What to look for in a good turntable
Let’s look at what features are critical in any turntable if you want long-lasting sound quality, even if you're on a budget. If you don’t end up buying ours, make sure whatever you get ticks these items off.
Belt drive. You’ll often hear about ‘direct drive’ turntables in the DJ world. For a normal hifi 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.
- Fully manual. You’ll see a lot of talk of ‘automatic’ and ‘semi-automatic’ turntables out there, where the arm can automatically be cued at the start and lifted at the end of a record. It’s handy, but the mechanisms involved introduce extra noise (and cost) into the system. Plus, I think a nice part of the whole thing is dropping the needle and lifting it at the end!
- 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 and inbuilt speakers, and make sure you have shock-absorbing feet.
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- Low ‘wow and flutter’. This is the technical term for the turntable’s ability spin a record at a precise speed each time you turn it on. If we don’t get this right, your music will end up sounding like it’s on slow-mo or fast-forward. Here we want to have a quality motor, good electrical components, and a smooth bearing (the thing that houses the platter spindle) that isn’t too tight or loose.
- Lightweight tonearm with counterweight and anti-skate. 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.
- 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. This ‘needle’ is attached to a thin rod called a cantilever which transfers the vibrations to a magnet and metal coil assembly where the mechanical energy is converted into electrical signals. We want that cantilever to be made with care out of a metal like aluminium and for it to be mounted in a quality rubber suspension.
Get all of these things right, and you’ve got a record player that is going to produce brilliant, smooth and detailed sound, and your records will stay in good shape. If you get a turntable without these critical elements though, honestly, it’s probably better off to stay in the digital streaming world.