Beginner in Vinyl - How far should I go?

I'm full of questions these days, but...

My question is, how far should I go? I recently went on holiday in Europe and picked up a few vinyls for really cheap (Eagles, Simon & Garfunkel, Diana Ross & the Supremes), and I'd like to listen to them, but I'm not sure how far I should go into investing into a turntable.

How much difference is there between getting some fully-automatic Sony/Teac turntable with built in phono pre-amp and actually making a further step up to a manual turntable with separate phono pre-amp?

For example, I could:

1) Get the TEAC PA688 turntable with cartridge, phono pre-amp, already included for $79.88 off J&R;
2) Get a Project 1.2 turntable with Sumiko Phono Box and a cleaning kit for $500 from Needle Doctor; probably less if I go with something like Music Hall.

How much of a difference would there be in the sound? I've also heard that vinyls get worn out and sound a lot staler and less detailed, so perhaps I'd be better off just getting the TEAC (or any other el cheapo one - any recommendations?)

I guess how much I invest into buying vinyl records depends on how nice the sound is, and how durable it is as a medium.

I appreciate any recommendations on hardware, both ways. Thanks.
I've just gotten back into vinyl after a 10 year absence.
Before I used inexpensive turntables (one had a decent moving coil cart.) and this time around a found a used pristine
Music Hall MMF-5 w/goldring cart. There is no comparison.
Night and Day difference. I very much enjoy this turntable.
My int. amp didn't have a built-in phono amp so I purchased
a Rotel phono pre-amp. (under $200 retail) and I would recommend. Spend the extra $. Bill
A cheap TT like the TEAC will wear the records more than than the entry hi-fi TTs due to lack of cartridge/arm adjustment and maybe b/c of the poorer quality cart. A well set up rig with a decent cartridge goes a long way in avoiding wear. And i agree with Kotta, there's a big difference in sound quality between your prospects. I own a mothballed $100 Pioneer, similar to the TEAC.
Respectfully I submit either do it reasonably right or not at all. I doubt I can convince you to spend $1500-2000 for used playback and cleaning equipment for vinyl but that is about what it would take, IMHO. Vinyl that is well cared for does not wear out nor does the sound quality degrade with time.
I'm just starting out also - but I already have a well
preserved collection of 200+ records I've been planning to
transfer to CD for some time.
I did intially consider going the "cheap-o" route too;
but realized that if I wanted to do some decent quality
transfers, I would need something better than a bargain
basement turntable.
Also, you should take into account your current audio
system and consider how well it will match your other
equipment. If you have some decent equipment - do you
really want to use a low quality source with it?
If you want to simplify things, you might want to look
at the Musuc Hall line of turntables. You can buy a
complete setup, including the phono cartridge for as little
as $300.00 list. (And no doubt less for "street" price.)
As for phono preamps, there are some available for
less than $100.00 that I'm sure would blow away the Teac
setup. And, of course, there is lots of decent used gear
at this site to be had.
Kelllllllleeeeeeeee. yer dyin' I just KNOW it! --aj
Lennychen, do a search on vinyl in the forums, there is probably tons of info for you :)
You need to get out of the mass market or junk stuff.I hadn't used my B&O turnatable since early 80's and then the jazz collecting bug made me break down and buy a Rega 2 w/cheapo Dynavector made for NAD.Blew me away.So much better,so little surface noise.You can get used for $300 that will get you "in the door" but as somebody who sold that Teac for a few years and other junk plastic tables i can tell you they are only for folks who don't care about sound quality one iota and want something to listen to the 15 old records they have.If you like jazz listen to a Miles Davis LP in good condition from the 60's ot and audiophile re-issue (Not that OJC crap for $9.99) and then the excellent current (4th gen ) CD out there.So much warmer,chromactic,and harmonically correct you really want at leat a $500 list to start.BTW in a month I ditched the NAD for a real Rega 3 and could have been happy with the $700 I spent there forever.But now my$5000 rig mightbe overkill but I dig it.Yet that Rega and a VPI 16.5 would leave me happy for the rest of my days collecting oldewr music,in my case jazz, which i love so much.I only play CD's of newer stuff that I can't listen to wax.GO FOR IT!!!!!!!!!!!
This reminds me of the famous line from Hans and Franz on the old SNL's. HEAR US NOW AND BELEIVE US LATER! :-)

