For many years I've recommended that music enthusiasts with less than $500 to spend on a source would be better served by purchasing a CD player rather than an inexpensive turntable. I have always assumed that one would have to spend about $800 on something like a Rega P3 system with a decent phono cartridge to fully appreciate the advantages of vinyl. Some of my first inexpensive tables, such as a Garrard changer I owned in high school, were noisy and obscured a lot of the music. What's more, they acted like rotary plows and damaged my records. The problem with most cheap, new tables I've heard is that their limitations really get in the way of the music. Could Music Hall's striking Ferrari red MMF 2.1LE turntable, priced at $399 complete with arm and cartridge (or $349 in black) outperform a good CD player in this price range?
The answer is not entirely clear cut, because the MMF 2.1LE involves several sonic tradeoffs relative to affordable CD or DVD players. While the Music Hall doesn't have the rock-solid speed stability, low noise, or extended response at the frequency extremes of its digital counterparts, it was, for me, more musically engaging and natural sounding. It gives you a good taste of analog magic, showing why many audiophiles still prefer the sound of vinyl. Two of the Music Hall's greatest attributes are its listenable sound and affordability. I could listen to this table all day without any aural fatigue— something I can't say about most relatively inexpensive digital players. And it lets music lovers step into vinyl for less than the price of a good set of interconnects or speaker cables. One major barrier, I suspect, that keeps many music enthusiasts away from turntables is fear of the set-up process. Music Hall makes the process relatively painless by providing the table/arm with its Music Tracker cartridge already mounted and aligned. This means you can be up and running in less than ten minutes, provided you can loop the anti-skate weight around its post in less time than it took me. Setup is straightforward and intuitive, and if you're a novice, the manual does a good job leading you through the process step by step. However, before adjusting tracking force, make sure you first lower the arm lift and zero the arm, enabling it to float freely in space. Also, note that the table does not have "a fixed power cord" as stated in the manual but uses a wall wart. No big deal.
Once I "zeroed" the arm, I set the cartridge tracking force to 1.7 grams using the scale on the counterweight and verified it using a great little digital scale from Expressimo Audio. While final tracking force adjustments are best done by ear, you should invest a few bucks in a stylus force gauge, because if you're like me, as you try to loop the anti-skating weight around the anti-skating rod, you'll hit the counterweight and need to adjust the tracking force again. It took me several tries to get the loop on the rod and a little patience is required. Those of you with "big mitts" might want to enlist the help of someone who's used to putting a thread through a needle.
The real payoff for using the MMF 2.1LE begins when you start playing music. The realistic reproduction of massed strings, voice, and saxophone are three sonic areas where analog really speaks to me, and it's why I put up with its incremental setup and maintenance hassles. The first album I use to evaluate analog components is Adagio [Deutsche Grammophon]. While it's not one of the great DG "tulip" recordings, if the massed string tone is too bright or edgy, I know I'm in for a rough ride. Mercifully, the strings sounded relatively rich, warm, and natural using the Music Hall. With higher quality reissues like Prokofiev's Lt. Kije [RCA/Classic Records] and Rossini Overtures [Decca/Speakers Corner], massed strings sounded even better. Yes, I could hear some pitch wobble on sustained tones, but I'm willing to live with that, particularly at this price level, for better timbre and less listening fatigue.
I was surprised how much more appealing voices and saxes sounded on the Music Hall than on CD players in this price range. From the Beatles to Ella to Maria Callas, voices typically had more body and air, were sweeter, and had superior timbre without thinness or stridency. The same goes for saxophone. Admittedly, it may be too much of a good thing, but just listen to the incomparable Mirella Freni's dulcet voice on French and Italian Opera Arias [EMI] or Ben Webster's airy sax on Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson [Speakers Corner/Verve] and you'll clearly hear why so many of us are taken with analog. I had only meant to listen to one track on each but found myself unable to get out of my seat. Sorry, but this just doesn't happen when I listen to most modestly- priced CD players.
Those of you who have different sonic priorities may prefer a good midpriced CD player, such as the $499 NAD C542 I reviewed in AVguide Monthly Issue 12. It's certainly my preference when listening to solo jazz or classical piano. The midrange performance of the NAD is the best I've heard among CD players in this price class, but it's not quite as musical and natural sounding as the Music Hall's. However, the NAD offers superior speed stability, more extension at the frequency extremes, better transient speed, and more detail (particularly on HDCD discs). On most audiophile "scorecards" the NAD would probably win, yet I found the Music Hall to be more musically engaging and satisfying. Admittedly, you need to be able to "hear through" a higher noise floor to get to the music with the MMF 2.1LE, and for some this will be a deal breaker. But for others the sonic rewards will be worth it. Hey, at these prices you can get both!
Because the Music Hall table is designed to hit a price point, you're not going to get the precise imaging, fine detail, or sense of music emerging from a black background that you'll get with some more expensive tables. But to get those things, you'll have to open your wallet a lot wider. While the 2.1LE allows the use of other cartridges and has adjustable VTA, you might want to consider a higher-performance Music Hall table or perhaps one of the Regas if you plan to do a lot of other tweaking or upgrading. Finally, the MMF 2.1LE, like most other audiophile tables, is not "ruggedized" for harsh environments; DJs will need to look elsewhere.
The bright-red MMF 2.1LE has been one of the few audio components passing through my listening room that has caught the eye of my 18 year-old daughter. She thought it looked "very cool" and after hearing the difference between it and her iPod said, "I want it!" Her first LP is the excellent Classic Records reissue of Led Zeppelin II, which sounds a lot more thrilling and robust through the Music Hall than you'd ever expect. I suspect the 2.1LE will attract a lot of new enthusiasts to analog. And with all the used vinyl out there priced at under $2 per album, it's cheaper than downloading songs at a buck a pop. If you or your relatives have a bunch of LPs in the garage gathering dust, you should treat yourself to 2.1LE and start enjoying them.
The level of musicality offered by the MMF 2.1LE is going to surprise a lot of people. It sounds far better than most of the entry-level turntables of yesteryear and is a wonderful introduction into the world of vinyl. Moreover, it reproduces massed strings, voices, and saxes better than any CD player I've heard at or near its price. If you want to stick your toe into the analog pond without spending a lot of coin, the MMF 2.1LE is a good place to start.