Choosing a Turntable
Due to the surprisingly large number of turntables currently available, choosing the best one within your price range might seem a challenge, especially if it’s your first and you weren’t around in their heyday. This article aims to guide you through the process.
The first consideration is budget. Turntables cost anything from around £20 to £20,000 or more, so having a ballpark figure in mind is a good starting point.
The second consideration is what you want the turntable for. Although this might seem obvious – you want it to play records – there is more to it. Some turntables are aimed at DJs, others are aimed at people who may want to hook their turntable up to their computer, and then there is the traditional type that needs a hi-fi amplifier. These factors can all affect your choice.
Direct Drive or Belt Drive?
The platter (the part of the turntable that the record sits on) is either connected directly to the motor – direct drive – or connected through a belt to the motor – belt drive. For many years I was under the impression that, as a general rule, direct drives are the best. However, I recently found out that this isn’t necessarily the case. For the DJ, direct drive offers some important advantages as the motor has more torque. This means the turntable gets up to speed quicker than a belt drive. But if you can live with your turntable taking a fraction of a second longer to reach its full speed of rotation (the turntable will be running at full speed long before you’ve cued up the tonearm to go down on the record), then belt drives are fine. Some may disagree, but there is no escaping the fact that many really high-end turntables are the belt drive type.
The cartridge is connected to the end of the tonearm, and holds the stylus that traces the groove in the record, converting movement into electrical signals. With many, but not all turntables, the cartridge can easily be upgraded to a more expensive, better sounding one. However, not all turntables come with a cartridge to begin with, so be sure to check before you buy.
Turntables with USB
Some turntables have a USB socket allowing records to be played directly into anything that accepts a USB cable. This is probably the simplest and cheapest way to play your records. Without a USB port you will need to connect your turntable to an amplifier with a Phone input. Connecting it to any other input won’t produce satisfactory result, because records need an extra stage of amplification and tonal adjustment in the form of RIAA circuitry, something a phono input has that other inputs don’t. If your amplifier doesn’t have a phone input, it’s possible to buy stand-alone phone amplifiers that will allow connection to another input of your amplifier.
Straight vs S-shaped vs J-shaped Arms
Many high-end turntables use a straight tonearm, but that’s not to say that S-shaped or J-shaped tonearms are inferior. One advantage of the S-shaped and J-Shaped arms is that many have detachable head shells. This makes changing the cartridge much easier, and offers the possibility of quickly switching from one cartridge to another, if you have more than one head shell.
Having found no authoritative source addressing the merits of the straight vs S-shaped vs J-shaped tonearms, I conclude that perhaps we shouldn’t let the shape of the tonearm dictate our choice of turntable. This is because there are so many other factors to consider, such as the rigidity of the arm, its internal resonance, and the mass of the arm compared to the mass of the cartridge, to name just a few.
With many turntables it’s possible to upgrade the constituent parts. Exactly which parts depends on the turntable, as not all parts are upgradable on all turntables. If you think you might want to make upgrades in the future, check carefully which parts can actually be upgraded. However, there is a strong argument to be made for buying the best you can afford to begin with. This saves money in the long run, as you don’t end up with redundant parts (parts you have taken off your turntable after installing upgrades).
Turntables can be automatic, semi-automatic (which usually means they will stop at the end of a record), or manual. I think it’s true to say that most turntables are manual, and for those who are serious about listening to music, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Some turntables have a pitch control with a corresponding strobe light to ensure the turntable is turning at precisely the right speed, or if you’re a DJ to match the speed of the beat of one record to another. Another peripheral is a pop up stylus light to assist cueing. All these are nice but add to the cost. A basic turntable with no ‘extras’ at one price is likely to be of higher quality than a turntable full of features at the same price.
One thing that is not always included with a turntable is the lid or dust cover. For me a dust cover is essential. I don’t want any dust on my precious records, platter, stylus, or tonearm bearings. Interestingly, I read on a reputable turntable manufacturer’s site not to worry about dust. ‘Just let your stylus collect the dust from the record’, they wrote. All I can say to this is that I have records 40 years old or more, and having always wiped them with an antistatic cloth before playing them they still play today as if they were brand new.
As a general rule, the cost of your turntable should reflect the cost of other elements in your system. A high-end turntable is not going to sound good connected to a cheap amplifier and speakers. It’s a case of the chain only being as strong as its weakest link.
Of course, if there are no links in your chain, in other words you just have a computer and want to digitize your record collection, then price matching is not as crucial. Much will depend on how many records you have and what quality you personally find satisfactory. If you are content with mp3 quality, it is probably not worth spending a lot of money on a turntable.
On the other hand, if you are new to vinyl and just want to put your foot in to test the water, then an expensive turntable might not be your best choice. But at the end of the day, you get what you pay for.
Returning to vinyl after 20 years I was surprised by two things. Leaving aside the vinyl vs digital arguments, and which sounds the best, I was surprised by just how good a well recorded record sounds in its own right. The second thing was ‘the experience’. Putting a record on a turntable is not like slotting a CD into a CD player. Maybe there is some nostalgia attached, I don’t know, but if you’re thinking about buying a turntable, either for the first time or after a decade or more away from vinyl, I would say go ahead and do it.