Recently we have gotten from some interesting questions from our readers, so we decided to write this buying guide to benefit other readers too. If you are new to the vinyl wave, we hope that this can be of value to you. When I first started, I remembered I made some mistakes because I assumed too much and bought something which wasn’t suitable for me. Hope it will help you to avoid going down my path.
Actually it works this way, with the purchase of any music equipment, there are really too many options out there especially today, ranging from cheap to affordable to the high end, with few to many features. Understand that it can be quite daunting to jump into this decision making process, but fret not, we will share how you can overcome this together. I will share with you what I found out and also the decision making process that guided me in doing so. Based on what your desire, truly there are endless options, awesome turntables that you will want to have in your living room.
Just take note: this buying guide is more meant for beginners who are planning to buy a turntable for the first time. If you are looking to find turntables suitable for DJ-ing, then this may not be for you.
What do I need to know in a turntable?
It is not necessary to know how a turntable works mechanically before you buy one. However should you understand what the components are and what they actually mean, and how they work, then it will help greatly in your decision making process. To cut to the chase, a turntable’s main usage is to produce music. It produces music when you place the stylus or needle on a record album. That’s it, simple.
Precision and Stability
However, many of us overlook the actual precision mechanics in a turntable. Because the quality of music produced is highly dependent on two things; precision and stability. With those two factors achieved to the fullest, your music quality will be produced with maximum accuracy. In essence when you hear or see people actually paying thousands of dollars for a turntable, what are they paying for? They are paying for high precision and stability. Nothing more than that for the price they are paying for.
First of all, lets look at the Plinth which is also known as the Base. This is one of the most important component in a turntable, as this is like the backbone or foundation that holds and supports the rest of the parts in a turntable that plays your vinyl records. It can be made from several materials such as plastic, metal or even wood. It also has a function that aids in reduction of unnecessary vibration.
How does it help to reduce vibrations?
It has feet that’s attached to it and its intended to contribute to stability. If the feet is well thought out and designed, it can further reduce vibration. Sometimes you may come across adjustable ones and that is crucial to help you level your turntable with increasing ease. Stable base and well designed feet are the few factors that helps you produce good sound quality.
The component that rotates when the record spins is called the platter. Its commonly known that the heavier the weight of the platter, the better the platter as there will be lesser vibration. The platter is powered by the motor in the turntable. The platter is also normally covered by a mat that acts like a cushion for the record by helping it to avoid scratches and in reducing vibration. This mat is placed in between the surface of the platter and that of the album. The mat also provides grip.
One thing to note is that the speed of the platter must be set to align with the cut of the record whether its 33 rpm or 45 rpm or even 78 rpm. Most of the turntables in the market can play both the 33 rpm and 45 rpm. So what will happen if you want to play your 78 rpm records? You have the option to buy a modification kit that helps to play it or you may have to invest in another turntable to play the 78 rpm which is an older format record.
Motor: Belt-drive and Direct drive – whats the difference?
When it comes to turntable motors, there are 2 type of motors. One of them is called a direct drive in the way that the motor is attached directly to the platter hence, direct drive where the platter sits literally directly on top of the motor. You do not need a elastic belt like the belt drive, since it sits directly on top. So why do people choose this? Sometimes people are more fixated on having consistent speed and high sound accuracy, so they prefer the direct drive motor over the belt drive.
The other reason is that direct drives are found to be more sturdy and reliable, compared to the belt drive. Also with the direct drive, you can get up to speed much more faster. You are also able to adjust the record playback speed. That being said, the supporters or fans of direct drive usually are more attractive to DJs or audiophiles keen in making their own special sound effects or mixes. The plus point is that the direct drive allow you to manually spin records backwards and forward.
The other motor is called the belt drive, which the motor is a standalone that is attached to the platter through a bearing and a so-called belt. What does the motor do? It simply spins the platter through a pulley and elastic belt. So the belt works as a shock absorber, producing lesser vibration and external hum and noise. In other words, you achieve better sound quality. Usually people who are real demanding audiophiles, especially those with budgets looking for high end systems, they prefer this over the direct drive.
The tonearm is the component that holds your cartridge and needle steadily as your vinyl spins beneath it. So it swings over the record and allows the needle or stylus (whichever you prefer calling) to make contact with the vinyl, riding along the grooves of the spinning album. This component is designed for two purposes. First it’s aim is to get the stylus on the vinyl, so that music can be produced. Its second purpose is to maintain consistency when it comes to speed and sound on both the inner circumference and outer side of the record.
Now what is important about the tonearm?
