If you’re embarking on the exciting journey of collecting records, one of the most critical steps is selecting the right turntable. With a plethora of options available, it can be a daunting task to choose the one that best suits your needs. This comprehensive guide will walk you through the key elements to consider when purchasing your first turntable, ensuring you make a well-informed decision.
Drive Type: Direct vs. Belt
One of the first things you’ll need to decide is the type of drive mechanism you prefer. Turntables come in two main types - direct drive and belt drive.
Direct drive turntables have the motor situated directly beneath the platter. This setup provides a more stable rotational speed, crucial for DJs who require strong torque and quick start-up times for beat-matching and scratching. However, the close proximity of the motor to the platter can sometimes introduce unwanted vibrations, which may affect sound quality.
On the other hand, belt drive turntables use an elastic belt to spin the platter. The belt effectively absorbs the motor's vibrations, reducing the risk of noise interference reaching the stylus. This results in a cleaner, arguably more accurate sound reproduction, which is why many audiophiles favor belt-driven turntables.
Cartridge Type: Moving Magnet vs. Moving Coil
The cartridge of a turntable is the component that houses the needle (or stylus), which reads the grooves on the vinyl record. There are two types of cartridges, moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC).
MM cartridges are the more common of the two. They are generally cheaper and the stylus is replaceable, which is handy considering it's recommended to change your stylus every 1000-2000 hours of playtime. However, they may not offer the same level of sound detail as an MC cartridge.
MC cartridges are often found on high-end turntables. They're usually more expensive but are favored for their superior sound quality and detail. It's important to note that not all turntables and preamps are compatible with MC cartridges, so make sure to check the specifications of your gear if you're considering this route.
Phono Preamp: Built-in or External
Turntables output a phono-level signal, which is too weak for most audio systems to process directly. This is where a preamp comes in. It amplifies the phono-level signal to line level, which can then be run through your audio system.
Some turntables come with a built-in phono preamp, which simplifies the setup process. However, some turntable enthusiasts argue that separate, external preamps provide better sound quality because they are isolated from the turntable's motor and electronics, reducing the risk of interference.
If your turntable doesn't have a built-in preamp, you'll either need to purchase a separate one or ensure your audio interface or mixer has a dedicated input that can accept a phono-level signal. Want to learn more about audio signal levels? Check out the following video.
Manual vs. Automatic Operation
Another consideration is whether you prefer manual or automatic operation. Manual turntables require you to place the stylus on the record by hand and lift it at the end of a side. This can be a more engaging experience, and it's generally thought that manual turntables offer better sound quality because they have fewer mechanical parts.
Automatic turntables take care of this process for you at the push of a button. They're user-friendly and are less likely to cause needle damage if you're not confident with manually placing the stylus.
Semi-automatic turntables offer a compromise - they return the tonearm to rest and turn off the motor automatically at the end of a record side, but still require you to place the needle on the record manually. This is a good choice if you're concerned about forgetting to lift the needle at the end of a side.
USB vs. Non-USB
Turntables now come in both USB and non-USB variants. A USB turntable allows you to connect your turntable directly to your computer, which can be particularly useful if you plan to digitize your vinyl records or if you want to use digital software for DJing.
Non-USB turntables, on the other hand, are better suited to traditional vinyl playback setups. Before you write off a non-USB turntable, keep in mind that a USB cable is not required to route the output of a turntable into your computer. You'll simply need to connect it to an audio interface and then route the signal into your DAW or DJ software.
The build quality of your turntable is another significant factor. A heavy, sturdy turntable will generally produce better sound as it reduces vibrations. The quality of the tonearm, which holds the stylus, is also important. A poorly designed tonearm can affect the stylus's contact with the record, potentially leading to poor sound quality or even damage to your records.
The quality of the cartridge that comes with the turntable is another consideration. While most turntables come with a cartridge, the quality varies, and you may want to upgrade your cartridge for better sound.
Turntables come in a wide range of prices. Entry-level models start around $50, while high-end models can run into the thousands. Determine your budget before you start shopping and take into account that flashy features will cost extra. Remember, a turntable is just one part of your setup. You may also need to invest in a good speaker system, a preamp if your turntable doesn't have one built-in, and possibly a new cartridge.
Having gone through the key elements to consider when purchasing a turntable, let's take a look at three specific models that stand out for their features, quality, and value. Each of these turntables offers something unique, catering to different needs and budgets.
Victrola's Vintage Suitcase Turntable
Victrola's Vintage Suitcase Turntable ($55) is an entry-level turntable is perfect for those just getting into vinyl or looking for a portable, stylish, and easy-to-use option. It features three speeds (33 1/3, 45, and 78 RPM), allowing it to play virtually any record in your collection. One of its standout features is Bluetooth connectivity, which allows you to stream music from your smartphone to the turntable's speakers. The suitcase design isn't just for looks—it makes the Victrola Vintage incredibly portable.
Fluance's RT81 Turntable
The Fluance RT81 Turntable ($249) is an excellent step up for those looking for a more serious foray into vinyl. With a solid wood plinth, aluminum platter, and an Audio Technica ATN95E stylus, the RT81 is built to deliver high-fidelity sound. It's a belt-driven, semi-automatic turntable, providing the best of both worlds in terms of sound quality and convenience. Additionally, the RT81 features a built-in preamp, making it an excellent choice if you're looking for a simplified setup without compromising on sound quality.
Audio-Technica's AT-LP120XUSB-BK Turntable
For those looking for a professional-grade turntable, the Audio-Technica AT-LP120XUSB-BK Turntable ($349) is a fantastic option. This direct-drive turntable offers exceptional speed accuracy and is built with DJing in mind, although it's equally suitable for home use. The USB output allows for easy digitization of your vinyl records. It also features a switchable built-in preamp, giving you the flexibility to connect it to the audio equipment of your choice. The AT-LP120XUSB-BK includes a high-quality AT-VM95E cartridge, which provides excellent sound reproduction.
These turntables illustrate the range of options available, so consider your personal needs and preferences when making your choice. Whether you're new to vinyl, looking to upgrade, or seeking professional-grade gear, there's a turntable out there for you.
Embarking on your vinyl journey begins with selecting the right turntable. Understanding the key elements such as drive type, cartridge type, the need for a preamp, operation method, and the importance of build quality, will ensure you make a well-informed decision. Additionally, consider whether a USB connection is essential for your needs and remember to set a budget, taking into account not just the turntable, but the entire setup. Happy record hunting, and even happier listening!