So you are interested in records.. Are you wondering which record player to buy? Buying a record player, speakers, and pre-amp within your budget and passion level can be a tough, but fun process. The gear to buy depends on what type of setup you are intending to build. Do you want to buy only new or vintage gear? What price range are you willing to spend for everything? Do you already have some equipment? All these and more significantly factor into what you want to buy. This article outlines the major features to look for when buying a new turntable in an organized and understandable manner, in case you are new to everything. By the end of this article you should have all the necessary information to grasp the key functions of your future record player, as well as parts to look for in a potential setup. Don't worry, it will not be too overwhelming.
Parts and Features of a Turntable
Paramount Parts & Features
There are several crucial features to look for when buying a turntable. These features will allow for maintenance to your player, protect your records against premature wear, and decrease the odds of your turntable breaking:
- An Adjustable Counterweight: (arrow 1.) An adjustable counter weight is the most vital aspect of your turntable. Any turntable missing an adjustable counterweight is not going to be worth your money and can end up damaging your records. Having an adjustable counterweight allows for you to configure the down-force the needle applies as it reads your records. Records you play on a turntable without an adjustable counterweight will prematurely degrade. More often than not, an arm without an adjustable counterweight will track heavy. This is by design so the purchaser does not return the turntable because the stylus (stylus and needle interchangeable terms) will not remain in the record groove, which happens if the down-force is too light. Adjusting the counterweight may seem like a daunting task initially because it is new, but once you understand the concept, it is a snap. The hardest part of configuring the counterweight is setting the balance of the arm to 0. Once balanced, you just need to dial in the number for your cartridge, typically between 15-18mN (for example the cartridge attached to the above table is 17.5mN). Dialing in the proper force is very important because if it is set too low, the cartridge weights more than the rear, causing the needle to track with more force which in turn degrades your records. If the counterweight is set to too high, the stylus struggles to remain in the grooves because the back of the arm is pulling the front up. Don't worry, there are plenty of instructional videos out there to assist in the process of balancing and setting your counterweight. It is definitely worth the small amount of effort to ensure the best for your investment.
- A replaceable cartridge: (2.) This is the second most important feature to look for when purchasing a record player. Over time the stylus begins to wear, requiring it to be replaced. If a needle is left to degrade without being replaced, you can begin easily notice a loss in sound quality, it may begin to skip, and the needle can and most likely will damage your records. The ability to swap out cartridges is critical, otherwise you will need to replace your entire player for a new cartridge... and nobody wants. When looking at a turntable it is important to also look at what cartridge comes with it... ideally you will want a cartridge which allows for you to replace the needle. Otherwise, you will need to replace the entire cartridge once the needle degrades. Replacing only the needle is cheaper and the easier option as you do not need to realign the cartridge. Bottom of the barrel record players (those less than $100 or are all in ones, meaning it has a pre-amp and speakers built-in) should be avoided because they are filled with low quality parts which, as you know by now, can damage your valuable records when played. One final key takeaway on cartridges: DO NOT buy a table with a ceramic cartridge. They are ancient, cheap, and pretty terrible at reading records. The needle attached to a ceramic cartridge is stiffer than a moving magnet cartridge, which causes it to not read the grooves nearly as well. Moving magnet cartridges require amplification so that the sound which the needle reads can be projected to the listener as intended. A ceramic cartridge does not capture the fullness a record has to offer, resulting in a sound similar (if not) worse than a digital copy.
- An anti-skate: (3.)This feature is a very critical aspect to look for when buying a record player. The anti-skate prevents the stylus from tracking one side of your record more than the other. (a stereo record has audio information on either side of the groove, the anti-skate keeps it in the middle) It is critical that the needle remain in the middle so that the grooves are properly read and project the audio to both of your speakers without favoring one over the other. The anti-skate should be adjustable so that it is able to account for whichever cartridge you have installed. Without an anti-skate, one side of the groove may wear down faster than the other, resulting in a bad interpretation of the record and damage to your vinyl.
- A quality arm: (4.) This important feature is a must to protect your investment. The arm should be light weight and made of a quality material. Fiberglass and aluminum are ideal materials, stay away from plastic. Both are sturdy materials and do not warp as heavily with time. It is very important the arm does not lose any of its integrity otherwise it throws off the sound quality. The arm itself should be fixed to a smooth pivoting apparatus. The arms should have a smooth range of motion as it tracks across your record. The apparatus supporting the arm should not have exposed cables (most do not have this it is typically found only on cheap models), this is just asking for trouble when cleaning and using your turntable.
