While the fundamental workings have remained effectively unchanged since its invention – a needle tracks the grooves in a record and its signal is sent through a chain of components to your speakers – engineers have made steady progress ensuring even the least technically savvy of us are able to spin our pet vinyl with relative ease.
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But, whether picking out your first turntable, returning to analogue after a number of years or merely upgrading your current system, you’ll need to give it some thought if you want to make your money stretch.
What are my options?
The beginning of your search will centre on the kind of turntable you’d like and your budget, questions the answer to one will have inevitable effect on the outcome of the other.
A traditional hi-fi setup can be expensive and difficult to accommodate, but there are plenty of plug-in-and-play alternatives to get a soon-to-be record collector started. Suitcase turntables are forever subject to scorn from self-professed audiophiles, but their accessibility has done much for vinyl’s recent upturn.
The key, if set on one of these decks, is to research the cartridge’s tracking weight. The standard is around 1.5g to 2.5g, but some, such as the dreaded yet unfathomably popular Crosley Cruiser, can be as high as three times that – the equivalent to placing your £25 vinyl before a litter of disgruntled kittens.
A safer alternative may be opting for a more traditional deck with a phono stage – an essential unit that increases the turntable’s relatively minute signal and factors in bass frequencies before reaching your amplifier – built in, which could feasibly be hooked up to a wireless or powered speaker, offering superior performance and the option for future upgrades. Some now even offer Bluetooth, saving even the need for extra cables.
Budgeting is more a factor when dealing with conventional hi-fi. Though this is where you’ll see the best return in sonic performance, even a good budget deck with phono amp included – Audio Technica’s £149 AT-LP3, for example – will require an integrated amplifier and speakers, not to mention decent cables, interconnects and speaker stands.
There’s no algorithm to work out what you should spend on each, but you certainly won’t be getting the best from your turntable if it’s taking the lion’s share of our budget.
What specs do I need to look out for?
To an extent the only aspect you really need consider when buying any hi-fi component is its performance, which is why it’s essential to test any product yourself before buying it, but it’s worth familiarising yourself with the technicalities as well.
One of the main divides comes between belt-driven and direct drive turntables. They’re pretty good descriptors: the latter has the motor placed directly beneath the platter, while the former’s is decoupled and attached via a belt acting as a pulley.
Each has its flaws and fortes, much to do with vibration and rotation speed, and most of the best home turntables on the market today are belt-driven, but direct drive’s superiority in reaching and maintaining rotation speed means if you’re a budding DJ then this is the way you’ll want to go.
There are also two types of cartridge to look out for: moving magnet and moving coil. The relationship between magnet and coil is essentially how the cartridge translates the bumps in the grooves of your record to your amplifier, with one stationary and the other moving.
You’re very unlikely to find a moving coil cartridge on a cheaper deck, but if you’re shopping with four figures especially you’ll need to make sure you have the right phono stage to work with whatever cartridge is attached to your tone arm.
Probably the last of the big questions concerns rotation speed: most new turntables below the esoteric tend to work solely at 33 1/3rpm and 45rpm, so if you’re sitting on a crate full of old 78rpm records you’ll need to keep in mind they’re not widely catered for in a modern day deck.
What can I expect for my money?
Like anything in hi-fi, the more you have to spend expands your horizons for what you can get back, without price necessarily denoting quality. Big brands such as Rega, Audio Technica and Pro-Ject cater wonderfully for the budget end of the market with performances you couldn’t get for the prices decades ago.
The further up the food chain you venture, the more incremental the steps in performance: the best £5000 turntable, for example, will not be twice as good as the best at half its price.
But there are boundless opportunities to improve the performance of any deck at any price, from upgrading the cartridge or phono stage to investing in proper support, cabling and even power, or simply cleaning your records properly.
The thing that can never be stressed enough, though, is to listen to a product. The further you look into the technicalities, the more there is to learn, but a great-sounding turntable will always be a great-sounding turntable, and the best research you can do is with your ears.