Does your turntable need a USB port? Here’s why it does (or doesn’t) matter

Does your turntable need a USB port? Here’s why it does (or doesn’t) matter

When you look at the back of most of the best turntables, you’ll see the familiar shape and color of its RCA outputs, with their red and white inserts. They’ve been with us for nearly a century, and they remain the most common way to connect turntables to other audio equipment. But they’re not the only option you’ll find on some turntables. 

Some turntables also offer additional options, such as optical outputs. And many offer a connection you’d normally expect to find on a computer, not in an audio component: USB. So do you need a USB connection on your next spinner? Let’s dig into why people want them.

A quick guide to turntable connections

The RCA connectors on the back of pretty much every turntable were designed by the Radio Corporation of America way back in the 1930s – precise dates vary, but they were definitely in use by 1937 – as an easy way to connect audio hardware. And they’ve endured because they’re simple, straightforward and widely compatible.

There are some newer options, though. Some manufacturers have made turntables with digital-optical outputs too. Those outputs are designed for connecting to systems with digital inputs – mainly home theater receivers, but also some soundbars and other audio hardware – and come with analog to digital converters that convert the audio signal into digital data.

More commonly, many turntables have USB. And the reason they have a computer’s USB interface is so that you can easily connect them to computers.

Why would you connect your turntable to a computer?

The main reason for using a USB connection is to rip your vinyl records into digital formats you can then play on your phone, laptop, on one of the best music players, and so on. 

Without USB, that’s a real pain. Some desktop Windows PCs have RCA inputs on their sound cards, but such inputs are becoming increasingly rare. And even the ones that do have RCA don’t usually have phono inputs, so you’ll usually need to boost your turntable’s signal via either a built-in or stand-alone phono stage.

With laptops, that option isn’t available to you. Many laptops are designed without any audio inputs at all; good luck connecting anything to a current MacBook Air, for example. 

And that’s where USB comes in. With a USB turntable, you can connect directly to a computer, even if it doesn’t have audio inputs. This isn’t unique to turntables: tons of music creation hardware is USB too. That’s because USB is the computer equivalent of the RCA connectors: simple, straightforward and widely compatible.

Do you need to rip your records?

If you’re not planning to rip your records, you don’t need a USB port. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy a turntable that has one – mine has one, although I’ve never used it – but it does mean that USB shouldn’t be on your list of deal-breakers when you’re planning to buy.

So should you rip your records via USB? The short answer is “maybe”. 

Ripping records is great if those records are currently the only way to hear those specific songs: by creating digital versions you can then expand your listening options so you can enjoy the music in places a turntable won’t go, such as your car or on the commute to work or school. But ripping is very time consuming, and if you’re doing it at the highest quality levels, it also takes up tons of storage space. So it’s worth asking: do I really need to rip this?

For widely available commercial music, you probably don’t – especially if you have one of the best music streaming services such as Apple Music, Spotify Premium, TIDAL, Deezer or other streamers. 

For example, I’ve got the 30th anniversary edition of U2’s Achtung Baby on vinyl – but I’ve also got it streaming in Apple Lossless format as part of my Apple Music subscription. If you picked up the latest re-release of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors for Record Store Day 2024, you can leave it sealed and stream Rumors, Rumors (Deluxe Edition), Rumors (Super Deluxe Edition), Rumours (Live)… you get the idea. 

Even when your vinyl collection is more obscure, you might be surprised by what you can find in streamers’ catalogs. For example, a very obscure band from my local area in Scotland called the Nyah Fearties released an album called A Tasty Heidfu’ on vinyl way back in 1986. And despite only about six people having heard of it, it’s streaming in lossless audio quality on Apple Music.

That’s not to say streamers are perfect. There are gaps in their catalogs, especially when you move away from the most mainstream and commercial genres. Licences expire, causing some records to leave their catalogs permanently. And of course, you need to have a subscription if you want to keep listening to streaming music: no money, no music. So you can see why some music lovers do want to rip their records.

How do you do it?

How to rip vinyl records with a USB turntable

There’s a little more to ripping than connecting your turntable to a USB port (or if it isn’t a USB turntable, to a USB phono stage that in turn connects to your computer). But not much more. 

The other thing you need is software to handle the encoding process. You can do this quite well with free software such as the excellent Audacity audio editor, but if you’re willing to spend a little cash there are programs that offer more advanced features and more convenient ripping such as VinylStudio (from $29.95 for Mac or Windows) or Channel D’s Pure Vinyl Recorder ($379 for Mac). 

That latter option is a lot of money, I know, but it has a lot of features: it can automatically label the albums and songs, remove pops and clicks, and carry out all kinds of audio optimization and processing – there’s even a special mode for getting the best from pre-1955 vinyl and shellac records. 

What USB turntables should I buy?

We recommend the Audio-Technica AT-LP120XBT-USB as an excellent affordable turntable choice. In our 4.5-star Audio-Technica AT-LP120XBT-USB review, we said that it brings “ultimate convenience to the world’s most inconvenient audio format without reducing sound quality at the same time, the Audio-Technica AT-LP120XBT-USB does more than you might expect – and in some style.”