Turntables and You: Buying Advice
- Types of Turntables
- Proper Turntable Setup
- Explanation of Cartridges
- Adding Turntable to Your System
- Do Slipmats Matter?
- Audio Quality – Vinyl vs CD
- Digital Vinyl Using USB
Types of Turntables
Turntables, record players, vinyl players, gramophones, phonograph – whatever you prefer to call it – all of them have a couple things in common: they all have a spinning platter where the vinyl goes, and a needle that rides on top and produces the sounds. The only difference between different turntables is how the internal motor spins the platter, the two types are:
Belt Drive – This type of turntable uses an elastic belt attached to the motor to turn the platter. The platter itself rests on a bearing which it separate from the motor. An easy way to understand the concept is by comparing it to a bicycle: the belt would be like the bike chain, bike pedals as the motor, and the back wheel is the platter. This belt drive system is the original way turntables were designed, and are still notable because the belt drive system doesn’t transfer much vibration from the motor.
If you ever hear someone claim that they prefer the old belt drive system, they aren’t just hipsters – less noise and interference from the motor equals a more crisp and clean sound. The only downsides to this old style are that the playback speed might not be as accurate as possible and the belt might need to be replaced because they break down after a while.
Direct Drive – On the other hand, this type of model works by attaching the platter directly to the motor, which leads to more consistent and accurate rotation speed. When compared to belt drive, the direct drive model has much more torque which means it starts up much faster, which is ideal for DJs that use scratching techniques.
While the direct drive system is more susceptible to problems with vibrations, nowadays this problem can be negated with shock absorbing pads that go between the platter and the motor.
Proper Turntable Setup
Once you have acquired your desired turntable setup and are ready to invest some time into assembling it, then we have some things to keep in mind. Note: later on we will dive into cartridge installation, but for now we will stick to the basics.
Listening Surface – Despite having the turntable ready to go, if you don’t have a proper surface to put it on then you’re already heading towards failure. The surface that you place it on needs to be as solid, flat, and level as possible. Most will opt for an actual turntable stand, but if that isn’t your style or doesn’t fit your budget then a nice coffee table will work as well. Luckily most turntables have adjustable feet so that even if your coffee table isn’t perfectly level, you can adjust the feet to make it just right. You can place a spirit level on top of the platter to double check that it’s as level as possible.
Tonearm Weight – Next is time to focus on the tonearm. Unless you’ve gone with a very cheap unit, you will most likely be able to adjust it a little bit. When it comes to getting the best sound possible from your vinyl, the tonearm is the final boss.
The first step is to see if your unit has an anti-skating knob. We’ll get into anti-skating later, but for now, just check for the knob and turn it to zero if it’s there.
From there it’s time to pay attention to the counterweight, which is needed to balance the arm and make sure it sits properly in the grooves of the vinyl. This is referred to as the tracking weight, and most turntables have a big, round weight on the back of the tonearm that is used for adjusting. Ideally, you want the arm setup so that it can float freely, can balance on it’s on, and is riding flat. To achieve this just pop it out of the stand and adjust the weight until you get it dialed in just right.
By now you’ve probably been wondering about the little gauge on the front of the weight. For this, adjust it until it’s zeroed (also known as zero weight). For the next step, you will need to find the manual for your cartridge – or just your turntable if it came assembled. Somewhere in the directions, the manufacturer of the unit will list an ideal number in grams, which you will use to set the weight. Note: if you manual lists a range of weights don’t panic – just adjust the weight so that it’s around the middle of the range.
Anti-Skating/Bias – This knob is used to make sure the stylus doesn’t get pulled into the center of the record while it is spinning. You will often hear of this as “bias.”
For this, all you really need to do is set it to the same as the tracking weight, or maybe a little less (usually recommended by experts in the field).
Downforce – This part is can be considered optional because not all units come with this feature. If yours does, just keep in mind that all it does is make sure there is even pressure in the groove. Consult your manual again to find the manufacture’s recommended setting.
Explanation of Cartridges
A cartridge is a small piece of electronics at the front of the tonearm, all covered in plastic. Its whole purpose is to help the needle make sounds from just the vibrations of running in the grooves of the vinyl. The whole cartridge itself is housed within the headshell – basically just a small, plastic mounting bracket. Just to be clear, when the word cartridge is used, it’s referring to the entire package.
Cheap cartridges are often distinguishable due to their thin and weak sound, and expensive ones (costing up to $X, XXX) can actually sound better than the audio quality of a CD. The whole concept of running a needle through a groove and producing a sound is strange on its own, and the differences between cartridges are even more mind-boggling.
