Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Bringing Your Dylan Records Into a Digital Age

If our email from readers is any indication, baby boomers are bugged by a persistent problem: They need a simple way to convert all those vinyl records they’ve been accumulating since the 1960s into digital song files, or at least CDs.

So, this week, we sat down with two devices that are designed to bring new life to the old 45s and LPs that boomers cherish, allowing those oldies to migrate to CD players, computers and iPods.

One device, the $400 LP-to-CD Recorder Stereo System by Teac America Inc., serves as an all-in-one stereo and CD burner. It’s a standalone unit that doesn’t connect to a PC. The other device, the $200 Ion USB Turntable (iTTUSB) by Ion Audio, is a turntable that plugs directly into your computer via an attached USB cable.

Ion USB Turntable by Ion Audio, $199

The sight of a record player set up in our office stopped more than one nostalgic passerby in his tracks, as did the sound of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” blaring out from a crackling, fuzzy record.

While the iTTUSB sounds like it might offer a more direct method, its included music-transfer software program is way too confusing and technical for average users, and would make sense only to an audiophile or techie. It also doesn’t automatically detect where tracks on records start and end, forcing users to manually separate each new track. So we simply can’t recommend it for average, mainstream users.

The Teac LP-to-CD Recorder Stereo System gets our vote, thanks to an easy set-up process and better overall usability, even though it only creates a CD, not music files on your PC. It requires an extra step to do that. But it does have an automatic track-detection feature.

We would have liked it if at least one of these devices automatically edited tracks, cleaning up record hisses and pops.

Walt headed to a local record store to buy some old favorites for testing, as his vinyl collection was finally discarded in a recent home renovation. Armed with 45s and LPs by Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Elvis, the Beatles and Barbra Streisand, we got started with the all-in-one solution — the Teac LP-to-CD Recorder Stereo System, available from Hammacher Schlemmer. This works independent of your computer — making it more universal and less intimidating for some, compared with the Ion USB Turntable, which must plug into a computer to work.

This device is sturdy and handsome, encased in a black wood frame with a lid that opens to reveal the turntable. Its front side is more modern, with a series of circular silver buttons, a CD drawer and a digital display book-ended by built-in speakers. Aside from copying your vinyl music onto CDs, this unit also plays CDs, records (45s and LPs) and has a radio.

Ion USB Turntable
LP-to-CD Recorder Stereo System by Teac America, Inc., $399.95

Even better, unlike the Ion, it has a feature that will automatically detect the start and end of tracks, although it may not work well with some records, due to background noises like scratches.

This LP-to-CD Recorder burns only onto special CD-R or CD-RW discs that have “Digital Audio” labels and are less common than other recordable CDs used for burning mix CDs on computers.

We inserted one of these CD-Rs into the player and placed “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits” onto the turntable, turning on Phono mode. We pressed Record, swung the turntable’s arm over onto the outer edge of Side A and pressed Play. The digital display showed track one and counted up from zero to mark elapsed time.

To mark the start of a new track, you can adjust a setting to automatically do so, but in our tests, auto detect was unreliable. If you don’t choose this option, you must press a button called “Track Increment” on the player or its remote. But this option is easier said than done, especially while listening to old favorites. We caught ourselves harmonizing along to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles, forgetting our CD-making duties at the end and quickly scrambling for the remote.

After one side was finished, we paused recording to flip the record and pressed Pause again to resume. When the turntable ceased rotating, recording automatically stopped. To make a CD playable on other devices and computers, we pressed Finalize; about a minute later, the CD was done. We finished converting “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits” in 45 minutes. Our test CDs sounded good, but the Teac unit has no ability to clean up any scratches, pops or hisses that may afflict your old records.

After we burned our test CDs, we were able to insert them into a Windows or Macintosh computer and import the tracks as MP3 files.

Using the Ion USB Turntable, or iTTUSB as it is called on the box, was a more frustrating and laborious process, thanks to its assembly-required turntable and its geeky file-converting software program, Audacity.

The iTTUSB itself is simple-looking, and it should be; it is being sold at places where mainstream users shop, such as J.C. Penney, Circuit City and Urban Outfitters. This plastic, gray turntable comes disassembled, and Katie followed steps for setting up the platter and balancing the tone arm’s counterpoint device. But this process wasn’t nearly as complicated as using the Audacity software program.

Audacity opened and worked — but only after we followed the manual’s exhausting instructions and got help from the company’s tech support. One step had us searching a list of confusing terms to select our computer’s sound card, a task that would rightfully baffle any mainstream user. We listened to tracks through our computer’s speakers as we copied music onto our computer.

But Audacity’s most glaring problem is its inability out of the box to convert your imported vinyl tracks into MP3s — the main purpose of the product. To do this, you must leave the software program, go to Audacity’s Web site, find the URL link for a third party’s Web site, download an MP3 conversion plug-in and run it within Audacity. The software never explicitly tells you how to do this.

We followed these steps, and it took us about 10 minutes to walk through the process of converting our first track into MP3 format. Most users would never get this far, with good reason. They wouldn’t even understand the instructions.

The Ion/Audacity combo requires you to manually mark the start and stop of a track, so transfers can’t be unattended. If you so choose, you can manually go through each track to edit out the extra noises heard on records, but we can only imagine how time-consuming this process might be.

Next April, Ion Audio plans to introduce its own software program that will come bundled with the iTTUSB. Ion says this will have its own built-in MP3 conversion program, as well as the ability to automatically detect the start of new tracks.

We found Teac’s LP-to-CD Recording Stereo System to be a good, if imperfect, solution to the vinyl-to-digital quandary. It will take time to work through all of these conversions, but after you’re done, your music will be unleashed.


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