For quite some time, I have wanted to write a good article to help people in the search for the best vintage record player or turntable. What a better way to accomplish this than to ask an expert! I asked my friend Anthony if he could write and article about “What to look for when buying a vintage turntable” or something of that sort. He agreed to write the article for Musehelix. Anthony, repairs and refurbishes turntables and sells them through PhonoNuts, a retail store in GA. I’m very excited to share with you his invaluable information. Thanks Anthony!
What to look for when buying a vintage turntable or record player
I don’t recommend any contemporary turntable with a short and stubby straight arm (Stanton STR8 series). The geometry is all wrong, and they will absolutely kill a record if someone runs a cartridge with anything other than a conical sytlus.
I recommend vintage 70s to early 90s Technics turntables, either belt or direct drive. Panasonic committed a HUGE R&D budget to back in the late 60s early 70s, and used it to absolutely perfect their direct drive system, and once they had that solved (Wow and Flutter measurement down to the minimum resolution of the test equipment, rumble down in the inaudible 2Hz range at -58dB) , they turned to tonearm. The S and straight arms on the Technics tables are amazing pieces of engineering. Extremely low friction and extremely high precision bearings, with damping and resonance absorbtion.
Technics are not the only table I restore, the good old Pioneer PL-12 tables are excellent. They’re built like a tank. The only reason they quit working is from neglect, and need of a new belt. I can resurrect one in less than 30 minutes.
At this point I tend to shy away from the vintage changers like the Dual and Garrard. Yes, they are an awesome table, but they have a “clockwork” mechanism on the underside. All this clockwork has grease on it, which over the course of 40 to 50 years turns into glue instead of lube. This requires a huge amount of time and effort to disassemble, clean, lubricate, and reassemble. These tables also tend to be driven by an idler wheel, which is basically a little tire. A bad idler wheel is expensive to replace, and still rumbles like a tank driving by.
When looking for a vintage table, one needs to weigh these items:
- Arm style
- Cartridge included?
- AS-IS no warranty, or fully warranted and supported by a reputable dealer
Sure, you can buy a turntable off ebay or craigslist. You can get it cheap, too. But you can end up with a repair project if you’re not careful. If you have mechanical and electronics skills then go for it.
There are two main types of arms; curved (S or J shaped), and straight. Both, if engineered properly, sound great when matched to an appropriate cartridge. S or J arms tend to be medium mass, and work with a wide variety of cartridges and styli. Straight arms tend to be low mass, and tend to work only with more contemporary, high compliance sytli. Some straight arms have a T4P mount. These are usually on the more “entry level” tables, but as with everything there are exceptions. (I have an SL-M2 with a T4P Shure cart and a JICO SAS stylus…it beats the pants off most anything.)
First thing’s first, stay away from any player with a ceramic cartridge. They track too heavy and will destroy vinyl in as few as three plays. You want a magnetic cartridge. Most average Joe Listener will want a moving magnet cartridge.
That said, spending more $ won’t necessarily get you better sound. There are two main styles of cartridge, 1/2″ mount and T4P. T4P cartridges conform to a standard for mass and overhang, which simplifies cartridge setup. T4P is as close to plug and play as you can get. Currently there are more 1/2″ mount cartridges available than T4P. Many vintage turntables bought off ebay or craigslist will have a cartridge with a broken stylus. Some styli are NLA, or stupid expensive. Some aftermarket styli are great, some are garbage.
- AT92E cartridge: This thing is great. It works with both the straight T4P arms, and has an adapter for 1/2″ mount as well. In the 1/2″ mount adapter it’s a long cartridge, so its not the best in vintage Pioneers tables that use a 49.5mm mounting distance, but with creative locating of headshell wiring works OK. Works great mounted at 51mm or 52mm for a Technics. Can be upgraded to a bonded Shibata stylus.
- Shure M97xE: Sounds great. Is high inductance, so it rolls off the top end of the frequency response, taking the sharp edge off cymbal crashes and helps tame vinyl with sibilance issues. Can be upgraded to a micro ridge style stylus for the best vinyl playback ever.
- Ortofon 2M Red: The Danes never quit making hifi, and it shows. These are amazing cartridges, but aren’t the best for every arm.
- Shure M44G: This, while marketed as a DJ cartridge, was originally designed in the 1960s for use in jukeboxes. To that end, it’s an extremely durable, extremely skip resistant cartridge and stylus. It comes with a conical stylus. It sounds great spinning anything from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s . It does justice to lo-fi punk too. It also tracks at 1.5g which is kind to vinyl. I have one on the shop SL-1200. It spins 10 hours a day 7 days a week. There’s a train that passes 50 feet from the table causing a small seismic event several times a day. The M44G on the 1200 has never once faltered. The M44-7 is a M44 body with a different stylus that accentuates the bass and rolls off the treble. Again, it was a jukebox cartridge. It tracks a lot heavier, and can be too bass heavy and high output for some folks, but takes an elephant tap dancing to get it to skip.
Fully manual turntables rarely have a problem. They just play when you move and lower the arm into place. Most high dollar audiophile tables are fully manual. The only issue you’ll see with a manual arm is the cueing needs its silicone replaced so it lowers gently.
Auto return tables will pick up the tonearm at the end of the side, return it to the rest, and shut the platter down. Occassionally these can have a problem with cueing not raising before the arm sweeps across the record, or get stuck and not return at all.
Fully auto tables are the most convenient, but can be trouble prone. Either a separate motor or a gear train lifts the arm, moves it over and drops the needle, hopefully in the right spot and then returns it. These can be trouble prone. Later model Technics full autos are computer controlled, changing the complexity from mostly mechanical to electronic/electrical. Most of the time these will work well for years.
Fully auto linear trackers also need a mention. They are super high tech, with a complex system of motors and sensors that keep the arm tangential to the groove at all times. Unless you’re an electronic engineer, stay away from a broken one. They’re a pain to troubleshoot and repair. A note about B&O linear trackers…they use a proprietary cartridge mount, and the cartridges do not have a user replaceable stylus. The B&O cartridges are expensive, too.
Where to get a vintage turntable?
I recommend a reputable refurbisher. Yes, you’ll pay more than getting something off eBay or craigslist, but you’ll get a table that’s fully ready to spin your irreplaceable vinyl, a warranty, and support after the sale. PhonoNuts has several refurbished tables from fully manual to fully auto, from $100 to $350. We’re also a Rega dealer.
Buying a table off eBay is a crapshoot. Some sellers are clueless when it comes to packing. They just haphazardly slap your turntable in a box with a turn or two of bubblewrap and hand it to the logistics monkeys to destroy. Some sellers take the care to remove the dustcover and protect it, remove the platter, remove the counterweight, and immobilize the tonearm.