Beginners Guide to Turntables

Are you new to turntables and/or a little confused as to how they work? Designed to smoothly spin vinyls at a constant rate of speed, turntables are actually simple devices. Once you learn a few basics of turntables, you will have no problem playing it like a pro. Before buying your first device, read this beginner’s guide to turntables.

Commonly Used Terms

Let’s start with the commonly used terms. Knowing all those terms will help a lot with understanding the rest of the guide.

Acrylic Platter
No mat is needed with the use of acrylic platter. In addtion, sound quality is dramatically improved by replacing the standard platter with an acrylic one.

Anti-Skating
Some turntables feature this control which helps the needle ride the center of the record groove.

Pitch Control
Measured as a percentage, the pitch control allows you to adjust the speed of the spinning platter.

RCA
A type of cable that carries left and right channel signals. Most turntables feature RCA output cables.

RPM (Revolutions Per Minute)
Records are recorded to be played at one of 3 preset speeds: 33 RPM, 45 RPM, or 78 RPM.

Tonearm Weight / Counterbalance
The tracking force is controlled by the weight on the tonearm.

Torque
The turntable motor’s power. Note: A DJ’s turntable should have a high torque.

Tracking Force
The concentrated pressure at the cartridge needle.

A Turntable’s Build

The build of a turntable is not all that complicated. It consists of mainly the following 7 parts: cartridge, mat, motor, platter, plinth, stylus, and tonearm.

Plinth
The base of the turntable is called the plinth. It typically rests on feet and functions as the foundation. The plinth should be stable and level since it is the chassis for the entire turntable. This part of the turntable is often the most important visually, so picking one out that appeals to your taste can be important. Plinths vary in design and mass. They can be made of steel, medium density fiberboard (MDF), exotic hardwood, or graphite.

Motor
A motor for a turntable comes in two kinds – alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC).

  1. Alternating Current (AC) Motors – are large and heavy, but built well and durable.
  2. Direct Current (DC) Motors – are more common and compact.

There is debate over which type of motor is better. Some people claim that a high-quality DC motor can be an inexpensive and superior upgrade to AC decks, while some say that DC motors are weaker and more likely to break down.

The motor contributes to about one third of a hi-fi system’s performance, thus a quality motor is essential. The motor must produce precise, consistent speed, and work with as little vibration as possible. Any disturbance from the motor is picked up by the stylus and amplified 8 thousand times. Upgrading a system’s motor can make a significant difference in sound production.

Platter
The vinyl records lay on what’s called the platter. The best platters are in cast aluminum and the heavier the platter, the better. Platters have three major functions:

  1. They hold the record,
  2. regulate the speed, and
  3. isolate the tonearm from vibration.

Platter Mat
Turntables’ platter mats are very important because they protect records, improve sound, and reduce friction. There are three types of mats:

  • Cork Mats – are known to open up the sound spectrum and are the most popular.
  • Felt Mats – can be used for both listening and DJing. Felt mats improve sound quality and they allow you to hold records while the platter still spins.
  • Rubber Mats – are especially good at dampening vibrations.

Tonearm
Turntable Tonearm

( Photo credit: Diego Cambiaso | https://www.flickr.com/photos/djc/8594286548/)

Tonearms consist of the following parts:

  • a headshell, in which the cartridge is held, a counterweight that balances the cartridge
  • a cueing device, which controls lifting and lowering the tonearm without lateral movement
  • an anti-skate control, which prevents the stylus from “skating” across the record and keeps it securely in the grooves

The tonearm of a turntable is a very important and complicated instrument. At one end, it holds the cartridge, whose weight is counterbalanced at the other end. And though a tonearm can be made weightless, due to its counterweight system, it still has mass. The lower the tonearm mass, the better, so as not to wear on the record’s grooves. High-end tonearms are made from very elaborate materials such as spun carbon fibers or graphite.
Cartridge
There are two types of cartridges in turntables: moving magnet (mm) and moving coil (mc):

  1. Moving Magnet (MM) Cartridges – have a magnet surrounded by a coil. The movement of the stylus excites the coil or magnet, respectively, and the interaction with the encasing coil or magnet is what produces the electrical signal.
  2. Moving Coil (MC) Cartridges – place the coil in the middle, surrounded by the magnet. MC cartridges are low output and generally regarded as superior. They can be quite expensive and require a powerful phono pre-amp for optimal performance.

The sound character of cartridges varies, and some may be better suited to certain hi-fi setups or appeal to the tastes of a the listener. Moving magnet or high-output moving coil cartridges can also offer excellent fidelity and work better with a wider range of hi-fi systems. While there are many factors in sound production, a stereo system’s potential is in many ways determined by the cartridge. Therefore, you should research qualities of individual cartridge models to find one that is right for you before buying one.

Stylus
A cartridge’s stylus, or needle, runs along the record’s grooves, which generates movement. This movement in turn produces an electrical signal, whose small voltage gets amplified as it travels through the phono pre-amplifier and amplifier. Finally, it is sent to the speakers, where it is eventually transformed into sound waves.

