To provide more convenience to our listening experience, there have been many digital music formats introduced during the past few decades, but many would agree that the demise of the venerable vinyl record has been greatly exaggerated.
Before we dive into the anatomy of a turntable, let’s look briefly at why, despite popular belief, vinyl records have not and will never die a silent death…
Many may say it’s the romance and ceremony of sliding an album out of its sleeve, placing it softly on the platter, lowering the tonearm, and hearing the gentle thump as the needle slips into the groove immediately before the music begins. Perhaps it’s the beautiful, detailed album artwork that is synonymous with vinyl covers and gently demands involvement from the listener. Possibly it’s the delight of discovering a musical gem on a crate dig or at a flea market. Or else, even experiencing how remarkable the latest release of one of your favorite artists sounds on an immaculate, newly minted 200 gram LP.
In reality, it’s a mix of all these things together.
Undoubtedly vinyl awakens our sentimentality, but it is far more than just dusting off records, it’s also about experiencing music in a different way entirely. An obligation of sorts that’s more involving. Something that requires our full awareness in a way that makes digital listening seem a bit nonchalant. It is also important to mention the fact that albums are mixed in different ways for digital and analog release, and fittingly some would argue that vinyl brings you deliberately closer to the band or artist’s true intention.
So whether you grew up playing vinyl and have a large collection, or you’ve just begun discovering the rich analog sound that vinyl provides, one thing is certain — you’ll need a good turntable to play them on.
This is a definitive guide and we have included a wealth of information here. If you want to be magically transported to a specific section, just use the interactive table of contents we have created below.
I. The Anatomy of a Turntable
A. Platter is the rotating part of the turntable on which the vinyl is placed. The heavier a platter, the less vibration it makes.
B. Mat, also called a slip mat. This provides a soft surface for the record to rest on and also grips it while spinning. Another function of the mat is to isolate vibrations produced by the turntable’s motor.
C. Counterweight is the adjustable weight on the tone arm, designed to finely tune and control the cartridge’s tracking force. Tracking force is the downward force the needle places on the grooved surface of the vinyl.
D. Anti-Skate is a dial found on the tonearm. It helps to control the amount of horizontal force is applied to the tonearm and counteracts the inward-moving force when the record is spinning. This reduces distortion and prevents the cartridge from skating across the surface of the record.
E. Cueing Mechanism is used to lower and lift the tonearm of the turntable. It moves vertically and should be handled with care. It provides the initial contact with the vinyl record without any lateral movements.
F. Pitch Adjustment if the strobe pattern is not stationary while the platter is spinning this control is used for fine tuning the rotation speed. Conveniently most quartz lock turntables don’t require this type of fine tuning.
G. Tonearm is the arm that moves over the record, some are straight and some are S-shaped. It allows the stylus to make contact with the vinyl. It is designed to maintain a constant speed on the outer and inner circumference of the record.
H. Strobe Light is used to adjust the pitch. It is recommended for first time turntable buyers to look for one with a built in strobe light. The pattern is needed in order to adjust the pitch with the use of a strobe light. The strobe light will flash at either 60Hz or 50Hz depending on which continent you’re on.
I. Headshell refers to the part where the cartridge is mounted. Essentially it connects the cartridge and needle to the tonearm. Some cartridges are mounted through a headshell while others directly mount to the tonearm.
J. Power Switch its position will depend largely on the type of turntable
K. Speed Switch records are recorded at different speeds, the most common being 33 RPM and 45 RPM. The speed switch should be adjusted according to what speed the record is designed to play at.
L. Plinth or base is designed to reduce vibrations to the turntable so the heaver, the better.
M. Spindle is the protruding end of the motor shaft, it is found at the center of the platter. You will slip your record onto this before playing.
Now that you understand the anatomy of a turntable let’s dig deeper into the differences you will come across. You don’t need to memorize all of this but it will be a handy reference when you are shopping for your turntable.
II. What is a Turntable?
Firstly, the term record player and turntable are often used interchangeably. So what’s the difference between the two? At its most basic level, a record player is an all-in-one, fairly straightforward device intended to effortlessly spin vinyl LPs at a continuous tempo. It does not require any setup, it’s portable and has built-in speakers and phono preamp. A turntable, on the other hand, is a much more sophisticated and precise machine. It requires a fair amount of assembly and because of this, it’s not portable. A turntable will require speakers and depending on the make and model, an external phono preamp.
