The Complete Noob’s Guide to Choosing a Turntable

The Complete Noob's Guide to Choosing a Turntable

Against all expectations, vinyl sales continue to rise. That means that more people than ever are buying record players. However, building a stereo setup for your vinyl can be a difficult undertaking if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

After more than ten years of collecting records, I’ve been through my share of setups. So if you’re up a proverbial creek without a paddle, allow me to be your guide.

Turntables 101

There are many different models of turntables. From all-in-one suitcase players to high-fashion, minimalist units. Some are loaded with USB and Bluetooth functionality while others just have the tried-and-true RCA cables. But whatever turntable you’re looking at, whether vintage or modern, record players typically have the same basic parts: the platter, the tonearm, and the cartridge, which holds the stylus.

The Platter

The platter is the big round part that holds the record. Due to the nature of how records are played, vinyl is very sensitive to external vibrations. This includes the vibrations of its own music.

Most turntables have some sort of absorption on the bottom, such as rubber or even spring-loaded feet. However, the platter also has a huge impact. A thin, plastic platter—like you find on those trendy suitcase players—will resonate with loud vibrations, causing feedback and skipping.

A heavy, dense platter will give your records a firm support, which prevents feedback and gives a thicker low end.

There are also two different ways to move the platter: belt-driven motors and direct-drive. In a belt-driven turntable, the motor turns a small spindle off to the side. A small belt connects the spindle and the platter and makes the platter spin. In a direct-drive turntable, the motor moves the platter itself. Typically, audiophiles prefer belt-driven turntables because the motor won’t add as much noise during playback.

The Tonearm

The tonearm is the bar that connects the cartridge to the turntable body. It holds the wires that convert the vibrations from the stylus into an audio signal.

Like the platter, the tonearm can make a big difference in your overall sound. Some cheap turntables have hollow plastic tonearms, which make the record sound cheap and hollow. A metal tonearm will give you much better audio fidelity.

There are two tonearm shapes: straight and s-arm. You’ll find a lot of discussion about which one is better, but unless you’re an insatiable audiophile, it won’t make much of a difference.

However, you will want to find a tonearm with an adjustable counterweight. If your tonearm is too light, it will skip. Too heavy, and you could damage the stylus and the record.

The Cartridge and Stylus

A record’s sound is carved into the grooves. When the stylus runs through the grooves, it vibrates and reproduces the sound.

Therefore, the stylus is probably the most important part of your turntable.

By and large, the stock cartridge and stylus won’t be the cream of the crop. But most turntables allow you to switch out the cartridge with another of your choosing. Cartridges range in price from $20 to thousands of dollars. So even if you don’t make a huge investment on your first turntable, you can build a great setup later on with a cartridge upgrade.

Add-on Features

In the current vinyl boom, a lot of turntables have been introduced with modern features. Many companies have added USB functionality to allow listeners to convert their records to digital files. Some of these units sell for as little as $60. However, the manufacturers only achieve this price by cutting corners on more necessary components. And anyway, if you’re interested in digitizing your records, you can run a cable from your stereo’s headphone jack into your computer’s mic jack

There’s also been an influx of all-in-one suitcase players with built-in speakers for around the same price. If you haven’t picked up on my disdain yet, let me spell it out for you: these are terrible. They might be more convenient if you want to carry your turntable as you bike to work, but that’s about the only positive.

The turntables themselves are poorly constructed. The platters are thin, the tonearms can’t be adjusted, and the cartridges can’t be replaced. They’re fitted with the cheapest speakers money can buy, which will rob you of sound quality. And isn’t sound quality the reason you switched to vinyl in the first place?

Stereo Receivers and Amplifiers

Assuming you’ve decided to take my advice and avoid a suitcase turntable, you’re going to need a few more pieces before you can enjoy your vinyl.

You can’t just plug in some speakers and call it a day. You need to amplify the signal from the turntable.

The most common solution is to get a stereo receiver. The price tag on a new unit might be a little much when you’re first starting out, but don’t worry: you can usually find a quality stereo receiver at the thrift store or at a garage sale. Most have multiple inputs so you can also connect a tape deck, CD player, or even an aux cord. If you have a home theater system, you could also use that to connect your turntable.

However, turntables have a lower output volume than CD or MP3 players. Many stereo receivers—especially older models—will have a built-in preamp on the phono channel to bring it up to the right level. If not, you will need to purchase an external phono preamp. These can be pretty cheap though.

Choosing Speakers

Once you find a good receiver, it’s time to choose your speakers.

High quality, modern speakers can run you hundreds of dollars, but you should have no problem finding vintage speakers at a low price. In the 80s and 90s, the only way to listen to music was through a large hi-fi system. With the advent of sound bars, smartphones, and laptops, many people are putting these systems out to pasture. You can find a pair of floor speakers from the 80s that will rival a $300 pair of speakers made today.

That said, if you don’t plan on playing your music very loudly, a pair of modern bookshelf speakers can give you great performance. Or, if you prefer headphones, you can skip the speakers and get a headphone amp.

If you’re buying new speakers, you can get some powered speakers and bypass the stereo receiver altogether. All you need is a turntable and a phono preamp. This is great for any vinyl fans who need to conserve space.

Keep in mind though that the louder and closer your turntable is to your speakers, the greater the chance of interference and feedback. Remember this when you’re plotting out space for your setup!

Ready, Set, Spin

Now that you’ve built yourself a killer set up, it’s time to enjoy it! Grab a comfortable seat, put on your favorite record, and enjoy your music with all the warmth and clarity it was meant to have.

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About the Author

Nathaniel Fitzgerald
Nathaniel FitzGerald is a longtime audiophile and independent musician living in South Bend, IN. He has been collecting records and vintage stereo equipment for over ten years. He also runs a blog called A Year of Vinyl, where he reviews every record in his (sizable) collection one disc at a time.