How different are record players today from their predecessors? Here are some tips on what to look for and what to avoid in buying a turntable or record player.
The first thing you need to consider is the type of record playing device you want. Record players and turntables are actually two different things.
A turntable has a flat platter to hold the record and a drive (direct motor or belt drive) to turn the record around at a certain speed.
A stylus (often a diamond, but may be another semi-precious stone) housed in a cartridge at the end of a tonearm is placed (carefully) in the groove of the record, generating a low level electrical signal that goes through the left and right stereo cables to the pre-amp.
The signal then travels directly to the power amp for amplification and sound is produced via headphones or speakers. Some of the models we test have a built-in pre-amp.
A record player
A record player has the pre-amp and amp, and sometimes even the speakers, all built into the one unit.
This may sound like the ideal solution, but you'll generally find the sound produced is not as pleasant as what comes out of a turntable.
33 1/3rpm: standard playback speed for 12" LPs. All the models we tested and every turntable or record player you find should support this speed.
45rpm: standard playback speed for 7" singles. Ditto, all record players and turntables should support this speed.
78rpm: standard playback speed for 10" and 12" shellac records. Note that a small number of 78rpm microgroove records have been produced (higher rpm = increased bandwidth); do some research before using your old 78rpm records, as you may find that your stylus can't play it properly.
45rpm spindle adapter: old RCA 45rpm players and some jukeboxes have a very large (38mm) spindle, necessitating that the centre of a non-RCA record be punched out to reveal a larger hole. The adapter sits over the regular modern 7.2mm spindle so that you can play these punched-out "donut" records. Most manufacturers recommend you use a dedicated stylus, as the standard stylus could be damaged and could damage your records due to the different material used in their construction.
- Anti-skate bias adjustment: This is related to the tracking force in determining the best weight mix to ensure your stylus doesn't skate across the record.
- Amplifier: Some new models put the traditional hi-fi amp into the turntable. This lets you plug speakers and other audio devices directly to the turntable, which is a good space saver.
- Auto operation: This fully automates the moving of the tone arm, and lowering and raising of the stylus.
- AUX-in: If the turntable has a built-in amp, it may let you connect other devices for playback, via an auxiliary input.
- Bluetooth-in: If the turntable has a built-in amp, it may let you stream content from Bluetooth enabled devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops.
- Cartridge: This is the part that converts the kinetic energy from the stylus into electrical energy that gets passed on to the amplifiers. Cartridges designed for microgroove records are often not suitable for playing 78rpm shellac records.
- Cartridge type: Cheap turntables tend to use ceramic cartridges. Moving magnet (MM) cartridges are a superior technology and should satisfy vinyl fans, unless you want to go all out with a moving coil (MC) cartridge. Some enthusiasts argue that an MC cartridge delivers more tonality and transparency, but the effort to get the right equipment may be too much for many people.
- Damped cueing: This mechanically slows the lowering of the tonearm. There seems to be no good reason not to have this feature, even if you do feel confident enough to rely on the steadiness of your hand.
- Drive type: Direct drive turntables can guarantee rotational speed accuracy, but some prefer belt drive, arguing that it isolates motor noise from the platter.
- Motor type: An AC synchronous motor uses the accuracy of the 50Hz mains power supply (or a supplied ELV power converter) to control the speed accuracy of the turntable, while a DC motor may be quieter.
- Number of feet: Broadly speaking, the more feet, the more stable the turntable is.
- On/off switch: While some of the turntables have this feature, many high-end turntables can only be turned on or off from the main power.
- Pitch stabilisation: This feature allows you to make slight adjustments in the speed.
- Platter construction: The bigger the platter, the more likely it is to maintain a constant speed. Materials (e.g. those that are less likely to distort over time) may also influence your decision.
- Platter mat: Usually either felt or rubber, materials which won't create static, or scratch the other side of your records.
- Pre-amp model: Some of the models have an inbuilt pre-amp, making it easier to simply hook the turntable up to many of the current range of amplifiers. Some enthusiasts may not want this feature, so models with a pre-amp on/off switch offer versatility, particularly if you are in the process of upgrading your whole music system. If you have an integrated amplifier, simply plug straight into the phono input. If you use a pre-amp, then you connect to a line input instead.
- Recommended tracking force (gf): Broadly speaking, the suggested force that is applied to the record based on the weights at the end of the tone arm.
- Removable lid: Some enthusiasts believe that a turntable sounds better without a lid.
- Reverse play: Causes the record to spin anti-clockwise – handy to reveal any hidden satanic messages, or for mixing.
- Signal to noise ratio (SNR): How much the musical signal stands out from any noise.
- Speed change mechanism: Some models have a lever or push button selection to alter the speed of the platter from 33 1/3rpm to 45rpm but other models require you to take the platter off and change the belt (shown as belt shift in the table) from one pulley to another which can be a hassle if you frequently move from one speed to another.
