors looking to digitize some vinyl, Stanton is first and foremost a manufacturer for DJs and the T.90 USB turntable’s design reflects that focus. All of the wires, including the AC cord, detach from the T.90’s body for easier carrying.

The shock-absorbing footpads on the bottom of the turntable act like an independent suspension on an automobile, allowing you to rest the T.90 on soft surfaces without any balance problems. Blue LEDs, perfect for highlighting in a dark club, pick out controls beyond what you’d see on a standard turntable, including speed controls, a pitch and key slider, and a reverse button, while dots on the side of the platter give you a rough sense of spinning direction and speed.

Want to play records on the T.90 USB turntable? Then you'll need to figure out how to adjust that big metal knob at the end of the tone arm.

Want to play records on the T.90 USB turntable? Then you’ll need to figure out how to adjust that big metal knob at the end of the tone arm.

Of course, unless you’ve got aspirations of doing some remixes or going out on the club scene, these admittedly attractive features won’t do anything for you but hurt your wallet, an unfortunate side effect of buying into a repurposed product. On a related note: the T.90 doesn’t include a dust cover; no doubt unnecessary for DJs, but a nice feature for the home stereo owner who doesn’t always want to put that record away when they’re done playing it.

Recording Audio via USB


The Stanton T.90 USB turntable ships with a disc copy of Cakewalk’s Pyro 5.0, a simple editing, ripping, burning and music organization program that includes a recording function so you can record outside music sources (like a turntable) into the software, do some basic editing, add a few effects and turn it into a Wave or MP3 file for later enjoyment. Installing Cakewalk Pyro and the drivers for the turntable is very simple: the turntable installs automatically via Windows Plug & Play, and Cakewalk Pyro is a few quick steps through an installation program. Cakewalk Pyro is a commercial program, and there’s a registration code that you need to plug in to get rid of a nag screen that comes up every time you start the program. The registration code gives you a certain number of installations before expiring.

Mac users take note: Calkwalk Pyro is for Windows machines only, so you won’t be able to use its features to record your albums unless you’re running Boot Camp or something similar on your Mac. However, Stanton doesn’t leave you in the dark: they dedicated the last few pages of the manual to software installation, and take the time to mention that Mac users can download and use Audacity, a freeware audio editor and multi-track recorder, instead of installing Cakewalk Pyro. I do find this practice a little shady, though: no doubt the price of the Stanton T.90 USB turntable includes the cost of Cakewalk Pyro, which leaves Mac users paying for a program they can’t use. As we’ll see, however, Mac and Windows users can unite in common outrage over the inclusion Calkwalk Pyro.

Cakewalk Pyro 5, the T.90's bundled software, provided less than inspiring results.

Cakewalk Pyro 5, the T.90’s bundled software, provided less than inspiring results.

To test the Stanton T.90 USB turntable’s digital playback capabilities, I used the copy of Queenrche’s Rage for Order that I had purchased for an earlier USB turntable review. The album is an older (vintage 1986) piece of vinyl rated B+ by the store’s proprietor that I originally chose for two reasons: first, I suspect the majority of potential USB turntable users will be people with vinyl collections in less than mint condition dating back twenty or more years – records just like this particular album. Second, I happened to have a remastered copy of this particular album on CD, so I could make some comparisons between the digital version of the record and a ripped audio file from the CD.

Usability Issues & Sound Quality


I started my recording tests with Cakewalk Pyro – or at least, I tried to do so. Cakewalk Pyro is so basic that it uses the Windows Sounds and Audio Devices applet in the Control Panel to set the inputs and outputs for your recordings, instead a separate preferences panel inside the software. Normally, I’d have no problem with this arrangement, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to get Pyro to playback while it was recording. The result: no way of telling where I was on a record without looking or listening very closely to the turntable. Neither the documentation included in the program, the T.90 USB turntable installation guide nor anything I found on the Internet had any clues on how to record and monitor – a common recording feature called full-duplex recording – at the same time in Pyro. Pyro has a few other issues, like how it organizes projects, but the lack of monitoring was enough of an issue for me that I gave up on Pyro entirely and used Audacity to do my recording tests.

Audacity is a freeware software multitrack recorder you can use to record records playing on the Stanton T.90 USB turntable.

Audacity is a freeware software multitrack recorder you can use to record records playing on the Stanton T.90 USB turntable.

The Stanton T.90 turntable has three different playback speeds: 33 rpm, 45 rpm, and 78 rpm, which correspond to the playback speeds of pretty much any album ever made. Previous experience had shown me that you can save yourself some time by recording all of your 33 rpm records at 45 rpm or 78 rpm and using Audacity to slow them back down to their normal speed. I had a suspicion that this process might affect sound quality, so I recorded three versions of the album’s first track, “Walk in the Shadows” at the 33, 45, and 78 rpm speeds into Audacity at 32-bit float, 44 KHz quality.

