Music has always been an art treasured by humankind. It has evolved and persisted through the ages. With technology on its side, the mediums through which we enjoy it have also evolved. We have moved from enjoying our music on phonographs to listening to digital files. And that gives us clean audio quality wherever we are.
However, despite the ubiquity of digital music and how convenient it is, it is frequently disputed to provide an inferior audio experience to what an analog medium like vinyl can. The fact that digital music is frequently listened to in lossy formats like MP3 means that the song you listen to is not exactly as intended. An analog format such as vinyl is able to play the music back exactly as recorded, without any loss in the detail or quality of the audio.
In addition to this, what was eventually termed the “Loudness War” did a lot of damage to the music that comes from the digital format. This was mainly as there was a belief that louder music was better music, and in achieving such high volumes, there was a loss of some of the detail in the instruments and vocals that went into the music. This is a problem that vinyl is safe from and this makes it all the more attractive to enthusiasts.
In general, however, a true vinyl enthusiast will tell you that the sound is simply better. It is said that vinyl sounds warmer and more detailed than regular digital formats like MP3. From my own experience, I can definitely see what the enthusiasts are talking about, as playing vinyl records on a turntable is an experience I might even describe as intimate. The music sounds amazing.
Whether you are an enthusiast looking for a new turntable to enjoy your records on, or you are a newbie looking for where to get started, you need to know what to look out for when searching for a record player. It is important to get something perfectly attuned for you to enable listening to your records at their very best.
How Does a Turntable Work?
There is a lot of complexity involved in the mechanisms behind most electronics, so I’ll explain this in the simplest form. A vinyl record has a series of grooves that run from the outer part of the record to the inner part in a tight spiral. These grooves have a number of minute bumps and dips that are responsible for the sound it produces.
A record is placed on the platter of a turntable which spins and spins the vinyl record along with it. The turntable has an arm that reaches over and hovers over the record. At the end of the arm is a cartridge, which is one of the most delicate parts of the record player and very integral to its functioning. The cartridge has a stylus, also known as a needle, which runs through the grooves on the record. This needle will move up and down as it travels across the bumps and dips in the grooves. These tiny movements will be transmitted by a magnet or coil system in the cartridge, which turns these movements into what is the rich sound we hear from vinyl records.
What Are the Basic Parts of a Turntable?
Before we move into the specs you should keep an eye out for when purchasing a record player, let’s first discuss the major components of the system. This will make it much easier to understand the factors we discuss later on. The following are some of the major components in a record player:
- Platter: The platter is the wide circular ‘tray’ that holds the record. As the platter moves, the record that sits on top it will move along with it.
- Motor: The motor is responsible for moving the turntable. There are two ways it can achieve this, and that is by direct drive or by a belt drive. This will be discussed in more detail later on.
- Tonearm: Also known as the arm, the tonearm moves and positions the needle and is responsible for smoothly tracking along the grooves of the record.
- Cartridge: This small component holds the needle and a magnet and coil that are responsible for translating the small fluctuations and movements of the stylus into electrical signals. These electrical signals are then amplified and passed through speakers to become sound.
- Stylus: Also known as the needle, this is the tiny needle that moves through the grooves in the record. It can be made of different materials such as diamond and sapphire.
- Preamp: Not all turntables have one of these, so if it doesn’t, you’ll need to have the signal amplified from an external source. Some speakers have these built-in, or you can use a separately housed preamp which then plugs into a speaker system.
What Are the Important Factors to Consider when Buying a Record Player?
Buying a turntable is not something that happens every day and due to their relative niche status, knowing which specifications to look out for when making a purchase may not be evident. Luckily for you, I’ll tell you everything that you need to watch out for to get a record player that is perfect for you. You’ll be listening to your favorite records in no time.
This might the most important factor when purchasing a new turntable. After all, it tends to limit what you can get, and it may be very difficult to push past that budget for any reason. Generally, there are price classes and turntables in each of these classes have features and hardware which are expected at the price range. Sure, you might find some great value record players that fit in higher-cost components or mechanisms in but beware of price-cutting in other parts of the system. One easy way to segment these record players is into three price ranges:
Each of these price ranges will get the job done for you, so if your budget is tight, even entry-level turntables will play your records just fine. However, if you’re looking for audiophile-level quality, you’re best off looking at the top range as the features included will ensure you don’t leave any musical quality behind.
A turntable will only be spinning silently until you find a way to hook it up to some speakers. This is why connectivity options are important, particularly if you already have a set of speakers at home. You want to ensure that the turntable you buy has compatibility for specific connectivity options. There are quite a few options that are supported. You should select a turntable that has connectivity support for the type of speakers you’ll be using your record player on most frequently.
