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Do you love music? Are you looking for a way to experience the utmost in sound quality? If yes, then look out for the new player on the market — a revival of an old system that, with modern upgrades, is not just the new passion but can rival most other systems. The brand new turntables!
Consumer interest in both vintage and modern vinyl records has shot up exponentially in recent years, and not just for nostalgic reasons. Audiophiles agree that vinyl sound quality outshines that of digital formats, including CDs and streaming files.
As a result, the race is on to find the best record turntables on the market.
Sure, you could probably find a thrift shop turntable from the heyday of vinyl LPs. But what if it needs repair? Finding replacement parts could be tough. Thankfully, today’s newest turntables incorporate up-to-date audio technology with an attractive, old-school design.
We wanted to learn more about modern turntables. What makes them tick? Why are they so special? And how can we help you, our readers, decide on which turntable in the market would be the best choice for you?
To better understand this recent trend, we consulted turntable enthusiast Jonathan Pacella for some advice.
It turns out that you could spend as little as $50 on a turntable, or as much as $20,000. There is a veritable smorgasbord of options in the market that cater to both these prices as well as everything in between!
Jonathan advised that before you buy a turntable, you should research the topic thoroughly. Indeed, that is what we at BestReviews have done, and we'd like to share our findings with you.
All turntables share a basic anatomy, but they definitely don't share the same price tag. You could find a turntable for $100 or less but, according to Jonathan Pacella, a cost of $1,000 or more is also reasonable.
Given the electronic advances of today, it's surprising that a design Thomas Edison tinkered with in 1877 would steal the hearts of audiophiles in 2016. And yet, that's exactly what has happened.
Here's a look at the integral parts of the almighty turntable.
"Be patient and gentle with your turntable. Your records will thank you 20 years from now." — Jonathan Pacella
The base of the turntable is called a plinth. Modern plinths are noticeably dense or heavy in order to dampen as much external vibration as possible.
Sitting atop the plinth is, among other things, the device's padded platter. The platter holds the record and rotates via the motor. Some motors operate on a centralized gear system; others connect to a belt drive. In general, belt drive systems produce fewer vibrations than gear systems.
Situated beside the platter is the tonearm. The tonearm guides the stylus and cartridge (see below) as they trace the record’s grooves. An unbalanced tonearm could drag the stylus across the record’s surface and damage it. For this reason, some high-end turntables include adjustable counterbalance weights that help prevent the stylus from skidding and scratching.
Stylus and Cartridge
The stylus, also known as the needle, emits a slight vibration while following subtle nuances in the record’s sound grooves. The cartridge picks up this vibration and amplifies it. Electric impulses feed into a powerful preamp before reaching the main audio speakers.
Some turntables — especially those with cables marked “phono” — come with factory-installed preamps. Others require a separate preamp purchase.
To keep sound distortion to a minimum, place your turntable and your speakers as far away from each other as possible
Finding a turntable with the features you want is key. We’ll discuss two big feature options here: digital recording, and manual vs automatic playback.
Using a USB cable and some software, you can save vinyl tracks as digital files to a computer via a turntable with a digital recording option.
Trade magazines and professional reviewers routinely give high marks to USB-equipped turntables for their ability to preserve vintage analog-recorded music. Critics warn that manufacturers who make USB-equipped machines may cut corners in other areas, reducing overall audio quality.
If you plan to use a USB-enabled turntable to make audio files, bear in mind that any pops or background crackle on the original vinyl will be amplified on an MP3 file. This is especially true for listeners wearing headphones.
Manual vs. Automatic
Some turntables require manual effort to operate; others play multiple records automatically.
Automatic turntables hearken back to “old-school” days when you could stack several records at a time on a centralized spindle. The machine released the records onto the platter one at a time, and a mechanism lifted the tonearm and needle to playing position.
While the automatic system worked well for sock hops and pajama parties, it didn't quite survive the original collapse of the vinyl record industry. Modern turntables — especially those in the mid- and high-end price ranges — favor the manual method.
If you own a manual turntable, you must lift a single disk onto the platter, select your preferred speed, and place the tonearm/needle carefully on the edge of the disk. When the needle reaches the inside groove, the record is finished, and you must return the tonearm to its cradle.
Manual turntables often come equipped with a cueing lever which aids in raising or lowering the stylus gently on and from the record so as not to cause scratches or other damage.
Shopping for a new turntable can be tricky. To the untrained eye, little visible difference exists between a $100 entry-level model and a $2,500 audiophile's dream. To make a long story short, the extra money you'd pay for a high-end turntable goes toward craftsmanship and performance.
But what if you're deliberating between several turntables in the same price range? In such a case, it helps to read the manufacturer’s spec sheet. For example:
Q: I’m thinking of buying a turntable. Is any special maintenance required?
A: Dust and dirt can harm both your stylus and your records. Carefully remove unwanted particles from the needle with a stylus brush made of carbon fiber and a dab of cleaning solution. Dust your vinyl with the same type of brush, and gently wipe the records with a mixture of distilled water (never tap water!) and record-cleaning solution. Always store vinyl records vertically in a protective paper or plastic sleeve.
Q: My friend said I need to buy a separate preamp in order to play my turntable. Is this true?
A: That depends on what kind of turntable you have. When Nathan purchased his first turntable, he plugged it into his receiver and wondered why no sound came out. He eventually realized that he needed to buy a separate preamp.
Some turntable packages include a preamp; others don't. If your turntable has a USB connection, it should include a preamp booster for an aux input into the audio system. If the RCA outputs are marked phono, however, a separate preamp is required. The phono vs. aux rule exists at all price points. Said Nathan, “This is where doing your research becomes important.”
Q: In an age of advanced digital technology, why should I get a turntable?
A: It's true that vinyl fizzled out when CDs and electronic music files burst onto the scene. But digital music relies on a series of binary ons and offs which some audiophiles find to be sterile and soulless. Analog music recordings, on the other hand, are reproduced in sound waves. As such, you can hear subtle nuances in dynamics and tonality.
A die-hard enthusiast would tell you that investing in a turntable and listening to a favorite album from the 1960s is not just about audio quality. It's also about hearing the songs the way the original artists intended them to sound.
Q: Where can I buy vinyl records?
A: Vinyl is all the rage right now, and you're likely to find it at a record store near you. Online stores like Amazon.com and eBay also carry a wide range of vinyl recordings.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.