Remember the old record player you put in the back of the shed or out for the hard garbage 15 to 20 years ago? You’re not alone! Well, things have turned the full circle and what many assumed was "dead" technology has been rediscovered by both the oldies and the new emerging generation of young music fans.
Vinyl, as it is now affectionately referred to by advocates, will probably never completely die. This is despite being dethroned by cassette tapes, bludgeoned by CDs and pummelled by MP3s! Vinyl records are still out there and the people who love them are rabidly enthusiastic about the medium. Surprisingly, vinyl records offer the potential for sound quality that's far superior to what many are hearing from their CD collection or MP3 player. The fact that you are reading this article indicates that you are now considering a new turntable or have been a long-time fan of this fascinating invention.
The music industry was a trail blazer in digitisation, with the compact disc laying the groundwork for the current MP3 era back in the 1980’s. But this seemingly inevitable march toward the digital future has prompted a widespread misunderstanding; while digital media is undeniably more convenient than its analogue equivalent, it is by no means guaranteed to be superior and there's no better example of this than the vinyl record.
The LP – that is the ‘long playing’ 33/1/3 record – arrived in the 1950’s but audiophiles still insist that the sound quality remains unmatched by any CD, MP3, or other digital audio technology to date. That superior sonic fidelity is why this decidedly analogue technology has maintained a devoted and relatively niche market in this digital age. Experiencing just how amazing the latest release of one of your favourite artists sounds on a pristine, newly minted 200-gram LP has to be heard to be believed. And that is just one of the reasons why sales of LPs continue to grow at double digit figures every year – all the more impressive because this growth is coming at a time when CD sales are heading south.
Of course, you'll need a turntable to sample the glories of analogue sound. So, whether you're an avowed vinyl aficionado looking to upgrade your aging turntable, or you're itching to unleash that old collection of records boxed up in the cupboard, or simply interested in dipping your toe into the vinyl pool for the first time, a good hi-fi turntable will be sure to get you spinning.
Turntables – A Brief History
Three types of turntables have been developed over the last 100 years. rim drive, belt drive and direct drive. This describes the "drive" system. A rim drive turntable has a hard rubber wheel that engages with the inside of the platter. Better models from the late 1950s and early 1960's included the Garrard 301 and 401. Some of these are now selling for more than 20 times their original retail price although the price does include reconditioning. Problem with cheap rim drive turntables is the fact that the drive wheel doesn't disengage when stopping and so gets a flat spot which introduces speed variation - Dean Martin sounds drunker than he actually was! Belt drive models have a neoprene belt that either runs around the outside of the platter to the motor or via an inner rim and then to the motor which is the most common design.
Belt drive turntables are like the Ford Model T - simple and easy to make sound good. They became popular with the arrival of the AR1 by Acoustic Research but then German/Swiss manufacturer Thorens got busy and won over the hearts of many with models like the 124 and 160 the latter being the basis for other entrepreneurs to enhance it further. German manufacturer Dual started getting rave reviews from the UK hi-fi press in the late 1970's for a budget model - the 505 - which really hammered the Japanese brands including Pioneer, Denon, Technics and Hitachi who were hanging their hat on direct drive models. A direct drive turntable has the motor directly connected to the platter but over the years and especially since the resurgence of vinyl have essentially disappeared from the market. And a tip from experience. Do not buy a secondhand direct drive turntable as when the motor seizes it is virtually impossible to repair and if you can get parts, they are expensive. Quite the opposite is true with a belt drive turntable. Well most of the time!
Turntables - Understanding The Basics
A turntable is made up of essentially three parts: the main body or housing, the tone arm and a phono cartridge. The main body includes the base, the motor, the drive system and the platter. The main body or base supports the tone arm, which in turn holds the phono cartridge which is essentially a miniature electrical generator. Phono cartridges have a stylus (or needle) that traces the LP's grooves and converts them into a low electrical output signal or music signal when the stylus moves. Some of these "wiggles" are smaller than a wavelength of visible light. It is this degree of required precision that separates cheap models from higher end phono cartridges. In fact if your turntable allows for it, upgrading the phono cartridge to something better can be one of the easiest and best sonic upgrades, but a word of caution.
Seek professional guidance because every brand has unique characteristics and performance can be limited by the rest of your system. Price is only a guide.
In summary, all cartridges are basically supersensitive vibration detectors and they can't distinguish between the music encoded into the LP and any noise or vibrations that are generated by the turntable's motor, the tone arm's bearings, or the sound filling your room. This can be a problem.
Higher-end turntables provide superior isolation from those noises and decode more of the sound of the record itself. A heavier and precisely balanced platter with better bearings for smoother, quieter rotation and a higher-end cartridge and stylus not only extract more music from the groove, but also treat your vinyl collection more gently because of lower tracking forces. It's the same deal with the tone arm - it always moves on some type of bearing and better tone arms have quieter bearings. Better turntables also offer several tonearm adjustments including anti-skate which allows for more accurate cartridge tracking. Some models allow you to replace the stock pressed steel platter with a higher quality model for more dynamic sound. Add it all up and the best turntable systems can dramatically reduce the apparent surface noise - the clicks and pops associated with vinyl records - making it less intrusive so that it fades into the background.
