Vinyl records can provide superior audio quality with a wide, rich sound stage, but getting started can be a daunting task for many people. Where do you begin? What equipment do you need to buy? How much should you pay?
I purchased a turntable, an integrated amplifier, and some speakers about a year and a half ago, and I thought I would share what I’ve learned since then. In this short piece, I will try to explain the basics of turnables, how they work, and how to choose the the perfect first-time record player for you.
The Anatomy of a Turntable
A vinyl record is a PVC disc which contains etchings of a soundwave. These etchings are an exact copy of the music’s original source, are “pressed” on to the disc using a lacquer presser made with the music’s master tapes. A turntable is made of up two main parts: a platter, and a tone arm. The record is placed on the platter, while the tonearm reads the record and produces the sound. These two parts sit on a large base piece called a plinth, whose job it is to hold the turntable together and reduce vibration.
At the edge of the tone arm is a small device known as a cartridge. A cartridge has a small stylus at its tip (sometimes called the needle), which is typically made of diamond. The stylus follows the grooves on the record as it spins, creating a small current which is sent back through the cartridge, the tone arm, and then to your audio system of choice.
This process is fully analogue and very naked — meaning that many external factors can affect the quality of sound produced by the turntable. The grooves in a record are thinner then half a single human hair, so even single pieces of dust and tiny vibrations will make difference in playback. A few of the most common considerations include:
- Turntable surface placement and location. Keep your turntable on a solid, firm surface that won’t shake or vibrate. Some turntables are better at reducing vibration than others, and use materials & design that inherently keep protect the record player from resonance and external vibrations.
- Turntable setup & maintenance. An incorrectly set up turntable can not only produce sub-par sound, but also damage your records, the stylus, and even the cartridge. Keep your records clean, and make sure they are as free of dust and static. Clean your stylus, and replace it when needed. Most turntables have a “counter weight”, a heavy block at the rear of the tonearm that determines how much weight is applied to the record. Different cartridges require different amounts of weight for optimum performance, and it is essential that your turntable is properly weighted and configured for your cartridge of choice. Using too much weight can cause the stylus to wear away quickly, and using too little weight will cause the record to play incorrectly, if at all.
Sound that comes from from a turntable must be run through a phonographic pre-amplifier before it can be connected to your amplifier or powered speaker system. Very few powered speakers have a phono input, but some amplifiers do. If your stereo system does not have an input for a turntable, you will also need to invest in a pre-amplifier. Some turntables have a pre-amplifier built-in, but these are often low quality, and are found usually only in budget turntables.
Most people remember turntables as the static-heavy audio systems that they gladly abandoned in favor of CDs, but a properly set-up and cared for turntable can be totally interference free!
Finding The Perfect Turntable For You
Now that you know how a turntable works, it’s time to decide what to buy. Turntables can cost anywhere from under $100 to several thousand dollars. But how do you know how much to spend? Consider the following factors:
- Stylus & Cartridge: Quality & Upgradeability. Some turntables have a built-in, non-replaceable cartridge. This convenient for some people as it reduces the amount of setup and maintenance the turntable will eventually need, but it also means that you are stuck with the cartridge in the box. Cartridges are designed to work with a specific tracking weight, and high-end cartridges are designed to work lower tracking weights, meaning less interference and less wear on your records. If your turntable uses a removable cartridge, then what cartridge does it include, if any?
- Motor Placement & Platter Speed. The motor that spins the platter will vibrate — this is inevitable. Nicer turntables use low-vibration motors, but it is impossible to find a motor with absolutely no vibration whatsoever. There are two main kinds of motor placement: belt drive and direct drive. Belt driven turntables keep the motor away form the platter and reduce vibration, but are known to have issues with speed accuracy. Direct drive turntables have better speed accuracy, but are worse are protecting the platter from interference. Modern day turntable manufacturers are aware of these issues and they have become mostly irrelevant in recent years — it’s a matter of taste and features at this point. Records are designed to work at a certain speed (usually either 33 1/3 RPM or 45 RPM), and not all motors support all speeds. If your collection contains records of many speeds, make sure that your turntable supports them all, and that you can easily switch between speeds as needed. Belt driven turntables often require a little more work to switch between speeds than their direct drive counterparts.
- Connectivity & Output. How do you plan on using your turntable? Are you connecting it to a set of powered speakers or an amplifier? If you’re using powered speakers, you’ll need to either buy a pre-amp or buy a turntable that has one built-in. If you’re using an amplifier, check to see if your amplifier has an appropriate phono input for your turntable’s cartridge (either moving magnet [MM] or moving coil [MC]). If you want to use your turntable to create digital copies of your vinyl records, you’ll need to make sure your turntable has a USB output as well.
