In today’s high-tech world, when thousands of songs can be stored on a palm-sized device, why would anyone opt to buy a turntable? Turns out there are plenty of reasons. Opinions will always vary regarding sound quality, but there’s no question vinyl sounds different—warmer—than music in a digital format. Audiophiles often say analog music feels immediate, as if it’s being performed in the room. Moreover, many recording engineers today create two different mixes—one for vinyl and one for digital media—with the vinyl mix nearly always more closely resembling what the musicians actually played in the studio. Other advantages of vinyl include artful packaging, the existence of vintage LPs that never made it to CD, and the relative inexpensive of used records as compared to used compact discs.
Okay, let’s say you’re a recent convert—all set to join the vinyl revolution. Unless you’ve squirreled away stereo equipment from yesteryear, you’re going to need a turntable. Factors to consider when selecting a suitable player include price, of course, but as with most things, cost must be weighed against features. Below we examine several factors to consider.
Belt Drive or Direct Drive
Nearly all turntables spin the platter in one of two ways: they’re either “belt drive” or “direct drive.” With a belt-driven turntable, an elastic belt connects the motor to the platter. The advantage of this design is that the belt acts as a sort of shock absorber, helping to prevent motor noise and vibration from being transmitted throughout the audio system. With a direct drive turntable, the platter sits on a shaft directly connected to the motor. Although motor noise is not as well isolated, this design has the advantage of greater torque and relative simplicity. They also allow the platter to be spun backwards and are better at holding pitch—desired features among DJs.
The cartridge is a tiny bundle of wires and magnets encased in a housing that fits onto what is called a tonearm. The cartridge is fitted with a needle—known as a stylus--that follows the grooves pressed into the surface of an album. There are two types of cartridges: moving magnet and moving coil. Moving magnet cartridges have the advantage of relative low cost and deliver good performance for the price. Moving coil cartridges provide greater sonic clarity, but are more expensive and require more maintenance. Styluses generally come in two types: elliptical, or spherical. DJs generally prefer spherical styluses, because they track better and skip less. It’s a good idea to replace a stylus after it’s played approximately 1,000 hours of music. A worn-out needle creates wear on the grooves of an album.
The tonearm holds the cartridge in place as it moves across the album. Most tonearms are straight, but some are S-shaped. The best types are light, stiff and rigid. Those made of composite materials—such as carbon fiber—tend to possess these qualities. Those made of cheap metal —aluminum, for instance—are light as well, but they transmit much more resonance to the music. A straight tonearm tracks better and minimizes the risk of skipping—great for DJs. S-shaped tonearms tend to offer better sound. A counterweight located at the end of the tonearm—in conjunction with an anti-skate mechanism—allows for balancing the weight of the tone arm and cartridge in such a way that the needle puts the correct amount of tracking force on the album. Too much force results in excessive wear on the album grooves (and the stylus itself), while too little can cause stylus to jump and lose contact with the album.
The tiny voltage signal generated by a turntable stylus as it moves through an album’s grooves requires substantial amplification to produce music loud enough to hear through a loudspeaker. Time was, nearly all receivers contained the necessary circuitry to carry out this process, but most receivers manufactured today do not. Unless your receiver specifically features a “phono input,” you will need to either select a turntable with a built-in phono pre-amp, or add an external preamp to your stereo system. Phono preamps already built into the turntable provide the simplest, most cost-effective solution; on the other hand, outboard preamps sometimes offer better sound quality.
Manual, or Automatic
Turntables that feature automatic operation are all about convenience. At the touch of a button, the tonearm lifts, moves to the left, and then slowly drops and settles into the album’s lead groove. When the last song has played, the tone arm automatically rises and returns to its original position, and the turntable shuts off. Manual turntables require that you lift the tone arm and place it in position yourself. Most manual turntables feature a cueing lever that suspends the tonearm over the album, and then gently lowers it when you flip the lever. A manual turntable also requires that, after play, you return the tonearm to its resting position and switch off the turntable yourself. Other things being equal, most audiophiles prefer the simplicity of a manual turntable, and some feel it delivers a better sound.
So, there you have it. Turntables are available in a wide range of prices, with entry level players hovering around the hundred dollar mark. Stanton, a company whose founder invented the easily replacement phonograph stylus, offers economically-priced turntables, high performance cartridges and other audio equipment--with a special emphasis on products for DJs. To see Stanton’s complete line of turntables, click here.