Turntable Buying Guide

Buying a turntable can be difficult and time consuming because there are tons of record players on the market with different features, styles and prices. One can get confused and overwhelmed with all the information out there. The good news is that with so many choices you have a better chance of finding the right player for you. That’s why I decided to write this turntable buying guide, to give you the tools to make a wise purchase decision.

turntable buying guideThe first thing I would suggest before buying a turntable, is to reflect about the following questions:

  • How much are you willing to spend?
  • How are you planing to use the record player?
  • How important is sound quality to you?
  • What is the condition of your vinyl collection?
  • What is the level of experience you have with turntables?
  • What features are more important to you?
  • Does the look and style matter to you?

Once you have a clear idea of your needs and your budget, use the following list of parts and features to help you choose the right record player for you.

Record Player Prices

I think that your budget really determines the amount of options you have when it comes to buying a turntable. Record player prices range from about $40 to thousands of dollars. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you that there are turntables that cost more than a car. Any way, I will start by briefly explaining the types of record players you can find based on some price points. I also encourage you to consider buying a vintage turntable, as you can get a much better turntable for the price of a new one.

Turntables under $100

These turntables are usually small and lightweight. Most of them don’t have counterweight or any other adjustment features. It’s very unlikely that you’ll find a fully automatic record player in this price range. Cheap record players commonly come with a ceramic cartridge and a belt driven platter. Generally, the parts are made of plastic and some times the body is either plastic or fiberboard. The speed and pitch on these type of turntables tend to be a little inaccurate. Many low end turntables come with built in speakers. You can find a variety of portable record players at affordable prices, including suitcase style turntables.

Record players under $100 are recommended for people on a budget or someone new to vinyl that doesn’t care much about sound quality. Good choice if you want to revive memories by playing your old vinyl records from time to time or if your vinyls are not in perfect condition. I don’t recommend these players if you plan to listen to your vinyls very often. Turntables in this price range are perfect for kids. A portable turntable can be a nice gift for your loved ones. However, I don’t recommend spending less than 100 if you are serious about collecting vinyl records, if you are picky about sound quality or if you want to maintain your record collection in good condition. Neither do I recommend them for digitizing your music, you may not be satisfied with the the sound quality of the recording.

Turntables under $300

In this price range you’ll start to see either better quality turntables or low quality all-in one turntables or stereo systems. Most of the ones with magnetic cartridge won’t have built-in speakers or other features like cassette or radio. Under $300, you can find good choices for digitizing your music with decent sound quality. In this price range, there are also some decent fully automatic turntables without adjustment features and no speakers. So, you’ll basically find three types of products between $100 and $300:

In general, when talking about all-in-one record players or sound systems, the more features (radio, casette, usb port, sd card reader, cd player, speakers, etc.), the lower the quality of the turntable itself. So, if what you want is a decent record player, my suggestion is to get a record player alone. You’ll get a much better sound quality. Of course you are going to need external speakers, a receiver or amplifier to make it work. So, you’ll end up paying more unless you already have the equipment.

On the other hand, if what you are looking for is a plug and play, all-in-one sound system with speakers and everything, then this is the price range that you are looking for. Just be aware that the turntable itself will have about the same sound quality as a low end record player. You just end up paying more for all the extra features that come with the sound system.

Turntables under $500

The majority of turntables between $300 and $500 are good quality turntables with many adjustment features. Most of them are sold alone, without speakers. You can even find decent quality turntables for DJing.

In this price range, you can still find some self-contained and all-in-one components. Few of them with a magnetic cartridge. You’ll even find some suitcase style record players. To be honest, I wouldn’t buy a portable record player with built in speakers for more than $300. Even though some have a magnetic cartridge, they just can’t compete with traditional turntable decks. I think that in this price range, the turntable should have, at least, a magnetic cartridge, counterweight and anti-skate adjustment.