- Avoid Portable & Super Cheap Turntables. A portable or very inexpensive turntable might seem like the perfect choice for beginners, but don’t be fooled — these things will leave you with a very sour taste in your mouth. Apart from having high-vibration motors, limited upgradeability (if any), and few choices for connectivity and output, these turntables often include non-removable low quality cartridges designed for a very high tracking forces — meaning they will wear your records out fast. The stylus too will need replacing soon and you’ll need to replace the turntable altogether within a short order. Beginners will often make mistakes (I made plenty), and these turntables will punish you for it.
- If you see anything made by a brand called “Crosley”, run. This brand of turntable has made massive resurgence thanks to their product placement deals with huge retailers like Urban Outfitters, Best Buy, and Target. Don’t be fooled by their cute, retro aesthetic — these turntables sound awful and will completely destroy your vinyl records within a short order, thanks to their high-tracking force cartridges. You can get a considerably better turntable for the same or even less money than Crosley’s entry level model, the Cruiser. Don’t buy a Crosley. Your records will thank you.
Good Entry Level Turntables (US 2017 Edition)
All of these turntables are good choices for beginners. They all use moving magnet [MM] cartridges rather than more expensive moving coil [MC] cartridges, but they do not all have built-in pre-amplifier and differ greatly in price, feature set, style, and sound quality. I’ve listed them here in order of least expensive to most expensive. Note that if you’re reading this more than a year after I wrote it, you might want to do some searching as these models may have been replaced by newer options.
Audio Technica LP60/LP60-USB
Pros: Affordable price, built-in phono pre-amp of reasonable quality, comes fully setup with aligned and weighted cartridge, includes slip-mat and dust cover. Easy to maintain.
Cons: Cartridge is attached to tonearm and cannot be replaced/upgraded. No height adjustment available. Plastic body doesn’t do much to reduce interference. Lacks basic features like a cue lever and an anti-skate device. Direct-drive motor is prone to humming.
Additional Info: Despite it’s all-in-one configuration, the LP60 is a great performer for the cost. Its integrated cartridge won’t demolish your records like many other fully integrated solutions, producing a tracking force of about 3 grams (high compared to others on this list but pretty good for a built-in solution. Many low-end turntables produce a tracking force of over 5-7 grams and will completely chew up your records).
Price: ~$100-$130, depending on model choice.
Bottom Line: This is a great turntable for people who aren’t sure whether they want to commit to the world of vinyl. It requires virtually no maintenance besides cleaning the stylus, and it’s built-in pre-amp is good enough to get the job done. It will connect easily to whatever set up you have with no problems, and the available USB option is a great deal for just thirty bucks. It isn’t very versatile, but if you’re looking for an all-in-one, no-commitment solution this is your best bet. Don’t expect to be blown away by the sound quality though.
Pro-Ject Essential III
Pros: Good value for money, easy to change speeds despite being belt driven, easy to upgrade.
Cons: Gravity-based anti-skate device lacks accuracy and can be difficult to adjust. Does not include dust cover.
Addtional Info: Pro-Ject’s Essential II was an award-winning budget turntable, and the new model adds a plethora of upgrades at no additional cost. An acrylic platter is now available as an additional option, and the plinth is now made of high-gloss MDF, similar to Pro-Ject’s more expensive Debut line of turntables. The Essential II’s Ortofon OM5 cartridge has been replaced with a much higher end and better sounding OM10. This turntable is brand new, and still difficult to find in the US. This turntable doesn’t have a phono pre-amp, but a version that includes one along with USB output is on its way and should cost an additional $50-100 when it becomes available. Despite being belt-driven, this turntable is very easy to switch speeds, as the belt wraps directly around the platter and the cogs for the motor are easily accessible.
Bottom Line: The Essential III is the cheapest way to get a truly awesome sounding turntable. If sound quality is your thing and you don’t want to spend too much, this is the way to go. It isn’t the most versitile option, but delivers amazing high-quality sound at an affordable price.
Audio Technical LP120-USB
Pros: Feature packed, built-in pre-amp that can be bypassed if needed, USB output included, well-marked counter weight that allows for easy adjustment of tracking force without a digital scale, removable head-shell for easy cartridge replacement, support for 78 RPM records, includes dust-cover and slip-mat, built-in stroboscope & pitch control settings, reverse mode, anti-skate device, solid construction is more flexible with placement than some of the other turntables on this list.
