New vinyl sounds natural on this retro portable record player

The Rock 'N' Rolla "Premium" portable turntable rocks "The Rolling Stones In Mono."

The Rock ‘N’ Rolla “Premium” portable turntable rocks the “Rolling Stones In Mono” set.

By Dave Thompson

Now this is going to take you back, back to the first time you slipped off grandma’s knee, toddled across to your sister’s stack of singles … and then hurled them across the room. Wheeee!!! Frisbees!

No, the time after that. The time you placed the first one on the turntable, figured out the on-off button, and played your first record on what became your first player. The Rock ’N’ Rolla “Premium” portable briefcase turntable (www.myrocknrolla.com) might be all high tech gadgetry and modern bells and whistles, but deep inside its heart and soul, it is the nostalgic music fan’s wildest dream. A 10×13.5 inch box (a plethora of colors are available) small enough to stash beneath the bed; portable enough to carry to your sweetheart’s house; but which opens up to reveal a world of possibilities.

Win a Rock ‘N’ Rolla “Premium” portable briefcase turntable!

Well, to an extent. While the  Rock ’N’ Rolla Premium happily plays mp3s from USB drives, SD cards and anything else you care to input, it was disappointing to discover that enabling Bluetooth disables the turntable. So, no wireless fun for you. However, what it does do very smartly is allow you to record mp3s direct from the turntable to both USB and SD at a rate of 24,000 Hz — not audiophile standards by a long way, but more then adequate for most casual listeners. (And you can then play them back through the Bluetooth.)

Indeed, that is primarily who the  Rock ’N’ Rolla Premium is aimed at — casual listeners who just want to play through their vinyl; and, from that point of view, it is indeed a doughty beast. The volume cranks up good and loud, while the turntable itself is simplicity defined. Three speeds (33, 45 and 78), belt-driven, serviceable speakers set on either side of the casing, a cueing arm, a neatly placed 45 adaptor, and an on-off knob that also controls the volume.

There’s also an auto-off switch that will shut down the turntable when the needle reaches the end of a record. However, (at least on my machine)  it does not always wait for the music to stop before doing so. Great for the average 45, but hell when you’re trying to get through “Hey Jude.” Quick fix: don’t use the auto-stop.

Replacement diamond-tipped styli can be purchased directly from the manufacturer, for a very reasonable $10, and the whole thing comes with a Lithium battery, which automatically recharges when the turntable is connected to the mains. Sockets for headphones and line-in (for attaching an alternative speaker) are placed on the top surface; RCA sockets lurk around the back, and the techy stuff is all placed in a panel on one side.

The USB port allows you to charge other devices from the Rock ’N’ Rolla Premium, whether it’s running on mains or battery at the time, while the panel is clearly laid out, if just a shade finicky. Though clearly-marked, the control buttons are fairly tiny, as is the switch that allows you to shift from the turntable to the USB and Bluetooth functions.

Master them, however, and recording becomes a very straightforward two-touch operation — press “record” when you want to start, and press it again when you want to stop. Other buttons control other functions, and include what will swiftly be revealed as a very handy “delete” option; and again, yes; you can play your mp3s back through either the turntable’s own speakers, or a Bluetooth, before transferring them to any other device.

Let’s be frank — you’re not going to get hi-fi sound or performance from the Rock ’N’ Rolla Premium, but at $99, that probably isn’t at the top of your priorities. You can up the sound quality by adding your own amplifier, equalizer or speaker, but the primary advantage is the sheer portability and versatility of the thing. For as long as the battery lasts (which itself is dependent upon whether you are also recording, or charging another device), you’re free to use it wherever you like.

4-premium-side-blk-lightSpin Cycle’s own test drive suggests it’s ideal for old 45s, kicking out the kind of tone and volume that your teenaged self was most enamored by, before you started worrying about woofers, tweeters, virgin wax and all that stuff.

That said, however, test driving a few recent LP reissues may not have done many favors to the marvels of modern remastering, but they sounded good regardless. And that’s running a gamut that stretched between Audio Fidelity’s beautifully produced recreation of Jesse Colin Young’s “Song for Juli” — the 1973 opus that served up his defining version of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya”; through to “I, Gemini,” the debut album by the U.K.’s Let’s Eat Grandma (PIAS America), a darkly precocious blend of vocal gymnastics and dazzling multi-instrumentalism, all set to a soundtrack that churns on the folky side of experimental gothic.

