Get the right vinyl record player for your needs
I’ve hauled a heavy crate of records across the country from house to house for more than two decades. Why? Because I treasure the warmth and detail of the classic albums I’ve collected over the years. But I’m not just archiving — I find and purchase new favorite albums all the time.
Whether you’re new to the vinyl game, or an experienced collector in search of an upgrade, this article will give you the knowledge you need to make the right choice when buying a turntable.
What is a turntable?
Every turntable does two very important things. First, it provides a stable platform that spins records at a constant rate of speed. Second, it allows a needle to track through the record groove and “read” the recorded information. Beyond that, there’s a lot of variation in materials and construction that can make a difference in how it sounds.
What do you get when you spend more?
If you’re going to invest in records to get great analog sound, you should play them on something better than a trendy all-in-one record player bought at a clothing store. Build quality and materials make all the difference when choosing a turntable. This list points out key features that make one turntable sound better than another.
- aluminum platter and tonearm
- some plastic body parts
- automatic operation
- entry-level cartridge
- built-in preamp
- carbon fiber tonearm
- steel or acrylic platter
- manual operation
- medium-quality cartridge
- heavy plinth (base)
- exotic, sometimes trademarked materials in platter, bearings, and other parts
- high-end cartridge
- advanced engineering of tonearm assembly, plinth, wiring, etc.
- no built-in preamp
If you need some explanation of these parts and features, just keep reading!
Key parts of a turntable
A. Platter — The record sits on top of this (hopefully with a good mat in place).
B. Spindle and bearing — ensures smooth, quiet platter rotation.
C. Motor and pulley — Only found in a belt-drive turntable, this provides the torque that turns the platter.
D. Tonearm — Made from strong, lightweight materials like aluminum or carbon fiber, it tracks record grooves with high accuracy.
E. Cartridge — The coil and magnets inside turn the kinetic energy from the record groove into electrical signals.
F. Plinth — Provides a stable, resonance-free base for the moving parts.
G. Feet — Absorb vibrations, so the turntable doesn’t pick up skip-inducing rumble from speakers or movement in the room.
On casual examination, most turntables look pretty similar. Let’s “peek under the hood” to pick out some key features you may want to look out for.
This image shows the intricate construction of a high-end direct drive motor used by Technics.
Belt drive vs. direct drive
This tells you how the motor is connected to the platter, and why that matters.
Professional DJs love direct-drive turntables because they get up to speed almost instantly when the motor is turned on, and the platter spins free of resistance when the motor is turned off.
If you’re not a DJ, you’ll want a belt-driven ‘table. An elastic band connected to the motor turns the platter, which eliminates motor noise, and helps bring out more nuance from a recording.
A phono cartridge turns the kinetic energy from a record groove into electrical signals.
Most turntables come with a cartridge pre-mounted on the tonearm. The cartridge contains the stylus — which most of us casually refer to as a “needle” or “pickup” — that reads the record’s grooves and produces sound. The provided cartridge is usually a good entry-level choice, but many music lovers prefer to upgrade to get even stronger performance.
An external phono preamp boosts the tiny signal generated by your turntable so your main amplifier can turn it into audible output.
The initial signal produced by the cartridge is very precise, but also very weak. That’s why your turntable needs to feed into a phono preamplifier to get to a level that can make music come out of your speakers. The phono preamp can be built into the ‘table, built into a receiver, built into a powered speaker, or housed in a separate component.
An outboard preamp does add a piece of gear to your cabinet, but if you’re using a top-notch cartridge, this level of detailed control helps you get the most out of your investment. It will often give you the option to choose whether you want to use a moving magnet or moving coil cartridge.
Manual vs. automated
This feature lets you know how much you’ll have to interact with your turntable as it begins and ends playing a record.
Manual: With the help of a manual lever, you physically lift the tonearm and place the needle in the record’s lead groove and lift it off at the end of a side. An automated mechanism can introduce noise, so manual operation is standard for those who care more about sound quality than convenience.
Semi-automatic: You get things started by manually lowering the tonearm. When the record is done, the turntable returns the tonearm and shuts off the motor. You don’t have to worry about the stylus bumping around in the end of the groove while you’re up to your elbows in a task.
This fully automatic turntable automatically puts the needle on the record, plays a side, then returns the tonearm to its rest and shuts off.
Fully automatic: With a fully automatic turntable, you push a button and walk away. The tonearm moves into position and gently drops the needle onto the leading edge of the record. When the last song is over, the tonearm lifts itself up, returns to its resting position, and shuts off the motor.
This turntable has a built-in phono preamp and a USB output for connecting to a computer to digitize analog albums.
You buy a turntable because you value analog sound. But some ‘tables have a feature that lets you create digital copies of your favorite albums so you can preserve them, and take the music with you when you leave the house. If that sounds good to you, look for a turntable with a USB output.
Looking at pictures of a turntable won’t tell you much about how it performs relative to other models. Manufacturers use some esoteric-sounding specs to help you make comparisons, so let’s figure out what each one means.
Signal-to-noise ratio: Measures how much background noise you can hear. A higher number is better here because you want a lot more music signal than noise. Look for something above 65dB.
Playback speeds: Most turntables give you 33-1/3 and 45 RPM capability. If you purchase a ‘table for spinning 78s, it can handle modern “microgroove” pressings, but not older vintage recordings. Make sure you get a specialized cartridge that’s equipped to handle the wider grooves of these increasingly rare records.
Wow and flutter: This spec tells you how accurately the turntable spins the platter. Too much deviation can cause an audible wavering effect. A lower number is better here, ideally below 0.25%.
Pairing a turntable with speakers
The traditional — and still very popular — way of hearing sound from a record is to connect the preamp output to a receiver with phono input or a preprocessor/power amplifier combo, and listen through a pair of tower or bookshelf speakers. This kind of setup provides superior results, but it can be costly and take up a lot of space.
A powered stereo speaker with built-in phono stage like the Kanto SYD offers a space-saving option for record lovers.
As an apartment dweller myself, I’ve enjoyed pairing my Pro-Ject Debut Carbon with a pair of Klipsch Reference R-41PM powered stereo speakers. The speakers have the connections I need, and a built-in power supply, so I don’t need to make room for any other components. Powered speaker manufacturers often build in a phono preamp as a nod to us vinyl lovers.
Some manufacturers are adding built-in wireless functionality for added flexibility. The popular Audio-Technica LP-60XBT (and others) feature convenient Bluetooth® output. Yamaha’s TT-N503 turntable has MusicCast built in, which lets you put your turntable anywhere you like, and wirelessly broadcast music to compatible speakers throughout your entire home.
You may want some help choosing a turntable and matching it to components like preamps, receivers, and speakers. One of our expert Advisors can talk to you about what gear you have, and what you might need to add. They’re knowledgeable, friendly, and they love music as much as you do.
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