So what does this mean for vinyl lovers like yourself? Basically, even if you went with a cheaper turntable, you will be able to upgrade the cartridge to get better sound quality.
Just like with headphones or microphones, different makes and models will have different sounding audio playback. High-quality replacement cartridges will also guarantee better groove tracking and playback that is skip-free. So if you are ever feeling like your setup is lacking in the sound quality department, think about replacing the headshell, cartridge, or even the stylus.
The installation of a cartridge is simple and straightforward – all you need is a screwdriver and the ability to attach color-coded wires to the tonearm. Still sound difficult? There are literally endless amounts of videos online that dive into the details of attaching a cartridge to a headshell.
However, fine tuning the cartridge is a whole other ballgame. One tool that will be vital is an alignment gauge because it’ll help you make the small adjustments needed to get the best results possible. There are no secrets here – fine tuning a cartridge is a painstakingly tedious task because of the exact measurements that are needed. If you’re dedicated to doing it yourself, it’s recommended to consult some guides first and check to see if anyone else is using the same setup you have.
If you don’t feel like bothering with all that, there are many packages (headshells with a cartridge and stylus) ready to go so that all you have to do is plug it into your tonearm and you’re off to the races.
Adding Turntable to Your System
The basics of adding your turntable to your system have to do with understanding phono signals and preamps. Fortunately enough, none of this will require an electrical engineering degree to understand.
Audio leaves a turntable as a phono signal, which got its name because turntables were actually attached to phonographs in the past. In order for your amplifier and speakers to turn the signal into sounds, the signals need to be turned into a line level signal. To achieve this, a preamp (preamplifier), which is specifically designed just to do this job.
Don’t panic just yet – there’s good news. Most modern turntables come with a preamp built in so that you don’t have to worry about it at all. If you happen to get one like this then congratulations, you can just connect the turntable right to the amplifier with some RCA cables (or connect it to your computer with USB), and skip the rest of this section.
If you have to purchase your own preamp separately, don’t worry it’s not too complicated. First, all you have to do is connect to the preamp, then connect the preamp to your amplifier. After that, you need to make sure your turntable is grounded otherwise the audio will always have a faint hum in the background. Turntables without a built-in preamp will have a grounding wire coming from it instead, which you just hook up to the correct spot on the preamp that you got.
Note: make sure everything is powered off before messing with the grounding wire or you will have a bad time.
Do Slipmats Matter?
Although some pricier models might not need them, like the Edwards TT1 Mk2, most will need to use a slipmat. They come with some many benefits that you can’t really afford to get without one, including the fact that it protects the record from coming into contact with the platter.
And just like everything else in the audio equipment world, there is really only one choice of slipmat to choose. Introducing the cork slipmat, loved by audiophiles around the world for its resonant quality. In a distance we see the second place contender, the standard rubber mat, which is really just used to reduce vibrations, and if you have an unstable listening surface.
Audio Quality – Vinyl vs CD
It’s another age-old debate. When you ask people this, there is no simple answer and can turn into something like an argument about politics.
Vinyl Audio – Vinyl records consist of analog recordings. Technically all natural sound waves are analog, and the grooves that are carved into the surface vinyl are supposed to mirror the waveform of the original sound, so theoretically no information will be lost. The waveforms from a vinyl record can actually be more accurate when compared to digital audio, and you can recognize this from hearing the richness in the sound.
The most notable downside of vinyl records is that the grooves are like magnets for little pieces of dust or dirt, which can easily damage the surface and lead to static noise and crackling. These imperfections become even more noticeable during quiet sections of songs – the noise can get louder than the music itself.
CD Audio – The main advantage of digital recordings is that the quality doesn’t degrade over time, and periods of silence are actually free of noise. At the same time, the sound can be described as dry, cold, or clinical. All digital audio does is take a snapshot of the analog signal, so technically is it still far off from capturing what the complete sound wave is like.
Digital Vinyl Using USB
To the die-hard vinyl lovers out there this is a total buzz kill, but some people actually enjoy digitizing their vinyl records. But the truth is, it has a practical purpose – vinyl records require maintenance and suitable storage area, so sometimes it’s just easier to have a digital copy.
This also means that many modern turntables come with USB ports built-in so that you don’t have to go through the hassle of purchasing a phono to USB connector. The software included with the turntable will likely have features that help take out the hissing or crackling from the vinyl while digitizing it.