Which, if you already know either album, is a fairly broad sonic palette for any turntable to toy with.

This being a British Invasion-type issue, however, where better to settle than with ABKCO’s beautifully boxed edition of The Rolling Stones’s entire mono catalog, the very sensibly titled “Rolling Stones in Mono.”

No fewer than 16 discs round up not only the original U.K. and (where applicable) U.S. variations of the band’s ‘60s studio canon (so no “Got Live If You Want It,” sob), but also an additional disc “Stray Cats” collection of non-album material. No, there’s no bonus out-takes or the like, but there doesn’t need to be. This is the original Stones exactly as we first heard them. More or less.

This isn’t the first go-round for a lot of this. Of the 186 tracks, 130 have seen the light of day within past CD reissue campaigns (most notably back in 2002); of the remaining 56 tracks, 19 are accounted for by “Beggars Banquet” and “Let It Bleed,” 21 more from “Aftermath” and “Between the Buttons,” five from “Flowers,” six from “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” and three odd 45s. The difference is, this time they’re on vinyl for the first time since the late ‘60s. And they sound magnificent.

There’s no denying that this is how you should hear those early Stones albums. As manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham recalled, the Stones recorded all their greatest 1960s records in mono. “Someone else mixed the stereo, when we were away on tour or wherever. The record label knew we wouldn’t have the time to go looking at our records in the stores, so they just went ahead and did it. “ Oldham was adamant. Despite 50 years of acclimatization to stereo versions, “if you want to hear the Stones as we intended you to hear them, listen to the original mono albums. “

“Their Satanic Majesties Request” was the last Stones record to be granted distinct mono and stereo mixes — the bulk of its two successors simply folded down the stereo. But, unlike The Beatles, where every last minute difference between the stereo and mono mixes has been documented by eagle-eared acolytes, the Stones mixes are a lot more subtle.

Yes, “Yesterday’s Papers” is maybe 15 seconds longer in mono; “Ruby Tuesday” is taken at a slightly faster clip; “We Love You” introduces the sound effects at a marginally different point; “Sympathy for the Devil” (the one BB track that did receive a dedicated mono mix) boasts an extended final guitar solo; and so on.

But what you’re really getting is a far punchier sound, a far heavier mood, a genuine sense that the band are all in one room playing together, the tapes are rolling, the amps are steaming, and nobody gives a damn about whether Brian’s marimba solo should start in the left channel or the right. Only “Let It Bleed” disappoints, feeling ever-so-slightly flat … although without a copy of the scarce-as-fish-lips original to compare it with, that could easily be a product of the 1969 fold down, and have nothing at all to do with the modern remaster. Everything else is startlingly good.

The early albums are the most electrifying, an avalanche of sound that tracks the band as they shifted from hard-nosed R&B snobs to a hard-headed rock and pop hit machine. But “Aftermath” blazes louder still, with the mono “Goin’ Home” positively steamrolling its scrappy stereo counterpart, while both “Between the Buttons” and the U.S. compilation “Flowers” shed every shard of the psychedelic whimsey that sounds so cute in stereo, and paint the Stones still as the bad boys on the block.

More than The Beatles, The Kinks or The Who, the Stones are one band that you need to hear in mono. Of course, connoisseurs will nudge you towards hunting down the original pressings because, as is so often the case today, the albums in this box were mastered from digital sources. But those same ears will then tell you that, unless you have a dedicated mono amplifier/cartridge/hearing aid, you’re not getting the full experience anyway, so it probably doesn’t matter.

Sharp eyes, too, will point out that the artwork falters a little, too — several sleeve photos seem slightly cropped; and history swerves too, as “Beggars Banquet” appears in the now familiar graffiti jacket, introduced in the 1980s, as opposed to the white RSVP design that was our first glimpse of it. That sleeve is reprieved for the “Stray Cats” round up, but you can argue the point both ways.

Nice accompanying booklet, though, and going back to the Rock ’N’ Rolla, that lovely little box of retro record playing tricks, it loved every minute of every album. Because not only do they sound exactly like they ought to, they’re being played on much the same kind of turntable they were made for. A marriage made in Brit Invasion heaven.

Go to www.myrocknrolla.com for more turntable information.

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