If your priority is a good sound system with good speakers, with a turntable as a plus, then you can find good options below $500. However if your priority is to have a good quality turntable, then I don’t recommend to buy an all-in-one component. Instead, invest that money on a better turntable alone.

Turntables above $500

It may not come to a surprise that turntables above $500 are high quality and the best choice for audiophiles and high definition enthusiasts. We could keep adding price ranges to this list, but not many people can afford a turntable that costs thousands of dollars.

Most high end turntables are sold alone, because they are supposed to be modular and up-gradable. In other words, somebody that wants the best sound system is going to buy the best of each component to maximize the sound quality. It gives you the freedom to upgrade the different modules. One day you may get a better cartridge. Later you could buy a better set of speakers. And the next month you may replace your pre-amplifier. You wouldn’t be able to do this with a plug-and-play, all-in-one system. Thus, high end turntables are sold separately.

One thing I love about high end record players is that they come in so many beautiful designs and looks. I enjoy so much looking at pictures of these wonderful pieces of art, design and technology.

Turntable Parts and Features

In order to make a good purchase decision, it helps to know how a turntable works and what parts and features are important. If you are new to record players, this section will be very useful to you. I provide the following diagram so that you can refer to it when we talk about certain features and parts of the turntable.

Turntable Parts and Features

Direct drive or belt drive?

The platter is the flat plate where the vinyl record sits. It’s the part of the turntable that rotates. Good players have a metallic platter while cheap ones are generally made of plastic. The motor is responsible for moving the platter. There are two ways in which the motor drives the platter:

direct drive vs belt drive

  1. In Direct Drive turntables, the shaft of the motor is directly attached to the center spindle. So when the motor rotates, so does the spindle and platter at the same rotation speed.
  2. In Belt Drive turntables, the motor drives the platter by means of an elastic belt. So the motor doesn’t directly touch the platter. In this case the motor and the platter rotate at different speeds because of the differences in diameter.

Which one is better? That’s the million dollar question! Both systems are acceptable, that’s why they compete with each other. There’s a myth about direct drive turntables being better than belt drive ones. The fact is that there are many high-end, super expensive belt drive turntables as well as direct drive ones. But,  as a rule of thumb, if you are a DJ, get a direct drive, and if you are and audiophile get a belt drive. Here are some characteristics that you may consider:

Direct Drive

  • Better torque which means that the platter gets to the right speed faster. This is needed for DJs that constantly move the record with their hands. The turntable needs to be able to regain its speed right after releasing the platter
  • Noisier because the motor is in contact with the platter. The vibrations from the motor are picked up by the stylus.

Belt Drive

  • More quiet because the elastic band helps attenuate vibrations coming from the motor.
  • You may need to replace the belt in the future. Replacing a belt is usually easy and the replacement belt is not expensive.

Headshell, Cartridge and Stylus

Headshell Cartridge StylusOne of the most important parts of a turntable is the cartridge and its stylus. They are directly responsible for transforming the vibrations of the needle to electric signals. So, the better the cartridge, the better the sound quality. Keep also in mind is that the stylus is in constant contact with the grooves, and it could potentially damage your records if the head is too heavy or if the stylus is in bad condition.

Obviously, good cartridges are expensive and so are the turntables that include them. There are tons of different cartridges on the market, enough to write another buying guide just for cartridges.

Does it have a magnetic cartridge or a ceramic one?

There are mainly two types of cartridges on the market: magnetic and ceramic. Magnetic cartridges are, in general, better than ceramic ones and more expensive too. You’ll find that most low end turntables have ceramic cartridges.

ceramic cartridgeOne advantage of ceramic cartridges is that they produce an electric signal high enough that there is no need for a pre-amplifier. Manufactures take advantage of this to reduce the cost of production. Another advantage of ceramic or piezoelectric pickups is that they are less sensitive to external noises, like vibrations coming from the motor or the speakers. Low end turntables are usually very light and transmit vibrations easily and a piezoelectric pickup helps avoid those vibrations entering the system.

