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Turntable Buyers Guide
This guide exists to help you get the most out of your vinyl experience and make the most informed turntable buying decisions. If you are new to vinyl collecting and playback, we recommend starting at the beginning and read through. If you are already well-versed in the turntable world, you may want to skip to the advanced or features sections.
Unlike other audio components, turntables and phono cartridges have many components to consider in order to achieve the best sound and to keep your valuable records in great shape.
Since most current electronic components have high output signals, you are probably used to plugging them in and immediately being able to use them. Your turntable, however, is different, as it is far lower in output than anything else in your sound system.
The output signal is derived from the phono cartridge on the end of your turntable’s tonearm and is amplified to a level that your receiver or amp can use by the phono stage. You’ll learn more about this in the advanced section.
In order to determine whether your system has a phono stage, look for a left and right input labeled “phono” on the back of your receiver or amp, as well as a small ground screw near these two plugs. If you see these things you should be ready to get started with your new turntable. If not, there are separate add on phono stages available for purchase.
Audio Advice Tip
Most phono stages built into receivers and amps are designed for a moving magnet cartridge. As you will read in the advanced section, moving magnets have a higher output level than the moving coil type. If you want to use your built-in phono stage, make sure your turntable has a moving magnet type cartridge. Most of the separate phono stage components can handle all types of cartridges.
If you see a small slider switch near the phono inputs labeled MC/MM (or something similar) you have a more advanced phono stage and can use either type.
Place your turntable on a level surface. It needs to be close to your components as the cable coming out of a turntable is usually short to keep the low level signal from degrading. If you have large speakers capable of deep bass, do not place your turntable on the same surface or in front of them.
In order to achieve the best sound and maintain the quality of your valuable vinyl records, it is critical to properly set up and adjust your turntable. The advanced section covers setting up the proper tracking force and anti-skate in detail.
Audio Advice Tip
Did you know that when you purchase your turntable from Audio Advice you’ll receive a link to a step-by-step setup video for the exact model turntable you have purchased?
A turntable will have a left and right cable. These should be snugly connected to the phono stage or to the phono jacks on your receiver or amp.
The ground connection is the final connection on most turntables. In addition to left and right cables, there is typically a small wire leaving the turntable that either has a u-shaped lug, round open lug, or bare wire. This should be connected to the ground screw at the phono stage or receiver/amp.
Audio Advice Tip
Make sure you tightly connect the ground screw at the phono stage or receiver/amp. Failure to do this could result in a humming sound when playing your vinyl.
This section covers the world of turntables and cartridges in greater detail, helping you make a more informed decision on your turntable purchase or upgrade.
The Difference is Clear
Since turntables are mechanical playback systems, their ultimate sound is affected by the motor speed accuracy, how the tonearm tracks grooves, and influences from external vibrations. Unlike CD players or downloaded digital files, turntables turn small grooves on a record into sound. Like speakers, when you upgrade to a higher performance turntable you can clearly distinguish the improvement in your music.
Setup is Critical
You must also consider your record collection. With the demand for vinyl surging, LPs have gone up in price both on the new and used market. Your biggest investment will most likely be in your LPs. Every time you play a record it heats up the record grooves, creating potential for permanent damage. This means it’s critical to properly set up your turntable and align the stylus (the needle) so it tracks the record grooves as designed.
Audio Advice Tip
When you purchase a turntable/cartridge combination from Audio Advice, we will get it set up perfectly in our testing facility.
A Tiny Start to Big Sound
The modulations in a record groove are tiny. It’s the job of your phono cartridge to change these into electrical energy, which eventually becomes sound. Phono cartridges start out under $50 and can go up into the thousands. As discussed earlier, there is a reason higher performance phono cartridges exist and thrive; you can hear the difference! Learn more in our features section of this guide.
Your phono stage is another critical link in the chain. When the signal from your cartridge arrives at your phono stage it is extremely low in level. Your CD player or phone puts out signal levels that are measured in volts whereas your phono cartridge levels are measured in millivolts. This means compared to a phono cartridge, a phone or CD player sends a signal that is from 1000, to in some cases 10,000 times stronger than your turntable is sending out. Whatever the phono stage does to that signal is amplified again several times in the sequence of events to your speakers, meaning any distortions or colorations your phono stage adds to the original signal will change the sound.