Although it has been around for a long-time, RCA input still sticks around due to its reliability. These are the well-known red and white cables that carry analog audio signals from the record player to the preamp or speaker. Pretty much every turntable will come with RCA output, which should be suitable for just about anyone.• USB output: Listening to vinyl through a USB port sort of defeats the purpose, as the signal will be digitized to pass through. Luckily, not many people use this port to listen directly to the music. IT is mostly used for turning records into digital files so they can be preserved and kept safe against aging and time.
Bluetooth is also a digital connectivity option and is just as ubiquitous as USB. While it isn’t quite recommended to listen to your vinyl records over Bluetooth, it can be very useful for situations where you can’t have wired speakers present.
Though not exceedingly common, some higher-end turntables have the option to connect wirelessly to speakers that support audio over a Wi-Fi connection. This can be seen in some Yamaha record players, for example.
The Cartridge Specifications
While vinyl lovers may switch out the cartridge that comes pre-installed on the tonearm, many users will simply work with the default one. It is important to take note of the specifications of the included cartridge for this reason. A cartridge will always have a magnet and a coil in it, of which one will be stationary and the other will move. This is why some cartridges are moving magnet (MM) and others are moving coil (MC).
A moving magnet setup can be considered the default. As the stylus moves up and down with the undulations of the record’s grooves, the fact that it is solidly attached to the magnet by a piece of metal known as the cantilever means that the magnet will make movements towards and away from a stationary coil. This induces a voltage which is then amplified and turned into sound. A moving coil setup simply reverses this, with a stationary magnet and a moving coil instead. This is lighter, which allows for better movement of the stylus. However, it is more expensive as it requires more technical engineering.
If your budget is limited, it is best you opt for a turntable with an MM cartridge. This is made even more clear when you realize that an MC cartridge has a lower output voltage, which means it requires a more expensive preamp to really bring its quality out. For buyers on a budget, that’s an extra purchase that can be managed a lot easier with an MM cartridge.
A stylus is usually constructed from a diamond. Sapphire was another option used due to its lower price, though it didn’t last as long, it is rare to find a modern turntable that uses sapphire. A stylus can be bonded, which means the base is made of steel but the tip is diamond, or nude, which means both the base and tip are made of diamond. The latter allows for a lighter cartridge and results in a cleaner signal. However, it is more expensive than bonded stylus.
There is a whole lot more when talking about cartridges as they are extremely complex parts of the turntable. However, the above covers the major features that someone new to record players needs to know.
The Motor Mechanism: Belt Drive vs Direct Drive
These two terms refer to the mechanism by which the motor rotates the platter. A direct-drive motor is directly beneath the platter and rotates it directly. A belt drive motor is offset, and with a pulley system and a rubber belt, it rotates the platter.
A direct-drive motor has more torque, so it starts up faster and is less likely to be affected by the weight of the stylus. However, this direct connection to the platter means that the motor’s vibrations affect the record on the platter, which can cause some unwanted movement of the stylus. It also has no resistance when switched off – one of the reasons it is preferred by DJs.
This issue is neutralized to an extent when using a belt drive motor, due to the rubber belt which dampens vibrations between the platter and motor. However, the presence of a belt between the motor and platter means that startup speed is slower and the speed may not be as accurate as stated. If the belt is low quality, it can also affect the smoothness of the motion transmitted to the platter.
It’s hard to say one is better than the other, so it is important that you consider important factors like price, budget, and audio quality when deciding.
Manual vs Automatic
These terms refer to how the tonearm is placed in the groove at the edge of the record. A manual tonearm requires placing the needle into the groove manually and lifting it yourself once done. An automatic tonearm automates this process for you – all you need is the push of a button.
Choosing between these two is really up to you. They don’t make any significantly noticeable change to the sound quality. For those who like the ritual of placing the record and needle precisely each time, as many purists do, then a manual will be best for you. In the case, you just want to jump straight into your music, go for automatic.
If you want the best of both worlds, there are semi-automatic turntables. The needle needs to be placed manually but will lift on its own.
There are many other specs that a turntable can have that don’t fit into such broad categories. However, you should still keep an eye out for many of them depending on your needs. They include:
• Signal-to-noise ratio: This talks about how much background noise creeps into the audio you’re listening to. A higher number, above 65dB for instance, is desirable as it means you are getting more music signal than unwanted noise.
• Playback speed: Pretty much all turntables will spin at 45RPM, though nearly as many will have 33RPM as an option. 78RPM may be found on older turntables, or uncommonly on modern ones. The speed you use depends on the type of record you are listening to. If you use the wrong speed for your record, it will sound either high-pitched and sped up, or drawn out and low.
Ultimately, it depends on what exactly your needs are. Your requirements and budget do the most in dictating which kind of record player will be best for you. However, when it comes down to that spec sheet, hopefully, this article will make you know exactly what to look out for.