Turntable buying guide
How to choose the right vinyl record player
Dave Bar worked for Crutchfield from 1981 until his retirement in 2016. After a 23-year stint in the sales department, he joined the home A/V writing staff. Dave's expertise and good humor will be sorely missed.
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The vinyl revolution
Even with digital music’s convenience, the venerable vinyl record has never completely gone away. In fact, vinyl’s popluarity has only continued to grow in recent years.
Maybe it’s the ritual of sliding an album out of its sleeve, placing it gently on the platter, lowering the tonearm, and experiencing the soft thump as the needle lands in the groove. It could be the fact that album art is way cooler than a digital file.
Then there’s always the thrill of discovering flea market or yard sale treasures that you’ll never find on CD or a digital download. Or even experiencing just how amazing the latest release of one of your favorite artists sounds on a pristine, newly minted 200-gram LP.
Maybe it’s a little of all these things. But whether you grew up spinning albums and have an extensive collection, or you’re just discovering the warm, relaxed, analog sound that records can provide, one thing’s for sure — you’ll need a good record player to appreciate them in all their glory.
On the surface, turntables are deceptively simple devices, designed to spin records at a constant rate of speed and transform the “data” pressed in their grooves into an electrical signal. But just how precisely a turntable performs that task largely determines how faithfully it can reproduce your music, and to a great extent, how much it may cost.
Ironically, the better your turntable the less you’ll actually hear it working. That’s because the best sounding turntables simply get out of the way to let your music come shining through.
Anatomy of a turntable
Below, we’ve illustrated the main elements that make up a turntable. We also discuss some common features and options you’ll come across when you shop. The more you know, the easier it will be to decide which turntable best fits your needs.
Don't know your plinth from your platter? Study the illustrations below. There will be a quiz.
There are plenty of basic, good-sounding record players to choose from in the under $400 price range. Automatic turntables that start and stop playing at the push of a button are the easiest to use. But many music purists prefer a manual model because they feel the additional hardware required for automatic operation can detract from sound quality.
If your stereo system lacks a dedicated turntable input, you’ll want to choose a player with a built-in phono preamp, or add an optional external preamp to your system. Finally, turntables with a USB output let you connect your computer and digitize your vinyl collection for playback on a smartphone or car stereo.
Learn how to connect a turntable.
More focused on performance, turntables in the $400 to $800 price range offer audibly better sound quality thanks to more precise construction and higher-quality parts.
Things to look for include: a tonearm with adjustments that can accommodate a range of phono cartridges, a heavier, more precisely balanced platter with better bearings for smoother, quieter rotation, and a higher-end cartridge and stylus that can pull more music from your records’ grooves while treating your vinyl collection more gently.
Another advantage of record players in this range is their upgradability. Look for detachable signal cords that can be replaced with better-quality cables.
Some models allow you to replace the stock platter with a beefier model for more dynamic sound. And with their better tonearms, these ‘tables are ready to handle a higher-end cartridge. This upgrade alone can make a huge sonic improvement.
Turntables in the $800 and up range are geared for truly impressive levels of musical performance that can rival even high-end CD players.
Look for dense, vibration-absorbing plinth designs and adjustable feet that supress unwanted resonance.
Other features to watch out for are motors that are physically separated from the plinth to further cut down on vibration, and the inclusion of a top-notch cartridge to eliminate the need to buy one separately.
Specs (or specifications) can’t tell you exactly how a turntable will sound, but they do give you a point of reference when comparing models. Here are a few basic specs to watch for.
Wow and flutter (speed variation)
This spec tells you how accurately the turntable spins the platter. Any deviation in record speed can affect sound quality by changing the pitch of the music or causing an audible wavering effect that detracts from the listening experience. A lower number is better here, ideally below 0.25%.
Signal-to-noise (S/N) ratio
Some manufacturers provide this spec to give you a better idea just how much background noise (in decibels) to expect from the turntable for any given music signal level. A higher number is better here because you want a lot more music signal than noise. Look for something above 65dB.
Be sure to look for a turntable that provides the proper rotation speed for the records you want to play. Most turntables give you 33-1/3 and 45 RPM capability. But if you have a collection of 78 RPM records that you want to play, pay careful attention to the numbers, since most new turntables lack this speed. Also, if you do purchase a ‘table for spinning 78s, make sure you get a specialized cartridge or stylus that’s equipped to handle the wider grooves of these increasingly rare records.