Review: Numark TTi USB Turntable with Universal Dock
Pros: Convenient integrated solution for digitizing LPs or other 1/8” input audio sources into iTunes format, including software and USB port connectivity. Built-in Universal iPod Dock allows recording directly to iPod without a computer. Integrated iPod controls allow iPod to be controlled from the turntable console and played back directly, while gain and output controls allow turntable to be connected to any stereo system.
Cons: Bundled software does not provide any functionality for auto-track detection or noise reduction. Basic turntable functionality compared to similarly-priced audio-only models. Power and RCA line-out cables are hardwired to the turntable, so RCA extension cables may be required for runs in excess of three feet. No Universal Dock adapters are included.
Although today most music comes on CDs that can be easily converted into iTunes formats, audio enthusiasts and an older generation of iPod users may still have music on vinyl LP records. Getting these recordings onto an iPod can be a much more cumbersome process for the average user—a process Numark aims to simplify with the TTi USB Turntable with Universal Dock ($449).
First announced last year with that $449 MSRP, the average street price is now around $299. For this price, you get a basic turntable with a USB port and an iPod Universal Dock. TTi can be connected directly to a home stereo system and used as a normal turntable, or it can be connected to your computer via USB for audio recording and computer speaker playback.
The TTi comes with some assembly required out of the box: the platter, slipmat, tonearm headshell, cartridge, and counterweight are all packaged separately. An included quick start guide provides simple instructions for assembly of the platter and setup of the tonearm, including adjusting the counterweight and anti-skate adjustment for proper playback and balance. Also included in the box are a standard USB cable, 45 RPM adapter, software CD and documentation for both the turntable and the included software. AC and RCA audio cables are hardwired into the turntable itself.
On the bottom of the turntable near the back is a standard USB port for connection to your computer, a gain adjustment control and a slider switch to set output levels for connection to either “Phono” inputs found on most stereo receivers or standard RCA “Line-in” ports found on other devices. The power and RCA line cables connect here as well, but are hard-wired and cannot be removed. The RCA line cables are only around three feet long, so RCA extension cables may be necessary if you are planning to connect the TTi to a larger home stereo system.
Operation of TTi as a standard turntable is relatively straightforward and works more or less as users would expect in a basic model. A large start/stop button is located at the front left corner to start and stop the turntable platter spinning, but does not control the tone arm; the tone arm lacks any kind of motor or actuator, and must be moved by hand. On the front right of TTi are controls for selecting 33 RPM or 45 RPM playback, a pitch slider control, and a series of six buttons and a knob for controlling a connected iPod. These include not only standard play/pause, previous and next buttons, but also a scroll knob, plus menu and select buttons for navigating the iPod interface and selecting menu items. The turntable does not support 78 RPM directly, but the instructions note that you can convert your 78 RPM records by recording them at 33 RPM or 45 RPM and then using the included Audacity software to change them to 78 RPM recordings. A 1/8” stereo mini jack input is also located on the front panel for connecting another audio source through TTi to record to the iPod or connected computer.
TTI’s most notable feature is the built-in Universal Dock found at the rear left corner. The dock is compatible with standard Apple Universal Dock adapters, although TTi does not include any adapters in the box, so you will have to supply your own. In its most passive configuration, you can use the dock to connect any Dock Connector-based iPod to play through TTi’s RCA audio outputs, transforming the platter into an audio dock. TTi’s play/pause, previous and next buttons can be used to control playback, and on all models except the third-generation iPod, the TTI’s on-board controls can be used to navigate your iPod (or even the iPhone’s) menus. This inclusion of iPod playback capabilities is nicely implemented, and almost eliminates the need for a separate iPod Dock on a home stereo system, except that no remote control capabilities are provided. While this is an understandable omission considering the primary purpose of the TTi, it reduces the practicality of the iPod Dock playback in many home stereo environments where this turntable may be used.
