Category: Turntables

The Record Player

This brings us to the record player, or should I say “turntable.” There is a difference between the two.

“For the record,” a record player is generally thought of as a turntable with a built-in amplifier and speaker(s). Portable units are typically record players.

A turntable is simply just that: a turning table to place the record on, and a pickup device (cartridge and stylus) that fits into the record groove, reads the information on the record, and generates a very small electrical signal to the preamp. (See forthcoming discussion about preamps.) The signal then travels on to the power amp for further amplification, and ultimately sound reproduction via speakers or headphones.

For our purposes regarding the Classic Vinyl Listening Experience, let’s assume that we are referring to a turntable that is capable of providing high fidelity sound reproduction.

Turntables are considered non-portable devices in that the more expensive and elaborate units require a fair degree of assembly time for setting them up properly and securing them in their place. In a word, turntables are intended to be instruments, but their quality can range from toy-like objects to high precision devices. The resulting sound reproduction ranges from horrible (cheapo-cheapo units) to exquisite (high quality units).

Reducing Unwanted Noise

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Phono CartridgeThe phono cartridge contributes to unwanted noise as well. It is a sound transducer and can be thought of as a specialized type of microphone in that it picks up the vibrations from the stylus as it tracks the record groove and responds to its encoded vibrations.

Unfortunately it can also transmit the vibrations from any noise that it picks up.  This includes your footsteps on a wooden floor or any noise including your voice!  You can actually record your voice by talking very loudly and very closely to the phono cartridge.

Choosing a Quality Turntable

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So how do you know how good a turntable really is regardless of cost?

First, heavy is good! Next, turn the turntable on and have the platter spin.  Then lift the stylus up from the record surface using the lifter and then slowly turn your amplifier up.  The better the turntable the less noise you will hear.

Any noise that you do hear is coming from the turntable or possibly the preamp or amplifier.

To eliminate the amplifier and preamp, disconnect the turntable from the rest of the system, slowly turn up the amplifier and see what noise is left.  Any noise that disappeared is due to the turntable.  Of course nothing is quite that simple but it is a reasonable test.

Turntable Belt Replacement

Most turntables these days are either belt drive or direct drive. Occasionally, belt drive turntables require turntable belt replacement. This timeframe can vary from a few years to twenty years or more depending on the belt’s quality, turntable usage, and environmental conditions. Although there are a handful of common belts that many turntables use, there are hundreds of different belts out there, and it is very important that you purchase the correct belt for your specific turntable. Incorrect belts will not usually perform properly and can even cause long-term damage to your turntable.

A turntable will generally let you know when it needs a new belt, because it will a. not play, b. play too slowly, or c. not perform certain functions such as speed changing (33 to 45 to 78). Old belts can get very stretchy and eventually turn into a sticky gooey mess that is very difficult to remove. Alternatively, they can simply crumble into dust.

A drive belt for a turntable, cassette deck, or any other powered device is designed and engineered to perform properly for a particular application, and belts have many different qualities. An incorrect belt may cause a device to play to fast or too slow; it may cause undue stress on the motor which may cause it to fail very prematurely; or it may cause a turntable to not change speeds when it has a physical method of changing speeds. Belts have just a little bit of stretch to them and place a carefully determined amount of pressure or stress on the turntable mechanism. In order for a belt to work properly, its circumference is the single most important dimension, but its height and thickness also play an important role in whether it works properly with your particular turntable. So just because you can make a belt stretch to fit your turntable doesn’t make it the right belt, and doing so may cause problems that will impact your listening pleasure and operation of the turntable.

Sound Exchange stocks the most common turntable belts for most common turntables. But if you have a turntable with an unusual belt size, we feel confident that we can locate the correct belt for your turntable. Common belts are generally $15 to $18, and the less common belts being a bit more (although some are actually less).

All about Phono Cartridges

At the heart of any turntable system is the phono cartridge. The stylus (needle) attached to the phono cartridge must follow the V-shaped groove on a record as accurately as possible to produce the best possible sound. The rapid back and forth motion of stylus in the groove creates vibrations. These vibrations are then converted into an electrical signal by the phono cartridge. These electrical signals are then amplified and processed by your amplifier and are ultimately heard through your speakers. This is similar process to that of a microphone which turns the vibrations of a voice into an electrical signal.

Since the late 1960s nearly all phono cartridges are of the magnetic type, which – due to superior sound quality – replaced its predecessor, the ceramic cartridge. Ceramic cartridge based turntables are still present in most vintage console units (furniture based stereos), portable record players, and any low cost record players of the day, and are still found in inexpensive record playing systems made today by companies like Crosley.

There are two types of magnetic cartridges in today’s market; most are called “moving magnet,” while the less common and more expensive types are called “moving coil.” To understand the difference, one needs to look inside the phono cartridge itself. You will find copper coils (tiny round loops of copper wire) with a magnet inside the coil. The magnet and the stylus are both attached on opposite ends of a pipe (called the cantilever) so as the stylus moves back and forth in the groove, the magnet moves on the other end inside the coil. You may recall from science class that a magnet moving within a coil creates an electrical current. That’s your music! All that’s left is to amplify it.