A phono stage does two things:
- Amplifies the signal up to an acceptable level for the rest of your receiver/amp
- Applies RIAA equalization
RIAA was developed in the 1940s, standardized around 1954, and was a huge game-changer in the world of vinyl. It changed the way the signal was laid into the record grooves to allow for longer playing LP sides, reduced record wear, and better sound. If you heard a song without RIAA applied it would, quite honestly, sound terrible. Since the signal is so tiny when it gets into your phono stage, it’s important for the phono stage to be great at both amplifying it and applying the RIAA curve.
Believe it or not, silence is the final factor in a high quality phono stage. With a low level signal, any hum the phono stage imparts is amplified at the speakers. This is why the best phono stages have extremely quiet power supply sections to keep any hum from getting into the signal.
Audio Advice Tip
If you’re seeking to improve your turntable sound and haven’t yet upgraded your phono stage, start there. Over the past 38+ years, thousands of our music loving clients have commented on how much of an improvement they heard in their records upon transitioning to a high quality phono stage.
Types of Turntables
This system is used by the majority of turntables on the market today. A motor spins a belt around the outer edge of the turntable platter (the part where the record sits) or, in the case of a two-piece platter, around the inner platter. Belt drive turntables have an inherent advantage of isolating motor noise from the platter. They also tend to have consistent speed, which allows you to hear the pitch in the music exactly as recorded.
In direct drive turntables it is difficult to isolate motor noise since the motor sits directly under the platter, making belt drive preferable in most instances. Additionally, the motor speed is constantly being corrected by the motor system and many hear this as less than perfect speed. On a positive note, direct drive turntables get up to speed much faster than belt drives making them favorites among DJs.
Idler wheel can be found on many vintage turntables from the 50s, 60s, and early 70s. This method has a rubber wheel that rubs against the inside of the platter to spin it. Idler wheel drive is inherently noisier due to all the friction between the rubber wheel and platter.
Fully automatic systems perform all of the work for you. If you do not feel comfortable lowering a tonearm, this is a great option to consider. You simply push a button or lever to select speed then push another button to make the platter spin, move the tonearm over, lower it in the right spot, then pick up the arm and shut the turntable off at the end of a record.
The semi-automatic turntable lifts the tonearm and shuts the table down at the end of a record, which is a good choice if you tend to fall asleep while listening. There are also a few aftermarket tonearm lifts you can add to your manual table to lift up the tonearm at the end.
The majority of turntables on the market today are manual, meaning you must select the speed, move the tonearm over the record, and lower it. Then, when the record ends, you must raise up the tonearm. With all of this work, why is manual so popular? The other types have gears and mechanisms that add friction to the tonearm and somewhat degrade the sound. All of the automation parts also add costs that do nothing to improve the sound and, in most cases, degrade the performance. These factors prove manual to be the best table for the listener most concerned with sound.
This holds the phono cartridge and moves it across the record.
Yes – Most turntables include the tonearm designed to work well with the turntable.
No – You must purchase a separate tonearm. There are a few specialty manufacturers that only make tonearms. You will find this option as you move up into the more high performance turntables.
Most tonearms fall into this category. Gimbal tonearms have separate bearings for the horizontal and vertical planes that move independently of each other. Better bearing systems will result in improved sound due to the lack of friction as the tonearm moves across the record.
A unipivot tonearm is free to move in all directions and has only one bearing. This is typically a tiny, pointed fixed bearing that sits in a cup. There are arguments on both sides of the unipivot audio debate table. Many say the lack of friction improves sound while others say the phono cartridge should not be free to move in all planes.
Audio Advice Tip
The technology on unipivot tonearms is now very good and, with proper setup, they offer great performance.
A removable headshell easily detaches from the tonearm.
Yes – Removable headshells aid in easier installation and convenience when swapping out cartridges. They are typically found on turntables used by DJs so an accidentally broken stylus will not slow down the party.