Further, a connected iPod can be synchronized to your computer via TTi’s USB port by holding down the “Menu” button on the turntable while connecting the iPod. In this mode, the iPod connection is passed through directly to the computer, and the turntable cannot control or play back the iPod. To return the iPod to TTi’s control, you must physically disconnect and reconnect it.
More significantly, however, the Dock Connector can be used to record from vinyl directly to any iPod model with recording capabilities, currently including the fifth-generation iPod, second-generation iPod nano, iPod classic and iPod nano (with video). This is accomplished using the built-in “Voice Memo” feature found in these iPod models: TTi presents itself to the iPod as a voice recorder, and the iPod records the supplied audio stream as a WAV file, in either 22.05KHz mono or 44.1KHz stereo, depending on the quality setting you’ve selected on the iPod. Since the recordings made to the iPod are in WAV format, a “high” quality recording can be expected to consume approximately 10MB per minute of audio; a “low” quality version 2.5MB per minute.
As with any other audio recorded on the iPod, recorded tracks are automatically transferred back to iTunes during the next iPod sync. TTi does not separate tracks automatically when recording to the iPod—it simply records until you tell it to stop. Consequently, if you’re digitizing an entire LP, you will need to either separate tracks yourself by starting and stopping recording manually in between tracks, or record to one large WAV file and then process it with another application after the track has been transferred into iTunes.
Another important point to note is that although the TTi will charge a connected iPod, charging is automatically disabled during recording. The manual explains that this is done “to ensure the best recording quality and to prevent unwanted noise from entering your recordings.” Fortunately, Numark recognizes that it may be necessary to power the iPod during long recording sessions. The TTi provides a way to override this behavior and manually force iPod charging on by holding down the previous and next track buttons simultaneously. Depending on how long your recording sessions run, and which iPod you’re using, you may never hear interference when charging while recording, but at least the user is provided with the option of enabling or disabling charging to avoid potential issues.
TTi comes bundled with simple audio recording and conversion software for both Windows and Mac OS X. EZ Vinyl Converter is provided for Windows users and EZ Audio Converter is provided for Mac users. Other than their names, these two applications are basically the same: the screens and dialog boxes are virtually identical, with merely an extra screen at the end of the EZ Vinyl Converter 2 software for the MusicID process. An advanced EZ Vinyl Converter 2 version is also provided for Windows, which includes GraceNote MusicID technology to attempt to automatically identify tracks against the GraceNote online database. A Mac OS X version of this product is not available.
EZ Vinyl Converter and EZ Audio Converter are very straightforward, taking the user through a five-step process of ensuring the turntable is connected to the computer and audio is being received, beginning the recording, labelling the recorded tracks, and then finally exporting the final versions to iTunes.
Note that the software does not provide any automatic silence detection or splitting of tracks. By default, the entire audio stream will be encoded as a single track. During the actual recording, a “New Track” button is provided to allow the user to manually mark new tracks in real time while listening to the recording.
Once the recording is complete, the software allows the user to input the basic artist, album, and track name information. This information will be transferred to the tracks in iTunes so that they are properly tagged.
Finally, the tracks are exported to iTunes. This is one area in which the Windows and Mac versions differ. EZ Vinyl Converter (Windows) will always encode tracks in a 192kbps MP3 format—a default that cannot be changed. EZ Audio Converter (Mac) on the other hand simply passes a raw WAV file to iTunes and then has iTunes handle the actual conversion.
The result is that tracks transferred to iTunes on the Mac will be converted into whatever the default import format is (as specified in iTunes’ importing preferences).
Even in the most pristine condition, by their very nature LPs frequently exhibit subtle background noise such as clicks, crackling, and hisses. Higher-end audio turntables do a better job of reducing this noise output than the Numark turntable does, but some noise will still exist on most LPs, particularly when listening through modern high-quality earphones. The turntable includes an adjustable gain control, and in our testing this needed to be set slightly below normal listening levels (when compared to other tracks played through the computer) in order to minimize noise. Further, it is of critical importance that the tone arm counterweight be properly adjusted as explained in the manual to apply approximately 3-4 grams of pressure, as this will also affect sound quality. Once properly adjusted, the Numark TTi provides audio equivalent to any other turntable in its class, but users should not expect to be able to just pull it out of the box and get great sound quality right away—as with any turntable, some tweaking will be required.