The disadvantage of ceramic cartridges is that they don’t respond well to high frequencies. However, this may not be a problem for most listeners, since those frequencies are close to the limits of human hearing. The real problem with ceramic cartridges is that they tend to go out of the groove more easily in music passages with strong bass or sudden loud drum like sounds. In order to avoid skipping, manufacturers set a higher tracking force (weight) that may cause damage or premature wearing to your vinyl records.

Magnetic cartridges on the other hand have a better sound quality and the recommended tracking force is normally low. A magnetic cartridge will be easy on your records. The problem with magnetic cartridges is that they produce a very low electric signal (also called PHONO). This signal needs to be amplified to a line level with the help of a pre-amplifier. Magnetic cartridges are more sensitive to external vibrations. Heavy and sturdier body construction can help attenuate those vibrations.

My recommendation to you is to always look for turntables with a magnetic cartridge. Sadly, this is not always possible as they are more expensive.

Is the cartridge fixed to the tonearm?

fixed phono cartridgeSome cartridges are fixed to the tonearm, which means that the cartridge cannot be removed, replaced or upgraded. You’ll find this type of cartridge on cheap record players. More advanced turntables have a detachable headshell and cartridge. I won’t explain the details here but you can read this guide by Audio-Technica or check this web page for more information on cartridges.

detachable cartridgeEach cartridge has a recommended tracking force specified by the manufacturer. So, every time you change a cartridge, you need to readjust the tracking force according to the manufacture’s specifications. Turntables with fixed cartridges don’t need a counterweight or other adjustment features because the cartridge will never be replaced. In this case the tracking force is factory set.

If you want something easy to use and don’t like messing around with calibration, then a turntable with a fixed cartridge would be good for you, like the Audio-Technica LP60. However, if you plan on upgrading the cartridge in the future then a detachable headshell and cartridge would be the way to go.

Is the tracking force too heavy?

Remember that heavy head weight or tracking forces can potentially damage or wear out your records faster. Always read the manufacturers specifications to look for the recommended tracking force. In my opinion, tracking forces lower than 3.0 g are acceptable. Be very cautious about heads weighting more than 5.0 g because they are likely to damage your records.

Some lower end turntables don’t include this information on their specification sheets or user guides. In this case, read consumer reviews. Some consumers have measured the head weight of their units with a tracking force gauge and share the information on their review. You can also Google Search for “product name tracking force” or you can ask the manufacturer.

Adjustment Features

I’m going to list and briefly explain the most important features that you may want your player to have. Some people don’t like complicated stuff, if that’s you, just buy a plug-and-play, automatic unit with a fixed cartridge. My preference is to be able to calibrate the turntable and get the best possible sound. If you are like me, then I recommend buying a turntable with at least a counterweight and anti-skate.

Counterweight

The counterweight is the round knob located at the end of the tonearm. It allows you to set the cartridge’s tracking force. In simple words, it helps you control the weight of the head. The counterweight has a scale with numbers to help you set the right tracking force.

Anti-Skate Adjust

The platter’s rotation causes the needle to skate towards the center of the record. The anti-skate is a feature that prevents the tonearm from skating by applying a small force to the tonearm in the opposite direction (towards the edge of the record). The anti-sake helps the needle stay inside the grooves and also maintain a balanced sound between the left and right channels. For more information read my article about anti-skate.

Height Adjust

In theory, the tonearm most be parallel to the record during playback. Vinyl records have different thicknesses and some cartridges are larger than others. This may cause the tonearm to have a slight slope. This inclination of the tonearm will cause the tip of the stylus to track at a different angle. The height adjust is a feature that can change the height of the tonearm so that it is parallel to the record.

Pitch Adjust

The pitch adjust is normally a fader that fine controls the rotational speed of the platter. In other words, you can fine tune the playback speed of your music. This feature is particularly useful for disk jockeys to match the beat of two tunes. It can also be used by audiophiles to adjust the music to the correct pitch, but most casual listeners won’t need this feature. Pitch adjust is commonly found on DJ turntables.

