Wouldn't it be nice if every time you played an LP on your turntable you could also make a digital recording to play on your computer? If your answer is yes, then the new $599.99 Sony PS-HX500 turntable could be exactly what you're looking for. The PS-HX500 turntable is a complete turnkey system that includes not only the basic entry-level audiophile turntable, but also a cartridge, a phono preamplifier with RIAA curve, an analog-to-digital processor, a USB digital output, and the software needed to make recordings on either a PC or a Mac at any PCM bit rate up to 24/192 and DSD to 5.6 MHz (128x).
This turntable package has the potential to serve as an excellent analog-to-digital bridge for your LP collection to cross over into a digital world. Instead of merely looking at those big, beautiful LPs, you can play them once and generate a high-quality digital file that can be ported over to your computer and portable digital player.
The PS-HX500 looks very much like what it is-a well-designed audiophile entry-level turntable. It weighs just under 12 pounds and measures approximately 17 by 4 by 14 inches. If you didn't look at its rear connections, you would assume it was just another low-profile record spinner. But on the back, tucked near the bottom, is the PS-HX500's USB 2.0 output, which you won't find on a standard turntable, as well as a switch to turn on and off the PS-HX500's built-in RIAA phono EQ.
The PS-HX500 turntable itself is comprised of a 1.125-inch-thick, black, MDF slab to which the platter bearing, motor, and tonearm are all attached. On the left front there's a four-way dial that turns the unit on and sets the speed, which can be either 33 1/3 or 45 RPM. The right-hand side of the turntable has a manual tonearm with a lever lift. The tonearm itself has provisions for adjusting the tracking force and the anti-skate, but not azimuth, tonearm height, or vertical tracking angle. The turntable motor is a DC-type, which drives the 18-ounce aluminum die-cast platter via a rubber belt. The PS-HX500 includes a thick rubber mat that almost doubles the platter mass while at the same time providing effective damping for the otherwise rather lively aluminum platter.
The PS-HX500 can connect to your system in several ways. You can use its internal phono preamplifier and connect the PS-HX500 to your preamplifier or receiver via a single-ended analog cable like any standard analog source. The second option is to turn off the PS-HX500's internal phono preamplifier's RIAA EQ and attach the turntable to a dedicated phono input on your receiver or preamplifier. A third option is the USB output, which can be connected to any PC with USB 2.0-compliant connections.
The Sony software that comes bundled with the PS-HX500 allows you to make recordings with either a PC or Mac. It is a very basic recording application that can record at any PCM rate from 16/44.1 to 24/192 or DSD at 2.8 (64x) or 5.6 (128x). Currently, no other USB turntable offers these higher conversion rates. During its save function, the software allows you to input the album, track, and performer information and designate where to save your files. It does not allow the user to set or change recording levels or add extensive amounts of metadata to the file.
Setting up the PS-HX500 was easy for me, but I've been setting up turntables since the days when LPs were the primary source for all my music. The review sample did not come with setup instructions; nonetheless, I had it up and running in under 10 minutes from the time it was unpacked. By the time you read this, Sony will have a comprehensive owner's manual available. The trickiest part of a "blind" setup without any instructions was getting the tonearm tracking weight properly calibrated. My 50-year-old Acoustic Research turntable setup weights came in handy. Without the AR weights, I would have had to rely on the markings on the tonearm, which were approximate rather than exact--this is because different cartridges with different weights need more or less than the marked amount to achieve a given tracking force.
After setting up the PS-HX500 on the top of my equipment stand, I placed a record on the turntable, lowered the arm onto the record, and turned up the volume on my system to a normal listening level, but I did not turn on the turntable motor or rotate the platter; then I gently tapped the turntable and the stand. I've been using this "tap test" for many years to determine how well-isolated a turntable is from its surroundings. Even though the PS-HX500 has rubber feet designed to optimize its isolation from the surface it rests on, my test revealed that the PS-HX500's isolation from outside transients, both physical and airborne, was less than optimal. Because of the potential for airborne and floor-borne sound to affect the PS-HX500 during recording, my best practices would be to either use headphones or play back at very low levels if the PS-HX500 is attached to a room-based system to prevent the playback levels from affecting the recording.
