“I’ve traveled with every make and model of portable record player. I’ve had Vestax, different weird Japanese ones where none of the writing is in English,” Dan Auerbach says from a hotel room in Paris, where he just met with a record dealer who brought a stack of African LPs and 45s and a Fisher-Price portable record player on which to listen to them. But the guitarist and vocalist of the Black Keys has one portable record player that he considers a favorite: the vintage, all-in-one Califone. (It’s so beloved that, in the new album he released with his band the Arcs, he wrote a song called “Califone Interlude” in its honor.) So we asked Auerbach to explain what makes the Califone the best record player for beginners — and how to make sure you’re getting one that actually works.
I bought my first one in Akron. They’re the ones they used to have at grade schools across America, so they’re plentiful. They had a place in town where they would sell old-school stuff for cheap, like cabinets. Anything that they could get rid of, they would resell, and you could get stuff really cheap. This was one of my first portable record players, and it’s one of my favorites. I used to use them all the time. I still have a bunch of them that I use pretty regularly. I’ve got a Califone in my house, and I use it in my side room. I’ve got a little guest house, and I’ve got one in there.
There’s a bunch of models, and they’re all about the same, to be honest. It’s really about what the outside looks like. I buy them based on their covers. It’s a whole suitcase, like a top-hat suitcase. They’re a little big to travel with if you’re flying around. It’s better to get a Fisher-Price one or something small, more portable. Some of these portable ones, like the Vestax or the Crosley, are not that loud; those are really more for quick reference. The Califone plugs into the wall, so it’s got a bigger speaker. It’s got a tone knob and a big speaker, so it sounds pretty good.
If I see one that looks cool, I’ll pick it up. Somebody will send me a link to one that they like, or I’ll see one at a record store somewhere. It’s whatever comes through, but I definitely buy stuff off eBay. You can get amazing portable record players from Japan; there’s a bunch of dealers on eBay, so that’s a good place to look.
You’ve got to make sure you get a photo of the needle — make sure the needle’s okay. A lot of the time, if you’re getting it on eBay, you can see a video of it working, which is helpful. A bad needle looks like a group of kindergarteners has been using it for five years. It’s mangled, crooked, looking left or right or just totally gone. A lot of time, there’ll just be no needle, and they’re not really meant to be repaired. It’s not like a new record player, where the cartridge just comes out so we can swap it. They just either work or they’re broken.
The Califone is great for someone who listens casually, someone who’s just starting out. They’re really great if you want to go on a little vacation and you’re going to one place for a week. You don’t travel with them every day, like being on tour with it every day. But if you’re posting up somewhere, it’s nice to have. They’re great for people who listen more as background music, they don’t like to be in silence. They’re not necessarily very gentle on your records, so if you’ve got an expensive record, you shouldn’t use them. Buy music that you love and you’ll never regret it. Once you fuck up your vinyl, it doesn’t come back. It’s not an MP3. So take care of it and it’ll always be there for you.
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