Review: Vestax Handy Trax Turntable
Here is the only piece of gear I ever expect to review that can legitimately be described as a "must-have" product - at least for all used-record collectors. The Vestax Handy Trax is, I strongly suspect (I haven't tried *everything* else), quite simply the best battery-powered portable turntable solution ever offered for sale. Though it's not dirt-cheap at it's 'street' price of $150 plus batteries, any veteran record-scrounger will quickly recognize that it can easily pay for itself many times over in terms of records left unbought or bargained-down due to audible condition problems, or just because you can finally stop taking sound-unheard chances on unfamiliar material.
The Handy Trax has almost everything I want in this type of product: it's lightweight and compact, tough enough to withstand physical abuse within reasonable limits, contains all three common speed settings, can be powered either with batteries or plugged-in, and is seemingly gentle enough on records (vinyl, shellac, or styrene) that you can audition disks - or even play them for fun - without worrying about destroying them. Most importantly, the Handy Trax is capable of yielding sound good enough to accurately assess the condition and content of the records you play, and good enough too not only not to offend the ears, but to even to be enjoyable in its own right.
But a major qualification applies to that last statement: To get the quality of sound this unit can deliver, the Handy Trax *must* be listened to through a decent set of portable headphones - the built-in speaker sounds as bad (maybe even a bit worse, really) as you would expect, and will not play very loudly to boot. You'll notice that I haven't listed a set of headphones in my associated gear; this is because so far, I've only cannibalized assorted 'phones included with various portable CD and cassette players that I've accumulated over the years, and not tried any better aftermarket separates. At present, a set of Philips AY3682's (I have no idea where they came from) are the best I've got, but lately the Headroom company has been touting a new set of Sennheisers which conveniently fold up in their own little carrying case as being the best of the type they've heard, and I intend to try these soon.
Once you've got some 'phones (and add their price into the total cost if you're buying a dedicated set and not just 'borrowing' a generic pair you already have lying around), this is what you can expect to hear from the Handy Trax: surprisingly full fequency response, blessedly sufficient speed stability, low enough distortion and artifacts that you can easily focus on hearing the record and not the player, and perfectly adequate volume and tone control range. Besides, listening through 'phones is the preferred and discreet way to audition in mixed company or noisy environments anyway. The speaker need only be used in those rare situations where you want to audition a record for multiple listeners at once.
The Handy Trax' speaker is mono, but the cartridge and line-outs are stereo. The ceramic cart (CZ800-9) comes equipped with a sapphire stylus, but it can be aftermarket upgraded to diamond when the standard one wears out. The player is a belt-drive design (not rim-driven via an idler wheel, like most child's toy 'tables) featuring a metal platter and spindle. The platter is the size of a 7" 45-rpm record; LP's hang out over the chassis sides when in play. The chassis is made of a hard plastic which I would guess to be ABS, while the likewise plastic tonearm is made of a softer, presumably more resonance-damping variety. The gimbal 'arm is balanced by a fixed rear weight and suspended by a compliant shock-absorbing spring visible around the mounting post, and is not adjustable in any parameter. Bearing types all around are unspecified, as is the tracking force; the motor is described as being servo-controlled, and battery life is spec'ed at 65 hours (unverified by me, but I personally suspect this figure to be optimistic).
There is an 'arm lock-down for securing the unit for carrying, and one for the 45-rpm adaptor too. A neat feature is that the 'arm-rest also functions as a switch which stops the platter rotation when the 'arm is placed on it, making record-swapping a more efficient process. The Handy Trax was designed in Japan by Vestax and is manufactured in China, and overall displays an admirable attention to design detail and production quality. But I do have a few ergonomic quibbles to report.
The most consequential of these is the location of the main power (slider) switch on the side of the chassis near the I/O jacks, outside of the top cover's protection, and unlike said jacks, unrecessed. I have already experienced - twice - that this switch can be inadvertantly thrown into the "on" position through jostling when the 'table is packed for transit with other luggage, turning on the amplifier and rotating the platter away until the batteries are drained completely. Obviously this occurance is a big disappointment when you go to use the 'table next and are surprised to find no response, as well as putting unwanted wear on the mechanism (and batteries if they're rechargeable). In some situations the included AC adaptor can save you for the moment, but the design could and should be changed to either place the switch under the top cover (better), or to at least recess it. In it's hard-to-see location, it's also too easy, if you use the turntable at home (as I sometimes do to aid in quickly grading uncleaned records) and leave the turntable uncovered with the 'arm rested after play (thus stopping the platter), to simply forget and leave it powered up with the amplifier on.
My other ergonomic complaints involve the cover. First, it's unnecessarily difficult to operate the sliding latches to unlock or lock it. They offer considerable resistance before clicking over to the other position, but very little surface contour with which to get a comfortable and positive purchase on them. My second cover quibble is that once it's removed, there's no provision for cover placement; you must find a place to put it to the side somewhere, because it's not hinged or spring-loaded, and doesn't fit under the 'table in a nested fashion either.
If you collect records but have never had a portable 'table, this Vestax will be a revelation and a big change in the way you browse and buy. You'll find yourself pulling records just to listen for purposes of enlightenment that you may never have bothered with otherwise. But overall, you'll probably buy fewer records, rejecting stuff you would have taken a gamble on previously. Either way, you'll feel more confident in your buys and have smaller discard piles at home. I have not yet tried the Handy Trax' line-outs into a good system or listened to it through my HD600 headphones, but that might be mostly due to the fact that it usually lives in my car, ready for any unplanned action opportunities I might stumble into.
Vestax, an innovative company (they actually make a portable, integrated disk-*cutter*!) largely dedicated to DJ culture (for which the review product is doubtless intended) is to be commended for seeing that a market for a good portable existed and doing something about it. The unit is commonly available from many pro-sound shops and online, but I bought mine from Kevin Barrett of KAB, who stocks them with an eye more to the collector market (and who says he's been selling about one a day, with some of those going to ordinary folks who just want a set-and-forget player they plug into their rack systems for normal use!), and to whom I owe a grateful acknowledgement for originally informing me of the Handy Trax' existence. Now I just have to figure out what to do with those obsolete toy portables I won't be needing any more...
Thrift stores/Flea markets
Used record stores (some)
My van (for transportation to above)
Radio Shack 4500mv NiMH rechargeable "D" cells (6)
Energizer universal rechargeable battery recharger
Radio Shack 12v DC to 120v AC car-outlet [cigarette lighter] adaptor (for keeping batteries topped-off during record-buying road trips, especially when camping at night)
Various older portables intended primarily for children's or school use.