The recording process itself was simple. When you initiate the application, it searches for the PS-HX500. Once found it presents you with a simple interface where you can start and stop recording and save the recording. I made recordings with both the higher-resolution PCM and DSD recording settings, and they all worked without issue. Obviously the PCM 24/192 files and DSD 5.6 files can be rather large; however, even with longer cuts, the PS-HX500 recording system had no problems generating readable files.
As someone who has not one but two well-set-up, high-performance turntables, the analog sonic performance of the PS-HX500 did not send me running to my computer to write any for-sale ads. In my system, the PS-HX500's performance was limited primarily by its less-than-optimal isolation, which colored its sound, especially at higher sound pressure levels. To get the best performance from the PS-HX500, I strongly recommend additional isolation either by placing the turntable in a different room from your loudspeakers or by providing additional physical isolation. This isolation could be in the form of a separate turntable stand or wall-mount, or additional separation between the turntable's base and your equipment rack.
When optimally isolated, I found the overall sonic signature of the PS-HX500 to be good but not on a par with what I'm used to hearing from my vinyl. The primary sonic issue was a particular upper midrange character that my mentor J. Gordon Holt would have called "splichy." This is an added resonance that gives the upper midrange an unnaturally plastic coloration. Whenever I listened to the PS-HX500, even after trying my best to maximize its isolation, I was aware of these colorations affecting the turntable's fidelity.
Dynamics were somewhat reduced when compared with digital files from the same masters played on the Sony HAP- Z1ES or the same LP played on my reference turntables. Bass transients also lost some of their punch. While I wouldn't call the PS-HX500's dynamics anemic, I would go on record that the PS-HX500 does reduce the dynamic potential of an LP when compared with my reference turntables.
Although I was somewhat underwhelmed by the performance of the PS-HX500's analog section, I could not fault its digital performance. In matched-level, real-time A/B comparisons, I could not hear a difference between the original and the digital playback when I used a 24/96 or above file. By the end of the review period, I wished that the PS-HX500 had an additional analog input so that I could route one of my reference turntables through its analog-to-digital processor. I suspect that many audiophiles would love to have the digital side of the PS-HX500 in a separate component that could attach to any turntable. It is that good.
• The PS-HX500 turntable could use better isolation from footfalls or airborne feedback.
• The analog sound quality is good but not great.
Comparison and Competition
The PS-HX500 is the first sub-$2,000 turntable I've reviewed in over a decade. While it is certainly not sonically competitive with my 20-year-old VPI TNT III turntable or my 30-year-old VPI HW-19 turntable, the Sony PS-HX500 may well be state-of-the-art for its price range. However, since I have not heard the competition, I can't venture an opinion on its relative sonic quality compared with other audiophile-quality entry-level turntables.
There are many entry-level audiophile turntables available around $500 from longtime turntable manufacturers, including the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon, Rega RP 1, and Music Hall MMF2.2, but these are all analog-only turntables that lack the PS-HX500's phono preamplifier or digitizing features. In terms of overall capabilities, the Sony PS-HX500 is a more complete product and a better value.
There are a number of sub-$300 "USB turntables" available, such as the Music Hall USB-1 that goes for $250, but its digital output is limited to 16/48. Pro-Ject also has a USB turntable, the Carbon USB, which is also limited to a 48-kHz output via its USB. Currently, if you want to do a high-resolution PCM LP transfer, the Sony PS-HX500 is the only entry-level audiophile turntable with the ability to do that. The Sony PS-HX500 is also the only turntable to offer 5.6 (128x) DSD conversion, which can sound even better than 24/192 PCM.
The Sony PS-HX500 offers budding audiophiles a potential solution to bridge the gap from analog LPs to digital files. Instead of playing that new vinyl release only once or twice and then relegating it to your record rack, you can play it once, digitize it into a high-resolution file, and enjoy it on any digital playback device you own. Analog purists may find that the PS-HX500 turntable is not as flexible in terms of adjustments or as physically isolated as they would like, but with judicious placement and/or additional isolation, the PS-HX500 can produce good results.
Compared with other USB-enabled turntables, the Sony PS-HX500 offers far more highly evolved and sophisticated digital capabilities, along with a nice straightforward software to make the transfers as easy as possible. I was sufficiently impressed by the PS-X500's digital performance that I wished that I could use its digital section to make digital files with my reference turntables. While the Sony PS-X500's analog performance was good, its digital capabilities were exceptional.
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