Unless you’re a trendy hipster or someone who is privileged enough to have lived a decidedly long time on this earth, chances are you’re not quite sure what a turntable actually is.
So, before we get started on informing you all about them, I thought I’d clarify for you: a turntable is the term used to refer to a music playing device that plays records using a tonearm phono cartridge on a circular rotating platter. You’ve probably seen one.
A classic music playing device with a traditional feel, turntables emanate quality and can be the perfect unique addition to make any home feel genuinely ‘different’. The high quality sound they produce also makes them a favorite in the music industry.
In this article, we’ll fill you in on everything there is to know about these amazing devices, right through from their rich history to the most renowned manufacturing brands to look out for when purchasing one.
But first, let’s go over the terms “turntable” and “record player”, as you may well have been hearing them used interchangeably.
Turntable Vs. Record Player
It’s commonly believed that a turntable and a record player are the same thing, and frankly they’re so close together that this common belief isn’t really a problem for most.
If, however you’re thinking of getting a turntable, you should know that it is not exactly the same thing as a record player.
A turntable usually refers to a high quality device that plays records at standard steady speeds with very little mechanical noise. The output is usually two RCA male connectors carrying the phono cartridge sound to an amplifying system.
A record player is usually a self-contained device that doesn’t require an amplifying system to play music for it. That is to say, a record player consisted of a turntable, an amplifier and speakers. See the difference?
The Fascinating History Of Turntables
Turntables are an established “oldie” in the music industry today and show no signs of ever leaving – having been around for decades already.
The first known turntable was invented in 1895 by American Emile Berliner who had been working on the project for seven years. It was intended for commercial sale and consisted of a flat disc which allowed records to be played on it to be mass produced.
Records were initially made from hard rubber, followed by shellac and then finally from vinyl which is still used today.
The arrival of the compact disc on the market in the 1980s did threaten the turntable’s position in the music market, but eventually they found their place as the better option for true music lovers who wanted to enjoy the distinctive sound only an LP can provide.
The Make-Up Of A Turntable
There are many parts to a turntable, as these devices have continued to develop and improve greatly since their initial creation.
Here’s a brief list of the key parts that make up a turntable:
This is the circular base that a record is placed on top of. The platter is spun in a clockwise direction by a motor and generally has a slip mat sitting on top of it as well.
This is a thin piece of metal sticking up from the middle of the platter. The record is placed on top of this spindle which keeps it balanced in place.
Tone Arm & Stylus
The tone arm is the ‘stick-like’ portion of the turntable that is placed over a record when you want it played. At the end of the tone arm is the delicate stylus. The stylus is what actually reads the record by creating vibrations that go down the tone arm.
This is a round knob that looks like a volume button. It is used to enlarge the center spindle if needed to fit records with bigger center holes.
This isn’t a feature on all turntables, but will come with most expensive ones. The pitch control setter is usually a sliding scale which a DJ can use to choose how fast the spinning platter will go. Some turntables will offer up to +/- 50% alteration!
The motor is what makes the platter spin around on your turntable. A belt drive connects the motor of the turntable (usually positioned off-center) to the platter. A direct drive is the word used to describe when the motor is directly attached to the platter.
How A Turntable Works
Now that you know all the pieces of a turntable, you’re probably wondering how they work together to create music.
In order to understand how a turntable works you first need to understand that sound is actually made up of vibrations or “sound waves”. Records are circular plates that have had grooves cut out of them in accordance with sound waves in a piece of music.
A turntable reads these grooves with its stylus. As the stylus dips over the grooves in a record it vibrates in accordance to how they were made and transmits the right vibrations through to the rest of the machine.
These vibrations are then amplified by the amplifying speaker system attached to the turntable and make the same music that they sound waves originally made when they were recorded.
If that sounds complicated it’s okay, turntables were improved and modified over many decades by very smart people in order to give us their modern day equivalent. The main thing to remember is that the music is physically written into the records in tiny grooves.
Tips On Setting Up A Turntable
Because of their delicate and complex nature, turntables can be relatively difficult to setup initially. We’ve compiled some quick tips that might make it easier for you if you’re setting up your own one. And just remember, it’ll be well worth it once you’re done!
- Watch a YouTube video before you start. It’s a lot easier to understand instructions when you see them being played out in front of your eyes rather than purely reading off your instructions manual.