Preamps

Phono preamps have a very important job in a turntable: They have to amplify the tiny signal output of a phono cartridge, which is just a few thousandths of a volt, and it must take it up to a volt or so without adding noise or distortion. Equalization is also part of the preamp’s job. As you can see, this is necessity for a turntable.

In order to get the best sound from a turntable, you need a separate phono preamp. Some entry-level turntables come with built-in preamps, and that’s a great way to get started, but to get the most out of your player you need a separate phono preamp. A high-end, and more expensive, phono preamp is going to produce the best quality of sound. Alternatively, you can buy a stereo receiver with a built-in preamp.

Most receivers, however, lack the inputs required to connect a turntable directly. There are two options when your receiver has no phono input:

  1. Choose a turntable with a built-in phono preamp.
  2. Add an external preamp to your system.

Built-in phono preamps are the most cost-effective and simplest option, but an external preamp can offer better sound quality.

Turntable Speeds

There are three speeds in turntables:

  • 78.26 RPM – are for playing the standard, old shellac records,
  • 45 RPM – are for playing the small 7-inch discs with the big holes, and
  • 33 1/3 RPM – are for the long-playing discs.

It is very important for the speed to be exact: If the turntable is fast, the pitch rises; if slow, the the pitch drops. For example, the singers will sound like chipmunks or a female singer will sound like a male. In addition, the speed must be exact at every instant of playing.

Most importantly, make sure to look for a turntable that provides the proper rotation speed for the records you want to play. Most turntables give you 33 RPM and 45 RPM capability. However, if you have a 78 RPM record that you want to play, pay careful attention to the numbers, since most new turntables lack this speed. Also, if you do purchase a turntable for spinning 78’s, make sure you get a specialized cartridge or stylus that is equipped to handle the wider grooves of these increasingly rare records.

Cueing Systems

“Cueing up”- The thicker grooves on a record indicate where a song begins and where the song ends. Cueing up is when you place the needle at the first beat of the track.

If your turntable has a cueing feature, you can push the tonearm into place with your fingers. It will rest above the record until you disengage the cueing switch.

If you don’t have a cue switch, lift the tonearm from its rest by placing your finger underneath the handle on the head shell.

Position the tonearm above the beginning of the record. The needle of the tone arm needs to be positioned directly over the outermost grooves in the record. The area before the recording begins is where you see a few widely spaced grooves on the outer perimeter.

Adjusting speed if it sounds “off”:

  1. Put the record on the platter and start the turntable with the Start/Stop button. The pitch should be at zero.
  2. Make sure that the correct speed of platter’s rotation is chosen.
  3. Put the needle anywhere on the record and listen for a couple of seconds.
  4. If the tune sounds like chipmunks, or if a female singer sounds like a man, then the speed needs to be switched by using the turntable’s 33/45 RPM buttons.

Manual Vs. Automatic Operation

Manual
Turntables that feature manual operation require that you lift the tonearm by hand, place it in the grooves of the record, and shut it off yourself at the end of play. To help you with this process, most turntables have a cueing lever or manual lifter mechanism that safely suspends the tonearm above the record, then gently lowers the needle into the grooves. This allows you to more easily begin playback wherever you want, just in case you would like to skip to a song in the middle of a side.

Automatic
Turntables that feature automatic operation are the most convenient to use. Simply place your album on the platter and push a button. The turntable will lift the tonearm, move it over the record’s lead-in groove, and begin playing. At the end of the album, the turntable automatically returns the tonearm to its original position and shuts itself off.

Is manual or automatic best for you?
If you’re looking for a higher-end system, a manual model might be best. Many feel that the simpler design of a manual turntable provides greater precision and sonic accuracy. Of course, if you want the most convenient operation or if your hands aren’t the steadiest, an automatic player is probably the wisest choice.

Belt Vs. Direct Driven

There are two basic differences in the way turntables spin a platter: direct driven or belt driven.

Belt Driven
A belt driven turntable’s motor is mounted off to the side and the platter rests on top of a bearing as it rotates. The platter connects to the motor that spins it by an elastic belt. The belt also is a shock absorber by preventing the vibration and noise generated by the motor from reaching the platter. Separating the platter from the motor in this way results in less noise being transmitted to the tonearm and out through your audio system.

Direct Driven – A direct driven turntables’s platter is placed directly on the shaft of the turntable’s motor, so it requires no belt to spin your records. This design offers a very high consistency in speed for accurate sound, with a lot less wow and flutter. In addition, DJ’s like direct driven turntables because they let you spin the platter backwards to create special sound effects, and because they have great reliability offered by simplicity in design.

Most inexpensive players are belt-driven. More expensive ones are often direct-driven, but that’s not always the case.

USB Vs. Non-USB

USB
Built-in USB ports are becoming more and more popular, thus turntable manufacturers are adding these to the newer ones. A USB port allows you to transfer music from your records to your computer where you can then convert it to mp3 format. For people looking to digitize large vinyl collections, especially the rare and old albums not available on mp3, it is a priority to get a turntable that has a USB port.