Cons: “DJ” Aesthetic will rub some people the wrong way at this price. Included AT95E cartridge is supremely average. Other decks in this price range sound considerably better.
Additional Info: This direct-drive turntable is one of the most feature-loaded on the market. Rather than focusing on “luxury” features, this turntable distinguishes itself by being one most versatile options on this list, thanks mostly to its highly configurable direct drive motor. It’s removable head-shell and clearly labeled replaceable counter weight make it easier to upgrade than any other deck on this list — no additional measuring equipment needed. Note that while the motor supports 78 RPM playback, the included cartridge does not.
Bottom Line: If you are sure you want to play vinyl, but are still unsure of your eventual audio set-up and playback needs, this is the turntable for you. It’s built-in pre-amp sounds pretty good, but will work with an external one if needed. It is the most versatile option on this list, and its excellent build quality, connectivity and upgradeablity options will ensure that you can use it for many years to come, even as your stereo and playback needs change.
Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC
Pros: Easily upgradeable, includes an adjustable counterweight, carbon fiber tonearm usually found only on much more expensive turntables, Includes slip mat and dust cover. Excellent sound quality.
Cons: Changing speeds requires you to remove the platter. Gravity-based anti-skate device lacks accuracy and is difficult to adjust. Included felt slip-mat is very prone to static.
Additional Info: The Debut Carbon is one of the best selling turntables in this price range. The new DC model features a new motor that reduces power consumption and vibration. This turntable can be easily upgraded with a Pro-Ject’s speed-box and an optional ceramic platter. (Pro-Ject even sells these upgrades together in a bundle called the Debut Carbon Espirit. If you plan on getting these upgrades eventually, the Espirit model will save you around a $100 vs. buying the upgrades individually). The included cartridge is an Ortofon 2M Red, a well known entry level high-performance cartridge wichosts $100. This turntable does not include a built-in pre-amp as standard, but a version with phono pre-amp and a USB output is available for about $50 more. The new DC model is slightly more expensive than it used to be, making the Debut Carbon less of a value proposition than it once was.
Price: ~$450-$600, depending on model choice.
Bottom Line: You can’t go wrong with the Debut Carbon. It is one of the most well known and widely recommended turntables in the world, and features impressive performance that can be easily upgraded over time.
Pro-Ject RPM 1 Carbon
Pros: Very good value for money, easily upgradeable, easy to change speed despite belt-driven system, magnetic anti-skate device, fully decoupled motor to seriously reduce vibration, heavy MDF platter with inverted ceramic ball mounting system, carbon fiber tonearm found only on much expensive turntables, very stylish.
Cons: Does not include dustcover. Set-up can be daunting. Requires careful placement to get the best performance. Included felt slip-mat is prone to static.
Additional Info: The RPM1 Carbon is the entry level model in Pro-Ject’s RPM line of turntables which sits above the debut line. This turntable sounds fantastic and sports an amazing feature set for its price. Its magnetic anti-skate device is both easier to adjust and more accurate than the gravity-based one Debut Carbon, and it virtually eliminates skating entirely. Its s-shaped carbon fiber tone-arm works wonders to reduce vibration. The included Sumiko Pearl MM Cartridge is one of the best and most underrated cartridges on the market. Sumiko is mostly known for there higher-end line of MC (Moving Coil) cartridges, but this little thing sounds magnificent too. Make sure you are purchasing new inventory — older versions of this turntable include the Ortofon 2M Red instead. While they both cartridges are comparable in price and range, the Pearl is much better in my opinion. Replacement stlyuses for the Sumiko are also considerably less expensive than than for the Ortofon. Because the motor is fully decoupled from the rest of the deck and and the plinth is irregularly shaped, this turntable must be carefully placed for it to truly shine. This turntable does not include a built-in pre-amp.
Bottom Line: If you can stomach the extra $50-100 bucks over the Debut Carbon and are willing to deal with the somewhat finicky design of the RPM1, this deck is probably the best value for money and best looking of the group. It has all of the “luxury” features and materials you’d typically find in much more expensive decks.
If You Don’t Already Have Speakers
If you don’t already have a stereo to use with your new turntable, then you’ll need to buy either a set of powered speakers, or a stereo amplifier / passive speaker set. Deciding between the two options will depend largely on your needs, but consider the following:
- Many powered speaker systems only have 1 RCA input, but feature other handy conveniences like a remote, iPod/iPhone connectivity, and even Bluetooth streaming.
