Since the past few decades sales of LP (long play) records, phono cartridges, and turntables have increased. Compared to the newest technology of music storage serving instant access to any song you want why would such a primitive analog technology have such a demand?
When you listen to a song on a CD or streamed then play the same song on a turntable you may find a shockingly different sound from both systems. When played correctly LP sound can be described as warm and full which can not be matched by a CD. Some consider LPs sonically superior to digital formats.
There is also the aspect of involvement when playing LPs on your favorite turntable. The act of taking the record off the shelf and placing it on the rotating disc forms a certain bond to the listener. Its more hands on and not just a push of a button. It demands the listener be fully involved aurally and physically.
There is also the factor of nostalgia. The idea of using equipment from the by gone era of music adds yet another layer of interest. Old turntables can be viewed as the old Cadillacs with fins on them. They are super cool and sound so nice. Younger generations have recognized this cool factor and took to it by storm.
When you decide to play a record you are inherently dedicating some time to the music. Unlike playing music from a portable device where you do other things while listening to music. You also have the full sized art and liner notes the LP record allows you to enjoy. So now you have the aural, physical and visual involvement when using a turntable.
Aside from all this we still have the main reason why LPs have made somewhat of a come back. They sound superior to other formats. Listening to a sound source that has not been digitized adds a level of comfort, openness and warmth to the music. Its kind of like comparing an incandescent light bulb to the new digital LED light bulb. The incandescent bulb has a warmer look to it.
The difference between LPs and CDs or digital sources are this: LPs imperfections are a separate incidence to the actual audio while imperfections of other formats are woven into the music. So if there are cracks or pops on an LP it comes across separately but the music is still virtuous while digital imperfections seem to change the quality at its source.
Components Of The Turntable Record Player
We have the turntable, tonearm, and phono cartridge. The turntable houses the unit and spins the record, the tonearm mounts the cartridge in place and the cartridge houses the needle which converts the patterns in the grooves into a digital signal.
The turntable is the foundation of your whole LP playing experience. Although it’s main purpose is to just spin the record and hold the tonearm there are certain tasks it needs to accomplish to achieve a superior sound.
The main task is to provide a vibration free platform for the record and tonearm. Outside vibrations can interfere with the LP and add unnecessary sounds to the final delivery. Minimal vibrations allows the cartridge needle to gather as much information as possible from the grooves of the record for maximum clarity.
The turntable houses the base, platter, platter bearing, plinth, drive system, and sometimes a sub chassis. The base comprises the turntables structure it houses all the components and can be finished in wood, metal or plastic.
The platter is the disc that supports the record. Its the thing that actually spins. The platter rests on the bearing assembly. The plinth is the next layer down it’s the top of the inner turntable beneath the platter. The drive system transfers the motor’s rotation to the platter.
Some turntables have a sub-chassis suspended inside the turntables base where the platter and tonearm are mounted. The arm board is also a piece that mounts the tonearm. Other turntables are made with the sub-chassis suspended in mid air without a housing.
The Base and Plinth
You want the base to be as sturdy as possible so it can absorb as much outside vibration as possible. A flimsy base can vibrate and transfer that vibration into the unit which can interfere with the vibrations produced by the grooves in the record. This will result in a lower fidelity of music.
There are various outside forces that can trigger unwanted vibrations and degrade the fidelity of your audio system.
- Acoustic Energy can hit your turntable. Also known as feedback
- Structural vibration within your living area. If your floor is suspended, depending how well it’s built, you will have deflection in the floor. Example if there’s a basement below you it’s suspended.
- The vibrations of the mechanical parts from the motor and platter bearing. Better quality less vibration.
- Groove Modulations in the record itself.
Vibrations caused by these variables get mixed in with the vibrations picked up by the stylus/needle and cartridge which can be amplified into your final sound. There in lies the mechanical engineers problem to deal with eliminating as much outside vibrations as possible. Hint: Don’t listen to records during an earthquake.
To mitigate external vibrations some turntables are sprung. These turntables have spring mounted sub-chassis, they can be mounted from above (hanging from springs) or below (sitting on springs). The goal of spring mounted chassis is to separate the tonearm and platter from external vibrations. They work the same as springs and shock absorbers in your car.
If you were to drive a car without springs every bump could possibly throw you off the seat or cause you to shift your position negatively affect the way you drive. Same concept here. The platter and tonearm are like the driver. We want to keep them as still as possible to have the best performance.
Vibrations can enter your house and into your turntable from heavy trucks and trains driving by, air conditioners, washers and dryers, people walking passed you or any mechanical equipment that vibrates.
The Platter And Bearing Assembly
The platter is the disc that spins and holds the record. The platter needs to rotate as smoothly as possible without wobble and without variation in speed. One way to achieve this is to make it heavy and solid,. Some platters can weigh up to 30 pounds. The mass is usually concentrated closer to the edge of the disc which increases the moment of inertia.
Platters can be manufactured with various materials to achieve the same goal which is to minimize vibration. These materials can include cast and machined aluminum, ceramic compounds, steel, acrylic and stamped metal. Stamped metal platters are cheaper and less reliable.
