A Guide to Selecting a Turntable
When the audio compact disc first appeared in the 1980s, music lovers were blown away by the clarity and immersive nature of the sound. Since the digital audio signal is read off the disc by means of a laser beam, there was less physical wear on the disc. Vinyl records, on the other hand, were prone to noise from the turntable or the stylus. However, vinyl records still have a big following. Although there is no discernable difference between analog music and a digital equivalent recorded on a CD, vinyl records are remarkably durable and can still be played without any sound degradation after many uses. But to play these vinyl records, you’d need a good turntable for it.
Turntables have quite a few more capabilities nowadays than what was available in the pre-digital music era. There are still automatic, semi-automatic, and manual turntables. They can still handle speeds of 33⅓, 45, and even 78 rpm, if necessary. But now many turntables give you the option of streaming the music signal over Bluetooth or a USB cable into your computer, either for listening or for converting to MP3. And the audio playback technology is also more advanced than ever before.
We’ll go through some of the turntable offerings in the Best Reviews Guide list. You’ll be able to choose how to best derive listening pleasure from your record collection!
Do the different shapes of tonearms matter?
You’ll notice that there are three main shapes to the tonearms (the tonearm holds the stylus and moves on the platter to read the grooves on the record).
Straight, as in the Rega Planar 1 turntable. This is considered simpler in design, but may produce more sound interference than the J- and S-shaped tonearms.
J-shaped has a single bend, as in the Audio-Technica AT-LP5x Fully Manual Direct Drive Turntable. Although it has better performance than the straight tonearm, it tends to be more delicate.
S-shaped has two bends, as in the Audio Technica Wireless Direct-Drive Turntable (Model No. AT-LP120XBT-USB-BK). These are considered superior to the I-shaped, straight tonearms because they adhere better to the grooves in the record without “skating” off the surface and missing sections.
Types of Turntables
We can distinguish between turntables by the mechanism they use to rotate. There are direct drive and belt drive turntables:
Direct Drive Turntables: In this design, the platter (the disc upon which you place the record) in this type of turntable rotates directly as a result of the motor turning. This design means that the platter gets up to the desired speed more quickly. A DJ or someone trying to mix two tracks will use a direct drive because they can stop at the exact spot on the record that they’re searching for. This design is considered more durable since the rubber belt in a belt drive turntable will stretch and lose its elasticity over time. But, there may be more vibrations and distortion in these types of turntables. An example is the Audio-Technica Wireless Direct-Drive Turntable.
Audio-Technica Wireless Direct-Drive Turntable
Belt Drive Turntables: These will use a rubber belt to transfer the rotational energy from the motor to the platter. The rubber belt will absorb vibrations, meaning that the platter will rotate with less noise and better sound quality. An example is the Sony PS-LX310BT Belt Drive Turntable.
Sony PS-LX310BT Belt Drive Turntable
We can also distinguish between manual and automatic turntables:
Manual Turntables: In this type of turntable, you place the needle onto the record yourself, directing it to the exact place you’d like to hear. You’ll also have to lift the needle off the record when it’s finished. This model also has Bluetooth wireless connectivity, and a USB output to convert the analog signal on the record to a digital format on your computer (PC or Mac). The Audio-Technica Wireless Direct-Drive Turntable that we saw above is a fully-manual turntable.
Automatic Turntables: These turntables can be started and stopped by means of buttons. Once they have reached the end, the tonearm returns automatically to the starting point and turns the motor off. There are also semi-automatic turntables, where you place the stylus on the record manually, but it will return to the starting position when finished and turn the turntable off. The Audio-Technica Fully-Automatic Belt Drive Stereo Turntable (Model No. AT-LP60X-BK) is an example.
Audio-Technica Fully-Automatic Belt Drive Stereo Turntable
What reviewers say
Based on all the consumer reviews we've scanned, these are the top things they mentioned about their new stuff:
Check for an internal amplifier: If you’ll be sending the turntable signal directly into a speaker system, you’ll want to make sure that the turntable has an internal amplifier. Otherwise, you’ll have to attach an external phono preamp.
Prefer adjustable counterweight: When faced with choosing between an automatic turntable without an adjustable counterweight, and a turntable with a counterweight, customers preferred being able to adjust the weight of the tonearm. Otherwise, the tracking force of the stylus can damage the recording. Also, people preferred turntables where it was easy to replace the cartridge and stylus, as in the Fluance RT81 Elite High Fidelity Vinyl Turntable.
Here are some tips that can help you select the right turntable for you:
Assembly and balancing the tonearm: There are turntables that require that you assemble the parts. That can include attaching a counterweight to the tonearm. It’s very important to balance the tonearm properly. You adjust the weight until the tonearm floats. If the stylus is weighted down too light, the stylus may bounce off the record when it hits loud passages. If the stylus weighs down too heavily on the record, it can damage the stylus as well as your record!
Make sure that the turntable is level: You’ll have to ensure that the turntable is perfectly level, for it to play properly. You should use a bubble level to make sure that the turntable is situated properly, and adjust the legs so that the bubble is centered.
Analog, USB, and Bluetooth connectivity: You can find turntables that will allow you to connect to speakers or headphones with an analog RCA connection. There is also USB connectivity, which you can connect to a computer, without the need for special drivers. You can also use Bluetooth connectivity, by pairing the turntable with speakers or headphones. But note that you can pair with only one Bluetooth device at any one time.
RPM speeds: Many turntables will rotate at 33-⅓ and 45 rpm. Some allow you to select 78 rpm as well, while others require you to lift off the platter and adjust the drive belt to get it to rotate at 78 rpm. The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO Turntable has that design.
Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO Turntable
We went through some of the features of the best turntables available nowadays. They may seem like a hefty investment. But, if you have a large number of vinyl recordings, a quality turntable will let you unpack these underappreciated vintage treasures!