With all of the digital music formats introduced over the past few decades to make our listening experience more convenient, and many would argue better, the venerable vinyl record has never completely gone away.
Some might say it’s the romance and ritual of sliding an album out of its sleeve, placing it gently on the platter, lowering the tonearm, and experiencing the soft thump as the needle lands in the groove just before the music starts. Maybe it’s the fact that album art is way cooler than a digital .zip file. Quite possibly it’s the thrill of discovering musical treasure on the cheap at a flea market — great stuff that you’ll never find on CD or a digital download. Or even experiencing just how amazing the latest release of one of your favorite artists sounds on a pristine, newly minted 200 gram LP.
Maybe it’s a little of all these things.
Certainly there is nostalgia about vinyl, but it is not just about dusting off records, it’s also about listening to music in an entirely different way. A commitment of sorts that’s more involving. Something that requires our attention in a way that makes digital listening seem a bit casual. Not to mention the fact that many studios mix albums differently for digital and analog release, and some could rightly argue that vinyl actually brings you closer to what the band or artists intended for you to hear.
But whether you grew up spinning albums and have an extensive collection, or you’re just discovering the warm, analog sound that records can provide, one thing’s for sure — you’ll need a good turntable to play them on.
What is a turntable?
At their most basic level, turntables are relatively simple devices designed to smoothly spin vinyl LPs at a constant rate of speed. But how precisely a turntable performs that task largely determines how faithfully it can reproduce your music, and to a great extent, how much it might cost.
Today’s turntables offer a wide variety of features to give you what you need to enjoy your LP collection. Below, we’ve outlined some common features and options that you’ll come across when you shop, and what they mean so you can decide which ones best fit your needs.
Belt drive vs. direct drive
One of the most basic design differences is the way in which a turntable spins the platter. Most players accomplish this in one of two ways: belt drive or direct drive.
A belt drive turntable’s platter rests on top of a bearing as it rotates, with the motor mounted off to the side. The platter connects to the motor that spins it by an elastic belt. The belt also acts as a shock absorber to prevent the noise and vibration generated by the motor from reaching the platter. Isolating the platter from the motor in this way results in less noise being transmitted to the tonearm and out through your audio system.
Direct drive models place the platter directly on the shaft of the turntable’s motor, so it requires no belt to spin your records. This design offers highly consistent speed for accurate sound with reduced wow & flutter. DJs like direct drive turntables because they let you spin the platter backwards to create special sound effects, and because their relatively simple design offers great reliability.
Manual versus automatic operation
Turntables that feature automatic operation are the most convenient to use. Simply place your album on the platter and push a button. The turntable will lift the tonearm, move it over the record’s lead-in groove, and begin playing. At the end of the album, the turntable automatically returns the tonearm to its original position and shuts itself off.
Manual ‘tables, on the other hand, require that you lift the tonearm by hand, place it in the grooves of the record, and shut it off yourself at the end of play. To assist with this process, most turntables have a cueing lever or manual lifter mechanism that safely suspends the tonearm above the record, then gently lowers the needle into the grooves. This allows you to more easily begin playback wherever you want, just in case you’d like to skip to a song in the middle of a side.
So which type of turntable will work best for you? If you’re looking to push the sonic envelope in a higher-end system, a manual model might be the ticket. Many audiophiles feel that the simpler design of a manual turntable provides greater precision and sonic accuracy. Of course, if you want the most convenient operation or if your hands aren’t the steadiest, an automatic player is probably a wise choice.
Phono preamp — internal or external
The tiny voltages generated by a turntable’s needle as it glides through the grooves of a record need to be amplified many times before they can be heard as music through your speakers. At one time, most audio systems came with the necessary circuitry for this amplification process. But many of today’s receivers lack the inputs required to connect a turntable directly. If your receiver has no phono input, you’ll need to choose a turntable with a built-in phono preamp, or add an optional external preamp to your system. Built-in phono preamps offer the simplest, most cost-effective option, but an outboard preamp may offer better sound quality.
Turntables with a USB connection make a great choice for transferring your record collection to a computer for storage and playback. Some plug into your PC, while others can record directly to a USB thumb drive. Most also come supplied with software to help you edit and organize your music as you record it.
A phono cartridge is a small bundle of magnets and wires enclosed in a housing that mounts to the end of your turntable’s tonearm. Its needle, or stylus, traces the grooves pressed into the surface of your albums. While this may seem like a simple process, the precision with which this device does its job affects the sound quality of vinyl playback perhaps more than any other component.
The cartridge supplied with most turntables provides adequate performance for the casual listener, but serious music lovers should probably consider upgrading to a better model. Most cartridges, or at least their needles, should be replaced approximately every 500 to 1000 hours of play time — this is also a good time to upgrade. Better cartridges tend to last longer, sound better, and produce less wear on the grooves of your records.
Cartridges come in two basic flavors: moving magnet and moving coil. Moving magnet models create a music signal (voltage) when the needle riding in the grooves of your record nudges a tiny tube (the cantilever) with a magnet attached that’s moving inside a field of fixed wire coils. A tiny electric generator! With moving coil cartridges, it’s just the opposite — a coil of wire moves around inside a group of fixed magnets to create the music signal.
Moving magnet cartridges are the most popular because of their relatively low cost, good performance for the price, and compatibility with the vast majority of amplifiers and receivers. On the other hand, moving-coil cartridges have long been prized by audiophiles for their exceptionally clear, spacious sound. Compared to moving magnet designs, moving coils have less moving mass. That allows the stylus to track each record’s grooves more accurately, yielding greater sonic detail and transparency. But MC designs can be fussier to use, frequently generating lower voltage levels that require specialized preamps and requiring re-tipping with a new needle by the factory instead of being user-replaceable. Still, many feel it’s worth the extra trouble and expense.
Other points to consider
On most turntables, you’ll also see certain specs and features that can give you additional information about their performance and capabilities.
Not all manufacturers provide this specification, but the general rule of thumb is: The heavier the better. A platter with more mass tends to help keep the speed from varying and isolates the record from motor vibration for quieter playback. You can also buy platter mats that further isolate noise. Some turntables even offer an upgrade path by allowing you to replace its existing platter with a higher-quality one.
Wow and flutter (speed variation)
This spec tells you how accurately the turntable spins the platter. Any deviation in record speed can affect sound quality by changing the pitch of the music or causing an audible wavering effect that detracts from the listening experience. A lower number is better here, ideally below 0.25%.
Signal-to-noise (S/N) ratio
Some manufacturers provide this spec to give you a better idea just how much background noise (in decibels) to expect from the turntable for any given music signal level. A higher number is better here because you want a lot more music signal than noise. Look for something above 70dB.
Be sure to look for a turntable that provides the proper rotation speed for the records you want to play. Most turntables give you 33-1/3 and 45 RPM capability. But if you have a collection of 78 RPM records that you want to play, pay careful attention to the numbers, since most new turntables lack this speed. Also, if you do purchase a ‘table for spinning 78s, make sure you get a specialized cartridge or stylus that’s equipped to handle the wider grooves of these increasingly rare records.
Article by Dave Bar