- Make sure the supporting surface is ABSOLUTELY level. The surface should also be completely rigid. A regular table or bench should do nicely.
- Get yourself some Allen keys at the least, a full screwdriver set at the best. It’ll be easier to do the setup if you have all the proper equipment on hand.
- Set your tracking weight carefully. Too heavy and the sound will be dulled down, to light and the cartridge probably won’t read the grooves in the records properly. Don’t be afraid of playing around till you get this just right.
Distinguishing Between Turntable Types
As with any product, there are a whole lot of different turntables out there on the market. Although their base functions are the same, how they play music can be vastly different. Here’s a quick rundown of the major different types to be aware of.
Belt Drive Vs. Direct Drive
As mentioned previously, as belt drive is one where the motor of your turntable is connected to a belt which is in turn connected to the platter and causes it to spin. A direct drive is when the motor is itself attached directly to the platter.
Belt drives tend to provide better shock absorption and thus help to keep vibrations from the motor separate from the platter. This means that belt driven turntables are generally thought to produce a better quality of sound.
Direct drive turntables usually require less maintenance than belt drives (as there is no belt to wear down) and they also provide much better torque – resulting in a more accurate playback speed.
Which drive is best for you will be determined by what you plan to do with yours. Direct drives for instance can be spun backwards to create special sound effects, and are therefore the best choice for anyone interested in being a DJ.
Manual Vs. Automatic
This one is pretty self-explanatory, with an automatic turntable automatically starting its motor and placing its tone arm on the record at the touch of a button. The manual turntable on the other hand requires a user to place the tone arm on the record.
Most manual turntables have a cueing lever that helps users to raise and lower the stylus on the record surface. This is useful because a stylus can be very delicate and ought not to undergo any heavy pressure.
Although audiophiles tend to prefer manual turntables for their ‘purity’ and lack of additional moving parts, many turntable users enjoy the convenience that an automatic turntable affords.
Standard Mount Vs. t4p Mount
A standard mount, otherwise known as a ½” mount accepts standard cartridges and can be found on most standard turntables. On it cartridges are connected to a tonearm via invisible wires and are secured by screws – a difficult and onerous process.
P mounts or t4p mounts were invented to try and make this process easier, and although they succeeded in doing that they haven’t exactly taken over the market. These mounts and cartridge pairs are secured to a tonearm using four terminals and only one screw.
Getting a turntable with a particular mount type will determine what sort of cartridges you can use. There are universal mount tonearms which accept both ½” mount cartridges and t4p cartridges. These are the most versatile and yet have also not taken over the market.
Wow & Flutter Vs. Rumble
If a turntable isn’t completely level, there is a change in speed of the reading of the record which results in a pitch variation each revolution that the record takes. This effect is called wow and can also be caused by bearing friction.
If the change in pitch/speed happens more than once per revolution, then this is called “flutter”.
Although both flutter and wow can sound interesting, they are definitely not a good thing for turntables that are trying to record music.
Another aspect that isn’t great in recording turntables is rumble. Rumble is the name given to motor vibrations that get read along with the musical vibrations on a turntable.
USB Turntable Vs. Non-USB Turntable
USB turntables are turntables that are used to convert vinyl record tracks into digital forms like MP3 recordings. Put in technical language, a USB turntable takes the turntable’s cartridge’s analog output signals and converts them into digital PCM.
The PCM readings are then sent via USB through to a computer which will be able to load the PCM into the desired format.
Having a USB turntable can be incredibly useful for those who have a room full of old or valuable vinyl records that they’d like to have converted into a more durable digital state.
As with any conversion some of the quality is lost during the conversion process, and unfortunately many muso’s say that they actually think USB turntables do not sound as good as regular turntables.
Popular Turntable Manufacturers
Turntables have been a solid presence in the music market over the years and so have the brands that manufacture them. As with many products getting a turntable from a reputable brand can help to ensure the quality of your purchase.
Which brand is best is entirely a matter of personal opinion, with some people valuing old roots and others preferring modern electronic companies. In the world of turntables, there’s a brand to suit everyone’s tendencies. Here are some of the more well-known ones…
This giant in the music industry has its hands on a whole worldwide group of companies that produce music related devices including Audio Technica Turntables. It was first started in 1962 in Tokyo and has grown to be a main player in the music industry.
Audio Technica is well known for its high quality reliable products – though they do tend to come along with a bit of a price tag and rightly so, they have a long list of technical achievements and patents to stand behind their brand.
