Turntable University: What makes for a good turntable?

It's worth discussing: what's a good turntable all about? Sounds daggy, but the ultimate test for me is whether it gives me goosebumps and has me tapping my toes. There are plenty of upmarket decks that do this; the challenge is finding one for a good price. But before we even cross that bridge, it's worth asking: do turntables actually sound any good - didn't we replace them, firstly with CDs, and now with streaming?

Digital relies on a computerised interpretation of sound-waves. Turntables and records, however, maintain analogue integrity by translating these sound-waves into physical grooves and vibrations, rather than thousands upon thousands of 0s and 1s.

Some experts will argue that this analogue medium actually offers a better listening experience than its digital counterparts, with a lack of compression and a natural sound that’s hard to replicate.

That being said, turntables can be terrible or wonderful. Rightly done, they'll produce a brilliant sound and last you a long time. But the bad ones sound pretty ordinary and in extreme cases, can even damage your records. It all comes down to materials and construction; after all, a turntable is a precise mechanical instrument that needs to measure microscopic record grooves in a delicate and exacting fashion.


 An extreme closeup of a stylus tracking a record groove. Notice how the grooves look like sound waves!

 

There are a few things that you want to look for in a turntable:

 

A belt drive.

You’ll often hear about ‘direct drive’ turntables in the DJ world. For a normal hi-fi turntable though, you want a belt drive. Here, the motor is connected to the platter with a belt loop which acts to prevent vibration and motor noise from making its way to the record and cartridge. Separation is a good thing in this case.

Resonance-minimising chassis construction. 

Here we want to make sure the feet, plinth (the chunky base of the player) and platter are made of materials that stop unwanted vibrations from making their way to the record. If a needle is picking up etchings at sub-millimetre scale, imagine what footsteps or a rickety cabinet can do to your tunes? Avoid too much plastic or in-built speakers, and make sure you have shock-absorbing feet.

A lightweight tonearm with counterweight and anti-skating.

We don’t want to ‘hear’ the arm in the signal, which is why it should be light and move freely. A counterweight delicately balances the weight of the arm so it doesn’t all rest on the cartridge and in turn, the record, preventing any grinding and scraping causing bad sounds and bad wear. Anti-skating equalises sideways-forces on the arm, preventing it from riding one side of the groove too heavily.

A precision cartridge and stylus.

This is the smallest part of the equation, but arguably the most important! This part is actually touching the record and coming into contact with your music. Here, we’re looking for a diamond rather than sapphire-tipped stylus, which will last for a long time before it needs replacing.

Angus has written more about what to look for here.

 

 

The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Evo has a light-weight carbon fibre tonearm for precision tracking of your records

 

Similarly, there are a bunch of things you want to steer clear of too:

 

In-built speakers.

This is baaaaad. They're small and tinny-sounding, so you'll be strangling whatever signal does come out of the record. Having the vibrations from the speakers originate from inside the chassis also creates a feedback loop which goes straight back into your records, creating all kinds of problems.

A short tonearm made from crappy materials.

This will interfere with the accuracy of what's embedded in the record. Small platters are bad too - they'll eventually warp your records due to the edge overhang.

A cheap stylus and cartridge.

These can put the wrong pressure on your records, will distort your sound and potentially damage your vinyl.

Cheaper motors that don't spin precisely in time.

You'll hear higher or lower pitch in your music, or possibly both during the same record!

See Angus's blog over here for a more in-depth look at what NOT to buy.

 

See this? Don't buy this.

 

Same but different

The next step is to start learning about each of the different turntable models that we sell, and when you do so, it's worth remembering what elements they all share.

Each comes with a dust cover as standard, a Danish-made Ortofon diamond stylus, a felt mat to cushion your records, a 1.2m cable to connect to your sound system, and the ability to play 33 and 45 RPM records (the most common formats). All are hand-made in Czechia by the world's biggest hi-fi brand, Pro-Ject.

Each step up in model will give you noticeable improvements in sound, but every model is going to give you joy and fabulous value for money by adhering to all of the best practices in design that I mentioned earlier on in this blog!

June 12, 2021 — Guy Barker