In 2009, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, my hometown, finally opened up a record store. I had just hit my freshman year of high school, and I made my mom drive me to Shopko so I could select the finest all-in-one, off-brand record player that you could buy at a place that also sells bananas and lawn chairs. The total came out to around $60, and at the time, I thought I was in possession of the Cadillac™ of turntables.
Turns out I was wrong. While Old Trusty served me well through my teen years of blasting sad music, the cheap speakers grew staticy and wonky and, because they were built into the turntable itself, there was nothing I could do about it. I also learned that those cheap, poorly-built starter turntables were pretty bad for my beloved record collection over time.
By the time I figured this all out, I had moved on from my teen years of blasting sad music and transitioned into my college years of blasting sad music. In classic college kid fashion, I’ve been too broke to upgrade ever since because tuition, or whatever (whatever being alcohol; sorry mom). So, naturally, I jumped at the chance to try out the Pro-ject Elemental turntable, and it did not disappoint.
Despite being in the relatively reasonable mid-$200 range, just the look of it made me feel like I was a practical Swiss king, even inside my janky college snatch pad. It’s minimal design screams high-class functionalism, especially in comparison to the faux-retro, clunky designs of Crosley-style turntables like my first. Visually, the Elemental has everything it needs, and nothing more.
The (very slight) downside of upgrading meant there was a lot more to consider when I set this thing up. With the old turntable, I just plugged it in and popped my favorite record on. Lacking a mechanical bone in my body and an affinity for throwing away instruction booklets, setting it up was a bit like playing operation. But after learning what a pre-amp is, and watching a YouTube video about grounding cables, I completed the incredibly satisfying task of setting up my first “real” turntable.
While the slight amount of extra fuss is a bit of a pain, I learned all these steps mean an extra boost and element of control that you’re not really getting with your all-in-one. Prefer one pre-amp to another? You got it! Want your turntable speakers to have bluetooth capabilities so you switch from Soundcloud streams on your phone to your favorite record with ease? Pick those speakers. I found speakers that make my music sound incredible, so the combination of the upgrade in turntable quality and the overall crystal clear speaker sound feels like the perfect setup.
The other thing that took getting used to is the lack of control I seem to have over the giant band that makes the turntable go in circles. I swear just looking at the thing makes it slide off the plate, resulting in me swearing and sweating for an average of 10 minutes trying to wrangle it back on. Perhaps this is just me. And again, a small price to pay for getting the most out of listening to my collection.
Overall, any logistical hassle of upgrading put no dent in the overwhelming benefits of upgrading to the Elemental. My collection, like most, started as a modest hobby, but it’s grown into a part of my daily life, something I’m really proud of and want to take care of the best I can. It feels good to put my favorite album on on turntable that I know isn’t going to slowly eat away at it, while also refraining from eating away at my wallet.
Aside from just being better for my records, my new turntable made me feel like I was getting into records all over again. My old all-in-one was a cherished gateway to vinyl in the first place. But when I finally finessed my set-up and put the needle down on the Elemental, I felt like I was taking my head out of a muddy static tube for the first time in seven years, listening to my records with new ears, and enjoying the songs the way the artists behind these works intended.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.