However, even after spending time meticulously adjusting settings, some noise will generally still remain. One of the significant limitations of the bundled EZ Converter software is that it does not provide any noise filters or other features that are normally used for cleaning up this noise. Ultimately those users who are serious about encoding their vinyl collections will want to look at other software to provide more effective filtering in order to “clean up” the audio on imported tracks. It should be noted that, ironically, the converted 128kbps AAC files we tested exhibited slightly fewer of these “LP artifacts” when compared to the original WAV files, likely due to their being smoothed a little or removed by the AAC compression algorithm. Some background noise remained noticeable, even in the AAC file, but was less distracting. Other than this, however, the sound quality between the original WAV file and iTunes-converted 128kbps AAC file was equivalent, even when compared through our highest-end in-ear monitors. Further, no difference in audio quality could be discerned between a track recorded directly onto the iPod and a track recorded via the USB audio input into the computer.
Numark provides the open-source Audacity application (http://audacity.sourceforge.net) on the installation CD to provide some of more advanced filtering and noise clean-up functions, but it should be noted that Audacity is far from a one-click solution and is more suited to advanced users who want to take time doing more detailed processing of their audio.
For users who are looking for a quicker and easier solution, Roxio’s Toast Titanium (Mac) includes CD Spin Doctor, which handles recording of audio, auto-definition of tracks, noise reduction and audio enhancement filters, and GraceNote MusicID lookup capabilities. For Windows users, this same functionality is also found integrated into Roxio’s Easy Media Creator suite. These applications can record audio from TTi over USB or using audio input from the RCA line-out on TTI or any other turntable, and despite the extra cost we strongly recommend them for anybody looking to do serious conversion of more than a few LP tracks.
Numark’s TTi turntable should definitely not be considered as a replacement for most exiting home stereo turntables—unless direct-to-iPod recording is a serious priority. The USB port for connection to a computer may be slightly more convenient for some users than using a standard audio connection, but it does not provide any specific audio recording capabilities that a normal “line-in” could not do just as well. If recording directly to your computer is the desired outcome, just about any turntable on the market can be connected via a normal line-in and/or stereo receiver. Further, the use of a USB Audio Codec can create additional complications with driver conflicts and other configurations as compared to a normal “line in”—on at least one Mac OS X Leopard computer that we tested the TTi on, audio distortion would sometimes randomly occur after several minutes of recording. As this could not be reproduced in a “clean” OS X configuration on the same computer, or on any other Mac or Windows computer, we assumed that some type of software or driver conflict in that particular installation was to blame, but this does provide an example of an issue that would be less likely to occur with a simple line-in connection as opposed to a specialized USB Audio Codec.
Where the Numark TTi stands out, however, is in its iPod Dock Connector. The ability to record directly to an iPod means that the Numark TTi does not need to sit in the computer room, as recordings can be made directly to an iPod, and then transferred from there onto your computer for any post-processing or conversion into iTunes.
Ultimately, TTi strikes us as a niche product with a high price tag given what is being offered. Numark’s turntable is only passable compared to what you can buy in the $99 price range, its software is relatively feature-limited—especially in noise-reduction—from what users should expect at a high price, and its hardwired phono cables also detracted from what might have been a better rating. Ultimately, it is only the iPod integration that prevented it from getting a lower rating: essentially, for the $299 price tag, you’re getting a $99 turntable with built-in iPod playback and recording capabilities. While the iPod integration has been well thought out by Numark, users will need to ask themselves if this single feature is worth the price premium that the TTi carries. At the original MSRP of $449 we felt that this was priced way too high compared to the cost of a normal turntable. Though still pricey for what you actually get, today’s street price of $299 lets TTI fit into a more reasonable niche for users who may have large vinyl collections and don’t want to keep their turntables beside their computers. Overall, TTi is worthy of our limited recommendation.