Turntable Glossary of Definitions

Before you start getting involved with turntables, it’s worth your time to get familiar with the lingo. Below are some of the notable words or phrases that you should know:

Tonearm: The tonearm is responsible for holding the cartridge while it moves across the record. Most tonearms are straight, but you will also find some that are S-shaped. An ideal tonearm would have no mass but be absolutely rigid, with a bearing that has no friction at all. Since this isn’t possible, you want to aim for one that is as light and rigid as possible. If it’s too flimsy then the sounds of it vibrating will be heard in the music.

Cartridge: The part of the turntable that physically plays the record are the cartridge and stylus. As the stylus moves left and right, up and down, it produces a waveform for stereo channels. While cartridge styles can vary from model to model, most of the basic ones use the moving magnet (MM) design.

Platter: This is what your vinyl records sits on. The platter is then rotated either by a direct-drive system or a belt-drive system. Denser platters are ideal because it reduces rumbling and other noises that can make it into the music.

Preamp: Unlike the signal from a CD player or other audio sources, the signal from a turntable is actually pretty weak. On top of that, the signal also needs to be properly equalized so that it has the correct balance of bass to treble. There are receivers and amplifiers that have built-in preamps, with a corresponding spot for the turntables grounding wire. If your stereo and turntable don’t have a preamp then you will need to purchase an external one before getting started.

Tracking Force: Cartridges work by applying a very specific amount of force onto the record, measured in grams. If you use too little force then the cartridge and arm might bounce around which will cause skipping. Then if you apply too much force, then you run the risk of damaging the stylus and the vinyl. This is all adjusted usually by a knob at end of the tonearm, on the opposite side of the cartridge.

Azimuth Adjustment: The stylus also needs to be perfectly perpendicular to the vinyl. The azimuth adjustment is what allows the user to rotate the tonearm slightly in all directions, in order to make sure its angle is correct.

Vertical Tracking Angle: The very tip of the stylus and the body of the cartridge should be perfectly parallel to the surface of the record when playing. Since vinyl records come in varying thicknesses, and cartridges are usually different sizes, your tonearm should offer a way to adjust this tracking angle.

Drive Method: The platter is powered by either a belt-drive or direct-drive system. For a belt-drive turntable, there is an elastic band that connects the motor to the platter. The importance of this design is that the belt helps eliminate vibrations from the motor. On very expensive models you’ll often see the motor completely separate from the chassis, which is supposed to eliminate the chance of any rumble from coming through the stylus.

Direct-drive turntables, on the other hand, they have a platter that is directly connected to the motor. This passes along motor noise but can be negated by using platter mats. The main benefit of a direct-drive system is that platter gets up to speed faster than belt-drive, which is the reason you see modern DJs using them for mixing and scratching.