Just when you thought that the CD had killed the vinyl record dead, wouldn’t you know it – the format has come back like a vicious zombie from a George Romero movie.
The argument about whether analog or digital audio is superior is not likely to end any time soon. The argument on whether vinyl sounds better than CD or modern compressed digital formats throws even more fire on that particular fire. This demand for uncompressed audio is one of the reasons you can get lossless FLAC files from providers like Apple.
Still, people still seem to perceive digital audio as being less alive and “colder” than analog audio and yearn for the warmer tone from vintage analog systems such as turntables (or “record players”, for Americans).
If we look at the sales figures it’s clear that people want vinyl again, and so the market is being flooded with new products. At the same time, new music is now also being released on vinyl, so you aren’t just looking at older music or spending your days in thrift shops looking for vinyls that are still in a playable condition. Not that there is anything wrong with that – hunting for classic vinyls is a great hobby in and of itself.
So if you’ve decided that you want a taste of the vinyl craze but are too young have any experience of them, this guide should help you walk the right path. Alternatively, you may never have really thought about your record player purchases back in the day and now might need reminding when it comes to the nuts and bolts of record players.
We have to be clear about what we are actually talking about when we say “turntable”. Technically, the turntable is just the mechanism that you put the actual vinyl onto, which then applies a needle to the grooves to reproduce the music. That means a turntable does not need an amplifier or speakers to count as a turntable.
This is important because the current craze for vinyls has produced these modern all-in-one systems that are actually portable. Some are even battery powered so you can take them around like some sort of steampunk boombox.
Obviously this is a great solution for those who just want to play some vinyls, but if you are in this to get that mythical sound vinyl enthusiasts are always going on about, then these all-in-one systems may not be what you want.
Why? The reason is that the final sound output is not just the result of the vinyl itself, but the entire audio chain. This includes the turntable, pre-amplifier, amplifier, and speakers. If any of the components in the chain are bad, then the audio will be bad.
So when you buy an all-in one system you don’t really have control over the chain. That does not mean that they are all bad, just that you don’t have as many options. Buying these components separately also lets you upgrade later when you have more money. Ultimately it’s about what you feel fits your needs.
Read the Manual
It’s a small detail, but you may be confronted with having to choose between a manual or automatic record player. Neither of these is superior to the other, they just provide different options. An automatic record player will both place and remove the needle. A manual turntable will require you to do both. The best choice is probable a semi-automatic solution where you can place the needle, but it automatically goes back to home position when the record is over.
The main reason lower-end players tend to be automatic is because people new to vinyls are often scared that they will scratch their records. It takes a bit of practice to place a needle into the groove consistently, but with a little practice (on an old and cheap record!) you’ll get it in no time.
Spin the Bottle
Turntables, as the name suggest, work by turning a record on a platter. Simple enough, but if the platter is not spinning at the right speed the pitch of the sound will be wrong. Spin it too quickly and every album becomes a cover by Alvin and the Chipmunks. Spin it too slowly and the opposite happens.
There are a number of standards for which the various record sizes were designed. Seven-inch singles turn at 45 RPM. Twelve-inch albums rotate at 33 RPM. There are also 78 RPM ten-inch records, but if you already know about these and collect them you already are beyond the beginner level. All record players support 33 and 45 RPM, so the issue is not support but whether the player in question turns at the advertised speed. Some cheap players have inconsistent or slightly off rotation speeds, which means you are not hearing the music as intended. So be sure to read some reviews or find out if anyone has tested the rotation standard of a player before laying out any cash.
Location, Location, Location
Another thing you may not know, or have perhaps forgotten, is that record players can be negatively affected by vibrations. So if you have stompy neighbors or live close to train tracks or any other source of vibration, your listening pleasure may be interrupted by a needle that skips and jumps terrible. This doesn’t just sounds terrible, but can also damage the record and the player itself.
So when it comes to the more portable all-in-one players, take note if vibration damping is included. For a more traditional system you’ll want to get a special anti-vibration shelf or stand. Not only do these look good, but they protect your purchases and make them more pleasant to listen to.
The crackling of vinyl has become synonymous with the format, but the truth is that well-handled vinyls are not scratchy, and this is one of the ways to keep things that way.
Part of the Problem
As an analog, mechanical system there are many more ways for a turntable to fail, and you’ll likely find yourself looking for replacement parts at some point. In that case you should find out how readily spare parts are available and how much they cost. The needles themselves are consumables; having a few spares are worth it anyway. The arm and turntable motors are also components prone to failure.
You should also check if upgrade kits are available. Sometimes cheaper turntables will give you the option to upgrade some components later at a cheaper price than buying new.
A lot of people want turntables so that they can preserve their existing vinyls, which may no longer be available anywhere else. In that case you should make sure that the system has a digital connection (usually USB) and includes some software to make the process fairly painless.
If you are only interested in buying new records this feature is not that important, since most new vinyl releases include a digital download voucher – saving you the trouble.