Do not belittle the design of the tonearm, because should the tonearm be poorly designed, the sound may be slow on the outer grooves and fast on the inner tracks. So its important to get a tonearm that is well properly designed.
Why should you be careful when handling the tonearm?
This is because the part that holds the tonearm which is also known as the cueing device, is the mechanism that lifts and lowers the arm. It is quite a sophisticated piece of equipment that must be handled with care at all times. So why am I drawing your attention to the cueing device? You have to understand that the cueing device helps to provide smooth initial contact with the vinyl without having any lateral movement. This is so that you can avoid scratching across your record.
If I am someone that dislikes such delicateness when operating the turntable, are they any other options?
Yes, you can opt for an automatic turntable where the cueing device can be automated. The moment you press the start button, literally the mechanism is taken care of by the turntable itself, hassle-free for you. Why some audiophiles prefer manually placing the tonearm over the record? Its because there will be significantly lesser parts involved that can affect the tonearm’s movement. So there are pros and cons on each side, depending on your preference.
Cartridge and Stylus (Needle)
I will explain these two terms together because people in the vinyl world sometimes take it for granted that people know what it means, so sometimes its being used casually interchangeably and for folks new to vinyl, you may find it weird or confused. Earlier on we mentioned stylus or needle, yes it actually means the same thing. It is the tiny point or tip that’s made of diamond (most of the time) and it does the work of tracing the tracks/grooves pressed into your vinyl.
The needle is supported by a phono cartridge. It is actually a miniature electrical generator that produces a voltage or small audio signal when the stylus moves. Today, you can choose from either having a moving magnet (MM) or moving coil (MC). Whats the main differences? To put it simply, moving magnet cartridges are known to produce the lush type of mellow sound. You can find MM cartridges in all types of shapes and sizes, even low to high quality ones.
Beginners and audiophiles prefer MM due to the following reasons: their high voltage output, variety and also the wide range of availability when it comes to replacing the stylus. So why will there be demand for MC cartridges? MC are not very different from MM cartridges in the way they function. The fundamental difference is that when your needle tracks, it will vibrate tiny wire coils around a magnet. MC preference is due to its ability to better bring out tonality, display transparency, imaging and they create lesser distortion when you compare to the MM cartridges.
More on cartridge
So whats the cartridge? It is the housing that houses and supports the needle or stylus. Now you recall people talking about getting a good cartridge is important, they may be referring to the needle. This is because it’s the only thing that comes into contact with your vinyl that produces the sound you want. Yet its so minute. Therefore, the stylus is one main important part that affects sound quality. The thing that you should note is that the stylus would need to be frequently changed or upgraded due to wear and tear that may not be visible to the naked eye. It well depends on how often you play your vinyl, right?
What about the cartridge? The cartridge is less sensitive when you compare it to the needle. You do not need to replace or change it at the same rate of the stylus, unless it is seriously damaged, affecting the sound adversely. Otherwise good cartridges can last for quite some time. Hence when you get good turntables, you often also get good quality cartridges.
Should I go for Manual or Automatic operation?
To decide which operation to go for, it depends on what type of experience you are looking for. Speaking for myself, I just wanted to turntable that can churn out good sound in my living room and I am quite lazy when I am on the couch. I don’t want to get up after a song has ended and go to the machine to lift up the tonearm. I like that the songs will continue looping and playing. Although some people will say that’s lame, and that I can actually do with digital music, I beg to differ. Music from turntable has different sound effect from the digital players.
So it can be said that the automated turntables are made for the folks who don’t want hassle and meddling with the mechanics of it. Really it depends on how you envision yourself enjoying with your new companion. If you have an automatic turntable, it really does the work for you, like literally. All you need to do is just place the record on the turntable and push the play button. Then the tonearm will move automatically to the edge of the record and then return back to the original position when the record is finished and the platter stops spinning – that’s how it works.
There are another group of people who will buy the manual turntables. Some of them really enjoy the process of manual work i.e. hands on work literally on the tonearm and lifting it off when its done. To be fair, its not really very much of a hassle since most turntables on the market now already have in place, a lifting mechanism that keeps the tonearm suspended above the vinyl waiting for you to lower it into position once you are ready to begin.
Some audiophiles like this action, because it gives them the ‘fun’ and true experience of using a turntable. I mean I can understand where they are coming from. I will like to do that too, but the thought of going to it every song and then – I will think probably nah.
What about turntables with USB?