A decidedly stylish brand that is marketing itself to the younger generation of turntable and record enthusiasts, Crosley Radio is an internet based brand hailing from Louisville.
Among the Crosley Radio Turntables collections, you’ll find lots of unique and well thought out designs. This is a great brand to go for if you’re looking to find something that will make a simultaneously modern and ancient accent piece to your room.
Sony Turntables are some of the best on the market, and are produced on a mass scale. They are usually at a more acceptable price point than their competitors, and still offer great sound value.
As a brand, Sony distinguishes itself as a very electronic and emotional company. It touts passion for technology, a relentless pursuit of innovation and a unique cultural outlook in its “about us” pages. Personally, we just think it offers relatively good value for money.
One of the brands on our list that specializes only in turntables, Rega is a master as blending the latest technology with turntable functions. This brand is responsible for some pretty patriotic looking designs as well as phono disc storage units.
We like that Rega turntables are beautiful in design and modern in function. They’ve been wired up well and are sure to last for many years if purchased. The majority of their products are made in a custom made facility in the UK.
Technics is an incredibly unique manufacturing brand which makes high quality audio products including turntables. You just need to look at their website to see how much effort this brand puts into developing it’s on unique feel.
Turntables bought from Technics are usually more expensive than others, but correspondingly they are also usually better quality and can be expected to last for many years.
In their own words, Technics “will never stop striving to reach the definitive essence of music”. And that’s music to our ears!
Klipsch has deep and old roots in the American music scene, having been born in a tiny shed in Hope, Arkansas way back in 1946. The brand has since grown to be known on a global scale and produces everything from speakers to headphones to turntables.
Klipsch is renowned for its wide offerings of high quality audio products to suit any lifestyle or budget. They aim for immersive and powerful systems that create passionate sounds.
For anyone who is after not only a turntable but a speaker set to go with it, Klipsch would be a good choice to get a matching set from.
Turntable Repair Tips
When you’ve invested a fair bit of cash into a turntable, it’s nice to know at least the basics of how to repair it should something go wrong. That way you can hopefully keep the same turntable base for many years to come.
Please do remember however that prevention is easier than cure. That is to say, maintaining your turntable is easier and more effective that not looking after it and having to repair it every couple of years.
Most high quality turntable’s will have been designed to last, and will come with a manufacturer’s warranty. If for whatever reason though you end up having to fix one, here are our top tips:
- If the problem is with the spinning of the vinyl disks your first port of call should be the spindle. Is it well lubricated? If not, get some cleaner or oil on there! If that’s not the problem, then you’re probably looking at a motor failure. Motors can be purchased separately and replaced – so there’s no need to replace your entire turntable. Another thing worth checking: Is the surface on which your turntable is placed actually flat?
- If you have a turntable that appears to be working, but produces no sound then the issue could be in a number of locations. We recommend that you first check that your speakers are turned on, and then that the tip hasn’t broken off your stylus. Finally – are there any loose bolts or screws? Often replacing the needle and stylus and tightening things up will get your turntable to make sound again.
- A really useful thing to be aware of is the tone arm reset feature. If yours starts playing up, you can hold the stop button and manually rotate the turntable by 90 degrees before letting go of the stop button. This should fix any non-lifting/automatic tone-arm problems.
- Drive are probably one of the hardest things to fix. If your turntable stops revolving, then it’s probably a drive problem. Although belt drives can have their belts replaced, if you have a direct-drive turntable then the whole thing will require replacing.
- One of the easiest things to fix on a turntable is usually crackling sounds. These are caused by a build-up of dust on the device and can be fixed by gently running an anti-static cloth over the turntable – paying special attention to the spindle. If that doesn’t fix the problem, then it’s probably a tone-arm balance issue.
Turntables are incredibly pieces of finely tuned machinery that will allow you to listen to music at a whole new level of quality. Not to mention they will add a sophisticated and unique flair to any living room setup.
Hopefully you now understand a little more about the mechanics of how they work and what the difference between them and a record player is. We’d certainly tried to stuff as much information as possible into this article for you.
If you’re thinking of buying a turntable, then we’d recommend putting in the effort to look for a good one as it’ll likely be with you for many years.
Our buyers guide on turntables can help you identify what to look out for on the market, and will even recommend a few of the best products out there at the moment. All the best with your shopping!