Recommended Parts & Features
Now that we have outlined the key and necessary parts needed for a turntable I will go over some features which are great, helpful, and usually increase satisfaction with your turntable. Below are some of these suggested features:
- A cuing lever: (5.) This lever is very helpful in ensuring the needle is not 'dropped' on the record, potentially causing damage where it lands. Also, it helps prevent damage caused by lifting with excessive force as the arm is returned to its housing. The lever can help you dial in the location of a particular song before placing the needle to the groove, helping to prevent the need to lift and re-place to get the right location. It’s also a nice safety feature for those one-too-many nights when your motor skills don’t quite sync with the needle drop. Overall, a cuing lever is not essential but it definitely provides an extra layer of safety and ease of use.
- A heavy platter: (6.) The heavy platter is something many users tend to upgrade down the road, but can be done as each user sees fit. The type of platter and its weight determines how it functions and sounds. Most importantly, the platter should be heavy. Lighter platters increase the likelihood that the player will not accurately spin at the motor's designed speeds of 33 and 45. A heavy platter's speed will not fluctuate as much in comparison to a lighter one if the motor happens to spin inconsistently for a moment. The record will not become damaged if this inconsistency happens, (a first! everything else can be damaging) it will only affect the tempo of the song. The material of the platter can change how the sound resonates as the needle tracks the grooves. Which type of material sounds best is an arguable topic, but having a heavy platter (as heavy as your player can handle without the hindering the motor) is unanimous. Acrylic has become a very common material because it is easily cast and does not easily pick up interference. Experts typically lean toward either a heavy aluminum or steel platter because it gives a 'warmer', 'livelier' sound. An acrylic platter can be used without a slip mat whereas it is advised to use either a cork, cloth, or leather slip mat when using a metal platter. Platters are upgradable so you do not need to break the bank when selecting a turntable.
- A speed changer: (7.) This feature can save you a good deal of grief and energy when playing records in your collection. Some LPs and EPs, and many 7"s are required to spin at 45 rpm. Spinning at 45 rpm arguably produces a better sound. Without a speed changer, are required to remove the platter and adjust the belt so it spins at the record's proper speed. These will increase the price of any record player as a built-in feature. Luckily, you can purchase an after market speed box which adjusts the speed with the flip of a button. Personally, I needed this built into the turntable which is why i ensured any potential player had this feature.
- A dust cover: is not required, but is recommended. I always have my dust cover down when not in use because of my little husky (she sheds enough to supply multiple dogs with fur). It is important to keep the player free of dust and debris so it continues to spin accurately and reduce the number of times you need to clean your turntable.
Features to Avoid
Many cheap and low end turntables offer all in one turntables or 'pretty' housings for the equipment. Stay away! These are cheaply manufactured parts which produce a poor sound quality and are much more likely to damage to your records. Below are some common features which should be avoided:
- Record players stored in a wooden box are rarely quality players. A sizable fraction of the cost of the player was in building the wooden box, meaning less money spent on quality parts. It is an attempt to to lure in buyers with a vintage look, do not fall for these hipster tricks! Note: This really only applies to new record players, there are plenty true vintage turntables which are built into a wooden housing.
- All in one players should be avoided at all costs. If a turntable is offering: speakers, a pre-amp, and turntable all in one it is too good to be true. The manufacturer is able to provide all these features because the parts being put in are of the lowest quality.
- Travel turntables are not a wise investment. They are an attempt to look cool and edgy but provide little quality and can easily damage records.
- An automatic start/stop button is not recommended for newer turntables, unless you can find one where people will vouch for its effectiveness. Typically, new entry tables do not accurately find the edge of the record but rather places the needle in the middle of the first song. However, many vintage turntables have a decent auto start/stop feature. You just need ensure its effectiveness by test it out before buying. This feature is not one I will seek or use, but others find it convenient.
- Again, ceramic cartridges. Do not let this ancient, destructive technology have a place in today's market. Mesopotamia was so 10,000 years ago, however I do recommend some nice local pottery for your ceramic needs.
- USB connectivity is useless unless you are a DJ or are attempting to rip an old record collection. Also, most new records come include a digital download copy of the album. In all but very rare occasions, you will not need to rip an album to your computer.
- Built in pre-amps are never as good as an after market one. There are inexpensive pre-amps available which are better than most built-in ones. Don't let this sell you on a turntable, you are overpaying for what only amounts to a heavier player.
- Turntables with undersized platters are not a good investment. The record should not hang over the platter, it will result in a poor quality sound.
- Ensure there is a grounding wire to hook to the pre-amp.
- Light weight turntables should be avoided.
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