However, the precision with which a record player or turntable performs its task is largely determined by how authentically it can reproduce your music, and to a great extent, how much it might cost.
Modern turntables offer an extensive variety of features to give you what you need to enjoy your LP collection. Now, let’s dive into the anatomy of a turntable, we’ve outlined below some common features and options that you’ll come across when you shop, and what they mean so you can decide which ones best fit your needs.
III. Direct Drive or Belt Drive
You’ll hear these terms being used often. A fundamental difference in design is the way in which a turntable spins the platter. The majority of players achieve this in one of two ways: direct drive or belt drive.
A direct drive design places the platter directly on the shaft of the turntable’s motor, this means that it does not require a belt to play your records. This will, however, result in more rumble introduced into the audio signal. Due to their comparatively simple design, the main advantages of a direct drive turntable are a more solid build and high torque, meaning the platter is more skip resistant and can maintain constant tempo without being affected by outside forces (such as walking past the turntable or touching the platter while a record is playing) and a faster start up time than a belt drive player.
Belt drive turntables are designed with an isolated motor that connects to the platter with a rubber belt, essentially making the platter turn. The rubber belt also acts as a shock absorber which effectively reduces motor vibration from transmitting to the tonearm and out through your sound system. Better sound quality and less noise are the main advantages of a belt drive turntable and the reason why this particular design is preferred by music enthusiasts.
IV. Manual or Automatic Operation
Manual operation players require that you lift the tonearm by hand, move it over your vinyl record and gently set it down into the groove. You will also be required to follow this process in reverse when your vinyl record is finished playing. To make this process easier, many turntables have a built-in cueing mechanism, this will lift the tonearm and gently set the needle down onto the vinyl. Since the simple design of a manual operation turntable, it is often preferred by audiophiles and music enthusiasts as it provides more precision and audio accuracy as well as allowing for playback to begin wherever the listener desires.
With turntables that feature automatic operation, once you have place your record on the platter the rest is as simple as the push of a button. The tonearm will cue automatically and return to its resting position once your record is finished. This is a useful feature if you’re someone who tends to fall asleep in which case you can rest assured that your needle will not wear out in the run-off grooves for hours on end. If your hands are not the steadiest then an automatic operation is probably the most convenient and a wise choice for you.
V. Phono Preamps – Internal or External
The minute voltages generated by the needle as it moves through the grooves of your vinyl record are too quiet to be heard and therefore the audio signal must be amplified to line-level before it can be passed to your speakers. For this purpose a turntable usually requires a phono preamp to prepare the signal, ensuring that it is strong enough for your stereo equipment. However, this is only one half of the function of a phono preamp, the other function is to do with equalization of curves. You will have several options to choose from whether external or internal and this will depend largely on the type of turntable. Below we have highlighted several options you may come across when you shop.
Internal Phono Preamp
A turntable requires a phono pre-amp so that the output will be strong enough for the stereo equipment. Many modern players are designed with a built-in phono preamp in which case you are good to go and do not need to buy an external phono preamp. On some models, it is worth noting that there should be a switch where the built-in phono preamp can be switched on or off. Although built-in phono preamps are convenient and cost-effective, an external phono preamp may offer a higher sound output quality and in this case, you could choose to upgrade to an external phono preamp if you wish.
If you are hooking your turntable up to a receiver and depending on the type of receiver, it may have a built-in phono preamp. Many receivers from the 80s and 90s have them. Look on the back of your receiver for cable inputs labeled “phono”. If your receiver does not have a phono preamp as one of the source selectors you’ll need to add an external one to your system.
External Phono Preamp
If your turntable comes without a built-in preamp you’ll need an external phono preamp as part of your system. In addition, you’ll need to ground the external phono preamp. Many external phono preamps are designed with a dedicated grounding nut and the ground wire from your player can easily be attached using this groundnut. Not grounding the turntable will result in a 60Hz low humming noise coming through with your audio signal.
