It arrived today. One of the best selling items on Amazon during the holiday buying frenzy. So what was it? Virtual reality? Drones? A hot new Star Wars Toy? Nope…
Amazon put out a press release that lists the Jensen JTA-230 3-Speed Stereo Turntable with Built-in Speakers as their best selling item for the holiday season in the “Home Audio” category. The price… $49.
Now, why in the world would I order something like this? Curiosity, pure and simple. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you surely know that we’re in the midst of a Vinyl Revival. Lots of people are buying turntables, and with websites like Amazon making it super easy, all you have to do is find the cheapest one and click “Buy.”
I purchased one of these all-in-one turntables as an act of public service -- we are going to review this Jensen record player. I thought the people buying these Jensen turntables, or more importantly, those receiving them as a gift, should know what they are getting into before you do some damage. Don’t feel bad, it only cost $49.
Who Actually Makes This Thing?
Its funny, I've been looking at all the China direct sites where you buy things by the thousands as I have been searching for a cool headphone stand that we could pair with our headphones. In doing so, I have seen this exact turntable sold from many suppliers. I suspect somewhere there is one main factory making it, then a bunch of different manufacturers just stamp their brand on the front.
I can tell you if you buy 5,000 of these you can get it for around $35, an even better deal! You'll see them all under various names, but they all appear to be the same thing. I purchased the actual Jensen table from Amazon, just in case there were any slight differences, unlikely as that may be.
The Good News
So how does it stack up? Let’s start with the good news...
Is This Thing Really Belt Drive?
The table claims to be belt drive. Belt drive has been my preferred method of spinning a platter ever since my first Rega in 1976. The idea with belt drive is the belt isolates the platter from the motor. Typically with belt drive the motor will be decoupled from the chassis and the platter will be heavy. Once the platter gets up to speed, if the design is done properly, you'll have a very stable speed.
We took a closer look as I was suspicious, and sure enough, it actually is, technically, a belt-drive turntable. However, the motor is not isolated and platter only weighs a few ounces. So while it is belt drive, which allows them to hit that spec hard, you really don’t get any of its benefits with regard to speed stability that you would from even an entry-level belt-drive turntable.
Serviceable Speed Stability
Next is speed accuracy. A stable speed is extremely important in a turntable. If you’ve ever been to a live concert and heard a great band, there is a sense of rhythm and unity that you get. When you are playing a record, reproducing the incredible timing of the band that was captured in the recording is largely dependent on keeping the platter running at a stable speed. Over the course of a few minutes, it may vary a tiny bit up or down, but having a stable speed gives you that sense that you are there.
The best way to check speed on a turntable is to use what is called a strobe disc. This is usually a round piece of plastic, the size of an LP. It has a circle of small little lines on it. It is designed so that when the table is spinning at a correct and stable speed, you see a solid line instead of individual lines. Surprisingly, the Jensen table held an ok speed. Not great -- I could still clearly make out some wobble in the lines, but better than I had expected. The speed is stable enough that records are listenable, but they it sped up and slowed down enough that it doesn’t bring you into the music the way a good turntable should.
For those of you new to this, the stylus is the business end of a turntable. It is the part that makes contact with those precious record grooves and starts the process of translating them into sound.
The stylus on the end of the plastic tonearm is user replaceable. I'm not sure where you buy one, but it does come right off. This means when it wears out (and that is going to happen really soon), or if you accidently break it, you can slap on another one instead of trashing the whole turntable.
Bang for Your Buck
It plays 33/45/78. So you can put any record you have on here. There is even a 45 adapter for those old small 45's you may have.
There are two speakers built-in to the side of the table, so it can actually make sound without hooking it up to anything external. It’s even technically stereo, sorta… More on this later.
There is both an audio out and USB out on the rear. You even get some ripping software free in the box to help you rip all those precious records to the digital world.
Ok, so really for $49, that's a lot of stuff. But all good things come to an end, so without further ado...