I, too, started from scratch and started building a quality system about 6 months ago. I had a late-70's Sony DD table with a decent Ortofon cartridge. Used it with my higher grade stuff and, by God, it sound pretty dang good with my old vinyl. Then, I recently bought a Nottingham Spacedeck. First album I threw on was a thrice played Maxell Jazz sampler album that I got free for buying blank tapes years ago. Queued it up to "New York Sate of Mind". Nearly fell out of my chair upon hearing the difference.

Someone above said it best, if you have anywhere near decent components - you OWE IT TO YOURSELF to get a good table.
I have a NAD & B&W system, consisting of the C370 integrated, C541 CDP, C420 tuner, and B&W DM601S2 speakers.

This probably decent enough, eh?

So going into the slightly more expensive route...any recommendations on turntables, cartridges, and phono pre-amps? Could any of you recommend a package below $500? (Preferably as close to $300 as possible)

What do I need? Where can I learn more about it? Where can I buy it?

Thanks for all the great info guys.
Go to Ebay and search AUDIOGON there are plenty of good TT and cartridges for 300 skins.
Lenny: If you want great sound on a low budget, then you have to be patient and wait for the good deals to come. I am currently using a Thorens TD125 MkII with an SME 3009 II arm that I purchased used for $219 shipped (Ebay auction). For a good budget phono preamp there is only one choice that I am aware of. This is the Radio Shack battery powered preamp (#42-2111) that is currently out of stock though. They can be found on Ebay if you search 42-2111 and they may be coming back to RS as well (mixed stories on this). The unit retailed for $25 and you will also need a 9 volt battery charger and two NI 9 volt batteris (charge one while using the other). I purchased the batteries and charger @ Target and figure under $30 (easy) to equip a singe preamp. I use two of these units as dual mono's (one per channel) with some special shorting and 100 ohm RCA's that I made myself, on the unused inputs/outputs, but a single unit used in stereo also sounds quite good and because it is battery powered is dead quiet. Anyway, I have just under $300 invested in this rig (the TT came with an Ortofon F15E II cartridge, plus I already had a Grado Silver). Compared to the Music Hall MMF5 that I auditioned twice there is no comparison (the old Thorens/SME combo whoops it badly). It took me almost a year of research and a lot of looking to put this together, but this is what was needed to keep the cost down. I would also put my old Thorens TD165 (with its stock arm) up against the $500 Music Hall that I auditioned (this would probably be a wash) and I paid just over $100 for this deck.
Boychick listen to your uncle Dekay!I would buy a used Kidney if I needed it and he had one.The Arm alone blows doors on price of whole rest of the Music Hall.And while I might not think to buy the Thorens new at this price it's a great deal.
First, the cheapo units the big boxes sell tend to have proprietary cartridges that track at several grams, which is not healthy for vinyl and other living things. At the really low end, Technics used to make a few tables that took p-mount cartridges (much simpler to set up than your standard mounts, but a compromise all around) for maybe $150-200. Don't know whether they're still around. Next up the line are the basic Music Hall ($300, last I looked, which was a while ago) and NAD ($450, ditto), which is a Rega knock-off. Both of these come with cartridges installed (probably pretty close to correctly), so they're an easy route for the neophyte who isn't sure he wants to spend days adjusting everything under the sun. (Granted, that's part of the fun.)

Radio Shack sells really cheap phono pre-amps that will do the job. NAD's own version is $130. Arguably better.