- Powered Speaker systems almost never have an phono pre-amp, so you’ll need to make sure that your turntable has one, or you’ll have to save some extra room in the budget for this additional component.
- Contrary to what you hear from audiophiles, powered speakers aren’t inherently worse than their passive counterparts. In fact, because they have a built-in amplifier, powered-speakers often perform more consistently than passive speakers, which require careful matching with an amplifier to make sure their sound and power requirements are compatible. There are some excellent sounding powered speakers on the market, and you don’t need a full stereo setup enjoy your turntable.
- If you plan on connecting many other inputs to your speakers like a CD player, a streaming box, a media server, or a computer, then consider a stereo amplifier instead of active speakers. You’ll have many more choices for speakers, and you’ll be able to make sure that whatever you buy sounds good for *all* your audio sources, and not just the turntable.
- Many modern amplifiers have a phono pre-amp built-in to them. Especially stereo amplifiers aimed at music listeners.
- Amplifiers play a *huge* role in determining overall sound quality and differ greatly in their priorities. Look out for additional features like bluetooth streaming, the inclusion of a digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) for digital inputs, and a built-in phono stage.
- If you are building a home theater, consider an AV receiver instead of/in addition to a stereo amplifier. An AV receiver will have 5 or even 7 channels for surround sound in videos, as well as a video out connection so you can add a TV. An AV receiver can also take audio inputs from bundled digital sources, like HDMI (which provides both an audio and a video signal). AV receivers often provide subpar audio quality when compared to their stereo amplifier counteparts, so you might want to consider a stereo amplifier AND an AV receiver if you’re building a hometheater with a serious music focus.
- Consider speaker placement and how much space you have. Powered speakers require much less cable spaghetti than an amplifier / passive speaker setup.
- Don’t connect your amplifier to a set of powered speakers. Bad things will happen. Call-the-fire-department type bad things.
- Factor in the cost of cables. Most passive speakers do not include speaker cables, which can be expensive depending on how long you need them to be. Your turntable will probably include RCA cables with a grounding wire for use with a phono pre-amp, but if you are connecting to a pre-amp that isn’t built into an amplifier, you might need an additional set of RCA cables to go from the pre-amp to your amp/powered speakers, as well as 1 additional set for every analogue input
I’m not going to say much about what passive speakers / amps / powered speakers you should get, as good options for these products depend largely on budget and taste. There are literally millions of potential setups, as you can you can separate each component into subcomponents if you really want to. I’ll leave a few options that I think are good, and will work well with the turntables I’ve mentioned above, but there are endless list of brand and component combinations available. All of my choices are two-channel, music centric options that use either powered speakers, or an integrated stereo amplifier and some passive speakers.
Powered Bookshelf Speakers
Speakers that do not require an amplifier. They take in a single RCA input.
- Micca PB42X (~$150/pair)
- Audioengine A2+ Powered Desktop Speakers (~$250/pair)
- Audioengine A5+ Powered Bookshelf Speakers (~$400/pair)
- Klipsch R-15PM (~500/pair)
- Audioengine HD6 Powered Bookshelf Speakers (~$750/pair)
All-in-one amplifiers that take in many RCA inputs and connect to a set of passive speakers. These choices are all dual-channel (left/right), but vary in power, sound quality, and features.
- Onkyo A-9010 [Built-in Phono MM Pre-amp] (~$300)
- Marantz PM6006 [Built-in Phono MM Pre-amp] [Built-in DAC] (~$700)
- Cambridge Audio CXA60 [Built-in DAC] (~800)
- Arcam FMJ A19 [Built-in Phono MM Pre-amp] (~$1000)
- Rega Brio [Built-in Phono MM Pre-amp] (~$1000)
Passive Bookshelf Speakers
Speakers that require an amplifier. Make sure that your amplifier of choice has enough power your selected speaker system.
- KEF Q100 (~$500/pair)
- Sonus Faber Principia 3 Bookshelf (~$700/pair)
- SVS Ultra Bookshelf (~$1000/pair)
- KEF LS50 (~$1500/pair)
- Paradigm Prestige 15B (~$1600/pair)
Moving Magnet Phono Pre-Amplifiers
For use with turntables and powered speakers or integrated-amplifiers that do not have a built-in phono pre-amp.
