Sound Advice – What turntable is best for me?

"Listen mate, life has surface noise."

by Ed Selley Sep 30, 2016 at 7:07 AM

  • So, the impossible has happened. Vinyl is a mainstream format again.
    You can pick up albums on the high street, when you go food shopping and from ambitiously relaunched record stores. This is no longer a legacy format, apparently the public has collectively decided there's a place in the modern music market for a format that dates back nearly 70 years in its present form.

    If you've been watching this with a growing sense of enthusiasm and want in on the last physical format there is likely to be, this Sound Advice piece is intended to cover the options open to you, what will work best in the context of your existing equipment and how you can get the most bang for your buck. Before we do any of that though – it's time to take a deep breath and pause momentarily for thought.

    Are you absolutely sure?
    In a recent Sound Advice piece which covered the choices of source equipment open to you, I said this;

    'Viewed dispassionately, there is no sane reason to choose vinyl as your principle format in 2016.'

    I'm a huge fan of vinyl and I love it to bits but I genuinely mean every word of that statement. In a world where pretty much every other aspect of consumer electronics has been miniaturised and seen improvements that seem almost miraculous, vinyl remains obstinately mechanical, fragile and expensive. These costs should not be understated at any stage. Even if you were to buy the cheapest standalone record player on sale, the costs of buying material to play will far outstrip any other means of buying content beyond paying for the artist to perform live for you.

    What do I mean by this? Simply put, every other format that is discussed on AVForums fits into a wider collection of formats. Your 4K TV can work happily with HD and (less happily) with SD content and you can play DVDs and CDs on your Blu-ray player, whilst both will also happily stream content as well. With vinyl, you have a format that plays nowhere else and can in turn play nothing else.

    And to add insult to injury, that media is expensive. You can exist solely on charity shop material and sold as seen eBay detritus but unless you are an enormous Val Doonican fan, that's unlikely to appeal. New release vinyl is the absolute gold standard way of ensuring you pay the most to listen to a new album. Furthermore, if you drop it, treat it carelessly, leave it in the sun or simply don't put it back in its sleeve properly, you can see the value of it drop to nothing. I am not above admitting that I have in the past, paid... 'handsomely' for a record, played it once, slipped while taking it off the platter, scratched it and effectively ruined it. It can happen to you too.

    If you've read all this, shrugged and you still want in, that's great, it's time to talk about one of the most fun and engaging ways of playing music and the means open to you of getting up and running.

    All-in-one record players
    These are models distinguished by their ability to work as a self contained unit that has the means of playing a record, amplifying it and then sending the signal to speakers. From hovering on the edge of extinction, they have now become a massive growth area for the brands that make them.

    The underlying feature of almost all of these players is that they are cheap. Models can be had for as little as £60 and as they work as standalone devices, they don't have any other hardware costs to worry about. Some of the more deluxe models also have the ability to work out and about thanks to an inbuilt battery. They also come in a variety of styles and designs that range from the absolutely hideous through to the grudgingly cool. They are also very widely available.

    When would one be suitable?

    Have you unearthed a stack of records in a loft or been given some by an aged relative? An all-in-one is ideal for getting up and running quickly to play through them. As they are priced at the sort of level that makes them alternative to a big night out, you can tinker with analogue and decide if it is something you want to invest more time in.

    Before we get too invested in discussions about sound quality, it is worth pointing out that for many people, this is what vinyl always used to sound like too. The compact all-in-one players from the sixties worked on very similar principles and the sound they make is very evocative of many people's youth.
    What are the downsides?

    All in one players effectively suffer from three issues that combine to make them somewhat limited. First up, the sound – while evocative – could never by any realistic stretch of the imagination be described as 'hi-fi' and if you are buying into vinyl with a view to building a system that can deliver a real slice of what analogue is capable of, this is not the equipment you are looking for.

    Additionally, the manner in which many of these units play records is not ideal. A key figure in record playback is the tracking weight – the amount of force with which the arm and cartridge of a player pushes down on the record itself. The generally accepted margin for this is in the region of one to three grams of direct force. Some of these portable players have been measured using forces up to seven grams which is vastly higher than standard and will undoubtedly have an effect on the longevity of a record.

    The final issue is that you can't really do anything to alter these issues. These players are sold as one shot units and don't really have much in the way of scope to improve them. Viewed from the context of other one box systems this is not really too surprising but it does go against the experience of vinyl at most other price points.

    Compact Players
    These devices are standalone record players but ones that are generally more compact in size than a conventional player and usually more affordable. Most (but not all) of them confirm to the 'Midi' width which is seldom seen in full systems these days but still exists as a product category. Pricing is generally between £50-150.

    This category also flirted with extinction in the past but some key models remained available throughout and indeeed some models continue to be built to this day. With the growth in vinyl sales in the last few years, more models have appeared and many of them are from mainstream manufacturers like Sony, Pioneer and Denon. Some of them seem almost completely unchanged from the models that the same brands put to bed in the 90s but given that the records they are playing haven't changed either, this should not be too much of an issue.

    These models are designed to bolt onto an existing audio system that has a spare input and to make this as simple as possible, most (but importantly not all) of them have a phono stage built into them that allows for the signal they output to be directly sent to an amplifier in the way that it can use with no additional equipment being needed. It is also worth noting that this little category of product is the most likely to offer fully automatic operation, where the arm moves and places itself on a record automatically.
    When would one be suitable?

    If you already have an audio system of some description, these players are ideal for making a reasonable stab at a small legacy collection of records you have and want to play from time to time. They have the potential to sound a lot better than an all-in-one system but are still compact and usually fairly easy to set up.

    What are the downsides?