The platter sits on a bearing. This bearing needs to be as precise and as smooth as possible to ensure proper vibrationless function. These are machined to very precise tolerances. The bearing will most likely be housed in a case of lubricant and can be made of ceramic, Zirconium or even a very hard jewel such as sapphire.
Two other types of bearings are air bearings and magnetic bearings. Air is forced between the platter and the housing eliminating the need of a mechanical bearing. As well the magnetic bearing is pushed by opposing forces to keep the platter running smoothly. These options are very expensive and delicate.
The Drive System
There are two types of drive systems. Belt drive and direct drive. The belt drive system separates the motor from the platter with a rubber belt. The direct drive is connected by a gear to the platter. The high end turntables will most likely use a belt drive system because they sound better.
I rubber belt transfers less vibration then a gear drive system because rubber on metal is softer than metal on metal. Also the belt drive allows to motor to be separated from the platter. The disadvantage to a belt drive is the belt can degrade over time and need replacement.
The Tone Arm
The tonearm is there to contain the cartridge above the record and keep the stylus/needle in the groove. This piece of equipment is not just a support. It has to move and adjust in real time to accommodate the proper performance of the cartridge and stylus.
Records are mass produced vinyl discs with various imperfections. They can have a slight wobble or be out of center and have a slight warp. The tone arm has to keep the stylus in this tiny little groove while still keeping up with the variations in the records physical characteristics.
Tone arms consist of a bearing, counterweight, arm tube, head shell and anti skate adjustment. The bearing has to be balanced perfectly. It can’t be to tight or it will create modulation and it can’t be too loose or it will create chatter.
The counterweight allows you to adjust the downward pressure on the stylus. This is also a balancing act. Not to much upward pressure and not too much downward. The arm tube houses the cartridge at a precise distance and position away from the pivot point.
The headshell is attached to the end of the armtube which provides a mounting point for the cartridge.
Some tonearms have what is called anti-skating adjustments. Skating is like scratching record. You know that sound when the needle skip across the record as it’s playing? Skating adjustments are made to keep even pressure on the lateral axis. You don’t want too much force pulling the tone arm inward or outward. It’s purpose is to keep the stylus in the center of the groove.
The Phono Cartridge
The phono cartridge converts the vibrations picked up by the stylus/needle from the record and converts it into an electrical signal. The cartridge is considered a transducer because it converts mechanical energy into electrical. Your loudspeakers at the end of your playback chain are considered to be transducers also.
The phono cartridge is made up of the following:
- Cartridge body
- Stylus (needle)
- Generator System
The cartridge body is what covers everything and wraps around the whole cartridge. The stylus is attached to the cantilever. The cantilever extends out from the cartridge. The stylus picks of the vibrations in the grooves of the record and sends the vibration through the cantilever and into the cartridge. The parts in the cartridge that converts the vibrations into electrical signals is called the generator system.
The generator system can be made up of moving magnets or moving coils. Moving coils tend to play better than the cartridges made of moving magnets. They tend to track better and have a better transient response. That’s because they have less mass than moving magnet cartridges.
Now that we see cartridges produce an electrical signal what is the voltage of these signals? Basically different cartridges output varying amounts of voltage. Moving magnet cartridges output voltage varies from 2mV to 8mV. Moving coil cartridges output voltage varies between 0.15mV and 2.5mV.
This output voltage is important to know for those who need to calibrate their phono preamplifiers gain. The gain must be matched to the cartridges output voltage. The higher the output voltage the lower the gain needs to be. This adjustment is required to bring the signal to line level. Its called matching cartridge output voltage to phono-stage gain.
You will find that today’s turntables come with a phono preamp built-in. For example the Yamaha TT-N503 Musicast VINYL 500 is belt driven and has a built-in phono preamp and pre-mounted cartridge. I could only assume the gain is pre adjusted to match preamp to cartridge. This unit last time i checked is about 700 bucks. It also allows you to stream the music.
The stylus is made up of a tiny piece of diamond that is polished into different shapes conical, spherical and elliptical. It is presumed the elliptical shape tends to track the best because the oval cross section seems to fit best into the grooves of the record.
One of the most important tasks is to keep the stylus clean. A speck of dust on your stylus can damage your record and interfere with proper music playback. Clean it after every record you play.
You can clean your stylus with a miniature paint brush, the kind artists use. Gently move the brush around the stylus to loosen and removed any specks of dust that may have stuck to it.
With proper maintenance you should get about 1000 hours out of your stylus.
The cantilever is directly in contact with the generator system. Its where the rubber meets the road so to speak. It’s at the end of the cantilever where the vibrations enter the generator system. When you buy a new cartridge the connection between the cantilever and generator system tends to be stiff.
Before determining if that cartridge is right for you, play it about 100 hours to break it in. The break-in period can vary from cartridge to cartridge so be aware of any changes. If you notice a change in sound you have reached the break-in period.
How To Choose The Proper Turntable
First off a turntable is meant for those who enjoy music. If you are considering the purchase of a turntable you most likely have a natural affinity towards music. You may even be an audiophile type where pure quality is your end result. What’s even more interesting is each audiophile has his/her different qualifications for a good sounding system.