No – Since a removable headshell does not have as solid of a connection to the tonearm and can get slightly out of alignment, “NO” is considered better for most applications.
Comes with Cartridge
Yes – Many entry level turntables come with a decent cartridge as part of the package.
No – As you move up into the better performing turntables, a cartridge is not typically included. This allows you to take an older cartridge in good working order and install it on your new turntable or upgrade your existing turntable with a new cartridge. Almost all of the models that come with a cartridge still allow you the option of upgrading to a better one.
See the Phono Cartridge section below for more details on the types of phono cartridges.
As a record spins it pulls the cartridge and tonearm with it, creating greater force and pulling the cartridge to the inside of the record groove. Anti-skate mechanisms are used to apply an opposite force to pull the tonearm back to the center of the record groove. This is a critical step in the setup of your turntable. There is a relation to the tracking force and the amount of anti-skate that should be applied.
Audio Advice Tip
We use test gear to make sure the anti-skate mechanism is applied perfectly. Don’t worry, you’ll receive a setup tips that are specific to your new turntable.
This method uses a weight attached via a thin string to the tonearm to pull it back towards the center.
A spring is used to apply the opposing force to move the cartridge back to the center of the record groove.
Magnets are used to move the cartridge back to the center of the record groove.
Phono cartridges are available in a variety of sizes and, more importantly, heights. Their goal is to extract record movements without wearing them down. For most cartridges, this happens when the top is parallel to the record surface. The resurgence of vinyl allowed testing like never before. Research not only corroborated the importance of this parallel relationship, but indicated that a 92 degree angle of the stylus to the record grooves provides the best possible sound.
So how do you achieve this perfect angle? Through adjustable VTA or vertical tracking angle, which allows you to move the tonearm in order to align the top of the phono cartridge parallel to the record surface. For precise measurements, use a USB microscope to take a magnified picture of the stylus and fine tune the arm height. On our higher performance turntables we provide this as part of the set up.
The small trade off with adjustable VTA tonearms is that unless you have a high-end system to adjust it with, you could lose some rigidity in the tonearm that may negatively impact sound quality. For this reason, you won’t typically find adjustable VTA tonearms on turntables under $1500. Since most entry level tables are pre-fitted with a cartridge designed to perform best with the tonearm, there is no need to worry. However, when considering higher end turntables that do not come with a cartridge, adjustable VTA is certainly a feature worth having.
Azimuth is the cousin to VTA. Where VTA deals with the relationship of tonearm height and tracking angle, adjustable azimuth deals with aligning the stylus completely square in the record groove. Tonearms with adjustable azimuth allow you to adjust the left to right twist of the arm as you look at the phono cartridge from the front.
Adjustable azimuth is not as common of a tonearm feature as adjustable VTA. However, if your azimuth is set up perfectly you will discover a significant improvement in sound.
You can eyeball your cartridge from the front to place it parallel to the record surface, but the only true way to ensure it's in the right place is through the use of test equipment. You’ll need a test record that only plays the left channel, followed by only playing the right channel, along with a way to measure the results. You’ve succeeded when the output is high and equal for both channels.
In the same way we use a USB microscope to obtain a 92 degree rake angle, our setup experts will use a special test record and digital oscilloscope to adjust azimuth.
Remember, the signals coming out of your CD player or phone are 1,000-10,000 times greater than those coming out of your phono cartridge. The cable they travel through can have a pretty large impact on the sound.
A basic, non-detachable cable is included.
An upgraded premium cable is included.
Detachable cables provide the option to remove and upgrade to one of higher quality. While all tables of this type come with a quality cable, it is a bonus to have the option of upgrading or replacing should your cable fail.
The dust cover is usually a plastic piece that sits over your turntable to keep dust off. In the high performance audio world, many believe dust covers act as sponges for sound waves coming from your speakers and affect turntable performance in a negative way. This is why many of the higher end models do not come with dust covers. Some turntables have a detached dust cover that allows you to completely remove it when enjoying music.
A dust cover is included with the turntable. In almost all cases you can opt to remove or not use the dust cover.