After slowing the 45 and 78 rpm version down to 33 rpm, I put all three versions through Audacity’s noise removal filters to test the software’s ability to remove the hum that plagues music played back through any analog device. In addition, because the T.90 has a very low-level output, I used the normalize filter (at the default settings) to make the audio louder by boosting the peaks to their maximum (non-clipping) volume.

The Stanton T.90 has RCA, USB and digital outputs, and along with switchable phono and line level output.

The Stanton T.90 has RCA, USB and digital outputs, and along with switchable phono and line level output.

After finishing the preparation of each version – and importing the same track from the CD as a control – I noticed three things:

  • Speeding up the audio to save time may work with other USB turntables, but it’s not a good idea with the T.90. Something about the algorithm that stretches the audio back to its “normal” speed messes up the quality of the sound file, and running the result through the noise filter – even at its lowest setting – introduced burbling artifacts to the sound that made the 45 and 78 rpm versions markedly inferior to the 33 rpm version. You could probably get away with not using the noise filter, but you will no doubt notice other quality problems if you do a comparison.
  • Recordings from the T.90 – or at least this particular unit – are higher in pitch than those from my test CD. Since record pitch depends on how fast the turntable spins the record, there are three possible reasons why: first, that because the mechanism spinning that record only works as well as its calibration, the motor in the T.90 spins just a little faster than it should, creating a higher-pitched playback; second, that the built-in pitch slider was slightly off-center, leading to faster playback; or third, that somewhere between the original record pressing and the CD remastering someone slowed the recording down just a little bit and lowered the pitch.
  • The sound from the T.90 turntable is really, really good – crisp, clear, with plenty of definition and none of the ear-grating harshness that characterizes bad digital converters. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the Stanton T.90 delivers a benchmark-worthy performance in audio reproduction, and it’s clear that Stanton put some really excellent digital converters in their product.

45s sound samples for comparison:

Recorded in 33 rpm

Recorded in 45 rpm

Recorded in 78 rpm

Recorded from remastered CD

Exporting Your Edited Audio


Recording the vinyl into Audacity creates one big file that you’ll need to split up into separate tracks later on. It sounds like a bit of a pain, but the setup guide comes to the rescue again, showing you how to split up the tracks into individual files and export them in about fifteen easy steps. You can export files as WAV, AIFF, AU and Ogg Vorbis with the basic installation. MP3 files are also an option, but you’ll need to download the LAME encoder – and you’ll need to search Audacity’s site for instructions. If you’re into WMAs or AACs, by the way, you’ll need to export as an uncompressed file first and then convert it in Windows Media Player or iTunes.

Pitch select, key lock, pitch lock and a tone slider are just a few of the DJ-friendly features on the T.90.

Pitch select, key lock, pitch lock and a tone slider are just a few of the DJ-friendly features on the T.90.

As an Ordinary Turntable


In addition to its USB capabilities, the T.90 USB Turntable comes with a set of RCA outputs, or – if you’re digitally inclined – an optical output. Stanton didn’t include an optical cable in the kit, and I didn’t have a digital amplifier to test the optical output, but as the output no doubt uses the same digital converters as the USB connection, I’m sure the optical output sounds just as good as its USB counterpart. I did, however, make use of the T.90’s RCA outputs to test the turntable’s analog capabilities. Not surprisingly, the T.90 sounds just as good through the RCA outputs as it does via USB, and will serve as an excellent standard turntable if you’re so inclined.

The DJ Features of the Stanton T.90


Although the T.90’s USB port makes it useful to home audio enthusiasts, Stanton also equipped the turntable with a whole group of DJ-pleasing features to make mixing easier. First, they mounted two different start buttons on the unit, so you can start and stop discs from multiple angles, allowing for more flexibility when setting up. In addition, the T.90 USB turntable features a reverse button that changes the direction of the turntable motor, and a time slider for changing pitch by slowing down or speeding up records incrementally. Both the start buttons and the reverse button change the motor speed instantaneously, while the time slider has both a pitch and a key lock for controlling how the time slider changes the sound. The layout of all of these features and the way they operate give you the sort of control you’d want if you’re using your turntable as an instrument.

A close up on the T.90's speed and start/stop controls, along with the platter dots designed to reflect the turntable's built in lights to give you a rough sense of the platter's speed and direction.

A close up on the T.90’s speed and start/stop controls, along with the platter dots designed to reflect the turntable’s built in lights to give you a rough sense of the platter’s speed and direction.

Recap


The Stanton T.90 USB turntable is an excellent mix of function and style, giving you the ability to digitize your vinyl collection with relative ease, and add a turntable to your analog or digital stereo if you desire. Sound quality, its most important feature, is top notch, with none of the grating, sharp sibilance that characterizes bad digital converters. In addition, its three playback speeds ensure that you can play and record any type of record made in the past sixty years, while its sleek looks and smart design make it a useful and powerful tool. However, the included software is a joke, the documentation is a little spotty, and you’ll be paying for features you won’t need unless you’re a DJ in the making.

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