Automatic or Manual Operation

A completely manual turntable requires you to have a steady hand in order to drop the needle on the right spot. Even with a steady hand, it can be risky, you could damage your record or the needle if you don’t do it right. I think that every turntable should have, at list, a tonearm lift lever, also called cueing lever. Some low end turntables don’t have this feature.

Besides the cueing lever, there are other automatic features that you may want to have. Here is a brief description:

  • Auto-stop. At the end of a vinyl record there is a never-ending silent loop that prevents the needle from getting into the label area. When the needle gets to the end of the record, it stays locked in that looped groove until you lift the tonearm. If you happen to fall asleep during playback or forget to lift the tonearm, the platter will keep sniping and the needle will keep tracking. Most players have a mechanism that stops the spinning when the tonearm gets close to the end. Usually, this feature can be disabled to prevent certain records from prematurely stopping the music due to a different placement of the locked groove.
  • Automatic tonearm return. Fully automatic turntables are very easy to use, you just press the play button and the tonearm gets automatically positioned at the beginning of the record. When the tonearm gets to the end, the tonearm is automatically lifted and moved to its rest. Generally, these turntables give you the option to position the needle manually. This is desirable when the record has a non standard size.

Be careful because some people get confused by the terminology. If the listing of a product says that it has the auto-stop feature, it doesn’t mean it’s fully automatic, it only means that the platter will stop spinning when the needle gets to the end of the record. You would have to manually lift the tonearm to return it to its rest. If you need a fully automatic turntable, look for both features, auto-stop and automatic arm return.

Inputs and Outputs

There are basically four types of outputs that you may find on a turntable:

  • LINE level signal through RCA connectors or a 3.5 mm headphone connector. If the record player has this type of output then it either has a ceramic cartridge or a built in pre-amplifier.
  • PHONO level signal through RCA connectors. You’ll need an external pre-amplifier to boost the signal to a LINE level. Some players have a selector that allows you to choose between LINE and PHONO.
  • Digital signal. Some modern turntables have a USB port that allows you to transfer your music to a computer. Other turntables may have a USB port, SD Card slot or a CD recorder to directly transfer your music to a digital medium.
  • Built in speakers. Self-contained record players have their own speakers so you don’t need to buy any extra parts to make it work. If you need a plug-and-play unit, look for turntables with built in speakers. The disadvantage is that most self-contained record players don’t produce a good sound quality through the internal speakers. Self-contained record players or sound systems usually have some type of auxiliary input so that you can plug in other audio devices. This allows you to play the music through the turntable’s internal speakers.

Turntables for Digitizing Vinyl

I always tell my readers that you really don’t need a special turntable for digitizing your music. There are many out there that are advertised as conversion turntables. But really, any turntable will serve this purpose. I would probably choose a good quality turntable for transferring my music no matter if the turntable has a USB connection or not. You can connect your record player to your computer via a 3.5 mm jack or get an external analog to digital converter which are not expensive. Then you record your music using your favorite audio recording software. I use Audacity.

If you are planing on digitizing your vinyls without a computer, there are many products on the market that will do exactly that. You can read my article about turntables that convert vinyl to digital without a computer.

Playing Speeds

Finally, you should verify the playback speeds that a turntable supports before buying it. The standard speeds are 33⅓, 45 and 78 rmp and the corresponding record sizes are 12″, 7″ and 10″. Check the type of records that you have, you may not even need a phonograph that plays 78s.

Be careful with 78 rpm records, their grooves are wider and you will need a special stylus (3 Mil) and cartridge to play them. You should not use a normal 0.7 Mil stylus for playing 78s, your record and the stylus may get damaged. Some manufacturers produce turntables that support 78 but don’t provide the appropriate stylus. I advice you to check if a special 78 rpm stylus is available for a particular turntable before buying it.