The manufacturer has a dust cover available but at additional cost. This type is usually totally separate from the turntable.
The turntable does not have a dust cover available but an aftermarket, totally detachable option is available.
Since the first cactus needle hit a record groove around the turn of the 19th century, music lovers with a mechanical aptitude have been experimenting with the phono cartridge. It’s one of the most important parts of a turntable and also one of the most mysterious. It acts as the inverse of a speaker by taking the record groove readings and turning them into electrical energy. Phono cartridges are still handmade all over the world. In fact, there are more phono cartridges to choose from than there are turntables. Some are very fragile and made of exotic materials, while others are designed to take a lot of abuse for professional DJ use.
Audio Advice Tip
Not every cartridge is a good match for every turntable. We have done all the research and testing for you in order to guide you through the selection process and you help find the best phono cartridge for your system.
Types of Phono Cartridges
There are a few ways to produce electrical energy from movement. The stylus (the needle) sits on the end of a cantilever (that tiny little rod sticking out of the cartridge body), and the record groove’s vibrations cause the cantilever to move.
Audio Advice Tip
The most important part of selecting your phono cartridge is correctly matching it to your system.
In this design, a very small magnet sits on the end of the cantilever, surrounded by coils. As the magnet moves energy is produced.
The moving coil is the reverse of a moving magnet or iron. In this system, a coil is on cantilever surrounded by magnets. This method produces less energy and thus a lower output. It will require a phono stage with much more gain than a moving magnet. However, most vinyl lovers will tell you they prefer the sound of a moving coil, as the coils are even lighter than a magnet which allows the system to pick up on the tiniest of details in record grooves.
Fixed Coil or Moving Iron
The fixed coil is very similar to the moving coil. However, the motor assembly is even lighter than what is found in a moving coil and in some cases has 1/10 the mass. The signal is much lower in output than a moving magnet. Only a couple of manufacturers produce these types of cartridges, but we find their performance to be fantastic on the right turntable.
Output is a measure of the strength of the signal your phono cartridge produces. This shows up in our comparison charts as a number. Some cartridge manufacturers supply a millivolt number while others supply a percent of a volt. For ease of comparison we show everything in millivolts.
Audio Advice Tip
There is no right or wrong number, but the lower ones need a higher gain phono stage.
The stylus is the part of your cartridge that makes contact with the record groove. A more common term is “needle.” There are various types of stylus tip configurations. Records are cut with a machine that resembles a triangle. As stylus tips get better and made with more precision, they more closely resemble the cutting head. As a general rule, the more the tip resembles the cutting head, the more care must be paid with set up to get the best performance. The better tip types also tend to last longer before they begin to wear, and if you collect used vinyl they will probably get deeper in the groove and go past any record wear.
The spherical shape has been around for a long time. It is the simplest and least expensive to produce, so you will see it widespread on entry level and budget cartridges. Due to its shape, it does not get as deep into the record groove and will not retrieve as many tiny musical details as the other shapes. However, the spherical type is the most durable especially if you are doing any back cueing. It is also less critical in set up which is why you will see this type on many turntables that come with a cartridge included.
An elliptical stylus is much closer in shape to the actual cutting stylus used to manufacture the master disc, which is then pressed into vinyl records. While it is not the exact triangular shape of the cutting stylus, it is much closer and contacts more of the record groove wall than the spherical type. As a general rule, you will hear more information coming from your records with an elliptical stylus type.
Line contact stylus types are even more like a record cutting head than an elliptical. These types are the ultimate for best sound, longevity of your collection, and last longer. As you will see from their prices, they are also the most expensive to produce. They do require more setup expertise than elliptical or spherical to get the best performance. Many people also prefer these due to the fact they are probably traveling in un-played territory on a used record which reduces surface noise.
There are subtle variations within this category as some cartridge manufacturers have come up with their own special name or a slightly modified version. To avoid confusion as you compare, we have just gone through and listed anything in this category as line contact in our comparison grid.
Tracking force is measured in grams. While there is no right or wrong, we suggest you track your phono cartridge at the higher end of the recommended range to keep it tracking in the grooves and not bouncing around.