The Bad News
How much did you pay for the last record you bought? For me, it was $25. Please do not play it on this turntable.
The Tracking Force is TOO Strong with This One
Let's talk a minute more about the stylus and how it contacts your record. If you look at the grooves of a record under a microscope they are tiny, yet very intricate. The job of the stylus (the needle) is to trace those grooves as accurately as possible without damaging them.
There are three things that can damage your grooves:
- Playing them with a worn out stylus
- Playing them with a stylus that is tracking too light (it will bounce around in them)
- Playing with a stylus that is tracking too heavy.
We tested the tracking force of the $49 Jensen turntable. It comes factory set at 5 grams, yes 5 grams! That is twice as heavy as the heaviest tracking cartridge I have ever seen! This means the stylus will be pressing down too hard on your grooves and you run the risk of it damaging the small subtle wiggles in your record grooves. We saw another review where they recommended adding a penny to the end. This would increase your force to 7.5 grams! Please do not do this!
A damaged record will still play, but it will not sound as good, and you may hear more noise as it wears out.
Fully Adjustable Speed?
Most turntables come with a way to make them play 33 or 45. Some can also do 78. There are some DJ turntables out there that give you the ability to change the speed the platter is spinning. Now, why would you want to do this? Well, a DJ has two turntables. He may want to speed up the beat on a song to match the song he/she is fading into. This is what a variable speed control is typically used for. On those turntables, you can use the strobe that we discussed earlier to set the turntable back to the correct speed.
One of the key “features” listed for this turntable is “fully adjustable speed.” There is a big slider that allows you to totally change the speed. The puzzling fact to me is why in the world would you want to vary the speed on this particular turntable. These are not DJ turntables! I'm showing my age here, but do you want to make the Beatles sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks? A 33 1/3 record should be played at exactly that speed, same for a 45 and 78. That is the way it was designed to be played back. It gets even trickier when you start to wonder if you have properly set the speed. Unless you have your strobe disc handy, there is no way to tell on the turntable itself, whether you’re playing your 33 1/3 LP at say 25 or 40?
To make matters worse, out of the box, the table’s speed was off, running around 10% fast. We stuck a strobe disc on and had to slow it down by about 10% to get it to 33 1/3. Without this disc, you would never get the speed correct, which means you would not be hearing your music with the correct beat the artist intended!
Obviously for $49 you are not getting a great tonearm. You want to tonearm to hold the stylus really steady in those record grooves. This will give you better sound and less record wear. The tonearm on this table wiggles all around at the base of the arm
As mentioned earlier, this Jensen record player does come with built-in speakers. Having an all-in-one system like this means that you can set it up anywhere, plug it into the wall, and music will play. Of course, this doesn’t mean it will sound good when you do.
When I tested the table and turned up the volume, the first thing I noticed is that the right channel came up before the left. At full volume, surprisingly, there was no distortion. Pretty amazing, huh? Well, the problem was at full volume you can barely hear it. While I did not test its audio outs, I suspect using those you will be fine from a volume standpoint -- assuming you plug it into an amplifier.
You Get What You Pay For
If you bought one of these Jensen stereo turntables or received one as a gift, please think about your record collection. Those grooves are precious. Your investment in your records (or their value if you inherited them), is probably far more than the $49 you paid for this turntable. I am 100% positive that playing your records on this machine will wear them out considerably faster than on a decent turntable. Will they still play later on, yes, but will they sound as good as they did before you subjected them to this, no way!
If your main goal is just to rip the records to your computer (possibly at the wrong speed and with low quality), have a ball, but I wouldn’t recommend using this as a turntable to listen to your records.
Instead, consider spending just a little bit more. For $299 you can get a great entry-level table from Sumiko that I promise will not wear out your records and will sound a million times better.
So go back on Amazon, click on that return box and send back the $50 Amazon turntable -- heck, it's what I am doing!
If you have any questions, we'd love to chat with you and help you determine which turntable is right for you. We've listed a few at the bottom of this page as a good place to start.