Two questions do you prefer digital content or analog? Do you prefer the quick retrieval of a song or do you prefer the process of changing albums? You see where I’m going with this right? Someone with a huge active collection of records will most likely enjoy a good turntable and should partition a good portion of their budget to one.
If you don’t own any records and listen to CDs or retrieve music from the cloud you most likely wont even need to buy a turntable. The extra savings can be put into other pieces of equipment. Or you might be planning to transition into record listening which is why you may be reading this. You will most likely buy an entry level turntable.
The entry level price of turntables vary from 200 to 500 and better turntables run from 500 to 1000 best turntables run from 1000 and up. Don’t think that spending alot of money on a turntable will guarantee a sound you like. Reproducing a good playback depends on the listener. So here are some examples of turntables:
- Pro-Ject Automat A1 at 500n bucks this is the higher end of the entry level. You will surely be happy with this German made turntable.
- NAD C 588 at 1000 bucks is a better choice with a 2M Red Ortofon moving magnet phono cartridge, belt drive, high-grade carbon fiber tonearm and antin vibration feet.
- Mobile Fidelity Ultradeck +UG at 3500 bucks this will surely satisfy those looking for the best quality possible. Made in the USA is pre-mounted Ultra Gold MC moving coil cartridge. The stylus is classified as a nude Shibata with a boron cantilever. These exotic materials are what lends to the start of a great playback audio system.
You could also try to shop for your turntable in separate pieces. You can get the housing, tonearm and cartridge to achieve your best option. As a rule of thumb your sub budget of the turntable could be %50 percent for the housing, %25 for the tone arm and %25 for the cartridge.
Check this out a Sumiko Blue Point No. 3 High cartridge will set you back around 500 clams. The Audio-Technica VM760SLC will knock 650 bucks off your budget.
Usually the only piece of a turntable you can upgrade is the cartridge. You buy a turntable you like with the options you like for example belt-driven with carbon fiber tonearm and bluetooth Then you add a cartridge or replace the stock cartridge with an upgrade.
Side Note: One piece of important equipment for turntable users is your cabinet. You may want to put some rubber feet under your equipment cabinet or rack to help mitigate vibrations. You could also have one that’s very heavy because the heavy cabinets absorb secondary sounds and vibrations better than flimsy cabinets. Check out the article What Are Audio Component Rack Systems.
Also if you’re thinking about cooling your rack system check out: Venting A Cabinet For Electronics.
Putting It Together
Finding the right combination cartridge and turntable can be an expensive endeavor. The usual path is purchasing a turntable with preinstalled phono preamp and cartridge. After the first cartridge wears out you upgrade with the new one.
To add more complexity the same cartridge will most likely sound different on another turntable. Other variables that can alter the sound is the location in the room, the turntable stand, the phono preamp, and the load the preamp puts on the cartridge.
Each turntable setup has its own sonic signature. So the same exact audio system in your friends house will sound a bit different in your house. The system you have or will get will be unique to you. It was meant to be. Marry it and enjoy it.
A high quality turntable setup is said to reproduce music from a neutral place without interference from outside noises or record surface noise. The music seems to emerge from a place of serenity. A lower quality turntable sounds a bit opaque where the sounds are not as crisp, vivid or alive.
Again this is a matter of budget and personal requirements. You could be totally happy with a turntable of less stature. The turntable is only the first link in your audio system anyway. A great turntable wont sound as good behind a lower quality system anyway. So if you spend your whole budget on a turntable you wont have much to buy the rest of your system.
You might think audiophiles are a bit extreme for spending so much on an audio playback system but once you listen to the difference between a quality system and a mediocre system its almost night and day. A quality system separates all the instruments and puts them together creating a lifelike experience.
Some may consider this as a soundstage. It almost creates a 3D space in your ears. An instrument could sound further away but still clearly hear it as another instrument sounds closer but not to loud. Of course that also depends if the original recording was mastered correctly. The sense of a large space around you in which the instruments exist is the soundstage. The better your system the greater the soundstage.
Another quality a good turntable can have or not is speed accuracy. The standard rotational spin of records is 33-1/3 RPM. The closer you get to that speed the better the quality. Although not as important as speed stability a turntable spinning a bit off RPM will be hard to detect by most people.
Speed stability on the other hand can be recognized by anyone. Speed stability describes how smoothly the platter rotates. If your turntable speed is unstable it is fluctuating meaning faster and slower. This higher and lower RPM will cause the pitch in the music to also move up and down.
This variation in pitch is easily distinguishable as compared to a constant difference in pitch. If your speed accuracy is off a bit your difference in sound wont be noticeable because it’s constant. If your speed is unstable the fluctuation in pitch will make your teeth chatter and your mouth pucker like you ate something sour.
Turntables are precisely designed, engineered and constructed with minimal tolerances to achieve that high fidelity sound we are all after. They are delicate instruments that can serve years of satisfaction. When shopping for a turntable consider all the variables and choose one that fits your tastes best.