- Stop/start: Fully automatic models will lift the tone arm when the user selects the on/off switch or button while models that are not fully automatic will simply have the platter stop.
- Stylus model: These are the models that work with each turntable – helpful to know when it comes to replacing.
- Stylus shape: Microgroove styli are usually unsuitable for playing shellac records. The shape of the stylus – elliptical, for example – can improve sound and minimise wear.
- Stylus type: Diamond lasts longer than sapphire or steel (as in old 78rpm phonograph needles); ruby is just a red colour of sapphire.
- Tone arm clamp: This holds the tone arm in position when you're not using the turntable; important when you're moving it to another location.
- Tone arm material: Most are a light metal alloy; some use carbon fibre.
- Tracking force adjustment: The heavier the tracking force above the recommended figure, the faster your records will be worn. But if you can't adjust this figure you are totally depending on the quality of the adjustment made by the turntable company.
- Wow and flutter: Wow (slow) and flutter (fast) are the audible effects of varying the turntable pitch in real time.
New users may be surprised to know that the turntable is just one part of the hi-fi chain.
You'll need to pick up an amplifier/receiver (essentially the same except a receiver includes a built-in radio) and a pair of speakers if you're starting from scratch, which can double or triple the initial cost for newcomers. Amps and speakers within a similar range to the turntables in our test, for example, start at around $500 and $250 respectively.
Alternatively, you could hook a turntable up to a mini hi-fi system. Some of the higher end models can deliver reasonable sound quality, and take up much less space than a separate amplifier. Look for wired speakers to hook up to your turntable, not Bluetooth or wireless speakers. The audio qualities of vinyl depend on a wired connection, and the bulk of turntables don't support wireless options.
You may also need to invest in a pre-amp. This equalises the electrical signal coming out of your turntable into something suitable for your ears. Your records will be buried behind excessive bass and static without one. Receivers from the vinyl age, and very recent models released after the format's resurgence, typically include a phono port which has a pre-amp built in, while many turntables also add this feature. But in some cases you may find yourself with a turntable and receiver without pre-amps, which means you have to buy an external one. This will set you back around $200.
How much should you spend?
Unfortunately, vinyl is just one of those things that comes with a relatively steep entry price. While you don't need to put a second mortgage on your home to afford good-quality gear, trying to save a few bucks with low-end equipment will really diminish the experience. Just remember that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A $1000 amp can't make a $100 turntable sound good and vice versa. Cost is typically a good gauge – always aim for equipment within a similar price range.
Some of the latest mid-priced turntables (around $400) such as the Audio-Technica LP120-USB and the Pro-Ject Audio Elemental Phono USB allow you to connect to a computer and convert your records to digital formats such as mp3, .WAV or .flac. There's also a bunch of record players that cost under $150 that deliver the sort of sound you'd expect from something that cost $150.
The digital music files can then be listened to on a computer, smartphone or iPod without having to buy a new digital copy. USB turntables can help you preserve vintage music, which is useful if the albums or singles weren't released on CD.
These turntables fall into two broad categories:
- those that plug into a computer and record to audio editing software such as Audacity
- those that record directly to a USB thumb drive or SD card.
In both cases, the records are converted in real time, which means a 45 minute album, for example, will take 45 minutes to convert. If you ever transferred your records to cassette back in the day, you'll find the process to be similar except a computer or thumb drive/SD card is used in place of a tape deck.
Most players and programs will only deliver a single audio file, so you'll have to spend time cutting up the album into its individual tracks. Some try to do this for you with a feature called 'track detection', but our experience is they don't work that well. If you have the time, other applications let you separate tracks in real time, which requires you to sit next to the record player and press a button when each songs ends.
If you thought this process seems to take a lot of time – you'd be right. So if you're looking at converting 20 records, for example, it may be easier to just track them down online.
If you're keen to push on though, we've prepared a tutorial.
Dust will make its way onto the record surface at some point no matter how clean your home. Many audiophiles would suggest that visible dust on the record surface is brushed aside by the stylus and any that collects on the stylus can be easily blown away.
This may be good advice for enthusiasts who are longtime vinyl fans, but what about the significant number of people considering their first turntable after a 20-year hiatus, who may have a collection that's been stored in less than ideal conditions (like, under the house or in the garage)?
Our advice would be to ensure your records are in good condition before laying them on the platter. If they are in bad condition with finger marks and mould, then give them a good (careful) clean and you should be able to use them without too much further upkeep thereafter. Cleaning solutions and tools (not to mention professional advice) are available from many hi-fi stores and online.
Lid position during play also seems to generate debate, but it must be said that most of us live in an imperfect sonic environment. Keeping the lid closed while playing records will prevent dust falling on to the record surface and should make cleaning less of an issue. Depending on the room environment and ambient temperature, playing with the lid open may offer sonic improvements.