Audio Advice Tip
Tracking force is usually something you need to adjust yourself upon receipt your new turntable. We provide instructions on exactly how to set this up; it is very simple with the right instructions.
Cartridge Loading Range
This is a measurement in ohms of what the cartridge likes to see in electrical resistance when its signal hits your phono stage. Most moving magnet cartridges like 47k ohms. Moving coil cartridges usually prefer around 100 ohms. If you are fortunate enough to have a high performance phono stage, take some time to discover the sound variations achieved by changing the loading up or down slightly from the manufacturer’s recommended starting point. Typically, the lower you go the softer and warmer the sound gets.
Cantilever Material Type
The stylus is mounted on the cantilever, which is the small rod that extends out of the cartridge body. There are numerous types of cantilevers, from aluminum to boron to solid diamond. Typically, if this material is lighter and stiffer, you pick up more sound from your record grooves.
Cartridge compliance measures the stiffness of the cartridge cantilever suspension. A higher number means it gives more or is softer, while a lower number means it is stiffer. Similar to output, there is no right or wrong cartridge compliance number. You will not find compliance listed in our comparison charts as every manufacturer tends to measure it in a different manner so there is no standard.
Audio Advice Tip
In the case of compliance it is most important to match the cartridge to the proper tonearm. Some tonearms have a mass that is not totally compatible with all cartridges. But don’t worry, we know the best matches and will help guide you through this using our years of expertise.
The phono preamp (or phono stage) takes the very low signal from your cartridge and amplifies it so that your receiver or amplifier can accept the signal. Our comparison section on phono stages will guide you to the best one for your system.
This means there is only enough gain in the phono stage for the higher output moving magnet and moving iron cartridges.
This type of phono stage can handle all types of cartridges.
Some of the higher performance phono stages let you fine tune the gain to fully match the output of your cartridge to your system.
This is an additional feature found on some phono stages, providing a direct connection to your computer should you wish to convert your vinyl into digital files.
An adjustable phono stage will have small dip switches, jumpers, or resistor inserts that allow you to experiment with cartridge loading (explained above in the cartridge section).
Loading on this type of cartridge is not adjustable and will usually be 47k ohms for MM and 100 ohms for MC.
Most phono stages will have an internal power supply, which means the components providing the electrical power to the phono stage are built in. These is no right or wrong here, but it is easier to make a less expensive phono stage be less susceptible to power supply noise if separate.
The power supply is located in a separate box than the phono stage. This is a great way to reduce noise inside the phono stage on inexpensive units.
In some situations a filter on the phono stage to limit the low frequencies is a good feature. You may have an inexpensive turntable that does not provide good isolation from your main speakers, or your turntable may have to be placed physically very close to your speakers. What can happen is your speakers will cause your turntable to vibrate and the cartridge on your turntable will pick up these vibrations in addition to the music. As you turn up the volume this becomes a loud feedback loop. In other situations you might have a bearing on your turntable that is old or worn out. This can be heard as a low rumbling sound in the background. A filter would also reduce this noise.
It all comes down to the fact that if you have good equipment you probably have no need for a filter in the phono stage, but your environment or quality of equipment might mean you should consider it.
This means the phono stage comes with a low frequency filter.
This means the phono stage has a low frequency filter and it has adjustments to fine tune it.
Enjoy Your Vinyl!
Vinyl is almost as popular today as it was in it’s prime! The vinyl revolution is in full swing and a whole new generation of music lovers are learning to appreciate the warm, rich sound that only a vinyl record can provide. If you’re a budding vinyl enthusiasts, we hope this guide has provided you with the knowledge you need to choose your next turntable.
If you’ve been listening to vinyl for decades, we hope we were able to provide a nice refresher for you, or maybe even tell you something you didn’t already know!
If you’re ready to select your next turntable, we encourage you to take advantage of our carefully curated selection to narrow down your search. Overwhelmed by all of the options presented in our buyer’s guide? We’ve done all of the legwork for you in order to provide you with your perfect fit. Happy listening!
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