- Bellari VP29 (~$60)
- Pro-Ject Phono Box MM (~$80)
- Music Hall Mini Phono Preamp (~$100)
- Pro-Ject Phono Box DC (~$130)
- Rega Fono Mini A2D w/ USB (~$175)
Things To Consider When Deciding
The Usual Rules of Audio Still Apply
Using a turntable does not guarantee amazing sound. As with any stereo, the speaker output and the source of the music are just as important. The quality of your records and your powered speakers or amp/speaker set up will play a huge role in sound quality — don’t expect a good turntable to magically save your scratched/warped/dirty records or turn your budget amplifier into an amazing performer.
Specs Matter, But Taste Matters More
Don’t buy a certain cartridge or turntable on specs alone. At the end of the day, sound quality is at least somewhat subjective and you want to enjoy your investment. Listen to the turntables before you buy them, preferably with some of your own records and on a similar audio setup to the one you’ll be using at home. If you think a cheaper product sounds better, than go with it. Never spend money on potential sound quality that you can’t measure with your own ears. Many hi-fi stores will let you audition the hardware before you buy it — take them up on this offer.
Look for a Good Dealer, Not A Good Deal
Avoid buying turntables and other hi-fi equipment online. You might pay a little less on the web, but you’ll suffer in terms of product choices, and you’ll be thankful when you have to do maintenance later on. A local shop will let you test the equipment out, bring in your own music, replicate your home speaker system if possible, and even help you with installation. You also have a bit more wiggle room with a local dealer when it comes to included options — they wil sometimes include things like speaker cables or a different cartridge at no additional cost. If this is your first turntable, you definitely want someone else to set it up for you — it can be tricky to do yourself, and you’ll need special equipment to measure tracking force, set up the counterweight, and align the stylus. Local dealers will also help you if you any have any problems down the road, communicating with the manufacturer directly on your behalf. My local shop even provided me with a loner amplifier when mine needed service! Research your local choices on line and go to a few before you pick your favorite place. Most hi-fi equipment manufacturers have a page on their website that will help you find the nearest certified local dealer.
Consider Your Budget Ahead of Time
Your turntable isn’t the only thing you’ll need to buy. Depending on what equipment you already have at home and how you plan on using your new deck, you may also need to buy a dustcover, a phono pre-amp, an amplifier, and even some speakers. Cleaning equipment for your turntable costs somewhere between $20-50. The wires you may need can cost between $0 and $200. Decide ahead of time on what your final stereo setup will look like and how much you want to spend on the whole package.
Stuff You Should Buy No Matter What
Anti-Static Record Brush
Records are made of PVC, a material that clings to dust and is prone to static. Before you play a record, wipe it once with a carbon fiber anti-static record brush — it’ll make a huge difference. These brushes are only about $15 (You can spend a lot more but it’s honestly not worth it. The standard AudioQuest brush will work just as well as anything more expensive). Make sure you use the brush correctly — you can scratch your records if you aren’t careful. There are many videos on the internet that show you how to do this.
There are a few different ways to clean a stylus. Most people opt for a carbon-fiber brush (not the same one used for your records). These little things cost about $5, and should be used regularly to keep your stylus clean. Take extreme caution when brushing your stylus — is it extremely delicate and can break easily if you aren’t careful. Always brush back-to-front, never side-to-side or front-to-back. Watch a video of someone doing it before you try it yourself. Alternatively, you can splurge for a Onzow Zerodust stylus cleaner. It costs around $35, but it is much easier to use and does a noticeably better job of removing dust & debris from your stylus than brushing it by hand — well worth the money in my opinion. It is an ideal choice for people who don’t have a steady hand or are nervous about interacting with the stylus directly.
Take Care of Your Deck
Turntables can be an expensive investment, and you should be careful to maintain your deck regularly to get the most out of the experience. Clean your stylus regularly and often. Brush your records before you play them every time. Don’t play warped or broken records — they can damage your stylus. Protect your turntable with a dustcover or use an old LP to cover the platter. Keep your speakers as far away from the turntable as you can, and don’t put them on the same surface. Make sure your turntable is weighted correctly. Your stylus will eventually need replacing — but if you keep everything cleaned and well maintained, a single stylus can last for years!
What I Use
Turntable: Pro-Ject RPM 1 Carbon
Phono Cartridge: Sumiko Pearl MM Cartridge
Integrated Amplifier: Arcam FMJ A19 Integrated Amplifier
Phono Pre-Amp: (Built into the integrated amplifier)
Passive Bookshelf Speakers: Paradigm Prestige Series 15B (Bookshelf Speakers)
Speaker Stand: Sanus Steel Series Speaker Stand (for Bookshelf Speakers)