When you get a turntable with USB port, it will enable you to convert your vinyl albums into MP3 files just by directly connecting it to your PC or a thumbdrive. Basically its like an add on service. For folks who are intending to digitize their vinyl collections, especially those albums that cannot be found on MP3, the USB port becomes an attractive feature for them. Most friends I know of do not actively use this feature, although it’s a good to have because you then have the option. Whether you use it or not, doesn’t really matter. Most of the time, newer turntables launched in the market come with USB ports.
One thing to note about this feature: we have some people alleging that cheap turntables with USB ports produce lower quality sound. They back their claim on the premise that to add the USB ports, there is a cost and the trade off lies in substituting lower quality components on the body of the turntable. I mean there may be some truth in it, but then again, do you really mind or need the USB? It depends on your needs.
Internal or External Phono Preamp
So what is this Phono Preamp all about? It looks complex but actually its quite a simple concept. So turntables produce a phono signal when it is spinning and that needs to be converted to a line level signal that will work with your audio system. This is how the sound is being churned out to our ears. There are already many turntables that come with a built in preamp, but there are some that will need you to buy an external preamp so that your turntable can work with your stereo sound system or speakers.
Lets say if your receiver does not have a phono input, then you need to buy an external preamp or buy a turntable with a built-in internal preamp. The good thing is many turntables that have USB port already come with built in preamp, so that will save you all the above mentioned hassle. However, do note that many high end turntable systems will need you to have an external preamp. One more thing to know, if you buy turntables that come with built in speakers, then you do not need an external preamp.
It may be a bit overwhelming when you look at the specs as you see there are so many nitty gritty details. To be honest, my take is that no matter how good the specifications are labelled, you cannot based on that purely and say how it will sound. The good thing about this is that the numerous specs will offer you a point of reference when you compare one turntable to another.
Well the majority of turntables out there in the market provide you with 33 1/3 and 45 RPM playback speeds. This refers to the proper rotation speed for the records that you will want to play. Most new turntables today offer the 33 and 45 RPM capability but they may lack the 78 RPM. In the event if you need and are buying one with the 78 RPM capability, be prepared to spend a little more on using a specialized cartridge/stylus that can help you manage the wider tracks of the older vinyl albums.
Wow and flutter which is also known as the speed variation
By looking at the wow and flutter, you will be able to know to what extent the turntable spins the platter in an accurate manner. The deviation in record speed, if any, can affect the sound quality as it may change the pitch of the sound or it may also result in an audible wavering effect that adversely affects the listener’s experience. If you want to remember the guideline, just remember that when the number is lower, it is better. There is no golden number, but if you are a numbers person that best to get it below 0.25%.
Signal to noise ratio (S/N)
This S/N specification intention is to help you understand how much background noise (calculated in decibels) you can expect from the spinning for any given music signal level. Naturally we will want more music signal over noise so in this case, we need to look out for the higher number the better. You can use 65dB as a reference point, go for turntable that has number above this.
Budget or Price range
This is perhaps one of the most important segments that we all have to consider when we select our turntables. No matter how much you desire a turntable, being realistic is quite important as it will help us to scope down our selection to a manageable range of options. The golden rule still stands wherein you get what you pay. The blessings over here is that for starters, beginning with a simple turntable can also bring you great pleasure.
If you are really tight on budget and just want to lay your hands on your virgin turntable, you can get something below $100. The basics will work where you can spin your vinyl and in the event you realise this hobby isn’t really for you, you don’t have huge commitment or investment made. A word of caution is that cheap turntables do not produce high quality sound. Are you prepared to live with sub-standard sound quality?
Lets say after this experience, you decide that this is for you and you want to invest more to get better sound quality experience. You want to upgrade. But you cannot, because low budget turntables usually do not allow you to upgrade the components. So if you want to upgrade, your only option may be to get a new one and then the cheap turntable will become a white elephant.
For most beginners, this price range sort of hits the best of both worlds, where you get good reasonable quality sound experience and yet you do not break the bank. Even though the price difference is seemingly small compared to those around $100, the sound quality is drastically different. If lets say you are keen to upgrade your components, you can also go ahead with the plans as turntables in this price range are designed in the way that allows upgrading. That is also how manufacturers make money and give value simultaneously. You can refer to my previous posts and see if it resonates with you and makes sense.
Well, if you are just starting out, then I wouldn’t recommend you to look around here even though the sound quality is near to perfect type of quality. As a start, this may be too much of an investment for a beginner, the only concern is that after you use it for a while, you realise that you do not really like this hobby, then you will rather get the $250-$500 range.
In a nutshell
I hope that this article has helped you in one way or another. Please let me know if there are more information that I have missed out and that you would like to have. Feel free to comment too so we (together with readers) can all help with what we know.