So as you probably already figured out, when a phono cartridge has a “moving magnet” cartridge, the magnet is moving within the coil. “Moving coil” cartridges have the coil moving around a stationary magnet. So what’s the difference between the two types? It gets down to the accuracy of the stylus being able to follow the record groove. Moving coils can be made so that the moving portion of the cartridge is lighter than that within a moving magnet cartridge. When the moving portion is lighter it is more nimble and agile and can follow the very fast motions back and forth within the record groove more accurately. So they sound better! Alas, moving coil cartridges cost a lot more than moving magnet cartridges. Not only that, but you need a special phono preamp, because moving coil cartridges provide much less output than a moving magnet cartridge and need additional amplification beyond what is found in most phono preamps.

Moving magnet cartridges cost from $30 on up. Moving coil cartridges generally start around $300, plus you need to spend another $150 or more on a special moving coil phono preamp, so there is a big cost difference. How much better do moving coil cartridges sound, and should you consider getting one? It only makes sense if you have a really good turntable that is very quiet and very accurate in its operation (see our articles about turntables). One point of note: Some companies that make moving coil cartridges sell what they call a “high output” moving coil cartridge, one whose output level is similar to a moving magnet cartridge so that you don’t need to buy the high output phono preamp. They do this by adding more loops of copper wire to the coils, which will in turn generate a higher output. But of course this increases its weight to about the same weight as a moving magnet cartridge, so you end up no better off, in my opinion. But these high output moving coil cartridges do sell!

Moving coil, moving magnet, and ceramic cartridges are all electrically different from one another and are not interchangeable without other considerations. This is because in most cases amplifiers are designed to work with only one type of phono cartridge. Only on high priced, high quality systems will you find switch setting for both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges. This is a great feature to look for if you ever have hopes to upgrade your sound system. Also, I occasionally see amplifiers that were made in the late 1960s that supported both ceramic cartridges and moving magnet cartridges via two separate phono inputs.

Another consideration when buying a cartridge (and stylus that comes with it) is the shape of the stylus itself. The names for these shapes include conical, spherical, elliptical, line contact, nude, Shibata, and others. It all has to do with how the stylus tip actually fits the record groove. The basic stylus is the conical (aka spherical) and basically has a round contact patch. As you move up the cost spectrum for stylus, the shape of the stylus is further refined and optimized for better sound reproduction. Many of these refinements improve the high frequency reproduction while also reducing record wear. So if your record collection consists of mint condition, audiophile quality records, and your turntable is also a high end machine, you should give consideration to investing in an expensive stylus that can extract the sound quality contained on your records. But conversely, if your record collection is a more typical mix of records in both condition and quality, a cheaper cartridge (and stylus) can actually perform better. I often recommend a very sturdy (cheap) cartridge for customers who are playing older, scratched-up records because you can put more tonearm pressure onto the record with a cheap cartridge, so it sounds better and doesn’t skip! The benefit of the extra tracking force will yield better playback than spending lots of money on a high-end cartridge that is very delicate and is expecting nearly perfect vinyl.

Turntables and styli can vary in quality ranging from a toy to a high precision instrument. The maximum quality of the sound reproduction that your turntable can provide is determined by its phono cartridge. The rest of the turntable can only take away sound quality by adding unwanted noise. High quality turntables reduce sound quality by the least amount. This is because they contribute very little noise due to having very quiet and accurate motors, main bearings, tonearms, etc. Remember that a phono cartridge essentially behaves like a microphone, and it picks up sounds from any source within the turntable or in the room, both good and bad.

Keep in mind: Regardless of the type of phono cartridge you have on your turntable, your system requires a phono preamp somewhere in the circuit. Any amplifier that has a “PHONO” input has a phono preamp built into it. Some newer turntables have them built into the turntable. If a phono preamp is not in your amp or turntable then you need a separate, external phono preamp. These are available from about $30.00 up to thousands of dollars. The turntable plugs into the phono preamp which in turn plugs into any input on your amplifier.

Magnetic cartridges are simple to replace because most have been standardized in how they mount to the turntable headshell. “Universal mount” and “P-mount” are the most common, although there are some cartridges that do not adhere to these standard sizes. They tend to be much more expensive and difficult to find. Conversely, ceramic cartridges had no standards and there are literally thousands of varieties. So if you have a vintage based system you must obtain the exact make and model cartridge as a replacement. Although they are not that hard to find and are not that expensive, they are difficult to properly identify as many look identical. Expert assistance is usually a good idea. Sound Exchange has that expertise if and when you need it.

Vinyl records offer the potential for exquisite sound reproduction that can far exceed that of CD, but can do so only if all the pieces are present: high quality records, high quality turntable, and a high quality cartridge (and stylus).