A couple of important facts to note about phono preamps:
Often they are referred to simply as “preamps”, this is not correct since a preamp is an entirely different device and will not apply the RIAA equalization curve that you require.
Most tables make use of a Moving Magnet cartridge with which almost all phono preamps will work fine with. If you are using a Moving Coil cartridge you will need a phono preamp specifically designed for them.
If you do need an external phono preamp, you’ll need a set of RCA cables to connect to your audio system.
VI. Modern USB Interface
Many turntables are designed with a built-in USB connection which makes them an all-in-one solution for bridging the analog-digital gap. Some models plug into your MAC or PC and others can record directly to a USB drive. In most cases, the software is supplied with your turntable free of charge, which is fantastic for editing and organizing your music as you record it. Either way, a turntable with a USB interface makes a great plug and play choice for ripping your favorite vinyl tracks into digital files.
VII. The Phono Cartridge
A cartridge is a small group of wires and magnets encased in a housing that mounts to the end of your turntable’s tonearm. The stylus tracks the grooves pressed into the surface of your vinyl record and while this may seem like a simple process, it is the precision of this process that affects the sound quality during playback more than any other component of your audio system.
Most turntables come complete with a cartridge and this should offer sufficient performance if you are just starting out or for casual listeners. However, once you become more serious about high fidelity sound you should consider upgrading to a better model.
In theory cartridges, or at the very least their needles, should be replaced roughly every 500 to 1000 hours of playback time, this is the perfect time to upgrade if you wish to. The main advantage of upgrading to a better quality cartridge is three-fold; higher quality cartridges last longer, they produce more accurate sound and the act of playing your vinyl is less destructive since they produce less wear on the grooves of your vinyl.
VIII. Moving Magnet and Moving Coil
There are two basic types of phono cartridges: moving magnet and moving coil, you will often see these terms abbreviated to MM and MC. MM cartridges generate a music signal as the stylus tracking the grooves of your vinyl nudges the cantilever with a magnet attached that’s moving inside a set of wire coils, this design makes them heavier than the MC design. MC cartridges, on the other hand, work in the opposite way — a coil of wires move around inside a set of fixed magnets to create the music signal.
MM cartridges are the most common due to their good performance in relation to their relatively low cost and their compatibility with the majority of amplifiers and receivers, and we recommend these for novices starting out.
In comparison, MC has long been considered as the better cartridge by audiophiles and music aficionados for their crystal clear, superior sound. This is largely due to the fact that MC’s have less moving mass, allowing the stylus to track the grooves more precisely, returning pristine sound with greater detail and clarity. Despite this MC’s are actually less common for several reasons; they generate lower sound signals which means you’ll need a specialized preamp, they are much more expensive and often require a new stylus to be replaced by the factory where MM’s are user-replaceable.
Half Inch Mount or P-Mount
Half Inch (standard), P-Mount (T4p) or fixed typically refers to the sort of cartridge attached to your turntable’s tonearm. The recommended choice in most cases is the half-inch mount since it lends itself to a wide range of options and upgrades and allows for fine-tuning adjustments. The P-mount cartridges do offer the possibility to upgrade but with fewer options. On the other hand, the fixed option doesn’t offer any adjustment control and is found on low-end players.
XI. The Stylus
The stylus or needle of your turntable is found on the tip of the cantilever which is attached to the cartridge mounted under the headshell. The cantilever and stylus are removable so that replacements can be made when necessary or to make fine adjustments. It is through the stylus that physical vibrations are translated into an audio signal.
Styli are diamond-tipped and come in two shapes, spherical and elliptical, which determine their effectiveness at tracking the grooves of a vinyl record. Since playing vinyl is ultimately a destructive action the preferred choice here is an elliptical stylus since it offers better audio quality and is less destructive to the vinyl by exerting less pressure while tracking. This is not to say that spherical styli are bad in any way however they are typically found on less expensive, low end cartridges.
These are the basics of the anatomy of a turntable that you’ll need to know when you’re shopping around. Of course, once you’ve made your choice and you begin to delve into audio quality in search of the perfect sound, the better your initial choice of turntable the more options you’ll have for upgrades and settings.
Check out my article on how to rock the best audio setup for your turntable.