    While they are capable of much better performance than an all-in-one style system, these players are still rather limited in terms of absolute performance. While some models will permit a degree of aftermarket tweaking – cartridges and mats generally being the easiest bits to change – most key components are fixed. Most of these players generally track records at rather more friendly weights but some of them have less desirable traits in this area so it is always worth checking.

    The other point about these models is that if you are looking towards the upper echelons of their pricing, they can come awfully close in cost terms to more capable models so you need to choose carefully if you think you're going to be sticking at vinyl for a while.

    DJ and Pro Audio Models
    For a time, in the nineties in particular, pretty much the only thing that stood between affordable vinyl and extinction was its use in clubs. This in turn meant that for many people, their options when it came to buying affordable turntables came down to these models. Ironically having done so much to keep vinyl alive as a medium, you are less likely to encounter these models in their natural environment now than you have been for some time.

    The feature that all true pro decks of this nature have in common is direct drive. This means that the motor applies turning force directly to the platter rather than via belt or idler. This is to allow for fast starting and stopping and easy adjustment to the speed that the platter is spinning at as well as being able to stand up to the physical abuse of mixing. This direct drive assembly is then placed in a chassis that will stand up to years of abuse and topped off with an arm that uses a detachable headshell system on the end to allow for fast changing of cartridges. The end result is a tough and reliable piece of kit that is also more than up to the job of spinning a record or two at home. The price of new models sits from £200-600 or so (I'm deliberately removing the new Technics from this calculation as the chance of seeing it in a club is roughly zero).

    When would one be suitable?

    If you are interested in vinyl from a club and live music perspective, these models are really where you should begin looking. The ability to tweak pitch to suit your preferences and the sonic signature that models of this type bring to the performance is vital to the experience. If you actually plan to do some DJ work, your search should end here as these are the only models really designed for such an undertaking.
    The good news is that many of these turntables – even the more affordable ones – can also respond well to being tweaked and upgraded so if you plan to be in this for the long haul, you should be able to see some considerable use from it. As a further bonus, most of these models also offer impressive reliability and if they do go wrong, fixing them isn't generally too tricky.

    What are the downsides?

    It is wrong to say that pro audio decks will always lose out to domestic ones in a head-to-head challenge domestically because it simply isn't true but there are some caveats to the use of these models in home systems. The rock solid pitch stability they offer can be at the expense of higher overall noise levels and the arms that they use can be less effective and not suitable for use with some types of phono cartridge. These are marginal points though and you can build a very high performing system indeed around a pro audio deck. Do remember that if you start using home audio phono cartridges on these decks, they will stand up to about three seconds of actual DJ work so make sure you have the deck set up for what you actually need it to do.

    Also make sure you chose a deck with an S or J shaped tonearm. These have the same geometry as a conventional home turntable – the cartridge is placed in the groove at the same angle as it is on a domestic model. A small number of DJ orientated models use a completely straight arm which helps them track pretty much anything but introduces distortion that doesn't really matter in a club but you'll almost certainly hear them at home. Straight angle models are probably best avoided for this reason.

    Hi-Fi Turntables
    The last category of turntables is the largest of the lot. These are turntables that are designed to connect to a system and frequently can be almost completely customised to your requirements. These models go from £250 up to over £100,000. As the price increases beyond the £1,000 point, these models can open up a clear performance advantage over any other category of turntable here.

    As you might expect, there is a huge variation in the design and functionality of Hi-Fi turntables but they generally use belt drive, are completely manual in operation – you will need to put the arm on the record yourself – and they will generally only offer 33 and 45 rpm speed support. While many decks in the other categories will have their own phono preamp built in, as indeed do a few models we've tested in this category too, most will need an external phono stage to function correctly.

    Where would one be suitable?

    If you are planning to make a serious go of vinyl replay, you will realistically benefit from choosing a turntable of this nature. Even relatively affordable models can offer excellent performance and they have the scope to be tweaked and upgraded to improve if you feel like spending more on the business of playback which is something the other models can struggle to do.
    This is something that can make sense with vinyl in a way that might not with many other parts of your audio equipment. As further radical developments in the format are unlikely, you'll see a long return from them and there's pretty much no danger of them being suddenly rendered pointless.

    What are the downsides?

    This is by far and away the most potentially expensive entry point for vinyl replay and many of these turntables are fragile and require careful setup. Put bluntly, unless you really intend to make a go of it, these devices have the potential to be a massive money pit.

    It is also worth pointing out that while many of these models offer huge flexibility in terms of tweaking and setup, it is not the case that 'there's no such thing as a wrong decision' when it comes to picking ancillaries for them. It is possible to spend a lot of money on components that simply do not work together. In a world of plug-and-play, record players do not adhere to these rules.

    Other considerations
    If you have decided that vinyl really is for you, it pays to buy the best basic hardware you can get your hands on as this prevents the need to spend out again on upgrading hardware. Buying a turntable that has a bit of stretch in it will help in the long run.

    Phono Stages
    The phono stage is the device that boosts the low output of a turntable to the point where it can be amplified as normal. Despite this simple sounding role, they have a huge amount of impact on the sound. While it is possible to buy a number of models where the phono stage is built in, this can potentially act as a limiter to performance and flexibility so, if you can, it is generally best to go for an external one. Many amplifiers also have a phono stage built in so you can avoid doubling up.

    The cartridge contains the stylus that makes contact with the record and the generator that turns the vibration of the stylus into an electrical signal. They cost between £20 and £10,000 but all have one thing in common – a split second of carelessness will destroy them. There are two main designs of cartridge, moving coil and moving magnet. The latter are more affordable and can have their stylii replaced separate to the whole cartridge as well as producing a larger signal for a phono stage to work with. As moving magnet designs can now offer sparkling performance, they represent the most sensible starting point for a new vinyl user.

    There are many other points of consideration but these are areas that will covered more extensively in a forthcoming piece.

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