It’s not surprising to many long-time vinyl heads that wax is making a comeback. The superior sound quality and overall retro feel of creating a respectable collection play a strong role in today’s revolutionary record resurgence. But while trading your hard-earned wampum for grooved goodness is certainly an art form, finding the perfect turntable to fit your needs is far more scientific. So, for those who are new to vinyl here are 10 things to consider before buying your first turntable.
1. Direct or Belt Drive? Many self-proclaimed enthusiasts will tell you that one is certainly better than the other, but it really comes down to application. Some will be looking for audiophile sound quality strictly for home listening, while others are more interested in finding a deck that will allow them to make money on the DJ circuit. If you’re the purist who wants only the best sound money can buy, you’ll want to lean toward belt driven models. While there are exceptions to almost any rule, the physical properties of the turntable’s belt help dampen vibrations produced by the electromagnetic motor that drives the platter, in turn reducing unwanted sound coloration. If you’re aspiring to be the next Jam Master Jay, scratching your way from club to club, direct drive is considered a necessity. Given the nature of the environment, audiophile quality is a low priority, if a priority at all. More importantly, the motor mounted directly to the bottom of the platter ensures no loss in torque from the drive motor, therefore the record reaches its playing speed much more quickly than belt drive tables. This is quite important when timing is a factor.
2. Vintage or New? The old axiom, “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to” may not be 100% accurate in the case of most audio gear, including turntables. There are plenty of well-regarded brands and machine models in production today. When comparing new and old tables of similar quality and features, you’re almost always going to save money up front going vintage. But keep in mind that there’s no warranty and you’ll likely be running into required maintenance earlier with the retro deck.
3. Cartridge Smartridge! As the meat and potatoes of your entire vinyl audio system, the cartridge plays the biggest role in the quality of the sound you’ll hear emitting from your perfectly positioned speakers. As such, swapping to a higher quality cartridge is the single most effective way to improve your table’s tone, so consider up front how likely you may be to upgrade your deck. Standard mount cartridges will typically allow for adjustments to cartridge alignment so that you can swap from one brand to another without hassle, while P-mounts allow you to only use the style cartridge that came on the system, thus drastically limiting upgrades. Picky listeners are far more likely to upgrade their cartridges and should shoot for standard mount carts.
4. Speed Freak! Pitch control is a common feature you’ll find on many turntables. It gives the user the ability to fine tune the speed of the platter ensuring the audio is being represented just as it was intended to be heard in the studio. But unless you have perfect pitch, it’s highly unlikely
you’ll find speed inaccuracies on newer tables to be of any significance. However, it is important to note that vintage tables may need a bit more taming in this department. Over time, motors can weaken and result in a slower spin, or capacitors can start to deteriorate to cause an increase in rotation. Having the ability to compensate for these age-related variations on older tables isn’t a terrible idea.
5. What are 78s? Everyone knows about 33 1/3 RPM LP’s and 45 RPM singles. But what about the more archaic 78 RPM records that our grandparents used to groove to? Do you need a deck with this setting? That all depends on whether you have the desire to ever collect albums manufactured before the 1960’s. If you play with vinyl long enough, you’re bound to come across these heavy discs of shattering shellac. The question is, what will you do when that time comes?
6. To USB, or NOT to USB? Unlike digital audio, playing vinyl requires a physical impact that over time will no doubt wear down both your turntable’s stylus as well as the grooves in your records. That’s why archiving records to digital format has become growingly popular over the past several years. That rare collection you inherited from your uncle can now be converted to MP3, or better yet, .wav format for daily listening without deterioration, while the records themselves keep their shiny newness. Or does analog to digital conversion completely defeat the point of your vinyl collection in the first place? That’s another decision only you can make, but it’s worth taking into consideration.
7. Preamplification: If there is one universal truth in this world, it’s that turntables require preamplifiers. Some audio amplifiers have built-in phono preamps that make them compatible with both new and old decks. But chances are, this doesn’t apply to your home stereo system that probably wasn’t purchased with vinyl in mind. To alleviate this, many turntable manufacturers are now equipping some of their newer models with integrated preamps. Convenient, right? Sure. But like other modern conveniences, limitations are also present. The included preamplifiers are typically mediocre, at best. That’s why there exists a third option. External preamplifiers aren’t quite as convenient, but are abundant in today’s market and typically range from thirty bucks to several hundred dollars. So be sure to budget for the cost of a preamplifier, unless your current stereo already has that option.
8. Accessories Galore! Speaking of budgeting for your new turntable, there are many vinyl accessories on the market, and many of them are must-haves. To keep your records sounding great you’ll need to keep them and your stylus clean. If you blow your wad on a table and neglect cleaning products, you’ll soon be very sorry as the crackling of dust and grime begins to overpower your listening experience. Record storage crates, stylus force scales, alignment protractors, bubble levels, and even extra vinyl sleeves are all products you should consider either at the time of your first turntable purchase or shortly thereafter.
9. The Information Superhighway: Just as you found this article, you’ll undoubtedly find tons more information scattered about the net regarding this audible pastime. Read and read some more. Unlike most topics you can research online, when it comes to vinyl there is surprising very little
“bad” information on the web. I like to tell myself it’s because people who listen to vinyl are inherently smarter. But that’s just my opinion. The point is, don’t tackle this challenge by yourself. Learn from people who’ve been dealing with turntables far longer than you and most of your friends put together. Vinyl Heads love to share information, so take advantage of it.
10. Brace Yourself! Like audio in general, Vinyl is highly addictive and can be rather expensive when executed properly. There’s a good chance you’ll find yourself longing for more records and better gear within a short period after your first table purchase. If you’re not careful you may find yourself living paycheck to paycheck with nothing in your pantry but a case of Ramen noodles and canned pastas while letting friends crash on your futon to help pay the electric bill. Prepare yourself now, or run away while you still have the rest of your life ahead of you.