Turntables with a USB connection also make a great choice for transferring your record collection to a computer for playback and storage. Some USB connections can record directly to a USB thumb drive, while others plug into your PC. Most USB turntables come with computer software that helps you organize and edit your music as you record it.

Non-USB
If you get a normal, old non-USB turntable, then you have to plug it into something that has “phono” inputs, which could be one of the following items:

  • A phono pre-amp.
  • An integrated amplifier, which is a box containing phono inputs and pre-amp, line inputs, a master pre-amp, a power amplifier for driving external speakers, and connectors for speakers.
  • A receiver, which is an integrated amp with a radio tuner built in. Note: receivers made in the last 15 years or so often don’t have phono inputs, only line, so you have to pair them with a separate phono pre-amp.

Popular Turntable Setups

Turntable with Built-in Speakers
If you travel and want to bring your turntable, then having a turntable with built-in speakers is most convenient. This option also makes it easy for solo users to listen to their records anywhere because movement is made very easy and there is no extra equipment to worry about. The advantages of having a turntable with built-in speakers include saving space, being portable, and since the speakers are already provided, you don’t have to purchase separate ones.

Turntable + Preamp + Stereo System + Speakers
If you hook up a turntable to a stereo that has jacks on the back marked “PHONO,” it is an easy process:

Plug the matching cables coming from your turntable in the phono jacks. Most likely there is also a skinny single wire (the ground wire) coming from the turntable. Attach it to a post or a screw (labeled “GROUND”) on your stereo. Plug in the turntable’s power cord and set the function on the stereo to “phono”.

Note: Do NOT put the turntable close to your speakers. Ideally, speakers and the turntable should stay on a different surface.

Turntable with USB Output + Computer + Speakers
The output from the cartridge on a turntable is a lot lower than most audio sources you connect to a stereo, such as CD players, DVD players, iPods, etc. It requires extra equalizing and amplification to bring it up to a proper signal. The phono preamp is the extra amplification. Phono preamps are built in to older receivers and amps. Newer stereo equipment, including most home theater units and mini systems, do not usually have phono inputs.

The turntable signal must pass through an external phono preamp when using with a newer stereo unit or playing through a computer, computer speakers, or headphones.

Note: If the input on your sound card, stereo, or speakers is a stereo mini-plug jack, you will also need a 3.5mm Mini Plug to RCA stereo cable. These are very common and inexpensive.

*Any stereo unit that has a “PHONO” input has the phono preamp built in already; you don’t need to buy a separate unit.

Other Specs You Should Know About Turntables

On most turntables, you’ll also see certain specs and features that can give you additional information about their performance and capabilities.

Platter weight
Not all manufacturers provide this specification, but the general rule of thumb is: The heavier the better. A platter with more mass tends to help keep the speed from varying and isolates the record from motor vibration for quieter playback. You can also buy platter mats that further isolate noise. Some turntables even offer an upgrade path by allowing you to replace its existing platter with one that is higher in quality.

Signal-to-Noise (S/N) Ratio
Some manufacturers provide S/N ratio in order to give you a better idea of just how much background noise (in decibels) to expect from the turntable for any given music signal level. You will want a lot more music signal than noise, so a higher number is better – above 70dB is best.

Wow and Flutter (Speed Variation)
Wow – This phenomenon is a word that denotes the alternating rise and fall of musical pitch, which results from fluctuations in the turntable’s speed.
Flutter – This is when these fluctuations are rapid.

Speed variation tells you how accurately the turntable spins the platter. The slightest error in record speed can affect sound quality by changing the pitch of the music or make the listening experience sound less than enjoyable. A lower number is better, with the best being below one-fourth of a percent.

A Few Turntable Tips

If You Play the Turntable Above a Certain Level Your Stereo Makes a Horrible Noise
The cartridge on a turntable is very sensitive to vibrations, which is how it is supposed to be because that is how it extracts music from the grooves. If your speakers are close enough to the turntable, the cartridge will pick up the low frequencies and you’ll get a very unpleasant form of acoustic feedback. It can ruin your records, your needle, and even your speakers if it gets out of control.

Solution: make sure that the speakers and turntable have a good bit of distance between them, and they shouldn’t be on the same surface. Another helpful hint – the more stable the surface, the better your turntable will sound.

How to Record CD-Rs and MP3s From Your Records
From an old receiver: hook the tape out jacks to the sound card input on your computer.
From an external preamp: hook the preamp outputs to a soundcard input.

*Use audio editing software to record and burn.

Caring for Turntables and Vinyl Records

People used to CDs and stereo systems are not used to caring about their devices and records. Well, if you’re to switch to turntables and vinyl records, that needs to change. Caring tools aren’t expensive nor require a lot of time, but using those can go a long way to preserve your records for years to come. To learn more, check out our article on turntable accessories.

(Featured photo credit: Eirik Solheim | https://www.flickr.com/photos/eirikso/3077614089/)