Of course, even the best models won’t make a ruined record perform like new! It is still necessary to treat vinyl records with care.
One advert in the 1980's had a great line that went as follows: "Specifications are just another form of distortion." It is true that manufacturers always want to highlight the best in their product and specifications or specs will not tell you exactly how a product and in this case a turntable/cartridge combo will sound. But they do give you a reference point.
Wow & Flutter: This tells you how closely the turntable keeps accurate speed. Variation in speed will affect the sound quality by changing the pitch of the music. Really bad cases cause a wavering sound that is almost unbearable and basically destroys the listening experience. The lower the number the better and preferably below 0.25%.
Signal-To-Noise Ratio: Some manufacturers provide this spec to give you a better idea just how much background noise (in decibels) to expect from the turntable for any given music signal level. A higher number is better because you want a lot more music signal than noise. Ideally something above 65dB.
Turntable setup typically involves putting the platter on the bearing or spindle, slinging the drive belt over the motor pulley, and mounting the counterweight on the tone arm. None of this requires great dexterity or mechanical ability, but it's more hands-on than plugging in a DVD or CD player. Likewise, many current turntables require users to manually move the drive belt when switching from 33 1/3rpm LPs to 45rpm singles. It’s not really a big deal, especially if you want to fully appreciate the analogue sound. To be honest there are not many who bother with the old 45’s nowadays. Most modern turntables are manual designs, meaning that you must move the tone-arm up and down yourself. Virtually all high-end turntables are manual models, while budget models tend to be automatic.
Note: Well-designed feet can help further reduce vibration. Adjustable ones make the important step of levelling your turntable easier.
Feedback: Where you set-up your turntable can affect feedback so you wouldn't sit it on a speaker or even right next to it as the soundwaves at loud volumes will more than likely cause the platter and stylus to move or jump grooves. One tip is to play the record with the lid down. Turntables with a solid base and heavy platter will resist this better. In extreme cases a proper turntable shelf or stand will be required. Sorbothane feet can also help, but location and very loud volumes are the main culprits.
Hardware and Software
A word of caution. Before you buy a turntable make sure your amplifier or receiver has inputs labelled phono - see image above. This was common on amplifiers purchased prior to 1995, but was eliminated by most mass-market manufacturers, probably as a way of increasing profits. If it does, you're probably OK but again it may still be better to purchase a separate phono pre-amp – your specialist dealer can help with the right advice. But if your amplifier/receiver does not, you'll definitely need to either buy a turntable with a built-in phono preamp or buy a separate phono preamp to hook up between the turntable and your amplifier or receiver.
Note: Most turntables feature RCA (phono) outputs for connecting it to a receiver or powered speakers. Some also include a USB output to hook up a computer.
Once you have chosen the turntable, you'll need some actual records to play, maybe even some from that dusty box in the cupboard! The good news is that you're not just restricted to decades-old music for your turntable: recent albums such as the Rolling Stones' A Bigger Bang are out on LP, as are new releases on new and pristine 200-220 gram vinyl. Online markets such as eBay are always a rich source for good deals and expensive rarities alike. You won't find these LPs at your local KMart, but some of the larger stores still tend to have a section for vinyl as do some of the ‘purist’ A/V specialists. Of course, there’s always the thrill of discovering flea market or garage sale treasures that you’ll never find on CD or a digital download.
The Analogue Advantage
It's easy for the cynicism to kick in: quirky manual operation, delicate scratch-prone media, a limited selection of music with no portability option. If you already have thousands of your favourite songs on your smart phone you may reason, why bother?
The answer is, quite simply, you don't know what you're missing. Why vinyl sounds better than CDs and MP3s is an ongoing debate, but we think it's a question of resolution of fine detail. Real, live sound has infinite resolution, but digitalised music contains a finite number of samples. For CDs, it's 44,100 samples per second. That might like an adequate number of samples to reconstruct the sound of a piano or a guitar, but when you stop and consider that the distinctive sound of every instrument and the human voice is produced by a fundamental frequency and a complex series of higher-frequency harmonics, you might see that's where digital falls down on the job. The number of samples available to faithfully reproduce the shimmer of a cymbal or the sweetness of a violin are too few. The opinion of many is that this accounts for digital's harshness compared to sample-free analogue, which can capture music's harmonics with ease.
In recent years, more obscure digital formats – SACD, DVD-Audio, and lossless digital codecs – have narrowed the sound-quality gap with analogue to the point at which only golden-eared audiophiles could even hope to hear the difference. Be that as it may, LPs retain a retro appeal and an aural aesthetic that an endless stream of bits and bytes will never be able to equal. Rather than fade away and die like 8-track, audio cassettes, and VHS videotapes, the vinyl market seems to be on track to maintain – and even expand – its boutique appeal as the best way for discriminating listeners to enjoy music.